Abiy Ahmed is a man in a hurry. Ethiopia’s prime minister, who at 42 is the youngest leader in Africa, has been steamrollering through change since the day he rose to power in April. He has released thousands of political prisoners. He has called an end to the state of emergency imposed in a bid to crush anti-government protests, and he has pledged more broadly to lift the repression that has kept opposition to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in check for years. He has also promised to open up the national airline, Ethiopian Airways, to private investment. Perhaps more importantly he has offered an olive branch to neighbouring Eritrea.
Eritrea fought a 30-year war with Ethiopia. Then, after formally gaining independence in 1993, it took up arms again five years later in a trench war over border scrublands that killed more than 100,000 soldiers. As part of a 2000 peace agreement the two sides pledged to abide by international arbitration on their disputed border and a supposedly binding ruling was delivered in 2002. This found the flashpoint town of Badme, occupied by Ethiopian troops, to be on Eritrea’s side.
Ever since, Ethiopia has flouted the ruling. Worse, the guarantors of peace, the UN, African Union, EU and US all shrugged shoulders and neglected to hold the Ethiopian government to its commitments. In effect, they chose convenience over the law, and sided with the more powerful regional actor at a time Eritrea, under the once visionary guerrilla leader turned dictator Isaias Afwerki, was becoming a pariah.
Mr Abiy is from Oromia, the region around Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, where anti-government protests have been at their strongest in the past two years. His appointment was recognition that the authoritarian development model that Ethiopia has pursued successfully for a quarter century has run up against its limits. So too is the decisive break with past repression that he has made in recent months, and his pledge to implement the 2000 peace deal with Eritrea in full and roll the troops back from Badme.
Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers lost their lives in the battle to take the town, which has no great strategic value. Giving it up would be to recognise the futility of that war and of the protracted hostilities that have followed. But it is essential, if there is to be peace with Eritrea, that Mr Abiy follows up quickly on his pledge.
The border dispute has destabilised the Horn of Africa. During a 16-year stalemate the two countries have fought proxy wars, engaged each other in occasional skirmishes, and harboured each others armed opponents.
Eritreans are sceptical about Ethiopia’s overture. Until the troops have actually left they are justified in being so. But should Ethiopia act on its promise, the ball will be in Mr Isaias’s court. The border dispute has kept his country on a permanent war footing. The regime in Asmara has used it to justify the open-ended military service imposed on Eritreans, which in turn has seen hundreds of thousands fleeing in search of opportunity elsewhere.
Ethiopia’s government is opening up the political space. An end to hostilities with Eritrea would put pressure on Mr Isaias to do the same. It would also pave the way to the resumption of commercial relations. For Ethiopia this could mean regaining access to the Red Sea via Eritrean ports. For Eritrea it should open up the much larger Ethiopian market. For both countries the prize is great. The supposed guarantors of peace — the UN, AU and US — who stood idly by while this dispute festered should make amends by encouraging this opportunity.
Get alerts on Ethiopia when a new story is published