With hugs and cheers, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have met for the first time in more than 20 years amid a recent thawing in relations between the two long-time East African rivals.
In a landmark visit, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed landed in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on Sunday, for a bilateral summit, aimed at repairing relations between the two countries. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki warmly greeted Abiy at the airport, Eritrea‘s state television showed.
“A truly historic moment with memorable watershed events: brotherly embrace of the leaders,” said Yemane G Meskel, Eritrea’s minister of information, on Twitter, adding that Ethiopian Airlines landed in Asmara for the first time in 20 years.
The visit comes a month after Abiy surprised people by fully accepting a peace deal that ended a two-year border war between the two countries.
— FBC (Fana Broadcasting Corporate S.C.) (@fanatelevision) July 8, 2018
A high-level Eritrean delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh had earlier visited the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, last month for peace talks.
This week’s summit aims to “further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace,” said Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega.
“Our two nations share a history and bond like no other,” he said on Twitter. “We can now overcome two decades of mistrust and move in a new direction.”
Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, arrives at Asmara International Airport. A truly historic moment with memorable watershed events: brotherly embrace of the leaders; Ethiopian Airlines lands in Asmara after 20 years; Asmara's residents come out in full force to welcome Delegation pic.twitter.com/Cnx2GBl6OT
— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) July 8, 2018
Video footage from the Ethiopian state television showed crowds dancing and singing for the two leaders at the Asmara International Airport.
In advance of Abiy’s arrival, Ethiopian Information Minister Meskel said the visit “heralds a new era of peace and cooperation”.
Ethiopians expressed welcome shock at the landmark meeting.
“Historic … the beginning of the end. The glass ceiling has been broken,” one resident, Shewit Wudassie, wrote on Facebook.
Another Facebook user, Djphat Su, wrote: “Am I dreaming or what?”
Eritrea, which possessed Ethiopia’s only access to the sea, broke off from its larger neighbour in 1993 leaving Addis Ababa landlocked.
The East African countries fought a bloody border war that erupted in 1998. The two-year war left more than 80,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
A UN-backed peace agreement in 2000 awarded the disputed border territories to Eritrea, but the deal was never implemented.
The countries have skirmished since then in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts.
Last month’s decision to fully accept the deal was the biggest and most surprising reform yet announced by Ethiopia’s 42-year-old prime minister, who took office in April and quickly set off a wave of reforms, freeing journalists and opposition figures from prison, opening up the state-run economy and unblocking hundreds of websites after years of anti-government protests demanding more freedoms.
Hallelujah Lulie, programme director of Amani Africa, an Ethiopia-based African policy think-tank, believes that the shared history of the two countries is more important than the differences.
“Ethiopia and Eritrea have a very rich history, shared culture, religion and shared memory in trauma,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview from Addis Ababa.
“And the two countries have a huge potential for economic, cultural and political cooperation – that will have a great impact for the security and integration of the Horn of Africa and the bigger Eastern Africa,” Lulie added.