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Click to enlarge  SHATTERED ILLUSION, BROKEN PROMISE <BR>Essays on the Eritrea-Ethiopia <br>Conflict (1998-2000)

  by Tekie Fessehatzion

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When the government of Mengistu Hailemariam was overthrown and replaced by a new government headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 1991, Eritreans had hoped that there was finally a government in Ethiopia that had foresworn hegemonic ambitions towards Eritrea. The war (1998-2000) shattered this illusion. Eritreans had also hoped that with the conclusion of the war of independence and a presumably friendly new government in Ethiopia, Eritrea would focus on rebuilding political, social, and economic institutions. The war derailed such hopes.

By carefully documenting the events of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the author unravels the complexity of the dispute and places it in the context of both a regional and international political dynamic.

"Written by one of the most passionate Eritrean patriots, the essays in Shattered Illusion, Broken Promise inspired a collective sense of responsibility and self-sacrifice among Eritreans in the Diaspora. Tekie’s essays galvanized Eritreans abroad to double their efforts in support of their fighting compatriots against the Ethiopian aggression. These essays reflect and animate the people’s sacrifice for a just cause almost in the same way the pen of Ato Woldeab and the political leadership of Ibrahim Sultan inspired the Eritrean independence movement earlier. For students of history this collection is of particular importance for it shows the depth and continuity of Eritrean nationalism. His intimate knowledge of the country and its history makes this collection relevant to laymen and scholars alike."

—JORDAN GEBRE-MEDHIN, author of Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea

Tekie Fessehatzion is Chair and Professor of Economics at Morgan State University. He is the author of From Federation to Anexation: Eritrea, 1950-1962. He edited the special issue of Eritrean Studies Review on the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border War. He was a member of the Eritrean Constitutional Commission.



The Eritrean Studies Review

Volume 3, Number 2
Special Issue, 1999
Eritrea & Ethiopia: From Conflict to Cooperation to Conflict

  • Guest Editor's Introduction Tekie Fessehatzion
  • Eritrea (Mereb-Melash) and Yohannes IV of Abyssinia Jordan Gebre-Medhin
  • A Study of the Evolution of the Eritrean Ethiopian Border Through Treaties and Official Maps Ghidewon Abay Asmerom & Ogbazgy Abay Asmerom
  • Some Latent Factors in the Ethio-Eritrean Conflict Kidane Mengistreab
  • Mass Expulsion of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean Origin From Ethiopia and Human Rights Violations Gaim Kibreab
  • Approaches to Resolve the Conflict Between Eritrea and Ethiopia Gebre Hiwet Tesfagiorgis
  • Commentary
    • The Eritrean-Ethiopian Conflict or How Ethiophilia Blinded Susan Rice Saleh A. A. Younis
    • Against More Odds: The Second Siege of Eritrea Dan Connell
    • 'The March of Folly' Re-enacted: A Personal View Alemseged Tesfai
    • Explaining the Unexplainable: The Eritrea-Ethiopia Border War Tekie Fessehatzion

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Guest-Editor's Introduction
Tekie Fessehatzion

Eritrea and Ethiopia-From Conflict to Cooperation to Conflict

The Eritrean Studies Review (ESR) occasionally publishes special issues on themes deemed of special interest to scholars on Eritrea and other readers of the Review. The Eritrean-Ethiopian border dispute coming as it did so early in the life of the new Eritrean state, the Editors decided to produce a special issue of the Review to explore the dispute in all of its dimensions. The border dispute raises many issue of relevance to newly independent states with ill-marked borders. While the resolution of border disputes requires technical approaches for demarcation purposes, most often the problem requires a political solution.

As this issue of the ESR went press, Eritrea and Ethiopia have reaffirmed their acceptance of the OAU Framework Agreement. At the last OAU Summit held in Algiers, July 12-15, 1999, the two countries have accepted Modalities for the implementation of the Framework Agreement. The Modalities offer important sequencing of the recommendations, a feature lacking in the Framework Agreement. For the first time the Agreement will stipulate that both sides agree to a cease-fire before other elements in the Modalities can be implemented. Subsequently, the OAU, with the help of the UN and US experts drew up a document called Technical Arrangements, which is a detailed plan for the implementation of the peace plan. Eritrea accepted the Technical Arrangements right away while Ethiopia at first asked for clarifications, and, once the clarifications were given by the OAU, continues to drag its feet and bring new preconditions that were not in the original plan. Whether the Algiers Agreement will lead to a peaceful resolution to the border conflict is an open question, for reasons addressed in several of the papers in this issue. As several of the authors have indicated the dispute encompasses more than questions of territory. The dispute is about whether Eritrea will remain in its current form-as an independent and sovereign state. The authors, coming from several disciplines, have examined the dispute in its multiple dimensions.

In his insightful lead article, "Eritrea (Mereb-Melash) And Yohannes IV of Abyssinia," Jordan Gebre-Medhin has taken a historical approach in identifying the source of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute: the revival of Tigrayan hegemonic ambition. Jordan sees a direct link between Emperor Yohannes IV's repeated invasions of Eritrea (then known as Mereb-Melash) during the last century and the TPLF's intermittent forays into Eritrea since May 1998. As was the case with Emperor Yohannes, the TPLF, faced with a perennially resource-poor Tigray, was compelled to go outside its base to accumulate resources to build its political and military power. Emperor Yohannes and the TPLF made extensive use of Oromo peasants as the bulk of their army in their invasion of Mereb-Melash (Eritrea). Jordan argues that Abyssinia's centralized states, including Emperor Yohannes's Ethiopia were "built on the long distance slave trade predominantly from the populous Oromo region of the present Empire." The "slaves" were shipped to the Middle East, Europe and North America through the Red Sea. Thus control of Eritrea was vital for Emperor Yohannes of Tigray's principal export-"slaves" from Oromo land which he used to finance firearms to keep him in power. But, as Jordan has noted, events beyond the control of Emperor Yohannes diminished the role of the Red Sea in the slave trade. The Egyptian control of Massawa, the rise of the Mahdist movement in the Sudan, and the control of Oromo land by Amhara Abyssinian groups reduced to a trickle the flow of slave trade through the Red Sea. Furthermore, it left Emperor Yohannes isolated and weak. According to Jordan, it is in this "convoluted context" that Emperor Yohannes's determination to control Eritrea by any means necessary must be understood. For Yohannes to maintain his power, the occupation of Eritrea with its rich and long shoreline was a sine qua non. To accomplish this task Yohannes sent Ras Alula to the then Mereb-Melash where the Ras met stiff resistance from the local population. The same logic that propelled Emperor Yohannes in the late nineteenth century to attempt to subjugate Eritrea-to control access to the sea-appears to guide the TPLF now. And just as Yohannes met with resistance in Eritrea, so will the TPLF, a group that seems to have learned nothing from Emperor Yohannes's disastrous Eritrean experience. The TPLF's inability to learn from history will lead to the ultimate destruction of Mekele's political and military power.

To the extent the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict is about an "ill marked" border, one wants to know, first, how the current border evolved; two, where the possible problem areas could be located; and three, in what specific ways the border meets or fails to meet the standard of inviolability expressed in the Organization of African Unity Cairo Charter of 1964. These very important questions are handled with skill and comprehensiveness by Ghidewon Abay Asmerom and Ogbazgy Abay Asmerom in "A Study of the Evolution of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border through Treaties and Maps." Ghidewon and Ogbazgy provide a useful primer on how borders are "delimited," and "demarcated," and how Africa's borders evolved over time. Their primary focus, however, remains the 1000-Km long Eritrea-Ethiopia border. They also test the extent to which the current border meets the OAU inviolability standard. According to Ghidewon and Ogbazghy the common border evolved over a period of 18 years (1890-1908) and was validated by three treaties: 1900, 1902, and 1908. Two of the treaties (1900 and 1908) were signed between King Menelik II of Ethiopia and the Italians. The third (1902) was done between the British, Menelik II, and the Italians. The border as defined and delimited by the three treaties remained unchanged and unchallenged for 89 years (1908-1997). Lastly, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 390(V) of December 2, 1950 and the first Eritrean Constitution as ratified by Emperor Haile Selassie in September 11, 1952 reaffirmed the validity of the Italian-era border. The challenge to the colonial border came from the Tigray Administrative State and its 1997 map that incorporated swaths of land previously on Eritrea's side of the border. Ghidewon and Ogbazgy try to answer the degree to which the 1997 Tigray map principally violates the spirit and letter of the OAU Cairo Declaration of 1964, about the sanctity of inherited colonial borders. While the border might have been "ill marked," Ghidewon and Ogbazgy remind us that does not mean the border was "ill defined," noting carefully that for the most part "delimitation" (definition) was consistent with the treaties. If this is the case, and Ghidewon and Ogbazghy have persuasively demonstrated that it is, then the solution lies in a careful demarcation of the border on the basis of inherited colonial borders as mandated by the OAU and international law.

The Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict has baffled laymen and experts alike. Its suddenness and the ferocity with which the war has been fought are a mystery even to academics who think they know the two countries and peoples well. One of the hardest phenomena to explain for a social scientist is an unfolding event with obscure beginning and an uncertain ending. Kidane Mengisteab has taken the challenge of coming up with possible explanations for the conflict. In his "Some Latent Factors in the Ethio-Eritrea Conflict," Kidane examines some possible causes of the conflict. Kidane thinks a part of the explanation may lie in the duality of TPLF's agenda, and the degree to which the balance of forces changed between the proponents of liberating Tigray only and those who felt that their responsibility included liberating all of Ethiopia. While the latter group believed cooperating with Eritrea was beneficial for all of Ethiopia, the former were interested in what was beneficial for Tigray, first. Given the primacy of ethnonationalism in Ethiopian politics, it was not long before the proponents of "Tigray-First" assumed more power within the TPLF and, hence, within the government. Kidane has given us an illuminating account of the role of ethnonationalism in the fragmentation of Ethiopia's common identity and the degree to which ethnic-based federalism failed to act as a brake to Tigray's expansionism. The duality of TPLF's agenda has never been tested empirically, and it is possible that the duality was a mirage in that the TPLF's real agenda was primacy in Ethiopia as one way of restoring King Yohannes's rule over the "rest" of Ethiopia. A subtext of the agenda would include primacy over Eritrea to control access to the Sea-as Jordan Gebre-Medhin noted -King Yohannes's obsession. Kidane does not explicitly subscribe to the "control Ethiopia by controlling Eritrea" thesis, but he believes a constellation of factors have made confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea unavoidable. Kidane's discussion-of the opportunistic alliance of one wing of the TPLF with the most passionate opponents of Eritrea's independence; of Tigray Administration's unilateral redrawing of the border with Eritrea; and of Mekele's sabotage of the 1993 Agreement of Friendship and Cooperation between Eritrea and the Transitional Government of Ethiopia-points to the conclusion that at some point the TPLF had decided on confrontation with Eritrea.

One of the most painful side-effects of the conflict is the deportation of Eritreans and Ethiopian of Eritrean heritage from Ethiopia. As of last count, over 60,000 have been deported from their homes in Ethiopia. Given the fact that the population of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean heritage in Ethiopia is between 130,000 to 160,000, as of now, two or three out of every five Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean heritage who were in Ethiopia before the conflict erupted have been uprooted and deported to Eritrea. This amounts to ethnic cleansing. Gaim Kibreab's piece, "Mass Expulsion From Ethiopia of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean Origin from Ethiopia and Human Rights Violations," makes a compelling case that Ethiopia is guilty of a massive human rights violation. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has defended his government's actions, saying that Ethiopia had the right to expel any foreign national. "No body can prevent us from expelling them because we do not like them. It is our right," said Prime Minister Meles. As Gaim has aptly noted, the Prime Minister seems unaware that international and regional legal instruments prohibit mass expulsions of legal residents and aliens, and naturalized persons. According to a survey of the uprooted from Ethiopia conducted by Citizens For Peace in Eritrea, 70.7 percent of the deported were Ethiopians of Eritrean ancestry. Another 18.8 percent were permanent legal residents. Fewer than ten percent lacked formal permanent residence permits. The strength of Gaim's paper is in the author's use of international law and human rights covenants to examine Ethiopia's mass expulsions and how Ethiopia's state actions contravene accepted international norms. Why did the deportations take place? The most revealing answer was given to a deportee who reported an exchanged he had with the police in Addis Ababa who came to take him from his home. The deportee described his encounter with the police: "I was picked up at night, thrown into prison, not allowed time to pack. I asked what my crime was. 'You are an Eritrean,' they said." For Ethiopian authorities, being an Eritrean was enough to justify deportation.

Gebre Hiwet Tesfagiorgis, one of the two authors in the Review with a legal background, uses his training to explore ways of resolving the border dispute in "Approaches to Resolving the Conflict Between Eritrea and Ethiopia." Like all the authors in this issue, Gebre suspects that there may be more to the dispute than differences on borders. He has taken note of the missed opportunities and broken promises that have permitted the war to continue in its murderous ways since May 1998. While the two sides are ultimately responsible for the war and its consequences, Gebre laments that the lack of creativity by third-party facilitators in bridging the gap between the two sides that may have prolonged the war. Nevertheless, Gebre believes that all effort must be expended toward resolving the border dispute, knowing full well that it may take more than agreements on the borders to ameliorate the long-term effects of the dispute. There are, after all, general principles of border-dispute resolution applicable to the Eritrean-Ethiopian border dispute provided both sides are willing to resolve the conflict. There are also tested conflict-resolution techniques that have worked satisfactorily in other disputes. Mediation, for example, works best when there is sufficient trust and confidence between the two sides in a dispute. Yet, given the history of the conflict since May 1998 and the subsequent complete break in relationship, it is doubtful whether mediation will work. Gebre thinks arbitration and adjudication may work if both parties can agree beforehand to a set of criteria and to accept the decision of the arbitrator as final. The key, however, remains that both sides have to demonstrate a willingness to solve the problem peacefully, for any conflict resolution technique to work. Gebre believes that the OAU Framework Agreement provides the best venue possible for resolving the conflict.

For most of the past sixteen months, the losses in people and materials in the border war have been horrific. The Organization of African Unity has been singularly ineffective in stopping the war. Nor have the United Nations Security Council, or the European Union done any better. The most inexplicable ineffectiveness, however, remains that of the United States, given the fact that the US is a friend of the two nations at war. Why the US failed to use its influence to stop the war is the subject of Saleh Younis's incisive paper, "The Eritrean-Ethiopian Conflict: Or How Ethiophilia Blinded Susan Rice," which is the lead essay of the commentary section. Saleh's thesis is that inexperience, inattention, and arrogance at the US State Department exacerbated a situation that could have easily been resolved. After all, there's nothing uncommon about border disputes. At the root of the US problem was what Saleh calls, Ethiophilia, an inordinate devotion to Ethiopia's cultural and historical "essence" to the extent that devotees are rendered incapable of making rational decisions about Ethiopia's shortcomings. Dr. Susan Rice, the academically gifted but experientially limited Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has been a victim of Ethiophilia. Coming in as a neutral party to bring the two warring sides together, beginning with the earliest days of the war, Dr. Rice led State Department officials to take Ethiopia's side. Saleh suggests several reasons for the State Department's reflexive Ethiophilia, including the following: Ethiopia was much larger than Eritrea and, in an eventual military showdown, Ethiopia was likely to be the winner. In the mind of State Department officials, it was in Washington's interest to side with the winner; Ethiopia is perceived as a multi-party democracy, Eritrea as a one-party state. If concessions had to be made, the US officials believed Eritrea should make them. Ethiopia's democracy is too fragile to handle concessions. Therefore, Eritrea had to be forced to make concessions to help Prime Minister Meles. Eritrea refused, and the US practically walked away, leaving the parties to slug it out. The US, said Saleh, put up its "Do Not Disturb" sign and went to sleep. After a while, however, even the jaded press noticed Washington's studied indifference to Africans killing Africans. Saleh's report covered the first three months of the conflict, but in policy terms, the period set the direction of the war's murderous course. After the completion of the Kosovo mission, Washington has, once again, turned its attention to the Eritrean-Ethiopian border dispute. Working through the OAU Summit in Algiers, July 12-15, 1999, the US has persuaded Eritrea and Ethiopia to accept Modalities of implementation to the OAU Framework Agreement, giving the US one more opportunity to dispense with Ethiophilia and play the honest broker's role, thus making up for its past failure.

Dan Connell is the doyen of reporters on Eritrea. Few non-Eritreans have his encyclopedic and eyewitness knowledge about the long armed struggle that led to Eritrean independence. His "Against More Odds: the Second Siege of Eritrea" is an eerie reminder that perhaps the war for Eritrean independence is not yet finished. More than any other reporter or academic commentator, Connell explains persuasively why the EPLF-TPLF alliance broke down and why it led to war. As Connell sees it, when the two liberation movements were fighting Mengistu Hailemariam, the EPLF issued a position paper that called on the TPLF to eschew its narrow "Tigray-only" nationalism and to start thinking about a broader, multi-ethnic, and inclusive progressive agenda for Ethiopia's development. The TPLF, still under the grip of the pro-Albania Marxist Leninist League of Tigray, lashed out at the EPLF as "petit-bourgeois nationalist." More ominously for their future relations, the TPLF decided that its alliance with EPLF would remain tactical-for convenience. According to Connell, the current confrontation is about the Tigrayans' desire to replace Eritrea as the dominant force in the Horn region. But the fighting also brought other issues to the surface, including the fact that Eritrean independence has left Ethiopia landlocked, a loss to which many Ethiopians are still unreconciled. The war thus has brought Tigrayans, who wish to dominate Eritrea, into alliance with other Ethiopians who dream of recovering one of the seaports. Dan Connell's commentary also covers the tortured peace negotiations of the past sixteen months. He admits that the US had bungled the negotiations by appearing to be on Ethiopia's side, thus losing Eritrea's confidence. Dan Connell warns that unless a durable peace is found, the entire Horn region is in for a nasty upheaval.

Alemseged Tesfay is the second contributor to the volume with a legal background. But luckily for lovers of Tigrinya literature, Alemseged abandoned law for history, literature, and the theater. There's a glimpse of his literary gift in his paper, " 'The March of Folly' Re-enacted: A Personal View." The paper combines two of Alemseged's passions-history and vividly expressed observations. He takes as a starting point what Tuchman called The March of Folly, the tendency of powerful states to act contrary to common sense and self-interest, and to pursue the policy even if it leads to the states' destruction. Alemseged uses Tuchman's framework to explore how successive regimes in Ethiopia were obsessed with subjugating Eritrea, and how, in the end, their obsession contributed to their fall. Emperor Haile Selassie was a victim of such Folly; so was Mengistu Haile Mariam; and eventually so will Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Alemseged, a veteran EPLF fighter knows very well what he is talking about. A published historian of the Eritrean independence struggle, he has a keen understanding of why and how Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu regimes fell. As a fighter who interacted with TPLF cadres in the 70s and 80s, he has an uncanny insight about the psychological make-up of Ethiopia's current leaders. With his gift for language he has the capacity to express ideas and observations that go to the heart of an issue. He is convinced that Prime Minister Meles is fighting the war for the same reason Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu fought theirs-for control of Eritrea, wholly, or in part. Perhaps Alemseged could have stretched his analogy to the nineteenth century and would have discovered that the Ethiopian March of Folly started with King Yohannes and Ras Alula. Each of these governments with ambitions over Eritrea fell. In the end Eritrea survived. And it will continue to survive.

The last paper in the volume is Tekie Fessehatzion's "Explaining the Unexplainable: the Ethiopian-Eritrean Border War." My thesis is that the war has been instigated by local TPLF officials to advance a purely Tigrayan interest. The rest of the Ethiopian Federation had no prior knowledge about the border dispute. Later the dispute was given a different coloration. Portrayed by TPLF as Eritrea's attack on Ethiopia's sovereignty, the rest of the Ethiopian Federation joined in what they thought was a defense of Ethiopia. The dispute was intentionally mischaracterized to permit the TPLF to draw on Ethiopia's resources to fight a war for Tigray's benefit. As Jordan Gebre-Medhin has shown in his stimulating essay in this volume, the TPLF is following in the footsteps of King Yohannes IV from the nineteenth century in using Ethiopia's resources to advance Tigray's hegemonic ambition in the region. The paper details how an easily solvable border dispute was intentionally escalated to a full-scale war with the expectation that Eritrea lacked the resource and population base to fight Ethiopia and win. The TPLF expected to win the war and, after that, to install a government in Eritrea that would take directions from Makele. This was the plan. It did not work out as planned for the reasons Jordan gives in his essay.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that there are important questions that have to be answered when this current war is over. Why, for example, was the Eritrean public shocked to discover that Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war? There was very little inkling that Eritrea and Ethiopia were having a problem, although (as came to light later) a crisis had been brewing along the common border. Had the public been informed about the emerging crisis, and had public discussion been held on the issue, is it possible that the dispute would have been avoided? No one knows the answer to this question, but at least the events of May 6 , 1998 would not have come as a shock. The war has mobilized the Eritrean public to a degree not seen since the height of the independence struggle. It has brought the public and the government closer than at any time since 1993. To a very large extent the war has exposed the fragility of Eritrean independence and sovereignty and the degree to which powerful forces in Ethiopia remain unreconciled to an "Eritrea-less" Ethiopia. The ever-present external threat for Eritrea's sovereignty has important consequences to the fledgling democratization process. Whether the threat will stifle or invigorate the process is something that needs to be carefully watched.