The optimism generated by Eritrea’s acceptance of a three-part accord proposed by the Organization of African Unity to end the costly 17-month Ethio-Eritrean war has given way to a mood of pessimism after Addis Ababa rejected the final part. Both sides had already accepted the other two parts - a framework agreement and modalities clarifying its terms - but Ethiopia, which initially raised questions over the third component of the package, consisting of precise technical arrangements, has now turned it down, throwing the OAU initiative into doubt.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry explained its position on September 5. “Ethiopia considers that the cardinal principle which the peace-deal needed to uphold - that aggression cannot be rewarded - was dealt with in an unsatisfactory manner”, its statement said. “The technical arrangements also contained new provisions, related to a peacekeeping mission and matters involving sovereignty and governance in areas of redeployment, that indicated that the return to the status quo ante was not fully assured.”
According to the terms of the OAU package, Eritrea was to have withdrawn its forces from territories occupied since May last year, and Ethiopia from positions taken since February. Military observers would be deployed and the United Nations send a team to delineate borders. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, who has been blamed for starting the war and for the failure of successive diplomatic attempts to resolve it - seized the opportunity to improve his image by en-dorsing the entire OAU package. He also came under strong pressure from the African heads gathered in Algiers for the OAU summit in July to be less obstinate.
But Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi clearly believes that Asmara is being let off lightly, and the appalling cost of the war and the resultant bitterness have made the settlement of the conflict even more complicated. He is also concerned to secure access to the sea for his landlocked country, a problem which has preoccupied successive Ethiopian leaders.
Eritrea, a former Italian colony and UN trustee territory, was administered by Britain from 1945 until 1952, when it was federated with Ethiopia. Haile Selassie, anxious to secure Eritrea’s Red-Sea ports of Assab and Massawa, incorporated it as a province of Ethiopia in 1962, triggering a war of independence that was to last for 30 years.
After the overthrow of Haile Selassie in a military coup in 1972, and the rise of the pro-Soviet colonel Mengistu, the Eritrean campaign gathered momentum, with support both in the west and in some Muslim countries. The people of the Tigray province, south of Eritrea, also declared war against Addis Ababa, albeit for autonomy, not independence. This resulted in a strong alliance between the two movements, and a personal friendship between their leaders. In 1991, when the Mengistu regime was finally overthrown, Afwerki became president of Eritrea, and Zenawi of Ethiopia.
Two years later, Zenawi and Afwerki struck a deal granting Eritrea full independence and Ethiopia access to the port of Assab. This deal was widely attributed to the strong personal ties between the two leaders, who were also expected to cement relations between their countries. There was widespread shock when hostilities suddenly broke out between the two neighbours in May 1998 and quickly developed into one of the bloodiest wars this decade. The fighting is all the more surprising because it is over nothing more that a small rocky triangle of disputed land near the border-town of Badme.
But those professing surprise - especially the Americans, whose anti-Sudan strategy in the region is threatened by the war between its two allies - are simplifying a complex issue, ignoring the fact that the spirit of comradeship between Afwerki and Zenawi does not extend to the rest of their governments. In fact, many Ethiopians opposed the deal granting Eritrea independence, while Eritreans are still suspicious of Ethiopian designs on their lands.
The ferocity of the fighting - in which tanks, helicopter gunships and MiG warplanes have been used - shows that the old suspicions and hatreds have been reawakened. An estimated 50,000 soldiers have been killed, and at least 500,000 people driven from their homes, on both sides of the border. Both sides are also expelling each other’s natives, even though they may be citizens or locally born. Ethiopia has deported some 60,000 Eritreans since June. The economic cost of the war is also high. Vital agricultural lands near the war zones have ceased to produce crops, and many agricultural labourers have been drafted into the armies. The war is believed to be costing the two countries - among the poorest in the world - $1 million a day each.
Fighting on the border has been suspended because of seasonal rain, but the two are still fighting a proxy war in neighbouring Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991, when president Siyad Barre’s regime was overthrown. Eritrea is said to be arming the Somali groups which claim the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, as well as Oromo fighters opposed to Zenawi who are based in Somalia. Addis Ababa is also either directly fighting Somali Islamic groups or arming warlords who are fighting them.
The OAU’s peace-deal clearly cannot resolve this confused situation because Afwerki, Zenawi and their respective allies cannot suddenly cease to be the warlords they are at heart.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999