BY FIKREJESUS AMHAZION (PH.D.)
Undeniably, 2018 was an extraordinary year for Eritrea and the Horn of Africa. The powerful winds of change swept across the region, ushering in the possibility of lasting peace, stability, and security.
The year’s rapidly unfolding, momentous events have been both highly encouraging and greatly welcome development in a long-troubled region. For Eritrea, in particular, the year was especially eventful.
This article is the second in a three-part series that looks back at some of the important events that unfolded in the country over the past twelve extraordinary months. Part I, reviewing the months from January to April, was published in the last issue of Eritrea Profile. In this issue, a review of May to August is presented, while part III of the review will be published in the next issue of Eritrea Profile.
For Eritrea, May is about independence. Eritreans know freedom does not come free. A glance at Eritrean history shows how independence was not simply handed to the country. Rather, Eritreans worked tirelessly and sacrificed greatly for it. As has become customary, large celebrations were held, both in the country and around the world, to mark the 27th anniversary of independence. This year, the theme of celebrations was “Vision through Toil”, reflecting that achievement of Eritrea’s grand visions and lofty goals required – and still does – much toil and effort. Not to be forgotten, this year’s celebrations coincided with the 20th “anniversary” of the TPLF-led regime’s invasion of Eritrea.
Other important days recognized during May included the commemoration of International Workers Day, celebrated on May 1st at the Coca-Cola Factory, National Afforestation Day, which featured a one-day workshop from the Ministry of Agriculture, and African World Heritage Day.
The month also saw many important diplomatic activities. An Eritrean delegation, composed of representatives from several ministries and the National Union of Eritrean Women presented a national report during the 62nd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, held in Mauritania.
As well, the Eritrean Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa and Southern African countries participated at the Japan-Africa Economic Development Forum, held in Johannesburg, while the Embassy of China in Eritrea celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of China-Eritrea diplomatic relations and officially opened its newly-built embassy in Asmara.
Numerous community and development-related activities were also conducted, including, among others: soil and water conservation campaigns; the construction of a four million Nakfa dam in Habero sub-zone; environmental sanitation programs in numerous villages; women’s empowerment seminars; awards for outstanding students in various regions; and a PFDJ-sponsored workshop on the preservation of ancient manuscripts.
Meanwhile, in early May, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, visited Sudan, where both governments reportedly agreed “to extend support to what they termed as Eritrea’s armed opposition groups in order to enable them to properly execute their objectives”.
Eritrea dismissed the efforts as “futile”, while observers pointed out how the development was at odds with the statements made during Abiy’s inaugural speech, where he promised to make peace with Eritrea.
Although the situation evoked memories of how previous Ethiopian leaders made similar promises before going on to engage in provocation and aggression toward Eritrea, monumental events would unfold during the subsequent weeks and months.
While May is about independence, June is, above all, about reflecting on the great sacrifices made to bring about that independence. On June 20th, Eritreans paid their respects to the thousands of martyrs who sacrificed their lives during the independence struggle and to safeguard Eritrea’s sovereignty. However, this year’s Martyrs’ Day was not only an occasion for solemnly reflecting on the past but also one of looking to the future with optimism and hope.
Events were set in motion on June 5th, when Ethiopian PM Abiy surprised many by announcing that “Ethiopia is now willing to abide by the Algiers Agreement and the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission boundary decisions”.
On June 20th, at a national commemoration service in Asmara, President Isaias Afwerki addressed the momentous unfolding developments in Ethiopia and the related statement on June 5th by PM Abiy.
Remarkably, President Isaias announced Eritrea would send a delegation to Addis Ababa “to gauge current developments directly and in depth as well as to chart out a plan for continuous future action.”
According to President Isaias, the move reflected Eritrea’s “readiness to actively engage in the positive developments” and was in response to “positive signals issued…by the Government of Ethiopia.”
In addition to repeating his statement from January that it was “game over” for the TPLF, he expressed his hope for better relations with the US and Eritrea’s willingness to build new ties and positive engagement with Washington.
Hours later, speaking in Ethiopia, PM Abiy replied to President Isaias’ comments, thanking him for his decision, describing it as “historical news on a historical date,” and committing “to personally receive Eritrea’s delegation graciously”.
Less than a week later, on June 26th, a high-level Eritrean delegation, composed of Osman Saleh, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Yemane Gebreab, Presidential Advisor, traveled to Addis Ababa for a two-day visit – the first time in over two decades that a top-level delegation from Asmara had visited Ethiopia. During the historic visit, the delegation delivered a message from President Isaias to PM Abiy and also held extensive discussions with the PM and other senior Ethiopian officials.
Beyond the developments with Ethiopia, numerous local activities were conducted in June, including: a workshop for law enforcement officials on countering human trafficking and smuggling, jointly organized by the UNODC and Government of Eritrea; environmental sanitation campaigns in several sub-zones; a freshwater fish farming workshop by the Ministry of Agriculture in Anseba; a skills training program in Adi Guadad; graduation ceremonies at the Wina Technical Boarding School in Nakfa and the College of Marine Science and Technology in Massawa; the extension of over 1.1million Nakfa in interest-free loans to disabled female veterans by the National Association of Eritrean War Disabled Veterans; the launch of a three-month training program for naval cadets; the commemoration of World Blood Donor Day; and the national celebration of Eid Al-Fetir Al-Mubarek.
Historic events continued to unfold in July. On July 8th, PM Abiy, accompanied by a small delegation, made a visit to Asmara for historic talks with President Isaias. At the airport, he was warmly greeted by President Isaias. The two embraced before they walked down a red carpet. Later, the streets of Asmara were filled with tens of thousands of people, who cheered on the leaders’ convoy and waved the twinned flags of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Flowers and popcorn were tossed in jubilation. In the evening, an official state dinner was held in honor of PM Abiy.
On the morning of June 9th, the two leaders signed the “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship”, which formally ended the “state of war” between their two countries and “opened” a “new era of peace and friendship.”
The countries also agreed to: forge political, economic, social, cultural, and security cooperation; resume transport, trade, and communications links; restart diplomatic ties and activities; implement the EEBC boundary decision; and jointly endeavor to ensure regional peace, development, and cooperation.
Less than a week later, on 13 July, President Isaias gave a keynote address to the 31st round of youth graduating from Sawa. There, he announced that he would lead a delegation to Ethiopia the following day.
Upon arriving in Addis Ababa, his first visit in 20 years, he was warmly welcomed and his visit sparked excitement and jubilation. The trip included visits to development and historical sites, President Isaias receiving numerous gifts and accolades, and a brief joint-address by President Isaias and PM Abiy at Ethiopia’s Millennium Hall.
On July 16, the two leaders officially reopened the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, while two days later, Ethiopian Airlines made its first trip to Eritrea after two decades. Former Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church were among the passengers on the historic flight.
When it landed, there were emotional scenes as relatives and friends were reunited after decades, while traditional dancers waved flags and flowers. On July 20, Semere Russom, the Minister of Education, was appointed as Eritrea’s Ambassador to Ethiopia.
The historic developments were widely applauded by the international community. Eritreans and Ethiopians, in their own countries and around the world, held rallies to express support for the developments. Support was also expressed by the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General, the African Union and European Union, IGAD, COMESA, the Pope, and countless international leaders.
Notably, on July 24th, at a tripartite summit in Abu Dhabi, President Isaias and PM Abiy were awarded the highest Abu Dhabi honor, “The Zayed Award”, from Crown Prince of the UAE and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The month finished as it began: with history being made. On July 28th, Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed, President of Somalia, visited Eritrea. He became the first President of Somalia to formally visit Eritrea. In scenes similar to those that broke out weeks earlier, the Somali leader was warmly welcomed by tens of thousands of Eritreans. During President Mohammed’s visit, the two leaders agreed to establish diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors. On July 30th, they signed the “Joint Declaration on Brotherly Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation”.
While the month’s remarkable developments were welcomed by most, certain elements aimed to work against the positive changes. Additionally, while the sanctions on Eritrea had become largely unnecessary, some still lobbied for their maintenance. Finally, important local activities also took place, such as the Eritrean Pharmaceutical Association’s annual conference, a workshop by the NUEW to strengthen capacity, a visit by an Egyptian medical delegation to train local health professionals, and graduation ceremonies at Hamelmalo College of Agriculture, the Eritrean Institute of Technology, and Asmara College of Medical Science.
August, like the months preceding it, was historic. Early in the month, President Isaias held talks with a senior Ethiopian delegation composed of Lemma Megersa, President of Oromo Region, and Dr. Workneh Gebeyehu, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister. He would also meet with a Japanese delegation led by State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Masahisa Sato, a senior Saudi delegation led by Foreign Minister Adel Al- Jubeir, and Germany’s Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Muller.
Importantly, the month also featured efforts to consolidate the progress of previous months. On August 10th, an Eritrean delegation composed of Osman Saleh and Yemane Gebreab visited Ethiopia. They delivered a message from President Isaias to PM Abiy and discussed the implementation of the agreement between the two countries.
The delegation visited Somalia from August 13th to 15th. In Somalia, they met with President Mohammed, while the Joint High-Level Committee of Eritrea and Somalia, established in July, held its first meeting in Mogadishu on August 14th.
On August 18th, Asmara again played host to a regional leader, as Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan, arrived for an official visit. Upon arrival, Kiir was given a warm welcome by President Isaias and senior government officials.
Notably, the month saw a series of important peace agreements concluded in Asmara. On August 7th, Ethiopia and the Oromo Liberation Front signed a reconciliation agreement, while on August 16th, the Amhara Regional State and Amhara Democratic Forces Movement signed a reconciliation agreement. Then, on August 28th, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement completed an agreement with the Government of Ethiopia.
Countless local activities took place in August. These included a forestation campaign in Berik sub-zone, the commemoration of World Breastfeeding Week, the beginning of the 32nd round of national service and academic year at Sawa, a vocational training program for youth in Logo Anseba sub-zone, the nationwide celebration of Eid Al-Adha Al-Mubarek Hejira year 1439, the introduction of new vaccines against polio, measles, and rubella, and the kickoff of Festival Eritrea at the Expo Grounds.