Date: Friday, 04 May 2018
Twenty years after a pointless war over a town no one had heard of, Ethiopia ponders rapprochement
No land changed hands. Two decades on, Ethiopia still occupies the disputed territories, including Badme, having refused to accept the findings of a UN boundary commission. But the conflict’s miserable legacy persists. Thousands of troops still patrol the frontier. Centuries of trade and intermarriage abruptly ceased. Ethiopia lost access to Eritrea’s ports. Eritrea lost its biggest trading partner and retreated into isolationism. It has been on a war footing ever since.
Many in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, are also mulling a change of course. With the appointment last month of a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, there is an opportunity for fresh thinking. Abiy, who was an intelligence officer during the war, promised in his inaugural speech to make peace with Eritrea.
He may have more luck than his predecessors. In the years after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) seized power in 1991, its policy towards Eritrea was dominated by the Tigrayan faction of the ruling coalition. Tigray shares a border with Eritrea and its people suffered heavily during the war. Abiy’s Oromo faction comes with less baggage.
But any rapprochement would almost certainly require withdrawal from Badme. This would be hard to sell in parts of Ethiopia. And Abiy would need something in return, such as access to Eritrea’s ports, which Isaias has never shown much interest in offering. Moreover, the threat from Ethiopia allows him to keep smothering democracy at home and maintaining a huge army. “Making peace would be the end of him,” says an Eritrean refugee who recently arrived in Addis Ababa. “Why would he?”This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline"Could they make peace?"