A second round of fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia in February found the political positions of the former allies little changed from their opening salvos the previous June, but overwhelming Ethiopian numbers — troops and arms — finally forced the Eritreans to accept an American-backed “peace plan” on Ethiopian terms. Meanwhile, not only had the levels of firepower intensified, but also the stakes, in a bitter dispute that has already had a profound impact on regional alignments and development prospects. Tragically, it appears to be a repeat performance of earlier battles in the 30-year contest over Eritrea’s independence, which ended in 1991.

A parade of mediators to the region up to the latest outbreak of fighting — which saw division-level infantry assaults, backed by air strikes and artillery barrages — proved unable to break the deadlock, which turned on a US-brokered peace plan taken up by the Organization of African Unity and endorsed by the European Union and the UN. Ethiopia had accepted the proposal, which incorporated its demand for a unilateral Eritrean withdrawal from disputed territory prior to further talks. Eritrea had asked for guarantees it would not forfeit territorial claims in subsequent negotiations. US efforts to press the proposal in international forums over Eritrean objections only hardened their resistance, but losses on the battlefield in the disputed area and the prospect of an even more costly protracted conflict convinced Eritrean leaders to accede to Ethiopian terms after fierce fighting at the end of the month.

A tour of Eritrean bunkers along the bitterly contested border during the fighting found the front-line fighters just as adamant about staying put as their political leaders. For most, the conflict was seen as a second battle for Eritrea’s survival as a nation. Viewed from this side, the situation reverberated with echoes of the last war, when Eritrea defeated successive US- and Soviet-backed Ethiopian armies with virtually no outside support to secure their sovereignty. This experience with the international community, which declined to support the former Italian colony’s claims to self-determination either on the battlefield or in diplomatic forums, fueled Eritrean mistrust in this round.

The Eritreans, acting on their own, had also helped guerrilla forces in Ethiopia to topple the regime there in 1991, ushering in a brief period of rapprochement between the two new or newly-reconfigured states, but relations began to deteriorate early over economic and political issues. This set the stage for a seemingly minor border dispute to become the pretext for renewed combat. The fact that both governments hid this declining situation from public view caught many observers, as well as most citizens of the two countries, by surprise when the shooting broke out on May 6, 1998. However, both sides quickly mobilized for another confrontation.

The View from the Trenches

Miles of chest-high trenches hacked out of solid rock snaked through the steep hills along Eritrea’s southern border where more than half a million troops faced each other in a state of constant alert. Every ten meters there was a bunker roofed with logs, stone and dirt for cover from aerial and artillery bombardment. Behind the rim of the escarpment were new roads sliced out of the mountains in a matter of days. Mud-covered vehicles — smeared from top to bottom to provide effective, low-budget camouflage from Ethiopia’s marauding MI-24 helicopter gunships — deliver daily rations and war materiel. Along the roadsides were clusters of buried 100-liter jerry cans and steel drums that serve as 24-hour water supply stations. Spidery tracks fanned out from the feeder roads to provide access to Eritrea’s T-55 tanks, which acted as mobile artillery during engagements, racing from one vantage point to another at the behest of forward controllers. Small groups of fighters were scattered in the hills to avoid providing a concentrated target, and to permit highly mobile responses to attacks.

The Eritreans have perfected a unique blend of mobile and conventional war out of their long experience under siege in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, their forces are organized into autonomous corps, commanded by veterans of the independence war. Most of the fighters are too young to have participated in that one, but they have spent at least 18 months together in training as units of Eritrea’s national service, in which all 18-year old women and men serve. These units were called up for active duty last June and have been on the border ever since. Morale was high. In contrast to this, much of Ethiopia’s fighting force is made up of recent volunteers and conscripts. Though many of the commanders had experience in the guerrilla war in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the fighting there never reached the level of conventional confrontations that took place in Eritrea. To compensate for this lack, the current Ethiopian government released veterans of the deposed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam from prison to assist them. One effect of this, from the standpoint of an observer of both conflicts, is that similar tactics were being repeated in the renewed fighting, with massive infantry assaults in which casualties reached the thousands in daily battles.

Crouching low to avoid sniper fire, I recently moved in front of the Eritrean trenches in Tserona to view the area of close combat near the river that divides the two countries. The ground was littered with scores of decomposing bodies of Ethiopian soldiers who perished while trying to charge the protected Eritrean positions. I had toured similar trenches many times in the late 1970s and 1980s around the town of Nakfa in northern Eritrea, where the Eritreans dug in to defend their embattled base area, stalemating the war for ten years before breaking the encirclement to drive to victory. The Eritrean currency, the nakfa, is named for the town. One question now is how long the Eritreans will remain content to defend their borders before striking back. Such a move, if successful, could destabilize Ethiopia — where there are already many signs of armed opposition to the regime, dominated by leaders of the Tigray-based guerilla movement that seized power nearly a decade ago.

Realignments Threaten A Wider War

As one result of this crisis, Ethiopia has moved to rebuild relations with neighboring Sudan, curtailing the activities of Sudanese opposition groups that operated from there until recently. Sudan, which seeks common cause with Ethiopia against Eritrea, has launched a major offensive against Eritrean-backed opposition forces in two areas since January. Meanwhile, Ethiopia has invited Eritrean opposition groups to set up bases there — and has offered them radio stations to broadcast into Eritrea — while the Eritreans have shown renewed interest in supporting ethnic opposition groups in Ethiopia. Eritrea has also made moves toward Libya in an attempt to find a regional ally in an otherwise hostile environment. An unintended irony is that both combatants — not long ago seen as the cornerstones of resurgent US interests in Africa — seem on the way to building relations with states that have long been characterized as pariahs by the US, leaving Washington a major loser all around.

The superficial cause of the conflict is a dispute between the two countries over which of them holds title to a barren strip of land often identified in the media by the village of Badme. I was in Badme in early 1985 with guerrillas of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, who then administered the area. Badme had just been obliterated by Ethiopian jet fighters, and most people had fled. A week later, I was on the other side of the border in Ethiopia’s Tigray province with guerrillas of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. When I mentioned where I’d been, one TPLF fighter commented, “You were not in Eritrea — Badme is Tigray.”

At the time, I thought little of it, but in retrospect, this was a signal that details count. The crisis erupted last May when Tigrayan militiamen fired on an Eritrean patrol near Badme, killing four. During a week of non-stop skirmishes, the Eritreans moved regular armed forces in to restore order. This triggered an Ethiopian declaration of war on May 13, the first much of the world heard of the crisis. After a subsequent exchange of ground and air attacks, a tenuous ceasefire went into effect and efforts to mediate the dispute began. At one stage, say sources close to the talks, the two sides were a hair’s breadth from an agreement that would have had Eritrea pull its forces back and Ethiopian civil administration resume a presence in Badme, despite Eritrea’s certainty that Badme belongs to it. The sticking point came when Ethiopia sought to include armed militia and police. Eritrea wanted no armed presence.

At this point, Ethiopia backed off. Exactly what the Ethiopians may have told the mediation team is not clear, but the impression mediators walked away with was that a power struggle was taking place within the TPLF. Prime Minister Meles Zenawe, perceived to be a “moderate,” was losing ground to “hardliners,” who were anxious to launch an all-out attack on Eritrea, which the mediators were somehow convinced the Ethiopians could win.

Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice apparently panicked at the idea that time was running out and decided that Eritrea needed to be strong-armed into the pact on Ethiopia’s terms. The US-led team rushed to get the proposal public, asking one member to contact Eritrea while Rice convened a press conference with Meles in Addis Ababa to announce a “breakthrough.” Unfortunately, no one managed to contact the Eritreans. Meanwhile, Rice flew off to an OAU meeting in progress in Ougadougou to get them on board, telling delegates that Ethiopia was for it and that Eritrea would soon agree.

When Eritrean officials learned this through the media, they were furious — and quickly rejected the plan. Nothing had changed up to the latest round of fighting, except that the US sought to mobilize ever wider international acceptance of the plan in a fruitless attempt to step up pressure on the Eritreans. From that point on, however, the two sides only hardened, and the US simply lost credibility. If the peace talks now slated to get underway do not resolve this dispute in terms acceptable to both sides, we are likely to see another lull in the fighting while both sides rearm for another round, which would only be bloodier and more destructive than the last.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Shootout in the Horn of Africa," Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999).
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