In the arid, mountainous, north-eastern corner of Africa, two of the world&’s poorest but best armed states — Eritrea and Ethiopia, allies until a short while ago — are on the brink of all-out war. Shuttle diplomacy by a succession of would-be mediators has failed to provide an exit from potential catastrophe for both sides, though it has temporarily halted the fighting that wracked the area last spring. Since then, the two countries have mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops and a staggering arsenal of Cold War arms to do battle over less than 100 square miles of disputed scrub farmland and desert. Far more is at stake than a petty border dispute, however.

Both states have put their survival on the line. Ethiopian media have been airing debates about the legitimacy of Eritrea’s possession of two ports on the Red Sea, while Ethiopia remains land-locked, fueling speculation that an Ethiopian plan to grab the port of Assab from Eritrea was the motive of the present crisis. The conflict has already begun to reconfigure the balance of power elsewhere in Africa, disrupting both the alliance of “front-line states“ that support Sudanese opposition groups and the wider group of African states that helped bring Laurent Kabila to power in Congo (formerly Zaire). It has also dashed US hopes for regional stability, increased investment and trade opportunities, which President Clinton touted on his spring tour of the continent.

The buildup of tensions in the Horn took over a year to explode into armed conflict. When the conflict finally erupted, the Eritreans mobilized virtually the entire adult population and went on the offensive. A tour of the battlefront in Zal Ambessa in August found Eritrean forces in control of the strategic high ground, while civilians camped in caves and improvised shelters in protected valleys, returning to their homes only during lulls in the sporadic exchanges of fire to feed their animals and repair damaged homes. Ethiopian attempts to penetrate the border had been repelled, revealing a network of bunkers and trenches constructed months earlier, thus reinforcing Eritrean suspicions that the confrontation had been planned long in advance. International mediation efforts — led by an ad hoc team from the US and Rwanda — nearly avoided the outbreak of hostilities in May, but carelessness with a key provision to demilitarize a contested corner of Eritrea, which Ethiopia also claims, put both sides back on a war track from which neither one now seems able — or willing — to retreat.

Allies in Conflict

For 30 years, the Horn of Africa served as one of the Cold War’s most intense — and destructive — battlefields. The US and the Soviet Union took turns pumping billions of dollars in arms into Ethiopia in a vain attempt to help a succession of cruel dictators crush the war for the independence of tiny Eritrea — an Italian colony annexed by Ethiopia with US backing in the 1950s. Tens of thousands perished in the fighting and hundreds of thousands more were displaced as war combined with drought to create a disaster of biblical proportions. The legacy of these years — the poverty, the social dislocation, the rival nationalist passions and the weapons left behind by the departing superpowers — now threatens to transform a localized hiccup into a regional contagion.

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) led the former colony’s protracted independence war. In 1975, another nationalist movement — led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — arose in the neighboring Ethiopian province of Tigray. The EPLF provided the TPLF with training, arms and logistical assistance until the mid-1980s when a dispute arose after the pro-Albania Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray — the political party that launched the TPLF and controls it today — characterized the EPLF as “petit bourgeois nationalist,” criticized it for declining to share its view of the “social-imperialist” nature of the Soviet Union and described the alliance with the EPLF as purely tactical. For its part, the EPLF (which had already been through such a debate in the late 1970s with Eritrean students based in the US), dismissed the League as “childish” and sectarian, and castigated the TPLF for what it termed “narrow nationalism.” These differences were never fully resolved, nor was the passion behind them ever deflated, though their public airing ceased. Near the end of the decade, the EPLF resumed support for the TPLF and for a TPLF-led coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), providing artillery support for their final drive against a beleaguered Addis Ababa government and helping them to seize power in May 1991. Shortly after the cessation of fighting, the EPLF and the EPRDF cemented an agreement under which Eritrea held a referendum two years later on the former colony’s status. As a result, Eritrea became independent, and the two states began to develop what appeared to be a close political alliance, maintaining open borders and cooperating on a number of critical regional issues.

Relations between the two governments began to unravel in 1997. The first military incident occurred in July of that year when Ethiopian troops took over a small village in southwestern Eritrea — Bada (shown on some maps as Adi Murug) — and dismantled the civilian administration there. Eritrean protests lodged in Addis Ababa produced no results, as an exchange of letters between the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — released later — now shows. A month after the incident, Tigrayan forces took similar action in the village of Badame in what is known as the Yirga Triangle, along Eritrea’s southwestern border, an area that had been under EPLF control in the war years but which the TPLF now claimed was part of Tigray. It was here that the situation eventually led to a full-scale military confrontation, though the Eritrean government suppressed news of the escalating tensions for months, leaving observers inside the country and out to be taken by surprise when the conflict suddenly hit the headlines.

The turning point came after Ethiopian forces shot at an Eritrean patrol moving in the area on May 6, killing four. The Eritreans responded by rolling into Badame with a mechanized force that quickly secured the area and has been there ever since. On May 13 the Ethiopian parliament used the incident as a pretext to declare war, and on June 5 Ethiopian jets bombed Eritrea’s military airport in Asmara, the capital. This led to a retaliatory Eritrean raid in the Tigrayan capital, Makele, an hour later in which Tigrayan authorities say there were 41 civilian casualties. Shortly afterward, heavy ground fighting broke out on three fronts along the border, and all-out war appeared imminent. On June 14, President Clinton brokered a moratorium on air attacks in phone conversations with the two leaders and ground fighting sputtered to a halt. A fragile truce has been in effect since then, broken by occasional exchanges of small arms and artillery fire.

These incidents took place against a backdrop of rising tensions over economic issues. In November 1997, Eritrea issued its own currency (the nakfa), floating it last May. When it was introduced, Eritrean officials called on Ethiopia to accept it as legal tender within Ethiopia — asking that both countries’ currencies be used interchangeably in each country. The Ethiopians declined, insisting that all monetary exchanges be made in hard currency, causing a sudden disruption in trade between the two countries. Amidst rising tensions, the Ethiopians claimed that Eritrea was overcharging them for oil refined at the port of Assab and increased grain prices. In May, the Addis Ababa government cut all trade through Assab, rerouting it through the former French city-state of Djibouti, while also cutting air and communications links with Eritrea and declaring an air and sea blockade of the country in an effort to strangle it economically.

By a stroke of unintended irony, it was also in November 1997 that Ethiopia issued new versions of its traditional currency, the birr. A close look at the map on the printed bills shows that the disputed areas along the border with Eritrea appear for the first time as part of Ethiopia. The same month, Ethiopia’s official cartography authority released maps that also incorporated these territories, signaling the seriousness of Ethiopian claims.

Complicated Nationalisms

Unlike other post-Cold War conflicts, this crisis is not driven by external powers or interests, nor is it rooted in ethnic or religious differences. There are political departures between the two sides, but they were until recently more a case of variations in line than clashes in ideology. Their leaders, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, have long been personal friends. They engineered a remarkably close relationship between the two countries after they came to power in 1991. Now, they preside over the largest military mobilization in Africa since the end of the Cold War.

Although the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaderships cooperated during the immediate post-war years, deep-seated tensions over the effects of the long conflict — which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives between 1961 and 1991 — remained, providing fertile ground for a resumption of hostilities. The fact that each side is heavily armed with weapons left over from the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s only heightened this potential. But there is a second, complicating political factor at work here: the 1991 fall of the Soviet-supported Mengistu regime. Like the US-backed Haile Selassie government before it, the Mengistu regime was dominated by the Amhara people of central Ethiopia and fed not only Eritrean national aspirations and eventual in¬dependence, but also unleashed Tigrayan nationalism.

Long downtrodden as Ethiopia’s underclass, the Tigrayans attempted to establish Tigray as an autonomous region in a newly decentralized Ethiopia in the early 1990s, pursuing a development strategy they termed “ethnic federalism.” Having established their movement in the 1970s with a call for an independent Tigrayan Republic, they appeared to be hedging their bets in the postwar period, retaining their option to secede if a reconfigured Ethiopia was not to their liking. Provincial boundaries were redrawn to reflect ethnic identities, and power and resources were devolved onto regional administrations in the hands of newly-formed parties allied with the Tigrayans. This gave them a chance to build their own mini-state, complete with its own security forces. They also benefited from their dominant position within the governing coalition in Addis Ababa, as resources were channeled northward to power a surge in growth in the former feudal fiefdom. Ethnic strife continued within Ethiopia, however, notably in the south where the Oromo people constitute a near majority of all Ethiopians, and armed opposition to the new government has since surfaced elsewhere. One factor pushing the resumption of conflict with Eritrea may be the need to focus attention on an external threat in order to unify the fractured society within Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, many Ethiopians displaced from power when the Tigrayans took over in 1991 were incensed at the concurrent loss of Eritrea, and they blamed the TPLF&Rsquo;s Meles Zenawe for this when he became the prime minister of the country. Amharas — having presided over the exponential growth of the Ethiopian Empire over the past century — also chafed under the rule of the Tigrayans. Thus, the border dispute was injected into a wider arena, pitting the Eritreans against two intersecting nationalisms — Tigrayan and (greater) Ethiopian — and turning the crisis into a three-way confrontation. Not only did the Eritreans face a confluence of powerful antagonists, the Tigrayans who might have sought compromise were put in a squeeze, as other Ethiopians challenged both the sincerity and the effectiveness of their commitment to a strong, unified Ethiopia, over their wartime alliance with Eritrea.

Political Negotiations

In response to the outbreak of overt hostilities in May, US and Rwandan emissaries quickly tried to mediate. (The team assembled for this involved four Americans known to both leaders and several Rwandans closely allied with both sides, including at times Rwanda’s vice president, Paul Kagame). After 18 shuttles back and forth, they came up with a four-point plan calling for:

1) disengagement (with the Rwandans offering to put their troops in the middle under the Organization of African Unity, the UN or any other mutually acceptable rubric);

2) international adjudication of the border issues;

3) an investigation of all charges and counter-charges that arose during the confrontation;

and 4) a return to positions held prior to the crisis.

The Ethiopians quickly accepted these points, but the Eritreans balked at point four, which not only required them to pull out of Badame, but to turn it over to Ethiopian military control. They called instead for the demilitarization of the entire area under whatever civil administration was in force at the start of the hostilities.

Eritrea may have missed a critical opportunity by not finding a way to work with the US-Rwandan peace proposal, but once the Asmara government voiced its displeasure with the plan — whose substance was released to the media before it was accepted in Eritrea — it was dead in the water. When the US went on to engineer endorsements of the plan by the OAU and the UN in an effort to pressure the Eritreans, they dug in their heels, charging an American tilt toward Ethiopia. From this point onward, Washington lost its position as an independent broker and the initiative for peace shifted elsewhere, as Rwanda also dissociated itself from it. Since then other go-betweens, including a special OAU committee and a delegation of Sudanese opposition forces dependent upon both Eritrea and Ethiopia for backing in their effort to displace the Islamist regime in Khartoum, have sought unsuccessfully to convince them to talk to each other without proposing a specific agenda.

What seems clear now is that a viable agreement, negotiated either before or after further fighting, must contain guarantees that neither side will prejudice the outcome of territorial disputes in the interim period, that disputed areas will be demilitarized, and that forced removal of civilian populations will not be permitted. Eritrea’s use of terms borrowed from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — warning against the establishment by Ethiopia of “facts on the ground” — indicates a fear that anything short of a well-defined sequence of actions tied to a specific timetable will not be trusted. For their part, the Ethiopians have been adamant that there is nothing to talk about short of an Eritrean withdrawal. Meanwhile, they have opted to rearm for another round of fighting, while inviting Eritrean dissidents to set up bases of operation inside Ethiopia and initiating secret talks with neighboring Sudan over common strategy. Such moves suggest a ratcheting up of the conflict — and the stakes — that could redraw not only political alliances but borders across this volatile region.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "From Alliance to the Brink of All-Out War," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).
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