An Eritrean delegation arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Tuesday, taking the next step in a historic diplomatic ballet aimed at ending decades of conflict and hostility. The thaw between the foes who fought a bitter border war 20 years ago follows an olive branch dramatically offered by new Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Abiy greeted Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab at Addis Ababa’s airport, leading them along a red carpet past traditional dancers, local celebrities and a brass band. The meeting takes place just three days after a blast at a rally attended by Abiy a sign, analysts say, of the risks he has taken with a program that embraces far-reaching change at home and abroad.
Earlier this month Abiy said he would abide by a 2002 ruling, issued by a United Nations-backed commission, and withdraw from contested territory, including the town of Badme, that both nations claim. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki responded last week saying he would dispatch a delegation, “to gauge current developments directly and in depth as well as to chart out a plan for continuous future action.” He stopped short of calling it a peace delegation but an official visit alone marks a dramatic shift in relations long mired in suspicion and bloody hostility. The last time Ethiopian and Eritrean troops fought head-on was just two years ago, with each side claiming victory in response to what they said was the other’s aggression.
A former province, Eritrea voted for separation from its much larger southern neighbor in 1993 following a three-decade-long independence war. But just five years later a new border war erupted between the two countries, killing around 80,000 people before it ended in a stalemate in 2000. Ethiopia ignored a subsequent ruling that it should withdraw from territory awarded to Eritrea. Since then, a tense standoff has persisted with both maintaining a war footing with shots occasionally fired, and backed each other’s rebels. The apparent detente in recent weeks has raised hopes of a normalization of relations that might boost regional trade and ease tensions.
Their long cold war has stymied economic development, frozen political relations and helped justify domestic repression. But, symbolizing the abrupt change in mood, twinned Eritrean and Ethiopian flags lined the main road to the airport on Tuesday and banners read “Welcome” in Amharic and Tigrinya, the languages of the two countries. For both Abiy and Isaias the potential reconciliation contains risks. A rally addressed by Abiy was hit by a grenade explosion on Saturday, a rare event in tightly-controlled Ethiopia. The motive for the attack is so far unknown but the pace of Abiy’s reforms including the border concession to Eritrea is thought to have angered some hardliners in the ruling class and security services, say observers.
For his part, Isaias has long justified his restrictive rule, punishing military conscription and the jailing of dissidents as necessities to defend itself against Ethiopia aggression. His authoritarian leadership has left his country diplomatically isolated and burdened by sanctions, and triggered an exodus of Eritreans, many of them making the dangerous migration to Europe. However, his own strong-man position is largely unchallenged.