Peace waves in East Africa

The ‘love can win’ diplomacy of Ethiopia’s new leader has brought startling results in the region, notably in the reunion of South Sudan’s top two rivals.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir (r) meets rebel leader Riek Machar (c) in Juba, South Sudan Oct. 31.

Can peace have a ripple effect?

Abiy Ahmed, the new prime minister of Ethiopia with a PhD in conflict resolution, certainly believes so.

In the six months since he took office as Africa’s youngest leader, Dr. Abiy has not only transformed the often-violent ethnic tensions of his own country with an approach he calls “love can win hearts,” he has also become a whirlwind diplomat in East Africa with an olive-branch touch.

He has settled a dispute with Egypt over sharing the Nile waters. He ended Ethiopia’s two-decade-old conflict with Eritrea, which in turn helped Eritrea to restore ties with Somalia and sign an accord with Djibouti over a border dispute. The region is now ripe for economic integration.

“There is a wind of hope blowing in the Horn of Africa,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in September.

Now Abiy can claim a large part of the credit for a breakthrough in South Sudan, home to one of Africa’s worst civil wars.

On Oct. 31, after months of Abiy-orchestrated talks among South Sudanese groups, the country’s main opposition figure and former vice president, Riek Machar, landed in the capital of Juba for a celebration of reconciliation with his rival, President Salva Kiir. Their reunion, more than two years after Mr. Machar had to flee the country in a violent political dispute, was the public manifestation of a power-sharing deal the two signed in Ethiopia on Sept. 13.

For his part in the dramatic ceremony, President Kiir apologized to South Sudanese citizens for the five years of war, saying the responsibility fell on him. And Machar said “the past is gone” and promised a new chapter for peace and unity. Both men have given credit to the Ethiopian leader for his peacemaking role.

The peace deal could still fall apart. Two precious pacts since 2013 failed. But what makes this one different was the rigor of negotiations led by Ethiopia and other neighbors of South Sudan. Estranged stakeholders from refugees to armed ethnic groups were included, not just the two top rivals.

The peace process befits the words on a T-shirt that Abiy often wears. It shows a picture of Nelson Mandela with the slogan “No one is free until the last one is free.”

South Sudan has far to go to regroup itself as a unified country. It was only formed in 2011, spun off after a civil war in Sudan. Yet the ripples of peacemaking, coming out of Ethiopia, have started the country down that path.

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