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Horn of Africa: No War, No Peace

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jan 27, 2004 (040127)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Implementation of the peace process that was to resolve the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains stalled. The failure to move forward, as governments in both countries use the conflict for political advantage, is increasing the risk of return to war. Such a development would not only be a disaster for the two countries, but also a major setback to the peacemaking momentum in the region and other conflict zones on the continent.

This issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) a commentary from Foreign Policy in Focus by Dan Connell calling for the U.S. to take stronger action in favor of peace between the two U.S. allies, and (2) a year-end summary of developments in 2003 in the conflict, from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks. Updates from last fall, including the executive summary of a report by the International Crisis Group, can be found at

Connell is a long-time supporter of the movement for Eritrean independence. He has recently published a strong critique of repressive measures by the current Eritrean government, available on at:

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Foreign Policy in Focus Commentary

Eritrea/Ethiopia War Looms as Washington Watches & Waits

By Dan Connell January 21, 2004

Editor: Emira Woods, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)

[FPIF policy analyst Dan Connell is the author of numerous books and articles on the Horn of Africa. His latest is Taking on the Superpowers: Collected Articles on the Eritrean Revolution (1976-1982), Vol. 1 (Red Sea Press, 2003). Volume 2 is due out in February. Connell teaches journalism and African politics at Simmons College, Boston.]

The latest State Department call for progress in the stalled Ethiopia-Eritrea peace accord--issued this week and coming on the heels of similar expressions of concern by European diplomats last week--is welcome news for those fearing the renewal of war. But it doesn't go nearly far enough.

The absence of even the barest suggestion of consequences to either party for blocking the accord renders the statement toothless. European calls for "dialogue" only muddy the waters further. Without international pressure to implement the accord in full, and soon, the downward spiral will continue, driven not only by the unresolved border issues but by internal political considerations.

Four years ago, Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to put the border dispute that triggered what became one of the most costly conflicts in African history to binding arbitration. Today, with Ethiopia balking at the results, the two states are on the verge of going back to war, as the U.S. twiddles its political thumbs in the hope that the problem will somehow go away.

It won't.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia 's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi uses the crisis and its emotive appeal to Ethiopian nationalists to shore up his narrowly based regime, even as the country confronts widespread famine due both to a persistent drought and to the redirection of scarce resources to the war effort.

For his part, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki uses the continued war-footing to bludgeon his critics, suppress dissent, and postpone indefinitely the democratization of the small but strategic East African state, Africa's newest.

The Bush administration, which seeks both countries' support for the "war on terrorism" and for the pacification of Iraq, appears loathe to step into this quarrel, which grows more and more bitter as it festers, even as it poisons the politics of both states. Yet to remain on the sidelines and allow this tinderbox to explode once again will spell disaster--for the two war-weary peoples, for regional stability, and for much more.

The Eritreans fought 30 years for the independence of the former Italian colony, which Ethiopia forcibly annexed in the early 1960s. To win their hard-fought victory, Eritrean nationalists joined forces with antigovernment guerrillas in Ethiopia to oust the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, but the erstwhile allies fell out with one another in the decade that followed as each set out to reconstruct their battered states.

The last war, fought in three rounds over a two-year period that started in May 1998, cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars. It also wrecked plans for regional cooperation and development, exacerbated the civil war in neighboring Sudan, and even managed to heighten tensions in Somalia, where rival political forces find support from one or the other feuding state.

Discrete diplomatic efforts failed to defuse the Eritrea-Ethiopia crisis as it was building up in 1997-98. After a series of armed incidents during which several Eritrean officials were murdered near the disputed village of Badme, the Eritrean army rolled into the area with a large mechanized force and took the village. Shortly afterward, Ethiopia, claiming it had been invaded, declared "total war" on Eritrea and mobilized its armed forces for a full-scale assault.

Three rounds of combat, fought with World War 1 tactics and cold war-era weapons, produced mind-boggling casualties and nearly bankrupted both countries. The fighting was accompanied by a mass Ethiopian expulsion of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, creating a severe social crisis on top of that caused by the war itself.

During the last round in May-June 2000, the Ethiopians occupied nearly one-fourth of Eritrea, displacing some 600,000 civilians and inflicting enormous damage to the new state's fragile infrastructure. After the Eritreans retreated to defensible positions and halted the advance, Ethiopia agreed to a ceasefire.

On December 12, 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Algiers, assisted by mediators from the U.S., the European Union, and the Organization of African Unity. Under its terms, a 25-kilometer-wide Temporary Security Zone was established within Eritrea to be patrolled by UN peacekeeping forces, while an international Boundary Commission, whose members were approved in advance by both sides, delimited the contested border. The UN force has been there ever since.

The Boundary Commission issued its findings in April 2002, giving a little to each side but confirming that Badme was in Eritrea. Both parties initially accepted the outcome, though Ethiopia voiced objections over Badme, which had become the symbolic rationale for the war itself. As a result of this and other reasons (de-mining delays, among them), the actual demarcation never took place.

A renewal of fighting along the Ethiopia-Eritrea front now would be waged with more passion--and with new and better arms--than ever before, damaging both states in devastating ways and almost certainly pushing them into famine. It would also exacerbate tensions in a far wider sphere and create new openings for global terrorists to expand their operations.

In addition to this, a U.S. failure on the diplomatic front will undermine confidence in all such internationally arbitrated settlements. The most serious consequence could be the collapse of peace talks in Sudan, in which the U.S. is heavily invested--and where access to some of the world's largest untapped oil reserves await the end of the fighting.

Such an outcome would prove a political catastrophe for the Bush administration as it seeks to convince a skeptical American public going into election season that this country and the world are safer today than they were before the "war on terror" got underway. The fact that both Eritrea and Ethiopia are charter members of Bush's much-touted "coalition of the willing" in Iraq could then prove more than a little embarrassing.

Stepped up Western efforts to promote peace reflect these fears but fall far short of what is needed to produce results. Britain 's Minister for Africa Chris Mullin met Zenawi in Addis Ababa last week after talks in Eritrea and Djibouti. He was quickly followed by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who embarked on an Africa tour aimed in part at promoting conflict resolution, and then by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto. However, none of this diplomacy appeared to make a difference.

Though the State Department press release issued in Washington this week called on both parties to implement the boundary commission's finding "fully and without delay," it did not specify a cost for not doing so or a benefit for acting. Nor did it even generate a substantive response from the warring parties.

For their part, both European leaders urged more discussion between Ethiopia and Eritrea to move the process forward. In doing so, they appeared to take Ethiopia 's side, for it is only Addis Ababa that wants to reopen the talks and alter the pact. The danger is that such a "dialogue" could undo the entire agreement and place the combatants back on square one of the peace process, which is itself becoming an issue.

More than 60 countries have provided troops for this mission since February 2001, but many--particularly those underwriting the mission--are growing weary. "The international community cannot go on paying $180 million for the UN peacekeepers on the border indefinitely," Mullin told a news conference in Ethiopia last week.

Time is short for averting a new outbreak of fighting. The Bush administration needs to take decisive steps now--and to pull the Europeans into the effort--or risk seeing the entire region slide into chaos. Meanwhile, continuing a situation of no-war-no-peace has terrible costs--not only in terms of growing instability, but in the setbacks to a promising democratization process that has since become a hostage to the crisis.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki--a guerrilla commander in the liberation war--has blocked the implementation of a Constitution ratified in 1997, arrested dozens of his critics (including top government and liberation movement leaders), shut down the independent press, banned competing political parties, and repeatedly postponed national elections--all in the name of "national security."

While this is an old ruse to suppress dissent, it has for the most part worked. Many Eritreans, deeply disturbed over the turn of events in their new country, hesitate to speak out for fear they will give comfort to their foe--or be branded as such.

Meanwhile, both countries are threatened with famine due both to recurrent drought and to the destructive effects of sustaining a war footing of this scope and magnitude. Both countries need large-scale food aid-- Eritrea alone is asking $146 m for this year--but donors are understandably worried about the potential misuse of such aid. At best, emergency aid would take up the slack in these ailing economies and allow more resources to be directed into the war effort.

The Bush administration is in a position to break this logjam and move the process forward. Public statements bemoaning the lack of progress are not useful, however well meant. What is needed is concrete action.

Consequences for sustaining this impasse need to be spelled out--condemnations in international forums, aid withheld, sanctions imposed. And rewards for settling the conflict need to be made clear--reconstruction assistance, demobilization support, trade advantages, new training programs.

Meanwhile, the U.S. should not paper over this problem by remaining in a military and political alliance with both these states. At the least, they should be dropped from the Iraq coalition until they get their own houses in order.

To do otherwise is to make a mockery of claims that U.S. policy in this important region has anything to do with democracy--or peace.


Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at

Eritrea-Ethiopia: Review of Peace Process in 2003

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)

January 8, 2004

Addis Ababa

The year 2003 should have marked a time when the foundations for lasting peace were laid between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two impoverished countries in the Horn of Africa.

The peace deal signed in Algiers in December 2000 would finally come to fruition and the desperately-needed nation building after decades of strife would begin in earnest.

But the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his latest report on the peace process issued on Friday, will cause concern among those who had hoped for a breakthrough in the Horn.

The peace process "remains difficult, even precarious" and there are fears that the current situation could escalate. Inflammatory rhetoric is increasing and tensions are high," he said.


What has gone wrong? The Ethiopia and Eritrea peace process was seen as a model operation between two responsible, sovereign governments, willing to cooperate.

Both had signed up to and agreed to abide by a peace deal. Both continue to declare peace is the only option for two nations struggling to develop their fragile economies.

What was supposed to be the year when the first signs of normal relations appeared and a new border was marked out, will now be remembered as one of disappointment and deadlock.

It was a border dispute in Badme, a small Ethiopian-administered town with a population of around 5,000 people, in May 1998 that flared up into a full-blown and bloody war.

In the ensuing two years of heavy fighting, thousands were killed on both sides, both military and civilian, and as many as a million people were displaced from their homes.

In June 2000, the sides signed a cessation of hostilities agreement that led to a comprehensive peace accord signed in Algiers in December of that year.

Article Four of the accord paved the way for an independent boundary commission to finally resolve the long-running frontier dispute by drawing up and marking out a new internationally recognised border.

Eritrea, whose border was never formally demarcated after it officially gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war, would finally have an official border.

Ethiopia could turn its attentions to poverty eradication, avoiding the pitfalls of previous governments whose scarce resources were sapped fighting to prevent the Eritreans breaking away.

The independent Boundary Commission based in The Hague issued its "final and binding" decision in April 2002 stating where the border would lie. Both countries initially hailed the ruling. All was set for peace.


But as 2003 began to unravel so to did the commission's ruling - the central plank of the peace process - and the planned demarcation of the border began to look shaky.

Although both sides gained and lost territory in the ruling, the wrangling over who had been awarded Badme continued, with each country claiming it had gone to them.

The populations of both nations were largely left in the dark as Badme's exact location had been left from the commission's original 134-page ruling.

By February 2003 the international community and the United Nations began sensing that cracks were appearing and that border implementation would meet stiff resistance.

The European Union and the United States both applied diplomatic pressure to keep up the momentum. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki were courted by world leaders and encouraged to meet their commitments.

But it was in late March that the first definitive announcement of the location of Badme, and a second area on the Ethio-Eritrea border called Irob, became clear.

Badme, according to the Commission was to be found in Eritrea based on colonial maps of the region and parts of Irob too were also in Eritrean territory.

Gradually, the hoped-for smooth transition to lasting peace began to ebb away and the downward spiral towards deadlock that now marks the peace process set in.

By the end of March, Ethiopia's Tigray region, which borders Eritrea and witnessed much of the fighting and loss of life, announced that the decision was unacceptable.

The leadership in Addis Ababa remained silent while demarcation deadlines of May and July passed. October then became the definitive date for demarcation.

But by September the first public government criticism of the commission began. Meles dismissed the ruling as a "blatant miscarriage of justice".

"Indeed, the commission seems to be determined to continue its disastrous stance whatever the consequences to peace in the region," he said in a letter to the UN.

By the end of October the commission, facing increasing criticism in Ethiopia, announced it was unable to demarcate the border under "current circumstances".

The hiccups and hurdles that beset any peace process had become a deadlock.


While Eritrea insists the border should be demarcated, as stipulated in the "final and binding" ruling, Ethiopia has warned that further conflict could ensue.

Ethiopia wants a broad-based dialogue to resolve the impasse, while its neighbour has rejected talks until demarcation is complete.

"There is no doubt that a fundamental requirement for the successful completion of the peace process and future normalisation of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea lies in the expeditious demarcation of their common border," Annan said in his progress report.

In the meantime, the UN peacekeeping force (the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea UNMEE) ensures that militarily the situation remains stable. The 3,800 Blue Helmets that patrol a demilitarised area, called the Temporary Security Zone, have maintained a fragile peace and prevented flare-ups. They will only exit the country once the last pillar on the border has been planted.

The closing months of 2003 have been marked by intense diplomatic efforts to try and break the deadlock.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto visited the region to help ensure peace and defuse tensions, meeting with both Meles and Isayas.

Both countries are important allies of Washington in the Horn of Africa and openly supported the US-led war against Iraq earlier this year.

In 2004, diplomatic attempts to break the deadlock will intensify and continue.

"In the period ahead, it will be essential for the parties to keep an open mind and continue to work with the international community and key supporters of the peace process," said Annan.

Later this month the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will arrive in Addis Ababa and a UN special envoy, former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, is expected in the region to try and help resolve the impasse.

But unlike the beginning of the year, a date for the eventual border demarcation has yet to be fixed and no obvious breakthrough is apparent.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is a free independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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