International attention has once again been drawn to the fraught relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, with both sides admitting that the recent flare-up of armed conflict on their shared border resulted in “significant casualties”.
The border between the two countries remains heavily militarised, with a no-man’s land between the two armies. However, reconnaissance units from both sides – as well as refugees and deserters from the Eritrean side – often cross this “no-go” area. It is possible that the 12 June fighting was triggered by any of these movements, though it seems the Ethiopian military acted in an unusually robust way. Either way, the incident has since been followed up by strong words on both sides.
When these two countries went to war between 1998 and 2000, tens of thousands from both sides died. Could this latest skirmish spiral into another full-fledged war?
A difficult history
Ethiopia and Eritrea have profound historical and cultural ties. But they also have separate histories – which the political classes of the two countries play up or down depending on their political aspirations – particularly around the fact that Ethiopia remained independent while Eritrea was colonised by Italy from 1891-1941 and was subsequently under British rule from 1941-1952.
In December 1950, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of granting Eritrea autonomous federal status under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown. This was in line with the aspirations of a segment of the Eritrean population, but another section of society was vehemently opposed. Eritreans were not given the opportunity to vote on the issue, however, so it is difficult to determine which side had greater popular support.
Nevertheless, the ongoing federal arrangement proved unsatisfactory to both unionist and separatist segments, and it was abolished in 1962 when the Eritrean parliament voted for total union with Ethiopia.
This decision went directly against the desires of the pro-independence Eritrean elite, who claim the vote was the result of interference from Emperor Haile Selassie. In the aftermath of the decision, a “liberation struggle” was launched. This turned into a liberation war which – combined with the civil war waged by various Ethiopian groups to unseat the military government in Addis Ababa – brought untold misery to the people of both countries.
Challenges of disentanglement
These wars ended in May 1991 when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front took control of Eritrea and Addis Ababa fell to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has been in power ever since.
The two rebel forces agreed that the Eritrean question for independence would be settled by a referendum to be organised within two years. But important terms of cessation were neither discussed nor agreed before the vote. These included issues such as commodity trade, use of Eritrean ports by Ethiopia, the question of citizenship of people of Eritrean origin in Ethiopia, and the precise border between the two countries. When the referendum was held in April 1993, the terms of the divorce had thus yet to be agreed.
Nevertheless, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, which Ethiopia recognised immediately. Eritrea now had de jure independence, but continued to use the Ethiopian currency the birr, and the two economies remained closely interlinked. However, there was no clear official articulation or even exchange of ideas on a host of issues such as how to resolve problems resulting from differences in national economic plans, questions over exchange rates, and harmonisation of external customs.
As a result, the political and business class in each country felt that the relationship was lopsided in favour of the other side. In the midst of this state of mutual bitterness, Eritrea issued its own currency, the nakfa. But again, the two sides had not agreed on how to handle the implications of this on the economies of each country. Tensions rose to a new high.
Haphazard solution to the 1998-2000 war
This is the climate in which Eritrea invaded Ethiopian territory in 1998, sparking war. To the Eritrean government, it appeared that the ruling party in Ethiopia was in a vulnerable position. It ran a poor, vast, diverse country with a history of strife along various cleavages.
The 1998-2000 conflict was lazily framed as a “border war” by the international community and media. But whatever one calls it, it took the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of people from both countries.
The war finally ended with the Algiers Peace Treaty. This was signed after Ethiopia had regained all the contested territories and penetrated deep into Eritrean territory, but unfortunately the parties and mediators that facilitated this agreement took a purely legalistic approach to resolving the conflict. The real underlying causes of the conflict were swept under the carpet, and the focus was on determination of the boundary between the two states – the most superficial of the causes of the conflict. Each side won and lost some territory.
Significantly, Badme, the flashpoint for the war, was awarded to Eritrea, yet Ethiopia still holds the town and its environs.
The situation now
Better explanations of the conflict today refer to the complete absence of trust between the protagonists, a fear of accountability, and the lack of vision and resolve to move forwards.
Additionally, some point out that the defence of Eritrea’s sovereignty seems to be the only claim to legitimacy left to the ruling party. Its interest seems to be in perpetuating the status quo. And in any case, it seems the goverments in both Eritrea and Ethiopia have settled for outliving the other side as the only solution.
That implies each side has to work assiduously to shorten the lease on power of the other. But that said, neither side has any interest in starting a full-fledged war. The Ethiopian government does not want a war that could potentially reverse the country’s economic gains. Meanwhile, the Eritrean government knows it is in a much weaker political, economic and diplomatic position than it was during the last war.
Hence, the choice for the Eritrean government is to sponsor every group battling the Ethiopian government, while Ethiopia mainly relies on diplomatic and economic isolation of Eritrea.
This is not a good outcome for either side, but it is highly unlikely that the recent incidents will spiral into a large scale military confrontation. Neither side believes it would gain if they did.
Seyoum Y. Tesfay is an Assistant Professor at Addis Ababa University.