Accompanied by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Advisor Yemane Ghebreab, the Eritrean president arrived at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport last Sunday and was cordially received by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
At a time when world leaders are choosing to hold virtual meetings, Mr Afeworki’s decision to meet PM Ahmed in person has raised eyebrows.
In addition, his trip to Ethiopia breaks the current internationally held social distancing norms.
The two leaders are said to have held discussions on the global threat of Covid-19 and on the invasion by desert locusts that has posed a big threat to regional food security.
So, why did they choose to meet physically on issues they could discuss on the phone or via video link?
Eritrean political analysts postulate that the reason for the trip was beyond the issues announced publicly.
“It is said that they met to discuss Covid-19 but Eritrea has already refused to even receive medical supplies donated by Chinese [philanthropist] Jack Ma. So how are they expected to discuss this issue? This relationship is unsettling to me,” Eritrean human rights activist Desbele Mehari told the BBC Amharic.
He criticised Mr Afeworki’s trip to Ethiopia as “a historical mistake”.
President Afeworki was recently quoted by local media saying that the coronavirus outbreak “should not deter us from continuing to engage in our other regional focus”.
But his critics say that leaders should rather focus on preventing the spread of the virus.
“This is not a time for leaders to play political games,” said Haile Hagos, another Eritrean political analyst and rights activist who strongly criticised the leaders’ meeting.
During his two-day visit, Mr Afeworki and the Ethiopian prime minister also inaugurated an irrigation project located outside the capital in Oromia regional state.
“I don’t see the urgency to inaugurate projects abroad while there are pressing health issues that need to be dealt with at home” said Mr Hagos.
“While the country is under lockdown, the president’s travel to Ethiopia with the intension to create other political agendas will hold him historically accountable,” he added.
Last month, social media was awash with speculations about the Eritrean leader’s health after he failed to appear in public for several weeks. The trip to Addis Ababa may have been partly intended to disabuse any notions about his health. But ironically, it may have risked it.
“After the latest bout of intensified rumours, President Afeworki may have wanted to make a strong statement that not only was he in good health, but that he still maintains positive relations with Abiy and is still active in regional diplomacy,” William Davison, International Crisis Group (ICG) senior analyst for Ethiopia told the Nation.
President Afeworki’s visit was also meant to discuss the implementation of comprehensive cooperation agreements the two neighbours previously signed.
“There is much to be discussed between the two leaders relating to the normalisation between the two countries, whether on establishing a bilateral trading regime or advancing joint infrastructure projects as well the pandemic and locust outbreak” said William Davison.
“Additionally, there is the refugee issue after Ethiopia stopped automatically granting asylum status to Eritreans and closed a camp in Tigray region.
“While presumably Isaias approves of that, it has further increased tensions between Tigray’s rulers and Ethiopia’s federal government, as the northern Ethiopian region complained it was not consulted,” Mr Davison added.
According to Mr Davison, the two leaders may as well have wanted to discuss the evolution of Sudan’s transition, the latest stalemate between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and developments in Somalia.
The Ethiopia-Eritrean relationship is not yet fully institutionalised and there is a strong likelihood of tête-à-tête encounter between the two leaders that may have fallen short of the international social distancing norms.