Middle East and Africa
Ethiopia and Eritrea
ADIGRAT AND ZALAMBESSA
Thousands of Eritreans are streaming out of the country
THE hotels of Adigrat, an entrepot near Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, are always busy during Meskel, a feast celebrated annually by Orthodox Christians in both countries. But this time room prices have soared. Returning visitors reckon the numbers congregating in the city’s streets are twice those of previous years. Eritrean flags pop up amid the Ethiopian bunting. On a street corner a girl sports a shirt commemorating Eritrean independence. Outside a café Nigusse Bararki, an elderly Eritrean, sits with his family, which lives in Ethiopia. They were recently reunited for the first time in more than 20 years.
The reason is peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which came into force in July, nearly two decades after war broke out in 1998 (and 18 years after the signing of a peace deal in 2000 that was then ignored by Ethiopia). Friendlier relations have brought hope. They have also brought people. In the first two weeks after the land border was opened on September 11th by Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the Eritrean president, Issaias Afwerki, more than 15,000 Eritreans crossed the frontier. Many are on holiday and reuniting with family. Others are leaving to escape indefinite conscription.
The border is almost entirely open. Ethiopians can cross without visas and with only a cursory ID check. Even some foreigners have been able to enter Eritrea without any documentation. There are as yet no customs officers or tariffs on any goods. Most remarkably, Eritreans are for the first time in years able freely to leave the country without permits or the risk of being shot. “Before you could never leave,” says Muhammad, an Eritrean naval seaman on holiday in Adigrat with family. “But now there is no security, no soldiers, and all is peaceful.”
Even before the border was opened, Eritrea, a tiny country of about 3.2m people, was one of the biggest sources of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe. A few years ago the UN reckoned that about 5,000 people were leaving every month. Since nobody knows how long the border will stay open, thousands are rushing across. According to the UN the number of people registering as refugees has jumped from 53 to 390 people a day. “We are very afraid—maybe it will close again,” says a young Eritrean woman catching a bus from Mekele to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where she hopes to find a house and a job.
Trade, which had ceased entirely since the war, is booming again. The road from Adigrat to the border town of Zalambessa heaves each day with lorries loaded with cement, building materials and Ethiopian teff, a staple grain, bound for Asmara, the Eritrean capital. At markets in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Eritreans sell electronics and clothes from the boots of their cars. Many of the new arrivals marvel at ATM machines and the fact that the city’s many new buildings are not owned by the government. (Private construction is banned in Eritrea.)
This all has historical echoes. In the years immediately after Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, after a long war for independence and a referendum, the two countries enjoyed a brief honeymoon. Citizens were allowed to move seamlessly between them. Mr Issaias mulled eventual political union as well as economic integration. Some imagined a “United States of the Horn of Africa”.
But soon came allegations that Eritrea was undermining Ethiopia’s economy. Locals in Tigray recall the sheets of corrugated iron imported from Asia, stamped with marks saying “Made in Eritrea”, and brought into Ethiopia without being taxed. Some fret that similar economic tensions may emerge again. “It’s déjà vu,” says a veteran Ethiopian diplomat.
Nobody knows why, after years of locking his citizens in, Mr Issaias appears to have had a change of heart. Some wonder if letting out those opposed to his tyrannical rule is a way of easing pressure on him to reform. Fewer youngsters at home also means fewer who will need jobs once the expected demobilisation of the army and civilian conscripts begins.
Even the president’s colleagues appear to be in the dark. Last week three ministers were reported to have resigned in protest. There are also murmurs of discontent in the army. After years of saying that Eritrea would never negotiate until Ethiopia had withdrawn its troops from the disputed town of Badme, Mr Issaias has done precisely that. Eritrean troops have pulled back from the frontier but Ethiopian forces have yet to do so. For many citizens, however, it seems wise to scoot now and ask questions later.