Global Policy Forum

East Africa: There's More Than a Border in


By John Harbeson

The Nation- Nairobi
June 24, 2007

Have Ethiopia and Eritrea moved closer to a resolution of their "border" conflict, seven years after the end of a bitter two-year war costing more than 70,000 lives? Maybe. The two countries agreed to binding arbitration about the location of their border in Algiers in 2000. The small town of Badme was awarded to Eritrea. Until then, Ethiopia refused to allow the demarcation because Eritrea invaded Badme to spark the war in 1998. Why? Because for the preceding year, a series of incidents provoked the Eritrean government into thinking that Ethiopia soldiers were trying to take over Badme by stealth.

This week, Ethiopia did appear to agree to the demarcation that would locate Badme in Eritrea. But then it denied doing so because Eritrean troops had moved troops into the Temporary Security Zone, expelling UN peace keepers. A deal in the works? Maybe. Eritrea could withdraw its forces, perhaps agreeing to restoration of peace keepers, and Ethiopia could allow the demarcation. But it could be very difficult for both. Why would this situation cause such a horrific war, devastating to two of Africa's poorest countries? The reason is that this has been much more than a border war. It is about political and economic definition of the Horn of Africa. Let's look at some of the parts of that very fundamental issue.

30-year struggle

First, Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia on the battlefield in 1991 after a 30-year struggle, the first and only boundary change in Africa since the end of colonial rule. Almost simultaneously, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the 17-year military tyranny of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF as it was then known) and the EPRDF consented to put off the question of where the border lay until each had come to power. Eritrea deferred its formal declaration of independence until Ethiopia's only post-Mengistu political order had stabilised.

So, how and why did these two partners go to war with each other five years later and remain mired in a kind of East African "Cold War" to this day? Contemporary Ethiopia was born as an African empire at the end of the 19th century, roughly two-thirds or more of its present territory having been incorporated through the conquests of Haile Selassie's predecessor, Menelik II.

Italy secured its Eritrean colony at the expense of peoples who, under strong emperors at least, had been part of Ethiopia. It lost the colony in World War II because it lost the war. The UN decided in 1951 that Eritrea should be federated, not united, with Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie thought otherwise and more or less purchased the Eritrean parliament's consent to union with Ethiopia in 1961. The Eritrean liberation movement was born in response. Opportunities for a peaceful return to the status quo were lost, and Mengistu's brutal campaigns to prevail in the conflict militarily only strengthened the EPLF, enabling it finally to win independence in 1991. Until this time the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea was of no importance because it was an internal boundary separating one Ethiopian province from another. But the border was created somewhat ambiguously as a result of Menelik's victory over Italian armies at Adwa in 1896.

So what happened that two cooperating liberation movements have convulsed the Horn of Africa through their conflict? The reasons have been about constitutions, economies, and regional security as well as geography. First, Eritrea's independence devastated Ethiopia's internal politics. Deep concern that Eritrea's independence would spark other "colonised" peoples in Ethiopia to follow suit prompted the EPRDF to adopt a highly decentralised, or confederal, constitution for the country. Under this constitution, every ethnic community would enjoy gambled that with the ultimate option of independence in their arsenals, Ethiopian peoples would in fact feel so comfortable and empowered politically that they would not seek independence. Ethiopia has suffered no new "Eritreas" under its ethnic confederalism constitution, but there have been problems. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in southern Ethiopia has waged a low-level struggle against the EPRDF government which has resulted in some border tensions with Kenya.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in eastern Ethiopia has destabilised a region over which Ethiopia and Somalia fought a major war in the late 1970s. But many Ethiopians, especially within the Amhara community, have continued to resent Eritrea's independence and strongly oppose the ethnic confederal constitution as an affront to Ethiopian national identity. That was the underlying issue in Ethiopia's 2005 election, in which the very definition of the Ethiopian state was at issue in a truly multiparty contest. The bloody aftermath of that election and the recent conviction of 38 opposition leaders and some editors has attested the depth of this controversy.

Instability and anarchy

Second, ironically, the Eritrean government and its bitterest opponents in Ethiopia have agreed that Ethiopia's ethnic confederal constitution, even if it has been modified somewhat in practice, invites instability and anarchy throughout the Horn of Africa. Eritrea has adopted a centralised government but attempted faithful gender, ethnic and religious balances at its apex. In Ethiopian eyes, this constitutional strategy offends legitimate ethnic aspirations to political autonomy. Some ethnic communities in each country overlap these borders.

Third, the economies of the two countries have always been closely interconnected. Thus, the effect of the war between the two countries has been largely to destroy what had been their generally beneficial common economy. Eritrea's emergence as an independent country, with an army that has proven itself to be the equal of that of once dominant Ethiopia, has changed the balance of power in the Horn of Africa.

Their jousting through surrogates in Somalia has dramatised the fact that the two countries have not negotiated their strategic relationship on the Horn, a matter of significant concern to countries like Egypt, Kenya, and Uganda. Thus, more is involved than a mere border. If there is an eventual demarcation of the border and Eritrean troops withdraw, the larger political and economic issues will remain.

More Information on the Security Council
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