Africa’s Inexplicable Horn

Ethiopia’s former communist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, prolonged a famine in northern Ethiopia in the mid-1980s to dry out two Marxist insurgencies that were each deeply rooted there. Today one former insurgent, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, prolongs a famine in southern Ethiopia to punish his former guerrilla ally on the northern Horn, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki. During recent peace negotiations, Meles and other Ethiopian officials warned that, if necessary, they would teach Eritrea a lesson. Ethiopia launched an offensive against Eritrean positions last Friday just two days after the American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, finished shuttling across the Horn between the two leaders to say in Eritrea that the war “can [still] be resolved by diplomatic means.”

The Ethiopian offensive is the Horn war’s third major round of fighting and it began on May 12, the two-year anniversary of Eritrean troops first seizing several positions in the disputed border area between the two nations. Six days before the 1998 Eritrean invasion, Ethiopian militia opened fire on an Eritrean army unit near the disputed borderline, killing a handful of soldiers and officers. For months afterward, Eritrean officials kept silent about the Ethiopian militia attack, even though it was the first drawing of blood in the Horn war and it preceded Eritrea’s initial seizure of disputed territory. “It was a mistake not to publicize the [Ethiopian militia] attack,” says one Eritrean official now in hindsight.

Such tight-lipped deportment by Horn leaders is consistent with their respective characters. While African combatants from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo fight over commodities like diamonds, Horn combatants fight over emotions alternating between ego and humiliation. The lack of any clear strategic objective for either side in the Horn war has long baffled observers.

Africa’s Horn wars are more over pride than politics.

“It’s inexplicable these two countries would go to war over these differences,” said Holbrooke in Asmara last Wednesday. Holbrooke apparently fails to see that each Horn leader needs to be perceived by his own constituents as having made the other guy eat dirt.

Ethiopia builds up

“Might is right” was something Eritrea’s Isaias said during the interim between the first Eritrean advance in May 1998 and the Ethiopian counter-attack in February 1999. Only after losing most of the disputed border terrain including “Badame” in an epic trench battle killing tens of thousands did Isaias finally reverse his prior refusal of an Organization of African Unity (OAU) peace proposal to accept it. After reclaiming “Badame,” Ethiopia’s Meles delayed for over a year before last week finally rejecting the OAU peace process. Over the same period, Eritrea only grew more anxious to sign it. Eritrea made the same mistake in 1998 that Ethiopia appears to be making now in thinking that a massive deployment of force will bring it a relatively quick and painless victory. .

Tiny Eritrea is hemorrhaging badly — a fact that should surprise no one considering that Ethiopia’s economy is more than nine times the size of Eritrea’s. Even though Ethiopia spent about $550 million last year on the war, its military spending still represents less than 10{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of its gross domestic product (GDP). Eritrea, meanwhile, spent about $180 million in 1999 on the war, which is more than one-fourth of its GDP. Most of Eritrea’s arms purchases have been purchased by funds sent by expatriates living as diaspora who, according to official sources, sent back $121.3 million in remittances last year. Nevertheless, Eritrea can still not afford to buy more than a few jet fighters to match the ones Ethiopia recently bought.

In recent months, Ethiopia bought more arms including Russian SU-25 attack jets. By then, the early-warning system that Meles’ government implemented to avoid disasters like famines worked perfectly. Foreign experts and Ethiopian officials alike knew that 8 million Ethiopians — largely ethnic Somalis — concentrated in the Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia were at risk of starvation.
What about human suffering?

Up to eight million more Ethiopians are threatened with starvation if the famine spreads. This time usually drier Eritrea is in better shape because it has absorbed more rain, unlike much of southern and eastern Ethiopia, which is in the third year of a drought. The rainy season that in some areas came early this year and usually lasts until September only worsens the immediate tragedy. Rains help farmers who have already sown seeds, but they do nothing for the three-quarters of a million men and, in Eritrea’s case, women deployed at or near the front. The rains have already begun to impede some travel from Red Sea ports that international relief agencies need to bring food and other supplies to the Ogaden and elsewhere in Ethiopia. Rather than spend even a dime on building weather-proof passages on roadways to feed people in the southeast, Meles’ government has devoted its resources to fighting Eritrea in the north.

Meles’ government has shown a similar callousness when it comes to Assab, Eritrea’s second Red Sea port. Although it falls within the original Italian colonial borders of Eritrea, Assab was modernized by the communist Mengistu regime, which expanded the port and built the roadway connecting it with Addis Abeba. In April, Isaias offered to allow the U.N. and other relief agencies to bring food to Ethiopia via Assab, which has traditionally served Ethiopia’s relief assistance needs. But Meles refused the offer. “In Ethiopia, we do not wait to have a fully tummy to protect our sovereignty,” he later explained. Instead, U.N. and other agencies have begun to bring in food from neighboring Djibouti and the international community has already spent millions to improve Djibouti’s port and the road connecting it with Ethiopia.

Meles’ government has only grown more popular, ironically, with the war. This Monday up to 200,000 Ethiopians demonstrated in support of the war effort in Addis Abeba. (Some Ethiopian Orthodox Church officials along with other religious leaders remain critical of the government’s handling of the famine.) Much of their protest focused on the U.S. and British embassies for their joint proposal for a U.N. arms embargo against both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

An international answer?

Like elsewhere in Africa, Western efforts on the Horn come too little too late. Even if the U.N. security council were to now impose an arms embargo on the Horn, it could only help lessen the intensity of the next possible round of fighting. And with U.N. peacekeepers unable to control irregular forces in Sierra Leone, no one is suggesting that they should be deployed between the armies of two fully engaged Horn nations. The only remaining option is to escalate diplomatic pressure on Meles to compel him to halt his offensive, which, in the continued absence of any clear goal, only serves his need to be perceived by his own people as having punished Eritrea.

The West faces a similar conundrum to one it faced 16 years ago. The more the responsibility the international community assumes to feed Ethiopia’s people, the more resources it frees up for the nation’s ruling regime to spend on the largest conventional war ever in Africa. The death toll in the previous one of this scale, the Afrikaner-Boer war, was a little more than 30,000 combatants. No doubt by now the Horn war’s death toll is greater. To fuel its campaign, Meles’ government even tried and failed to tax the first sacks of Western food aid arriving this year for the famine. “They are completely expecting the international community to deal with it,” says an official from a donor nation.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and a contributing editor at He has previously written about the African Horn in Foreign Affairs, World Policy Journal, The New Republic and Jane’s Intelligence Review. His website is