Conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea

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  • by Anup Shah
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Africa in general, has suffered from artificial borders1 drawn by former imperial and colonial rulers, akin to what is usually attributed to Imperial Britain as the "divide and conquer" policy, but practiced by almost all power brokers throughout history, ancient and modern. A combination of Italy drawing the maps in this region and later, Cold War support for dictators, has been part of the historical contributary factors, amongst others, that have led to troubles today.

Map of EthiopiaMap of Eritrea
Maps courtesy of ITA2's Quick Maps3

Ethiopia's Haile Selassie was supported for decades by the United States for geopolitical and Cold War reasons. The Soviet Union had supported Somalia in their claim that parts of Ethiopia and Kenya were part of Somalia. There was actually a reversal of support by the two superpowers in the 1970s as well. [Check out this link4 for a historical look into the US role in Somalia and neighboring nations.]

For the US's unrestricted use of a military base, Selassie was given "aid" (i.e. military aid). This unfortunately was used against Eritrean secessionists and Ethopian guerillas in brutal wars.

Italy, the former colonial ruler of Eritrea, left in 1952. Ethiopia annexed it in 1962. (Not too unlike the case between Indonesia and East Timor.)

30 years of war and conflict continued as Eritrea attempted to gain independence, joined by Ethiopian guerilla forces that were also fighting against the harsh dictatorship. In an April 1993 internationally monitored referendum, where 98.5% of the registered voters voted, and 99.8% of these voted for independence, although the borders were not defined clearly.

For a while, the two nations seemed to get on fairly well. However, relations further deteriorated into war a couple of years after Eritrea introduced its own currency in 1997. War again resulted over what the BBC mention as a minor border dispute5 in May 1998, and over differences on ethnicity and economic progress approaches. The May 1998 - June 2000 war alone resulted in 100,000 deaths and millions of dollars diverted from much needed development into military activities and weapons procurements.

However, the major reason for the recent conflict is the fact that Ethiopia no longer has a border along the Red Sea and therefore relies on going through other countries such as Eritrea in order to ship and trade goods along that line. (Ethiopian propaganda has then meant it says to its people that one of the things it wants to do is ensure a more amenable government is in place -- of course, one that agrees with Ethiopian interests.)

During the middle of 1999, both Ethiopia and Eritrea had accepted a peace plan brokered by the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in principle. However, they disagreed on implementation issues and blamed each other6 for various things, from who started the conflict, to who was not committing to the peace process, thereby making peace harder to come by.

Since then the situation escalated and both Ethiopia and Eritrea have been accused of gross human rights violations. For example, Amnesty International points out that in Ethiopia, a large number of Eritreans are being detained just due to their Eritrean origins7 and that use of child soldiers on the front lines continue.

While the conflict raged on, in both Ethiopia and Eritrea severe drought threatened a famine8 as bad as the one in 1984. There have been many criticisms of the Ethiopian government's continual spending on war while thousands die of starvation. Less reported though, is the fact that Eritreans have also faced similar problems9. In the Horn of Africa, some places have gone without enough rain for up to 2 or 3 years, affecting over 8 million people10.

At the end of May 2000, Ethiopia claimed to have ended the war with Eritrea11. They claimed a victory, while Eritrea claimed a tactical withdrawal. Both sides are meeting again12 to see if peace can be brokered. According to the previous link, from the BBC, 750,000 Eritrean refugees are thought to have fled their homes.

However, clashes continued, as this report13 points out. For now, in the middle of December 2000, a peace deal14 has been agreed to, which people hope will bring more stability to the region.

Some sources of additional information on this conflict include:

  • The Eritrean Asmarino.com15 web site has a news section with sources and updates from various news agencies around the world.
  • ZNet Sources on Eritrea/Ethiopia War16
  • Human Rights Watch World Report 99 on Ethiopia17
  • Amnesty International reports on Eritrea18 and Ethiopia19.
  • Better World Links on ...
  • From Foreign Policy In Focus:
    • In Focus: Eritrea22
    • The War Between Ethiopia and Eritrea23

For more about the current famine crisis looming in parts of Ethiopia, you can start at the following web sites:

  • A Christian Aid report24 on the background and context of the latest famine.
  • The Oxfam Ethiopia25 section.
  • The Guardian newspaper's section on Ethiopia 200026
  • OneWorld's Dispatch on the Ethiopia Famine27.
  • BBC's look at the famine in Africa28.
  • Horn of Africa Drought29 from ReliefWeb provides many updates from numerous sources.

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  • by Anup Shah
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