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Horn of Africa: Mixed Signals on Border Conflict

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 15, 2007 (071115)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The Security Council has called on Ethiopia and Eritrea to implement without delays or preconditions a 2002 border ruling, But observers warn that the conditions are ripe for a return to war. The U.S. voted for the resolution. But many critics say that the chances for war have been significantly increased by U.S. officials who have labeled Eritrea as a supporter of terrorism and failed to pressure Ethiopia to implement the binding arbitration decision of 2002.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a brief summary and call for international action to avert war, from the International Crisis Group, and excerpts from an extended commentary by Yohannes Woldemariam and Okbazghi Yohannes denouncing the U.S. policy of aggravating tensions in the Horn in the name of combating terrorism. Woldemariam and Yohannes are critical of both Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes, but warn that U.S. intervention on the side of Ethiopia can only have negative effects.

U.S. policy has also come under critique in the U.S. Congress, with a primary focus on human rights violations in Ethiopia, resulting in the passage by the U.S. House of Representatives in October of the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act. The Act is still to be considered by the U.S. Senate (see for current status, and for hearings by the House Africa Subcommittee)

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today has recent updates on Somalia, including the regime's crackdown on journalists.

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia and Eritrea, see and


No Easy Victories Update

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Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War

International Crisis Group

Africa Briefing N 48
5 November 2007

Nairobi/New York/Brussels, 5 November 2007


The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart; more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis. To prevent this, the international community - in particular, the UN Security Council and the U.S., which is the single most influential outsider - must act immediately to give both sides the clearest possible message that no destabilising unilateral action will be tolerated. Once the immediate danger is past, efforts should be reinvigorated to ensure that the parties comply with their international law obligations, disengage on the ground and restore the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) - in a longer time frame - to develop political and economic initiatives for resolving the fundamental problems between the old foes.

Citing Eritrean encroachment into the TSZ, Ethiopia announced on 25 September 2007 that it was considering terminating the Algiers agreement, which ended the war in 2000. In reply Eritrea accused it of repeated violations of that peace treaty and called again for the Security Council to enforce the decision of the Boundary Commission Algiers established. The U.S. now estimates that Eritrea has 4,000 troops, supported by artillery and armour, in the supposedly demilitarised TSZ and an additional 120,000 troops nearby. In August it estimated that Ethiopia maintains 100,000 troops along the border.

Both sides agreed in Algiers to submit the border dispute to the Boundary Commission, whose mandate was to "delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law". They further agreed that its decision would be final and binding. In April 2002 the Commission gave its ruling, delimiting the border on the map and in so doing locating the village of Badme, the site of the original dispute that sparked off the war in 1998, in Eritrea.

Since then Ethiopia, though it won on other aspects of the ruling, has blocked demarcation of the border on the ground, while Eritrea has called for the international community to insist on this without further delay. Eritrea has right on its side on this point but has played its cards very badly. Frustrated by the lack of progress, it has alienated many of its supporters, including a number of Western states, aid agencies and the UN. It has seized their vehicles, restricted their monitoring teams, expelled their personnel and arrested Eritreans working for embassies. In addition, its repression of its own people and lack of democracy have left it shunned by all but a handful of states.

The stalemate came to a head at the Commission's most recent unproductive meeting, in September 2007, during which the Ethiopian delegate insisted on prior satisfaction of a range of extraneous measures. On balance, however, Ethiopia has played its hand skilfully. It has used its position as the major power in the region to win U.S. toleration of its intransigence and to keep criticism of its own human rights record to a minimum. Its military intervention in Somalia has drawn little overt adverse response. It would not be surprising if Addis Ababa believes an effort in the near future to stage a coup in Asmara and use force against an Eritrean government that has few friends would also be tolerated in Washington.

The rapidly approaching danger point is the end of November, when the Boundary Commission indicates it will close down unless it is allowed to proceed to demarcation. Before then it is essential that the two sides be left in no doubt that use of force, directly or indirectly, is not acceptable and that a party that resorts to it will be held accountable. Specifically this means that:

  • the U.S. should convey a firm private message to both sides that direct or indirect use of force to resume the conflict and reach a unilateral solution would be unacceptable and, specifically to Ethiopia where its influence is at this time stronger, that it will take appropriate diplomatic and economic measures against it if it attacks or seeks to overthrow the Eritrean regime; and
  • the Security Council should pass a resolution reiterating its support for the Boundary Commission decision, requesting it to remain in being beyond the end of November so that it is available to demarcate the border, and stating that even without such demarcation the border as found by the Commission is acknowledged as the legal boundary between the two countries.

Once this line has been drawn, the international community should resume with new urgency its efforts to break the immediate stalemate. Consideration might be given to the following:

  • a Security Council resolution or statement reiterating the requirement on Ethiopia to accept the Boundary Commission ruling unconditionally and cooperate in its implementation, including by pulling back from its forward military positions south of the border, and on Eritrea to withdraw its army from the TSZ;
  • appointment by the Secretary-General of a new Special Representative and head of the UN mission (UNMEE), who should press both sides to allow the international peacekeepers to reoccupy the positions they have been forced to leave in the TSZ and proceed unhindered in their work; and
  • discussion among members of the Security Council and within other key international constituencies including the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers agreement - the African Union (AU), the UN, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) - about incentives (primarily economic) and disincentives (credible sanctions) that would likely be required to obtain cooperation in de-escalating the situation on the ground and implementing the Commission decision.

In the somewhat longer run, Addis Ababa and Asmara will need to end their military and financial support for rebels operating on the other's soil, respect the arms embargo on Somalia and restart a dialogue with the support of their regional and other international friends. None of the steps to break the current deadlock and begin to rebuild mutually beneficial relations will be easy or quick. But the immediate need is to prevent the war from restarting so that there is time to work on them.

War Clouds in the Horn of Africa

12 November 2007.

By Yohannes Woldemariam and Okbazghi Yohannes*

*The writers are both professors of international relations and can be reached at

[Excerpts only. Full article available at]

November 10, 2007 - As we collect our thoughts and reflect about what a future war could possibly mean to the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia, dark rumors of war are rampant in the African Horn; whether these rumors of war are an indication of an impending war or simply a function of public posturing is something that only the near future can tell. If it happens, a fresh war now could spell disaster of tragic proportions for both countries, but especially for Eritrea. It appears that Ethiopia is determined to take advantage of the desperate internal Eritrean conditions. ...

This feverish Ethiopian preparation for aggression on Eritrea has a crucial international dimension, supplied by none other than the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. She has actively been on a personal crusade to orchestrate an international demonization of the Eritrean leader and his regime as part of a coordinated effort to facilitate aggression. In Ms. Frazer's vernacular, the Eritrean regime is a sponsor of transnational terrorism, and the answer must be "regime change". Even Washington analysts have understood the metaphoric significance of her rehearsed statement as a dangerously opportunistic signal to Ethiopia's Meles to begin his well calculated journey of aggression on Eritrea. Ken Menkhaus put it right when he opined: "recent statements made by the Assistant Sec of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, may have aggravated an already tense situation in the Horn. She made a statement about the government of Eritrea - in order to stay off the list of states sponsoring terrorism, one of the ways to do that would be regime change. By using that expression, that sent a message throughout the region that looked like the United States was implicitly accepting the possibility of an Ethiopian attack. And I hope that was not her intent, but that is how it was interpreted." VOA News.

We believe that this is the exact interpretation that Ms. Frazer wanted to communicate. If the rumors are credible, Meles's understanding of the signals from Washington could be one of the factors that have precipitated the current crisis and the frantic preparation for war as well. As the Indian Ocean Newsletter recently reported in March 17, 2007:

"According to a source close to the Ethiopian ministry of defence, the Ethiopian army has obtained satellite photos from the American intelligence services, showing the northern border of Ethiopia and providing useful information on Eritrean troop concentration. Moreover, the leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF, hard core of the EPRDF in power in Addis Ababa) are currently waging a propaganda campaign based on the slogan "repeat in the North the victorious military operation in Somalia"... [This] has caused diplomats on post in Addis Ababa to wonder whether the United States military cooperation with Ethiopia to prepare their joint offensive into Somalia could now be repeated in Eritrea. All the more so since the relations between the USA and the government of Asmara are at their lowest point ..."

There should be no mistake that the reason for another war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is not that Eritrea has suddenly become a state sponsor of transnational terrorism, but the fact that Ethiopia desperately needs a pretext to create a material foundation for its de facto rejection of the Hague decision on the border issue. ... it is important to recall that the two countries signed a binding agreement in Algiers in December 2000 pertaining to their disputed boundary. Two crucial provisions of the agreement are worth mentioning here. First, the two countries agreed in advance to accept the final decision of a boundary commission without any qualifications. Second, the United States, the European Union, the U.N. and the African Union all guaranteed the full implementation of any binding decision once made by the boundary commission. The commission gave its final and binding verdict in April 2002. While Eritrea accepted the final decision in full without reservation, Ethiopia rejected the decision outright because the town of Badme (the flash point of the 1998-2000 war) has been awarded to Eritrea. Even after over five years since the final verdict, Ethiopia has yet to accept the unqualified implementation of the decision and continues to block the U.N. technical committee from starting the task of boundary demarcation. ...

In an ironic way, Meles and his cronies have proved to be diligent students of the Bush Administration's postmodern preemption doctrine, regardless of whether it violates the conventional norms of international politics and the fundamental principles of international law or it offends a basic sense of justice. The difficulty for both the Bush Administration and Meles is the fact that both international law and the practice of international diplomacy support Eritrea's position. Even John Bolton, former Bush appointee to the U.N. acknowledges the legal validity of the Eritrean case in his new book (Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations ) in these terms:

"neither the Ethiopian nor the Eritrean government would win any popularity contests, and I certainly had no favorite, but it seemed to me that Eritrea had a point: Ethiopia had agreed on a mechanism to resolve the border dispute in 2000 and was now welching on the deal."

Likewise, David Shinn's (former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia) words also echo Bolton's observation (VOA October 26)

"Strictly from a legal point of view, the Ethiopians are on shakier ground for the simple reason that it was a binding arbitration to begin with and Ethiopia chose to conclude that there were problems... They did not accept the final agreement. Well, you cannot do that. Binding arbitration is binding arbitration."

... why has the Bush Administration decided to cast its lot with the Meles regime in the face of Meles's open defiance of the international rule of law? Answers to these questions should untangle and illuminate the issues. An examination of Secretary Condoleezza Rice's world outlook and her intellectual pedigree as well as that of her prot‚g‚, Ms. Frazer, can provide an important piece of the puzzle.

During the 2000 presidential campaigns, Ms. Rice wrote an essay in the Foreign Affairs magazine in her capacity as foreign policy adviser to then candidate Bush. ...The thrust of her proposition was that the United States was the sole hegemonic leader in global affairs, something that had to be continually demonstrated by America's global power projection and the containment and domestication or eradication of "rogue" states. The means to this objective was power politics, pure and simple. According to this formula, America's national interest could not and should not be hampered by international moral considerations and legal niceties; ...

... States that complement American effort to project its power are to be rewarded and nurtured regardless of their internal particulars in terms of whether they are violators of international law or perpetrators of domestic crimes. Conversely, states that contradict American strategic interest are to be demonized as "rogue" or state sponsors of transnational terrorism. It is in this light that Ms. Frazer's statements and testimonies must be understood. After all, Ms. Rice was Ms. Frazer's doctoral thesis adviser, a mentorship that has continued to this day. ... While Ms. Rice is the strategic architect of U.S. policy in the Horn, Ms. Frazer is the tactician and foot soldier in charge of implementing that policy. ...

In keeping with this objective, Eritrea and Ethiopia must somehow be differentiated along the axis that separates "good" from "evil." Meles's presumed positive style of governance and valuable alliance on the "war on terror" must sharply be contrasted with Isaias's dictatorial rule and alleged "sponsorship of terrorism." The truth is that both Isaias and Meles are twins in substance and addiction to power. ...

The Bush Administration's Janus-like approach to the African Horn has unavoidably raised concern even here in the United States. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution in October 2007, requiring the Administration to tie U.S. aid to Ethiopia to improved conditions of human rights, even though Ms. Frazer fought hard against this congressional move. Even some of the Administration's own supporters found her staunch opposition to the effort to promote human rights governance in Ethiopia confusing, if not objectionable. For example, Republican Congressman and presidential campaigner, Tom Tancredo, found Ms. Frazer's testimony frustratingly confusing. As he put it:

"...It is a question I have that really has never been satisfactorily answered, and that is this: Is there a specific criterion that the State Department uses to determine at what point we become an apologist for a country that otherwise would not be the case? That is to say, we would - if that one factor, their support for our efforts in the war against radical Islam, if that were not there, we would be on a decidedly different relationship with them. We would be antagonistic about them because of their human rights abuses. ...

Can you help me understand what the thinking process is inside the State Department to determine which countries we will support, even if their human rights abuses are as identified in these reports in Ethiopia?

Ms. Frazer, instead of directly answering the Congressman's question, offered a convoluted explanation of the Administration's position ... The crucial subtext of her answer is that America has strategic priorities in the African Horn other than promoting human rights in Ethiopia. ...

...For example, he should not be pressured to fully accept the international decision on the boundary issue; he has to be encouraged to accept, at least in principle, a peaceful settlement of the dispute with Eritrea; but, if or when he continues to ignore the will of the international community or even if he takes Ethiopia to war with Eritrea, then the U.S. would support him, albeit reluctantly, in order to preserve his loyalty to Washington. This posture can be rationalized by establishing a moral equivalence between Meles and Isaias on the border issue, in general, and by designating Isaias as a sponsor of transnational terrorism, in particular. ...

... the Bush Administration then directly inserted itself in the matter, ostensibly as an impartial mediator. Ms. Frazer was designated as the trouble shooter to shuttle between Asmara and Addis Abeba to make the two sides talk about how to modify the Hague decision, in effect shelving away the final and binding verdict of the boundary commission. However, when the Isaias regime refused her request to visit the disputed boundary and assess the situation with a view to modifying the final and binding verdict, Ms. Frazer felt snubbed. On the other hand, Meles opportunistically exploited the fissure between Isaias and Ms. Frazer and provided all the necessary accommodation for her to visit the disputed area from the Ethiopian side. Following her visit to the area, Ms. Frazer then proposed that a "referendum" be held to determine the future of Badme. This posture not only rewards Meles's intransigence but also represents an open repudiation of the Hague decision. ...

It is an undeniable fact that Isaias and Meles have been shopping for surrogates to undermine each other's political survival. On this point neither can claim a moral virtue. ...

From Ms. Frazer's perspective, if Isaias is determined to destroy America's "man" in Ethiopia, who has demonstrated his loyalty to Washington by the blood and sweat of his troops in Somalia, then the "regime change" formula must be applied in Eritrea. Here both Ms. Frazer and Meles see a presumably promising substitute to Isaias in the self-proclaimed Eritrean opposition. Before tackling the flawed "regime change" thesis, it is useful to clarify our own attitude toward the regime now in Asmara in order to preempt any distortion of our views by some. We are neither defenders of nor apologists for Isaias. We firmly believe that Eritrea today is ruled by a regime of brigands, political hoodlums and a handful sycophant intellectuals, presided over by Africa's reincarnated Idi Amin. We, too, desperately yearn for regime change in Eritrea, but not one initiated, financed and directed by outside forces with the so-called Eritrean opposition providing enabling services. For a long time now, the Eritrean people have been subjected to total internal terror. And now they face a perpetual threat of external terror in the form of Ethiopian aggression and possible reoccupation. Those who parade themselves as Eritrean opposition and yet seek the sponsorship of Washington and Addis Abeba to bring about regime change in Eritrea can only subject the Eritrean people to more horrors of external intervention. Iraq and Somalia are immediate examples. ...

In so far as our own informed observation goes, the members of the so-called opposition who have associated themselves with the Meles regime and seek redemption from their external sponsors are equally dangerous. An opposition which has miserably failed to lead itself cannot lead a nation. ...

Meles may seize the opportunity to invade Eritrea and occupy at least some parts of it under the pretext of assisting the so called Eritrean opposition. ... He may believe that he could obtain American assistance to use the Eritrean opposition as a vehicle. This explains in part the rush by certain elements to welcome Ms. Frazer's attempt to characterize the Eritrean state as a sponsor of terrorism. In principle, we are neither against opposition to Isaias's dictatorship nor regime change. But the effort should be fundamentally homegrown and or the external opposition should dissociate from Meles and should demonstrate independence coupled with an evidence of democratically inclusive vision.

Here we don't want to convey the impression that we are painting all members of the opposition with a broad brush. We are cognizant of the fact that there are many honorable and patriotic Eritreans that operate under the general rubric of opposition. We hasten to add that there is a simple rule of thumb that distinguishes between genuine patriots and fly by night opportunists who seek a shortcut to power through foreign agency. In Eritrea's current reality, accepting advice, support and money from the Meles regime with his vested interests in Eritrea's disintegration is a political kiss of death. Anyone who solicits such funds or claims to be a safe conduit for such funds to "genuine democrats" is by definition, not a true democrat.


Ironically, Meles's refusal to abide by the Hague verdict and America's counter-productive meddling in the matter has contributed to the longevity of the Isaias regime. In our view, the surest way to effect meaningful change, not only in Eritrea but also in Ethiopia, is to be true to international law and due justice to Eritrea on the boundary issue. No doubt the United States can play a constructive role. However, harvesting the promise of a new Horn of Africa policy ... require[s] a [wise] diplomacy. ...

Whether Washington respects the outcomes of international verdicts and helps to enforce them is the crucial factor for peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Giving orders, issuing public demands and pronouncements, reneging on world court decisions and declaring arbitrary expectations are not prudent. In the Horn of Africa, U.S. double standards and disregard for international law can only plunge Eritrea and Ethiopia into unimaginable destruction.

The United States must declare in words and show in deeds that it is always on the side of the Eritrean people and their democratic efforts. A no-less-important part of such a declaration should be a commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty of Eritrea. It must use its political and economic leverage to weigh on the Ethiopian regime, so the Hague verdict on the border can be implemented. A necessary corollary of these democratic principles must be to make it clear that the United States will neither anoint any group or person as the future leader of Eritrea in the name of regime change.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an 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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