The new prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, made a bold assertion last week after he helped end a two-decade conflict with neighboring Eritrea. “The reconciliation we are forging now is an example to people across Africa and beyond,” said the young reformist leader who holds a doctorate in peace studies.
The example is not simply that peace broke out quickly between the two countries on the Horn of Africa, where a war between them had killed more than 70,000. While the reconciliation was widely welcomed, Prime Minister Abiy and his counterpart, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, also tried, as they exchanged visits to each other’s capitals, to explain their motives in forging a peace.
A key motive, they indicated, was to offer mercy to the other side after years of conflict over a border dispute, driven in part by ethnic tensions.
“Forgiveness frees the consciousness,” said Abiy. “When we say we have reconciled, we mean we have chosen a path of forgiveness and love.”
And, he added, “Love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles. Love can win hearts, and we have seen a great deal of it today here in Asmara [Eritrea’s capital].”
For his part, President Isaias promised the two countries would move forward as one. “No one can steal the love we have regained now. Now is the time to make up for the lost times.”
Vast crowds cheered the two men in their visits as they took steps to bring Eritrea and Ethiopia together. They opened embassies in each other’s country, restored phone and airline service, and made plans to demarcate the border and establish trade links.
The two sides had many economic and political reasons to reconcile, aided by foreign help from the World Council of Churches, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and others. Both are dealing with high joblessness. Eritrea has seen a mass exodus of people to Europe while Ethiopia saw mass protests recently that shook the ruling party and brought Abiy to power in April.
Their conflict had long had repercussions in nearby countries, such as Somalia and South Sudan. And with Eritrea situated across the Red Sea from Yemen and its violent conflict, Arab leaders had reason to seek peace on the Horn of Africa.
Now the peace deal, and the heartfelt motives behind it, may be examples for the nations involved in the many unfinished wars in Africa. The resumption of ties, said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, was “illustrative of a new wind of hope blowing” across the continent.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea still have far to go to establish free and democratic governance. Their conflict was a frequent excuse to suppress dissent.
But said Isaias, “Hate, discrimination and conspiracy is now over.” Each side appears ready to set an example for other nations to follow.