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Ethiopia's hostages to history

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The kidnapping of British government officials in northern Ethiopia, incarcerated in a hostile environment and far from any obvious means of communication with the outside world, would inevitably cause a diplomatic disaster. Such an intractable problem would demand a cunning solution, but this appeared to elude the British government for some time. One of the more hawkish proposals was to send the Royal Navy to the Red Sea and bombard Ethiopia - some 225 miles away. The chronic failure to understand the local lie of the land when planning such a military offensive might be forgiven, since the year this particular incident took place was 1867.

Emperor Theodore (Tewodros) of Ethiopia was then holding his captives - including the British consul, Captain Charles Cameron - at the fort of Magdala, high in the Ethiopian mountains. Theodore had become exasperated by Queen Victoria's repeated failure to reply to his letters requesting Britain's help in his various military campaigns. In a state of extreme frustration he decided to take the severe measure of targeting the British empire's local representatives.

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)

Land without law

A similar sense of frustration appears to have befallen a number of people in northern Ethiopia last week, who successfully kidnapped a group of foreign (French and British) tourists, including British diplomatic staff and their families. It is still unclear what motivated this recent kidnapping. Was it a bungled robbery by local tribesmen or bandits? Perhaps it was carried out by a group of Ethiopian dissidents aiming to draw attention to their cause within the notoriously loose Ethiopian federation. Casting the net of accusations wider still, some officials were quick to point the finger at Ethiopia's northern neighbour Eritrea.

This seems a highly dubious accusation. For Eritrea, even throughout its thirty-year "struggle" for independence with Ethiopia, kidnapping foreigners was a tactic rarely employed, and then only in an effort to raise the profile of the campaign for self-determination. Yet the rest of the world remained astonishingly indifferent to Eritrea's cause, before or after the victorious guerrilla movement, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), secured the country's independence in 1991.

The EPLF has since morphed into the country's ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and is presided over by the same leader, Isaias Afewerki. A decision to kidnap foreigners from within Ethiopia would not only be highly audacious and extremely risky, but also a break from tradition.

Eritrea does, however, have a motive, of sorts. The disputed border between Eritrea and Ethiopia remains the single biggest obstacle to peace in the region. After fighting a bitter conflict between 1998-2000 that cost over 100,000 lives and displaced over a million people, Eritrea and Ethiopia remain in an uncomfortable state of limbo - not at war, not in peace. Although this uneasy status quo affects diminutive Eritrea far more than it does Ethiopia, which is twenty times its size, what hurts Eritrea most is that international law is on their side yet not being enforced by the international community.

In April 2002, the Eritrea-Ethiopia boundary commission, based at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, announced its decision that legally defined the border between these two countries. The decision, as agreed by both sides in the initial peace agreement in June 2000, was final and binding: non-negotiable. Both sides were bound by international law to approve the commission's decision. Eritrea has. Ethiopia has not. It is that simple.

For nearly four years, Ethiopia has attempted to alter the terms of the border ruling, which were seen to vindicate Eritrea. These attempts to circumvent international law have the consent of western democracies. Officials in these governments know this and are ashamed, but their hands are tied - Ethiopia is seen as a more useful regional ally than Eritrea generally, as well as in more explicit projects generated by the "war on terror".

The installation by force of the transitional government in Mogadishu in December 2006 at the expense of its Union of Islamic Courts adversaries, which could not have been achieved without Ethiopia's involvement, is evidence of this unofficial pact. In flouting the very laws it created, the international community is contributing to Eritrea's indescribable suffering. If a group sympathetic to Eritrea's cause has kidnapped these foreigners, their actions might not be right, but how much less right are they than breaking the international law that defines the very bounds of a country?

The waiting game

In 1867, Britain's solution to Ethiopia's kidnapping of government officials embodied a face-saving display of epic proportions. In December that year, General Sir Robert Napier was sent from Bombay to Annesley Bay, now the Gulf of Zula on Eritrea's coast, with an army of 13,000 soldiers, 8,000 labourers and 36,000 animals with the instruction to march to the Ethiopian highlands and secure the release of Theodore's captives. The force arrived in Magdala on 15 April 1868, where they swiftly defeated Theodore's army and freed the British consul and other officials - the faith in their empire restored. Theodore was found dead by his own hand, shot in the mouth with a pistol said to have been a gift from Queen Victoria.

The modern-day equivalent of Napier's expedition is less of a burden on Britain's treasury. A small group comprising about ten British officials, including an expert hostage-negotiator, and, allegedly, personel from the SAS, have flown to Ethiopia and are now in Dankalia, where the kidnapping occurred. This region, straddling the border with Eritrea, is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. The people living there, the Afar, are revered for their toughness (at one time - thankfully no longer - an Afar male had to kill a man in order to pass into adulthood; the testicles of the victim made a decorative trophy around the neck of the newly accredited elder).

In this environment, the task for the intermediaries will not be easy. Although their mission is to ensure the swift and safe release of these unfortunate souls, they will also become acutely aware of the divisive politics that undermines this entire region. Whether a bungled robbery, the machinations of a domestic squabble, or an attempt by Eritrean sympathisers to cast the spotlight on a much larger travesty of justice, the fact that this story has made it onto the headline news of western media outlets is an achievement in itself for the architects of the incident.


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