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.