Ethiopia-Eritrea relations: present state

 

Ethiopia and Eritrea have been maintaining uneasy relations for decades. The border dispute between the countries has not been solved yet, despite the attempts on border demarcation. The Politicon interviews Prof. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia, an Ethiopia-based scholar affiliated with several universities. 

 

Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov

 

 

Huseynov: Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of armed struggle. In 1998, the two neighbouring countries fought a two-year long war over their disputed border which claimed the lives of at least 70,000. The two countries have had tense relations as a peace deal signed in 2000 to end the war has never been fully implemented. What are the current official ties between the states and unofficial relations between the peoples?

Araia: Yes, the Algiers Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the subsequent Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) demarcation decision was not implemented and as a result there is continuous tension between the two countries. On top of this, Ethiopia supports and hosts anti-government forcesin Eritrea, although in the last three years, the Ethiopian commitment in supporting the Eritrean rebel forces has shrunk considerably. By the same token, Eritrea hosts and supports anti-government forces in Ethiopia and although the latter are negligible and could not be a real threat to the Ethiopian Government, they could nonetheless contribute to the tension on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. However, while Ethiopia plays a major role in the peaceful resolution of conflicts in South Sudan and in helping Somalia reestablishing herself, Eritrea seems to have opted for an isolationist policy and is not on good terms with its neighbors. As I respond to the questions for this interview, Eritrea has in fact ignited a new tension on the border with Djibouti, soon after the Qatari peacekeeping troops had left the border for its country. At this juncture, thus, there is no good relation between Ethiopia and Eritrea, let alone diplomatic ties between the two countries. However, the relation between the Ethiopian and Eritrean people remains calm and peaceful; the two peoples are kith and kin and they are tied by common history, languages, culture, and religions (Christianity and Islam). One can hardly make distinction in the physiognomy of the Ethiopian and Eritrean people, and currently there are more than 100,000 Eritrean refugees on the other side of the border and they are well received by the Ethiopian people.

 

On April 13, 2002, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) communicated its decision to officially demarcate the border between the State of Eritrea and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. But the border tensions still remain as a destabilizing factor for the whole region. What are the major problems regarding the border? When and at what cost could some stability be brought into the uneasy situation?

The major problem regarding the border is the fact that the EEBC decision only enjoyed a de-facto status and not a de-jure one as the Eritrean government expected; and to be sure the demarcation puts Badme, the main focal point in the conflict and the subsequent tension, on the Eritrean side but it is still part of Ethiopia. But Ethiopians have jealously guarded the border throughout modern history and they won’t allow their government to compromise on the issue of land and territorial integrity. The Ethiopian government knows the psychology of the Ethiopian people and cannot afford to go against their will and hand Badme over to the Eritrean government. Instead, the Ethiopian government proposed many times to have talks with the Eritrean authorities regarding the border issue in an effort to bring to the negotiation table alternative solutions, but the government of Isaias Afewerki vehemently rejects the idea of talking by sidetracking the EEBC decision. Therefore, the tension will continue for relatively long time unless a grand solution comes from the African Union and/or the United Nations Security Council.

 

In one of his recent statements, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki accused the United States of being the architects of the borderline tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia. To what extent is the role and interests of great powers and regional actors?

I personally don’t see any role of the United States in the border tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea, let alone becoming an architect as Isaias Afewerki charges the U.S. On the contrary, long before the war on Badme, the U.S. and Rwanda initiated what was then known as the U.S./Rwanda Plan for the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But, after the occupation of Badme by Eritrean mechanized forces and Addis Abeba’s unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Eritrean government to abandon a sovereign Ethiopian territory, both forces on either side were charged. The Ethiopians amassed their forces on the border and the Eritrean army had already constructed miles of WWI-style trenches, and ultimately the Ethiopian government was compelled to launch what it called The Sun Set Campaign, euphemistically responding to Isaias’ declaration, “if Ethiopians dislodge our forces, that means the sun will never set!” The unfortunate thing happened; a major war was fought on the Badme front; the Eritreans lost the war and more than 70,000 fighters lost their lives. This is what happened, and the actors and architects of the war were Eritreans and Ethiopians and not the superpowers.

 

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