“LIKE Sarajevo, 1914,” said the late Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, of the first gunshots fired on May 6th 1998. “An accident waiting to happen.” Neither he nor his counterpart in neighbouring Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, imagined that a light skirmish at Badme, a border village of which few had heard, could spiral into full-scale war. But two years later about 80,000 lives had been lost and more than half a million people forced from their homes.
No land changed hands. Two decades on, Ethiopia still occupies the disputed territories, including Badme, having refused to accept the findings of a UN boundary commission. But the conflict’s miserable legacy persists. Thousands of troops still patrol the frontier. Centuries of trade and intermarriage abruptly ceased. Ethiopia lost access to Eritrea’s ports. Eritrea lost its biggest trading partner and retreated into isolationism. It has been on a war footing ever since.
But it is not so lonely these days. On April 22nd Donald Yamamoto, America’s most senior diplomat in Africa, visited Asmara, the capital—the first such visit in over a decade. Eritrea has been sanctioned by the UN since 2009, in part for allegedly arming jihadists in neighbouring Somalia. But a panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council found no evidence of arms transfers and advocates lifting the embargo. America sounds open to the idea. Some reckon sanctions could be removed this year.
Many in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, are also mulling a change of course. With the appointment last month of a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, there is an opportunity for fresh thinking. Abiy, who was an intelligence officer during the war, promised in his inaugural speech to make peace with Eritrea.
He may have more luck than his predecessors. In the years after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) seized power in 1991, its policy towards Eritrea was dominated by the Tigrayan faction of the ruling coalition. Tigray shares a border with Eritrea and its people suffered heavily during the war. Abiy’s Oromo faction comes with less baggage.
But any rapprochement would almost certainly require withdrawal from Badme. This would be hard to sell in parts of Ethiopia. And Abiy would need something in return, such as access to Eritrea’s ports, which Isaias has never shown much interest in offering. Moreover, the threat from Ethiopia allows him to keep smothering democracy at home and maintaining a huge army. “Making peace would be the end of him,” says an Eritrean refugee who recently arrived in Addis Ababa. “Why would he?”
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