Eritrea has been battling again. For nearly two weeks to be precise. That’s how long it took to defeat the adversaries - and it’s a development that has been hailed as a new beginning for peace.
But this time it was football. Eritrea’s nail-biting journey to the final of the First African Military Games in Nairobi has held the country entranced. The advance of Eritrea’s "Army Camels" through the competition showed a flair that officials hope will eventually lead to Eritrea’s inclusion in the international sporting scene. But for now, Guinea was the foe to be defeated.
So it wasn’t the African Cup of Nations, but the spectacle was uncannily similar to the tournament’s penalty shoot-out final between Senegal and Cameroon earlier this year. And for Eritreans it might as well have been the World Cup. For most of the young Eritrean players this was the first time they had left their country.
Tense until the finish, at 2-1 down, Eritrea was awarded a penalty, drawing howls of protest from furious Guinean players, who rounded on the referee. Kenyan security forces had to intervene to restore order. But the penalty was played, Eritrea equalised, and the game then went into extra time, followed by a penalty shoot-out. Penalty after penalty, until Guinea missed on its 10th attempt, and the cup went to Eritrea.
“After the border ruling, this was our second victory,” team coach Major Negash Teklit told IRIN. “This is a good beginning for peace.”
Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have claimed victory after a ruling on their common border announced earlier this month by an independent Boundary Commission. It is hoped the move will usher in peaceful times between the two neighbours who fought a bitter two-year border war.
Major Negash said there had been jubilation and celebrations on the streets of Asmara over the weekend. He said he hoped peace would now allow the development of the country’s sporting prowess. Eritrea’s football victory was the best way of consolidating a new peaceful era, Eritrean officials noted.
“Personally, I take this as a declaration of the Eritrean army’s readiness to move towards peaceful artistic competition after a successful national war of self-defence, if circumstances allow,” Eritrea’s deputy ambassador to Kenya, Teweldemedhin Tesfamariam, said.
“This is a good sign of better times for Africa, especially in the Horn,” he added.
The organisers point out the First African Military Games were held under the motto of “friendship through sport”, in the hope that the regular staging of such an event will help promote peace on the continent.
Kenya's Major-General Jackson Tuwei, the director in charge of organising the games, told IRIN the competition had been held to "bring the African military together in a peaceful environment, rather than on the battlefield".
"There has never before been a continent-wide military event like this one," he stressed. He said the African Military Games - which will now be held every four years - were organised as a build-up towards the World Military Games later this year.
The peaceful victory by Eritrea’s army team comes as the first military demobilisations get under way in the country. Under a demobilisation pilot scheme, 5,000 soldiers are due to receive their release papers.