Settle the Ethio-Eritrean war but not on US terms

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Rabi' al-Awwal 07, 1419 1998-07-01

Special Reports

by M.A. Shaikh (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 9, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1419)

The nasty little war between Ethiopia and Eritrea should be settled before it gets out of control. In a regional context, Sudan must also be a party to any negotiated agreement. The settlement should also end the US-led crusade against Khartoum - a crusade backed vigorously by Addis Ababa and Asmara. A settlement confined to the two new adversaries, as Washington desperately seeks, will only serve to shore up the Christian war being waged against Islamic Sudan - a war that will eventually consume the entire region if it is allowed to continue.

While neither side has officially declared war, and the conflict is over a rocky 155-square mile triangle of land of no real or potential economic value, the speed and viciousness with which it escalated into a clash of arms, and the bitter mutual accusations following this indicated that the fragile ceasefire agreed as a result of mediation will not last long. The secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Salim Ahmad Salim, said on June 18 that the OAU mediation effort, based on a plan devised by the US and Rwanda, had come to a halt because of Eritrean refusal to withdraw its forces from disputed territory as a first step. The four-point American and Rwandan plan made any negotiations conditional on the withdrawal of Eritrean troops.

Asmara, which is afraid that any territory vacated by it will be immediately occupied by Ethiopian forces, insisted from the outset that any pull-out of troops should be preceded by demarcation of the border. It accused the Americans of being in a hurry and invited Egypt, which it described as having ‘excellent relations’ with both sides to the dispute, to assume the task of brokering a settlement.

The Eritrean president, Issias Aferwerki, clearly believes that Washington is siding with Ethiopia. At one stage, he claimed publicly that Cairo had accepted his invitation to mediate in the dispute, only to be contradicted by Egyptian officials. President Husni Mubarak, who obviously does not wish to cross swords with ‘the only remaining superpower,’ publicly supports the OAU initiative on the basis of the US-Rwandan plan.

The Eritreans have reasonable grounds for suspecting Washington of partiality towards the Ethiopians. During most of the bitter 30-year Eritrean struggle for independence from Ethiopia, the Americans backed Addis Ababa both militarily and diplomatically. It was because of US support that emperor Haile Selassie was able to convince the OAU to make Addis Ababa the organization’s permanent headquarters. Even after the emperor’s overthrow in a military coup in 1974, Washington’s support for Addis Ababa continued to be firm.

It was only after the 1977 Ethiopian-Somali war, during which the Soviet Union switched its support from Somalia to Ethiopia, that Washington’s backing began to wane. The last straw came in 1984, when Mengistu formed the Workers’ Party - a marxist outfi - and became its secretary general. At the time the Tigray province, south of Eritrea, was fighting for greater autonomy, not secession. And the operations of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a clearly tribal organization led by Ethiopia’s current prime minister Meles Zenawi, were limited to the Tigray Province. By contrast, the Eritrean struggle began and subsequently flourished, as a genuine national movement. Eritrea, a former Italian colony, was administered by Britain from the end of the second world war until September 15, 1952, when it was federated with Ethiopia. It was incorporated as a province of Ethiopia in 1962, and an armed campaign for independence started the same year.

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), dominated by Christians, eventually seized leadership of the movement, and began to co-ordinate its operations with the TPLF, also Christian-based, in the late 1980s. The two had reached agreement that when Mengistu was eventually overthrown, Eritrea would be allowed to go its own separate way.

But their struggle would not have got off the ground without the support of neighbouring Sudan, which had given their forces training grounds and strategic depth and looked after their displaced peoples, doing so to this day as there are many refugees who still remain in the country. The US support only arrived late in the day, when Washington seized the opportunity in 1990 to give the EPLF and TPLF forces the military backing they needed to give the Mengistu regime a last fatal blow. The new US resolve was influenced by the 1989 military coup which brought general Omar Hasan al-Bashir to office in Sudan. The new president committed his country to the establishment of Islamic rule.

When in 1991, the EPLF and TPLF alliance chased Mengistu out of Addis Ababa, the future looked promising, with the victors apparently ready to settle down to the business of rebuilding their shattered country. A new constitution allowed the various nationalities of Ethiopia to declare independence if they wished to do so, and Eritrea was later permitted to form a separate State, restoring the independence they had been cheated out of 30 years earlier.

But Uncle Sam had other ideas, enlisting Aferwerki and Zenawi in a religious war against Khartoum in which Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kegami of Rwanda, both also propelled into power by Washington, were involved. The idea was to bring down the Bashir government using Sudanese opposition groups, particularly John Garang’s Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern group dominated by the Dinka, the largest tribe in the region, which is at war not only with Khartoum but also with the other smaller southern tribes.

Western church groups and Christian organizations, such as the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI) joined the fray and portrayed the Sudanese conflict as a religious and racial war being waged by the ‘Islamic and Arab north’ against the ‘Christian South.’ Baroness Caroline Cox, president of CSI, for instance, accused Khartoum of genocide on May 25 and called on the international community to intervene. Again, on June 18, the CSI, clearly unnerved by the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, accused the ‘Arab northerners’ of taking ‘southern Christian children’ as slave - claiming that it had new evidence. The charge is in fact an old one, shown to be false as a result of an investigation by a British peer (Crescent International, Feb. 16-28, 1998).

Another complication was the fact that the TPLF continued to monopolise power in Ethiopia, leaving the much larger nationalities, like the Oromos and Amharas, out in the cold. These nationalities are so outraged by the Tigray behaviour that when the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces clashed after May 16, they issued statements in Addis Ababa saying they were not a party to the war, which concerned only the Tigray in the north of the country and the Eritreans.

Aferwerki believes that he can easily exploit the nationalities issue in Ethiopia, and is not worried about facing his much larger neighbour to the South in combat. Both Zenawi and Aferwerki have shown that they are dangerous opportunists by turning against Sudan to which they owe so much, and that they are willing tools of US imperialism in the region. That is why their war must not be settled in isolation of events in the region. And that is why the US plan is unfit as a basis for a regional dialogue.

Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1998

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