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Eritrea-Ethiopia take a step towards ending border conflict

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh AP, Reuters
June 20, 2018

Eritrea has responded to Ethiopia's suprise recent overtures of peace with an announcement that it will send a delegation to its neighbour and one time enemy for talks. Eritrea is a closed and authoritarian state.

Eritrea Präsident Isaias Afwerki
Image: Eritrea Minister of Information/Y.G. Meskel

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki said the officials will "gauge current developments directly and in depth" to plan future steps. His announcement came after Ethiopia's new Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy extended an olive branch, saying his government would honor the terms of the peace deal. 

The offer is seen as a major step toward bringing an end to one of Africa's longest border conflicts.

Afwerki said Abiy's offer to fully accept the terms of the 2000 peace deal  – the Algiers Agreement – was meant to end the war that broke out between the two countries in 1998 as "positive signals".

Read also:Credit crunch pushing sweeping changes in Ethiopia

Badme: the stumbling block

The Eritrea-Ethiopia war is believed to have killed 80,000 people. 

"Everyone has been waiting for response from Asmara," Michela Wrong, an expert on Eritrean politics, said in a DW interview. Wrong's second book, titled I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, was published in 2014.

"Ever since the Prime Minister Abiy said he was going to fully implement the Algiers agreement, everyone has been on tenterhooks," she said.

Ethiopia Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy
Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy shocked Ethiopia with sweeping new changes just two months in officeImage: DW/Y.Geberegziabher

Abiy's decision to respect the Algiers Agreement will put the border city of Badme, which Ethiopia refused to cede, in Eritrea.

This concession has met with stiff opposition from Ethiopian veterans of the war still living in Badme and ethnic Tigrayans living in Tigray province, along the Eritrean border.

Read also: Eritrea: 25 years of independence but still not free

"There is certain amount of unhappiness by [Ethiopians] who were wondering what the 1998-2000 war was all about and feel that the soldiers who died in Badme are being betrayed," said Wrong.

The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a regional political party that had dominated the ruling coalition Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has come out strongly against any concessions to Asmara.

"The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front will not take part in any process that harms the interests of the people of Tigray," the TPLF said. It has been organizing protests to demand that any withdrawal be linked to additional concessions by Eritrea.

Eritrea soldiers matching, a small boy watching
The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is still heavily armed, sparking sometimes small attacksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Forrest

Some Ethiopians on Twitter have criticized the TPFL's stance. "TPFLites had 25 years to build hegemony and being short-sighted (with personal enrichment), they failed miserably," wrote Ezana.

Soli, another Twitter user said: "Last week's statement was a major mistake from TPFL side, whatever they planned to achieve, (what were they thinking?"


Conflict fuels power in Asmara

Disputes over the militarized border, particularly in Badme, still keep the two sides at loggerheads.

A destroyed military tank
Nearly 80,000 people were killed in the conflict between 1998 - 2000Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Joe

"The complementarity of both peoples & countries, their common bilateral interests & prosperity, are sacrosanct objectives to which we have toiled and paid sacrifices for two generations," Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Meskel, quoted Afwerki as saying, on Twitter.

"As such, it remains a priority for which we will be actively engaged."

Political analysts suggest the border conflict with Ethiopia is what keeps the Eritrean president at the helm of government in Asmara.

"The latent state of war with Ethiopia allowed the regime in Asmara to maintain its apparatus of repression and spies, which has turned hundreds of thousands of young Eritreans into refugees trying to cross the sea to Europe," according to Ludger Schadomsky, the head of DW's Amharic service.

"With its neighbor's new sunshine policy, there is no longer any need for the forced militarization in Eritrea which for two decades has characterized the everyday life of its citizens, defining their right to exist and possibly the legitimacy of Afwerki as head of state," he wrote.

Whether a possible truce with Addis Ababa would delegitimize Afwerki's power, Wrong believes it's "a long term" question.

"At the moment we need to see the Algiers Agreement being implemented," she said.

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