The dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia was based on a small border town called Badme. Over the course of a two-year conflict from 1998 to 2000, as many as 120,000 lives from both sides were lost. In 2000, the Algiers Peace Agreement was signed, ruling Badme would be part of Eritrea. But the Ethiopian government refused to implement the decision. For two decades, the Eritrean government used this “no war-no peace” situation to justify unlimited national service, forced labor, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and expression and arbitrary arrests and disappearances.
In particular, the prolonged compulsory military conscription in the name of the border conflict led to a massive Eritrean exodus. Thousands of Eritreans took the perilous journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean in search of freedom, something they cruelly lack in Eritrea.
So when Abiy announced that he was ready to end the standoff between the two countries, it was almost a dream come true. In September 2018, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed an agreement that formally ended the border conflict, and in November, the United Nations Security Council lifted its nine-year arms embargo and sanctions against Eritrea.
The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia opened in September, too, giving Eritreans the opportunity to leave the country without the need for a passport, exit visa or the promise of return. My youngest brother crossed to Ethiopia after being conscripted at 15 and serving for 19 years as a prison guard in Sawa military camp. He was among the thousands who fled the country when the border opened. But in December, without notice or explanation, the border closed again.
Peace was meant to normalize the relationship between the two countries and relieve the suffering of the people. But this has not been the case. In addition to the closure of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border again, military service remains unlimited and prisoners of conscience are still imprisoned. Eritreans are still fleeing the repressive regime, suffering kidnapping, extortion, torture and rape at the hands of human smugglers and risking their lives on the Mediterranean.
The peace agreement also stipulated the free movement of goods and services. Yet, perplexingly, while Eritreans tell me they still struggle to invest in the country, Ethiopians are welcome to. Eritrean businesses are shut down for not putting enough cash into their bank accounts, while Ethiopians are allowed to do business without paying taxes. This has made Eritreans feel like second-class citizens in our own country.
So far, without tangible long-term benefits for Eritreans, all the peace deal has meant for my country has been the legitimization of President Isaias Afwerki’s one-man rule. It has helped Isaias, not Eritrea, get out of the cold. Since last year, Abiy has started representing Eritrea internationally. Most significantly for the government, the lifting of U.N. sanctions has been a relief for the Eritrean regime and a diplomatic success.
There is no sign of reform and no sign of improvement. Nor is there a guarantee that the budding personal relationship between Abiy and Isaias and the fragile peace process would eliminate the chance of conflict in the future — especially given the history of the short-lived friendship between former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi and Isaias, right after independence, that did not prevent the border conflict from erupting in the first place. The preconditions for war are already there. Badme, the border town at the origin of the conflict, is still under Ethiopian military occupation. The border is not demarcated, and tensions between the Tigray regional government and the Eritrean regime are slowly growing. Any skirmish could escalate. And with Ethiopia’s fragile ethnic federal system, nobody is sure whether Abiy is in full control of the country, especially inside Tigray.
The Nobel Committee should have considered the long-term situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea as they made their decision, rather than basing much of their decision on a political gesture that has not yet benefited the people. By recognizing the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea without considering the repressive reality on the ground, the committee is erasing the ongoing suffering of Eritreans — and awarding a decision that, instead of achieving human rights and democratic goals, might have given the Eritrean dictatorship a new lease on life.