Diplomats from Ethiopia and Eritrea are calling it a “joint declaration of peace and friendship” but that innocuous name is masking what may be one of the most important political changes in East Africa in the past 20 years.
With a simple, five-pillar agreement the presidents of Ethiopia and Eritrea, which were once one country but were bitterly divided by one of Africa’s most expensive and devastating conflicts, jointly declared its end.
It is very easy to be sceptical of the peace declaration given the region’s history of unremitting conflict and political false starts. The Derg regime, which came to power in Ethiopia in 1974 following the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie, was supposed to mark the end of imperial rule in the country, but in no time itself became a violent, bloody regime.
After fighting a war of liberation against the Derg regime for many years, Isaias Afwerki took control of the newly independent Eritrea in the early 1990’s and swiftly transformed it into a hermit state.
In the name of remaining ready for war, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have been forcefully conscripted into interminable military service. Despite its small population, Eritrea has consistently been producing the largest number of African refugees to Europe for years.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia constructed the most elaborate security state in East Africa. Millions of dollars that could have been spent on food security and development have instead been wasted on armies and surveillance, turning citizens into spies and destroying freedom of expression.
Therefore, the excitement and enthusiasm with which Ethiopians and Eritreans at home and abroad received the announcement about the end of the 20-year-long African Cold War are understandable. Thousands had been forced into exile as a result of rapid militarisation in both countries, and Monday’s landmark agreement is the surest indicator yet that a pivot away from security-centred statehood is possible.
Yet, in the rest of East Africa, some have found it hard to process the news. The Kenyan media, for example, failed to devote any coverage to the event on the day and has only had marginal analysis since, despite the fact that thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans currently live in Kenya. The changes Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pursuing in Ethiopia will have an impact beyond the borders of his country and its neighbour, Eritrea. So how should East Africans especially, but outsiders in general see this peace declaration?
Between ending the war and decriminalising various political groups, Ahmed is breaking a network of political taboos that have been a constant hum in the background of east African politics for the past 20 years. Specifically the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been a seemingly unchangeable fact in a region that has a long history of protracted conflicts. So even floating peace as a possibility is a radical act of political transformation that changes the scope of what is possible or imaginable within the political arena – this could be the beginning of a major shift in the discourse around peace and security in East Africa and that needs to be acknowledged.
Of course, such a move will have political implications beyond this. In Kenya, the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) is a major infrastructure project that was developed with the explicit aim of connecting landlocked Ethiopia with the sea.
The animus with Eritrea meant that shared infrastructural connections between the countries that predated Eritrean independence could not be used. As the most stable country in the Horn, Djibouti has been a natural alternative for Ethiopia, although recently Addis Ababa has also made overtures to Somalia and Somaliland for the use of Berbera port.
Kenya maintains that the LAPSSET project is part of a broader continent-wide North-South, Cape to Cairo transport network, but regardless, the utility of the LAPSSET project and the displacement and disruption it has already created will now be under greater scrutiny following the peace accord between Asmara and Addis Ababa.
At the same time, tensions between Somalia and Somaliland about the use of Berbera port will seem less urgent if Ethiopia is able to develop a workable alternative through Eritrea. In June, Mogadishu accused Hargeisa of violating the conditions of semi-autonomy by entering into an agreement with Ethiopia over the development and use of the port, which they argue should have been approved at the federal level.
The tension forced Ethiopian diplomats to backtrack on commitments to direct trade through Berbera. With peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, both of whom stand to gain immensely from normalisation of their relationship, the tension between Somalia and Somaliland will perhaps dissipate, at the very least taking another point of contention off the table.
None of this should overshadow the human element of this declaration – the fundamental reason why this matters. Like India and Pakistan, or Sudan and South Sudan, the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has torn families and communities apart, particularly those living along the border.
The political separation was further entrenched by the severing of communication ties and travel bans, making any dialogue between the citizens of the two countries impossible. As mentioned above, militarisation of public life in both countries has significantly distorted networks of trust within communities and a key hope is that the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war will feed into a broader process of demilitarisation in both countries.
The images of joyful Eritreans and Ethiopians receiving this news is a reminder that war happens to people and to communities, and the end of war is always cause for celebration for everyone.
Of course, it is far too early to make definitive declarations of what the future holds for these two countries. Yet, while cynicism has value in political thought, and especially when history provides ample examples of good faith gone bad, it is important to be as ready to accept good news as the bad.
Independently of what happens moving forward, this is a special moment for East Africa that must be cherished and encouraged. For those of us who are neither Ethiopian nor Eritrean, this is a timely reminder that within the politics of a complicated region, sometimes good things do happen.
Commentator: Nanjala Nyabola
As African leaders give excuses, peers reach for the skies, By Tee Ngugi
Many Africans might have missed an event that should have been at the centre of the news. On August 23, 2023, India landed a spacecraft on the moon, making history as the fourth country to do so.
India is in exalted company. The other countries in that rarefied club are Russia, the US and China. India did not just land a spacecraft on the moon, it landed the craft near the south pole of the moon — the only country to achieve such a feat.
The reporting on this in the African press missed the significance of India’s achievement. Most media reported it as if it was another routine space mission by another power. First, any landing on the moon or any missions into space by any country are not routine.
They demonstrate the most advanced science and technology and their economic might. They showcase meticulous organisation, steely political will to achieve national ambitions, and an extraordinary sense of patriotism among citizens to make their country great.
Read: India becomes first nation to land spacecraft near Moon’s south pole
There is another reason why this news should have dominated our airwaves and discourse. India was colonised for more years than most African countries. India, like African countries, is multiethnic and multireligious. India, like Africa, has suffered from social strife. India, like many African countries, has gone to war with neighbouring countries. India, just like us, has to deal with disabling outdated traditional customs and beliefs.
And yet it did not use any of these characteristics as an excuse not to reach, quite literally, for the skies.
Further, India suffers from Monsoons and volcanic activity from which, for the most part, we are spared. It has a huge population, which many African countries do not. Yet it did not use these as excuses not to compete with, and sometimes beat, the best.
Perhaps we let this event pass without much commentary because we felt ashamed. Ghana became independent in 1957, 10 years after India.
Decades later, India had expanded its railway network to become the largest in the world. Ghana just expanded the railway left by the British the other day. As Ghana’s economy collapsed, India’s rose steadily. As Ghana’s education system stagnated, India advanced in science and technology, enabling it to explode a nuclear device in 1974, 27 years after Independence.
As Ghana’s heath system collapsed, India advanced theirs. Today, India has very advanced medical science and health system. Our leaders, after collapsing our health systems, seek treatment in India. India has expanded its GDP to become the fifth largest in the world. Ghana’s GDP is $80 billion, below that of Luxembourg, a tiny country of less than a million people.
Ghana is, of course, representative of the African post-independence experience of mismanagement, thievery and collapse. Will India’s example wean us from our “Pathological Excuse Syndrome” (PES)? Unlikely.
The Kenya Kwanza regime has churned out more excuses in one year than all previous regimes combined.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.
What a beautiful summit! Now to vague promises by rich North, Joachim Buwembo
In an average lifetime, an African is expected to get involved in and attend many weddings (and funerals). First, you attend those of your elders, which leaves you hoping that yours too will not only come one day but that it will also be more glamorous.
Then there were those weddings (and funerals) of your contemporaries for which you have to pay the ‘African tax’, partly out of fear and hope that when your turn comes, people will contribute generously since you will have been known to be a generous contributor yourself.
Finally, you have to attend weddings of the younger generations, including virtual ones like the ones that were held during the Covid-19 lockdown, or those being staged in different countries where the wedding couples live.
In my idealistic opinion, one shortcoming of many wedding formats and texts is the vague and often immeasurable nature of the promises made.
Fine, the specifics and details could darken the joyful, colourful ceremony and even bog it down, but in a separate, written and signed agreement, things should be spelt out. This would probably even make divorce proceedings less messy.
How for instance is love measured? What does providing for and protecting include? And comfort? At least “until death do us part” is fair for it specifies an event and so no one can compel a surviving spouse to be buried with a dead partner (and you know how many relatives would love to do that and then take over the house and other valuables). But one can argue their way out of the other wedding promises.
The climax of wedding injustices comes from the preachers who urge the partners to always forgive the other party for whatever crimes they commit. If courts operated in the same spirit, all murderers and robbers would walk free to continue murdering and robbing more victims while counting on systemic forgiveness.
The text of the declaration at the end of the big Nairobi climate summit for Africa brought to mind a glittering wedding, whose success is measured first on its having been held at all, the number of guests, the size of the cake and the courses of the meal. Africans should hope that future climate summits are not measured the way a bride measures a wedding (including how less beautiful her lady friends looked), but in tangible, countable outcomes.
At the Nairobi climate summit, we Africans demanded specifics from the rich countries with which we are justifiably angry. We were accurate on what they owe and should pay in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Then we also made our ‘commitments’ but were careful enough to remain non-committal. We promised policy formulations, the right investments and job creation.
Somehow, we did not say how many jobs and by when. This was a climate summit, for God’s sake, and the heads of state who have armies of researchers at their disposal should have specified, or at least estimated, the number of jobs to be created in the provision and application of clean energy.
Was there any commitment to investing in the conversion of the continent’s ‘abundant rare’ earth minerals into mobility batteries that reduce pollution rather than “exporting jobs” to already rich countries for a pittance? Was there a commitment to how many megawatts of hydroelectric power will be committed to the electrification of railways by which year?
We remained silent on acres or square kilometres in reforestation. We mentioned the carbon sinks of the Congo and the savannah but did not specify how we shall protect them. In short, we did not put any figures or timelines on our ‘commitments’.
The Africa Climate Summit was thus like a wedding which the bride sees as an achievement in itself, that she has been taken down the aisle (even if the guy turns out to be a wife beater and drunkard).
For Kenya, again staging the inaugural summit in itself was a success, for beating the other potential brides on the continent – Morocco, South Africa, Egypt and lately Rwanda – from a tourism promotion point of view.
All the same, we rejoice for the very good effort by Kenya and do hope that subsequent such summits will have explicit deliverables and timelines on which the Africans can hold their leaders to account.
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