A long-overdue peace breaks out

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Badme, the impoverished Eritrean border town occupied by Ethiopia since 1998, is to be returned to Eritrea thanks to what appears to be a groundbreaking deal by Ethiopia’s prime minister of three months Abiy Ahmed.

This hopefully ends a tragic conflict in which tens of thousands have died, both countries have suffered economically and Eritrea under President Isaias Afwerki has been on a permanent war footing with universal and indefinite conscription. The serious disruption to an already struggling economy and what the United Nations has alleged have been extremely serious human rights abuses has also robbed the country of any of its brightest and best. Young Eritreans are among the largest groups seeking to follow the migrant route via Libya across the Mediterranean to Europe. And the families who scratch together money to pay the inhumane people-smugglers, are also helping pauperize the economy.

The irony is that Badme is in every other respect a place of total insignificance with neither hidden mineral riches nor even much strategic significance. But when Ethiopian troops advanced into Eritrea and seized the town and its surrounding area, for Addis Ababa it was the start of a payback for the loss of Eritrea after a bitter independence struggle and with this, Ethiopia’s access to the sea. However, the new $3.4 billion Chinese-built line from Addis to Djibouti has transformed Ethiopia’s trading prospects. The capital was never linked by rail to the Eritrean coast.

This was a useless war which merely consumed lives and treasure. The struggle for Badme was tellingly described as “two bald men fighting over a comb”. In 2000, with the assistance of the Algerians, a peace deal was cut establishing an international commission to define the border. Both sides pledged to honor its findings. A year and a half later the commission decreed that Badme belonged to Eritrea. But the Ethiopian troops were not withdrawn. For the last 18 years the conflict has simmered on involving both regular and irregular troops on both sides. This tragedy was compounded by the fact that all across the disputed frontier there were families who had been split by the war. Brothers actually found themselves fighting and killing brothers.

This week, Ethiopia’s premier Ahmed flew to Asmara for the first summit with an Eritrean leader in 20 years. The deal he came away with restores trading and communications links. Ethiopian soldiers will be pulling back behind the internationally defined border. Limited Ethiopian protests at the evacuation of Badme should be ignored. It is clear that this is an agreement in which there can only be winners.

But there is a cloud. President Afwerki’s highly-militarized posture becomes unnecessary. More importantly, the young men in his armed forces are needed back in civilian life, repairing and restoring damaged and neglected infrastructure. Conscription should be cut back to the original 18 months service. Top US State Department Official Donald Yamamoto visited Addis and Asmara recently and may have seeded the deal. It must be hoped that Washington promised Eritrea money and support. While Ethiopia is among the world’s fastest-growing economies, Eritrea has not prospered since winning independence in 1993 after 30 years of war. This country of less than six million people deserves a break, but does President Afwerki, who has ruled for 25 years, have the vision to embrace change?


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