A border not more than a thin line: Ethio-Eritrean relationship

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Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) receiving the Eritrean delegation led by Osman Saleh, Eritrean FM

No one expected that the peace talks between Ethiopia and Eritrea, comically referred to by some as “two bald men fighting over a comb”, would materialize this soon as the Eritrean side had turned deaf ears towards repeated calls from the Ethiopian side to make peace.

But, even though peace talk initiatives emanated from the Ethiopian side, the Ethiopian government has never been willing to implement an international tribunal’s decision regarding border demarcation and related issues. While the Eritrean side required the full implementation of the Algiers Accord and the decision of the Ethio-Eritrean Boundary Commission, the Ethiopian government has always put points of negotiation before doing so despite the binding agreement the country subscribed to which was decided by a court and law that was chosen by both sides.

But, the Eritrean side looks to have been satisfied by the recent decision by the Ethiopian government to fully implement the Algiers Accord and the decision of the Boundary Commission. The initiative was brought forward by the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (PhD). He has been repeatedly asserting his interest to make peace with Eritrea since his acceptance speech on April 2, 2018 at the House of People’s Representatives.

Nonetheless, nothing has been more striking in this regard than the decision of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to fully implement the Algiers Accord and the Boundary Commission’s decision. This was decided on the fifth of July and after two weeks Eritrea took the initiative to send a delegation to Ethiopia to “gauge current developments directly and in depth as well as to chart out a plan for continuous future action.”

Prime Minister Abiy heard President Isaias Afewerki’s martyr’s day announcement on June 20 while he was at a reconciliatory meeting of clashing ethnic groups in Wolkite. In the evening, Abiy appeared on the public broadcaster, ETV, his one and only platform to address the public, and appreciated the move by Isaias and expressed he would be happy to welcome the delegation scheduled to arrive at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport on Tuesday June 26, 2018.

Recognizing the Martyrs’ Day that was celebrated in Eritrea on June 20, the PM addressed Isaias Afewerk in in Tigrigna and said the decision was “great news on a great day.”

While arriving in Addis Ababa, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Political Advisor to President Isaias, Yemane Gebreab, were welcomed by the Prime Minister himself.

“The overture from both sides is very big and it is noticeable by the two leaders. It is because of this fact that the Prime Minister himself received the delegation at the airport out of the conventional protocol,” Dereje Zeleke (PhD), an assistant professor at Addis Ababa University and a scholar on international law, told The Reporter.

For Dereje, the visit signifies a fundamental change in the relationship between the two countries which has been a history of “animosity and intense suspicion just three months ago.” Even the composition of the delegation, led by Osman, the second man in Eritrea, and the time the move was announced have their respective messages to send regarding the changing relations of the two nations.

“We are lucky that we have moved from that animosity to the current status; even the facial expression of the delegation has a positive tone,” Dereje adds.

The reception at Bole International Airport was a fanfare where multitude of public diplomats attended including businesspersons, athletes, artists and media personnel, not to mention the high-level government officials that accompanied the PM.

One among the gathering was Gebregziabher Gebremariam, a well-known long distance athlete and the deputy president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. Gebregziabher is of the view that it is very difficult to comprehend that the two countries sharing 1,000 kilometers of border are divided into two. He deems that the case of the two countries is totally different when compared to other countries that are categorized as two.

“The relationships of the two countries is not something that can be stopped by borders and political demarcations. I always believed that the people of the two countries will be reunited, the question was only of time,” Gebregziabher said.

He says that even if it is known that a delegation is coming to visit, the feeling at Bole Airport was as if the whole Eritrea is coming and as if it were a family reunion.

“Asmara is just an hour and half further from Addis Ababa, but we waited for more than four hours. We all were happy and yearning to see them coming,” he recalls.

In his Martyr’s Day statement, Isaias indicated that the two countries have missed huge opportunities by the long-held grudge and change resistant TPLF [Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front] elites. And, because of the peoples’ frustration regarding the rule of the TPLF, he concluded that the people said “enough is enough”.

“This in turn precipitated the end of the TPLF’s shenanigans; which was aptly described as “Game Over”. Ethiopia is now at a turning point or transition. What is the destination? How will this be achieved? These are timely questions that must be raised. But although it will require time and efforts to remove the TPLF’s toxic and malignant legacy and to bring about a congenial climate, the positive direction that has been set in motion is crystal clear.

“The TPLF clique, and other vultures, are dumbfounded by the ongoing changes. And, as they know full well that their game has come to an end, they will not refrain from concocting various machinations to obstruct any change and to mollify their wayward appetite,” Isaias’ said in his statement.

According to him, the current changes are being carried out excluding the TPLF who have been at the center of dividing the two countries apart for the past more than a quarter of a century.

This idea is also shared by Dereje, who says that the case of the Ethio-Eritrean relation is not of the people but a few political elites who went to the extent of personalizing the issue.

“The freezing of the relation has to directly deal with TPLF. It is an issue of the two parties [Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front]; specifically, Meles Zenawi [the late PM of Ethiopia] and Isaias,” he argues. “They had made it their personal agenda than a matter of national interest.”

Dereje further argues that the whole issue is the making of the TPLF and this has found its manifestations during the split of the TPLF in the aftermath of the bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea where members of the party began to blame one another about the Ethio-Eritrean case. Hence, he asserts that there needs to be nothing that stands between the demands of the people of the two nations.

Gebregziabher also deems that, “peace for the two peoples is not something negotiable; it is critical. Not even countries that share a 1,000 kilometers border, others with walls between them can be brought together.

But, Gebregziabher says that the composition of the delegation that came to Ethiopia is not as he has expected as they did not match the composition of the waiting delegation at Bole. He had also expected to meet others who are in a similar profession as his.

“I have met Zeresenay Tadesse [Eritrean long-distance track and road running athlete] in Dubai and we talked for a long time about the prospect of peace between the two countries and we were hopeful that this time would come sooner than later,” Gebregziabher said.

While the coming of the delegation that came to Ethiopia was primarily prompted by the move from Ethiopia to fully implement the Algiers Accord and the decision of the Boundary Commission, this issue was not on the table and the delegation discussed with Prime Minister Abiy about people to people, diplomatic and economic relations.

“We are not two people but one; we want to live together. A border should not put us apart,” stated Osman in his address at the National Palace reception held by the PM.

Eyesuswork Zafu, a prominent business people and a veteran in the country’s financial sector, says that the discussion the delegation and the PM held was much more important than the border issue.

“There is no conflict between the people of the two nations. And, if the two countries can work together, there will be no more synergy than they can create,” Eyesuswork asserts. “The important issue is working together but not placing other hurdles to this process like the issue of Assab.”

Appreciating the move by the two governments, Eyesuswork indicates that, “the two countries can provide much benefits to their citizens while working together than they can singlehandedly. Integration is another step that can develop some day.”

According to Eyesuswork, the connective tissues are businesses as businesses play a major role to develop the 1957 Treaty of Rome to the recent day European Union.

“There should not be any border between the two countries and this is the least important issue while discussing relationship; residents in the Ethiopian and Sudanese border do not require visas to cross to each country and have coffee and alcohol of their preference,” he stresses.

The same is shared by Dereje who vehemently asserts that the issue of the border is a done deal so long as Ethiopia accepted the decisions and there is no point of discussion in this regard. For him, the delegation discussed the most important issue than the border which just puts sisters and brethren kilometers away, literally.

What was remaining regarding the issue of the border was enforcement of the decision which was overdue and as the tribunal could not physically demarcate the border between the two countries, it has identified points using GPS where the pillars will be placed. Once the decision is accepted, it is just placing the pillars on the coordinates indicated aerially.

“This is an 18 years overdue agenda dragged to this day by the arrogance of the TPLF,” Dereje asserts. “It even has no relevant equal to a single project.”

The visit of the delegation to Hawassa and other developmental sites is also an important move as the Eritrean nationalism is built by the Hatred of Ethiopia and the visit shows the potential each have to provide for another if they work together.

“It is an indication that they can have a relationship that is much more than a single rocky woreda,” Dereje says.

According to him, the issue of cemetery and churches, as well as some group of societies which would be divided into two because of the border demarcation can easily be solved through resettlement, as it has been done so far even because of natural and other disasters.

Also accepting that the discussion had to go beyond the border, Eyesus sees that it has to be easy for Eritreans to enter Ethiopia and vice versa as the border is political rather than social or economic. Hence, the future is bright according to him.

Gebregziabher also sees that celebrating New Year in Asmara or at the Island of Dahlak might be fancy, but, he says the peace is much more benefiting to the people living at the border towns who were always standby for a possible war between the two countries.

“This will bring rest to the society which I believe is broken into two and could not console each other during griefs and could not celebrate together during weddings,” Gebregziabher says.

Dereje also says that the primary benefit of the peace deal between the two is to get relief from the highly militarized and tension filled borders which are costly to such countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Furthermore, he observes that Eritrea is in a big economic chock up which its peace pact with Ethiopia could bring relief to. And Eritrean youth won’t risk crossing the Mediterranean if they have change in Ethiopia.

“This is something that complements the hopes of the two countries,” Dereje concludes. “We are lucky and I am afraid to say but has some involvement of the divine intervention.”

In his recent interview with Fana Broadcasting Corporation, Foreign Minister of Ethiopia Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD), said that the leaders of the two countries are scheduled to meet in the near future and there are talks that Abiy will fly to Asmara to shake hands with Isaias in Asmara.

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