Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Picture: REUTERS/ TIKSA NEGERI
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Picture: REUTERS/ TIKSA NEGERI

Jubilant shouts erupted on July 18 aboard the first commercial flight in two decades from Ethiopia to Eritrea. Ethiopia, under Africa’s youngest leader, Abiy Ahmed, 41, signed a peace accord with its neighbour and introduced reforms that suspected hardliners tried to derail with an attempt on his life.

Ahmed has lifted the state of emergency in the country. He has begun the mass release of political prisoners, a purge of reactionary military brass, the lifting of press restrictions and the partial privatisation of state-owned enterprises, including Africa’s leading airline.

What prospects Ethiopia’s avalanche of reforms and the end of its cold war with Eritrea hold for the democratisation of isolationist Eritrea, which is nicknamed "Africa’s North Korea", remains to be seen.

Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki once led the Eritrean resistance in a military alliance that included the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which fought a guerrilla war that in 1991 toppled the Soviet-backed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Inconspicuous among the 100,000-strong coalition guerrilla army was a small force of 200 people of the Oromo ethnic group, including Ahmed, then a teenager, whose first name means "Revolution" in the Amharic language. The gym-obsessed young man later advanced in Ethiopia’s military intelligence, gathering a doctorate in conflict management and experience in post-genocide Rwanda along the way.

Under Afwerki, Eritrea peacefully broke away from Ethiopia in 1993, taking with it the entire coastline, effectively landlocking what is now Africa’s fastest-developing country. Addis Ababa continued exporting via the Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa.

Time for peace: Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (left) of Eritrea (l) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/MICHAEL TEWELDE
Time for peace: Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (left) of Eritrea (l) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/MICHAEL TEWELDE

But the secession surprised and angered then Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi, and relations deteriorated. In 1998, a conflict over a desolate piece of land was used as an excuse for Ethiopia to go to war with Eritrea. It was a bitter battle; Zenawi and Afwerki are not only former comrades but also cousins.

For the average citizen, the split is still traumatic. Ethiopian-born ethnic Eritrean Michael Halefom had just finished school when, because of the outbreak of war, his family was forcibly expelled to Eritrea by Ethiopian soldiers. The shock disoriented him, he says: "It was like waking up one morning to find that your father is not your father." The medical technologist was coerced into joining the Eritrean military, where for 2½ years he was a special forces commando.

By the time a ceasefire was hammered out in 2000, at least 70,000 people had been killed in the conflict, and 50,000 remain missing.

Ethiopia’s refusal to accept an independent border commission’s ruling kept both countries on a de-facto war footing, which drove them to dictatorship. And as a result of their interventions in the failed state of Somalia and war-torn Sudan, they destabilised the entire Horn of Africa region.

Afwerki jailed dissidents, suspended civic and democratic institutions and imposed unlimited forced labour, freezing the capital Asmara in time with its 1930s architecture. Zenawi’s Ethiopia wasn’t much better, and tens of thousands like Halefom fled both states. The UN imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea for its support — which has since ended — to Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, but Ethiopia remained a key Western ally.

Ethiopia’s ambassador in Pretoria, Shiferaw Teklemariam, tells the FM that Ahmed’s reforms are not merely an Ethiopian initiative to deal with problems such as its forex shortage and broad civil protests. They are a "joint venture" with its neighbours towards peace, development and democracy.

Ethiopia hopes to reach the status of a lower-middle-income country by 2025, Teklemariam says, using the peace dividend and the reopening of its access to Eritrea’s ports to leverage its 10.2% economic growth.

Privatisation is aimed partly at a $7.5bn mega-infrastructure shortfall, including for a huge dam on the Nile that Ethiopia plans to use to sell electricity to Egypt.

Asked whether the reforms could have a democratising effect on Asmara, the diplomat says that now that "a good spirit" prevails, the joint steering committee implementing the peace accord will pursue issues "above and beyond" it — such as peace-building in Eritrea.

Eritreans in Johannesburg partied joyously at news of the peace, and reports have emerged that the largest prison, that of Adi Abeto near Asmara, has been emptied of dissidents and pacifists. But Halefom remains anxious about Eritrea’s future: "We are at the crossroads: Eritrea is in Afwerki’s hands. It can go either way," he says.

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