The last time he was here it was in 1996, two years before his troops advanced into what was then a disputed town, Bademe. The war caused a bloody two-year conflict with Ethiopia and the subsequent standoff that lasted over two decades. On Saturday, July 14, 2018 tens of thousands of Ethiopians lined Africa Avenue (Bole Road) extending a warm welcome to Eritrea`s autocratic leader, Issayas Afeworqi.
His three-day visit to Ethiopia in 22 years signalled a departure from the past that his country will perhaps be engaged in a positive-sum – a.k.a Medemer– road with Ethiopia. Issayas and his delegation came a week after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) courageous visit to Asmera, where he signed an agreement that formally ended two-decade hostilities. Abiy was greeted with a disarming show of joy by tens of thousands of Eritrea’s residents in the capital.
This weekend, the Ethiopian capital saw a massive gathering to welcome Issayas, jamming the street and roads from Bole International Airport to Jubilee Palace along Menelik II Avenue. Inside the palace, the Eritrean leader was welcomed by Ethiopia’s President Mulatu Teshome (PhD), who ushered him and offered him the middle seat between himself and Abiy. Speaking in English, Issayas insisted he would sit on the left of President Mulatu, while Prime Minister Abiy sat on the far side of the right.
President Issayas accepted courtesy greetings from regional state heads, and notably from Debretsion G. Michael (PhD), deputy president of the Tigray Regional State, chairman of the TPLF and a senior member of the ruling coalition in Ethiopia. It is Issayas who proclaimed a few weeks ago in Asmera, while announcing his decision to send envoys to Addis Abeba, that said the “game is over.”
An internal power dynamics within the ruling EPRDF has brought about the rise to power of Abiy, who declared in his inaugural address to parliament his intention to extend truce to Eritrea. In April of this year, an Executive Committee meeting of the EPRDF announced the decision that it accepts the rulings of the UN border commission on the disputed territories between the two countries.
Following Abiy`s visit to Asmera, Ethiopian Airlines announced the resumption of daily commercial flights to Asmera beginning this week. Telephone lines between the two nations have already been established. Surface transport is also to begin soon with the start of maintenance work on the closed Assab road. Both countries are preparing to reopen their embassies in their respective capitals, but in the meantime, visas are expected to be issued on arrival.
Many feel the process of positive-sum engagement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is marching at a breakneck speed. President Issayas` visit is yet another demonstration of how fast things have progressed over the past two months. One day before he traveled to Ethiopia and addressed thousands of young people at a youth festival in Asmera, Issayas attributed his visit to Ethiopia as a time “when the two nations are celebrating their second independence.”
In Addis Abeba, Issayas said he is touched by a genuine and heartfelt display of welcome shown to him by residents of Addis Abeba, a city he knows very well.
Issayas first came to Addis Abeba as a student in the mid-1960s where he studied engineering at the Haile Sellasie University College, now Addis Abeba University(AAU). His uncle, Dejazmatch Abraha, was an administrator of Wollo, in Amhara Regional State.
Dropping out of college, he joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), before he split away from his allies to form the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF). Issayas returned to Addis Abeba in June 1991, leading the delegation of the EPLF that had an observer role at the conference that established the transitional government in Ethiopia after the fall of the military Marxist regime. He had visited Addis Abeba several times before the fallout between the two nations, and he is now returning favours to Prime Minister Abiy, following the landmark visit to Asmera.
Upon his arrival at Bole International Airport with an unmarked and unflagged aircraft, Issayas was greeted by the Prime Minister, government officials, religious leaders, eminent personalities and artists in an environment of tight security, where red-bereted troops appeared all over the tarmac.
Leaving the airport in a motorcade, the leaders were greeted with a massive cheering crowd of well-wishers and horse riders. Most in the crowd wore T-shirts depicting the photos of Prime Minister Abiy and President Issayas. A large crowd was heard chanting “Abiy! Abiy! Abiy!”
It was a scene Yemane G. Mesqel, Eritrea’s Information Minister, described as a “historic, overwhelming and unprecedented” welcome.
“Can one find appropriate words to describe the intensity of popular emotions that has gripped both countries,” Yemane tweeted the same day. “The depth and significance of the promising changes underway in the region.”
His note of surprise was not a lone voice. Eritreans generally reacted positively to the warm welcome extended by Ethiopians to their President. Sophia Tesfamariam, an Eritrean-American working with the United States Foundation for the Horn of Africa, was one of them.
“The welcome looks like peace is being guaranteed and witnessed by the people,” she tweeted.
Nonetheless, thousands appear to have jammed the roads in Addis Abeba as a show of support and reaffirmation of Prime Minister Abiy’s slogan of positive-sum and reconciliation.
It is what Asnake Kefale (PhD), a lecturer at AAU, feels. The expression of support was not only to cheer Issayas and his delegation, but it was for Abiy, as well.
The unfortunate war between the two nations caused by a border dispute had left bitter memories including the loss of thousands of lives, the displacement of a large number of people and a devastating impact on their respective economies.
“I believe the crowd was there to reaffirm the reconciliation agenda of the new Prime Minister,” Asnake, who has a wide experience in conducting researches in the areas of conflict management, federalism and political economy of development, told Fortune.
A 26-year old laboratory technician at Harar Gende Garada Health Center, Abenezer Samuel, was one of the tens of thousands who turned out to welcome Issayas. He believes in forgiveness and compassion.
“I`m here to forgive and show my support for the change,’’ he told Fortune.
During a state lunch for Issayas, the two leaders made their remarks where Issayas addressed the gathering in Tigrigna; unlike Abiy whose address in Asmera was both in Amharic and Tigrigna languages.
“You`re very missed by many Ethiopian,” Abiy told Issayas at Jubilee Palace.
Contrary to Prime Minister Abiy’s attestations, many did not celebrate Issayas’s arrival in Ethiopia, such as Bisrat Teshome, a known activist for human rights.
Ethiopia received Issayas with joy and happiness only because, “we like our relationship with Eritreans restored. Not because we like him.”
“Issayas is a dictator and brutal,” he tweeted.
Omna Taddele, a football commentator whose uncle is jailed in Asmera, is another voice who would not want to cheer for Issayas’ visit.
“My uncle was languishing at Asmara jail long before 1991,” he tweeted. “I would appreciate it if the Eritrean government could disclose the whereabouts of my uncle and many more jailed Ethiopians.”
One prominent Ethiopian whose whereabouts remain undisclosed is Bezabeh Petros. A brother of the veteran opposition leader, Beyene Petros (Prof.), Bezabeh is a prisoner of war captured in 1998 after his fighter jet was shot down and he was forced to land near Asmera. A father of five and a Colonel with the Ethiopian Airforce, Eritrea`s government remains silent about whether he is still alive.
Selam Kidane, an Eritrean human right activist, who campaigns for the release of many Eritreans and Ethiopians languishing inside Eritrea prisons.
“Issayas continues to hold thousands of prisoners,” she tweeted last week. “My Ethiopian friends, you can’t celebrate reform in Ethiopia and celebrate a tyrant in Eritrea.”
Beyene and his family are longing for Bezabeh’s return, hoping the two countries would abide by the Geneva Convention in exchanging prisoners of war. His son, who was born the year his father was captured, graduated from college this year.
“We’re frustrated,” Beyene told Fortune, confiding that none of the family members are certain whether Bezabeh is alive. “Though we have been longing for peace between the two countries, we didn`t expect things to turn 180 degrees this fast.”
Beyene contends that such opportunities should have been used as ways to solve different issues, including addressing his brother’s whereabouts.
“Beyond economic and political matters, the two countries have to work on involving peoples’ lives,” Beyene told Fortune.
Although the two leaders have signed a general understanding to start normalisation, the onerous task of negotiating troops withdrawal from contested territories; carrying out physical demarcation of the borders; resettling population; and compensating losses is yet to be conducted.
In Asmera, Issayas pledged to Abiy his determination to “face the future together” and “work as one.”
Asnake, the university professor, seems optimistic about the way relations are evolving with the heads of state gesturing positive signals.
“The devil is in the details,” Asnake told Fortune. “No one is certain yet about the areas of the two governments rapproche.”
He holds the view that the rapproche should have been done with better transparency and caution.
“The political-economic boundaries of the two countries should be delineated not to repeat the previous mistakes,” Asnake said.
After the state lunch yesterday, Issayas headed to Hawassa Industrial Park, the nation’s flagship park, where Eritrean envoys were taken two weeks ago. Star singers and a cultural troupe will entertain him in the National Theater and at the Millennium Hall. Issayas will also meet 25,000 people, including government officials, members of the diplomatic corps and invited residents, where he is expected to deliver his address in Amharic.
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