First Things First: Demarcate Before Dialogue - Part II
By: Tekie Fessehatzion
October 29, 2003

Whether it is in the form of diplomatic or bilateral discussions, any dialogue between Ethiopia and Eritrea on an already delimited border is doomed, considering the dismal record of a series of failed joint discussions on other border related problems, during the five years preceding the fateful incident at Badme in May 1998. Markers or no markers, pillars or no pillars, the Eritrea-Ethiopia border is legally defined, and internationally recognized. This is the core meaning of delimitation. The definition of the border may not be fair, or just, depending on one's perspective, but it is legal, fully backed by international law. No amount of wrangling on where the markers should be placed can change the fact. This is why reopening delimitation, under the guise of dialogue, is, and must be, a non-starter. This is particularly true given the record on past negotiations on border related issues.

 Immediately after the liberation of Eritrea in 1991, officials of the Tigray Administrative region embarked on a unilateral demarcation of the Eritrea-Tigray border. The project called for Tigrayan officials to engage in a stealth campaign of aggressive encroachment against Eritrean villages, to expand the border deep into Eritrea. As a result, Eritrean farmers were constantly harassed, beaten, evicted, and their fields and crops confiscated, ominously as a precursor to the deportations of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean heritage from Ethiopia since June 1998. In one particular incident in May 1997, a year before the official beginning of the conflict, and two months before officials from both sides of the border had planned to meet to find a solution to the simmering local conflict, three army trucks full of Federal soldiers descended on the area, distributed firearms to the Tigrayans from the surrounding villages, and together, went on a rampage of harassment of Eritreans in the area, destroying their fields and crops, and eventually evicting them from their homes.

Meetings were scheduled at various places in Tigray and Eritrea to deal with the problems, but almost invariably there was no meeting of minds since points agreed to, were later recanted or simply reversed. Two examples illustrate the problems the Eritrean side was having by the constantly changing demands of the Tigrayan side. Officials from the border regions (Gash Barka and Western Tigray) met in Mekele on July 23, 1997 to see if they can find a solution to the border problem. Both sides agreed to the following: to abide by an agreement between TPLF and EPLF in which each side would be responsible for administering the area in its jurisdiction until permanent demarcation is established after Eritrea's independence. Then at the next meeting held one week later at Badme, the Tigrayan delegation upped the ante. It insisted that as a precondition of continuing discussion on other issue, the Eritrean side must first agree to make the TPLF/EPLF temporary arrangements on demarcation permanent. The Eritrean side rejected the precondition, and very quickly the harassment of Eritreans spread to the east, to Bada. An incendiary situation developed across the border, and all it took was for someone to light a match. One year later, on May 6, 1998, at Badme, a Tigrayan militia lit the match, figuratively setting the region on fire.

 The joint discussions and actions of Tigrayan officials followed a pattern with disturbing regularity during the post-1998 discussions. While the Eritreans wanted to address the complaints of the populations at the border, Tigrayans were interested in getting the Eritrean government to recognize and accept the new unilateral demarcations, without the benefit of joint studies or agreements as a condition for addressing the complaints of the people in the villages.

What Eritreans did not know, but should have known, is that before 1997 and almost immediately after liberation, Tigrayan officials were hard at work preparing a detailed map of Tigray which much to the surprise of Eritrea incorporated chunks of land deep into Eritrea. The map, funded by a German NGO, was published by the Ethiopian Mapping Agency. The new currency Ethiopia issued at the time also carried an imprint of the new map of Tigray, giving the map the final official imprimatur. The encroachments, the source of bitter complaints of Eritreans in the border was to clear Eritean villages marked for occupation, and their incorporation into the new map. Part of the newly annexed land was Badme and its immediate surroundings.

All the bilateral talks before May 1998 failed because Ethiopia demanded a priori recognition of the newly annexed land as Ethiopian territory as a condition for discussions dealing with permanent demarcation. But a pattern was set. Ethiopia's insistence that every contested territory is sovereign Ethiopian territory became part of Ethiopia's diplomatic approach. Even when written clearly and explicitly in every peace agreement Ethiopia accepted, beginning with US/Rwanda, that the final status of the contested territory will only be determined as a result of delimitation and demarcation, Ethiopia chose to re-interpret the phrase to mean that the contested territory is sovereign Ethiopian territory. A return to the status quo ante before May 6, 1998 as called for in US/Rwanda was interpreted by Ethiopia to mean a return to Ethiopian sovereignty, when nothing of the sort was contemplated by any of the facilitators, who labored on the peace proposal.

If dialogue on border related problems did not work prior to 1998, as surely they did not, then bilateral discussion on demarcation is unlikely to work in 2003, unless Eritrea is willing and prepared to meet Ethiopian demands a priori, or Ethiopia is willing to forgo the usual demands, both remote possibilities. The importance of the final and binding decision of a neutral body should be seen in the context of the almost certain failure of bilateral discussions to resolve the impasse. Dialogue as a substitute for the EEBC's work implies the reopening for renegotiation of an already delimited border. The only inference one can draw from Ethiopia's sudden conversion to the efficacy of dialogue is to suggest that for Ethiopia the call for dialogue is nothing but a thinly disguised public relations ploy to frustrate the EEBC's work, to postpone demarcation on the basis of the April 2002 ruling for as long as possible, hoping that delay may create conditions conducive to Ethiopia's liking in the form of a friendly Eritrean government that can be counted to do Ethiopia's bidding. The call for dialogue is unserious, nothing more than a continuation of the "no war no peace" strategy whose objective is clear: first appear to profess commitment to peace and stability in the region but do everything possible to bring instability and the recurrence of war to help install a malleable government in Eritrea, one that would agree to Ethiopia's definition on demarcation, where the pillars should be erected.

Ethiopia keeps talking about "Badme and its environs" yet no one but Ethiopia knows what that means, even then it's not certain. In its submission of documentation to substantiate its claim to Badme before the EEBC, Ethiopia's legal team placed Badme town in two separate places, one west of the delimited line, and the other on the east. Imagine then starting a discussion on the outer limits of the "environs" and you would be dealing with constantly moving goal posts. Bilateral discussion at this time is a waste of time. Nothing will satisfy Ethiopia unless Eritrea is truncated beyond recognition. Given these possibilities one has to wander if the thrust of the strategy is to keep Eritrea in a state of permanent preparedness, to exhaust its resources with the attendant economic and political crisis that's bound to follow. The call for dialogue is nothing but a strategy for buying time to explore how best to alter the border ruling to expand Tigray's border deep into Eritrea.

The Security Council has repeatedly rebuffed Ethiopia's request for revising the EEBC's final and binding ruling, reminding the Prime Minister that not only had he agreed in advance to abide by the decision and he even gave his assent when the decision was rendered on April 13, 2002. There is a disconnect between his September 19 letter to the Security Council in which he termed the Commission's work, "illegal, unjust and irresponsible" and his Foreign Minister's characterization of the work of the EEBC as a "triumph of the rule of law over the rule of the jungle" seventeen months ago when the Decision was rendered. What happened between now and then may be a mystery to the uninitiated but to those who have followed Ethiopian diplomacy the last five years the flip-flop, saying one thing now and doing the opposite later, was predictable.

 The flip-flop was necessitated by the well-justified fear that a neutral legal entity looking at the evidence, may, after all, reject Ethiopia's claims and rule for Eritrea, as the EEBC at least on Badme, eventually has done. So what's the Prime Minister to do after spending an inordinate amount of money that Eritrea had invaded sovereign Ethiopian territory only to be contradicted by the independent EEBC? How is he to explain the inordinate loss of his countrymen's precious blood for something the world is telling him now was never his in the first place? Unable to explain the unexplainable, he went on denial. The old saying about lawyers and their approaches to litigation captures Ethiopia's approach to litigation: if they lose on the law, they say the process was defective; if they lose on process, they say the law was not followed. This is the crust of Ethiopia's position: that the ruling was unacceptable because the EEBC did not follow the law as interpreted by Ethiopia's legal team. Ethiopia has advanced a novel legal argument that after a case has been decided in a court of last resort, which according to the Algiers Agreement, the EEBC was, the decision to be acceptable has to be based on interpretation and application of the appropriate law as advanced by Ethiopia's legal team.

In his address to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin complained that although Ethiopia was the victim of aggression, it was being punished by the EEBC. But in its dispute with Eritrea over Badme, Ethiopia is indisputably, the aggressor unless words have lost all ordinary meaning. It's possible that from Ethiopia's leaders point of view the loss of Badme is a double whammy: the loss of face, which in itself may not be fatal, but after taking the country to war on nothing but hysteria, and paying dearly on the battlefield, but worse in a court of law, someone would have to explain to the people why the war was justified; and perhaps worse of all, history's judgment that indeed Ethiopia has been the aggressor, and mainly responsible for the catastrophe that has befallen on the two peoples. It's not the people of Eritrea's fault that Prime Minister Meles' fears political dismemberment because he is unable to dismount the tiger he rode on a wave of hysteria and jingoism and leading his country to an unjustifiable war.

Portraying the aggressor as the "victim" is no easy task, but that precisely explains the Prime Minister's flip-flop, saying he is committed to a peaceful resolution but never admitting in advance that for him to accept the outcome, it has to be on his terms. The peace process is littered with broken promises. An initial "Yes" to a peace proposal slowly turns into, "May be," and eventually it becomes, "No." When the EEBC first gave its decision, Ethiopia accepted it, then seventeen months later, the acceptance was conditioned on certain revisions, and finally on October 16, 2003 before the Ethiopian Parliament, Prime Minster said, the decision was "null and void."

The rejection of an initially accepted position is habitually blamed on internal enemies of the government, except this time the Decision is being rejected because it is said the people don't want it. But there's always a reason why a "Yes" slowly changes to a "No." Meles' Ethiopia has a habit of stretching out the period between 'Yes" and "No" as much as possible to milk the donor community of financial assistance as a reward for the government's commitment to peaceful resolution to the conflict, commitment to eradicating poverty, fighting famine, then divert the resources in preparation for another attempt to resolve the conflict by force. The Ethiopian government is assisted in this undertaking by a gullible international donor community composed of bureaucrats from the various international humanitarian agencies and staffs from the hundreds of Non Governmental Organizations whose First World standard of living depends on the continuous flow of assistance to Ethiopia in behalf of its poverty stricken population. The NGOs and their allies in the humanitarian agencies lobby their Addis Ababa based home embassies for more assistance for Ethiopia. They use traveling journalists to sell the story about the possible repeat of the Great Famine (1983-1984) to folks back home who then write letters to their government to help Ethiopia's poor.

The formula never changes. It has been perfected into an art form. So far this year more than one hundred percent of Ethiopia's request for relief assistance, 1.56 million tons of the 1.54 requested, has been met. World Bank officials are talking about the need to double financial assistance, from US$900 million a year to US$1.8billion. Another donors' committee working with Ethiopian officials is putting the final touches on a US$3 billion five-year plan for Ethiopia. The empty talk about dialog on demarcation has to be understood in terms of Ethiopia's attempt to sooth the donor community about Ethiopia's lack of commitment to peace at a time when it's asking huge amounts of resources transfer. The Security Council and the guarantors of the Algiers Agreement, the EU, UN, AU, and US have the power, if they desire, to block Ethiopia's access to resources for development.

The Prime Minister wants to convince the world community that the nettlesome aspects of the demarcation of the border can be settled bilaterally conveniently forgetting that it was the failure of bilateral discussions that necessitated the creation of a neutral border commission to arbitrate the matter. It would have been unrealistic for each party to be absolutely certain that the Commission would decide its way; because it was the only way the case could be decided. Other than a careful review of the evidence and the law, the Commission was under no obligation to favor one side over the other. In the end there was a lot of give and take in the decision, a situation both parties agreed to accept in advance. With all its quirks, the line that separates the two countries is official, properly and legally delimited and internationally recognized. Legally there's no basis for changing it unless both sides agree to trade territories, or one side unilaterally gives up sovereign territories for the sake of short-term peace, a situation not likely to occur. The acceptance of this reality and proceeding with demarcation without any more delay is the first building block towards normalization. First demarcate then dialogue, towards normalization.

What Ethiopia is demanding of the EEBC in 2003 is to remain true to the letter and spirit of the 1997 Map of Tigray. All the high talk about the need for peace and stability in the region is nothing but another way of saying if the people of Tigray are not appeased by the reaffirmation of their claim to sovereign Eritrean territory, there will be serious repercussions. But could not the reverse be also true? How much peace, how much stability in the border could prevail if Eritrean farmers feel the land the EEBC said was theirs, was no longer theirs? As long as the perception that one is benefiting at the expense of the other is there, there will be no peace and no stability in the border. An imposed solution that requires both parties to gain some and lose some, as the EEBC decision has done is the only alternative to the resumption of mindless hostilities. Unfortunately dialogue on demarcation before 1998 was a dismal failure. No reason to replay it now.