Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his country would normalise relations with neighbouring Eritrea following an historic meeting with President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara on Sunday, aimed at ending decades of diplomatic and armed strife.
The announcement capped weeks of whirlwind change, driven by Abiy, culminating in his visit to the Eritrean capital for face-to-face talks with Isaias.
“We agreed that the airlines will start operating, the ports will be accessible, people can move between the two countries and the embassies will be opened,” Abiy said at a dinner hosted by his Eritrean counterpart.
“We will demolish the wall and, with love, build a bridge between the two countries,” Abiy continued.
The sudden rapprochement will spell an end to a years-long cold war that has hurt both countries.
The Horn of Africa nations have remained at loggerheads since Ethiopia rejected a United Nations ruling and refused to cede to Eritrea land along the countries’ border following a 1998-2000 war that killed 80,000 people.
There was no sign of that animosity on Sunday.
Abiy stepped from an Ethiopian Airlines plane at the airport in Asmara to be greeted by Isaias, the two men embracing before they strode off along a red carpet.
Crowds lined the streets of the Eritrean capital cheering on the leaders’ convoy, waving the twinned flags of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
With Abiy’s comments later in the day, the meeting appeared to have achieved its touted aim of seizing “a spectacular opportunity to decidedly move forward peace for the good of our people,” as Abiy’s chief of staff Fitsum Arega put it earlier.
Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, later tweeted a photo of the two leaders huddled in discussion, promising the meeting would, “set the tone for rapid, positive changes on the basis of respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The re-establishment of diplomatic and trade ties after years of bitter separation could mean big benefits for both nations, and the wider Horn of Africa region, plagued by conflict and poverty.
Once a province of Ethiopia that comprised its entire coastline on the Red Sea, Eritrea voted to leave in 1993 after a decades-long, bloody independence struggle.
The break rendered Ethiopia landlocked, and the deterioration of relations due to the continuing cold war forced Ethiopia to rely on Djibouti for its sea trade.
Ethiopian access to Eritrea’s ports will be an economic boon for both, as well as posing a challenge to the increasing dominance of Djibouti which had benefitted from importing and exporting the vast majority of goods to Africa’s second-most populous country.
Free movement across the border will also unite, once again, two peoples closely linked by history, language and ethnicity.
Sunday’s historic visit came after Abiy’s move last month to abide by the 2002 decision from the UN-backed commission aimed at settling Ethiopia and Eritrea’s border dispute, which fuelled the two-year war.
The UN decision awards chunks of land along the border, including the flashpoint town of Badme, to Eritrea.
Ethiopia had rejected the ruling and continues to occupy the town, sparking a heated rivalry between the two countries that has over the years erupted in gunfire.
Both nations have supported rebel groups intent on overthrowing the other’s government and periodically engaged in direct deadly skirmishes along the border.
Eritrea has used the threat of Ethiopian aggression to justify repressive policies, including an indefinite national service programme the UN has likened to slavery.
Abiy took office in April and quickly pursued an ambitious reform agenda that has reversed some of the touchstone policies of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
He has released prominent dissidents from jail and also announced the partial liberalisation of the economy.
Some have raised concerns that the pace of Abiy’s reforms may upset some party hardliners. Last month a grenade was thrown at a rally the prime minister addressed in the capital Addis Ababa.
Abiy’s decision to honour the boundary ruling began a rapid diplomatic thaw, paving the way for two top Eritrean officials to visit Addis Ababa last month, after which the meeting between the two leaders was announced.
However, Ethiopian troops have yet to withdraw from the disputed territories along the border, and many of the Ethiopian residents of Badme are against ceding their town to Eritrea.