The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary

About the author

The international media have a remarkable proclivity for collective reticence, verging on amnesia, when reporting from Africa. It is an unfortunate fact that this vast continent just does not get the exposure it warrants, nor does it generate the public interest necessary to truly tackle its myriad problems. One such example that has now dragged catastrophically for half a decade and will doubtless go unheard until a war justifies media outlets to break their silence is the impasse between Eritrea and Ethiopia over their contested border.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of the "decision" of the Eritrea - Ethiopia boundary commission "regarding delimitation of the border" - a document forged by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, bound by international law, and which both Eritrea and Ethiopia had agreed to ratify, whatever its findings. The report's bromidic vocabulary is enough to send the most excitable news-junkie to sleep, but the importance of this bland 125-page document cannot be understated. To make sense of the tensions in the Horn of Africa requires, at the very least, an understanding of the context of the findings announced on 13 April 2002.

Edward Denison is a heritage consultant, writer and photographer. He has worked in Eritrea since 2001. His books include Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City (Merrell, 2003/2007) and Building Shanghai – The Story of China's Gateway (Wiley, 2006/2007), and Modernism in China (Wiley, 2008). An architectural exhibition based on his Asmara book is travelling around Europe until 2008. He is also the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Eritrea, which he is updating for publication in 2007

Also by Edward Denison in openDemocracy:

"Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war"
(18 January 2006)

"Restoring history in China"
(2 February 2006)

"Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery" (20 December 2006)

"Ethiopia's hostages to history" (5 March 2007)

A place called Badme

The boundary commission's report marked the end of a lengthy consultation "to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law" - in short, to define the boundary between the two countries. This historic decision was to provide the basis for a permanent peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, who had fought a bitter border conflict from May 1998 - December 2000, just five years after Eritrea gained formal independence from Ethiopia to become Africa's youngest nation-state.

Deep in the report is a vital detail around which lasting peace in the Horn might potentially hinge. It concerns the tiny settlement of Badme, near the border and formerly administered by Ethiopia, which was occupied by Eritrea in May 1998. This act sparked a conflict that cost over 100,000 lives and displaced millions. Badme came to symbolise the struggle between the two countries, so the village's eventual placement would serve as a vindication for whichever country was awarded it. So sensitive was the issue, that Badme was not even named in the arbitration document, only the geographical coordinates of the nearby frontier. The simple task of joining the dots on the map revealed that the village belonged to Eritrea - a result so bitter for Ethiopia that it refuses to endorse the commission's findings and in so doing has broken international law.

Normally, when people break laws, they are reprimanded. The same applies to countries, unless your friends make the law. Nowadays it seems more and more permissible for contemporary politicians to bend laws beyond breaking-point as they increasingly fall short of being the statesmen and stateswomen their electors' expect. Legally, Eritrea is in the right, but finds itself viewed internationally as the wrongdoer. With international law on its side, Eritrea has lost the diplomatic game to Ethiopia.

Instead, Eritrea has squandered the goodwill it should have been owed by agreeing to the commission's findings. It has implemented what many see as draconian domestic policies leading to well-documented human-rights abuses executed in the name of national security while the country is economically devastated; meanwhile, it remains in an uncomfortable standoff with its far larger neighbour, which is a past master at diplomacy. Indeed, the roots of Eritrea's struggle for independence from Ethiopia started with the country, once a colony of Italy, being forfeited by the United Nations in the face of some remarkably cunning diplomacy by the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1952. It is, then, small wonder that Eritrea has little or no faith in the system that is meant to defend the rights of all nations.

Two countries, one prejudice

It is understandable too that Ethiopia, albeit illegally, has repudiated the commission's findings; but it is more remarkable that so many foreign observers have been taken in by Ethiopia's line that the 13 April 2002 findings are open to further discussion. This partiality, in which the need to uphold what is morally and legally right gives way to the pursuit by external powers of their perceived interests, is severely obstructing peace in the region.

Also in openDemocracy on conflict in the Horn of Africa:

David Styan, "Tony Blair and Africa – old images, new realities"
(26 May 2005

Peter Hurst, "Somaliland’s democratic lesson"
(5 October 2005

Harun Hassan, "Somalia’s thorny road" (2 August 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads"
(10 January 2007)

Jawahir Adam, "A window to the future" (21 November 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: Mogadishu's ghost days" (5 April 2007)

The twelve-day kidnapping crisis in March 2007, where British embassy personnel based in Addis Ababa strayed into an area (the Dankalia region) where they almost certainly should not have been, demonstrated clearly this latent bias towards Ethiopia. Even in the absence of any evidence, Eritrea was quickly branded the villain. The BBC too could not resist questioning its ambassador to London live on radio in such a way that assumed his country to be the guilty party before any facts had been established.

This prejudice occurs also in diplomatic circles. Ethiopia is seen by leading western states as a major ally in the region, not least in the United States's war on terror which has most recently witnessed its open involvement in Somalia's internal conflict. In addition, Ethiopia's substantial aid from Britain's department for international development has risen from £60 million ($114 million) in 2004-05 to £130m in 2007-08. Its prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is seated on Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, whose website boasts that he is "actively involved in efforts to end the conflicts in Sudan and Somalia, and Africa initiatives to seek a solution to the crisis in Burundi", while allowing one of Africa's largest conflicts to simmer on his own border.

As for Ethiopia's role in Somalia, its presence has already been sullied by suggestions - strenuously denied - of war crimes committed by Ethiopian soldiers on Somali civilians. Meanwhile, Britain and the rest of the international community are increasing support for Addis Ababa instead of applying the pressure needed in order to help move the region towards peace. What can be the purpose of allocating funding for "international development" if the very basis of development is undermined in the process? Without a solution to the border issue, an inevitable war will squander all the resources donated through aid.

Before either side is entitled to receive benefits from the international community, both should first show their commitment to be responsible members of this community by abiding by the laws that define it. Eritrea, in the case of this border issue, has demonstrated its commitment by agreeing unconditionally to the commission's findings in 2002, while Ethiopia continues to reject the document it previously agreed to sign, knowing it has less to lose than its diminutive neighbour does. Only when this contest is resolved can the international community have the moral rectitude to persuade either country to improve its domestic policies and support such endeavours with well-directed aid packages; only then can there be the slightest chance of regional peace.

The international media tends to ignore the Horn of Africa unless it is to gorge on the frequent catastrophes that occur there. As a result, the underlying problems that provide the tinder for the next major conflagration continue to go unmentioned. On the fifth anniversary of the publication of the historic Eritrea - Ethiopia boundary-commission document, the world continues to be indifferent to this troubled corner of the continent. It should not wait until something more "newsworthy" refocuses attention on it, and then rush to apportion blame with little thought for the facts. The time to address this dangerous stand-off, with all its legal and moral implications, is now.