Ethiopia and Eritrea reopen border after 20 years

Celebrating their dramatic diplomatic thaw, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea on Tuesday officially opened the border where a bloody war and ensuing tensions had divided them for decades, with emotional residents embracing after years of separation.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new reformist prime minister, and Isaias Afwerki, the longtime president of Eritrea, visited the Bure Front along with members of their militaries to mark the Ethiopian new year, Mr Abiy’s chief of staff Fitsum Arega said in a Twitter post.

The two opened the border post “for road transport connectivity” and later were doing the same at the Serha-Zalambesa crossing, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Meskel said on Twitter.

Photos posted by both officials showed Mr Abiy in camouflage walking alongside Mr Isaias in olive drab, while hundreds of civilians lined a road with the countries’ flags in hand.

Television footage showed people of the countries’ Tigray region, who share close cultural ties, dancing while flag-draped camels wandered by.

The former bitter rivals have made a stunning reconciliation since Mr Abiy weeks after taking office in April announced that Ethiopia would fully embrace a peace deal that ended a 1998-2000 border war that killed tens of thousands.

Eritrean soldiers wait at the Bure front in May 2000 Credit: Sami Sallinen/Reuters

Eritrean soldiers wait at the Bure front in May 2000 
Credit: Sami Sallinen/Reuters

At the time, he said the countries would celebrate the Ethiopian new year together: “We want our brothers and sisters to come here and visit us as soon as possible.”

Embassies have reopened, telephone lines have been restored and commercial flights between the capitals have resumed as some long-separated families have held tearful reunions.

Landlocked Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, and Eritrea, one of the world’s most closed-off nations, also plan development cooperation around Eritrea’s Red Sea ports in particular.

Reports on social media on Monday indicated that mine-clearing activities were underway in one border area, signaling that an opening was planned. The United Nations has called the border one of the world’s most heavily mined.

It was not clear if the countries would withdraw troops from the border.

Factfile | Eritrea

Population: 4.95m
Official religion: Christianity (50%), Islam (48%), indigenous beliefs
Languages: Tigrinya, Arabic, English
Capital: Asmara (pop. 804,000)
GDP (PPP) per capita: $1,466
Life expectancy: 64.1 years

Did you know?

  • Eritrea ranks as having the second-least press freedom in the world, behind only North Korea. There are no privately owned news media organisations in the country
  • Eritrea achieved independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1993 via a free referendum. However, no further elections have taken place since that day and opposition political groups are barred from organising
  • The country is one of the world’s major origin points for asylum seekers. Both men and women flee the state’s compulsory, indefinite period of military service; a policy it has maintained since 1993

Mr Abiy on Monday told a new year’s eve concert crowd of thousands in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, that “as of today, Ethiopian and Eritrean people will prosper together and march in unison… The last five months have brought hope and reconciliation.”

The Ethiopian new year has roots in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and is related to the Julian calendar.

Eritrea has used the Gregorian calendar since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

The reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been warmly welcomed by the international community and has led to a series of further thaws in the fragile Horn of Africa region, with Eritrea resuming diplomatic ties with both turbulent Somalia and the small but strategic port and military nation of Djibouti.

Observers now wonder whether the thaw will inspire Eritrea’s leader, who has led since independence without elections, to embrace reforms and loosen a strict military conscription system that has led the small country to become one of the largest sources of migrants fleeing toward Europe, Israel and elsewhere.

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