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After years of unrest, Ethiopia enters new era of openness

Why We Wrote This

Ethiopia appears to be entering a new phase of reform, marked recently by the end of a 20-year border war with Eritrea. Many Ethiopians are imagining a hopeful future after years of repression.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed walk together at Asmara International Airport, Eritrea on July 9, 2018. The two leaders recently signed a declaration to end a decades-long conflict.
GHIDEON MUSA ARON VISAFRIC/REUTERS
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Until 1991, Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia, with a shared culture, language, and history. But after a bitter decades-long war for independence and the border conflict that followed, the two countries cut nearly all ties – even telephone service between the two. On Monday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki declared that the war was officially over. Since Mr. Abiy took office in April, his government has freed thousands of political protesters, partially privatized flailing state-owned companies, fired corrupt civil servants, and ended a state of emergency. The reforms, which have stunned even the most optimistic of Ethiopia-watchers, have pulled the country back from the brink of a more than two-year political crisis. Now, many dissidents are imagining a future that even recently seemed impossible. But analysts also point out that the easiest reforms may now be behind Abiy. How exactly, for instance, the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea will be drawn remains to be seen. “Those issues are still under the surface,” says Hallelujah Lulie of Amani Africa, a think tank in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “But for now the mood is still excitement, optimism, hope.” 

It was a radical hug. 

On Sunday morning, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stepped off a plane in the Eritrean capital Asmara, and threw his arms around that country’s president, Isaias Afwerki, as if the two men were old friends

In fact, Ethiopia and Eritrea have spent the last two decades more like bitter enemies, ever since a border dispute in the late 1990s turned into a brutal war that killed nearly 100,000 people, according to some estimates. Dr. Abiy himself had been an Ethiopian intelligence operative on that conflict’s front lines. 

But on Monday, Abiy and Mr. Afwerki issued a joint declaration stating that the war – which had never formally ended because of a dispute over who controlled the border town of Badme – was officially over. Ethiopia said it would move to officially return the town to Eritrea, one of the terms of the original peace agreement from two decades ago. 

“The state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has come to an end,” the declaration issued by the two governments read. “A new era of peace and friendship has been opened.” 

For Abiy, the announcement is the latest chapter in a dizzying program of reforms he has instituted since he took office in April. In short order, his government has not only opened diplomatic relations with its neighbor, but also freed thousands of political protesters, partially privatized flailing state-owned companies, fired corrupt civil servants, and ended a state of emergency that had left the country on political lock down, on and off, since late 2016. 

The reforms, which have stunned even the most optimistic of Ethiopia-watchers, have pulled the country back from the brink of a more than two-year-long political crisis, in which mass protests against the government were met with brutal force and mass arrests. Now, many dissidents are imagining a future that even recently seemed impossible. 

“If the progress moves [at] the same pace, Ethiopia will have free and fair elections in 2020, which is what people have been longing for,” wrote Befekadu Hailu, a blogger and activist who has been repeatedly jailed for his political commentary, in an email to the Monitor. “It will be a big step toward democratization.”

For many here, the overtures to Eritrea remain the most symbolically significant of Abiy’s reforms. 

Until 1991, Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia, and people on both sides of the border share culture, language, and history. But after a bitter decades-long war for independence and the border conflict that followed, the two countries cut nearly all ties. There was no trade, no embassies, not even telephone service between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Landlocked Ethiopia had no access to Eritrea’s nearby Red Sea ports, and passengers who wanted to fly from Addis Ababa to Asmara – an 80 minute jaunt – were instead routed on convoluted, daylong paths through the Middle East. 

“This isn’t just a matter of two countries side by side having a border dispute,” says Hallelujah Lulie, the director of programs at Amani Africa, a think tank in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “This is a matter of two countries that used to be one. They share culture, they share history, they share memories.” 

Indeed, as Abiy landed in Eritrea on Sunday, thousands filled the palm tree-lined streets of the capital to celebrate his arrival. Many families in the region straddle the border, and have been separated for decades. 

The announcement that Ethiopia would cede Badme and thus end the war’s long stalemate came as a welcome surprise, particularly in Eritrea, one of the world’s most isolated countries. Due to alleged ties to extremist groups in Somalia, Eritrea has long been subject to UN sanctions, which Abiy’s government began advocating on Monday to have removed. 

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has continued to pursue reforms in other areas as well. Late last week, Ethiopia’s attorney general, Berhanu Tsegaye, announced the firing of five top prison officials. The announcement came soon after local media aired an investigation into prison torture, and the same day that Human Rights Watch (HRW) was due to release a report on the torture and arbitrary detention of political prisoners at the infamous Jail Ogaden in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. 

“The announcement was unprecedented in Ethiopian history,” says Felix Horne, a senior researcher with HRW, who authored the torture report. Under previous administrations, he says, the response to reports on human rights abuses was generally brusque and defensive. “Generally they’d say that the allegations were baseless and politically motivated,” Mr. Horne says. 

Regardless of whether the firing of the prison officials was in response to a local government-owned television station’s investigations on torture, or HRW's report, “it’s extremely positive, extremely encouraging,” says Horne.  

Analysts also point out that the easiest reforms may now be behind Abiy, who in many ways started with the low-hanging fruit. How exactly, for instance, the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea will be drawn, and how that will affect border communities, remains to be seen. 

“Those issues are still under the surface,” says Mr. Lulie, of Amani Africa. “But for now the mood is still excitement, optimism, hope.” 

Abiy underscored that mood Sunday when he promised that the opening of diplomatic relations with Eritrea would come with a host of benefits, both practical and intangible. Abiy announced that he would work with the Eritrean president to “resume the services of our airlines, to get our ports working, to get our people to trade and to open our embassies again.”

“There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because a bridge of love has destroyed it,” he said. 

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