Global Policy Forum

Ethiopia and Eritrea Under Notice From The US


By Jean-Louis Peninou

Le Monde Diplomatique
December 2001

The UN was beginning to be optimistic about its commitment to resolving the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and hopeful that a peacekeeping mission in Africa could finally be concluded successfully. The two armies were under control and there was widespread international consensus that this "absurd war" between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments set up after the fight against common enemies (Emperor Haile Selassie and later Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam) should be ended. A ceasefire agreement was followed by a fair "peace agreement" backed by the United States (1). In these fairly auspicious circumstances, the UN role was to mediate until the international arbitration tribunal decided on the disputed border, both parties indicating beforehand that they would accept the tribunal's findings. A satisfactory end seemed in sight.

This optimistic forecast was further confirmed in the first few months of the intervention by the resources made available by the UN's military section. It sent an experienced leadership team and, for the first time in the field, Shirbrig, its rapid intervention force. Well-equipped Dutch, Canadian and Danish troops and two battalions from third world armies (Kenya, Jordan) were also deployed in three sectors along the border.

The problems were caused not so much by the inhospitable terrain and the climate of hostility between the countries as by political developments in each country. The first hitch arose when it came to the precise demarcation of the temporary security zone in Eritrean territory along the 1,000-kilometre border. It had been agreed in Algiers (2) that until the arbitration tribunal came to a decision, the situation on 6 May 1998, when the war started, would determine the southern limit of the buffer zone. But observers noticed that, throughout the two years of open warfare, both parties had been careful not to say exactly where this line was.

In January 2001, after listening to conflicting statements for several weeks, the UN mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (Unmee), unfamiliar with the territory and anxious to make a start as soon as possible, came to a decision. It proposed a voluntary line and urged both parties to recognise it as such, which they formally did on 6 February, opening the way for the deployment of the UN peacekeepers.

However, the UN officers, working mainly from Ethiopian data, had drawn the line hastily, without fully understanding the situation. Only the Ethiopians had provided any reference points; the Eritreans had, inexplicably, merely produced very vague maps. Ethiopian generals had made a serious blunder in the negotiations with Unmee, which was only noticed at the last moment: the whole of Irob had been left inside the buffer zone. This area was for a long time under Ethiopian control and had been one of the main areas of contention since the Eritrean army had occupied it on 31 May 1998, before being driven out in June 2000. It seems likely that the reason Eritrea accepted Unmee's voluntary line, which was to its disadvantage in several respects, was because it had achieved something with the inclusion of Irob.

With concessions on both sides, that might have been the end of the story. But political crises were brewing in both countries. In the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been in government in Ethiopia since 1991, opponents of Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi strongly criticised him for ending the war too soon and accepting a precarious peace settlement involving arbitration. These dissidents, the majority of the TPLF's old leaders, were virulently anti-Eritrean. They had been directly responsible for the war and had managed to impose their hard line several times during the hostilities. For this group, there was no question of giving up Irob. For Zenawi, a trial of strength on this issue was too risky when he was in the middle of an internal political struggle. So he told Unemee that the voluntary line had to be changed.

The Unmee officers were still anxious to make headway and to avoid questioning an agreement already sealed and delivered. They therefore decided to draw up an operational map handing Irob back to Ethiopia. Eritrea, as might have been expected, balked at this. The operational map row became more bitter over the next weeks. In accordance with the Algiers agreement, the Ethiopian troops withdrew from Eritrean territory, making way for the UN peacekeeping force and stopping at the operational map limits agreed with Unmee. Eritrean protests at this incomplete withdrawal were hard for outsiders to understand because Eritrea carefully did not mention that Irob was the main issue. In March, Ethiopia took advantage of the confusion to make a further discreet alteration to the operational map in the Irob area, much to Unmee's displeasure.

The ceasefire holds

The political crisis that began in Addis Ababa on 20 March, when the dissidents were expelled from the TPLF central committee and later arrested, showed how central relations with Eritrea were to the internal struggle. Although it seriously undermined Zenawi's position, the removal of the "warmongers" was good news for Unmee, which agreed to turn a blind eye to the latest alteration. The Eritrean president, concerned that the internal conflict might spread to the Tigreans, began withdrawing his troops from the border areas. By officially declaring the creation of a buffer zone on 18 April, with both sides continuing officially to dispute the line, the UN might have thought that the protests from both sides would come to nothing. It was only 18 months before the arbitration tribunal would announce its decision.

But it reckoned without the political crisis that had been building up in Eritrea for months. At their first meeting after the war, in August 2000, the country's governing bodies – the central committee of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the only party, and the parliament – saw acrimonious exchanges. A large section of the old Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) leadership attacked President Afeworki for his uncompromising diplomacy at the start of the conflict and his personal conduct of the military operations. Criticism of the government's increasingly personal and authoritarian tendencies, stifled by the united opposition to the Ethiopian threat in 1998, started again, louder. It was even expressed openly in non-government controlled media, which was unprecedented. Fifteen members of the central committee, including such respected and established leaders as Mesfun Hagos, Haile Durue, Petros Salomon and Mahmud Sherifo, published a letter on 25 April 2001 calling for government and parliament to be merged (the president had not convened them since September 2000). The Eritrean leadership, known for its united front, was facing its gravest crisis since the 1970s. The Eritrean president was an adroit politician and he let the protests develop before cracking down. In August and September this year the dissidents were arrested, the private press was closed and a tough line taken against students in Asmara. The president's supporters, in the majority on the party's committee, launched a campaign against the "traitors" both in Eritrea and abroad, accusing them of playing into the Ethiopians' hands, because, although the Ethiopian and Eritrean political crises were similar, they differed in one important respect. In Eritrea, it was people calling for the rapid restoration of peace who were attacked.

President Afeworki resisted the pressure to democratise his regime by saying that the war was not yet over and it could begin again at any time. The demobilisation of the army, eagerly awaited by the soldiers and the rest of the population, was postponed several times. The authorities started encouraging the micro-conflicts with Unmee, although they made sure they did not go too far. This spring and summer there was a great deal of friction. Unmee convoys were only allowed to travel inside the buffer zone, the official status of the UN forces remained undecided, the militia and police units which the Algiers agreement allowed Eritrea to deploy in the buffer zone were difficult to control, and minor incursions by Afar rebels were alleged to be Ethiopian attacks.

The Unmee head of mission, Joseph Legwaila, remained unmoved. Every day he pointed out that both sides were still observing the ceasefire. But it created a climate which President Afeworki turned to his political advantage inside the country. This tension was also damaging to Eritrea's relations with other countries. At the end of September Afeworki expelled the Italian ambassador as a protest against his meetings with the dissidents and expressing concern about their imprisonment. As a result, all the representatives from the EU countries, on which Eritrea relies for most of its financial support, were recalled for a month for consultation. In short, the situation is tense but generally under control.

America's war against terrorism

All this is likely to be changed by America's war against terrorism. Very little is known about al-Qaida's and Osama bin Laden's links to the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia and Sudan, but they are well-established and extensive. The international action this November against the al-Barakaat telecommunications company, the main financial institution used by Somalis abroad to transfer funds to Somalia, the allegations against the al-Shamal Islamic Bank in Khartoum and the lists of terrorist organisations published by the US, suggest that Washington views the Horn of Africa as al-Qaida's second theatre of operations after Central Asia. Governments are preparing for the possibility of US troops returning to the region.

But the last few years have seen a relative decline in radical Islamism, especially its internationalist and terrorist groups. Al-Ittihaad, a radical Islamist movement active in southern Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia (3), has less influence in the south of Somalia than it had five years ago, and the Islamic National Front in Sudan has split into two factions, the most moderate firmly ensconced in power. But it is by no means certain that US appreciates the complexity of the situation, even assuming it is trying to. Over the last 10 years the main feature has been the steadily growing influence of warlords in Somalia, to some extent in Sudan and to a lesser degree in Ethiopia, with shifting alliances that have little to do with ideology.

After 11 September, there are two potential winners in the new order, Sudan and Ethiopia, and two probable losers, Somalia and Eritrea. In Sudan, now an oil-producing country, President Omar al-Bashir seems set to emulate the success of his Pakistani counterpart. Over a year ago he agreed to the opening of an American anti-terrorist bureau in Khartoum, consolidated his break with the Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi and managed to persuade some northern rebels to give up their armed struggle against his regime.

Even before the September attacks, the US had realised the futility of its previous policy and reached the stage of trying to normalise its relationship with the Sudanese government. The European countries, for once all in agreement, enthusiastically backed this. In exchange for a few symbolic measures, President al-Bashir managed to keep the process going. On 29 September the UN Security Council lifted sanctions imposed on Sudan since 1996. Any chances of serious negotiations starting in the next few months to resolve the war in southern Sudan or bring the secular elements in the armed opposition (the NDA) over to the government side evaporated.

The Ethiopian government immediately offered to mount its own campaign against al-Ittihaad. There could be no better illustration of the ambiguity of the international war against terrorism. The benefits for the Ethiopian government are clear. A war against the Somalis would be popular and not entail any great military risks. It would be a domestic policy gift to a government with a better image abroad than at home. It would also reinforce Ethiopia's policy over the last 10 years of keeping Somalia broken up into four or five clan-based micro-states.

If the US decides to intervene in this way through governments in the region, it will be surprised to find itself in the same camp as Hussein Muhammad Aidid, its sworn enemy in 1993. This leading Somali warlord, previously allied with al-Ittihaad, now sides with the Ethiopians. Like them he is opposed to the transitional government set up after the Arta conference (4), backed by the UN international agencies, even if the UN itself does not officially recognise it.

There is every chance that Afeworki's Eritrea, previously a bastion of the fight against militant Islamism in the region, will be further marginalised. One of the three factions in the tiny Eritrean Jihad is supported by al-Qaida, but it is a small and not very active group and has been further marginalised this year in the traditional opposition to the regime (the Alliance), itself less important since the emergence of strong internal opposition. So when Eritrea recently found itself on a US list of 25 Muslim states subject to visa restrictions, its reaction was bitter. With the country's economy in a desperate state, despite an excellent harvest thanks to heavy rainfall, the government's authoritarianism means that Eritrea is not at the moment in a position to benefit from America's new aims. * Journalist

(1) See "Ethiopia invades Eritrea" and "Ethiopia-Eritrea: background to the conflict", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, in July 2000 and July 1998 respectively.

(2) According to the Algiers agreement signed in December 2000 under the auspices of the OAU and backed by Algeria and the United States, an international arbitration tribunal is to rule on the border dispute within two years.

(3) Al-Ittihaad al-islamiya is the best known of the armed Somali Islamist organisations. Formed in the early 1990s, it has been linked to the al-Qaida network since 1993. In 1997 Ethiopian troops entered Somalia to destroy several al-Ittihaad bases.

(4) Brokered by the president of Djibouti in 2000. The main warlords from Mogadishu and representatives from Somaliland did not attend. See Gérard Prunier, "Somalia re-invents itself", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, April 2000.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.