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Violence in the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia vs. Eritrea

Author: Lionel Beehner
November 14, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What is behind the latest round of violence in Ethiopia?

The surprising success by opposition candidates in May’s parliamentary elections, experts say. The opposition won 176 seats out of the 547-member parliament and polled particularly well in urban areas like the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Stunned by the outcome, the government, run by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, enacted a controversial measure stipulating that only a party with 51 percent of the parliamentary seats can table an issue. Opposition leaders, who claim they won a majority of the seats and say the election was tainted by voter fraud, staged a protest in June, resulting in clashes with security forces that left thirty-six dead.

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Then, during a November 4 African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa—the AU’s headquarters—protesters again took to the streets, throwing stones and burning tires. More than forty protesters were killed, and hundreds of rioters were arrested, accused of treason and trying to topple the government. The main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), has said it will boycott parliament until an international investigation is held. The AU, silent during past crackdowns, condemned the most recent round of violence, while the United States and European Union have called for an international inquiry. Many outsiders have called for a coalition of sorts between CUD and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Meles’ ruling party. Meles has refused any sort of power-sharing arrangement.

Why is the violence in Ethiopia so worrisome?

Ethiopia has been hailed by the West as a democratic model for Africa. Meles, who overthrew the Communist military regime of Mengistu Haile Marim in 1991, is seen as a pragmatic figure in African politics. A reformed Marxist, Meles has shown some success at delivering food, water, and electricity to Ethiopia’s some 70 million people, while good rains in recent years caused the largely agrarian economy to grow by a whopping 11 percent last year. Ethiopia, which is wedged between Somalia and Sudan, has also emerged as a regional ally of the United States on issues like counterterrorism and the fight against AIDS. For Meles’ efforts, Ethiopia has emerged as Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid ($1 billion, not including food aid). British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in particular, has showered Meles with praise and chose him, along with Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, to sit on the Commission for Africa, a UK-sponsored body that deals with aid, debt-relief, and trade concessions.

What is Ethiopia’s border dispute with Eritrea?

Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia by popular referendum in 1993 after thirty years of secessionist struggle; however, bilateral relations soon deteriorated. Much of the tension stemmed from a personal feud between Meles and Eritrea’s leader, Issaias Afwerki, former allies. In the 1990s, Eritrea de-linked its currency, the nakfa, from Ethiopia’s, disrupting bilateral trade and further fueling hostility in Addis Ababa. Finally, Ethiopia accused Eritrea of illegally occupying the border town of Badme, while Eritreans feared Ethiopians might invade and take back one of their ports. The region in dispute, which comprises a few hundred square miles of largely uninhabited, unfertile land, “has no significance whatsoever but became a point of national pride on both sides,” says Princeton Lyman, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

War erupted in 1998. Some 70,000 lives were lost during the two-year conflict. In December 2000, a tentative agreement was reached in Algiers with both sides claiming victory. The countries agreed in advance to allow the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to decide their border dispute. To the shock of the Ethiopians, however, in May 2002 the court gave Badme, the most hotly contested area, to Eritrea. Meles agreed to the new borders “in principle,” but never fully accepted the court’s ruling. His government also refused to remove its troops from some of the territory, including Badme, awarded to Eritrea.

Tensions between the two neighbors have once again escalated. Eritrea recently put restrictions on UN peacekeepers deployed to the region—some 3,300 in total—and barred UN helicopters from Eritrean airspace. Sixty percent of the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ)—a demilitarized zone between the two countries—currently cannot be monitored, according to the BBC. This has fueled Ethiopian suspicions that Eritrea is amassing troops along the contested border. In response, Ethiopia has deployed nearly half its armored units to the border. The United Nations has reclassified the situation from “stable” to “tense.”

What’s the connection between Ethiopia’s domestic turmoil and its dispute with Eritrea?

Some experts say Ethiopia ’s recent troop buildup is merely an effort to shift attention away from the elections and their violent aftermath. They say Meles could be provoking another war with Eritrea to unite Ethiopians and strengthen his own popularity. Others say this strategy will only add to Meles’ problems. “The [government's] calculation is that it would be poor politics for CUD to interfere with the military in a time of crisis,” writes Yohannes Woldemariam, a U.S.-based Eritrean, in a November 7 Sudan Tribune op-ed. “Using force against Eritrea does not, however, eliminate opponents.” The Amhara—Ethiopia’s traditional ruling ethnic group, now part of the opposition—have been highly critical of Meles, an ethnic Tigrayan, for giving away Ethiopia’s only two ports to Eritrea. “The Amhara have never forgiven the Tigrayans for that,” Lyman says. “Ironically, the opposition would take a tougher line on Eritrea.” From Eritrea’s perspective, Ethiopia ’s parliamentary results are an indication of Meles’ weakness, Lyman says.

What is the likelihood of another war?

It’s unclear, experts say. The UN Security Council has urged both sides to refrain from force and return to the bargaining table. If fighting breaks out, the 3,300-member UNMEE (United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea) force on the ground, which acts more as a monitoring force than a combat one, will be largely unable to prevent full-scale war. One of the chief sticking points is the fate of Badme. One solution is for Ethiopia to give the town and nearby region back to Eritrea, but leave Ethiopia in charge of administrative duties. Another obstacle to peace is the political disarray in Ethiopia, including the AU’s inability to pressure Meles to reach a compromise with Ethiopia’s opposition. Across the border, Lyman says, the diplomatic process is also hurt by the lack of effective dialogue between the West and Eritrea, which the U.S. State Department recently labeled among the seven worst human-rights offenders in the world. Afwerki, Eritrea’s autocratic leader, has suspended elections, booted out the USAID mission, and driven out many of the Eritrean expatriates who returned after 1993 to rebuild their country. 

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