Eritrea and Ethiopia: Hopes for Peace and Progress
By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion
On Wednesday June 20th, Eritrea held its annual national commemoration service in memory of martyrs who sacrificed their lives during the struggle for independence and to safeguard the country’s sovereignty. In addition to paying his respects and honoring the great sacrifices of Eritrea’s martyrs, H.E. President Isaias Afwerki addressed recent momentous developments in Ethiopia and the related announcement on June 6th by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that “Ethiopia is now willing to abide by the Algiers Agreement and the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) boundary decisions”.
Speaking at Eritrea’s Patriot’s Cemetery, President Isaias stated that Eritrea “will be sending a delegation to Addis Ababa to gauge current developments directly and in depth” and “to chart out a plan for continuous future action”. Of note, President Isaias also expressed his hope and confidence for better relations with the US administration, as well as Eritrea’s general willingness to build new ties and positive engagement with Washington.
Hours later, speaking in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed replied to President Isaias’ comments, thanking the Eritrean President for his decision, describing it as “historical news on a historical date.” It was also highly notable that the Ethiopian PM’s response included several significant gestures of goodwill, including his readiness “to personally receive Eritrea’s delegation graciously”. Speaking in Tigrinya (which is one of Eritrea’s three main working languages), and Dr. Abiy respectfully also noted the importance of Eritrea’s Martyr’s Day. Notably, days ago the Ethiopian PM, speaking in Parliament, also questioned Ethiopia’s delay in implementing the EEBC final and binding decisions.
Of course, many questions remain unanswered and specific details will have to be ironed out. However, after years of tension, such developments between the two governments can only be regarded as highly positive and extremely encouraging. Both countries are faced with a number of significant challenges, and thus an end to the costly – and largely unnecessary – conflict and tensions will allow them to better focus their attention on addressing their various and considerable challenges. For instance, with peace and stability, vital human and fiscal resources can be used to combat poverty or promote development, rather than having to be diverted toward defense and national security. A relationship between the two countries based on mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation will also contribute to promoting sustainable peace, security, and development across the region. For example, before the outbreak of their conflict, from 1991 until 1998 Eritrea and Ethiopia had worked closely to bring about a solution to the Somali crisis. Moreover, the two countries, working together, can help promote and revitalize important regional security architectures that can play a pivotal role in the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts.
In addition, it is important to recall that until the emergence of the conflict in 1998, the two countries enjoyed strong economic, cultural and security relations. Prior to the war, Ethiopia was Eritrea’s top export partner, and thousands of Ethiopians were employed throughout the country. Furthermore, Ethiopia had been using the Eritrean ports at Assab and Massawa at symbolic rates and without any hindrance (a point raised by PM Abiy Ahmed in a recent statement where he questioned the logic in using other more expensive and inefficient regional ports), while even during the war, Eritrea offered the use of its ports to transport humanitarian aid to Ethiopia.
For Eritrea, the immediate post-independence period was characterized by a focus on poverty reduction, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. Nearly 65 percent of the country’s liberation forces were demobilized and shifted into both the private and public sectors (note that another round of large-scale demobilization, under The Demobilization and Reintegration Program Project and carried out in partnership with the World Bank, occurred after the 1998-2000 conflict), and the country experienced the beginning of growth with macroeconomic stability. Of note, from 1993 to 1997, Eritrea’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a rate of nearly 12 percent, inflation averaged approximately 6 percent, the fiscal deficit including grants averaged approximately 5.5 percent of GDP, and gross international reserves were equivalent to 3.5 months of imports of goods and services (IMF 2016; Kidane 2015: 2; World Bank n.d.). Admittedly, while such figures only offer a snapshot of the country during the time period, they do suggest that with the conditions of lasting peace and stability, there is quite considerable potential in Eritrea for significant socio-economic growth and sustainable development.
Overall, as a result of the statements by Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders, this June 20th was a day not only of solemnly reflecting on the past, but also one of looking to the future with considerable optimism and hope. Ultimately, The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia not only want peace, they need and deserve it.