Hundreds of soldiers just died in the worst flare-up between Ethiopia and Eritrea since their 1998-2000 war. Could a return to open conflict be around the corner?
Some events come out of the blue, as surprising as thunderbolts. Others feel like confirmations of dour predictions, as grindingly inevitable as winter’s onset. The outbreak of heavy fighting between Eritrean and Ethiopian troops on their mutual border on June 12, which is reported to have left hundreds dead, falls into the latter category. No one should be surprised. And some mea culpas are in order.
Neither of these Horn of Africa countries has an impressive human rights record, so members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diasporas — both of which contain a disproportionate number of political asylum seekers — initially speculated that the regimes had fabricated a clash in order to distract from a flurry of embarrassing reports published recently by the United Nations and the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. (Eritrea stands accused of committing crimes against humanity, including the systematic enslavement, torture, and rape of its own population, while Ethiopia is accused of killing some 400 protesters and arresting tens of thousands of others in its Oromia region since November of last year.)
But this cynical theory became harder to believe after both sides confirmed the gravity of the border incident, in which tanks and heavy artillery were reportedly deployed and terrified locals fled to nearby refugee camps. A “conservative estimate” released by the Eritrean Ministry of Information put the number of Ethiopian dead and wounded at 200 and 300, respectively, and the Ethiopian government, while rejecting that death toll, acknowledged that “a major engagement” had taken place. This would make the events of June 12 the most significant flare-up since the 1998-2000 border war that left more than 100,000 people dead.
Each side accuses the other of initiating hostilities, claims that are difficult to verify. But what the clash underlines for certain is the folly of allowing a border dispute to fester indefinitely. An undemarcated frontier between two governments that loathe each other is a grenade whose pin has been pulled. The international community may choose to ignore it, and in the short term may get away with this pose of studied indifference. But the grenade will eventually explode.
In April 2002, a boundary commission seated in The Hague whose five members had been approved by Ethiopia and Eritrea issued a border ruling that was meant to settle — peacefully and permanently — the vexed question of where the border between the two countries lies. The former Italian colony of Eritrea, swallowed up by giant Ethiopia in 1962, had fought a 30-year liberation war against Addis Ababa and won independence in 1991, only to return to the battlefield seven years later when fighting broke out on its frontier with Ethiopia.
The boundary commission’s findings were clear. While some disputed areas were allotted to Ethiopia, the two-donkey village that had served as a flashpoint for the war — Badme — belonged to Eritrea. The commission found that Eritrea had initiated hostilities — a claim Asmara disputed furiously — but on the narrow issue of Badme, Eritrea was in the right.
The problem was that Ethiopian forces already occupied Badme and its surrounding plains, and Addis Ababa knew that its public would judge harshly any agreement to withdraw from territory won at the cost of thousands of Ethiopian lives. So the Ethiopian government said it accepted the boundary commission’s ruling, but called for a “dialogue” on implementation. Its troops stayed put on what it acknowledged to be Eritrean land.
And that’s where things have stood for 14 long, tense years, during which every shot fired at a cattle rustler and every movement of troops or equipment has sent alarm bells ringing across the region. “Has it started again?” the cry goes up, because everyone knows that this time, the fight would be to the finish, ending only with the toppling of a regime. According to Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, there have been eight significant flare-ups since 2011 alone.
I’m no supporter of international arbitration as a method of resolving African border disputes. Watching the Eritrea-Ethiopia arbitration process and its fallout left me so disillusioned that I actually wrote a novel on the topic. And having seen international justice, in the form of the International Criminal Court case against Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, fail miserably, I have become convinced that political deals, however shabbily pragmatic or queasily amoral, are the only way to resolve conflicts. Sovereignty, security, and stability cannot be delivered by lawyers.
But once two African governments have signed up for an arbitration process endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, a neutral boundary commission has issued what both sides agreed would be a “final and binding” ruling, and the appeals process has been exhausted, the duty of the international community — and the African Union, United Nations, and European Union in particular — is surely to guarantee that decision is implemented.
There has been no such attempt in the case of Ethiopia’s continued occupation of Badme. Western donors, whose aid props up the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, certainly have a range of tools at their disposal to cajole and persuade. This year, they might expect a particularly sympathetic hearing, given that Ethiopia is appealing for extra help to feed its population during yet another drought-triggered famine. And yet there’s been near-total silence on the border issue. Ambassadors expressed mounting anxiety at the continuing deadlock in private to journalists and analysts; little was said in public.
There are myriad reasons for this limp approach: a systemic disinclination by Western diplomats, when confronted with stern African leaders, to articulate unpleasant truths; a dewy-eyed attachment to the notion of Ethiopia as a pristine developmental model; a quasi-romantic historic vision of Ethiopia — harking back to the eras of Emperors Haile Selassie and Menelik II — as a regional linchpin and bulwark against Islam. In the case of the African Union, which has shown a similar absence of backbone, the silence has a pragmatic explanation: Addis Ababa hosts the organization’s headquarters.
But this “no-peace, no-war” scenario has had terrible consequences that spill far beyond the Horn of Africa. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki has used the border situation as an excuse to keep his nation’s youth doing open-ended military service that some have likened to slavery, prompting tens of thousands of desperate Eritreans to flee to Europe.
Trade between the two nations remains blocked, a drag on the Horn of Africa’s economic resurgence. Each country wages a proxy war by supporting rebel groups and opposition movements bent on sabotaging the other, fueling instability across the region. Ethiopia said after last week’s hostilities that it was responding to repeated “provocations” by Asmara, supporting the theory put forward by a number of analysts that this latest clash at Tserona could have been payback against Eritrea for an armed raid carried out in southern Ethiopia in May by members of the Ginbot 7, an Ethiopian opposition movement that has found safe haven in Asmara and that Addis Ababa has labeled a terrorist group.
There is also a larger principle at stake. Not to press for demarcation throws the entire principle of international arbitration into disrepute, encouraging other African nations to decide their frontier squabbles on the battlefield instead. If rulings are respected only when they go the way of the stronger of the two plaintiffs, why go to court in the first place?
The United Nations, African Union, and U.S. State Department have issued statements calling on both sides to show restraint, but their initial reaction to the incident in Tserona was as lethargic as their stance on the border. If there’s any truth to the speculation among diplomats and regional analysts that Ethiopia may be gauging likely international reaction to a possible big push into Eritrea to topple Afwerki, the impression of lethargy is a dangerous one to create. We can only pray that this incident doesn’t escalate and things quiet down. But even that outcome will represent only a short reprieve. Like a dead rat in the attic, that ignored border ruling will eventually, inevitably, make its presence felt.
Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images