With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

People shop at a market in the southern Eritrean town of Senafe, some 30km north of the border with Ethiopia, on October 3, 2018. The whirlwind peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea that began earlier this year has seen flights restarted and embassies re-established. (AFP / MICHAEL TEWELDE)
Updated 14 October 2018

With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

  • After 20 years of bloody conflict and grim stalemate, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border is bustling once again
  • Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea voted for independence in 1993 after a bloody, decades-long struggle

ETHIOPIA-ERITREA BORDER: For two decades, little besides soldiers, refugees and rebels moved across Ethiopia and Eritrea’s closed border, but today the once-barren no man’s land teems with activity.
Horse-drawn carts, buses full of visitors and trucks piled high with bricks and plywood make their way across the frontier, watched by relaxed soldiers from the two nations’ armies who just months ago stared each other down from trenches carved into the rocky soil.
After 20 years of bloody conflict and grim stalemate, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border is bustling once again, revitalizing frontier towns and allowing the countries’ long-estranged populations to reacquaint themselves.
“We have everything we didn’t have before, from the smallest to the biggest products,” said Abraham Abadi, a merchant in the Eritrean town of Senafe whose shop is now filled with biscuits, drinks and liquor made in Ethiopia.
Yet the border’s re-opening has sparked a surge in refugees and also raised concerns over the black market currency trade that some fear will destabilize the economy.
Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea voted for independence in 1993 after a bloody, decades-long struggle.
A dispute over the the border plunged the neighbors into war in 1998, leaving tens of thousands dead in two years of fighting.
The conflict continued as a cold war after Ethiopia refused to honor a UN-backed commission verdict demarcating the border, a policy Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reversed in June.
Flights restarted and embassies re-opened shortly afterwards, and in September, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki re-opened the crossing at Zalambessa, an Ethiopian town on a major route into Eritrea.
The opening was transformative for the town, a strip of shops and restaurants damaged in the war and economically paralyzed by the border closure that now bustles with shoppers.
“We’re selling sandals and these shida shoes,” said trader Ruta Zerai, gesturing to a pile of the open-toed footwear popular with Eritreans.
In Senafe, a trading hub 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the border, the impact of the rapprochement is clear.
Twice a week, organized groups of Ethiopian merchants cross the border, marked by a bare strip of earth only recently cleared of anti-tank mines, for Senafe’s market days.
They bring with them recharge cards for the Ethiopian telecom whose service can be picked up in parts of the town and teff, the once-scarce grain needed to make the staple injera food.
Some even decide to stay.
“I live where I can get a job. As long as I have a job, I’ll stay here,” Sanle Gebremariam, an Ethiopian currency trader working in Senafe, said at a roadside where busses from both countries congregate.
Heading in the opposite direction are thousands of Eritrean refugees fleeing the country’s repressive government and stagnant economy.
Eritreans, many of whom aim to reach Europe, came across the border when it was closed, but the UN says arrivals in Ethiopia have increased nearly eight-fold since its opening.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian traders are grumbling over the unstable value of the Eritrean nakfa against their birr currency.
“We’re trading together, but the exchange rate is unregulated, unstable and illegal,” said Taeme Lemlem, a bar owner in Zalambessa, echoing similar complaints, made before the border war, that were never resolved.
Getachew Teklemariam, a consultant and former Ethiopian government adviser, said the unregulated trade at the border, where there appears to be little customs or immigration controls, risks opening a “shadow monetary front.”
“The exchange rate is being governed by largely speculative perceptions from both sides of the border,” said Getachew. “The overall trade scenario has to be guided by some strategy.”
Both countries’ governments have said they hope the renewed trade links will boost their economies.
But the neighbors are not equals. Eritrea’s economy has underperformed since the war, while Ethiopia has grown at some of Africa’s fastest rates, which hasn’t escaped the notice of visitors to the country.
“I’m very surprised. I didn’t expect this much development,” said Simon Kifle, an Eritrean air force serviceman who was hurrying back across the border before its sundown closing after his first visit to Ethiopia.

UN chief pushes for concerted efforts to defeat polio

Updated 19 February 2020

UN chief pushes for concerted efforts to defeat polio

  • Pakistan is one of just two countries in the world, besides Afghanistan, where cases of polio are still prevalent

LAHORE: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated the need for unified efforts to effectively eradicate polio from Pakistan, adding that the world needed to “join hands” to fight the menace.

“Together, we can eliminate polio from across the world, and I appeal to all the world leaders to join hands to fight out polio,” Guterres said in comments to the media on Tuesday after participating in an anti-polio drive at a private school in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province.

The UN chief was accompanied by Punjab Health Minister Dr. Yasmeen Rashed, and a coterie of other officials. “He appreciated the federal and provincial governments’ efforts to curb this menace,” Dr. Rashed told Arab News.

Pakistan is one of just two countries in the world, besides Afghanistan, where cases of polio are still prevalent. Guterres said that eradicating polio from the world map was the UN’s first priority, before commending the government and frontline workers for ensuring that Pakistan was now a “safer country as compared to the past.”

“I express solidarity with the workers who laid their lives in the line of duty,” the UN chief said, paying homage to officials who were targeted and killed, following rumors that the immunization programs were harmful for children.

However, by hiring local workers who speak the same language and understand the nuances involved, the campaign has seen better acceptance.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of registered cases of polio stood at 20,000 a year in the early 1990s. That number has dropped down to seven reported cases from various provinces thus far in 2020.

For this year’s drive, more than 265,000 workers have been roped in for a door-to-door, nationwide campaign to ensure no child remains uninoculated.


Guterres said that eradicating polio was the UN’s first priority, before commending the workers for ensuring that Pakistan was now a ‘safer country as compared to the past.’

The five-day initiative, which began on Monday, seeks to vaccinate 39.6 million children under the age of five years.

“It is the second day of the campaign and we are committed to make it a success. Nearly 95,000 polio workers are on the field, going to every house where a child below the age of five years resides,” Hanif Pitafi, Advisor to Punjab Chief Minister on Health, told Arab News.

The Punjab government, for its part, has issued directives to district deputy commissioners to monitor the process at various locations.

“We will leave no stone unturned to save the future of our children...We will achieve our target,” he added.

After participating in the polio drive, Guterres headed to the Kartarpur Corridor, a visa-free initiative launched by Pakistan which allows Sikhs from India and around the world to visit the final resting place of Guru Nanak who founded Sikhism five centuries ago.

“This is the best symbol that we can give for a world in peace and for a world (where) there is mutual respect and acceptance of what is different,” the UN Chief said on Tuesday.

Inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan last year, the four-kilometer Kartarpur Corridor connects the Sikh shrine of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in India’s Punjab region to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. Some 5,000 Indian Sikhs are allowed entry on a daily basis.

“Recognizing the diversity is a blessing, is a richness of a threat which we see in so many parts of the world fighting in the name of religion. It is necessary to say that religions unite us for peace and the best symbol is this shrine,” Guterres said, adding that his visit was “to pay tribute to the contribution of the Sikh community all over the world”.

The UN Chief arrived in Islamabad on Sunday as part of his four-day visit to the country to attend an international conference on Afghan refugees.

The event is being hosted by Pakistan to mark four decades since displacements began from neighboring Afghanistan, by residents seeking to escape a deadly conflict.