An African War That Goes Beyond Borders


The war that has pitted Africa’s oldest nation against its newest has become a perplexing study of a minor dispute gone awry.

The conflict between Ethiopia and its young neighbor, Eritrea, initially was triggered by an argument over their poorly demarcated and largely uninhabited 620-mile border. But analysts say it has spun out of control for the simple reason that the squabble over land opened the door to hostilities over other issues.

Concerns about trade, regional leadership, nationalism and the pride of two former guerrilla leaders intent on using force rather than diplomacy have fueled the crisis, according to political observers and foreign diplomats.

The failure to quickly stop the war threatens to further destabilize the Horn of Africa. It also casts a shadow over Western hopes that Ethiopia and Eritrea might help lead a new drive toward democracy, progress and development on a continent plagued by poverty, injustice and war.


Indirect peace talks aimed at settling the crisis began Tuesday in Algiers, the Algerian capital. The negotiations, sponsored by the Organization of African Unity, are also being attended by U.S. and European envoys.

Eritrea withdrew from disputed territories last week, and Ethiopia followed this week by pulling its troops out of areas it had seized in western Eritrea.

“This is a positive sign,” said Hermann Hanekom, a political analyst with the Africa Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. “Now it’s a matter of getting both parties to agree to a cease-fire at the end of hostilities.”

Though there was hope that the talks eventually might settle the border dispute, the other underlying issues also must be resolved if a lasting peace is to be found.


Animosity had been building for years between Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

Eritrea is a former Italian colony that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed in 1962. Nearly three decades later, Ethiopian rebels who overthrew Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam awarded Eritrean allies in the struggle a referendum on independence. As a result, Eritrea became a nation in 1993.

Before Eritrea’s creation, Meles was head of the Tigre People’s Liberation Front, while Isaias led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. As national leaders, the two men soon disagreed over issues such as governance and commerce.

Isaias established a state tightly controlled from the center; Meles tried to win support from the population by devolving some authority to the regions.


Ethiopians maintained that commercial relations were weighted in favor of their neighbor and left their nation dependent on Eritrea’s goodwill. Businesspeople in landlocked Ethiopia complained about the cost of access to the port of Assab in southeastern Eritrea. Tariffs were too high and the oil refinery at Assab overcharged for its products, Ethiopians complained.

In 1997, relations soured even further when Eritrea introduced its own currency, the nakfa, and cut links to the Ethiopian birr. Ethiopia refused to recognize its neighbor’s new money, insisting on the use of hard currency for trade.

With the friendship between the two governments on the rocks, the border issue came to a head. They argued over several areas that had belonged to the Ethiopian province of Tigray before Eritrea became independent.

Eritrea claimed that local Tigrayan officials were trying to colonize these areas, sending thousands of settlers over the border and pushing Eritreans out. A border commission established by the two countries failed to make much progress.


In May 1998, Eritrea eschewed international mediation and sent troops into an area around the Eritrean town of Badme after a clash between one of its military patrols and Ethiopian police. Ethiopia responded in kind. Intense fighting erupted, occasionally interrupted by intervals of rearming and pursuing diplomatic negotiations. Efforts by the United States, Rwanda and the Organization of African Unity to broker lasting peace largely have failed.

“The Ethiopians say, ‘We trusted these guys, we helped them with their independence,’ ” said a ranking Western diplomat in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “They feel they were stabbed in the back.”

Both sides have fought a conventional battle, with all the blood and gore reminiscent of World War I trench warfare. The semi-arid rocky escarpments where most fighting has occurred have hindered rapid ground movement. Assaults into minefields and liberal use of machine guns, tanks and heavy artillery have resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. The exact death toll is unclear.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Ethiopia has rounded up and expelled an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people of Eritrean descent. Although Eritrea has not officially undertaken such deportations, many Ethiopians have lost their jobs or voluntarily returned to their homeland.


Both countries insist that they don’t want the war, and each has portrayed itself as a passive victim. But neither appears ready to forget about saving face and make the sacrifices necessary for ending a war that could destroy them.

Until this spring, foreign observers in Addis Ababa said, the Ethiopians had been trying to win the war with as little loss of life and diplomatic fallout as possible. But in March, leaders apparently resolved to do whatever was needed to end what had come to be an inconclusive standoff.

“Two years of living under a cloud is too long for Ethiopia,” Meles said last week. “We cannot afford it economically, socially, diplomatically.”

At the beginning of the conflict, Ethiopia argued that it had no interest in grabbing Eritrean territory. Addis Ababa said it merely was trying to defend its sovereignty by holding on to the disputed land on a border established, but not properly marked, a century ago during Italian colonial rule of Eritrea.


“It has clearly moved beyond that,” said Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, a Washington-based think tank. “There are means of settling that kind of issue through an international group that can come in and survey the area. It’s become a point of national pride, which is being articulated by the two leaders. It has become personal.”

Meles is widely viewed as a highly intelligent guerrilla-turned-academic; he has received two university degrees since becoming prime minister. Isaias has been described by many as austere and unpretentious. At least before the war, Isaias was known to drive himself to work in an old car and send his children to a local state school.

Ethiopian officials have argued that, having failed to make life better for his people, Isaias needs a war as a way to distract and unify them. In seven years of independence, Eritrea has clashed with several neighbors, including Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan.

But a Western official here in the capital, Asmara, says Eritrea’s typically hard-working and largely corruption-free population of about 4 million has allowed the country to make “great strides despite the poverty here.”


Ethiopia, a nation of 60 million, has dismissed suggestions that it wants to reverse Eritrean independence or grab the port of Assab. Instead, analysts said, the overthrow of Isaias--whose regime Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin recently described as “thugs masquerading as a leadership group"--is Ethiopia’s ultimate goal.

“Their stated goal is to put someone [in Asmara] who is more compliant to Ethiopian wishes,” said the Western diplomat who, like many interviewed on the dispute, asked not to be identified.

Some Ethiopian officials also speak of the need to “break the backbone” of Eritrea’s 300,000-member military to prevent future armed conflict. Crushing the military would probably bring down Isaias, who heads the armed forces and is dependent on them for power.

However, Isaias remains widely popular in Eritrea, where he is viewed by many as “the George Washington of this country in terms of leading [it] to independence,” according to one Western official.


Former comrades in arms, Meles and Isaias were once considered by the West to be promising new leaders of an African “renaissance,” the spirit of which has died in recent months because of the proliferation of conflicts and insecurity in many parts of the continent.

The fear is that if the crisis is not doused, the turmoil could spread across the region. Sudan already has been sucked in, with Ethiopia seeking to court Eritrean dissidents there. Officials in Eritrea, meanwhile, have renewed relations with Sudan, where at least 100,000 Eritreans have sought refuge from the fighting.

The Eritrean president also has forged ties with Libya, while making overtures to Ethiopian rebel groups based in northern Kenya and western Somalia that want to topple Meles.

These neighboring countries have their own problems. Sudan is battling rebels in the country’s south. Somalia has no central government and is torn apart by civil war. Ethiopian bandits have been launching cattle raids into northern Kenya, and scores of people have been killed.


“These negative elements may just exploit the [Ethiopia-Eritrea] situation to see if they can get anything out of it for their own benefit,” said Hanekom, the political analyst.



Immigrant community in California agonizes over conflict in Horn of Africa homelands. B1