It’s easy to understand why one might linger over the images coming from Asmara on Sunday, and wonder – dare to hope, even – about the future between the bitterly divided Ethiopia and Eritrea. The streets are lined with well-wishers, the leaders are taking tea, their statements speak of brotherly love as this meeting following 20 years of a volatile border dispute comes to fruition.
“History in the making,” said Yemane Meskel, the Eritrean information minister. “The pictures say it all.”
There, at the airport, is the warm embrace between two quite different leaders. One is the 72-year-old Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president whose leadership of the small Horn of Africa nation now spans 25 years of an oft-critiqued regime as distant from the global community as it is the neighbor next door.
The other is that neighbor, embodied in the energy of new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. A member of the historically marginalized Oromo ethnic group whose tenure began in March, Abiy, just 41 years old, is now the youngest head of state on the African continent. He has impressed observers with both the speed and substance of his reform agenda, as well as the style of leadership that is behind it.
Their meeting, and those that have preceded it since Abiy’s June 5 announcement that Ethiopia will at last accept the terms of a long-refused border agreement, also appear to be delivering on substance. Landlocked Ethiopia will again have access to Eritrean ports, according to an early report from Reuters; the two countries will again open embassies, and Ethiopian airlines will again fly to Eritrea’s capital.
Last month, Abiy said that the neighboring nations will jointly celebrate the Ethiopian New Year in September – another affirmation of the underlying cultural and historical ties that were once broken.
“Our two nations share a history and bond like no other. We can now overcome two decades of mistrust and move in a new direction,” said Fitsum Arega, the chief of staff for Abiy’s office, in a statement.
Eritrea and Abiy’s new Ethiopia
The optimism in Asmara is well-founded, but the truth is that the pictures don’t say it all. Abiy still has many challenges at home, despite the bold moves he’s making to improve the Ethiopian economy or ensure democratic freedoms – and in some cases, challenges arise precisely because of those moves.
It’s been just two weeks since an explosion rocked Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, where Abiy was wrapping up an address attended by a sea of thousands of Ethiopians. Ethiopian officials immediately identified the incident as an assassination attempt, arrested a few dozen people including senior police officials and called on the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to assist with the probe.
Abiy, an Oromo himself, knows all too well the complexities of Ethiopian ethnic groups, their entangled histories and the political alignments that long kept the Tigray minority dominant in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In recent years, the clashes with the regime among the Oromo and Amhara groups – and the high-profile arrests of their leaders – made more visible the need for reform in Ethiopia. That’s not always a welcome development for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) politicians and their supporters, whose roots are in a northern border region hostile to Eritrea and Afwerki and who, at home, are resistant to Abiy and the shifting power dynamics.
On the other hand, in a youthful country of 100 million people where the Tigray are just 6 percent of the population, the hope for change is real enough for even those in the diaspora to head home. “I want to witness firsthand how my country is undergoing massive change which was unthinkable just a few months ago,” said Mohammed Ademo, a respected Oromo journalist and activist who lived in exile in the United States for 16 years. His commentary for Al Jazeera describes the contagious hope that meant his return.
Eritrea and the Afwerki legacy
So that’s the context for Abiy in the Ethiopian-Eritrean thaw, but there’s been less attention paid to how Afwerki and the Eritrean people might change as they move past the 20-year-old border dispute and a conflict in which thousands of people were killed. Afwerki has always said that once Ethiopia honors the long-delayed Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling, there will be no cause for tensions.
That may be one day be true in their bilateral relations, and this historic moment between them is welcomed by regional leaders in the geopolitically sensitive Horn of Africa. Mahboub Maalim, executive secretary for IGAD, congratulated Abiy and Afwerki while looking forward to “Eritrea rejoining the IGAD family and taking its rightful place” in the regional body’s affairs.
Yet those Abiy-Afwerki pictures don’t tell the story of how Eritrea will move away from its perpetual-war footing or when Eritrean dissent will enjoy the kind of democratic space Abiy is, at least by most accounts, seeking to create at home as he ends political prisoner detention and states of emergency.
There’s perhaps a glimmer of that future as the elder authoritarian and the young Ethiopian reformer find common ground, and as Maalim makes a point of welcoming Eritrea “home.” If the isolated Afwerki is willing to take the next steps too, the meeting in Asmara may be more historic than we yet know.
Image: Eritrea Ministry of Information