BY BBC NEWS
Ethiopia’s surprise announcement that it will abide by a 2002 border ruling raises the prospect of a final end to what was Africa’s deadliest border war and peace with its long-time rival, Eritrea.
Tens of thousands of people were killed in the two-year conflict and Eritrea remains on a war footing, demanding that Ethiopia withdraws from the “occupied territory”.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signalled in his inauguration speech in April that a major policy shift could be in the offing – he called on Eritrea to resolve their differences, saying the two neighbours were “not only intertwined in interests but also in blood”.
Now, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has announced it will fully accept and implement the peace deal that ended the war.
Mr Abiy said soldiers deployed to the contested town of Badme had experienced “psychological effects”, according to the state-linked Fana Broadcasting Corporate.
“We should end this suffering, and fully return to peace,” the prime minister is quoted as saying.
Ethiopia’s previous leaders always said they accepted the 2002 ruling but they never actually implemented it.
Mr Abiy’s announcement is especially significant as it comes after the release of thousands of jailed politicians, activists and protesters, including British citizen Andargachew Tsege who was being held on death row, and the promise of wider reforms.
What does Eritrea say?
Eritrea has not commented on Ethiopia’s announcement but Information Minister Yemane Gebre Meskel had previously told the BBC that relations could not be resolved until Ethiopia withdrew “from the occupied territories”.
What happens next?
Assuming that Eritrea accepts Ethiopia’s goodwill, the next step would be for officials from the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission to physically demarcate the border.
Until now, this has been impossible because it is a military zone.
The main bone of contention is the town of Badme, the main focus of the war, but there are other disputed areas right along the border.
What’s happening in Badme?
Badme is a nondescript, heavily militarised small town with little or no social activity.
More than 1,000 people live there, with almost all their activities limited to military services, says the BBC’s Berihu Lilay, who visited the town in January.
He says he saw Eritrean and Ethiopian forces sitting in neat rows facing each other across the border, with just a few kilometres separating them.
Residents told our reporter they look forward to peace between the two nations.
Despite the strain, the 16-year standoff has not cut the ancient ties between the two border communities who both belong to the Tigrinya ethnic group, our reporter says.
A potential flashpoint, he says, which will need to be negotiated delicately, is the fate of a graveyard where thousands of Ethiopian soldiers, including top army leaders, who died in the conflict have been buried.
Why is it happening now?
It seems as though everything is changing pretty fast in Ethiopia, since Mr Abiy came to power.
Just a few months ago, a state of emergency was imposed following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister. He said he was standing down in order to end months of anti-government protests, which had led to many deaths and arrests.
Since taking office, Mr Abiy has moved fast to spend the political capital he had earned after gaining the backing of the EPRDF to become prime minister.
Three months in, he has managed to get the ruling coalition to back his policies including the lifting of the state of emergency.
Being the leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of the four ethnic parties which make up the EPRDF coalition, provides him with a solid political base to implement his policies.
He has also in a short time managed to assert his authority and created excitement in the country about his leadership.
“There’s palpable optimism about Mr Abiy in the country,” says the BBC’s Emmanuel Igunza in Addis Ababa.