Nothing symbolizes the transformative nature of Abiy’s efforts better than Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement. Beyond the images of families uniting for the first time in decades, peace has upended the region in hard geopolitical terms, with talk of the United Nations Security Council lifting its sanctions on Eritrea, and the very real prospect that Ethiopia could elevate itself to a regional superpower. There are winners in such an arrangement, and losers—and observers fear that the latter will start expressing their displeasure in terms more forceful than ad hoc grenade attacks.
First, though, the good news: Ethiopia’s economy was the fastest growing in the world in 2017. But despite the ecstatic figures, on a per capita basis Ethiopia isn’t much better off than Haiti, making it one of the poorer countries in the world. Long run by devout Maoists suspicious of anything smacking of free-market capitalism, Ethiopia’s economy was under tight state control until Abiy’s ascension. While Addis Ababa transmogrified into a tower-clogged megalopolis, social discord rendered parts of the nation virtually ungovernable. Abiy has promised to change all that, in no small part by opening his borders. As if presaging his endeavors, and certainly designed to encourage such reforms, since 2014 African countries have been adding their signatures to the Niamey Convention, which calls for increased cross-border cooperation. (Only about 10 percent of African trade is intracontinental.)
Nothing articulated the insanity of African border regimes better than the Ethiopian-Eritrean deadlock. In 1952, the United Nations rolled tiny Eritrea, a former Italian colony, into an Ethiopia-dominated federation. Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally annexed his neighbor 10 years later, sparking an insurgency which bubbled away until Eritrea was liberated in 1991. The country officially celebrated independence in 1993, when Isaias Afwerki, who became president after leading the liberation movement, rejected the overtures of the international community, and turned the country into a one-party state, ruled by one man, with no room for concessions. In 1998, he launched a war against Ethiopia over a disputed patch of desolate borderland. Two years later, tens of thousands were killed in trench warfare reminiscent of the worst of World War I. The resulting Algiers Agreement, which upheld most of Eritrea’s territorial claims, was ignored by the Ethiopians, resulting in a stalemate grimly described as “no peace, no war.”
In the ensuing decades, fears of terrorism and the threat of regional instability rendered Eritrea one of the most isolated countries on Earth. In 2008, George W. Bush’s administration declared Isaias’s fiefdom to be a state sponsor of terrorism; Barack Obama’s administration doubled down on this view after finding evidence that the regime was shielding Somali-based insurgents. In June 2015, the UN Human Rights Council published a comprehensive 480-page report documenting the boundless cruelty that Eritrea visited upon its own citizens. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of December 2014, more than 363,000 refugees have originated from Eritrea, along with a further 54,000 asylum seekers—nearly 10 percent of the country’s population. At least 3,000 people are said to flee a month, most of them into scorching Sudan and then north across the Mediterranean, contributing significantly to the largest global refugee crisis since World War II.