ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia —Two weeks after Ethiopia made the surprise announcement it was ready to accept a nearly 20-year-old peace deal with Eritrea, the reclusive country’s leader said Wednesday it would send a delegation to discuss the matter to Addis Ababa.
The move brings a glimmer of hope to solve one of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts in the Horn of Africa between two countries closely bound by ties of language, religion and ethnicity.
In a nationally televised speech marking the secretive country’s Martyrs’ Day, President Isaias Afwerki said both peoples yearned for peace, which was now more possible in light of the changes in Ethiopia.
“We will send a delegation to Addis Ababa to gauge current developments directly and in depth as well as to chart out a plan for continuous future action,” he said, according to an official translationof the speech.
“The Eritrean people, but also the Ethiopian people, have lost an opportunity of two generations for over half a century,” he added.
While a great deal of very complex discussion and negotiation must still take place, it is the first break in the wall of hostility between the countries in two decades and could also bring change to the closed off regime of Eritrea.
“It is a huge development,” said Martin Plaut, author of “Understanding Eritrea” and a senior research fellow of at the University of London. “It’s the most significant development since the end of the war in 2000 and the rejection of the boundary agreement which was meant to settle where the border lay between the two countries.”
Eritrea, a mountainous coastal country of just 5 million, was once a province of Ethiopia. However, after it helped overthrow the communist-led government together with Ethiopian rebels in 1991, it voted for its independence in 1993.
Tensions flared with its former Ethiopian allies over the border demarcation, turning into a full-scale war in 1998 over the remote town of Badme. The fighting raged for two years and claimed at least 70,000 lives in brutal, trench warfare-style fighting.
A peace accord brokered in Algiers in 2000 left the fate of Badme and other regions to an international arbitration council that then, using colonial era documents, decided in favor of Eritrea in 2002. Ethiopia refused to implement the decision and the two countries have remained at war since, supporting rival rebel groups and occasionally shelling each other, killing hundreds.
While Ethiopia has become one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, Eritrea has remained largely closed to the outside world with some of the harshest restrictions on freedom of the press in the world.
The country also remains on a war footing with indefinite universal conscription for the military that has prompted many thousands to flee the country and seek immigration to Europe.
Peace with Ethiopia would remove much of the justification for this war footing, said Plaut, and that would likely encourage change in Isaias’s regime, which has ruled the country since independence.
“If it is successful, there will no longer be any reason to have 100,000s of Eritreans trapped in indefinite military service and postponing having democratic elections,” he said. “And that will make the situation much harder for President Isaias in the long run.”
The first inkling of change came on June 5, when Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, broke with decades of policy and said he would recognize the deal, as part of string of radical domestic reforms that have stunned the country.
There have been protests in Badme itself, where people told reporters that they would refuse to leave and that the decision had made a mockery of the thousands who had died in the fighting.
The political party for that region, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is part of the governing coalition, also expressed its opposition to the decision — a rare split for Ethiopia where the politics has long had an authoritarian cast.
In a question-and-answer session before parliament on Monday, Abiy came under criticism for the move and he reminded parliamentarians that he himself was part of the army that drove the Eritreans out of Badme.
“I was standing in that village when we put up flag and I cried. Many of my friends who fought in that war, we had to bury,” said the former lieutenant colonel in the army. “I paid the price.”
There has been no sign of a withdrawal yet of Ethiopian forces from Badme.
While acknowledging the massive losses in the war he said it was time to end it and bring jobs and prosperity to the people living along that border.
Fitsum Arega, his chief of staff, tweeted after the speech that Abiy “acknowledged the suffering of countless victims. Reconciliation takes time but we need to have the strength & make daily efforts to heal the wounds.
Abiy was voted in by the ruling party as prime minister in March after years of unrest by the country’s main ethnic groups and has since embarked on a string of reforms and releasing prisoners in an effort to open up the politics in the country.
In his speech, Eritrea’s Isaias, who runs one of the most repressive regimes in Africa, acknowledged the unrest and reform in Ethiopia and linked it to the new chance for peace.
“It spurred the wrath and a rebellion in the people who said ‘enough is enough,’” he said “Ethiopia is now at a turning point or transition.”