The Ethiopia-Eritrea Peace Process: Teetering on the Brink

Sammy Mwiti Mbuthia

July, 2005

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Wither Peace?

With reports of massive troops buildup along the Ethiopia -Eritrea border and allegations of what former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy as termed as "irresponsible arms sales" to both countries, there is concern that the peace process in the neighboring two Horn of Africa countries is beginning to unravel. Alarm bells have been sounded by the media and representatives of the United Nations. Inevitably, panic is spreading very fast. Whither peace?

The current development has been triggered by a stalemate in the peace process. An international boundary commission — agreed on by both parties — gave its findings three years ago, but bickering over its ruling has ensured that to date, not a single pillar has been planted on the disputed border.


One of the most outrageous but common descriptions of the previous Ethiopia/Eritrea war is that the conflict could be likened to a dispute between two bald men fighting over a hair comb. The analogy is false. It's also wicked and malicious.

The United Nations-monitored border between the two countries is not all a land of squalor and horror, as cynics would have us believe. For instance, the central sector borders the Mekelle area, home to historical sites and remnants of ancient civilization. In Sector East, dubbed "the most inhospitable and hottest place on earth" the frontier culminates in the Red Sea with its pristine beaches and the Assab port that can provide anchorage to ships of all sizes and make. In between is a landmass of contrasting terrain that remains fascinating to tourists- and geologists - alike. Equally misleading is the label given to the Ethiopia-Eritrea problem as a "border dispute." Before the first shots that reignited the war in 1998 were fired, there had been a simmering dispute over currency and exchange rates, after Eritrea, seeking total economic independence and autonomy from it's larger neighbor, launched its national currency, the Nafka, to the chagrin of authorities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.

Another often ignored aspect of the war is that Ethiopia, a country with a population of about 70 million people, became landlocked when Eritrea became independent in 1993. Among taxi drivers in Addis Ababa, it's not a secret that the without access to a port, their country will be economically doomed forever. "If the UN wants peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, they must open our route to the sea," Tesfaye, a cab driver in Addis Ababa told me when I first visited the city. It's a mantra that resonates in social and diplomatic circles in the Ethiopian capital. But the Hague-based Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) that ruled on the exact location of the border was not mandated to revisit the port access issue and therefore the matter was never addressed.

Trench Warfare in an Unstable Region

Statistics vary. However an estimated 100,000 lives from both countries perished in a slugfest that military analysts say was reminiscent of World War II trench warfare. The combat between two conventional armies from countries that are both member states of the United Nations went contrary to popular opinion in peace studies, which suggests that since the demise of the cold war, intra as opposed to inter-state conflicts are the recurrent phenomena in military conflicts. This was exemplified by the plethora of civil wars in the 1990s in the West and the Great lakes region of Africa, the Balkans and the Asian Peninsula where civil war flourished, often with heavy casualties to civilians, including children.

However the Horn of Africa region has always defied prediction and the Ethiopia-Eritrea situation is no exception. Having produced a failed state--Somalia-- in the early 90s, the region is awash with millions of light arms that have fuelled (in) security problems and instability in such countries as Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the war on terror, it's a region that has Washington policy strategists very worried. Suspects of the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania apparently plotted their attack from Somalia. Al-Qaeda sleeper cells have long been suspected to be in the region, since the 1990s when the terror mastermind Osama Bin Laden was exiled in Sudan.

A Fragile Peace

The fighting continued unabated for two years, until 2000 when Security Council Resolution 1312 heralded the end to the bloody war, and shortly thereafter, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE),was deployed. The peacekeeping mission, fashioned in the tradition of classic peacekeeping, was meant to be a brief undertaking with the separation of the two opposing forces by the blue helmets paving the way for a ceasefire and sustainable peace. "We have a job to do, we shall do it effectively and efficiently, and then we will withdraw," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said after the signing of a comprehensive Peace Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea on 12 December 2000 in Algiers, Algeria. The Secretary-General welcomed the Agreement as a "victory for the voice of reason, for the power of diplomacy and for the recognition that neither one of those countries -- nor the continent as a whole -- can afford another decade, another year, another day of conflict."

However, much water has passed under the bridge since then. Like a visitor whose stay has been getting increasingly unsettling to the hosts, there is concern that the mission is now sailing in murky waters. Only recently, UNMEE, through its spokeswoman, had to fend off accusations of sexual impropriety by members of the peacekeeping force. Some troops from the UN force, it was claimed, had proved to be "putative" fathers during their tour of duty in the Mission area.

UNMEE Achievements

In the barrage of criticism against members of the peacekeeping mission, it is easy to forget the landmark achievements made by UNMEE. Lost in the welter of accusations is the fact that when the estimated 4000-strong force first deployed to the mission, the armies of the two parties were armed to the teeth. They had a face-to-face view of each other and their frontline fortifications were only separated by a tiny corridor which was littered with husks of damaged military hardware and the unclaimed bodies of thousands of soldiers, all victims of the war.

Indeed, my most memorable day in the mission was the moment when the war dead were eventually given a dignified burial. It occurred on Friday, 25th July 2003 when UNMEE, in an exercise dubbed operation "Rest in Peace" organized the formal handover ceremony for the fallen soldiers found in the areas of Baala and Sebalita in Sector East of the Mission area. As the mortal remains of one of the 220 fallen soldiers who were honored that day was placed on a platform draped by the United Nations flag, a 3-volley rifle salute rent the air, its echo resounding across the sun-tarred landscape. The scene was reminiscent of a verse in a Remembrance Day poem by John Macrae entitled, In Flanders Fields:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields

It was a gesture laden with great symbolic meaning. Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) Legwaila Joseph Legwaila in a speech that encapsulated the mood of the occasion said that this ceremony had opened "a window of opportunity, however narrow, through which they (Ethiopians and Eritreans) may look ahead of them and have a long healthy view of each other." The Ethiopia-Eritrean peace, added the SRSG "must now flower so that we need never gather again in a place such as this."

Very few people would question the integrity, credentials and personal commitment of SRSG Legwaila. A consummate diplomat from Botswana, Mr. Legwaila is a master of the sound bite. In his style, he combines a charming demeanor with a deep understanding of the sensitivities involved in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process. His off-the-cuff remarks are remarkable, and easy to quote as when he famously quipped: "This peacekeeping mission is doomed to succeed."


But Mr. Legwaila presides over a motley assembly of about 4000-odd peacekeepers including soldiers and civilian members of staff cobbled together to work for the peacekeeping mission. They are drawn from virtually every part of the globe. For many of them, this experience is their first tour of Africa. I met a senior military observer from a Muslim country in the Middle East who confided that his posting to Eritrea gave him a chance to give free rein to his private urgings. "In my country I cannot drink alcohol in public although I love Vodka very much," he said as we settled down to take drinks in a well known Asmara bar. "I also like ogling blonde women," he added with a chuckle.

This anecdote illustrates the difficulty of enforcing a UN code of ethics to members of the force who, once they are away from home, are free of the social and military norms that often put curbs on excessive personal conduct. It's a problem that peacekeeping missions everywhere have to grapple with. In the Public Information Office where I worked, an officer the rank of a lieutenant colonel refused to take instructions from the head of our unit, saying that the staff member — a civilian — who was the head of the unit was his junior, and therefore, had no authority, "to give me orders." The matter had to be referred to the New York Headquarters of the Department of Peacekeeping Missions (DPKO) for a legal interpretation.

The "Top-Down" Approach to Peace

Against this background, the peacekeeping mission, now in its fifth year, needs to be appreciated. Perhaps, the peace studies guru John Paul Lederach's "top level approach" to peacebuilding would offer a more enlightened understanding of the conflict. This was certainly the approach adopted by the mediators whose efforts in spearheading the peace talks culminated in the signing, on 18 June 2000, of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea by the Foreign Ministers of both countries, under the auspices of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, in his capacity as the then Chairman of the former Organization of African Unity (OAU), currently, the African Union. The talks were conducted with the assistance of the Personal Envoy of the Presidency of the European Union, Rino Serri, and the representative of the President of the United States, Anthony Lake.

Focused on achieving a ceasefire, it was hoped that the signing of the agreement by the representatives of the two countries would be a first step in stopping the war and normalizing relations between the two countries. The "trickle-down" effect of the agreement therefore, lies at the heart of the present impasse in the peace process.

Practical implementation of the border ruling is not likely to happen unless the international community prevails upon Ethiopia to accept the "final and binding" ruling of the EEBC. However, Ethiopia is reluctant to cede some of the territory awarded to Eritrea, for political and logistical reasons. At the center of the dispute is Badme, a small town that was the flashpoint of the war. The remote town, though awarded to Eritrea by the EEBC, is still claimed by Ethiopia. During the two-year war, much of the heavy fighting was concentrated in Badme, with serious human casualties. Therefore, its symbolic value is tremendous. In addition to Badme, Ethiopia remains uncomfortable with what its officials say, is about 15 to 20 percent of the findings of the EEBC. Ironically, the eastern sector that hosts the strategic sea port of Assab is not in dispute, at least, not officially. However, opposition figures and a section of the media in Addis Ababa have raised Assab as an issue as well. Discussion of the EEBC ruling remains out of the question to the ruling elite in Eritrea. In private, diplomats are in agreement that Eritrea holds the moral high ground over the matter. Revisiting the ruling would open a Pandora's Box of issues, they say. Although Ethiopia has offered to hold a dialogue with Eritrea, the latter refuses to engage in talks, claiming that by defying the ruling of an international boundary commission, Ethiopia is setting a bad precedent in international law and therefore, it should be held to account.

Meanwhile, the war rhetoric continues. Both countries suffer from a huge democratic deficit. In Eritrea where the civil society is not well organized and the private media does not exist, there is no credible forum--- outside the government machinery---to debate war policy. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has stated repeatedly that another war remains a "last option". He is quick to add, however, that his country has the sovereign right to defend itself if attacked. Yet Zenawi remains hostage to the internal politics in his country .In his native Tigray province, the Ethiopian Prime Minister faces stiff opposition from hardliners, some with the backing of the powerful military that favor a military solution to the dispute. In addition, the "militants" in the ranks of the ruling elite in Ethiopia would like to see a regime change in Eritrea, arguing that implementation of the border decision will be difficult unless the government of President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, is replaced.

Challenges to Peace

It would be asking too much of course, to expect a peace agreement, no matter how significant it could possibly be, to address all the wrongs wrought by the devastating two-year war. What's more, decades of civil strife and internal turmoil in the region had set the stage for a tragedy of great humanitarian proportions. Legacies of previous wars include thousands of landmines that continue to maim and kill innocent civilians trying to eke out a normal living in their ancestral lands.

The litany of challenges reads like a laundry list of calamities: refugees, internally displaced people, environmental degradation and now, a killer AIDS pandemic that's cataclysmic in its consequences. Coupled to this is the large pool of armies in both countries waiting to be demobilized at a cost that has to be borne by the international donor community.

As war clouds loom in the horizon, it is the latter group that offers the best chance for peace in the troubled region. With a more nuanced carrot and stick policy, the pressure of the donor community whose voice holds sway in both countries could halt the slippery slope to another war. So far however, their silence is deafening. This is most worrying.

To prevent bloodshed, an urgent meeting should be convened with representatives of the donor community, the UN, the African Union, and guarantors to the peace agreement. The United States and the United Kingdom should also play a key role in this meeting, whose sole objective would be to send a clear message to the leadership of both countries, warning them that if another round of war breaks out, they will be eventually held accountable as individual leaders. They need to be reminded that, though they may now spread falsehoods to their people about the reasons for going to war, the world is watching. In an increasingly globalizing world, their lies will be easily exposed when they inevitably stand accused of committing war crimes against their own people.

The threat of 'smart' sanctions would also be effective if targeted at the clique in power that is now engaging in an arms-buying spree. Freezing their foreign accounts would cripple them for want of cash. They should equally be named and ashamed in the eyes of the international community and restricted from traveling outside their native Horn of Africa. Dialogue, not war, is what the region needs.

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The writer, currently a MA student at the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame is a Kenyan journalist who worked previously with UNMEE.