Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war

Edward Denison
18 January 2006

The “year of Africa” proclaimed by grateful western political leaders and music celebrities showered considerable policy and media attention on the continent but in too many cases allowed serious problems away from the spotlight to fester. Nowhere is this truer than the Horn of Africa, where there were many signs that the dangerous territorial dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia might bring these two shattered countries to a repeat of their 1998-2000 war.

Unless the dynamic of escalation can be halted in 2006, the likely result is a war that will devastate the lives of millions. If it occurs, the “international community” should do more than blame the usual suspects – namely megalomaniacal African leaders, in this case Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki. Rather, the primary responsibility will lie closer to home, chiefly with the self-interest of western governments, a catastrophic failure of international law, and the impotence of the United Nations.

The acrimonious relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia is both ancient and new. Resentful ethnic stereotypes run deep, but more recent political events have added a toxic element of embitterment. Whipped into this unstable mix is the fact that the Horn of Africa is a region at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa where the ambitions of the world’s greatest powers have collided with local populations, religions and political formations for centuries.

This is as true today as it has ever been. Eritrea and Ethiopia currently face each other across a border, which also serves as a temporary security zone manned by 3,337 military personnel of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (Unmee). The sanctity of this border is the cornerstone of lasting peace. Ambiguous demarcation was arguably the key cause of the previous war that raged from May 1998 to December 2000.

War between Eritrea and Ethiopia does not conform to the lethal African stereotype of conjoined machete and AK47. High-tech weaponry employed on an old-fashioned battlefield takes barbarity to a different level. In just eighteen months, up to 100, 000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The ensuing misery permeates life’s every detail in the region.

Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement on 12 December 2000, the terms of which stipulated that a specially appointed United Nations boundary commission would oversee the border demarcation. The commission’s judgment would be final and binding. Both countries signed on the dotted line. Lasting peace, it seemed, was plausible.

In April 2002, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced the decision. Both sides immediately declared it a success and a vindication of their actions in the war. However, critically, the name of the tiny settlement of Badme, a village near the border, was noticeably absent from the official report.

Badme was administered by Ethiopia before the war and Eritrea’s brash attempts to liberate the village by force led to the first shots of the war being fired. Due to the village’s adopted significance, the UN’s experts had decided not to mention its name in their official report, but it was quickly apparent that Badme had been awarded to Eritrea. This fact alone, in the eyes of Eritrea, was the ultimate vindication. The UN had upheld Eritrea’s consistent claim that Badme was Eritrean and it was time now for Ethiopia to withdraw. It still has not.

An impossible problem

Herein lies the nucleus of this impossible problem. For three years, the UN and the international community have failed to impose The Hague’s ruling on Ethiopia, while the Eritrean government has stuck doggedly to this point of principle: the inviolability of international law should be sacrosanct.

In spite of this, Ethiopia has courted international governments and organisations with sublime aplomb. Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, is a member of Tony Blair’s all-male Commission for Africa and is a darling of Bob Geldof. He even appeared at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2005, bending the ears of the world’s political heavyweights. It is small wonder Eritrea is incensed and disillusioned.

Zenawi is the latest in a long line of supremely gifted Ethiopian diplomats stretching back beyond Haile Selassie, who, in June 1936, famously pleaded in vain to the League of Nations against Italy’s invasion. The same diplomatic proficiency saw Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia sanctioned by the UN in 1952, a decision that led to much of the hostility that has characterised the Horn since. Exactly half a century later, the UN’s impotence has undermined Eritrea’s legitimate right for self-determination, which it won in 1991 after a thirty-year “struggle” with Ethiopia.

This international impasse has forced Eritrea into a corner where, despite having justice on its side, it has no international support. This is a dark and lonely position for any country to be in. Unfortunately, the conduct of the Eritrean government has been far from deft. It closed the free press on 18 September 2001, and has since jailed many journalists, politicians and religious figures without trial, citing national security as an overriding precedence. According to the international journalism watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, Eritrea is a media “black hole” ranking second worse in the world to North Korea. Eritrea’s once celebrated democratic process is defunct and a distant memory, and its Amnesty International report reads like an advertisement for Abaddon.

With nearly 10% of its 4.5 million population standing guard along its southern border against Ethiopia (whose population exceeds 73 million), this constant watch is an unsustainable burden on Eritrea’s economy, depriving the tiny nation of a trained labour force, while draining scarce resources. To counter this, national service serves as a cheap workforce. All Eritrean men and women from the age of 18-40 have to undertake demoralising jobs in government departments or be made to build the nation’s undeveloped infrastructure for pitiful monthly salaries of $3-$30. Conscientious objectors are rounded up in frequent raids on homes and incarcerated in prisons or Eritrea’s infamous military training camp, Sawa.

If the loss of freedom is a symptom of Eritrea’s passing, Sawa is the tumour. Once a military camp in the lowland desert of western Eritrea where students would have to undergo six-months military training, Sawa is now a self-contained training camp under the aegis of the Eritrean military where the country’s school students have to complete their “education”. The brutal reputation of this camp, where rape and torture have been well documented, instils an awesome fear into Eritrea’s youth.

Hope has deserted Eritrea along with tens of thousands of young Eritrean refugees who want only the freedom to influence their own destiny. This is not possible in their homeland, where no one can leave the country lawfully without an exit visa. For most Eritreans, this is impossible to obtain.

The Horn and the world

With such a poor record, it is understandable that international governments refuse to fund Eritrea’s development, yet in 2005 Britain’s department for international development had an aid budget for Ethiopia of more than £60 million. Ethiopia’s achievements in the year it was awarded this bounteous largesse consisted of a continued refusal to honour international law, national elections widely acknowledged to be flawed, the killing of student demonstrators, the arrest of political opposition, and a well-known weapons shopping-spree.

In addition to the obvious devastation a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia would reap on these two nations, its wider consequences would be felt worldwide. The fragile peace in neighbouring Sudan might be threatened, it might cause the disintegration of Ethiopia, and it would make America’s task of supervising its “war on terror” from its bases in the region very much harder.

America bears many scars from meddling in the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian communists who deposed Haile Selassie in 1974 ejected it unceremoniously from its huge military base, Kagnew Station, in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and its interventions in Somalia in the 1990s ended in disaster. Up to now, America has hedged its bets with Ethiopia, whom it sees as a major ally in its phoney war, but in the last few days, it has assembled a team to try and break the deadlock. In another country whose administration deals only in the extremes of right and wrong, America should understand the icy reception it will get if it tries to convince Eritrea of anything other than upholding international law over the border decision. History books are unambiguous about what happens to those who pursue a policy of self-interest in the Horn. If Eritrea and Ethiopia start fighting, America should take a note from history and be cautious of pursuing a policy of self-interest.

Also in openDemocracy about Eritrea and Ethiopia:

Ann Pettifor, “Ethiopia: the price of indifference” (February 2004)

David Styan, “Tony Blair and Africa – old images, new realities”
(May 2005)

Becky Hogge on Michela Wrong’s I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation (August 2005)

Ethiopia’s problems are as complex and deep-rooted as Eritrea’s, but despite the claims against the Eritrean government’s conduct, Eritrea’s consistent stand over the ruling of international law is legitimate and unbowed and, in its eyes, precedes all other reforms. Until the world’s leaders are willing to uphold justice over the border ruling, no one is in a position to indict others over extraneous misdeeds. Everyone is guilty. An Ethiopian withdrawal from Badme would force Eritrea to deliver its former promises of democracy, a free press, religious freedom, civil liberty, and demilitarisation. Until then, national security remains a supreme excuse for repression.

Eritrea’s frustration is now so great that on 7 December 2005 it expelled American, European, Russian and Canadian UN staff from the peacekeeping mission based in the country. In October 2005, it banned the UN from flying their helicopters in Eritrean airspace. The UN mission is now little more than an impotent force costing the global taxpayer half a million dollars a day.

As if to drive the final nail into the coffin, an International Commission in The Hague ruled on 21 December that Eritrea had no right to invade Badme in 1998. Ethiopia is drafting a reparations bill that will run into hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, it seems, international law is on both sides. Stalemate.

As both countries continue to spend millions of dollars on weapons from east-central Europe, there is every possibility that this “year of Africa” will witness a conflict that will stain the hands of the Asmara and Addis Ababa governments, the international community, and the United Nations. The world should pay attention before dangerous brinkmanship turns once again to terrible tragedy.

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