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(USC Annenberg Media) A new year of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Saturday, 27 October 2018

USC Annenberg Media

A new year of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea

After war and two decades of violent territorial conflict the East African nations finally found reconciliation.Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki sign joint peace declaration on July 9, 2018. (Photo by Yemane G. Meskel)
On the streets of Little Ethiopia, hundreds of Ethiopians and Eritreans, many dressed in traditional tribal clothing strolled down Fairfax Ave. and celebrated Enkutatash, their New Year, on Sept. 11. Street vendors were busy frying lentil samosas, the smell of berbere and coriander lingering in the air as children laughed and darted through the crowd playing tag. The booming Amharic music moved Habeshas—the term describing Ethiopians and Eritreans— to jump up and down shaking their shoulders in the traditional dance of eskista. They waved the flags of the eastern African nations—which were in conflict until earlier this year—as the community came together to rejoice as one united front.

The celebrations in California reflect the elation felt on the other side of the world, where 20 years of conflict have ended under new leadership. One of the many changes Ethiopia has undergone since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April, is the re-opening of its border with Eritrea, which had been closed for 20 years.

Once in office, Ahmed initiated peace talks with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to end a territorial land dispute in the Badme region, an area that both nations fought over for whom it belonged to. War ravaged both sides between 1998 to 2000, and was followed by a lasting, violent conflict with stationed militia on both sides of the border that resulted in over 70,000 deaths. In July, Ahmed became the first Ethiopian official to visit Eritrea since the nation gained its independence in 1993. Days later, Eritrea's Afwerki visited Ethiopia for the first time and the two countries signed a peace accord in September at a Saudi Arabia summit to foster economic cooperation. United Nations Chief Antonio Guterres lauded the fresh peace, stating that the reconciliation between the two nations is an "amazing success… illustrative of  a new wind of hope blowing across Africa."

The developments happening abroad are also impacting many Habeshas here in Los Angeles. Eritrean-American and USC graduate student of Specialized Journalism, Neyat Yohannes is elated by this historical moment. "The progress abroad has opened up an active dialogue within my community. The rug under which we've swept all of this subject matter is being aired out and productive conversations are taking place." Yohannes does recognize, however, that such rapid change can be alarming.

"While the progress makes me feel hopeful, I am certainly equal parts nervous. Swift development after such a long stretch of dormancy feels a bit jarring," she said. "Whatever the outcome—and I hope for a positive one—these developments in Ethiopia and Eritrea's relationship could spark similar moves in other parts of Africa."

Changes resulting from this newfound peace between the nations is the removal of military troops at the border, as well as established open market for Ethiopia as the landlocked country now has access to Eritrea's ports. Ahmed is even modernizing the roles of women in government as it was recently announced that he reshuffled his cabinet, now consisting of 50 percent women in the government's top ministerial positions.

The leadership of women in post-conflict Africa is an important step towards government reform. In Rwanda, 64 percent of women that sit in parliament have been working to rebuild a nation where genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in 1994 that left nearly million dead. While Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first democratically elected president of the African continent, advocating for women's rights and the value of education to drive economic development. Gambian Vice President, Aja Fatoumata Jallow-Tambang is a mother of eight children who defends human rights, engaging in political activism following the 21-year dictatorial regime of Former President, Yahya Jammeh.

Under Ahmed's new leadership, members of the Federal Parliamentary Assembly unanimously elected Sahle-Work Zewde as President of Ethiopia on Thursday—making her the first-ever woman president of the country. She went from a former diplomat and Special Representative of United Nations to Africa's only current female head of state. Her designation as president is reflective of Ahmed's goal to restructure the patriarchal makeup of the Ethiopian government. During her speech of oath to office, Zewde said "If the reforms we have started are led in equal measure by both men and women, the country will soon forget poverty and backwardness and move toward prosperity."

Former African Student Union co-chair at UC Santa Cruz, Naomi Tesfuzigta feels the positive energy that peace back home is bringing to Habeshas living in the United States.

"I haven't seen members of our communities filled with this much optimism and hope. I also haven't seen a public figure from an African nation universally adored across ethnic groups and religions before," said Tesfuzigta, who is of Eritrean descent. "It makes me happy to see that this peace was established in our parents' lifetimes, especially considering that political instability and war has been something that has defined their lives."

She believes that this established peace will additionally bring economic prosperity. "I'm interested to see how this will affect trade in the region and the economy, Ethiopia having access to a port now might benefit both. I'd like to see both countries become self-sufficient and utilize what they both have for the good of their own people and not the Western world."

Though the two countries' harmonious relations are being received positively by many Habeshas around the world, there are still issues needed to be addressed in order to maintain this newfound cooperation and peace. For example, Ethiopia and Eritrea is home to dozens of diverse ethnic groups. For generations, groups like the Amhara, Somali, Tigray and Oromia have settled into different regions across the lands. In fact, many ethnic groups have their own political parties, such as the Oromo Democratic Party and the Amhara Democratic Party.

Incorporating different ethnic identities within a democracy can be complicated, said Professor Alemante Gebre-Selassie, an Ethiopian and retired law professor from the College of William and Mary. "If Abiy is truly interested in preserving Ethiopian unity, wouldn't you expect him to move in the direction of emphasizing Ethiopia rather than the Oromo Democratic Party? There is a party for all the Oromos and there is a party for all the Amharas. But then where is the party for Ethiopia?" Gebre-Selassie said.

He added, "I would of have preferred to see both of these large ethnic groups to come up with a formula which emphasizes Ethiopian unity (Ethiopiawenet), rather than the unity of their own ethnic people. Democratization and ethnic politics do not mix."

Importantly, poverty in both countries threatens their diplomatic stability. Though Ethiopia and Eritrea are building their economy through the investment activities of foreigners, such as high-rises in Addis Ababa built by Chinese real estate developers, both nations are still some of the poorest in the world. "Because of the lack of economic growth, there are so many young people [that] are graduates of universities and high school but there are very few jobs to accommodate the youth population. So that also argues for some level of instability in the future," Gebre-Selassie said. "Because if they don't have jobs, there is nothing to occupy them with. What is their alternative?"

Gebre-Selassie added that Ahmed's fresh perspective and bold approach is encouraging to the Habesha people, but he is concerned that Ahmed's hope-filled rhetoric may mark him as "a demagogue, [using] words in a demagogic way…the population [being] seduced by his speech." The former prime minister, Hailemariam Desalgen was unpopular for cracking down on mass protests and corruption over the past two years. "He says the right words…in order to aid in the need for respecting human rights and upholding the rule of law," Gebre-Selassie said.

This past July, Prime Minister Ahmed came to USC's Galen Center to give a speech to the Los Angeles Habesha community, one of the largest in the country. Ahmed's speech emphasized his goals for Ethiopia and Eritrea to create a democratic government that is reflective of its people, and to encourage Habeshas to participate in the East African political process peacefully. In the Amharic language, Ahmed said, "Lasting solution to Ethiopia's problems can be obtained only if Ethiopians take the paths of love, reconciliation and peace. We have tried war and conflict which has bankrupted the country and left the country in poverty."

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