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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has topped off weeks of revolutionary change by triumphantly making peace with Eritrea
The Ethiopian leader's previously inconceivable trip to Asmara on a mission of reconciliation on 8 July has reshaped regional geopolitics and crowned Abiy Ahmed's premiership with a hugely popular prize – peace with Eritrea and normalisation of relations. Nearly two decades of tense stand-off melted away when Abiy flew in to Asmara to a tumultuous welcome and a warm embrace from Eritrea's gruff dictator, Issayas Afewerki. They signed a joint declaration of peace and promised to implement the Algiers peace agreement signed in 2000. That deal ended a blood-drenched border war but never lifted the spectre of another outbreak of fighting and failed to restore normal relations between the former allies.
It was a coup de théâtre typical of Abiy's style. In a speech to Issayas and assembled dignitaries, he said: 'There is no border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because the border has been demolished and replaced with a bridge of love.' It was all 'wine and roses' during a 'fairy-tale visit', said an excited regional diplomat.
Phone lines are open, diplomatic relations will be restored, Ethiopian Airlines flights will resume on 18 July, and Eritrea promised Ethiopia access to its ports. Addis Ababa has asked the United Nations to lift its sanctions on Eritrea, which also looks set to rejoin the Addis-dominated regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres was in Addis Ababa when Abiy went to Asmara and expressed his hope that if the events that gave rise to the sanctions on Eritrea 'no longer exist, they will have become obsolete'. The final decision rests with the UN Security Council. One reason for the sanctions was Eritrea's support for Al Shabaab in Somalia, but recent UN investigations indicate Asmara no longer provides material support to the Islamist militia. The UN 'is ready to do whatever the two parties will ask us to do,' Guterres said.
While in Asmara, Abiy met representatives of some armed groups operating against Ethiopia from Eritrea. He had earlier removed the designations of 'terrorist' from Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
Abiy's strategy is to make bold, headline-grabbing moves that create a new reality, pushing opponents into line. There has been little public discussion of the thorny issues of border demarcation and how to handle discontent from affected frontier communities beyond the line in the peace agreement that both leaders signed: 'The decision on the boundary between the two countries will be implemented'. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and its administration in Tigray Region, which borders Eritrea, are being dragged along in Abiy's wake, and those details will have to be addressed in the months and years to come.
Last month, protests against the rapprochement with Eritrea were reported in the remote settlement of Badme, part of the once-disputed border area, and its environs.
Another sign of missing Tigrayan enthusiasm was the Tigray regional government's statement on 7 July that in the 'absence of lasting peace' implementing the peace deal of 2000 is a 'violation of the constitutional right of peoples' self-determination'. However, after Abiy's trip to Asmara the next day, the provincial government fell into line and published a statement speaking of 'bright hope' and a pledge to 'stand by the Eritrean people on every attempt to permanently resolve' the situation' and restore 'brotherhood' between the peoples.
Rather than run everything by the various organs of the four-party ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition, Abiy rekindled relations by addressing Issayas through the media. While the TPLF has spoken out against such breaches of established practice, there is now considerable momentum and concrete achievements behind the rapprochement. It will be hard for recalcitrant elements in the TPLF and the military to prevent the surge towards normalisation. The TPLF's position may become clearer during the EPRDF congress, scheduled for next month.
Back in Ethiopia's most populous region Oromia, where mass protests paved the way for Abiy's rule, there are pockets of anarchy and unrest due to the breakdown of local government structures, and power struggles.
A faction of the OLF hosted by Issayas is said to be behind some of the violence in western Wollega. Abiy met their leader Dawud Ibsa while in Asmara to try to coax his group into his big tent.
While the political achievements are breathtaking, it will ultimately be the effects on the ground across Ethiopia of Abiy's diplomatic love-fest that matter most.
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