Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News
The thing about stereotypes is that there’s a truth that everyone recognises. And if you were to ask your average man on the street what he could tell you about Ethiopia and Eritrea, the answer would likely be something like they both produce fantastic marathon runners — athletes capable of covering great distances in short lengths of time.
Well, the truth too is that they also produce leaders who have covered a vast distance between their two neighbouring lands, bringing them closer together than at any time since two decades of a brutal and bloody civil war that ended in 1993 with Eritrea’s independence and a 25-year-long standoff that has continued to the present day.
But no more.
Largely thanks to the efforts of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki have signed off a peace deal that will end the stalemate between their two nations and open a new chapter of peace and stability on the Horn of Africa. Both leaders were in Abu Dhabi last Tuesday and presented with the Order of Zayed by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces at the Presidential Palace.
The honour bestowed on the pair pays homage to their efforts in a very quick period of detente, and underlines the efforts of the leadership and Government of the UAE and that of Saudi Arabia in enhancing bilateral relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara.
As Shaikh Mohammad tweeted: “We have an utmost trust that this move will enhance the bilateral cooperation and coordination between the two neighbouring countries. And will fulfil their citizens’ aspirations to achieve peace, development and prosperity.”
And then he added: “It will [also] ensure stability and security in the Horn of Africa and the region in general.”
What’s all the more remarkable is that Ethiopia’s Ahmad has only been in office since early April, emerging as the prime minister only after months of closed-door meetings and backroom dealings. The 41-year old was the chairman of the Oromo political party, one of four in the ruling coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Although the Oromo ethnic group makes up a third of the country’s population of 105 million, so far, it has always had a disadvantage against the older ruling Amhara group and the minority Tigre group. The latter have determined the country’s political and economic fortunes for a quarter of a century and control both the military and intelligence services.
The son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, the multilingual Ahmad was born in 1976 in the Jimma region of western Ethiopia. When violent unrest broke out between the two religious communities, he actively engaged in a peace forum for reconciliation.
While still a teenager, Ahmad reportedly coined the resistance movement against the “Red Terror” regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the BBC reports. After its demise, he joined the Ethiopian army in 1993, where he first worked in the intelligence service and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, he was deployed as a member of the United Nations peace mission and later served in the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
It was not until 2010, after heading the cyber-intelligence service, Insa, that Ahmad moved into politics and quickly rose through the ranks of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO). He was elected to the House of Representatives, and in 2016, he became the federal minister of Science and Technology in Addis Ababa. However, he soon returned to his native province of Oromia to take up the position of head of the OPDO Secretariat.
At the end of 2015, he found himself at the centre of a violent dispute over illegal land-grabbing in the Oromia region. Although a controversial Addis Ababa Master Plan was suspended in early 2016, the fallout continues to this day, with a death toll of thousands and many thousands injured. Ahmad — along with regional President Lemma Megerssa — became one of the central figures of a newly-awakened Oromo nationalism.
He’s a father of three daughters and holds a Master’s degree in Transformational Leadership and Change and a PhD in conflict mediation.
Clearly, given the events of these past weeks, he’s put that to good use.
Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, however, is a far more complicated leader, and the fact that at 72 years of age — the only leader independent Eritreans have ever known — shows that he is determined to end a legacy for a state known for its diplomatic isolation, its political paranoia and its state secrecy.
He was born in 1946 in Asmara, which was, at the time, under British administration. In 1962, it was annexed by Ethiopia.
In 1965, he went to Addis Ababa to study engineering at Haile Selassie University but, left a year later to join the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which was fighting for independence.
A new type of president
According to the BBC, Afwerki was among the first group of fighters to travel to China in 1967 for military and ideological training.
On his return, he, along with others, agitated for change within the ELF, but then went on to form a new party, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.
After a decades-long David-and-Goliath struggle, Eritrea held a referendum on independence in 1993, which was approved by 99 per cent of voters.
In the early years, he was hailed as a new type of African president. Then former United States president Bill Clinton referred to him as a “renaissance African leader”. At an Organisation of African Unity summit in Cairo in 1993, he blasted fellow heads of state for staying in power for too long and rejected a cult of personality.
He appeared austere and serious from a distance, but some who met him had a different impression. They speak about a helpful and supportive man who had a good sense of humour and made people laugh. His reputation has since undergone a transformation. He has never been elected, has stopped any attempt to hold an election.
Now though, he has found the desire for a new period of peace, reconstruction and transformation.
The late Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge professor who was an expert on the makeup of this universe we share, was also an astute observer of the human condition. “We spend a great deal of time studying history,” Hawking wrote, “which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.”
The words are a little harsh, perhaps, the sentiment true — but both Afwerki and Ahmad are determined now to write their own. And that’s a good day’s work.
— With inputs from agencies