Almost a quarter-century has passed since the fateful referendum that led to the formation of Eritrea as a sovereign state separate from Ethiopia. There has not been much change in the leadership of the two East African nations in all those years though, and disputes over territories along the borders both share have not ceased. But the desire to see the governments, or at least the governed, of the two nations make a reconciliation do subsist.
For three decades starting from 1961, two consecutive Ethiopian governments were in a conflict with Eritrean separatists who wanted independence, which concluded with a referendum and a peaceful separation in 1993. After independence, the two neighbours disagreed on economic issues and each claimed several border areas including Badme, Zalambessa and Bure. However, an entity called the Eritrea-Ethiopian Boundary Commission was set up to look into the disputed territories.
Last week a small group of elites, the likes of Medhane Tadesse (Prof.), Lidetu Ayalew and a few others expressed the desire of facilitating a platform where people of the two countries, one part and parcel of the other, could connect. Now that the paradigm shift has taken place, all will be possible if violence can be avoided.
As a great deal of time has gone by since Eritreans voted for independence, it is worthwhile to note that nothing good has transpired out of the separation ever since. The Ethiopian history has chapters were sovereignty was challenged, once by the Italians in the early 20th century, and then by Great Britain in the 19th century. Both had an impact on the minds of people, where independence was the outcome.
There were, however, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The former now exists in the form of the People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ), the only legal political party in Eritrea, while the latter controls every legislative seat in Ethiopia with its regional allies.
Despite a referendum that went rather peacefully, the antagonism between the two countries grew by leaps and bounds, giving birth to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War that began almost two decades ago. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people were killed in the process, but the war was largely termed pointless. At any rate, the Algiers Agreement to end the fight was signed between the two countries and, the fate of Badme was taken to a Hague boundary commission which finally ruled that the territory belonged to Eritrea.
But Ethiopia still controls the town, while Eritrea claims it and the two countries have remained in a state of no war and no peace.
And what can small groups of people do against such odds to facilitate a platform where people of the two nations can finally get together?
A lot of work has to be done step by step.
There may be an assumption that Ethiopia only wants reconciliation with Eritrea for access to the Red Sea. But those people are wrong. Sure, that in itself would not be a terrible idea. Ethiopia can conduct its maritime and transit services from the port cities of Assab and Massawa. This could have improved the oft criticised logistics sector.
Dry ports could have been avoided; shipping would have gotten cheaper: and foreign currency would not have been drained recurrently. Landlocked countries do suffer a lot.
The initiative thus could serve as a groundwork for the next steps that need to be taken. Massawa Port is already linked to Asmara and beyond to Keren. More movement of people and goods between Ethiopian towns and these would be a good idea; they are vital and worth the risk.
Eventually, the linkage could be created between the capital cities of the two countries. This would have strengthened the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc that both nations are a member of. East African solidarity could be a reality.
And think of the opportunities that Eritrea could claim, such as increased trade with a border country that has a growing middle-income population. They could also benefit where energy is concerned, especially from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which has reached over 60pc completion. I know that there is a power shortage in Asmara.
I remember that I have written at least twice about the Ethiopian-Eritrean dilemma. Renewal of relations between the two countries is a topic very close to my heart. Maybe the initiative of the small group by the likes of Lidetu and Medhane is focused on people-to-people relations. But this kind of relationship could be lasting and robust. Perhaps music concerts or long-distance running races could strengthen reconciliation more practically than before.
We can have an ideal community with the people of the two countries. After all, we are people of the same values and the same cultural background. But even if we had different values and cultural backgrounds, we can still make such relations work for the wellbeing of the people of the two countries depends on it. It is up to the populace to decide to unite as one community.
For this, we could take lessons from the Eritrean and Ethiopian expats that live in harmony overseas. We have many Eritrean friends here in Brussels. We intermarry. The Ethiopian government welcomes Eritrean migrants offering them all it can including university scholarships. There could be nothing better to represent the inherent solidarity between people of the two East African nations than this.
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