BCN-06,07 With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

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With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

ETHIOPIA-ERITREA BORDER, Ethiopia, Oct 14, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – 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, revitalising 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
destabilise the economy.

– Back in business –
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 neighbours 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 honour 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 paralysed 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.
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In Senafe, a trading hub 23 kilometres (14 miles) north of the border, the
impact of the rapprochement is clear.

Twice a week, organised 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.

– Trouble ahead –

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 neighbours 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.

BSS/AFP/HR/0935