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The War between Ethiopia and Eritrea: Examination of the Border Dispute

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    Introduction and Background of Conflict

                It would not have been possible to foresee the breaking out of an all out war between neighbors who were former enemies but who had considerably solved the problems between themselves and assumed a brotherly existence. Could the conflict be attributed to the ruling elites desire to affirm strength after short durations of intermittent tranquility? One thing that is certain is that the border clashes that reemerged in May 1998 were preceded by an array of decisions, measures and allusions that had been long muffled. These are the series of events that sounded the death knell to the idyll. At the onset of the border clash, it was evident that the governments of Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afenoki for reasons quite known to themselves, but tragic and converging all the same, did intend to indulge in recriminations rather than appeal to age old reminiscences of the heroic days when they engaged in battle side by side.1

                These two countries; Ethiopia and Eritrea decided that after periods of harmony and symbiosis, there existed no tangible evidence that could merge them with regard to an identical past. Such an identical past could have been a composite of conceptual and ideological coupled with the coercive and economic mechanisms that are essential in the nurturing of social and territorial units that define the spatial conventions of boundary and sovereignty.

                Initially, and officially for that matter the casus belli was but a border question. With regard to the Ethiopian trauma, the state decided to disregard the thirty years war that Eritrea fought to gain its independence and pursue severance with a state it had long regarded as its province. The border in question; an approximation in the colonial era which was never marked out, elicited a war of proportions incomparable to the desire to gain possession of small enclaves that were ideally of little economic and strategic importance. On the basis of the triviality of the border dispute and the magnitude of the war in terms of cost and human loss, it is extremely difficult to accept the border issue as the main cause of the war with a complete disregard to the other issues of principle that were not as loudly invoked as the border issue.1 The border issue is just a superficial symptom of much deeper and complex causes.2 It should never be forgotten that boundaries act as barriers that not only exist as real or perceived sources of threats in conflicts but are also used as a last ditch by government’s intent on holding onto deep rooted notions of territorial absolutism and sovereignty.3

                The predisposing principles to the conflict can be traced to periods after 1991 when Ethiopia intent on re-establishing its genuine hierarchy on the smaller state with sensitive and aggressive nationalism that was compensatory to the deficiencies in long held traditions, engaged in a set of measures that were geared towards the aversion of its primacy in the Horn region. At the same time Eritrea was interested in clinching its independence. As a definitive divorce from the Ethiopian government, it decided to adopt its own currency; the Nakfa and said goodbye to the Ethiopian birr. The Nakfa itself was a symbolic name in reference to the impregnable fortress of the EPLF fighters during the years of liberation and hence a symbol of Eritrea’s resistance. The new currency promoted smuggling making Ethiopia to impose unfavorable exchange rate. The resultant effects were detrimental to Eritrea as it diverted trade towards Djibouti and Somalia and the Gulf.1

                To necessitate trade between the two distinct economies, Eritrea was forced to comply with the general rule hence transactions were done through letters of credit while payments were made in dollars. This scenario acted as a precedent to the worsening relations and a further confirmatory gesture to the divergence of the paths that the two nations took. It was as if they were eliminating any possibility for having a common strategy for regional development. The fine dividing line between the two countries that had historically acted as a meeting place for between peoples, herds and goods later become the stimulant for the bloody war.  The dispute is old and is based on the ill defined border; an issue that had been left in abeyance for decades. Disagreements about this border which separates Ethiopia and Eritrea or more precisely between Tigray and Eritrea, re-introduced colonial histories.4 These together with a wide host of other issued precipitated the conflict.

    Barriers to Agreement and Ethical Issues

                The territory that is officially reported to have caused the conflict had been under negotiations in 1997. Hostilities broke out when the Eritrean government sent its troops in advance in an area adjacent to Badme; an area under Ethiopian administration. This initiative was prompted by an Ethiopian ambush that led to the death of some officers. It is crucial to understand that an examination of the maps may not yield much since the boundary course had been altered during the transition between the provincial border and the state border. The Mareb and the other rivers that are detailed in the earlier agreements were split into many streams but nonetheless acted as a reference point. Since the borders were not respected much during the periods of guerrilla warfare, they elicited a disagreement in principle right after the end of the war.1

                Eritrea laid claim on the territory based on mapping out done by Italy. As a further measure, Eritrea attached the importance of dogma in colonial geopolitics. This position could not be accepted by Ethiopia that had prior experiences of Italy’s colonialism as a constant aggression. Unlike Eritrea which attached importance of dogma, Ethiopia attached importance on the notion of uti possidetis, a notion unacceptable to Eritreans as they had been possessed at one time by the authorities or armed forces from Addis Ababa.1

                The circumstances in which the 1998 war broke out were unlike earlier situations. After all Ethiopia had been at war uninterruptedly from the 1960s to the early 90s. The war was more to do with the poisoning presence of an interlude of neighborly peace rather than an appendix to or even the presumption of the years of war between Ethiopia and its neighbor. In this context, the war was but a question of a border dispute leading to the war between two independent and sovereign states.1

                The Ethio-Eritrean war and the continuation of strife over the border between Somalia and Ethiopia demonstrate the interweaving of internal with regional and international factors. Moreover, when Eritrea gained independence in 1993 after long and bloody guerrilla warfare, the borders were never fixed with official maps and surveying markers. Despite, the underlying realization that Eritrea may not have succeeded in taking control of the territories under question, they continued to fight over an inconsequential piece of real estate simply because the territory was highly charged with symbolic undertones.

                Even though the war was ended via international mediation through the Organization of African Unity, The United Nations, the United States, Algeria and the European Union, the reconciliation process is still far from advancing to a conclusion as the controversial border issue remains unresolved. In a war that echoed World War I with bloody stalemates and trench warfare, more than 300,000 troops still remain in the dug ins along an 800 km front. With all civilians gone, the armies may as well fight over empty villages. Despite the insistence that none of the countries wanted the war, the governments continue to blame each other.5 In June 2000, after about ten months of failed diplomacy in resolving the conflict, which preceded a major offensive by Ethiopia resulting in the successful recapture of all territory, a ceasefire was implemented and an OAU-UN buffer zone created on Eritrean soil. After the signing of the formal peace agreement in Algiers, the United Nations supervised the setting up of a twenty five kilometer demilitarized strip running along the internationally recognized border678

    Possible Courses of Action for Resolution & Projected Outcomes

                The pervasiveness of conflicts concentrated in the Horn of Africa and their devastating desires that IGAD assumes an active role in preventative diplomacy. IGAD has been instrumental in facilitating Somalia and Sudan processes to considerable levels of success but more needs to be done with regard to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. Due to the problems of small arms proliferation and the vulnerability of the region to terrorist activities and networks, the inter linkages between the countries in this sub region should further be strengthened to form a foundation for the political and economic stability and posterity even as novel channels for peace and conflict resolutions continue to be discussed.

                The Ethiopia-Eritrea war refocused international attention to the Horn of Africa since the existence of interstate wars are increasingly being viewed as anomalies in world politics. Such wars are but signs of political underdevelopment and the weakness of the regional mediation efforts. By actively supporting and fomenting internal conflicts these nations encourage political instabilities that consequently spill into large scale border wars. It is prudent to reiterate that Ethiopia had been actively engaged in supporting the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) while Eritrea; the Oromo Liberation Front. Given that the war further compounded the problems of small arms proliferation in the region, any resolution strategy must also work towards confronting this problem for sustainable peace to be achieved.9

                On a wider scale, the war cannot only be attributed to border issues. Other issues such as regime legitimacy, nation building, state sovereignty, currencies and access to port facilities in addition to the personal pride of the leaders of the two governments; Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea all fuel the conflict. The disputed territory in Badme is currently under the United Nations Standby High Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG), as IGAD, UN and AU are involved mediating and resolving the war.9

                Therefore, for a sustainable solution to be found the mediation process should desist from being too hasty and simplistic. The fact that the mediation process treats the territorial dispute as the pivotal cause of the conflict is rather parochial with regard to the wealth of evidence proving otherwise. Even though the mediators are forced to use the territorial dispute as the central issue due to assertions by both governments, the resultant effect is that as resolution proceeds new complications and unintended factors gather momentum and explode to dangerous levels. It can thus be argued that all mediation efforts that seek to promote the sovereignty of Eritrea are bound to fail to achieve sustainable peace and development. Such a move emphatically dismisses the Algiers Peace Agreement.

                Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia was unnecessary and illegitimate. In the undoing of Eritrea’s separation by encouraging its reunion with Ethiopia either fully or partially, the mediation framework will be able to solve political, economic and social undertones that fuel the conflict. For example if Ethiopia regains access to the sea, that Eritrea has but which it can never fully exploit due to economic disadvantages, coupled with the harmonization of the two countries currencies there may be lasting economic benefits and balanced sub-regional development. Economic development has the potential of desensitizing the animosities between the two countries.210

                To fully develop its agricultural sector and hence reduce their dependence on Ethiopia for food, such a union will enable Eritrea to exploit water from Tekeze River for irrigation purposes. In the event that such a union is not plausible owing to the current political positions, then all the mediating parties may pursue dialogue and demarcation simultaneously while at the same time developing a democratic culture in both countries. The result is a continuous dialogue process acting as an incentive to the democratization process and consequently sustainable peace, economic growth and regional development.

    Conclusion

                The Ethio-Eritrean war has taken a heavy toll on both countries. The stalled peace process poses serious political, economic and social implications for both countries. The scenario presents an opportunity for the establishment of more advanced peace resolution mechanisms that not only foster continuous dialogue precedent to an all supported demarcation process but also encourage the union and democratization of the two nations. It is only when such an approach is used that sustainable peace and economic prosperity could be achieved.

    Bibliography

    Ethiopia / Eritrea War. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/eritrea.htm

    Gordon, L. Frances & Carillet, Jean Bernard. Ethiopia & Eritrea. Lonely Planet. 2003

    Francis, J. D. Uniting Africa: Building Regional Peace and Security Systems. Ashgate      Publishing, Ltd. 2006. p. 225-226

    Flint, R. C. The geography of war and peace: from death camps to diplomats. Oxford University            Press US. 2005. p. 339

    Hume, R. C. Mission to Algiers: diplomacy by engagement. Lexington Books. 2006. p. 119

    Lata, L. (Eds). The Search for Peace: The Conflict Between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Proceedings of             Scholarly Conference on the Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict. Held in Oslo, Norway, 6-7 July, 2006.

    Rotberg, I. R. Peacekeeping and Peace Enforcement in Africa: Methods of Conflict Prevention. Brookings Institution Press. 2000. p. 113

    Tekle, A. Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Conflict to Cooperation. The Red Sea Press. 1994. p. 208

    Triulzi, A & Ercolessi, C. M. State, Power, and New Political Actors in Postcolonial Africa.         Feltrinelli Editore. 2004. p. 108-111

    Yohannes, O. Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics. University Press of Florida. 1991. p. 158

    1    Triulzi, A & Ercolessi, C. M. State, Power, and New Political Actors in Postcolonial Africa. Feltrinelli Editore. 2004. p. 108-111
    1    Ibid., p. 110
    2    Lata, L. (Eds). The Search for Peace: The Conflict Between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Proceedings of Scholarly Conference on the Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict. Held in Oslo, Norway, 6-7 July, 2006.
    3   Flint, R. C. The geography of war and peace: from death camps to diplomats. Oxford University Press US. 2005. p. 339
    1    Ibid., p. 110
    4    Yohannes, O. Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics. University Press of Florida. 1991. p. 158
    1    Ibid., p. 110
    1    Ibid., p. 111
    1    Ibid., 109
    5    Ethiopia / Eritrea War. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/eritrea.htm
    6    Gordon, L. Frances & Carillet, Jean Bernard. Ethiopia & Eritrea. Lonely Planet. 2003
    7    Hume, R. C. Mission to Algiers: diplomacy by engagement. Lexington Books. 2006. p. 119
    8    Rotberg, I. R. Peacekeeping and Peace Enforcement in Africa: Methods of Conflict Prevention. Brookings Institution Press. 2000. p. 113
    9    Francis, J. D. Uniting Africa: Building Regional Peace and Security Systems. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 2006. p. 225-226
    9    Ibid., 227
    2    Ibid., p. 9
    1    0       Tekle, A. Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Conflict to Cooperation. The Red Sea Press. 1994. p. 208

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