Eritreans are happy about peace and wary of Isaias' promises

Despite officially welcoming Ethiopia's peace efforts, the Eritrean regime is keeping its people in the dark.

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    In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed is welcomed by Erirea's President Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018 [ERITV via AP]
    In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed is welcomed by Erirea's President Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018 [ERITV via AP]

    Ever since Ethiopia announced in early June that it will fully accept the terms of a 2000 peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea, the pace of normalisation of relations between the two countries has been truly stunning.

    First, a high-level Eritrean delegation made a visit to Addis Ababa on June 26 and kickstarted the talks on ending the decades-long conflict. Only a couple of weeks later, Ethiopia's reformist new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a landmark visit to Asmara and met the Eritrean president face-to-face. 

    As the convoy carrying Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki - who personally greeted his guest at the Asmara airport - travelled across the city, people waved the twinned flags of Ethiopia and Eritrea and threw flowers and corn. Portraits of Abiy and large Ethiopian flags could be seen on public buildings around the city.

    At a state dinner Isaias hosted in honour of Abiy, the two leaders took turns in praising each other. In a televised speech, Isaias said he was "grateful" for the peace efforts of the Ethiopian prime minister. He said that the two countries have already made up for most of what was lost in the past 20 years of conflict.

    Abiy, who gave a speech in both Tigrinya and Amharic, similarly expressed his unyielding appreciation to Isaias, the Eritrean leadership and the religious leaders who are expected to take a leading role in the normalisation of relations. 

    Only a day after the start of the landmark summit, the two leaders signed a "joint declaration of peace and friendship", officially ending the conflict between the two nations.

    On Sunday, direct international telephone lines between Ethiopia and Eritrea were restored for the first time in two decades. Soon the embassies will reopen and the airlines of the two countries will start operating flights between Asmara and Addis Ababa. These are important developments that will undoubtedly help both the Eritrean and Ethiopian people to return to a state of normalcy. 

    These displays of peace and brotherhood between the two nations are unprecedented in recent history. After all, for the last 20 years, the Ethiopian flags in Eritrea could only be seen in state-sponsored films demonising and ridiculing the neighbouring nation and its leaders.

    An acquaintance from Asmara described the atmosphere in the city after Abiy's arrival as jubilant and welcoming. "It was a genuine welcome," he told me, "both a celebration and a sigh of relief. People were allowed to express their jubilation".

    Keeping Eritreans in the dark

    It is not a secret that the Eritrean state media only covers news that is acceptable to the Eritrean leadership. By now, Eritreans have learned not to rely on official sources and navigate other, more reliable news sources to find out - at least partially - what is going on in their country. But it is still very hard for ordinary Eritreans to access these alternative news sources.

    While the Eritrean leadership did indeed welcome Ethiopia's efforts to normalise relations, it did not take any steps to ease its tight grip on the media. When Isaias announced his decision to dispatch a high-level delegation to Eritrea, the state media did not explain the reasons behind the president's decision, or what actually happened during the visit. They only announced the departure and return of the delegation.

    Moreover, until the morning of Abiy's arrival in Asmara, the details of the visit were still unclear.

    During the visit, the state media made sure the Eritrean leader got credit for the unexpected rapprochement, praising him for his endurance and long-sightedness. Reporters on state TV channels read quotes from his past speeches in an attempt to show the nation that the developments of the past month did not come as a surprise to their leader and he actually planned for all this to happen for a very long time.

    But beyond these formal pronouncements, ordinary Eritreans have largely been kept in the dark, as usual. Such levels of secrecy and censorship are putting the long-awaited peace process at risk.

    If the state media does not start to adequately inform Eritreans about what is really going on, they will soon start to lose any remaining trust they have in their leadership and, even more importantly, in the possibility of peace.

    As they are being kept in the dark about the negotiations with Ethiopia, some Eritreans are becoming increasingly cynical about them. Some are questioning Isaias' motivations for supporting the peace process. The mood outside Eritrea is even worse. Some in the Eritrean diaspora already believe that Isaias is collaborating with Abiy only to prolong his time in power.

    Eritreans are sceptical about any promises of peace and prosperity coming from Isaias for a good reason. The Eritrean president previously promised that the booming mining industry would transform Eritrea into a modern state. Yet, living standards have only deteriorated in the past few years.

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    Back in 2014, Isaias promised to draft another constitution, limiting the duration of the compulsory military service, but such a document has not materialised to this day.

    These are just two examples of Isaias' long track record of distorting the truth and breaking his promises. Because of this history, some Eritreans now question his sincerity about normalisation efforts.

    However, it is too early to speculate whether he is viewing the peace efforts as yet another opportunity to buy more time in power.

    For these historic efforts to come to fruition and sustainable peace to be built between the two nations, Isaias will need to convince his people that for once he is going to keep his promise and put their needs before his own. Eritreans are eagerly waiting for their leader to do so.  

    They are also desperately waiting for the normalisation of trade, the opening of the land borders, immediate demilitarisation, wide-range amnesty, national reconciliation, and overall restoration of human dignity.

    If Isaias fails to take these steps, his and the Ethiopian prime minister's hopeful and self-congratulatory speeches will be nothing but footnotes in history.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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