The Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 has been awarded to Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”. What was Ethiopia’s conflict with Eritrea about, and what did Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed do?
The embrace that ended a 20-year war
In July 2018, Abiy Ahmed, who had become Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the second-largest country in Africa by population, three months ago, stepped across the border into neighbouring Eritrea.
In the Eritrean capital Asmara, he held President Isaias Afwerki in a warm and tight embrace, announcing to the world, that the 20-year war that had killed at least 80,000 people in two of Africa’s poorest countries, had finally come to an end.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Afwerki announced the resumption of trade, diplomatic, and travel ties between their two countries, and “a new era of peace and friendship” in the war-bloodied Horn of Africa. A second agreement was signed between the two countries in September 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Aradia.
The Nobel citation on Friday acknowledged the key role played by President Afwerki in bringing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to “end the long ‘no peace, no war’ stalemate between the two countries” to fruition. The prize, the Nobel Committee said, was “also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions”.
History of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict
In April 1993, Eritrea broke from its federation with Ethiopia, becoming an independent country that was located strategically at the mouth of the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa, in close proximity to one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes. Independence was the outcome of a 30-year war by Eritrean liberation fighters against Ethiopia, which had annexed the small multiethnic territory to its north in 1962.
Just over five years after Independence, however, war broke out between the two countries over the control of Badme — a border town of no apparent significance, but which both Addis Ababa and Asmara coveted.
Massive displacements of population followed, families were torn asunder, and the local trading economy was utterly destroyed. As the conflict evolved into a major refugee crisis, thousands of Eritreans fled to Europe.
End of war, beginning of stalemate
In June 2000, the two countries signed an Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities. It was followed, in December that year, by a Peace Agreement in Algiers, Algeria. This agreement formally ended the war and established a Boundary Commission to settle the dispute.
The Commission gave its “final and binding” ruling in April 2002. Badme was awarded to Eritrea.
However, Ethiopia refused to accept the decision without additional conditions, and a stalemate ensued. Ethiopia refused to give up control over Badme, and the border kept erupting in clashes.
On road to peace, enter Abiy Ahmed
In 2017, Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) indicated that it was looking to change its relationship with Eritrea.
In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, then a 41-year-old former Army officer who had fought in the war, became Prime Minister. Things picked up pace immediately.
In June, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed broke the nearly two-decade stalemate, announcing that Addis Ababa would abide by the full terms of the 2000 agreement. On July 8, 2018, a day before he travelled to meet President Afwerki in Asmara, Prime Minister Ahmed made a rousing declaration: “There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because a bridge of love has destroyed it”.
The context in which peace broke out
Ethiopia is landlocked, and through the years of the war with Eritrea, had been dependent heavily on Djibouti, which sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, for access to the Gulf of Aden and onward to the Arabian Sea.
The peace deal with Eritrea opened up Eritrean ports for Ethiopian use, most prominently the port of Assab, located at the tip of the country’s ‘tail’, to balance its reliance on Djibouti.
Peace was in Eritrea’s interest, too.
President Afwerki had used the war with Ethiopia to keep himself in power since the country’s independence in 1993. Over the past two decades, even as Eritrea sank steadily into economic stagnation and social and diplomatic isolation, he had built and maintained a large conscription army, kept the constitution under suspension, and muzzled the press, all in the name of fighting the “continuous occupation of Eritrean territories by Ethiopia”.
The UN Human Rights Commission had repeatedly accused Eritrea of serious violations. The international pressure on its government had increased greatly after Eritreans fleeing the war and compulsory military service flooded European shores at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-16.