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The unchanging belief of President Isaias Afwerki

President Isaias Afwerki

The unchanging belief of President Issaias Afewerki

Simon Weldemichael
Adi Keih College of Arts and Social Sciences
July 2018

The two decades of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia have come to an end recently after Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed chose to follow the road of peace and obedience to supremacy of law which Eritrea has already stood for the last 16 years. In law there is a common saying ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ While this is true, the audacity of the new leadership in Ethiopia deserves appreciation. Dr. Abiy’s groundbreaking official visit to Eritrea following the pioneering visit of the high delegation of Eritrea to Addis Ababa in June accelerated the peace process. President Issayas Afewerki’s remarkable visit to Ethiopia further cemented and consolidated the peace deal.

The unchanging belief of Eritrea toward Ethiopia has been expressed by President Issayas Afewerki in many of the interviews conducted with different media outlets. The prophetic analysis and careful examination of the President on different regional and international developments offer lessons that can benefit everyone. A review reveals a story of how peaceful and friendly relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia are the only choice.

A letter from President Issayas Afewerki to the late PM Meles Zenawi from 16 August 1997 expressed a blatant refusal against the forcible occupation of Adi Murug in Bada by the Ethiopian army. He condemned this action and urged Ethiopia to take measures that would avoid unnecessary conflict. He further stated his firm belief on peaceful means of resolving the conflict by the following words: “There was no justification for resorting to force as it would not have been at all difficult to settle the matter amicably even if it was deemed important and warranting immediate attention.” He further stated that the Eritrean government accorded border demarcation a low priority in view of Eritrea’s present and future ties with Ethiopia. Ten days latter, on 25 August 1998, President Issayas Afewerki wrote another letter to his Ethiopian counterpart regarding the unlawful measures of Ethiopian forces to dismantle the existing Eritrean administration in the Adi Murug and Badme area. He further informed the Ethiopian PM that the Eritrean government has assigned a committee to look into the matter. President Issayas suggested the late PM to assign a committee to meet and look into the issue. And it should be remembered that on 6 May 1998 while the Eritrean delegation was in Addis Ababa for border negotiations, the Ethiopian army penetrated into Eritrean territory and opened fire on Eritrean units.

On 14 May 1998, a day after the Ethiopian parliament passed a formal declaration of war over Eritrea, the cabinet of ministers of Eritrea issued a statement regarding the dispute with Ethiopia. The statement indicated that Eritrea firmly believed that attempts to inflate the minor and temporary problem along the borders of the two countries would not serve the fundamental interests of the Eritrean or Ethiopian peoples. The cabinet of ministers of Eritrea further reasserted its belief that the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia would maintain and preserve their mutual interests rooted in peace, good neighborliness and cooperation.

Looking at President Issayas Afwerki’s speech to the OAU Central Organ Meeting, in Ouagadougou on 17 December 1998, also gives reveals the position of Eritrea. He stated unequivocally that “a lasting peaceful solution, therefore, requires that Ethiopia rescind its illegal claims on Eritrea, and declare without equivocation that it respects the colonial boundaries between the two countries that were delimited in accordance with the treaties of 1900, 1902 and 1908.” This is how Eritrea and its leadership defined its political courage and deeply held principle of neighborhood. For the past 20 years, the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of principle by Eritrea was extraordinary.

After the two year war concluded, the court verdict followed after the establishment of the EEBC. Eritrea declared full acceptance of the final and binding decision and never changed her position and attitude toward the ruling. President Issayas called the decision as “a gift to the present and future generations of Eritreans who will live with secure and recognized borders.” Eritrea has always respected the rule of law. It has been abided to fully by the legal agreements it signed and devotedly upheld the final and binding decision of the EEBC. Eritrea went further to show maximum patience for almost 16 years in the hope that Ethiopia would undertake its legal responsibilities. The leadership in Eritrea didn’t deviate from its deeply held principles both at domestic and foreign policy. Peter Worthington, a foreign journalist once described President Issayas in the following terms: “Even though he’s now in a new war with Ethiopia, he’s led Eritrea into becoming the most peaceful, harmonious, least corrupt country in Africa where ethnic, religious and cultural disputes are muted. Clan and religious loyalties have been channeled into Eritrean nationalism”

On the 20th anniversary of Eritrean independence, President Issayas conducted an extensive interview with the Eritrean Center for Strategic Studies on a range of issues. He stated that “We cooperated in the liberation of the Ethiopian people and we also liberated our selves. The ultimate objective for us and the Ethiopian people was to create a new environment for the coming generations.” In the past two decades the two countries have entangled in unnecessary web of conflict. Now this has become history mainly by the bold decision of the two governments. President Issayas has mentioned the new special ties of peace and friendship to the crowd that welcomed him in Addis Ababa: “We have triumphed over the toxic schemes of the past years aimed at sowing the seeds of hate, resentment, and destruction. We are now jointly embarking - with determination - on the path of development, prosperity, and stability in all fields and fronts.” He further congratulated the successful and historic changes that Ethiopians have brought about at a concert celebrating the peace process in the Millennium Hall.

President Issayas although eloquent, met difficulty in articulating his feeling: “Words cannot express the joy we are feeling now.” Hoping to smooth relations and erase previous grudges and to make up for lost opportunities, President Issayas stated, “We are one people. Whoever forgets that does not understand our situation.”

Similarly, Dr. Abiy expressed his government’s commitment to implement the terms of the Asmara Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship signed on 9 July 2018 so as to quickly make up for lost opportunities and create even better ones for the people of the two countries. He also commended President Issayas for all the efforts he has made for peace. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterresalso praised the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia and said the reconciliation was “illustrative of a new wind of hope blowing across Africa.” He further noted that, “The sanctions were motivated by a number of events that took place, (but) it is my belief that those events will no longer exist…If the reasons that led to the sanctions will no longer exist they will naturally become obsolete.” The AU also expressed its admiration and commended the courageous path of reconciliation in the following words: “The ongoing normalization process between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a milestone in Africa’s efforts to silence the guns by 2020.”

The two governments are now ready to assist each other in making up for lost opportunities and creating an even bigger golden opportunities including, to facilitate intimate political, economic, social, cultural and security cooperation that serves and advances the interests of the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the need to promote peaceful and inclusive societies. This idea is reflected in goal 16 of the SDGs. The protracted war and the ‘no war no peace’ condition hinders the development of the two sisterly countries. The Asmara Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship holds the potential to bring a lasting solution to conflict and insecurity and would accelerate the development course of the two countries. Peace and stability are the only arrangement that allow the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia to cooperate with each other and achieve the SDGs.

Establishing a “stable neighborhood” is an idea that has been long popularized by President Issayas Afewerki. In one of his interviews with national media outlets, he explained that “ Prior to 1991, we have fostered a program of not only achieving Eritrean independence but also working towards building a stable and secure neighborhood.” Finally this seemingly wishful thinking comes true with the signing of Asmara Joint Declaration. With the signing of the Joint Declaration the two countries are entering into a new chapter of cooperation and the unchanging belief of President Issayas Afewerki can be celebrated.

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