This is not a rejoinder to Hank Cohen’s piece – Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold – published by African Arguments on 16 December 2013. It is rather an analysis of the same issue with the added suggestion that it will be exceedingly difficult to achieve the laudable goals identified by Ambassador Cohen.
I agree with Cohen that it is long past time to end the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is also time for the United States to try again to improve relations with Eritrea. I accept there is no solid evidence that Eritrea is continuing its support for the al-Shabaab terrorist organization in Somalia, thus removing this argument from the list of reasons that obstruct better relations. Finally, there is some evidence that both the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea are more willing to see an end to their conflict. President Isaias Afewerki’s silence following the death in 2012 of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was also helpful.
But it is important to take into account the complicated background that led to this conflict. The movement of Eritrean troops into Ethiopia in May 1998 represented the culmination of a long list of grievances on both sides of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border. With the benefit of hindsight, there were many warning signs that no one seemed to appreciate at the time.
While the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of Meles Zenawi and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) of Isaias Afewerki often cooperated in their battle to remove the Derg regime from Ethiopia, they also periodically had tactical and strategic differences. In the post-Derg euphoria, these earlier disagreements were usually overlooked by outsiders. More importantly, the very systems of government established in Ethiopia and Eritrea after the fall of the Derg were significantly different and not much appreciated in each other’s capital. Isaias especially thought Meles’ concept of ethnic federalism was misguided.
There was and perhaps still is a negative psychological element to the relationship, at least for Ethiopia’s Tigrayans who live on the other side of the Eritrean border. Many Tigrayans believed that the more highly educated Eritreans with their experience of Italian colonialism looked down on Tigrayans. Some Ethiopians perceived that Eritreans saw them as fodder for filling low level positions in an Eritrea that would become the industrial center of the region. Ethiopia would be the source of cheap labor and Eritrea would reap the developmental advantage. It is not important if this perception was accurate; perception becomes reality. Ethiopia had every intention of creating its own industrial sector, which was already in progress.
Eritrea created its own currency, the Nakfa, to replace its use of the Ethiopian Birr. This was not a surprise and, in fact, in an interview with an Eritrean publication in May 1997 Prime Minister Meles said it is “necessary” that Eritrea have its own currency and issuance of the Nakfa “will not affect the relationship of the two countries.” But the handling of this issue did become one of many reasons for the breakdown in trust between Addis Ababa and Asmara. Eritrea announced in July 1997 that the Nakfa and the Birr would circulate on both sides of the border and it would retain its stock of Birr for use as it desired. Ethiopia saw this arrangement as unfair, announced a trade policy based on hard currency and letters of credit, and immediately issued new Birr so that Eritrea’s Birr holdings would be worthless.
Since the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopia had obtained much of its refined petroleum from an antiquated Eritrean refinery in Assab. Eritrea asked Ethiopia to increase the share it obtained from the refinery and demanded additional payment in hard currency. Ethiopia balked at this arrangement and by the summer of 1997 began to import refined petroleum products elsewhere rather than rely on the Assab refinery. It also shifted more of its imports to Djibouti. Once Ethiopia terminated use of the Assab refinery, the facility became uneconomical and Eritrea closed it down. This also forced Eritrea to import its fuel needs in hard currency and at higher cost.
There were several small border incidents preceding the May 1998 conflict that were never made a major public issue by either Ethiopia or Eritrea. The most serious one occurred in July 1997 at Adi Murug in the Bada area of Eritrea. Eritrea claimed publicly after the outbreak of conflict in 1998 that two battalions of the Ethiopian army came to Adi Murug, declared it Ethiopian territory and appointed an Ethiopian administrative committee. Ethiopia claimed that it only briefly entered Eritrea in hot pursuit of remnants of the Afar opposition and then returned to Ethiopia.
Then there was the appearance of the map prepared by the Ethiopian Central Statistical Office for the 1994 census that indicated Ethiopia claimed areas to the west of the diagonal border (the Badme area) separating southwest Eritrea and western Tigray between the Mereb and Setit Rivers. The map also suggested Ethiopia claimed additional small pieces of territory that virtually all other maps show as part of Eritrea. In 1997, the issue returned when the regional government in Tigray issued a similar map. Ethiopia never provided a convincing response as to why these maps appeared.
All of these issues, including some other lesser ones, provided the backdrop for the outbreak of conflict in 1998. Following several minor, alleged incursions by Eritrean forces into territory administered by Ethiopia, there was an incident in the vicinity of Badme on 6 May 1998 involving Eritrean regular forces and hardened TPLF local militia. According to a well-informed Ethiopian account, there were eight deaths on the Eritrean side and none on the Ethiopian side, suggesting the likelihood of an ambush. Eritrea sent a negotiating team to Addis Ababa to resolve the matter. That team unexpectedly returned to Asmara on 10 May and within 24 hours, Eritrea invaded the Badme region, which had been administered by Ethiopia, with a large military force. Thus began a conventional type war on 12 May in which an estimated 100,000 soldiers on both sides perished in the next two years.
Time does tend to heal wounds, but both the Ethiopians and Eritreans have long memories and it is not clear how much of this baggage they can put aside. Much of the discussion since the outbreak of conflict in 1998 has focused on Badme, which is only symbolic of greater differences. Ethiopians and Eritreans must conclude it is in their mutual interest to normalize relations and then begin to solve these political, economic, social, and geographical disputes. Ethiopia needs to approach the problem with the understanding that it probably has to give up control over Badme. In effect, it has already acknowledged this possibility. Eritrea needs to be more flexible on the sequencing of issues. It would be helpful to drop its demand that Badme be turned over first so that negotiations on other issues can begin. Both sides must also understand that small, mutually agreeable changes need to be made along other sections of the disputed border.
It is important that all of the economic differences be on the table, including future long-term access to the port of Assab by land-locked Ethiopia. Trade, open borders, telephone links, and air travel need to return to normal. Eritreans and Ethiopians should be able to move across the border without difficulty and, following the laws in each country, work there. All of this is hard and will take many months to sort out, but Ambassador Cohen is correct that it is time to make the effort.
As for the improvement of relations between the United States and Eritrea, I also agree this would be a positive development. The United States does have a small embassy in Asmara headed by a charge d’affaires. On several occasions in recent years, Washington has explored the possibility of improving relations with Asmara. They have come to nothing and not just because of U.S. concerns about earlier Eritrean support for al-Shabaab in Somalia. Even if it is now possible to put this concern aside, it is not clear that President Isaias is truly interested in improving relations with the United States. There is not much point in assigning an ambassador to Asmara if he/she does not have regular access to the senior levels of the Eritrean government. This is not an excuse for Washington to do nothing, but it is important to understand that the reluctance is not necessarily confined to one side.
Whatever Washington does in the coming months, its relationship with Addis Ababa is more important than the one with Asmara. Although the United States might decide to try again to improve relations with Eritrea, it will not do so at the expense of its ties with Ethiopia. Ideally, the United States, Ethiopia and Eritrea will collectively decide the time has come to normalize/improve relations so that Eritrea can come in from the cold.
David Shinn was the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999. He blogs at: http://davidshinn.blogspot.co.uk/ This article is part of an ongoing series examining the current state of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.