ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Two weeks after the Ethiopian government made the surprise announcement that it was ready to accept a nearly 20-year-old peace deal with Eritrea, the reclusive leader of the country said Wednesday it would send a delegation to Addis Ababa to discuss the matter.
The move brings a glimmer of hope that one of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts in the Horn of Africa — between two countries closely bound by language, religion and ethnicity — will be resolved soon.
In a nationally televised speech marking Eritrean Martyrs’ Day, President Isaias Afwerki said both peoples yearned for peace and recent changes in Ethiopia made that more possible.
“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.
According to his chief of staff, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has responded by expressing “readiness to welcome warmly and with considerable goodwill the Eritrean delegation.”
Although a great deal of 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 bring change to Eritrea’s closed-off regime.
“It is a huge development,” said Martin Plaut, author of “Understanding Eritrea” and a senior research fellow 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 Ethiopian rebels in 1991 overthrow the communist-led government, it voted for 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 .
A peace accord brokered in Algiers in 2000 left the fate of Badme and other regions to an international arbitration council, which, using colonial-era documents, decided in favor of Eritrea in 2002. Ethiopia refused to heed 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 world’s harshest restrictions on freedom of the press.
The country also remains on a war footing, with indefinite universal conscription for the military, prompting many thousands to flee the country.
Peace with Ethiopia would remove much of the justification for this war footing, said Plaut, and that would probably 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 June 5, when Abiy, who took office in April, broke with decades of policy and said he would recognize the 2000 deal, as part of radical domestic overhauls.
There have been protests in Badme, with people insisting they would refuse to leave and the decision made a mockery of the thousands who’d died in the fighting.
The dominant political party in that region, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is part of the governing coalition, also expressed opposition to the decision — a rare split for Ethiopia, where the politics has long had an authoritarian cast.
In a question-and-answer session in parliament on Monday, Abiy came under criticism for the move. He reminded lawmakers 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 Abiy, a former lieutenant colonel in the army. “I paid the price.”
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.
There has been no sign of a withdrawal yet of Ethiopian forces from Badme.
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 reforms in an effort to open up the politics in the country.
In his speech, Eritrea’s Isaias acknowledged the changes in Ethiopia and deemed them an opportunity 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.”