Growing Pains in the Horn of Africa?

Many developing nations have borders that were first established by colonial powers. But few embrace their colonial heritage as closely as does Eritrea, a tiny nation of 3.6 million people that amicably seceded from larger Ethiopia in 1993. Though Eritrea and Ethiopia each have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the past six months of sustained fighting over their common border on the African Horn, both countries unequivocally have agreed since Eritrea’s independence that its previous colonial borders denote the modern Eritrean state.

Yet the warring nations have produced different Italian maps from different colonial eras that contradict each other about their shared, 620-mile-long borderline. The Italian-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 was among the first to establish a demarcation between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but its text was vague and the delineation of the border was never completed. Its final delineation was never completed even after Eritrea became an independent nation.

Having waged the world’s bloodiest war so far this year, the two states and their respective leaders now face the same fork in the road. Either they will sign a peace agreement that finally allows international arbitration to study colonial-era treaties and maps to determine the borderline, or they will squander far more of their precious people and treasure.

The beginnings of war

Blood was first drawn in an area known as Badame on May 6, 1998, after provincial Ethiopian militia ordered an Eritrean army unit to disarm and it refused to do so. The militia killed three Eritrean soldiers and four officers nearly a year after Ethiopia’s province of Tigray had begun expelling Eritrean peasants from Badame, even though Eritrea claimed most of Badame, too.mEither they sign a peace agreement or squander more of their people and treasures.

Eritrea responded by seizing all of Badame, along with four other areas along the border by May 12. Trench-warfare battles and bombing raids began last June. Sustained war broke out this February. Eritrea lost Badame after three weeks. Hours after it fell, Eritrea announced it would accept an Organization of African Unity (OAU) peace plan that it previously had rejected and that Ethiopia previously had accepted.

Today, Eritrea accepts a modified OAU plan; Ethiopia has asked for clarification on many points and has not yet accepted it. Eritrea and Ethiopia have sent delegations to Algiers to forge an agreement. Former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, now a special White House envoy, has flown between capitals to bring the warring parties to the table and keep them there. Many African leaders, including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, back the peace talks.

One sticking point in negotiations now is whether Ethiopia will agree to compensate Eritrean expatriates whose property it confiscated after forcibly displacing 50,000 Eritrean nationals from Ethiopia last year. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, at the National Press Club in Washington on Aug. 16, said that while Eritrea will continue to raise the issue of compensation for deported property holders when and if peace is achieved, the issue is “not a precondition” for peace.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian diplomats say this Eritrean demand is what prevents Ethiopia from accepting the modified OAU peace plan.

From allies to enemies

Badame translates as “empty” or “nothing,” and it has no real strategic or economic value. But the Horn war is about more than nothing, as one objective of each nation is to show the other that it will not be pushed around and that it is willing to pay the highest price to defend national sovereignty. Their mutual logic already has made the Horn war the largest conventional conflict in sub-Saharan Africa’s history. Before the leader of either nation can end it, he must first convince his people that their respective loses were worth it and that they have achieved some kind of victory. Even though Eritrea has lost ground in the fighting, this is already a fait accompli for Isaias, as the Horn war has only united Eritrea’s population.

But presenting the Horn war as a victory may be harder for Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Unlike Isaias, Meles is an unpopular leader. To Meles’ left are militant Tigrinyans from the Ethiopian province of Tigray who claim that Tigray includes Badame. To his right are ethnic Amharas and Oromos who remain largely excluded from power even though they comprise roughly 25{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} and 40{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Ethiopians.

One irony of the Horn war is that it broke out over Badame, in the same region where Isaias and Meles years ago learned to work together. While Isaias’ guerrilla movement, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, had fought the previous, U.S.-backed regime led by Emperor Haile Selassie, Meles’ guerrilla movement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, emerged to eventually ally itself with Eritrean guerrillas after the establishment in 1977 of a Soviet-backed regime. The two independent Marxist guerrilla movements jointly deposed the communist dictatorship in 1991.

Isaias and Meles addressed each other as “comrade” until hostilities began in the Horn war in May 1998. Before full-scale conflict broke out this February, American and Rwandan diplomats together tried to convince both men that their respective interests should compel them to peacefully resolve their border dispute. American officials told Eritrean officials that only Meles was likely to keep Ethiopia from fragmenting along ethnic lines.

Besides backing anti-Ethiopian factions in Somalia, Eritrea has been reaching out to Ethiopia’s long-disenfranchised Oromos. Though Isaias denies it, Eritrean loyalists say Eritrea has been backing Ethiopia’s Oromo Liberation Front against Meles’ government. The Oromo rebels recently have made gains in the south and east of the country. But although they are Ethiopia’s largest single ethnic group, the Oromos never have governed Ethiopia, and few non-Eritrean observers expect the Oromo Liberation Front to ever take power.

The objective of each nation is to show the other it will not be pushed around.

War over nothing?

Instead, Ethiopia’s Amharas are better poised to gain power if and when Meles’ grip slips. Today, most Amharas clearly resent Meles and his ethnic minority dictatorship, though many are nonetheless united with him against Eritrea in the Horn war. During it, Amhara opposition groups have grown more active. The high number of Amharas and Oromos in the Horn war will only make it harder for Meles’ government not to share real power with both ethnic groups.

While Meles’ government always has agreed that Eritrea’s borders are the same as those of its former colony, other Ethiopians resent Meles’ decision in 1993 to allow Eritrea to secede from Ethiopia. Many Amharas especially seem to resent even more the decision to allow Eritrea to secede with two Red Sea ports, leaving Ethiopia a landlocked nation.

Despite the Horn war’s already staggering carnage, some observers say it is less of a tragedy than it looks, as the border fight is merely part of the growing pains of newly emerging states. If that is the case, then the war over nothing may resolve little or nothing at all.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.