Leaders from the two countries agree to end conflict and open up borders after 20 years of animosity.
Eritrea, for example, is still one of the few countries in the world which requires exit visas for their nationals.
A UN Human Rights Rapporteur had indicted Asmara for torturing own citizens and bordering on crimes against humanity, charges the country denied.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and AU Chairman and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said they welcome the latest development
On May 1, 2016, the national Labour Day celebrations witnessed an unusual diplomatic activity.
At the Uhuru Park grounds where workers marched past the podium, Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya Dina Mufti sat next to his Eritrean counterpart Beyene Russom on the front row. They were among the guests invited by Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) Secretary-General Francis Atwoli.
On any other day, they would have just sat, stared away from each other. But on this day, as Mr Atwoli tore into employers for refusing to award a pay rise, the two diplomats exchanged light moments and after the event, they continued with their chat.
“The two nations have a deeply intertwined history. They have family connections, they speak one language and share other cultural practices,” Mr Hallelujah Lulie, an Ethiopian political analyst of the Horn of Africa told the Nation.
Until last weekend, Ethiopia and Eritrea were officially still at war having fought over the border in a conflict that killed thousands of people. Eritreans were known to flee their country by whatever means: while on duty at international tournaments, as illegal immigrants or through defections.
DIPLOMATIC PROTEST NOTES
Asmara had an ambassador in Addis, but he was only representing their country at the African Union and Eritrean Embassy in Kenya became one of the few to occasionally publicise diplomatic protest notes often copied to other embassies in Nairobi.
Then Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed happened. And one of the things he has done is to travel to Asmara, becoming the first Ethiopian leader in more than two decades to go there. The war was officially ended in a joint declaration with President Isaias Afwerki.
The executive committee of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced it would accept the December 2000 Algiers Agreement, a deal which had been signed by both sides to restore peace.
So what was the motivation? Mr Mufti told the Nation the leaders realised they were losing more by staying at war.
“The recent exchange of high level visits between the two countries is a turning point in the diplomatic history of nations. The move is an incentive for our region and the international community to see to it that conflicts should be solved for every one’s interest,” he added.
Part of the deal includes introduction of flights for the Ethiopian airlines to Asmara, using Eritrean ports by Ethiopia, free movement of people between the two countries and opening embassies in Addis and Asmara.
“All we need is a perfect political good will of our leadership and peoples’ interest at heart. I think Africa must take pride of this move since peace is one of the major preconditions for prosperity.”
Mr Lulie said both leaders learnt animosity and war was not sustainable.
“People were somehow tired with the negative sentiments of the war and there was some sense of recognising the potential for co-operation,” he said.
As countries with many family connections, the Ethiopian analyst said the most immediate dividend would be for families to reunite, based on open free borders. Later, that can be translated into economic partnerships and regional security arrangement, he said.
But there are problems, experts say. Eritrea, for example, is still one of the few countries in the world which requires exit visas for their nationals.
Mr George Mucee, the Practice Leader at immigration consultancy firm Fragomen in Nairobi says the peace deal will help the region address the issue of illegal migrations.
“As the world tackles issues of human trafficking and smuggling, both Ethiopia and Eritrea are considered source countries for people being trafficked or smuggled,” he said.
“While it is a step in the right direction, the two governments need to go the full length to ensure that the freedom of movement for the citizens that wish to move into either country is allowed and facilitated.”
A UN Human Rights Rapporteur had as late as January this year indicted Asmara for torturing own citizens and bordering on crimes against humanity, charges the country denied.
Many Eritreans illegally exit the country and end up being rounded up by the police in Kenya, Egypt and South Africa for illegal entry.
Mr Mucee says celebrations of a peace deal are welcome but the region, AU and the UN “should now move with speed to help steer these two countries not only to build long lasting cordial relations but also to work on governance issues that have caused so much suffering in the region.”
In the meantime, leaders in the region including President Uhuru Kenyatta and AU Chairman and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said they welcome the latest development as they signal a stable continent.