Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki flew to Addis Ababa Wednesday for his first meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister since Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for initiating a thaw between the sparring neighbours.
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a border war in 1998-2000 that left an estimated 80,000 dead before a prolonged stalemate took hold.
Shortly after he came to power last year, Abiy, 43, stunned observers at home and abroad by reaching out to Isaias and creating momentum for a peace deal.
Abiy welcomed Isaias at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate said.
“During his stay in Ethiopia, the Eritrean president is expected to meet with Ethiopian officials to discuss bilateral issues,” Fana said.
Isaias was accompanied by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Yemane Gebreab, a presidential advisor, according to a post on Twitter by Eritrean Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel.
“The two leaders will discuss enhancement of important bilateral & regional matters,” Yemane wrote.
Abiy’s office and a spokesman for Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After the two leaders first met and embraced on the tarmac in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, last year, they reopened embassies, resumed flights and held a series of meetings across the region.
But the initial optimism fuelled by these gestures has faded, and citizens of both countries complain that they are still waiting for meaningful change.
During the Nobel award ceremony in Oslo earlier this month, Norwegian Nobel Committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Anderson noted that the peace process “seems to be at a standstill”, with border crossings closed and little apparent progress on border demarcation efforts.
She said the committee hoped the Nobel would “spur the parties to further implementation of the peace treaties”.
Isaias and Abiy last met in Asmara in July.
Upon returning from Oslo to Ethiopia this month, Abiy expressed hope that the two leaders would be able to meet “soon”.
Abiy wrote on Twitter Wednesday that he was “happy to welcome again to his second home my comrade-in-peace, President Isaias Afeworki and his delegation.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hailed the role played by ex-foe Eritrea in the Nobel Peace Prize he collected on Tuesday for his efforts to resolve the long-running conflict between the two neighbours.
“I accept this award on behalf of Ethiopians and Eritreans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of peace,” Abiy said after he received the prestigious award in a formal ceremony at Oslo’s City Hall.
“Likewise, I accept this award on behalf of my partner, and comrade-in-peace, President Isaias Afwerki, whose goodwill, trust and commitment were vital in ending the two-decade deadlock between our countries,” he added.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki on Monday reopened a border crossing between their countries as part of an ongoing reconciliation between the former foes.
The two leaders re-opened the border crossing between Humera in Ethiopia and Oum Hajer in Eritrea on the western edge of both nations, according to the state-owned Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation.
In September, an initial two land crossings between the countries were ceremonially reopened for the first time in 20 years, after Abiy settled a long-standing border dispute by agreeing to adhere to a United Nations ruling.
However, the major crossings between Bure-Debay Sima in the east and Zalambessa-Serha in the west were closed again last month without explanation, according to local media reports.
Nevertheless, relations between the neighbours have continued to improve rapidly with Monday’s reopening of the Humera-Oum Hajer border post the latest sign of normalisation allowing the free movement of people and goods.
Borders were sealed in 1998 as the neighbouring Horn of Africa nations cut diplomatic ties at the outbreak of a short but bloody two-year frontier battle.
An ensuing cold war stymied development and trade, and undermined regional security, but in a surprise move last year, Abiy began peace overtures, which were welcomed by Eritrea.
The UN Security Council will on Wednesday vote to lift sanctions on Eritrea following a landmark peace deal with Ethiopia and a thaw with Djibouti that have buoyed hopes for positive change in the Horn of Africa.
Diplomats say they expect the council to unanimously adopt a British-drafted resolution that would lift the arms embargo and all travel bans, asset freezes and targeted sanctions on Eritrea.
The council slapped sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 for its alleged support of Al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia, a claim Asmara has long denied.
The draft resolution acknowledges that UN monitors have “not found conclusive evidence that Eritrea supports Al-Shabaab” and declares that the sanctions and arms embargo will end on the day of the adoption of the measure.
Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace deal in July that ended two decades of hostility and led to friendlier relations with Djibouti, shoring up prospects for stability in the Horn of Africa.
The draft resolution calls on Eritrea and Djibouti to continue efforts to settle a 2008 border dispute and asks Asmara to release information concerning Djiboutian soldiers missing in clashes a decade ago.
At France’s request, the council will hear a report every six months on Eritrea’s efforts to normalize relations with Djibouti, where France, the United States, and China all have military bases.
Look to the future
Ethiopian Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie said the end of sanctions will “definitely open up a lot of possibilities for Eritrea,” drawing foreign investors and bringing Asmara back into the international fold.
“The decision will give an impetus for us to look to what the future can offer to the people of the region while at the same time send a message for us to engage in solving current problems and challenges,” the ambassador told AFP.
Eritrea and Somalia strongly supported calls to end sanctions, and negotiations over the past two weeks focused on addressing concerns about Djibouti.
“There were concerns by Djibouti,” the ambassador said, “but these concerns are not insurmountable. We strongly believe that the leaders of these two countries are willing to deal with the issues.”
In his address to the General Assembly in September, Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Mohammed Saleh slammed the sanctions as “unwarranted,” saying they had caused “considerable economic damage” and hardship for Eritreans.
Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, and war broke out later that decade over a border dispute.
A 2002 UN-backed boundary demarcation was meant to settle the dispute for good, but Ethiopia refused to abide by it.
A turnaround began in June when Ethiopia announced it would hand back to Eritrea disputed areas including the flashpoint town of Badme, where the first shots of the border war were fired.
The leaders of Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia met last week in northern Ethiopia to push for regional economic development.
The draft resolution, however, maintains an arms embargo on Somalia, imposed in 1992.
The presidents of Somalia and Eritrea met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Friday to cement regional economic ties as relations warm between the once-rival nations.
Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrived in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar for the summit. They also visited a university.
The meeting is intended to “cement the outcome of the Horn of Africa economic integration agreement,” Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported.
The three leaders had in met in September to lay the groundwork for the agreement, the details of which remain vague.
“This is a testimony, this is a witness for everyone that the history of the Horn of Africa has changed,” the Somali president told officials during a speech in Gondar.
“Now we are moving for regional collaboration in economic development in order to be sure that we fight poverty in this region,” he added.
A former province of Ethiopia, Eritrea broke away in 1993 but was back at war with its southern neighbour five years later when a border dispute sparked fighting.
A peace deal ended the war two years later, but Ethiopia and Eritrea remained bitter foes after Addis Ababa refused to accept a United Nations-backed boundary demarcation.
Shortly after his April inauguration, Abiy reversed that policy, leading the two neighbours to sign a peace deal last July.
Abiy and Isaias have since met repeatedly around the region, and the speed of the rapprochement has surprised even veteran Ethiopia politicians.
“There are things you think are impossible like normalisation with Eritrea,” Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde told the South African Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday.
“For Ethiopia, this normalisation is helping a lot, not just for Ethiopia and Eritrea, but the region as a whole,” she said.
“Our vision is to have the same kind of relationship with all our neighbouring countries.”
The peace deal with Eritrea unlocked a flood of diplomacy in the Horn of Africa, with Somalia and Eritrea establishing diplomatic ties after decades of animosity, while rivals Djibouti and Eritrea have also moved to ease long-standing tensions.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has hailed the ending of an “epoch of conflict” in the Horn of Africa during a visit by his Somalian counterpart to mend ties after years of animosity.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s three-day visit to Asmara coincides with a fast-track peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia — part of the dizzying change in a region burdened by war, proxy conflicts, isolation and iron-fisted rule.
At a state banquet on Sunday, Afwerki hailed the historic ties between Somalia and Eritrea and bemoaned the gloomy post-Cold War history of the Horn of Africa.
He said the region had been destroyed by “ethnic and clan cleavages” and “external pillage and internal thievery” in the speech which also lashed out at the “micromanagement of anarchy” by the United Nations and NGOs.
“Under these bleak realities, interventionist and expansionist regional agendas in the name of religion, cultural intoxication under various extremist ideologies, terrorism, piracy, human trafficking, as well as trade in weapons and narcotics became the new normal,” he said, according to a speech posted on the information ministry’s website.
“But this epoch of crises, conflict and instability is not inherently sustainable. As such, it is nearing its end. We are indeed entering a new, transitional, phase.”
Ethiopia and Eritrea three weeks ago declared an end to two decades of conflict, rapidly restoring diplomatic ties and flights between their capitals.
Somalia and Eritrea were once close, with Mogadishu’s military regime under dictator Siad Barre backing the long fight for independence from Ethiopia, which was attained in 1993.
In 1998 Ethiopia and Eritrea began a bloody two-year war over their shared border which left 80,000 dead before settling into a bitter cold war.
Somalia fell into chaos and civil war after the fall of Barre in 1991.
It then became the site of what observers called a proxy war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from around 2006.
Ethiopia was backing a weak interim government in Mogadishu while Eritrea was accused of backing the Islamic militants fighting to overthrow it, a charge it denied.
The United Nations Security Council in 2009 imposed an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on Eritrea for its alleged support of the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab militants, which continue to launch regular deadly attacks despite losing territory in recent years.
Ethiopia has already formally requested that these sanctions be lifted against Eritrea.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the people of Somalia will, as ever, be fellow travellers with the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Afwerki.
On his visit, Mohamed and Afwerki have discussed the restoration of diplomatic ties, as well as economic and security relations.
When Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war in 1998 and deported each other’s nationals en masse, Addisalem Hadgu thought he had nothing to worry about, safe in the belief his Ethiopian passport would shield his Eritrean wife from expulsion.
Two years later, as the conflict raged on in trenches along the common border, his wife, Nitslal Abraha, mysteriously disappeared along with their two daughters. Addisalem, an Ethiopian state TV journalist, embarked on a frantic search.
A neighbour approached him several days later and handed him a letter from Nitslal in which she said she had left for Eritrea with Azmera and Danayt, who were teenagers at the time.
The letter did not explain her reasons but Addisalem suspected that she, like millions of others on both sides of the conflict, had been swept by the patriotism and nationalism that engulfed both countries as bloodshed escalated.
“One day, we may meet,” the letter read.
For 18 years, they didn’t. There was no way to communicate – all transport links, phone and postal services had been severed since the start of the conflict.
But this month, a reunion became possible when the two governments – bitter enemies for nearly two decades despite agreeing a ceasefire back in 2000 – signed a peace deal that ended a generation of hostility in a matter of days.
After Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shook hands, hugged and pledged to restore ties, Addisalem was among more than 400 passengers who flew to Asmara on Wednesday on the first direct flight between the Horn of Africa neighbours since 1998.
The first commercial flight to Eritrea in two decades departed Wednesday from Addis Ababa after the two nations ended their bitter conflict following a whirlwind peace process.
Ethiopian Airlines said that flight ET0312 to Asmara had departed Bole International Airport, after a ceremony inaugurating the historic flight.
“This day marks a unique event in the history of Ethiopia and Eritrea,” the airline’s chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam said at the ceremony.
Overwhelming demand saw the African aviation giant operate two flights within 15 minutes of each other.
“The fact that we are taking two flights at a time shows the eagerness of the people,” said GebreMariam.
An AFP journalist onboard the second flight said champagne was served to passengers in all classes, who were also given roses shortly before take-off.
Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea seceded in 1993 after a long independence struggle. A row over the demarcation of the shared border triggered a brutal 1998-2000 conflict which left 80,000 people dead before evolving into a bitter cold war.
In a surprise move, Ethiopia’s new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last month announced he would finally accept a 2002 United Nations-backed border demarcation, paving the way for peace between the two nations.
He then paid a historic visit to Eritrea, during which he and President Isaias Afwerki declared an official end to the war. Afwerki reciprocated with a state visit to Ethiopia just days later.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki pledged to resolve his country’s dispute with Ethiopia on Saturday in a historic visit to Addis Ababa aimed at cementing peace less than a week after the nations declared an end to two decades of conflict.
Isaias arrived in the Ethiopian capital just five days after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Eritrea as part of a dizzying peace process aimed at ending years of violence and animosity between the neighbours who were once part of the same nation.
Abiy and Isaias shared laughs and hugs at an official lunch on Saturday as the Ethiopian leader said his counterpart was “beloved, respected and missed by the Ethiopian people.”
“We are no longer people of two countries. We are one,” Isaias told political and cultural figures gathered in a palace built during Ethiopia’s imperial days. “We’ll go forward together.”
Isaias started his three-day visit at Addis Ababa’s airport, where he and Abiy strode down a red carpet as a brass band played and traditional dancers cheered.
The leaders then drove into the city on a road lined with thousands of people dressed in white shawls and waving palm fronds as Ethiopian and Eritrean flags flew side-by-side from lampposts.
There were also banners and pictures of the two leaders who on Monday signed a declaration declaring an official end to the war.
“Welcome home President Isaias!!” Abiy’s chief of staff Fitsum Arega wrote on Twitter as the Eritrean leader arrived.
Later in the day, the two leaders flew to the southern city of Hawassa where Isaias toured an industrial park that’s key to Ethiopia’s economy.
Eritrea was once part of Ethiopia and comprised its entire coastline on the Red Sea until it voted for independence in 1993 after decades of bloody conflict.
The move left Ethiopia landlocked, and the deterioration of relations after the outbreak of the war in 1998 forced Addis Ababa to channel its foreign trade through Djibouti.
The two countries showed little sign of rapprochement since the signing of the Algiers peace agreement in 2000 after a conflict which left 80,000 people dead before settling into a bitter cold war.
Analysts say the surprisingly rapid burying of the hatchet was possible only because of Abiy’s ascension to the post of prime minister in April.
As part of a whirlwind set of reforms, Abiy announced last month that Ethiopia would abide by a 2002 UN-backed ruling and hand back disputed border territory to Eritrea, including the flashpoint town of Badme.
However, Ethiopia has not announced the pull-out of troops from the area.
Abiy then paid a historic visit to Eritrea, where the two leaders announced the re-establishment of diplomatic and trade ties that could mean big benefits for both nations, and the wider Horn of Africa region, plagued by conflict and poverty.
The emotional reunion between the two countries has allowed residents to speak to each other by telephone for the first time in two decades as communication lines were re-opened.
Direct flights are due to start next week.
“Can one find appropriate words to describe the intensity of popular emotions that has gripped both countries; the depth and significance of the promising changes underway in the region!” Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said on Twitter after Isaias arrived.
Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate said Isaias would also re-open the Eritrean embassy during his three-day stay.
A state dinner in his honour will be held on Sunday.
Catalyst for change
Eritrea and Ethiopia are both among Africa’s poorest nations.
However, Ethiopia has seen double-digit growth in recent years and is seeking wider options for importing goods and exporting from its nascent manufacturing industry by eyeing ports in Somalia and Eritrea.
Meanwhile, Eritrea, one of the world’s most isolated nations, has pursued policies that have hamstrung the economy by scaring off investors, including an indefinite military conscription programme the UN has likened to slavery.
Amnesty International said Saturday that the newfound peace should be a catalyst for change in Eritrea, where thousands of people, including rights activists and opposition politicians are “languishing in detention simply for expressing their views.”
“The end of hostilities with Ethiopia is a joyous moment for Eritreans, but it must be followed by tangible reforms that make a real difference in the daily lives of the people and put an end to decades of repression in the country,” said Seif Magango, AI’s deputy director for the region.
In a statement, he said Eritrea was the biggest jailer of journalists on the continent, and that its last independent media house was shut down 17 years ago.
Amnesty also called for an end to forced military conscription, seen as a key driver of the departure of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans from their country.
On Tuesday morning, Ethiopian mechanic Mohammed Osman placed a phone call he had dreamt of making for 20 years.
He called his mother Kedija, who was expelled from Ethiopia to Eritrea in 1998 after the Horn of Africa neighbours went to war over their border.
Kedija, Kedija’s mother and more than 70,000 Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean origin were wrenched from their families, put on buses and trucks bound for Eritrea – and given travel papers marked “Expelled-Never to Return”.
A peace deal finally forged in the past two days brought relations out of the deep freeze, and prompted the phone lines across the border to be reconnected.
When Mohammed last heard his mother’s voice, he was 13. He and his father had not heard from her since.
“I couldn’t recognise her at first but for her laughter. It was surreal,” he said. “It was bittersweet.”
Kedija told him she was doing fine in Eritrea’s capital Asmara, but that his grandmother had died.
END OF WAR The historic reconciliation could transform politics and security in the volatile Horn region, which hundreds of thousands of young people have fled in recent years in search of safety and opportunities in Europe.
On Monday, the leaders of both countries announced they were ending the costly “state of war” that has reigned since the fighting stopped in 2000. Diplomatic relations were never restored because the sides could not agree on how to implement a peace deal.
After meeting and embracing in Asmara on Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki told their peoples they were choosing love and forgiveness over hatred and violence.
By Tuesday morning, people in Addis Ababa were frantically trying to phone their relatives in Eritrea.
“My parents have been separated ever since. As a family, we are planning to travel to Eritrea very soon and reconnect for the first time in 20 years,” said Mohammed.
His mother told him that as soon as she heard that phone connections were being restored, she tried to phone a shop in the neighbourhood of Addis Ababa where the family used to live.
“She hadn’t forgotten the number,” he said. But the call didn’t get through. Instead, after news of the peace deal broke, distant relatives in Saudi Arabia called him to pass on his mother’s number.
Ethiopia and Eritrea declared their “state of war” over on Monday and agreed to open embassies, develop ports and resume flights, concrete signs of a stunning rapprochement that has swept away two decades of hostility in a matter of weeks.
The announcement promised to end of one of Africa’s most intractable military stand-offs, a conflict that has destabilised the region and seen both governments funnel large parts of their budgets into security and soldiers.
“The people of our region are joined in common purpose,” Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed said, according to a tweet from his chief of staff, after signing a pact on resuming ties with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
Abiy flew to neighbouring Eritrea a day earlier and embraced Isaias on the airport runway. Thousands of Eritreans came onto the streets to cheer them and the two men danced side by side to traditional music from both countries at a dinner that evening.
Abiy came to office in April and announced reforms that have turned politics on its head in his nation of 100 million.
With the 41-year-old former intelligence officer at the helm, the ruling coalition has ended a state of emergency, released political prisoners and announced plans to partially open up the economy to foreign investors.
In his boldest move, Abiy offered last month to make peace with Eritrea, 20 years after the neighbours started a border war that killed an estimated 80,000 people. Full-blown fighting ended in 2000, but their troops have faced off across their disputed frontier ever since.
Abiy also said he would honour all the terms of a peace deal, suggesting he might be ready to settle the border row, particularly over the contested border town of Badme.
Ethiopia’s ruling party announced on Tuesday it would end its dispute over its shared border with Eritrea after decades of fighting and tension.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) said in a statement it would “fully implement” a 2002 decision by a UN-backed boundary commission that divided up contested territory between the two countries after a 1998-2000 border conflict.
“The Eritrean government should take the same stand without any prerequisite and accept our call to bring back the long-lost peace of the two brother nations as it was before,” the EPRDF wrote on Facebook.
The move represents a major policy change by new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who promised in his April inaugural address to seek peace with Eritrea.
A one-time province of Ethiopia enjoying its entire Red Sea coastline, Eritrea voted for independence in a 1993 referendum but was soon at war with its southern neighbour over the demarcation of the two countries’ borders.
Around 80,000 people died in that conflict, which degenerated into a stalemate after the impasse over the boundary.
Periodic clashes between the two countries after the war’s formal end killed hundreds.