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

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.

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.

Battle Horn: So Much for Africa’s “New Leaders.”

When President Clinton took his historic twelve-day tour of Africa last year, he singled out tiny Eritrea and its larger neighbor Ethiopia as beacons of hope for the beleaguered continent. In Clinton’s mind — and in the minds of others in the West like Oxfam International and the World Bank — Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, and Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, represented a new breed of African statesmen. Intolerant of corruption and committed to free-market reforms, Isaias and Meles were considered to be among the likely leaders of an African renaissance. But now, President Clinton, the two men — heralded less than a year after this renaissance and their impoverished countries — are at war.

The war on Africa’s Horn may be the most dramatic and bloodiest chapter in the rapid disintegration of an alliance among a group of African leaders — commonly referred to as the “new leaders” — that once held much promise. In 1996, Isaias and Meles, along with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (who, like Isaias and Meles, are former Marxist guerrillas), formed a bloc that was engaged in joint military campaigns from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda — with the help of $20 million in nonlethal aid from the United States — were all backing rebels in Sudan against that country’s radical Islamist government. Further south, Rwanda, Uganda, and Eritrea — and, later, Angola –joined forces in Zaire to help Laurent Kabila overthrow the corrupt postcolonial despot Mobutu Sese Seko.

But, not long after Kabila seized power in May 1997, renaming Zaire the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the bloc of “new leaders” began to splinter. Rwanda and Uganda fell out with Kabila as he became more independent of his former patrons. By July 1998, the same countries that had helped bring down Mobutu began fighting again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They and other states are still waging war in Central Africa — only now Uganda and Rwanda are battling Angola, among other states.

It is the Horn War, though, that most concerns Western observers. Ever since May and June 1998, when Eritrea and Ethiopia launched artillery attacks and air strikes against each other in a dispute over their 620-mile-long border, the United States has been working feverishly to head off a full-fledged conflict between the two countries. At first, the United States had some success, brokering a cease-fire. But attempts to secure a more lasting peace bogged down, and, on February 6, after months of escalating tensions, a full-scale war broke out. While Ethiopia’s economy is eight times greater than Eritrea’s, and its population is 17 times the size, the smaller country’s stronger nationalist identity should make this fight a protracted one — one of potentially epic proportions. “It could become the biggest war ever in sub-Saharan Africa,” frets one senior Defense Department official, “or at least since the [South African] Boer War” at the turn of the century.

Eritrea and Ethiopia are among Africa’s poorest nations, and the irony of their war is that, ostensibly at least, both sides are fighting over nothing. The main flashpoint is a border region of hardscrabble terrain called Badame, which translates in the local language as “empty.” After Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, their common border was never clearly delineated. In recent years, many former Ethiopian guerrillas have moved into the Badame region to farm small plots of land, displacing Eritrean farmers who were already working the same plots. Finally, in July 1997, after a few heated but still bloodless incidents between the ex-guerrillas and the peasants, Isaias and Meles agreed to form a joint commission to draw the boundary.

But, before an agreement could be reached, local Ethiopian authorities took matters into their own hands. Last May, Ethiopian militia in the Badame region began a new wave of expulsions of Eritrean peasants. When an Eritrean Army unit sought out the local militia to negotiate on behalf of the newly displaced Eritrean peasants, the Ethiopian militia opened fire, leaving three Eritrean officers and one soldier dead. Eritrea responded to the incident by deploying troops in the Badame region and then, on May 12, by seizing even more territory there and at two other areas along the border to the east. Eritrean officials privately admit that, for tactical reasons, some of the ground they then occupied went beyond the country’s admittedly fuzzy borders and actually included Ethiopian terrain.

The Ethiopians retaliated by bombing Eritrea’s airport. But, more than 20 minutes after that attack, one Eritrean plane bombed an Ethiopian school, killing 44 people and wounding 135 others, most of them children. Even after Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to a cease-fire last June, both countries scrambled to buy artillery, armored vehicles, jet fighters, and other arms (Today, Eritrea still has fewer jets than Ethiopia and no helicopter gunships). Ethiopia also escalated tensions by deporting more than 52,000 people of Eritrean descent.

Of course, this is not literally a war over nothing. The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has also been fueled by clashing economic interests. In November 1997, Eritrea issued its own currency, the nakfa, after having used the Ethiopian birr for four years. While Eritrean officials wanted Ethiopia to accept the nakfa in a one-to-one exchange rate with the birr, Ethiopian officials instead demanded that Eritrea pay for all its goods in hard currency, which both sides lacked. Soon, trucks loaded with goods backed up on both sides of the border, while ships waited to unload their cargo at Assab, one of two Eritrean ports on the Red Sea.

The Assab port is another source of contention between the two countries. Although Assab has long been administratively part of Eritrea, dating back to when Eritrea was an Italian colony, the port is linked by paved road to Addis Ababa and has traditionally served as Ethiopia’s only port (Eritrea’s other port is Massawa, which is connected by paved road with its capital, Asmara). In 1993, as part of Eritrea’s peaceful secession from Ethiopia, Meles made Ethiopia a landlocked nation when he relinquished Assab to his Eritrean comrades as part of his promise to restore to Eritrea the territories it enjoyed when it was an Italian colony. And, while Ethiopian diplomats today say they make no claims on Assab, Eritrean officials contend that the entire border war may merely be a ploy by Ethiopia to retake the port — which, until Ethiopia began boycotting it last May, generated 18 percent of Eritrea’s total revenues from the fees and duties leveled on Ethiopian goods.

The final irony of the war is that, if these two countries cannot coexist peacefully under the leadership of Isaias and Meles, it’s doubtful that they ever will. Both Isaias and Meles are members of the Tigrinya ethnic group and speak the Tigrinya language — the only language common to both countries. The two men, and the respective guerrilla movements that now run each state, struggled together to depose the Soviet-backed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Two years later, in 1993, Meles and Isaias agreed to Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia. Until blood was first drawn last May, Meles and Isaias long addressed each other, in letters and face-to-face meetings, as “comrade.”

Indeed, Meles had been far more sympathetic to Eritrea than most other Ethiopians. While Isaias is genuinely popular across Eritrea, Meles is not well-liked in Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians, particularly members of the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups, despise Meles, whose Tigrinyan ethnic group is a distinct minority in Ethiopia. Warns one Ethiopian diplomat: Eritrea will “never find an Ethiopian government as friendly to them as the present government.” If Meles falls, things could actually get worse between the two countries.

But it’s hard to imagine anything much worse than the trench warfare that now rages on Africa’s Horn. While many are tempted to compare the hostilities to other African conflicts, the Horn War is more reminiscent of the Iran-Iraq War or World War I. The likelihood of carnage and exhaustion of resources serves only to sap the hope that both Isaias and Meles once brought to the Horn. Not long ago, Africa’s new leaders promised new beginnings. But all they do now is wage wars. Their beacons faded surprisingly fast.

Frank Smyth is coauthor of “Africa’s New Bloc,” published in the March/April 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Africa’s New Block

Coming of age

Sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing its most profound changes since the early years of independence. Forces that have long held sway over the region are now either waning or gone. For decades the United States, the Soviet Union, and France propped up dictators who served their interests — men like Ethiopia’s Mengistu Halle Mariam, Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre, Rwanda’s Juvenal Habyarimana, and the former Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko. The scaled-down presence of foreign powers has helped topple the regimes these men built. Other despots like Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi and Cameroon’s Paul Biya are also feeling unprecedented pressure for democratic change. Many were military officers who took advantage of the general disorder left by departing colonial forces to seize power. Once entrenched, each preached some form of nationalism, only to evolve cynical regimes which, in addition to being brutal, did little for their own people while shamelessly enriching their leaders’ inner circles. Now, with the clear exception of Nigeria, Africa’s postcolonial despotic order is finally breaking down.

But several new trends are evident. Since the departure of foreign powers, pre-colonial ethnic conflicts — exploited by local political forces — have reemerged with a vengeance. Although the divide between the Hutus and Tutsis dates back to at least the sixteenth century, Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which up to 800,000 people were slaughtered, was unprecedented. Ethnic and clan-based political identities are resurfacing elsewhere on the continent as well. In Nigeria they fuel a regionally based opposition movement to the central government, in Sudan an armed rebel group that threatens secession. And in places like Liberia and the Somali Republic, they have dissolved nations into anarchy.

Another rising trend is the propensity of African states to invade each other. Besides deploying combat forces, Rwanda helped plan, organize, and lead the rebel campaign that deposed Mobutu last year, turning Zaire into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Angola also marched against Mobutu and had a hand in Brazzaville’s more recent leadership struggle. Uganda, which has a history of backing military campaigns in the Great Lakes region, is now allied with Ethiopia and Eritrea in support of rebels in Sudan. Ethiopia is also backing forces in Somalia. Nigeria has deployed peacekeepers under dubious mandates in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Africans are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. A new generation of leaders backed by highly trained and disciplined armies is assuming power. The most assertive of these new leaders are former guerrilla commanders who developed their character and worldview as their movements defeated foreign-supported, postcolonial despots in drawn-out struggles. While highly nationalistic, these leaders were once students of Marxism, organizing along democratic-centralist lines and planning to nationalize their economics. Although some still own Lenin’s complete works, they are pragmatists, favoring free markets and insisting that corruption, not class difference, is the greatest threat to national development. Steeped in the values of secular nationalism, each has sought to incorporate disenfranchised ethnic and religious groups. Yet not one of these leaders can easily be called democratic, as each still runs a de facto one-party state.

Some of these states are coalescing into a new political and military bloc that, though relatively small, aspires to remake much of the continent. At its core are Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, with Angola and South Africa playing smaller roles. These countries enjoy the sympathies of Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Burundi. Having ousted Mobutu, the bloc now seeks to topple the Islamist regime in Sudan and influence Chad, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. While these new leaders disagree over tactics, they share the goal of ending the cronyism and instability that has epitomized postcolonial Africa.

More by default than by design, the United States has gained influence while France, especially, has lost ground. The Clinton administration has largely played catch-up in response to events in Africa, with guidance flowing as much from foreign missions to Washington as the other way around. U.S. policymakers have been mostly sanguine about the new bloc and its aims. Yet on key issues affecting Africa, they remain divided.

The agents of change

LEADERS OF the new bloc share interests and experiences that manifest themselves in fiercely independent attitudes. Take Eritrea, a small, poor country on the Red Sea, colonized by Italy and forcibly incorporated into neighboring Ethiopia in 1962. It fought U.S.- and then Soviet-backed Ethiopian regimes for 30 years before gaining independence in 1993. Its new president, Isaias Afwerki, is a long-time guerrilla leader and is unusually candid. In his first address to the Organization of African Unity, Isaias (Afwerki, by regional custom, is his father’s first name) lambasted the assembled heads of state for neglecting Africa’s problems while wasting money on their own lavish lifestyles.

A former engineering student, Isaias, 51, is a problem-solver, willing to borrow from any plan or formula that might work. At 23, he went to China for military training at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Today he is taking a correspondence course at a British institute to earn a business degree. Isaias retains — and demands from his followers — an unyielding spirit of self-sacrifice. Crime and corruption are rare in Eritrea. In 1995 the government imprisoned several high-ranking Eritrean revolutionary veterans for embezzlement. National service, including both military training and civilian labor, is compulsory, and many young men and women are surprisingly eager to serve. And unlike other African capitals, Asmara is impeccably clean.

Eritrea, while allowing more political freedom than before, is not a democracy. Isaias states clearly that the country will advance toward greater pluralism according to its own schedule and on its own terms. The movement he founded, which still dominates, has successfully incorporated Muslims and ethnic minorities into its ranks. But fearing ethnic fragmentation, Eritrea outlawed parties deemed to be ethnically or religiously motivated. Furthermore, only demonstrations in favor of the government are tolerated. In 1993, when disabled revolutionary veterans protested by blockading roads and taking hostages, government soldiers killed several of them. There is no free press either. An Eritrean journalist with Agence France Presse was arrested in 1997 for reporting on a private speech Isaias gave on Eritrea’s military involvement with allied states against neighboring Sudan.

Ethiopia, much larger than Eritrea, is one of those states. Its prime minister, Meles Zenawi, 42, who joined a revolutionary movement when he was a 20-year-old aspiring medical student, is another eclectic thinker. Meles fought alongside Isaias for 15 years against the brutal, Soviet-backed Mengistu. Isaias, who provided experienced combatants to help Ethiopian revolutionaries in 1975, provided the artillery for Meles’ final march on Addis Ababa in May 1991. These two leaders then negotiated the protocols for a referendum two years later that led to its independence. They have even more in common. Both men are ethnic Tigrinya, which leads many non-Tigrinya Ethiopians to suspect a conspiracy.

A third leader within the bloc is Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, about 53 (he is not sure), the president of the small but powerful Uganda. Often described as the “godfather” of the new bloc because of his voluble utterances, Museveni is the only bloc leader who came to power during the Cold War. He, too, has a history of involvement in revolutionary movements. In 1968, the 24-year-old Museveni was studying in socialist Tanzania. Later he led a group of students behind enemy lines in Mozambique to visit Marxist Guerrillas. He also spent time in North Korea seeking military training. By 1971 he was back in Uganda, working for President Milton Obote’s first regime when the army commander Idi Amin seized power. Museveni formed a guerrilla force to oppose Amin but eventually disarmed and joined the second Obote regime, only to break with him again. In January 1986, five years after forming a new guerrilla army, Museveni and his men overran Kampala.

Museveni has been a relatively benign dictator, often delivering homilies about the value of work and individual initiative. While encouraging political participation in villages, he outlawed political parties, claiming they would only breed chaos. Before the 1996 presidential elections, he allowed long-dormant parties to resurface, although they were still prohibited from formally endorsing candidates or organizing rallies. During the campaign, Museveni’s followers intimidated the opposition, while state resources were used to mobilize his own supporters, and he won easily. Opposition groups nevertheless hold some seats in the parliament and control The Monitor, Uganda’s second-largest daily. While the opposition tries to attract members of ethnic minorities, the issue of ethnicity is less divisive in Uganda than elsewhere. The country has many small ethnic groups, so no single group dominates. Museveni himself is from the Banyankore ethnic group in southwestern Uganda. Because some key Rwandans who fought alongside him during his rise to power are Tutsi, he is frequently accused by foreigners, especially Francophones, of being one as well.

Paul Kagame, 40, Rwanda’s vice president and minister of defense was one of Museveni’s comrades, supporting him in 1981. In turn, Museveni aided Kagame and the Tutsi rebels that defeated the French-backed Hutu government in Rwanda in 1994. Like others in the new bloc, Kagame and his movement have a Marxist past; some Rwandan officers still subscribe to North Korean newspapers. Yet the new Rwanda is hardly antediluvian. Western experts consider Kagame a top military strategist who commands an effective army that he is not afraid to use. Kagame does not deny that his forces played a decisive role in the recent Zairean rebellion that brought Laurent Kabila and his followers to power. Kagame’s main objective was to rid eastern Zaire of Rwandan Hutu rebels. But an unknown number of them have since returned to Rwanda, hiding among its Hutu majority and launching new attacks. Hutus outnumber Tutsis six to one. Kagame has no intention of sharing any real power.

The new four-state African bloc, therefore, emerged from the prior understandings between the men who are now leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia on the one hand, and Uganda and Rwanda on the other. These leaders still disagree on many issues, however. While Rwandan and Eritrean senior officials get along well, Uganda’s Museveni is critical of Ethiopia’s Meles for encouraging ethnic identity politics that could backfire and divide the country. Similarly, since Kagame’s 1994 takeover in Rwanda, some distance has opened up between the Ugandans and the Rwandans. Although Museveni is prone to making indecorous public comments, he privately discouraged Kagame from taking measures that might have provoked France in the former Zaire. Kagame ignored him. In general, Museveni has advocated restraint, while the leaders of the bloc’s two smallest countries, Rwanda and Eritrea, have called for action.

For better or worse?

Emerging conflicts have brought the four members of the bloc closer together. Since the late 1980s, Sudan has provided bases and arms to various Islamist and extremist rebel groups launching raids into Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda. After one cross-border attack into Eritrea in December 1994, Isaias took the initiative to strike back. He invited various factions of the Sudanese opposition to Asmara to forge a military alliance and flew to Addis Ababa and Kampala to persuade Ethiopia’s Meles and Uganda’s Museveni to form a coalition of frontline states. Each, state now provides bases, logistical support, and arms to Sudanese rebel groups operating from its territory, with their combined momentum even drawing U.S. support. In 1997 the Clinton administration’s budget for nonlethal military aid to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda to help fend off rebels backed by Sudan was $20 million.

The former Zaire was a second catalyst of cooperation. While Zaire had long provided bases to rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) fighting the Angolan government along its western border, its own ethnically-driven policies on its eastern border harrowed the terrain for insurrection. Zaire allowed Rwandan rebels to operate from its territory, and Zairean forces joined with these groups in 1995 and 1996 to attack local Tutsis, massacring thousands and displacing as many as 250,000.

Although Laurent Kabila took credit for its success, the Zairean rebellion was a joint effort. Kagame has since admitted that Angola and Uganda provided initial funding. Angola also deployed troops right before the fall of Kinshasa; Rwanda helped plan and execute the operation and provided combat forces. From the beginning, Eritrea provided material support and combat training in eastern Zaire. The operation, while impressive by military standards, exacted a grisly human cost. Evidence suggests that both Kabila’s and Kagame’s forces hunted down and killed unarmed civilians — including women and children — suspected of being, or being associated with, the rebels. Many officers suspected of ordering the killings spoke Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s language. These massacres cast a harsh light on Kagame, Kabila, and the new bloc.

Despite this record, some international observers like the World Bank and Oxfam International, a private anti-hunger consortium, welcome the bloc. They see a new axis emerging across the continent, linking leaders who seek to break the corrupt and colonial ties of the past and ending the vast patronage systems that have undermined African development. For decades, leaders failed to invest in infrastructure, education, health care, or legal and regulatory reform. Nations became aid-dependent, while their leaders established predatory regimes. They used their armies and what judiciaries they had to insulate themselves from any pressure for reform. When challenged, tyrants like Amin, Habyarimana, and Mobutu responded with unspeakable violence.

The legacy of their generation is obscene. Among Sub-Saharan Africa’s 590 million people, almost half live on less than one dollar a day and lack safe drinking water. More than one-third have no health care. Tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, and AIDS run rampant, and preventive measures are minimal. Nearly half the adult population is illiterate, and worker productivity in most countries is among the lowest anywhere. Africa’s aggregate per capita income is lower than that of any region but south Asia. In fact, under the last generation of rulers, the continent grew poorer with every passing decade. Even if Africa’s aggregate growth doubles over the next nine years, its per capita income in 2006 would still be five percent lower than it was in 1974.

Africa’s new leaders aspire to reverse this decline — to establish what Oxfam calls “new political systems of responsive and accountable government.” Interestingly, while all four members of the bloc share this goal, Eritrea and Rwanda have been particularly suspicious of foreign nongovernmental organizations. Neither country is a beggar. In 1996 Rwanda expelled many NGOs, accusing them of aiding rebels. Eritrea accuses NGOs of perpetuating their own existence by creating aid-dependency among its people. In 1996 Eritrea ended food relief programs, and in 1997 it suspended all other activities of NGOS in the country, allowing them to fund, but not operate, health and education projects.

The bloc’s four countries encourage development through investment and work rather than through foreign aid. With the exception of Rwanda, whose economy continues to plummet due to the civil war, these countries have seen their economies grow. Ethiopia experienced a 3.4 percent average annual increase in GDP in this decade. Uganda did even better, averaging 6.9 percent growth during the same period, rising to 10 percent in the past two years. This prosperity follows efforts, especially in Uganda, supported by the World Bank and others, to stabilize currencies, sell state-owned enterprises, reduce government budgets, and create a stable business climate designed to attract private capital. Pursuing similar policies, Eritrea has seen recent annual growth of almost 8 percent.

Sub-Saharan Africa now receives only five percent of all direct foreign investment flowing to developing countries. About half of that goes to Nigeria, mainly to extract oil. Nonetheless, South Africa, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana are attracting new investors, and countries like Senegal and Mozambique are trying to. Private capital alone, however, will not eliminate poverty. Oxfam and many other groups urge the World Bank and other Western institutions to use their funds to encourage economic equality, improve health and education, and develop agricultural and other projects that are self-sustaining in the long term.

Economic development should not distract attention from human rights abuses like the Congo’s recent massacres. These events, however, should not be seen through an historical lens. Looking at events over time, everyone emerges sullied, including members of the international community. Rwanda’s genocide began in April 1994. United Nations peacekeepers were already there, but their force structure and mandate were too feeble to stop the bloodletting. France deployed troops in Rwanda once the genocide was under way, but they set up a safe haven that protected many war criminals. The U.N. Security Council approved France’s establishment of a sanctuary. Oxfam and U.N. relief agencies also played host to killers in refugee camps in eastern Zaire.

Almost everyone involved agreed that civilian refugees should be separated from war criminals, but they disagreed on who should do it. When the United Nations in late 1996 decided to deploy a force under Canadian command, its proposed mandate was limited to providing safe corridors for refugees to voluntarily repatriate to Rwanda. It had no authority to segregate them forcibly from the killers who were holding them back. By then Kagame, the Rwandan leader, was fed up. Just as the U.N. force was about to mobilize, Kagame unleashed a rebellion. In less than one month, local Tutsi and Rwandan forces routed the war criminals from the U.N. camps, separating them from most of the refugee population. Half a million refugees returned to Rwanda within three days. The rebellion continued, and, Kabila proclaimed himself its leader.

A member of the Muluba ethnic group from diamond-rich southeastern Zaire, Kabila had participated in several communist-led revolts and an ethnic rebellion. He formed his own revolutionary party in 1968. Although it attracted little support, Kabila financed it through ivory, diamond, and gold smuggling. He remained in relative obscurity until he was recruited by Kagame and others to lead eastern Zaire’s Tutsi rebellion. Since assuming power, he has failed to incorporate opposition leaders and other ethnic groups into his movement, raising questions about whether he will be able to control the Congo, one of Africa’s largest countries with over 200 ethnic groups. His forces, like Kagame’s, have much to answer for concerning human rights, although he has agreed to allow the United Nations to investigate their alleged massacres. But brokered by U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson, the U.N. commission’s mandate begins in March 1993, which will enable its members to investigate Rwanda’s deadly slide into genocide, as well as subsequent events that precipitated the Congo massacres. Kagame, Kabila, and others have been assured that the antecedents to their own crimes will not be overlooked.

New targets

Although the bloc is cohesive, its influence elsewhere on the continent is modest. Stretching from the Great Lakes region to the Red Sea, its combined forces are one of several major military concentrations in Africa. While together they are stronger than the Sudanese army, they are no match for the armies of South Africa or Nigeria. Economically the bloc is small. Its most militant members, Eritrea and Rwanda, have economies smaller than that of Cyprus. The bloc’s two largest countries, Ethiopia and Uganda, have economies that are each less than that of oil-rich Sudan. So far the bloc’s influence has been limited to central and eastern Africa as well as the Horn. Nigeria dominates the Economic Community of West African States, and post-apartheid South Africa is a rising force on the continent.

Sudan is next on the bloc’s list of targets. For years the Islamist regime, led by General Omar Bashir, has backed fundamentalist rebels in three bloc states and elsewhere, including Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, and the former Somalia. Khartoum was also behind assassination attempts on Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995 and Eritrea’s Isaias in Asmara in 1997. Here the bloc and the United States share common interests. Washington is irritated at Sudan’s support of individuals like the wealthy Saudi Osama bin Laden, whom the State Department claims has financed terrorism worldwide, and groups including Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, the Palestinian-based Hamas, and Islamist veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

Composed mainly of Muslim Arabs in the north, the Bashir regime has escalated the war against rebel forces in the south. The regime has banned political parties, trade unions, and all other “nonreligious institutions,” and has restricted dress and behavior in accordance with Islamic law. Taking some cues from Iran, it has also restricted the press and purged more than 78,000 people from its army, police, and civil service, reshaping the state apparatus to better stifle dissent. The army, faced with unprecedented rebel attacks, has been forced to recruit 14-year-olds to sustain its ranks.

Leaders of Sudan’s armed rebels are close to the bloc. John Garang, the commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, based mainly in the south, was in a revolutionary study group in Tanzania with Uganda’s Museveni. Abdel Aziz Khalid, commander of the Sudan Alliance Forces, a new group based in the east, is a former Sudanese army commander who consults frequently with Eritrea’s Isaias. Elsewhere in Africa, another leader compatible with the bloc is Thabo Mbeki, 55, the South African deputy president. More militant than President Nelson Mandela, Mbeki is expected to succeed him in 1999.

The bloc supports change elsewhere in Africa, even in states beyond its reach like Nigeria. Described by one U.S. expert as “a massive criminal enterprise,” Nigeria has become a major transit point for heroin from Asia and other drugs en route to Europe and the United States. Led by General Sani Abacha, who seized power in a 1993 coup, Nigeria’s regime has killed hundreds of political opponents and imprisoned thousands more, including many members of ethnic minorities. Composed mostly of northerners like Abacha, it has crushed dissent in the country’s southeast, especially among the Ogonis, who blame him and his predecessors for destroying their homeland. Ignoring them, Abacha in November 1995 hung Ken Saro-Wiwa, the award-winning writer, along with eight fellow Ogoni activists.

However unlikely the bloc is to effect change in Nigeria, it has already bolstered the opposition in other countries like Kenya. President Moi recently closed the offices of Ugandan rebels in Nairobi, and demonstrators there have begun shouting Kabila’s name in the streets. Moi has finally extradited Rwandan rebel leaders to stand trial. As part of its effort to isolate Sudan, the new bloc also seeks influence in the Central African Republic and Chad. In the former Somalia, the bloc plans to help rebuild the state’s institutions. On the Horn and elsewhere, it aims to inspire regimes in its image.

Although disorder reigns over much of the continent, Africa’s new leaders have begun to fill the vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. While all four members of Africa’s bloc are leery of France for historical reasons, all enjoy warm relations with the United States.

The Clinton administration has embraced the bloc and its allies. Since 1995 U.S. army special forces have been training Kagame’s troops in Rwanda. Last December, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. She sidestepped, however, many abuses, including the recent massacres in the Congo, drawing criticism from human rights organizations. Moral versus pragmatic views are at the heart of most foreign policy debates; the most sustainable solutions usually result from a synthesis of both. Such a policy is appropriate for dealing with Africa’s new bloc, which is led by market-oriented men who earned their mandates through protracted struggle. Although they still resist foreign guidance on democracy and human rights, they are far more responsive, accountable, and egalitarian than any of their predecessors. Together they comprise a new political-military alliance that is engaged in joint campaigns from the Great Lakes to the Sahara. However imperfect, the bloc changes Africa’s balance of power.