Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s assault on Tigray came after he had forged the closest relationship with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki. The two men have been in constant contact since this began with PM Abiy’s historic visit to Asmara in July 2018.
In just over two years the two leaders have made nine official visits to each other’s capitals (or gone on joint delegations to other states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE.) Other meetings have been held by senior officials.
Behind the scenes preparations
It should not be forgotten that many played a part in ending years of ‘no-war, no-peace’ hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea that followed the 1998-2000 border war between the two nations, costing some 100,000 lives.
Much of the groundwork was done by the United States, with Donald Yamamoto playing a critical role behind the scenes.
This culminated in visits to Addis Ababa and Asmara by Yamamoto – among the US’s most experienced African experts. What he achieved has never fully been revealed, but it is clear that Yamamoto (along with other outsiders) did a great deal to help remove obstacles.
In addition to the visits described below there were a series of regional trips by President Isaias and his officials which would have been important in shaping this relationship.
Isaias – Abiy: timeline of a relationship
5 June 2018: Ethiopia’s governing coalition announced it will fully accept and implement the peace deal that ended its border war with Eritrea. It says it will accept the outcome of a 2002 border commission ruling, which awarded disputed territories, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea. This ended a dispute with Eritrea that sparked Africa’s deadliest border war in 1998.
20 June 2018: the Washington Post reported that after the Ethiopian government made the surprise announcement that it was ready to accept a nearly 20-year-old peace deal with Eritrea, President Isaias said it would send a delegation to Ethiopia to discuss the matter. “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 translation of the speech. “The Eritrean people, but also the Ethiopian people, have lost an opportunity of two generations for over half a century,” Afwerki added.
26 June 2018: Eritrean delegation to Addis Ababa including Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh; PFDJ head of Political Affairs Yemane Gebreab.
8 July 2018: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed makes an historic visit to the Eritrean capital, Asmara. He receives an ecstatic reception from the public.
14 July 2018: President Isaias responds with a visit to Addis Ababa where he is rapturously received by Prime Minister Abiy. President Isaias declares: “Words cannot express the joy we are feeling now. History is being made as we speak.” President Isaias reopened his country’s embassy in Ethiopia and on 18 July Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed commercial airline flights for the first time in two decades.
24 July 2018: UAE hosts both leaders, lauding their “bold and historic” rapprochement as enhancing prospects for peace and prosperity.
16 September 2018: The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a formal peace agreement during a summit in Saudi Arabia.
22 February 2019: An Eritrean delegation led by Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, made an official visit to Ethiopia.
25 December 2019: President Isaias flew to Addis Ababa for his first meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister since Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize.
27 January 2020: President of Somalia and Prime Minister Abiy meet President Isaias in Asmara. “On the security front, the three leaders formulated a comprehensive plan to combat and neutralize the common threats they face, including terrorism, arms and human trafficking and drug smuggling,” the joint statement read in part.
3 May 2020: President Isaias visits Ethiopia.
18 July 2020: Prime Minister Abiy makes a reciprocal visit to Eritrea. He becomes the first Ethiopian leader to visit Eritrea’s main training base at Sawa, inspecting troops and military equipment.
12 October 2020: President Isaias visited Ethiopia, during which he visited a number of projects, including a hydro-electric dam and coffee plantations. He also went to the Bishoftu air-base – home to the Ethiopian air force. Both leaders took time to see each other’s key military assets ahead of the current conflict.