NAIROBI, Kenya—In the first formal diplomatic contact in two decades, officials from Eritrea met with their Ethiopian counterparts on Tuesday, a potential turning point in a long dispute over their border that has kept the region on edge.
A lasting rapprochement between the two countries would dissolve a fault-line that has isolated Eritrea. complicated alliances and fragmented the already conflict-prone Horn of Africa, where Western powers are invested militarily and deploy billions in humanitarian aid.
The Eritrean delegation, headed by the country’s foreign minister, Osman Sale, was greeted at the airport in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, by the new reformist Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who earlier this month unexpectedly said he wanted to resolve the dispute.
Tiny Eritrea fought a long war of independence against Ethiopia and in 1993 was formally recognized by the international community as an independent country, but sporadic violence has continued at hot spots in the border region.
A 2002 decision by a United Nations-backed commission found that Ethiopia had to withdraw from the border area, called Badme, ruling the territory rightfully belonged to Eritrea, but Ethiopia has never done so.
Resolving the Badme dispute would be a first important step in a long road to reconciliation, made bumpier by nationalists on both sides and mistrust after decades of fighting.
In the years since the war, Ethiopia, the continent’s second-most populous country with 104 million people, has staged an economic expansion that has seen it place among the fastest-growing countries in the world and launch a successful airline.
In seceding, Eritrea deprived its massive neighbor of access to the Red Sea, a handicap Ethiopia is still grappling with. Mr. Abiy’s call for reconciliation could eventually allow his country access to the sea, but could also, if successful, strengthen him politically against Ethiopia’s military as he tries to wrestle control from entrenched elites.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has established itself as a single-rule party, and keeps a tight rein on security with a strong, large army. Addis Ababa has also become a key regional ally for the U.S. in the war on terror, the European Union on migration, and China in commerce.
Meanwhile Eritrea, population roughly four million, has become isolated from the international community and slapped with U.N. sanctions for allegedly fostering Somali terrorists.
Its leader, Isaias Afewerki, has used the dispute with Ethiopia to keep the country in a permanent state of emergency, which includes a policy of indefinite, universal and mandatory conscription. That has led to one of recent history’s biggest humans migrations, as millions of Eritreans have fled to Europe and the U.S. over the years.