September 12, 2018
Updated: September 12, 2018 07:27 PM
“This is the happiest day of my life.” Those words, spoken by Ruta Haddis from the small Eritrean town of Senafe and carried by the global media, illustrate the significance of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Weeks after these two nations formally ended 20 years of conflict, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his Ethiopian counterpart, Abiy Ahmed, met on Tuesday to open crossings in border towns dotted with debris from a war that killed 80,000 people. Thousands danced and waved flags while families separated without contact for two decades were reunited. In a move laced with symbolism, both leaders watched on as trenches were demolished.
Family reunification is the accord’s most immediate – and emotional – result. But in the long term, the reconciliation will unleash Ethiopia’s economic potential. Traditionally one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, with a population of 100 million, this landlocked nation has been entirely dependent on neighbouring Djibouti for port access since 1998, when war began. But with a more open border, Ethiopia will gain access to Eritrean ports at Assab and Massawa.
Meanwhile, in Eritrea, change is under way. For two decades the perceived Ethiopian threat was used to justify fierce repression and mandatory, indefinite conscription. Freed from its fear of the Ethiopian bogeyman, Eritrea appears to be opening up to the world.
Both populations have much to gain from peace and stability, but it is the reverberations throughout the Horn of Africa and beyond that are so important. Not least for the UAE, which has fostered strong ties in the region and operates ports in Eritrea and Somalia.
The country’s commercial and military activity in the area is vital to protecting global shipping routes from piracy and terrorism, particularly the crucial Bab El Mandeb strait. Indeed, a visit by Mr Abiy and Mr Isaias to Abu Dhabi in July illustrated the quiet role the UAE had played in brokering peace.
There is still plenty of work to be done – conflict in southern Ethiopia has displaced 1.4 million people this year, more than the Syrian war – but a peace dividend is already beginning to materialise. Traditionally, Ethiopia and Eritrea have taken different sides on local disputes, such as in troubled Somalia, hindering regional peace efforts. But on Friday, relations between Eritrea and Djibouti were normalised, ending a decade-old border dispute.
In August, regional co-operation helped broker a truce in South Sudan’s bloody civil war, with the involvement of Ethiopia and Sudan, another UAE ally.
Sitting on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with Yemen just 12 miles to the north, the Horn of Africa is a guardian of global trade. The joy felt by ordinary Ethiopians and Eritreans should be matched with the applause of the international community, because a peaceful Horn makes for a safer world.A glorious new dawn for Ethiopia