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Why Ethiopia, Eritrea skirmish is unlikely to spiral into another war

A man from disputed Badme poses in front of a tank abandoned during the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war. The risk of a fresh war is remote. Reuters/Ed Harris

International attention has once again been drawn to the fraught relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both sides admit that the recent flare-up of armed conflict on the common border has 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 June 12 2016 incident was triggered by any of these movements. It seems the Ethiopian military acted in an unusually robust way, given the recent claim by Ethiopia that Eritrea trained a militant group that infiltrated southern Ethiopia with the aim of committing terrorist acts.

Tens of thousands from both sides died when the two countries went to war between 1998 and 2000. Full of confidence after winning the liberation war just a few years earlier, the Eritrean military nursed ambitions to exert power in the region. Thus, in May and June 1998 Eritrea started the war by forcefully occupying border areas – some contested, others not. That Eritrea started the war was confirmed by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission.

Will this latest skirmish spiral into a full-fledged war? Many of the real causes of the 1998 war have diminished significantly in relevance owing to developments in each country and the passage of time. Besides, the people of the two countries have no appetite for another round of war.

A difficult history

Ethiopia and Eritrea have profound historical and cultural ties. They also have separate histories, which the political classes of the two countries play up or play down depending on their political aspirations. This is particularly true of the fact that Ethiopia remained independent while Eritrea was colonised by Italy from 1891 to 1941. Eritrea was subsequently under British rule from 1941 to 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 to this. Eritreans were not given the opportunity to vote on the issue. It is, therefore, difficult to determine which side had a majority in its favour.

The federal arrangement proved unsatisfactory to both the unionist and separatist segments of the Eritrean society. It was abolished in 1962 when the Eritrean parliament voted for total union with Ethiopia. The pro-independence Eritrean elite maintain the vote was the result of co-option, pressure and intrigue on the part of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of the federation some Eritreans embarked on a “liberation struggle”. The liberation war – 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.

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 in Ethiopia since then. The two rebel forces agreed that the Eritrean question for independence be settled by a referendum to be organised within two years.

Challenges of disentanglement

Unfortunately important terms of cessation were neither discussed nor agreed upon before the referendum. These included such issues 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.

The referendum was thus held in April 1993 before the terms of the divorce were agreed. Eritreans voted for independence. Ethiopia extended recognition to Eritrea’s sovereignty and independence on April 29 1993, just two days after the result of the referendum was announced.

Despite the de jure independence of Eritrea, the two countries continued to use Ethiopian currency, the birr. Their economies were closely interlinked. Yet, there was no clear official articulation or even exchange of ideas on a host of issues. These included how to resolve problems resulting from differences in national economic plans, the exchange rate of the birr with other currencies and harmonisation of external customs.

As a result, the political and business class in each country felt that the relationship was highly lopsided in favour of the other side. In the midst of this state of mutual bitterness Eritrea issued its own currency, the nakfa. 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 within 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 outlets. Whatever one calls it, it took the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of people from both countries. The war ended when the two sides signed the Algiers Peace Treaty after Ethiopia regained all the contested territories and penetrated deep into Eritrean territory.

Unfortunately, the parties and the mediators that facilitated the treaty took a purely legalistic approach to resolving the conflict. The real underlying causes of the conflict were swept under the carpet. 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. Ethiopia still holds the town and its environs. It maintains it has accepted the arbitral award in principle and wants only to discuss the details of implementation on the ground. Eritrea contends there is nothing to talk about.

The situation now

Better explanations of the conflict today include a complete absence of trust between the protagonists, fear of accountability and lack of vision and resolve to move forward.

Besides, the defence of Eritrea’s sovereignty seems to be the only claim to legitimacy left to the party that rules that country. Its interest seems to be in perpetuating the status quo. In any case, it seems the parties in power in 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. 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. 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.

It is highly unlikely that the recent incidents will spiral into a large scale military confrontation. Neither side believes it would gain.

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