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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki visits Somalia to cement renewed ties

Mogadishu trip caps a stunning year of peacemaking among Horn of Africa nations

Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, left, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki at Mogadishu's airport on December 13, 2018. AFP
Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, left, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki at Mogadishu's airport on December 13, 2018. AFP

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki landed in Somalia for the first time on Thursday, completing a stunning year of rapprochement in the battle-scarred Horn of Africa.

Mr Isaias, who has ruled the tiny reclusive nation with an iron fist for 25 years, embraced Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, on the runway before heading to the president’s office for talks.

Somalia and Eritrea have endured years of sour relations, exacerbated by the latter’s 20-year conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia, which saw the two take opposing sides in war-torn Somalia.

Mogadishu accused Asmara of supplying weapons and backing to Islamist groups. When Ethiopian soldiers entered Somalia to tackle the insurgents in 2007, Eritrea stormed out of IGAD, the Horn of Africa’s answer to the GCC, in protest.

But in July, following the appointment of Ethiopia’s dynamic young prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia and Eritrea announced an end to their two-decade war, facilitating an unprecedented peace process that saw embassies and borders reopened, telephone and travel links re-established and trade resumed. Hundreds of families, kept apart for years, were reunited.

The rapprochement between two of Africa’s pre-eminent foes triggered a domino effect, as the Horn’s four constituent countries — Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia — set about mending fences.

In July, Mr Mohamed travelled to Asmara, where he and Mr Isaias agreed to establish diplomatic relations, exchange ambassadors and promote bilateral trade.

In September, Eritrea and Djibouti ended a decade-long border dispute over the contentious Dumeira mountain and Dumeira island in the Red Sea. The following day, Addis Ababa played host to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, who signed a peace agreement. Their personal feud created a five-year civil war that killed an estimated 383,000 people.

And in November, the United Nations Security Council lifted sanctions on Eritrea, first imposed in 2009. Onlookers hope the country — nicknamed the North Korea of Africa — will take steps to shed its pariah status.

In that respect, the visit of Mr Isaias to Somalia, a troubled but hugely significant regional player, is encouraging.

“President Isaias’s historic visit [to Somalia] is part and parcel of the consultative Tripartite Summits of the Heads of State and Government of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia,” Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Meskel, wrote on Twitter.

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The great potential of the Horn of Africa, which straddles the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden — vital international shipping routes — has long been blighted by violent conflict.

Ethiopia, where Mr Abiy is overseeing a package of sweeping reforms, has a young 100 million-strong population and is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Djibouti and Somalia guard vital sea corridors, while Eritrea holds significant oil and gas reserves.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are fighting a war across the water in Yemen, have strengthened ties in the Horn in recent years, playing a role in the June accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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Updated: December 13, 2018 05:43 PM

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