It is rare that good news from Africa gets widely reported. It is even more unusual for that to come from the Horn of Africa. Usually what we get from there are stories about war, famine and other disasters, pirates and terrorists.
But occasionally there is an exception. One such rare occasion was the news of Ethiopia and Eritrea formally ending the border war they fought twenty years ago in which tens of thousands of their citizens perished.
On Sunday July 8 Dr Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, visited Asmara, the Eritrean capital and was warmly greeted at the airport by his host, President Isaias Aferwerki and ordinary Eritreans lining the streets.
That reception, especially by ordinary citizens, said a lot about what they thought of the significance of the warming relations. It expressed a mixture of relief, disbelief and hope that the tension of the last two decades would soon be behind them.
Then on Monday the two leaders signed an agreement to formally end the war.
The visit itself, the events leading up to it, and finally the signing of the agreement were remarkable for their unexpectedness,. The Ethiopian leader had done what less than six months ago was unthinkable.
First, he had accepted, without conditions, to return Badme, the border town at the centre of the bitter war fought between 1998 and 2000.
Now he was visiting Eritrea itself, enemy territory, and meeting the country’s president
Finally, there has been the agreement to end the war, the announcement that diplomatic and trade relations, and other contacts would resume almost immediately.
It was a lot of things happening very fast and at the same time.
Few had seen this coming or happening so quickly. Many must have been caught off guard, both from within and from outside the two countries.
It was also happening without much fanfare or the visible involvement of outsiders in any negotiations. If there were any, they must have been behind the scenes. The momentous events had not been preceded by foreign diplomats shuttling between the two capitals, twisting arms and wringing concessions out of hard-line opponents. There was no bevy of international press hanging around conference rooms waiting for a breakthrough in any talks.
It just seemed to happen. Or it had involved the concerned parties alone. Whatever the means by which the rapprochement was reached, it shows a high level of political maturity and, as President Paul Kagame tweeted, courage and doing the right thing for the people of their two countries.
The response from ordinary Africans from across the continent has been overwhelmingly supportive. This, too, is remarkable and unusual. We are used to seeing cynics and sceptics pour cold water on any sensible African initiative.
This is perhaps a reminder of the promise held by what was at one time dubbed the “New Breed” of leaders. That promise had been broken by the war between two of that new breed. The peace deal has rekindled the promise of that earlier period.
One may ask: what has changed in the last eighteen years to bring these two countries closer together again?
It is the recognition of the supremacy of national interest and that these can best be served by peace between them and stability in the wider region.
Ethiopia is a fast growing economy, with ambitions to be a big manufacturing centre. For that it needs to attract investment, grow its market beyond its borders and the means to get its products to the market.
That’s why in the last decade or so, it has invested heavily in manufacturing, energy and infrastructure, mainly road and rail links to the port of Djibouti and even south to Kenyan ports. Eritrean ports are even closer.
For Eritrea, isolation has proved very costly. It stands to benefit from Ethiopia’s economic growth because in any case their economies were for a long time closely connected.
Then the standoff between the two had allowed outside nations into the region. They were taking advantage of instability and the absence of common cause among the nations of the Horn to further their own strategic interests. Their influence was growing but their presence was also a potential for even more destabilisation.
The Horn of Africa is a region of immense strategic value. That’s why so many world powers are jostling to establish military bases, cultivate allies and increase their influence.
But if the local countries want to leverage this strategic position to greater advantage, they must not allow themselves to be diverted by unnecessary conflict among them. They must invest in greater stability.
The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have shown that this is possible. They are probably following their citizens who have seen this all along. They have also shown another thing: Quietly, quietly does it, or that you don’t need an army of expensive mediators to achieve results. They need the support of all people of goodwill.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.