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The Ethio-Eritrean Conflict: An Essay in Interpretation

Publisher WRITENET
Author Gérard Prunier
Publication Date 1 November 1998
Cite as WRITENET, The Ethio-Eritrean Conflict: An Essay in Interpretation, 1 November 1998, available at: [accessed 23 November 2017]
Comments This issue paper was prepared by WRITENET on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment. All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not purport to be, either exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. the views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UNHCR. WRITENET is a network of researchers and writers on human rights, forced migration, ethnic and political conflict. WRITENET is a subsidiary of Practical Management (UK)
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

1.    INTRODUCTION[1][1]

When it broke out in May 1998, the Ethio-Eritrean conflict surprised most observers because many circumstances seemed to favour good relations between the two countries.

Firstly, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled in Addis-Ababa, was in fact a thinly veiled multi-ethnic guise for the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which had fought against the dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam between 1975 and 1991. The TPLF had been from its modest beginnings a protégé and close ally of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and in 1988 a secret agreement between the two had decided that, once the Mengistu regime had been overthrown, the TPLF would assume power in Addis-Ababa and accept a referendum on independence in Eritrea. The agreement was renewed after the broadening of the TPLF into the multi-ethnic EPRDF coalition in 1989 and in 1991 it was perfectly adhered to. The referendum was held in Eritrea in 1993 and the new Ethiopian regime immediately recognized the independence of its former province. Relations between the former guerrilla allies now holding power in Asmara and Addis-Ababa were henceforth cordial. Good commercial, diplomatic and personal relations were maintained.

Secondly, political and military coordination on regional issues was close and actually amounted to an alliance. Both the EPLF and the EPRDF had received military assistance from the Sudanese Islamist regime in 1989-1991. But when Khartoum began to use the ethnic and religious problems in both Eritrea and Ethiopia to subvert the new governments, they both reacted in coordinated fashion to counter this threat. They gave political support to the Sudanese National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the umbrella organization of Sudanese opposition movements, and military help to the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) fighting in the South. Further afield both Addis-Ababa and Asmara supported Laurent-Désiré Kabila's uprising in the Congo in September 1996.

Thirdly, both countries had a close relationship with the United States and enjoyed the trust and support of Washington. The two regimes were often pictured, together with Museveni's Uganda and Kagame's Rwanda, as the embodiment of a new generation of African leadership, President Clinton even going as far as calling this supposed trend "an African Renaissance".

Finally, the leadership of the two countries was dominated by Tigreans, i.e. Tigrinya-speaking people coming from the province of Tigray in Ethiopia or from the provinces of Akele Guzzay, Saray and Hamasien in Eritrea.[2][2] Tigreans on both sides of the border are settled peasants who belong to the Coptic Christian church, share the same customs and speak the same language. They were separated in October 1896 when Emperor Menelik signed a peace treaty with Italy after his victory at Adwa seven months earlier. Henceforth Akele Guzzay, Saray and Hamasien became part of the Italian colony of Eritrea while Tigray proper remained Ethiopian.[3][3] Although the two parts of the Tigrinya-speaking region were separated for 40 years (1896-1936) they were linked again after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and remained so under the Italian (1936-1941), British (1941-1952) and Ethiopian (1952-1991) administrations, that is for another 55 years. If one adds that even during the years of "separation" during the Italian occupation or since Eritrean independence, trans-border trade never stopped, one can hardly say that the two branches of the Tigrean people are foreign to each other. Since both the EPRDF and the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ)[4][4] were mostly led by Tigreans who shared both a long past of common history and a more recent struggle against the same enemy, it would have seemed logical that their initial alliance would be durable. This was not in fact the case.

2.    The Ethio-Eritrean conflict of 1998

Incidents started to occur on 6 May 1998 in the Badme border area in Tigray. Since there had been some minor problems of border definition[5][5] a bilateral Ethio-Eritrean comission had been set up in November 1997 and had met regularly, either in Asmara or in Addis-Ababa. Therefore the incidents were not taken particularly seriously at first. But while bilateral contacts were resumed, Eritrea massed large amounts of troops, with their accompanying weaponry, and invaded the Badme area on 12 May. The first outside mediation effort started on 17 May when Rwanda's Vice-President Paul Kagame came to Addis-Ababa, soon followed by US Under-Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice. Their mediation efforts were not welcomed by either side,[6][6] but there was a lull in the fighting.

On 30 May Eritrean President Issayas Afeworki declared that troop withdrawals from occupied areas were "morally unthinkable and physically impossible".[7][7] Between 31 May and 6 June, Eritrean forces launched new attacks and occupied territory around Zalanbessa, Alitena and Aiga, far east of the previous area of fighting.[8][8] Both participants escalated the fighting by using their respective air forces, the Eritreans bombing Mekelle, Tigray's provincial capital, on 5 June and the Ethiopians retaliating over the next two days by bombing Asmara. On 9 June Negasso Gidada, President of Ethiopia, declared that "the problem with the peace process is the hasty way in which it was managed by the Americans ... they believe in quick fixes and bulldozing. That does not work, it is not our culture".[9][9] The same day Eritrea started expelling a number of Ethiopians living on its territory, mostly people who worked in the port of Assab.[10][10] About 27,000 Ethiopians were expelled from Eritrea and about 30,000 Eritreans were deported from Ethiopia. Although theft and some violence did occur, they were on a limited scale. Nevertheless there were unsubstantiated accounts of some deaths, particularly 60 Ethiopians who are alleged to have perished in Assab after being locked up overnight in an unventilated container.

On 8-10 June a meeting of the OAU in Ouagadougou generally endorsed the US-Rwandan peace plan, a move which was doomed from the start since President Issayas Afeworki considered - rightly - that this plan was largely favourable to the Ethiopian position.[11][11] Within the next few days fighting resumed on three fronts, not only in the Badme and Zalanbessa areas, but also on a new front along the road connecting Addis-Ababa and Assab. Eritrean forces made limited gains and the fighting stopped after about ten days. During this bout of fighting the Eritrean Air Force had bombed the town of Adigrat (11 June), a non military target, but the attack was probably a prelude to an assault on the town itself which never took place because of an Ethiopian counter-attack.

By late June the guns fell silent, after about 600 people had been killed and around 300,000 displaced on the Ethiopian side of the border.[12][12] But peace was far from being restored and extreme tension persisted while the two regimes waged a war of words.[13][13] While rearmament efforts went on unabated,[14][14] discreet diplomatic activity was maintained by the United States, without much effect.[15][15]

3.    Analysis of the conflict

This "war" is very peculiar. As we shall see later, it was fought as a kind of family affair. Apart from the fighting along the Addis-Ababa-Assab road, it was even fought on ethnically homogeneous ground,[16][16] the disputed areas being entirely populated by Tigrinya-speakers, belonging to the provinces of Tigray on the Ethiopian side and bordering Akele Guzzay and Saray on the Eritrean side. In a way, it was more of a civil war among Tigreans than an "international" war.

There are interesting consequences of this situation on the internal level for both countries. As far as Ethiopia is concerned, there was a sudden upsurge of support for the war. But this support was not support for the Government. Rather it was an expression of frustrated Ethiopian nationalism and it came from the opponents of the EPRDF regime. If this is a paradox it is only apparently so. In 1993, the Eritrean independence referendum had been regarded as a betrayal of Ethiopia by all the forces opposed to the EPRDF. And this did not mean pro-Mengistu forces, who were by then in any case largely exhausted. Support for the communist regime had vanished practically totally after the failed military coup of October 1989 which had been intended to bring the war to a negotiated end.[17][17] The political forces which opposed Eritrean independence were the moderate democratic forces which had not been invited by the Americans to attend the London conference of April 1991, such forces as those embodied today by the All Amhara People's Organization (AAPO)[18][18], the multi-ethnic Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (CODEF) or the Southern Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Coalition (SEPDC).

When these opponents, who have now created a common front, recently met in Paris,[19][19] they definitely toned down their nationalist anti-Eritrean tone because they were by now aware of the genuine strength of independence feelings in Eritrea. But their friends in Ethiopia itself lost no time in demonstrating in support of the EPRDF-led war, while at the same time keeping a relentless barrage of criticism against the regime at every other level. As an Oromo critic of both the opposition and the government wrote:

The ease and pleasure with which some political opponents to the Ethiopian regime took up the cause [of the war] was a surprise. Parties which criticised Ethiopia for its human rights record and lack of democracy, especially those linked with the previous Amhara ruling elite, put their differences aside to support ‘the motherland' against ‘foreign aggression'. Demands and righteous justifications for taking Assab were disappointing, given the genuine wish of over 95 per cent of the population of Eritrea to be a separate sovereign state.[20][20]

This is in many ways a correct analysis, but one stopping short of another comment which would include the OLF itself: attitudes towards the war were not dictated by "national" feeling of the kind, say, of the anti-German feeling in France in August 1914. The various Ethiopian political forces positioned themselves in relationship to the conflict according to their positions on internal politics. This fits within our analysis above: just as the war can be seen as a Tigrean civil war, it was perceived in Ethiopia not as a matter of "foreign conflict" but as a problem of domestic politics. And although the political scene in Eritrea is much more controlled than in Ethiopia, the same was in practice true. The demonstrations against "Ethiopian imperialism" which were staged in Asmara owed little to spontaneous popular feelings. But they nevertheless reflected a basic popular worry: would not "the Ethiopians" come back and try to reconquer their former province which had been independent for only five years? This worry was particularly strong among the Moslem lowlanders. They knew that they had been largely marginalized within the Christian-led PFDJ. To see that same PFDJ now fighting a war with its Christian cousins from Tigray, surely meant that the situation was indeed serious. This line of reasoning was extremely beneficial to the Eritrean Government which could thus rather cheaply buy a modicum of support from its largely alienated non-Tigrean Moslem population.[21][21]

4.    The causes of the war

As we have already noted, the causes of the current conflict are anything but obvious. International wars are usually fought to acquire territory, to gain economic advantage, to overthrow a hated or dangerous neighbouring regime, for religious or ethnic reasons or in order to improve a country's position on a regional or international geostrategic chessboard. If we discount the disputed 400 sq. km as relevant to the first possible cause, we are left with nothing since none of the others apply: the Ethio-Eritrean conflict cannot benefit either of its protagonists economically,[22][22] there is no desire by one regime to overthrow the other, there are no religious or ethnic reasons behind the fighting, and both countries have lost out geopolitically, whether we consider the regional situation or their relationship with their powerful common protector, the United States.

Then why? The answer lies in the nature of the war: it is not a real international war. It is a war which is intimately linked with the history of Abyssinia[23][23] and with the political dynamics of the Tigrean people. In many ways, it is closer to the regional strife of medieval Abyssinia than to a modern global nationalistic war. Why is this? First of all because on both sides the fighting was largely triggered by the actions of Tigrean "barons" jostling for local influence. We have seen that is was the "Eritreans" who attacked. But they did so under plenty of provocation. And the provocation did not come from the Ethiopian Government in Addis-Ababa but from the Tigrean regional government in Mekelle. All this went back to the TPLF congress in Mekelle last year when Premier Meles Zenawi was nearly ousted by a strong local solidarity network, or mafia, if one prefers that term, since many of its members had been sent back to Mekelle after having corruption problems in Addis-Ababa. These men were bent upon revenge and local benefit. They are the ones who put out maps of the border claiming areas north of the actual line. These maps were put out in Mekelle, not in Addis-Ababa.[24][24]

Of course there is at least one "objective" element in the conflict: the monetary question. After Eritrea's independence in 1993, the new country went on using the old Ethiopian currency, the birr. Birrs circulated freely but were issued only by Ethiopia's Central Bank. This situation was in fact advantageous for Eritrea. Traditionally Ethiopia has had a very conservative monetary policy, whether at the time of the Empire or during the communist regime. For a very long time the birr/dollar parity was around two to one. Given the war effort of the 1980s it was therefore a tribute to the prudence of the Ethiopian Central Bank that when the currency was floated freely after the fall of the Mengistu regime the new parity established itself at seven to one, a rate realistic enough to prevent the rise of a black currency market. Inflation was kept at such a low level as to be almost non-existent and all the border trade between Eritrea and Ethiopia was carried out in birrs. Then in 1996 Eritrea decided to create its own currency, the nakfa, which was effectively introduced the following year. The new currency immediately created problems between the two countries.[25][25] To understand this we only need to remember the basics of monetary theory: a fiduciary currency is nothing other than a certificate giving its bearer the right to acquire a (very small) share of the issuing country's Gross National Product (GNP), i.e. the monetarized total of the goods and services produced by that country. Given the fact that we had on one side a country of approximately three million people (Eritrea) against on the other side a country of about sixty million (Ethiopia) and that both had somewhat similar peasant-based economies, it was obvious that one nakfa represented a much smaller value than one birr. Yet the Asmara government insisted on a one for one parity. Soon the economic reality reasserted itself and the value of the nakfa dropped. Addis-Ababa then asked that all Ethio-Eritrean commercial transactions (including the large commercial operations in Assab) be carried out in US dollars. Asmara had very small foreign currency reserves and was not about to squander them on agricultural imports from Ethiopia. The tone of the discussions of currency problems became increasingly bitter and this added irritant was definitely an element in the rash Eritrean military reaction of May 1998.

But then why had Eritrea painted itself into this corner without necessity? Our impression is that it was fundamentally a cultural problem,[26][26] an impression which is confirmed by none other than President Issayas Afeworki who declared last June: "To evaluate this conflict in terms of money and resources is stupid: what matters is tradition, prestige and pride". To explain this essential cultural dimension of the war, it will be necessary to go back a little into history.

Before becoming "Ethiopia" around 1900, Abyssinia was both much smaller and much more compact culturally. Although they shared the Abyssinian space with many smaller groups, there were three main ethnic and regional actors in the Abyssinian power game: the Amhara, the Tigreans and the Oromo. Between 1763 and 1855, the imperial institution had fallen upon hard times and Ethiopia had, in the words of historian Richard Hess, been reduced to "a mere geographical expression".[27][27] A bandit from northern Ethiopia, Kassa, crowned himself Emperor in 1855 and reunited a good part of historical Abyssinia. He committed suicide in 1863 after being defeated by the British Army and was succeeded by Emperor Yohannes IV, a Tigrean, who restored the imperial throne to its former glory and authority. But when Yohannes was killed in battle in 1889 by the Sudanese Mahdists the throne went to young Menelik, an Amhara from Shoa. Unlike Yohannes, he systematically favoured his fellow Amhara and the modern "Ethiopian" state became in fact, instead of the traditional equilibrium between the three nationalities, a tightly controlled Amhara preserve. The result was great bitterness among both the Oromo and the Tigreans, a bitterness which was still active enough in the case of the Tigreans to lead them to cooperate with the Italians after the 1936 invasion and later to rise in arms against Emperor Haile Selassie when he was restored to the throne by the Bristish Army in World War II. This succession of events created a lasting feeling of alienation among the Tigreans. They were aware of being, as much as the Amhara, part of the old historical core of Abyssinian society. Yet, with the extension of the Abyssinian empire to the south during the 1890-1900 period and the birth of modern Ethiopia, they felt almost more alienated from the centre of power than the recently conquered non-Abyssinians.

The continuity between this feeling and modern political action is an ever-present reality in today's Ethiopia. One simple example which shows the powerful presence of the past in the present is the popular name given to the TPLF rebels. They called themselves woyane (patriots) which was the name adopted in 1943 by the Tigrean rebels fighting Emperor Haile Selassie. The continuity between the two names was deliberate in order to mobilize Tigrean public opinion in the fight against Mengistu and the power emanating from Addis-Ababa between 1975 and 1991.[28][28] Thus we have to see the 1991 overthrow of the communist regime and the independence of Eritrea as in many ways a Tigrean victory. This was not of course explicit in the official discourse. Both in Asmara and in Addis-Ababa the new regimes were pictured as "national", something which was partly true in Eritrea but definitely inaccurate in Ethiopia.[29][29] As a result of this state of affairs, Ethio-Eritrean relations became not an international question but a Tigrean family affair.[30][30] Therefore, in order to understand the war we have to go into these "family" relationships.

The Tigreans from Tigray and those from Akele Guzzay, Saray and Hamasien in Eritrea have different views of their history. This comes from the fact that for the "Eritreans" forty years of Italian colonialism and thirty-nine years of political and later military struggle have shaped a sub-identity different from the overall identity they started with. In the words of a Tigrean historian:

The quest for an identity that they [the Eritreo-Tigreans] can feel is distinctly their own made the EPLF revise their past. Deep down they know they are a people who have shared a common history with Tigray and nothing authentically ‘Eritrean' is there. This burden of a history that they cannot claim as their own alone has generated a feeling of uneasiness and a sense of lowliness.... Thus, the burden of the past that Eritrea shares with Tigray has been turned into a tabula rasa where an ideological history was written afresh.[31][31]

The Eritreo-Tigreans were cut off from their past by the Italian conquest and have later decided, in a gesture of politically constructive pride, to turn this handicap into a banner.[32][32] Just one example of this manipulation of history and its consequences: Ras Alula, Yohannes IV's greatest general, was from Tigray like his master. He fought successively the Egyptians, the Sudanese Mahdists and the Italians in the service of the Emperor. And he fought mostly in Eritrea where he was the founder of the city of Asmara. But this fighting was in defence of a global Abyssinian Empire against foreign enemies, a notion implicitly invalidating the Eritrean claim to independent nationhood and proving than before 1896 "Eritrea" was seen and felt as part of Abyssinia. Thus Ras Alula is today a hero for the Tigreans from Ethiopia and a traitor for the Tigreans from Eritrea, whose ancestors he fought to defend against foreign invaders.[33][33] To a foreigner these differences in historical appreciation could look rather academic. Not so to the Tigreans who are passionately aware of their history and feel it as alive. Thus when the EPLF took the town of Dogali from the government army in 1989 they promptly blew up the monument to Ras Alula. On the contrary, the elite TPLF division which took Addis-Ababa in 1991 was named "Ras Alula Division". Since the EPLF and the TPLF were allies as well as ethnic cousins, there is an obvious problem of political symbolism here.

These feelings about history were directly translated into actions during the 1980s when both guerrilla fronts fought side by side against Colonel Mengistu's army. The TPLF had from the start been the junior partner in the relationship with the EPLF for a number of reasons: the Eritrean front was older, better organized, it had more money and equipment and a solid network of international sympathizers which the TPLF almost entirely lacked. Thus the Eritrean "upstarts" acted superior to their cousins from Tigray while it was the latter who considered themselves to be the true keepers of their people's identity. They also differed in their ideological assessment of the USSR and of the nature of imperialism, important points in those ideologically charged times. This eventually led to open fighting between the two fronts during 1983-1985. Although the fighting was sporadic, the hostility remained strong and it was not until the EPLF victory at Afabet in 1988 and its donation of a large number of tanks to the TPLF that reconciliation became solid.

None of this has since been forgotten, and we must remember that it is the actors in these quarrels, Meles Zenawi and Issayas Afeworki, who are now the leaders of their respective countries. In post-communist Ethiopia, the regime has of course given considerable importance to its home province of Tigray.[34][34] And this in turn has led to considerable autonomy for the province and a situation in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has to be extremely careful to keep his local political base happy. The last TPLF Party Congress where he almost found himself in a minority is a case in point. Given the relentless hostility of the Oromo and the Amhara to his rule, he cannot survive without his Tigray support. And his Tigray supporters still definitely hold a major grudge towards their Eritrean cousins whom they accuse of being overbearing and of using their position to exploit Ethiopia economically.[35][35] The feeling of rival identities and of shared or split historical roots is at the heart of these grudges. The result is that "tradition, prestige and pride" have been and remain at the heart of the confrontation.

This makes the conflict very difficult to solve. Material interests can be negotiated. But how do you negotiate divergent traditions, competing prestige and hurt pride? The conflict is all the more intricate for being so immaterial. To this one must add the Sicilian-like traditions of family feuds among high-ranking Abyssinians: when President Issayas Afeworki refuses to evacuate lands he has occupied by force, he is is not arguing his good faith, he is upholding his machismo credentials in a society where negotiating is considered a despicable weakness, which could very easily be seen by his enemies as a sign that he is not equal to his task anymore.

5.    The regional impact of the war

The main diplomatic impact of the Ethio-Eritrean conflict has been the failure of the US-led regional diplomacy. Not only were two friends of Washington at war, but they openly refused to listen to their ally's advice. This has led to several regional consequences.

The main one has to do with Sudan, which was practically at war with both countries. After having at first shunned Sudanese overtures in June, four months later Addis-Ababa opened secret negotiations with Khartoum.[36][36] As a result Sudanese opposition figures are not welcome anymore in Ethiopia and Ethiopian Airlines flights to Khartoum, which had stopped after Sudan's involvement in the attempted murder of President Hosni Mubarak in Addis-Ababa in 1995, have resumed. NDA military forces in Eritrea have now redeployed to be prepared to face a possible combined Ethio-Sudanese attack on the west of the country.[37][37]

Djibouti, which was nearly bankrupt after its civil war, is now being ressuscitated due to the closure of Assab to Ethiopia-bound freight. Relations between Addis-Ababa and the small republic (or at least its leadership) have never been better. Last Spring, Djibouti's strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh, President Hassan Gouled's nephew, even went as far as saying in an interview with an Ethiopian newspaper that relations between the two countries could become "structural" and that France should have no say in the matter. This was widely interpreted as meaning that Ismail Omar Guelleh, who will be in a very precarious position after his ageing uncle dies, was ready to accept an Ethiopian protectorate over his country. The prospect was serious enough to cause a worried President Gouled to discreetly visit Paris in late October to reassure President Chirac about the future of French military installations in Djibouti.[38][38]

The Somali situation has also been influenced. While Ethiopia is still strongly opposed to the al-Ittihad fundamentalist movement which operates out of the Gedo region and into Ogaden, it has now shifted its stance towards the Somali National Alliance (SNA) led by Hussein Aydid. The SNA leader was invited to Addis-Ababa in September and it seems that he could now expect to benefit from Ethiopian help in exchange for keeping al-Ittihad in check. Such a move could seriously affect the precarious balance of forces in southern Somalia and restart inter-clan fighting which has been at a low ebb during the last few months.[39][39]

Eritrea, in its search for allies, has turned towards Egypt and the Arab League.[40][40] Egypt has responded with interest, given the fact that it fears having to fight a war with Ethiopia sometime in the next century for the control of the waters of the Nile and is hoping to find allies in the region capable of helping its forces.[41][41]

Transnationally, the war will also have an impact on the Afar question. Like the Kurds in the Middle-East or the Ewe in West Africa, the Afar are a people without a country. Divided between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, they are in conflict with their respective governments in all three countries. The Ethiopian Afar, who were fighting the EPRDF regime, have made tactical alliances with it on the Dankali front. Desirous for local support, the Tigrean-led government went along with this arrangement which is most likely only a way of extracting military equipment from Addis-Ababa before returning to war.

And finally, the conflict will almost certainly extract both Eritrea and Ethiopia from their involvement in the Congo where they had supported President Laurent-Désiré Kabila's rise to power in 1996-1997.[42][42]

6.    Conclusion

The Ethio-Eritrean conflict is again on the verge of erupting. It is difficult to imagine how foreign well-wishers could help, given the highly intimate cultural dimension to the quarrel. The 400 sq. km supposedly being fought over are just a pretext, and pride is at the heart of the problem. Hence the refusal of President Issayas Afeworki to withdraw from the areas he has occupied, although they are of no real use for his country. However, the conflict is very unlikely to produce refugees, if by refugees we take the classical meaning of people who flee one country to take refuge in another. Given the fact that the fighting takes place on Tigrean soil and among Tigreans, people will become internally displaced by retreating from the firing line deeper into their own hinterland. There is absolutely no incentive to cross a border. Nor are there any convenient borders available to be crossed. The most likely scenario is that this conflict will slowly burn itself out and end the same way the EPLF/TPLF conflict of the 1980s did, because shared interests will in the end prove stronger than historical grudges and identity Angst.


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Zaghi, Carlo. Le origini della colonia Erritrea . Bologna, 1934.

[1][1] This paper was written while the author was in hospital after a major car crash resulting in multiple injuries. For this reason its lacks diversity in sources relating to very recent events. But the interpretation is based on the author's long familiarity with the Ethio-Eritrean scene, beginning in 1973, under Emperor Haile Selassie, when he stayed several months both in Ethiopia proper and in what was then its Eritrean "province", including in the combat zones. During the 1980s he went back several times to then communist Ethiopia but not to Eritrea due to political problems within the EPLF itself. But he kept in touch with the independence movement both in Europe and at its rear bases in the Sudan. He went back to Eritrea in 1991 at the end of the war and was an official observer at the independence referendum of 1993. He then returned several times to both Eritrea and Ethiopia, the last visit taking place in September 1997. It is on this twenty-five year familiarity with Ethiopia and Eritrea, their lands, cultures and populations, that the author has based his discussion of a most unusual conflict.

[2][2] Although these people now belong to two different countries, in the words of a US diplomat "racially and culturally, the populations of southern Eritrea and northern Abyssinia are as similar as the populations of Nebraska and Kansas.... They have more in common than the Tigre people of Eritrea have with the Baria and Cunama of the Eritrean lowlands". Letter by Harold Courlander, US Consul in Eritrea, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated 22 March 1943, quoted in Alemseged Abbay, "The Trans-Mareb Past in the Present", Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1997), p. 324

[3][3] For the process of the Italian conquest and its consequences, see General O. Baratieri, Memorie d'Africa (Torino: Bocco, 1897), Carlo Zaghi, Le origini della colonia Erritrea (Bologna, 1934) and Haggai Erlich, Ras Alula and the Scramble for Africa: Ethiopia and Eritrea 1875-1897 (Asmara: The Red Sea Press, 1996)

[4][4] This is the name adopted by the ruling single party in Eritrea in 1995. It is in fact, both politically and sociologically identical to the EPLF guerrilla organization which had led Eritrea to independence.

[5][5] One has to keep in mind that the disputed border areas are extremely small (about 400 sq km) and that they are remote and of difficult access. Before 1991 there was no all-weather road going into either the Badme area or into the Erob country around Zalanbessa which was soon to become the second front of the war.

[6][6] La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "La médiation US n'aboutit pas", 23 May 1998

[7][7] Eritrean News Agency [Asmara], Bulletin, 30 May 1998

[8][8] La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Ethiopie-Erythrée: sérieux combats frontaliers", 6 June 1998

[9][9] Reuter [Addis-Ababa], 9 June 1998. In late May 1998, the present author while in Washington talked with a friend in the Clinton administration who had been part of the US Peace Team in Addis-Ababa and who, knowing Ethiopian culture well, judged the situation in practically the same terms. We will come back to the cultural dimension of the conflict further on.

[10][10] Eritrean News Agency [Asmara], Bulletin, 25 September 1998; Ethiopia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grave Violations of Human Rights of Ethiopian Workers and Employers Nationals [sic] in Eritrea (Addis-Ababa, n.d. but probably late September 1998); author's telephone interviews with various Ethiopians and Eritreans between June and October 1998

[11][11] See La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Les Etats-Unis derrière Zenawi", 13 June 1998. The fact that the US-Rwandan proposal was rejected by Eritrea does not mean that Washington and its African allies were systematically partial towards Addis-Ababa. The disputed areas were invaded by Eritrea while they had been administered continuously by Ethiopia since the 1991 de facto partition and after the 1993 referendum. For a good "ground level" discussion of the border situation see Wray Witten, "The Grave Danger of Illusions about Eritrea" (mimeographed document, Mekelle, August 1998). Mr Witten is a US NGO worker based in Tigray for the last seven years, who has lived and travelled extensively in the areas now under dispute, on both sides of the border.

[12][12] See United Nations, Integrated Regional Information Network, Erythrée-Ethiopie: bulletin spécial (Nairobi, 26 October 1998)

[13][13] See La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Ethiopie/Erythrée: ni guerre, ni paix", 29 August 1998; The Economist, "Eritrea and Ethiopia: Spit and Slug", 19 September 1998

[14][14] See La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Ethiopie: Achat de MIGS en Israël", 12 September 1998; La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Ethiopie: nouveaux préparatifs guerriers", 26 September 1998; The Economist, 19 September 1998.

[15][15] Mr Anthony Lake kept a modicum of shuttle diplomacy going. See Eritrean News Agency [Asmara], Bulletin, 8 October 1998.

[16][16] The Assab road front goes through the Afar country, a situation which is not without important regional consequences which we will analyze in the section on the regional impact of the conflict.

[17][17] The main support for the attempted coup came from the 2nd Army which was based in Eritrea and knew that the war was lost. When the coup failed due to the clever intervention of the East German-led security forces, the 2nd Army commander, who had started direct negotiations with the EPLF, committed suicide.

[18][18] As its name clearly shows the AAPO, led by Prof. Asrat Woldeyes, is the political expression of the Amhara people who have ruled Ethiopia since Menelik II ascended the throne in 1889.

[19][19] La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Ethiopie: réunion d'opposants à Paris", 5 Septembre 1998

[20][20] Sagalee Haaraa, "The Ethio-Eritrean Conflict", No. 24 (August-September 1998). Sagalee Haaraa is the US-based newsletter of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The Oromo, who want independence or at least a large amount of autonomy vis-à-vis the Addis-Ababa government, remained neutral in the conflict.

[21][21] The Moslem Eritreans have been slowly but surely marginalized by their Christian fellow countrymen since independence. In addition the armed confrontation with the Sudan which started in December 1993 (at the Sudanese regime's initiative) has been highly impopular with the Eritrean Moslem population, all the more so because the fighting in the West takes place entirely on its lands.

[22][22] Quite to the contrary: the cutting off of Assab from its Ethiopian hinterland is disastrous both for Eritrea which loses all port revenues (the harbour has no economic use for Eritrea, not being connected to the rest of the country by an all-weather road) and for Ethiopia which is now dependent on unstable Djibouti and Berbera.

[23][23] We use this word on purpose to distinguish the old historical core of Ethiopia (which includes the highlands of Eritrea but not its lowlands) from the larger modern political unit dating back to the 1890s and Emperor Menelik's conquests. On this fundamental distinction see Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974 (London: James Currey, 1991) and Paul Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (London: C. Hurst, 1998).

[24][24] Few obeservers noticed this fundamental regional component. See Le Monde Diplomatique, Jean-Louis Penninou, "Aux origines du conflit Ethio-Erythréen", July 1998 and Le Nouvel Afrique Asie, Hamesso Boroda, "La Corne brisée de l'Afrique", 15 September 1998.

[25][25] For a discussion of the effects of the Eritrean monetary reform, see Merra Tegegne, "The economics and consequences of the birr/nakfa exchange mechanism" (mimeographed document, The Hague, September 1998).

[26][26] See Les Nouvelles d'Addis-Abeba, Gérard Prunier, "Une guerre de préjugés", June-July 1998.

[27][27] Richard Hess, Ethiopia: The Modernization of Autocracy (Ithaca: Cornell Unversity Press, 1970), p. 50. The standard work on this period of anarchy which the Ethiopians still recall with a horrified shiver is Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia: the Era of the Princes (New York: Praeger, 1968).

[28][28] For an excellent assessment of this potency of the past in the present in Tigray (and hence in all of Ethiopia) see Hess, especially pp. 51-6.

[29][29] Hence in Ethiopia the strong opposition of several ethnic groups, and particularly of the Amhara and the Oromo who together represent around 75 per cent of the population and who found themselves marginalized by the Tigreans who represent only 7 per cent. In Eritrea, although the Christian Tigreans from the highland provinces dominated the EPLF/PFDJ, they were more open to power sharing with the Moslem ethnic groups from the lowlands.

[30][30] And this almost in the strict sense of the term since President Issayas Afeworki and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are second cousins, a fact they both prefer to hide. But even at the height of the fighting in May-June 1998, they were still talking to each other by telephone several times a week.

[31][31] Alemseged Abbay, pp. 330-1. The author is a Tigrean historian of considerable honesty and extreme clarity of vision.

[32][32] Hence the perfectly apt remark of President Issayas Afeworki about "tradition, prestige and pride", quoted above.

[33][33] For the importance of these contradictory views of Ras Alula by the TPLF and the EPLF, see Haggai Erlich, p. xiii. For the overall relevance of Ras Alula to the history of Ethiopia see Sven Rubenson, The Survival of Ethiopian Independence (London: Heinemann, 1976).

[34][34] For a sympathetic account of these changes, see John Young, "Development and Change in Post-revolutionary Tigray", The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol 35, No. 1 (1997), pp. 81-99.

[35][35] Given the higher standards of education of the Eritreo-Tigreans, they often filled important economic positions in Ethiopia itself where almost half a million lived before the May-June conflict. Over half of the small mechanical enterprises in Ethiopia, 95 per cent of the garages and 70 per cent of electric equipment companies belonged to Eritreans. (Information from Petroleum Transport Association of Ethiopia)

[36][36] See TTU Monde Arabe, "Soutien soudanais à l'Ethiopie", 9 October 1998.

[37][37] Telephone interview with an NDA leader in Asmara. October 1998.

[38][38] Telephone interview with a French Foreign Office official. Paris, October 1998.

[39][39] Hussein Aydid, reinforced by Ethiopia's support, has already attacked the Kisimayo area controlled by his enemy Mohamed Said Hersi and the Harti/Bajun clans. La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Somalie: bataille pour le Jubaland", 31 October 1998.

[40][40] La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Afeworki fait les yeux doux à la Ligue Arabe", 11 July 1998

[41][41] This is not a speculative remark. The 1997 national military manoeuvres in Egypt had such a war, complete with Red Sea landings, as their theme. Interview with US State Department official. Washington DC, May 1998

[42][42] Eritrea recently said that it might send troops to the Congo in support of President Kabila's regime. But given the possibility of renewed hostilities on the Ethio-Eritrean border, this is rather unlikely. See The East African, Chris Erasmus, "War in Congo Escalating, Say Experts", 26 October-1 November 1998.

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