Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, 20 years on: Brothers still at war

On the 20th anniversary of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, an opportunity for sustainable peace may finally be on the horizon.

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    An Eritrean soldier looks across the closed border towards Ethiopia from his post in Serha, Eritria [AP]
    An Eritrean soldier looks across the closed border towards Ethiopia from his post in Serha, Eritria [AP]

    The Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict of 1998-2000 erupted 20 years ago today, when the two countries went to war over the scrubby and desolate plains of Badime that are hardly useful for anything. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, former comrades-in-arms who fought side by side and defeated one of Africa's largest and best-trained armies, morphed into absolutists. Belligerent narratives swiftly became dominant, causing a structural breakdown of communications between the two countries.

    The result was a bloody and senseless WWI-style trench war in which tens of thousands of soldiers ran into machine guns, tanks and artillery fire in waves. The war left an estimated 100,000 dead and more than a million displaced.

    The war also had a devastating effect on the social fabric and the economy of the two countries. Both countries resorted to nationalist framings of identity, territory, and shared history, precipitating conflicting narratives. Both countries diverted scarce resources from vital public services and developmental endeavours into weapons procurement.

    At the height of the war, Ethiopia increased the total size of its army from 60,000 to 350,000 and increased its defence expenditure from $95m in 1997/98 to $777m in 1999/2000. Overall, the cost of the war for Ethiopia was nearly $3bn.

    In the meantime, the size of Eritrea's army increased to 300,000 (almost 10 percent of the population) through National Service Conscription following the outbreak of the war, and the government has been using the intractable stalemate between the two countries as a justification not to demobilise the unsustainably high number of troops for a small nation like Eritrea.

    Conflicting interests, hegemonic aspirations

    The outbreak of the war between the two countries was universally described as astonishing and bewildering. Scholars and commentators across the world, exasperated by the senselessness of the conflict over an imaginary line that runs through the craggy piece of land, offered various explanations ranging from Eritrea's economic woes to the divergent ideologies between the leadership of the two countries and Ethiopia's desire to regain access to the sea.

    What is clear, however, is that the border dispute that was presented as the official reason behind the outbreak of the war was simply a mask for other much deeper and complex problems and hegemonic aspirations. 

    Although officially an armed conflict between two sovereign nations, the Ethiopian-Eritrean War was largely viewed as a conflict between the ruling elites belonging to Peoples' Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the two political movements which dominated the politics of the two countries at the time. At most, it is a conflict between the Tigrinya speaking people of the Eritrean highlands, and the Tigrayans of Ethiopia. As Gerbru Asrat, former Politburo member of the TPLF observed, "only Tigray, not the whole of Ethiopia, is Eritrea's target."

    Though the underlying political and economic differences were far from being insurmountable, the animosity, rage, scorn and bitterness between these two movements and their leadership made a political resolution impossible.

    The Algiers Agreement

    After the fall of Badme to Ethiopia, the series of international mediation efforts within the Organization of African Unity and other multilateral organisations culminated in the adoption by the two countries of the Algiers Peace Agreement. In June of 2000, the two countries agreed to "permanently terminate military hostilities" and establish a "neutral Boundary Commission" that will have full authority to delimit and demarcate the boundaries. The peace treaty, which was also signed by the United States, the European Union, the African Union, and the United Nations, as guarantors, authorised the Commission to issue a "final and binding" decision. In April 2002, the Boundary Commission rendered its decision, ruling that the flashpoint town of Badme is part of Eritrea. Ethiopia refused to comply with the decision, setting the stage for a stalemate that still reverberates across the Horn of Africa.

    Intractable predicament

    The political stalemate that ensued from the war and stubbornly persisted for two decades proved to be exclusivist and alienating. The conflict shattered family lives of millions of people on both sides of the border. It deprived landlocked Ethiopia of access to Eritrean ports. It cut off Eritrea from access to the largest market in the region. Both countries diverted massive resources from their already meagre budgets for military activity and still have thousands of troops manning their borders. In pursuit of their respective interests, the two countries engaged in hostile activities against one another, making a rapprochement even more difficult.

    The dispute between the two countries has also been a vital factor of intractability for the Horn of Africa region. In 2006, Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia to fight the Islamic Courts Union. Although Ethiopia's targets were Eritrean advisors in Mogadishu and Ethiopia's concern about the long-term consequences of Eritrean influence in Somali politics, Ethiopia announced the war as part of the "global war on terror" to garner US financial and diplomatic support. The US fell for the ruse and became a key sponsor of Ethiopia's mission.

    Despite the intensity of the hostilities, the political landscaping is shifting, and there is a growing recognition by all the parties that the status quo is unsustainable.

     

    Driven by both domestic and regional considerations, Ethiopia sought to build a reputation as a critical partner in the "global war on terror", becoming a key ally of the West and one of the top recipients of the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund and the Department of State's East Africa Regional Strategic Initiative. Ethiopian leaders used this alliance with the West to isolate and contain Eritrea, playing a key role in the 2009 US-sponsored UN arms sanction against Eritrea imposed for its alleged support of "terrorist" movements. Although a UN panel of experts found no evidence of Eritrean support and recommended the lifting of the sanctions, the Security Council extended the sanctions in November 2017. 

    In 2016, Eritrea reportedly leased the Port of Asab to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who set up a military base there. Although Eritrea denied the report, there are credible claims that UAE is developing the base and using it for the war effort in Yemen.

    Despite the intensity of the hostilities, the political landscaping is shifting, and there is a growing recognition by all the parties that the status quo is unsustainable.

    Unique opportunities

    In a gesture of reconciliation, Ethiopia's brand-new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, expressed his readiness to resolve the differences between the two countries through dialogue. "With the government of Eritrea," he said, "we want from the bottom of our hearts that the disagreement that has reigned for years to come to an end." Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, from the Oromo ethnic group, has a unique chance of ending the stalemate and opening a new chapter towards a peaceful coexistence by highlighting the transformative economic and social opportunities peace would bring both sides. He does not have the baggage that Meles Zenawi had and has a much better room for manoeuvre than his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn.

    However, the real test he faces is going beyond reconciliatory gestures or diplomatic pleasantries attempted by his predecessors. Most importantly, Abiy must commit Ethiopia to full compliance with the Commission's decision and reverse Ethiopia's legally and politically unsustainable position on Badme. He must send a clear signal to the Eritreans and the international community that Ethiopia will honour its end of the deal. Eritrea has the weight of an internationally binding judgement on its side and is right to demand Ethiopia's compliance with that decision.

    This would serve as a critical confidence-building measure between the two countries, and would pave the way towards the complex and gruelling task of working through the political and economic conditions that led to the war that ripped the fabric of the two societies apart.

    There is also a change in attitude in Washington and Brussels. On April 22, Undersecretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto visited Eritrea and there are reports that the current administration is open to talks. Europeans have already begun engaging with the Eritrean government. Under pressure to address the refugee crisis, they have been engaging the government and they would not hesitate to end the sanctions and support a peace initiative between the countries.

    The peaceful resolution of the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict would strengthen regional stability and restore confidence and resilience to the economy of both countries. It is imperative for all those who care about the long-term stability and economic viability of the region to do everything they can to help the two countries move beyond the senseless war that wrought so much suffering on both people.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

    Radio Erena: Eritrea's free voice and refugee hotline

    The Listening Post

    Radio Erena: Eritrea's free voice and refugee hotline


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