Ethiopia and Eritrea Move to End 20-Year Conflict in Historic Breakthrough

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Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center right, is welcomed by Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, on Sunday.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center right, is welcomed by Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, on Sunday. PHOTO:ERITV/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Lasting peace between the neighboring countries could herald a new era in a strategic part of Africa

By Matina Stevis-GridneffUpdated July 8, 2018 4:32 p.m. ET0 COMMENTS

Ethiopia and Eritrea announced the first concrete steps toward normalizing relations after two decades of conflict during an unprecedented visit Sunday by the Ethiopian prime minister.

The two neighboring archenemies agreed to open up their airspace to one another, re-establish telephone communications, reopen embassies and allow Ethiopia—which became landlocked when Eritrea seceded a quarter-century ago—to use its smaller coastal neighbor’s port, gaining precious access to the Red Sea, the countries’ leaders said.

Lasting peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea could herald a new era in a strategic part of Africa near the Middle East. Ethiopia is a top Western and Chinese ally in the conflict-prone Horn of Africa, near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Eritrea hosts a major United Arab Emirates military base, and is home to a 715-mile Red Sea coastline near the Suez Canal.

Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed was greeted in Asmara, one of the world’s most reclusive capitals, by longtime Eritrean rebel-turned-dictator Isaias Afwerki. Mr. Afwerki, 72 years old, became president of Eritrea at independence in 1993. The two men embraced at Asmara airport as Eritrean women danced to welcome Mr. Ahmed, Ethiopian state TV reported.

The visit came after a senior Eritrean delegation visited Addis Ababa last month to start peace talks between the David-and-Goliath neighbors, and is the first by an Ethiopian leader in recent history.

Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Afwerki gave emotive speeches about their efforts to reconcile their two nations that share deep ethnic and cultural ties at a state dinner later Sunday. Thousands of mixed families have been divided by the conflict, and the budding reconciliation is emotional for ordinary people on both sides.

“We have to join our hands and start cooperating as one people first, the rest will be settled side by side. There is no border to divide us, today’s spirit of love will bridge us,” said Mr. Ahmed at a formal dinner in a speech broadcast by the Ethiopian and Eritrean state TV stations.

“The government and people of Eritrea will stand by your side, in all aspects of your effort and challenges, to maintain love and togetherness between the peoples of both nations,” Mr. Afwerki said.

The 41-year-old Mr. Ahmed, just over three months into leading Africa’s second-most-populous country and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, announced he wanted to resolve a border dispute with Eritrea that has led to a state of hostility between the two nations.

A 2002 decision by a United Nations-backed commission found that Ethiopia had to withdraw from the border area, called Badme, ruling the territory rightfully belonged to Eritrea, but Ethiopia has never done so.

Resolving the Badme dispute would be a first important step in a long road to reconciliation, made bumpier by nationalists on both sides and mistrust after decades of fighting.

Since their falling out, the two neighbors have diverged dramatically in politics and economy.

Ethiopia—an aspiring manufacturing powerhouse—is a rapidly growing nation and home to more than 100 million people. It has forged close ties with the U.S. in the war on terror, the European Union in migration, and China in trade and infrastructure development. While it maintains a major military presence in neighboring warzones on behalf of the international community, Ethiopia nonetheless struggles with ethnic divisions and poverty.

Eritrea, meanwhile, has grown more isolated in the past two decades, and is accused by the U.N. and others for gross human-rights violations that have driven one of modern history’s biggest migration waves. The country, with a population around 4.5 million, is also under U.N. sanctions for allegedly fostering Somali terrorists, which Eritrea denies.

The rapid rapprochement announced by Mr. Ahmed in early June comes at an important time for the military and commercial development of the Red Sea coastline.

Ethiopia is investing heavily in neighboring nations’ ports to ensure it will be able to export its manufactured goods.

Middle Eastern powers are pouring billions into ports and naval bases along the Red Sea coastline in Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea, vying for perches to establish a commercial and military presence.

And the U.S., which maintains a 4,000-troop base in Djibouti—just next to Eritrea—is concerned about the crowding of that tiny state that also hosts Chinese and other bases in proximity to its own. In early May, the U.S. complained that Chinese military personnel were targeting American flight crews over Djibouti.

Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a prerequisite for the U.S. to re-engage with Eritrea, two Western diplomats have said. The U.S. and Eritrea have had very poor relations for the past two decades but in late April, before Ethiopia announced it wanted peace and days before the Pentagon announced its concerns about the Chinese in Djibouti, Donald Yamamoto, then U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs, became the first senior U.S. official in years to visit Asmara. Mr. Yamamoto discussed the prospects of improving relations with Asmara during his visit, diplomats said.

—Yohannes Anberbir in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this article.

Write to Matina Stevis-Gridneff at matina.stevis@wsj.com

SOURCE : THJE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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