By Lisa Vives
“And into ploughshares beat their swords. Nations shall learn war no more.”
With those words of Isaiah, Ethiopia and Eritrea announced the end of a futile war and agreed to normalize ties, drawing the curtain on a 20-year military standoff on the Horn of Africa that cost over 70,000 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars.
This was 10 years after the Security Council decided to end the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) terminating the mandate of the eight-year-old peacekeeping force monitoring the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea in response to lack of fuel supplies following Eritrean government restrictions.
The Security Council also demanded that Ethiopia and Eritrea comply fully with their obligations under the Algiers Agreement of 2000, “to show maximum restraint and refrain from any threat or use of force against each other, and to avoid provocative military activities”.
The Ethiopian government under the leadership of new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed unexpectedly announced on June 5, 2018 that it fully accepts the terms of the peace Algiers Agreement. Ethiopia also announced that it would accept the outcome of the 2002 UN-backed Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling which awarded disputed territories including the town of Badme to Eritrea.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki noted the “positive signals”. Foreign Minister Osman Saleh led the first Eritrean delegation to Ethiopia in almost two decades when he visited Addis Ababa in late June 2018.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the high-level visit of the Eritrean delegation Ethiopia which began on June 26, as “a first concrete step” in the process of normalizing relations between the two countries.
“The Secretary-General notes that diplomatic overtures to ease tensions and resolve the longstanding dispute between the two countries will have a far reaching positive impact on the whole region,” said his spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric in a statement on June 28.
“The Secretary-General once again reiterates the readiness of the United Nations to play a role in support of the two countries in the implementation of the boundary decision or in any other area they would deem useful for the United Nations to assist,” Dujarric concluded.
Some 10737 kilometers (6672 miles) away, Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders did not wait for any UN initiative but signed on July 9 a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship at the state house in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
In doing so, they were acting in the spirit of the sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, called ‘Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares’, at the United Nations north garden area, a gift from the then Soviet Union, presented on December 4,1959.
The bronze statue represents the figure of a man holding a hammer in one hand, in the other, a sword which he is making into a plowshare, symbolizing man’s desire to put an end to war and convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of all mankind.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed was welcomed at the airport in Asmara with a firm brotherly embrace by his Eritrean counterpart Afwerki. The two leaders smiled and laughed as they strode past a uniformed band and honor guard. The men were shown several times on Eritrean state television smiling together before announcing at an evening banquet that relations will be normalized.
“Love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles,” said Abiy who has frequently preached about love and unity in his speeches. “Love can win hearts, and we have seen a great deal of it today here in Asmara.”
Eritrea was once part of Ethiopia and fought for decades for its independence, which it finally achieved in 1991. Initially, it had close ties with Ethiopia’s rebel-formed government.
In 1998, however, a dispute over a nondescript border town turned into a year-and-a-half-long war that claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides. Peace eluded the neighboring countries despite an accord in 2000 and international arbitration.
Two decades of hostile stalemate with periodic clashes followed, most recently in 2016 when hundreds were killed.
Since coming to power as prime minister in April, the 42 year old Ahmed has electrified Ethiopia with his informal style, charisma and energy, earning comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.
He has reshuffled his cabinet, reached out to hostile neighbors and rivals, lifted bans on websites and other media, freed thousands of political prisoners, ordered the partial privatization of state-owned companies and ended a state of emergency imposed to quell widespread unrest.
Amid the praise songs and whistles, Rwanda President Paul Kagame wrote: “We salute the leaders, Prime Minister of Ethiopia Dr. Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea for their courage and doing the right thing for their people of the two countries. We congratulate you and are with you..!”
The African Union (AU) described the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea as a boost for peace and security in the Horn of Africa region and on the continent as a whole. The European Union (EU) also shares this view. Both blocs issued statements on July 9 congratulating leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea for resolving to establish friendly relations after two decades of armed hostilities.
The Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat stressed that the ongoing normalization process between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a milestone in Africa’s efforts to silence the guns by 2020. This example is worthy of emulation by all parties to conflicts and crises in other parts of the continent. Consequently, the Chairperson looks forward to renewed efforts by all concerned with the view to overcoming protracted conflicts and defusing existing tensions.
“Breaking a twenty year old deadlock in bilateral relations, it raises unprecedented prospects for reconciliation and paves the way for enhanced regional cooperation and stability in the Horn of Africa,” said the EU statement issued by foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.