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Eritrea's Border Troubles

Author: Stephanie Hanson
August 4, 2008


"One stupid war is enough," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told Newsweek in April 2008, explaining why he doesn't want to war with Eritrea again. Yet a few hundred UN troops are all that stands between the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces massed on either side of the disputed border zone. Those peacekeepers will be withdrawn (Bloomberg) on July 31, when the UN ends its Ethiopia-Eritrea mission. Neither side says it wants war, but experts continue to worry the standoff could spark open conflict, potentially igniting skirmishes across Africa's volatile horn.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, following thirty years of war, but the border dividing the countries stil isn't clearly defined. An eruption of violence in 1998 led to two years of bloodshed but did little to resolve the border issue. An international border commission issued a legal demarcation of the border in 2002, awarding the contested town of Badme to Eritrea, but Ethiopia has refused to remove troops from the town, citing the deployment of Eritrean troops in what it calls a demilitarized zone. A military buildup on both sides was separated by a UN peacekeeping mission of several thousand troops until late 2007, when Eritrea cut the peacekeepers' diesel fuel supplies. In early 2008, the bulk of the UN peacekeepers left Eritrea, leaving only about three hundred troops.

In the absence of the UN mission, experts say a significant barrier to conflict between the two countries will be lost. A June 2008 International Crisis Group report finds fault with both sides, saying they have used the impasse as "an excuse to enhance their domestic power at the expense of democracy and economic growth, thus reducing the attractiveness to them of diplomatic compromise." The two governments have rejected such criticism in the past.

Renewed violence with Ethiopia, in turn, could stir up Eritrea's relations with its other neighbors. Ties with Djibouti and Somalia are also tense. In May, Eritrea sent troops to its border with Djibouti to stake out a disputed area near the Red Sea. In June, a skirmish between the two sides resulted in several deaths for Djibouti. Eritrea's government insists it has no hostile intent. Yet one regional expert tells the New York Times that Eritrea is a " ferociously proud new nation," and as such places intense value on "every inch of land."

The circumstances of the Eritrea-Somalia dispute are different. Eritrea, which has Muslim and Christian populations of nearly equal size, has harbored Somalia's hard-line Islamist opposition since December 2006, when Ethiopia invaded Somalia and pushed the Islamists out. Horn of Africa analysts, including Terrence Lyons of George Mason University, say Eritrea's involvement comes as an attempt to weaken Ethiopia. In August 2007, the U.S. State Department even said it was considering the country (AP) for addition to its State Sponsors of Terrorism list. In response, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki accused the United States of fueling conflict in Somalia (VOA).

Other analysts say these ongoing conflicts allow the Eritrean government more domestic leeway on political and economic concerns. Amid the disputes, Eritrea's local development picture is bleak. The country ranks 157 out of 177 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Policies to keep the army ranks full have precipitated public discontent, as well as population flight. At least 320,000 of Eritrea's 4.7 million people are in the military, says the World Bank. All males between eighteen and forty must serve at least twelve months, and human rights groups in Asmara say this term is often extended indefinitely (Reuters). The government says its military also does development work. Many young Eritreans are fleeing the country to avoid conscription; a May 2008 Refugees International factfinding trip to the region found that 75 percent of residents at a refugee camp of eighteen thousand Eritreans in Ethiopia were fleeing army service or political persecution.

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