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Growing cooperation in neighbourhood conflicts

When Ethiopia’s President Abiy Ahmed Ali was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, he was cited for his efforts toward international cooperation and easing the border tensions with Eritrea.

Ethiopia and Eritrea share a border that is about 1,000 km long. Relations between the two countries have been prickly, punctuated with wars for over half a century. It all began in 1952, when the UN followed its ham-handed way of dealing with colonies and made Eritrea a part of Ethiopia (recall the problems of UN ‘mandates’ in that region). Eritrea had been colonised by Italy and then England. Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, but border disputes remained and each side accused the other of harbouring dissidents and separatists. Both countries would take the opposite sides of almost all disputes and issues in the region. Meanwhile, split families wondered when they would be able to visit each other. However, Abiy Ahmed turned the tide after coming to office in 2018. He lifted the state of emergency, released political prisoners and also aided other normalisation efforts in Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti.

That takes courage, especially with today’s so-called wave of nationalism, when leaders declare their nation as being ‘first’ in something or the other and find ways to poke others in the eye in international forums. US President Trump has made that his signature. Being neighbourly after a history of intransigence requires breaking a mould. We should have learned more enduring lessons from how former enemies in Europe, like the French and the Germans, buried their differences and now work closely together within the EU.

It’s common now to hear of border problems everywhere — neighbours claiming territories or closely monitoring each other for infiltration by troublemakers or economic migrants.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, but continue to struggle with the different cultures they inherited from their respective colonial masters, France and Spain. The DR has done much better economically, and illegal migration of Haitians to the DR has kept tensions high.

But other developments show that good neighbourliness may also be trying to stage a comeback, following the Ethiopian example.

Poland, an EU member, shares a 530-km border with Ukraine, which suffers under Russia’s long shadow. Many Ukrainians, looking for peace and employment, have migrated to Poland. Although Poland has resisted EU quotas to take in refugees from Syria and elsewhere, it has welcomed the Ukrainians as it finds letting in the Ukrainians eases their labour shortage. In 2017, over 85 per cent of residence permits to non-EU citizens are estimated to have gone to Ukrainians.

Ghana and the Ivory Coast, neighbours in West Africa, have had their ups and downs over the years, with Ghana accusing its neighbour of harbouring dissidents. Most recently, maritime border disputes began after oil was discovered off Ghana’s shore. Although the two countries grow 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa, their cocoa farmers live on less than $3 (about ₹210) a day. The two countries have now agreed on a strategy to levy a ‘living-income differential’ of $400 per tonne, which will create a fund to support farmers. Such cooperation amongst poor commodity producing countries would help retain some of the surplus, now grabbed by middle-men like traders and speculators. Perhaps Narendra Modi and Imran Khan may be inspired by these developments, and a Nobel peace prize may not be a bad incentive! A good start towards a mature relationship may be to stop the silly shadow boxing at the Wagah border.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston.

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