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Ethiopia and Eritrea’s unregulated tensions
Simmering tensions on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea are close to boiling point, following the withdrawal of UN troops from the buffer zone. However, Nicole Stremlau believes domestic pressures are forcing the governments to express their aggression in other arenas.
On 14 March 2008, a blast demolished a bus in northern Ethiopia killing eight people and wounding 26. The government was quick to blame Eritrea, a charge the Eritrean government denies. The explosion coincided with the withdrawal of more than 700 United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) troops from Eritrea in March after the government in Asmara cut off fuel supplies to the mission in December 2007.
These events have heightened international concerns that another border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea may be forthcoming. With a severely restricted UNMEE mission, an important deterrent to renewed hostilities has been removed.
However, the Eritrean government has restricted the movement of UNMEE in the past, if not as dramatically, and the Ethiopian government has accused Eritrea of planting bombs on buses previously (some of which critics later claimed were planted by the Ethiopian government).
In reality, both sides recently reiterated their commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully and, although this does not necessarily demonstrate a commitment to non-violent means, a war would not serve either government’s strategic interests. It therefore appears more likely the status quo along the border will hold as each government tries to defeat the other through existing fronts of an ongoing conflict and struggle for regional hegemony.
Concern over a possible conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea stems from the antagonistic history between the two neighbors. The last border war, which lasted from May 1998 to June 2000 and cost approximately 70,000 lives, stemmed from a lengthy and convoluted history of friction between the two states. Border tensions between Eritreans and the neighboring Tigrayans, who form the core of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), have deep roots.
In the mid-1970s, the secessionist Eritrean Liberation Front (from which the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) subsequently split) and the insurgent Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) together contested the boundaries of administrative zones of Ethiopia that included the presently contested town of Badme.
During the guerrilla struggle, there were differences in political ideology between these two allies including the role of nationalities within a democratic state. This was also expressed in differing military strategies and foreign alignments. As a result of their divergent political ideologies but shared objective in overthrowing the Derg regime (a goal finally achieved in
mid-1991), the TPLF described the relationship as more tactical than a real partnership. In the mid-1980s this tension even led the TPLF and EPLF to temporarily break off formal relations. Eritrea has always been wary of Tigrayan nationalism and irredentism. While the EPLF was clear its struggle was anti-colonial and one of secession from Ethiopia, the TPLF at times shifted its manifesto from the establishment of a greater Tigrayan state (which would possibly include Tigrayan speakers in Eritrea) to leadership in a new Ethiopia. Eritrea, unsure of whether Tigray would choose to secede from Ethiopia and seek independence, an action that could involve conflict, has often been distrustful of Tigrayan intentions. While the TPLF has regarded any boundary between Eritrea and Tigray in the context of territorially defining the Tigrayan state, should they ever choose to establish one, Eritrea has consistently maintained that the borders should be along colonial lines and made the issue non-negotiable.
When the TPLF came to power in Ethiopia through the umbrella of the EPRDF in 1991, it was after a period of co-operation with the EPLF. None of the parties wanted to address these and other divisive issues in the early days of victory. These guerrilla movements, which made up the core of the ruling EPRDF and People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) parties, continued their strategy of informal negotiation and assumed understandings. Demarcating the border was simply not a priority, nor was outlining specifically what arrangements would comprise this new economic and political partnership. This decision was conducive to subsequent clashes of misunderstandings and ideologies.
Economic disagreements, such as when Eritrea decided to switch from the Ethiopian currency to its own in 1997, and frequent efforts on the part of the EPRDF to damage Eritrea economically sparked tensions. Similarly, disagreements on citizenship and sovereignty created distrust and suspicion.
At the core was a competition between two groups for regional supremacy and a desire for Eritrea to assert and demonstrate its independence. Both sides misjudged the extent to which this was driving internal politics and was an inherent part of each ruling party’s political ideology. Eritrea gave the EPRDF the benefit of the doubt that they were generally seeking to create a multi-ethnic federalist state (however much they disagreed with the concept) and notably failed to heed the early warning signs when the Oromo Liberation Front left the EPRDF to continue its guerrilla struggle, claiming not all parties were equal. Similarly, the EPRDF believed somehow because it had ‘given’ Eritrea its independence in 1993, Eritrea was to be subservient to the greater Ethiopian project.
War and peace
In a sense, the border war from 1998 to 2000 resolved many of these disagreements, albeit at great human expense. Informal economic and political interactions and assumptions that had caused such strain have ceased. The two countries no longer trade and Ethiopia has switched to using the ports of Djibouti and Somaliland.
There is now no doubt that Eritrea is independent both politically and economically, nor does there appear to be much desire on the part of Ethiopians to re-conquer Eritrea, one of Asmara’s great concerns. The struggle for regional domination remains a source of tension as it manifests itself on different fronts. However, now it is balanced by a change in domestic political dynamics that in 1998 supported, and even encouraged, the border conflict, but currently reduces the political benefit a renewal of the violence could offer both countries.
After decades of guerrilla struggle that involved all generations and successfully defeated a superpower with little outside help, Eritrea was an exceptionally militarized society. This continues today with approximately 5 per cent of the population serving in the military, mass conscriptions and mandatory national service, which has been extended indefinitely. The right to conscientious objection is not recognized by the authorities. However, after suffering heavy losses from the previous war, with casualties in the tens of thousands, much of the population has become weary of constantly being mobilized and the ruinous economic costs of conflict. The diaspora, which was the major financial contributor to the guerrilla struggle and border war, is also increasingly disillusioned.
Domestic discontent is at such a high level that the government has made it treason to try to leave the country without permission. While the previous conflict was seen as part of the struggle for independence, it would be difficult to see how another border war would be seen in the same light.
The domestic political environment in Ethiopia has similarly shifted. The war in 1998 also had widespread support from the Ethiopian population that was angry at the secession of Eritrea. The EPRDF used the war as an opportunity to express its credentials of Ethiopian unity among those skeptical of the new ethnic federalist arrangement and Tigrayan hegemony.
For a brief moment, the EPRDF succeeded in uniting the country behind a common cause and reached a high level of support, including from opposition groups. However, in the aftermath of the highly contested 2005 elections and the related violence that followed, many elites, among others, became completely alienated from the democratic process and the EPRDF. While the previous war earned their support and interest, debate within the opposition-related groups suggests they would not support another war but see it as a conflict between two dictators.
This does not make conflict in the short term impossible. The removal of UN troops from the Eritrean side of the border is a deeply troubling development. All 32 UNMEE contingent posts and team sites in the temporary security zone (TSZ) have been temporarily vacated pending a decision of the UN Security Council regarding UNMEE’s future.
While UNMEE still has some capacity on the Ethiopian side of the border to monitor events, which will remain there according to an UNMEE representative who spoke to Jane’s , it is limited to just a few posts as the TSZ was located primarily within Eritrean territory.
The UN has stated it is would be possible for UNMEE to continue if Eritrea were to lift all restrictions on the mission and resume fuel supplies. However, this appears unlikely in the near future. It is more probable that a UN observation force could be established or another compromise reached.
In the meantime, an estimated 200,000 heavily armed troops are staring across a small demilitarized zone. With scant neutral arbitration this situation is an accident waiting to happen; individual error or misperception could ignite a full-scale conflict. When pride runs high, coupled with an absolute reluctance to compromise, a provocation could be a tipping point.
However, the risk remains primarily one of unintentional conflict and subsequent escalation, rather than conscious policies of fomenting war. Both sides have explicitly stated they do not want a war and there appears to be little domestic or international benefit for them to resume border hostilities. Although neither ruling party is particularly sensitive to domestic or international pressure, and Ethiopia may desire to overthrow the government in Asmara, both sides rather appear to be attempting to further their goals with less intrusive strategies.
Fighting on other fronts
Ethiopia and Eritrea have been continuing their inter-state conflict along many fronts, most notably through supporting one another’s opposition groups and fighting a proxy war in south-central Somalia. Both countries seek regime change in each other’s capitals and work actively towards such ends. Continuing the war in these theatres is likely to be preferable to reigniting a border conflict.
Eritrea , in particular, has been transparent in its support of guerrilla insurgency groups operating in Ethiopia, both financial and through training and arms supply. Historically, it has been most influential in supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), but more recently it has been an important ally of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an organization operating in southeastern Ethiopia that has been gaining momentum for its campaign from the conflict in south-central Somalia.
Further complicating the relationship, the Eritrean government has been supporting local opposition parties in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, from which the prime minister and the core of the ruling EPRDF party hail. Along the border, Eritrea has been increasingly frustrated by Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the agreement by the International Border Commission, which calls for the demarcation of the border placing the contested town of Badme in Eritrea’s territory. While Eritrea may be justified in being angry with the international community for what it perceives as double standards towards itself and Ethiopia, it has handled the situation in such a way that has alienated potential allies such as the United States. As Ethiopia is a key supporter of the US-led war on terrorism, its unwillingness to cede this symbolic town has been tolerated by its allies, who are hesitant to press the EPRDF on a sensitive issue that could threaten its already weak domestic legitimacy.
Ethiopia ’s strategy for destabilizing Eritrea has been to utilize its preferential international position by encouraging the alienation and isolation of Prime Minister Isaias Afewerki.
The EPRDF has used strong anti-Eritrean propaganda internationally and typically blames internal disturbances or violence on ‘Eritrean-sponsored terrorists’. This has gained some momentum, as demonstrated when US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer suggested in September 2007 that Eritrea should be considered for the US Department of State list of state terrorist sponsors.
More directly, the Ethiopian government has also been supporting its share of Eritrean opposition groups by hosting them in Addis Ababa and in March assisted them in launching a satellite TV channel, Dehai Eritrea Television, beamed from Ethiopia. Both countries also continue to confront each other daily in a proxy war in Somalia. While Eritrea very much hopes Ethiopia will be bogged down in a costly insurgency, the war is also having domestic impacts, threatening the leadership of the ruling parties, a factor of which both sides are aware. Ethiopians are highly critical of their country’s intervention in Somalia to support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which some see as a move by the EPRDF to shore up American support and prevent democratic change in Addis. As an indicator, the mood among many Ethiopians in the capital city appears to be angrier with the EPRDF than with their long-term enemies the Somalis.
Eritreans are also growing increasingly wary that the PFDJ is so solidly supporting the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which has been allowed to operate in Asmara. Well-publicized UIC meetings, including high-profile members such as former shura head Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, have been held in Asmara and a Somali opposition group, the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, has been formed in Eritrea by UIC members such as head of security affairs Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Given the accusations of terrorist links, the alliance with the UIC has furthered Eritrea’s international isolation.
The government propaganda in both Ethiopia and Eritrea remains focused on the struggle in Somalia, suggesting this is the predominant sphere of confrontation for the future.
No easy solutions
Ethiopia and Eritrea retain regional hegemonic ambitions, while the PFDJ and EPRDF are weak domestically. Neither country appears eager to open a new front on an ongoing war. Rather they continue to hope internal discontent and opposition forces will be sufficient to overthrow the other and they work to this end. The war in Somalia, and the related war in the Ogaden, are consuming a substantial number of Ethiopian troops and stretching the military budget, already increased in 2007 by 16.7 per cent to USD54.3 million. Similarly, for Eritrea, the support of various opposition groups is a significant financial burden both in terms of actual resources and international isolation. However, given the political and symbolic stakes involved neither country is likely to change their stance in the near future.
While stability along the border is of concern, the more pressing issue is Somalia. As long as Ethiopia remains in Somalia and is the cornerstone of US foreign policy in the region, a resolution of the border disagreement appears increasingly distant. While the US has the most leverage of any international actor in the region, it is not seen as a neutral arbiter and risks further alienating Eritrea as well as an Ethiopian public that is increasingly discontent with the EPRDF.
The withdrawal of UNMEE is a concern for regional stability, as UN mediation is central to any possible resolution. Nonetheless, with Ethiopia and Eritrea more eager to pursue their policy goals through alternative means, while no agreement is likely on border demarcation, at the very least the peace should hold along one potentially very bloody front in this ongoing conflict. N
Nicole Stremlau is the Africa programme director at the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research.
Ethiopian soldiers salute with their guns during the opening ceremony of the Ethiopian Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia on 27 May 2007. Somalia has become a battleground in a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
A procession of ambulances, some carrying Chinese workers who were injured in an attack on a Chinese-owned oil exploration field that killed 74 people, leaves Bole International airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 25 April 2007. The attack was claimed by the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a southeastern Ethiopian guerilla insurgency group of which Eritrea is an important ally.
A member of the Islamic militia stands with a machine gun on 27 October 2006 during an anti-Ethiopia rally attended by some 15,000 people in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia is also criticized by the country’s own people, who see it as a government attempt to gain American support.
People walk through what used to be the centre of the city of Zalambessa, Ethiopia, on the border with Eritrea in November 2004. The city was almost entirely destroyed during the war between the two countries. The withdrawal of the UN mission from the border area has again made it a focus of tension.