Global Policy Forum

Rumblings of Trouble in Africa


By Paul Salopek

Chicago Tribune
August 1, 2007

Old foes Ethiopia and Eritrea insist they aren't gearing up for war. But experts fear that the signs along the border indicate otherwise.

Badme [at the Ethiopia-Eritrea border] doesn't look like the most dangerous town in Africa. Marooned at the end of 20 miles of dirt road, the tiny frontier outpost consists of a knot of rock huts, some jaywalking goats and one communal ping-pong table. Not the sort of place, one would imagine, that once inspired 70,000 men to die in battle. Or still destabilizes a chunk of territory inhabited by 90 million people. Or gives U.S. policymakers in Africa the jitters.

Yet remote little Badme, the flash point of a brutal territorial conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990s, is responsible for all of these woes. And today experts worry that the contested town, which is claimed by both countries but controlled by Ethiopia, may be poised to spark even worse trouble ahead -- namely, Africa's next major war.

While the U.S. military is focusing much of its attention in Africa on anti-terror efforts in places like Somalia, old hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea appear to be heating up on an arid plateau a few hundred miles to the north, with potentially devastating consequences for the people of Africa's Horn. Archenemies Ethiopia and Eritrea -- the Hatfields and McCoys of Northeast Africa -- insist that renewed fighting along their desolate 620-mile-long border is not imminent.

But diplomats, security experts and United Nations officials warn that recent saber-rattling by the two nations' leaders, beefed-up troop deployments along their heavily fortified border and even the timing of the U.S. presidential elections are all pushing tensions in the wrong direction -- toward a showdown so bloody it will knock Darfur out of the headlines.

Western diplomats suspect that Ethiopia, the Goliath of the two opponents, is sorely tempted to deliver a killer blow against its smaller rival before the Bush administration, a close Ethiopia ally, leaves office at the beginning of 2009. Last year Ethiopia invaded Somalia and, with clandestine Pentagon help, toppled an emerging Islamist movement accused of sheltering Al Qaeda operatives.

And though Eritrea has more to risk in going to war, experts say its deepening isolation from the world -- its latest alleged mischief involves UN accusations that it secretly funneled weapons to Islamist rebels in Somalia -- doesn't preclude its launching a pre-emptive strike. One bleak scenario: an assault on contested territory in November, when an exasperated boundary commission set up by the UN packs up after years of Ethiopian stonewalling, and simply declares the two countries' border officially mapped.

Nowhere to run

"I don't want to be here if it happens," said Tsegaye Redaye, a sad-eyed merchant in Badme whose tea shop's construction included expended tank shells from the previous war."But I guess there won't be anywhere to run to," Tsegaye added, squinting out at the gaunt plains that both governments call their own. "The war will be everywhere." Most military analysts would agree.

In the bloody 1998-2000 conflict, tens of thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers died in a ghastly World War I-style trench war that baffled the world. Still, the bloodshed finally was stanched by foreign mediation. Now, after seven years of failed UN negotiations, experts say the sole object of the opposing armies would be regime change; a battle to the finish. Nearby Somalia, where Ethiopia and Eritrea have backed opposing militias, would also be sucked into the chaos and violence, analysts say.

"In a post-9/11 world, that's what worries Washington," said Dan Connell, an Ethiopia-Eritrea war expert at Simmons College in Boston. "If either state were to fall, it would open up the Horn to all sorts of power vacuums and outside forces, including international terrorists. It could get very ugly." Such ugliness was nowhere on the horizon a decade ago, when Ethiopia and Eritrea symbolized all the promise of a shining new Africa.

Back then, Ethiopia had just thrown off the yoke of a ruthless communist regime and agreed to let a breakaway province -- feisty Eritrea -- become independent. The two governments were brothers in arms. Their leaders, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, are even distantly related. But struggles to be top dog in the Horn, plus bitter economic and territorial quarrels, culminated in a family feud waged with artillery that has stunted democracy and development in the region ever since.

Today human-rights groups accuse both regimes of democratic backsliding. Ethiopia, the regional powerhouse with 76 million people, has been roundly criticized for sentencing more than 30 opposition activists and politicians to life imprisonment after a disputed 2005 election. The prisoners were pardoned in July. The charges leveled at Eritrea are more serious. This year the State Department added minuscule Eritrea, population about 4 million, to its blacklist of the world's most repressive regimes, largely due to reported crackdowns on journalists, political dissenters and evangelical Christians.

Both countries' squandered potential is laid bare on the plains around Badme, the mystifying object of two nations' pride. Visitors are not permitted into the tense UN-monitored buffer zone dividing Ethiopia and Eritrea. But a recent visit to the Ethiopian side of that vast no man's land revealed a militarized wilderness that seemed forgotten by the world.

Temporary army camps thrown up seven years ago have sprouted into large, permanent-looking villages holding thousands of dusty soldiers. The muzzles of heavy artillery bristled above eroded dirt berms. Tank pits pocked the rust-colored savannas. And anti-aircraft radar sprouted from the top of desert knolls. Most of the roads were closed after dark. Ethiopian soldiers manning isolated checkpoints said that Eritrean patrols were probing more frequently across the border at night to "gather intelligence."

"If the parties continue military preparations," warned a recent UN Security Council report detailing the troop buildups on the border, "there is a serious risk that a relatively minor incident could lead to a military confrontation." The July 18 report noted with "serious concern" that the Eritrean army "has effectively occupied large swaths of the [buffer zone] with military personnel numbering in the thousands." One thousand Eritrean soldiers marched into the neutral zone in early July alone, the report asserted, adding that Ethiopia has matched those deployments with reinforcements of its own. Impoverished Ethiopia and Eritrea maintain the largest armies in Africa. At the moment, well over 100,000 soldiers from both countries are dug in along their joint frontier.

On Monday, the Security Council voted unanimously to extend a weak peacekeeping mission of 1,700 international troops on the border for an additional six months. Both sides have agreed to meet in September and wrangle over issues of demarcation. Few diplomats expect a breakthrough.

"Rationally, we would never believe Eritrea will take that step -- to restart the war," said Tekeda Alemu, the deputy minister for foreign affairs in Ethiopia. "Yet why does the Eritrean president behave as he does, except to say he has an emotional, visceral opposition to this country's government?" Like many Ethiopians, Tekeda alleges that Eritrea's bad behavior includes "terrorist activities," or support for rebels waging insurgencies inside Ethiopia. On Thursday, a leaked UN investigation fingered Eritrea for reportedly flying 13 planeloads of arms to Islamic militants battling Ethiopian troops in Somalia.

Eritrea hotly denies the charges that it is exporting mischief to bleed Ethiopia. "It's part of the smear campaign coming out of Langley," Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu said, referring to the Virginia hometown of the CIA headquarters. "It's just another face of the war against Eritrea."

Eritrean Web sites crow whenever an Ethiopian soldier defects across the dangerous buffer zone into Eritrea. But 200 to 400 ordinary people brave sharpshooters and minefields to escape in the opposite direction every month, say UN refugee officials. And the stories they bring from Eritrea are of a proud and disciplined country -- the would-be "Singapore of the Horn" -- fast descending into pariah status.

'A big prison'

"Eritrea is a big prison and all my friends are in jail," said Mengsteab, a 27-year-old university student languishing in an Ethiopian refugee camp 35 miles from Badme. "If you think freely in Eritrea you are a state enemy."

Mengsteab asked that his full name be withheld. Like most inmates in the camp, he was fleeing mass military conscription. Eritrea is now inducting men as old as 50, and the families of draft dodgers are being imprisoned, dozens of refugees said. Others told of an atmosphere of political paranoia in Eritrea that has invited comparisons with North Korea: gatherings of more than six or seven people draw police attention, they said.

Eritrea has grown increasingly alienated from the West, diplomats say, because it sees the international community tilting toward Ethiopia. In June, President Afwerki defiantly embraced ties with Iran, praising its nuclear program. "We are not in a normal situation," acknowledged Eritrean government spokesman Abdu, who denied the claims of family imprisonment. He blamed the refugees' flight on deepening poverty. "These hardships are imposed on us by wartime conditions. And the fault is ultimately America's."

Abdu lambasted the U.S. for indulging Ethiopia's refusal to abide by a border mapping agreement it signed in 2000. A UN surveying team awarded Badme to Eritrea in 2002. But Ethiopia hasn't budged. The U.S. and other mediators have offered to build Ethiopia a second Badme deeper within its territory -- to no avail.

And so the war rhetoric heats up.

In May, Eritrean leader Afwerki declared the border buffer zone between the two rivals "obsolete" and "meaningless." And a few weeks ago Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles announced that his nation would "make the necessary military preparations for deterring a possible Eritrean invasion and to repulse such an invasion should it occur." A U.S. official familiar with the bluster that precedes violence in the Horn called such language a "troubling development."

Meanwhile, at least one man who knows perhaps too much about invasions decided to vote with his feet. Goitom, a 32-year-old Eritrean soldier, stripped off his uniform, slipped past a machine-gunner assigned to shoot deserters and walked 7 miles through the no man's land to turn himself over to the Ethiopians at grim little Badme. Goitom had been shot twice before in the border war. His eyes were oceanic and he never once cracked a smile. "It's time to get out," he said.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea


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