Africa’s Horn War

Secessionist struggles stoke nationalist passions, but they do not necessarily correspond to ethnic groups. While ethnicity burns the fire in the Balkans, ethnic Tigrinyans lead both Ethiopia and Eritrea into battle in the war on the African Horn.

Militant Tigrinyans have long been at the forefront of each nation’s nationalist movements. They arose from two independent Marxist guerrilla groups that together deposed a Soviet-backed dictatorship back in 1991. The two groups were led by two Tigrinyan men who now lead each respective nation.

The war in the Horn like the one in the Balkans is over a border, but while Kosovo may eventually secede from Yugoslavia, Eritrea has already seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Eritreans like to point out that their independence from Ethiopia was preceded by an overwhelming popular vote for it in a referendum among Eritreans, but no Ethiopians have ever been polled about the matter.

Many if not most Ethiopians have long resented Eritrea’s secession. Today the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is ostensibly over several broad patches of hardscrabble land around their common 620-mile-long border.

Slouching toward conflict

Back in 1993, when Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia, it took with it both of Ethiopia’s Red Sea ports — Masawa and Assah. The Masawa port has long been linked by paved road with Asmara, the Eritrean capital, while the Assab port has long been linked by paved road with Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital. But because both ports fell clearly within the former Italian colonial boundaries of Eritrea, Ethiopia agreed to cede to Eritrea both ports along with all of Eritrea’s former colonial territory. Why? Ethiopia’s government had no choice.

Back in 1991, in their joint struggle against the Soviet-backed dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front liberated Ethiopia’s northern province of Eritrea first. The Eritrean guerrilla leader, Isaias Afwerki, who is now president of the state of Eritrea, then provided the artillery for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s final assault on Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital. The Ethiopian Tigray guerrilla leader, Meles Zenawi, is now Ethiopia’s president. Back then he had multiple reasons for agreeing to cede all of Eritrea’s former colonial territory, which helps shape Eritrea’s modern national identity. No doubt one was that Eritrean guerrillas were stronger than his guerrillas.

Eritrean President Afwerki talks to the press

Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia came amicably, though tension between the two nations increased over time. In what in hindsight looks like an obvious mistake on both sides, the two governments never took the time to jointly delineate their common border even though there were disputes over various pieces of territory from the start. Moreover, Ethiopia began paying a price for being a landlocked nation. Until Ethiopia began boycotting it last May, duties and fees levied on Ethiopian goods passing through Assab were generating 18{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Eritrea’s total revenues.

Ethiopian diplomats today categorically deny that their government has any wish to reclaim Assab. But irritation over its loss has only fueled Ethiopia’s other claims against Eritrea.

Much of the friction has centered around the disputed area of Badame, about 100 miles east of Sudan. In recent years, many former Ethiopian guerrillas have moved into the Badame region to farm small plots of land, displacing many Eritrean farmers who were already there. By August 1997, armed Ethiopian forces expelled Eritrean civilian administrators from the village of Bada. In October 1997, Ethiopia published a new official map that incorporated Bada along with most of the Badame region into Ethiopia.

One month later, trade relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke down. Eritrea issued its own currency, the nakfa, after having used Ethiopia’s currency, the birr, for four years. Each side had different expectations about what the new Eritrean currency would mean for their bilateral trade. While Eritrean officials wanted Ethiopia to accept the nakfa in a one-to-one exchange rate for the birr, Ethiopian officials instead demanded that Eritrea pay for all its goods in hard currency, which both sides lacked. Trucks soon were backed up at border crossings, while ships waited to unload at Assab.

Is might right?

The conflict turned bloody on May 6, 1998. After Ethiopian militia displaced yet another group of Eritrean peasants in the Badame region, a local 12-man Eritrean army unit sought out the Ethiopian militia.

Both sides say the Ethiopian militia ordered the Eritrean unit to disarm. A firefight ensued, which left seven Eritrean personnel, including four officers, dead. Within hours Eritrea mobilized thousands of troops to occupy the Badame region. Six days later, Eritrea seized four other pieces of disputed territory along the common border further east, including one around the road from Addis Abeba to Assab, its former port. Earlier this year before full-scale war broke out, Eritrea deployed sizable forces in Assab in order to deter any possible Ethiopian assault.

Elsewhere, Eritrea seized ground for tactical reasons that went well beyond disputed territories to take positions that were clearly within the borders of Ethiopia. Eritreans seemed universally confident that their experienced guerrilla fighters would be able to hold their ground.

For that reason, Eritrea’s Isaias rejected an Organization of African Unity peace plan brokered by Rwanda and the United States. The plan called for international mediation to determine the border line, and one of its conditions was that all sides must withdraw to positions held before May 6. Ethiopia accepted the OAU plan; Eritrea did not.

“Might is right,” Isaias said shortly before full-scale war broke out this year on Feb. 6. But he, like many Eritrean loyalists, appears to have miscalculated.

Although Isaias successfully led a protracted insurgent struggle to achieve Eritrea’s independence, the Horn war has been a conventional conflict involving the use of heavy firepower over open terrain. Eritrea went into the war with far less tanks and jet fighters than Ethiopia did, and with no helicopter gunships. Three weeks later, after a bloody campaign that claimed tens of thousands of lives, Ethiopia drove Eritrea out of the Badame region and Isaias, on Feb. 27, reversed his position to say he would accept the OAU plan.

One Ethiopia?

Ethiopia, however, has pressed on, although it may eventually agree to negotiate. So far Eritrea has continued to hold most of the other disputed territories. Though no reliable figures are yet available, Ethiopia appears to have suffered the heaviest casualties in recent fighting: to take Badame, it deployed waves of infantry fighters, who preceded and followed heavy air and artillery strikes against Eritreans dug into trenches. Nonetheless, Eritrea cannot afford to sustain combat as long as Ethiopia can, as Ethiopia’s population is 17 times greater, and its pre-war economy was eight times the size.

The United Nations is currently trying to mediate between the two sides. This week U.N. envoy Mohammed Sahnoun has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Asmara and Addis Abeba to try and bring Isaias and Meles together. Eritrea now seems anxious to reach a settlement, but it remains unclear if Ethiopia will ultimately decide to expand its military objectives. Even if Meles remains reluctant to break his 1993 promise to respect Eritrean sovereignty, other Ethiopians sound like some Yugoslavians talking about Kosovo when they say that Eritrea has no right to be an independent nation.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist, has written about Africa in publications including The New Republic, Foreign Affairs and The New York Times.