One of the ugliest and stupidest wars of the past decades was the one fought between Eritrea and Ethiopia over their border. Between May 1998 and June 2000, tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded in trench warfare, and the economies of two desperately poor nations were diverted to support a war that, ultimately, resulted in fairly minor border changes. Adding to the weirdness of the situation, Eritrea had seceded from Ethiopia less than a decade before with almost no conflict, and the leaders of both nations are former comrades in arms against the brutal Derg regime that dominated Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s.
A ceasefire signed at the end of the conflict led to a UN boundary commission – the EEBC – which specified a border through the Badme Plain. Eritrea was largely satisfied with the results of the 2002 arbitration; Ethiopia was not. Now the good folks at the International Crisis Group are warning that both sides may be preparing to resume their futile war.
It’s probably instinctive to ask “Who are the good guys?” when contemplating international conflicts. I’ll save you the trouble – there are none here. Eritrean president Isaias Afewerke has created one of the most repressive states on the continent, banning anything resembling a free press and detaining and probably torturing opposition leaders. Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi has a much better sense of public relations, but showed his true colors when elections in 2005 threatened his grip on power – his government fired live ammunition into crowds of protesters, arrested thousands of people who demonstrated against rigged elections, and imprisoned nearly a hundred opposition figures, charging some with “genocide” and “treason”. Nice guys, both of them.
What’s changed since the 2002 armistice is the posture of the United States. Governments in eastern Africa have been lining up to present their anti-terror credentials and receive military and fiscal support in return. Thus far, Zenawi seems to have played this game better than any other. With cooperation of US Special Forces, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to support the weak Transitional Federal Government against the Union of Islamic Courts, who had managed – briefly – to stabilize that unhappy country. (Predictably, the TFG hasn’t been able to hold Mogadishu, and violence between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian and AU troops is widespread, causing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the city.)
The US government believes the Union of Islamic Courts is connected to Al-Qaeda (and there is some evidence that some forces allied with UIC have Al-Qaeda ties) and is therefore willing to support Ethiopia against the spectre of Islamic terror, even as stories pour in about human rights abuses by Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden, the part of Ethiopia closest to Somalia. (Many of the people in the Ogaden speak Somali and have family ties to people within Somalia. Some forces in Somalia would like to see a “greater Somalia” which includes the Ogaden – this possibility terrifies Zenawi.)
Some forces in the US appear to be trying to soften the ground for US support for Ethiopian aggression in Eritrea. A remarkable op-ed appeared in the New York Times last week, authored by Vicki Huddleston and Tibor Nagy, both former chiefs of mission at the US Embassy in Addis. It’s a direct reaction to a resolution passed by the US House of Representatives which ties continued aid to Ethiopia to improvements in human rights. Critiquing that resolution, Nagy and Huddleston characterize Ethiopia as “a nation where 77 million Orthodox Christians and Muslims live in peace, engaged in building a democracy while besieged from within and without by enemies of democracy,” and suggests that the US “should press both governments to let people who live on the border help reach a mutual agreement on the final boundary.” Uh, that final boundary was determined by binding arbitration five years ago, an arbitration which Eritrea (understandably) is demanding be honored.
Most of the heavy lifting on demonizing Eritrea is being carried out by Dr. Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. The US closed an Eritrean consulate in Oakland in retaliation for percieved diplomatic slights (the inspection of the US diplomatic pouch in Eritrea), and used the press conference around that closure to suggest that Eritrea might be termed a state sponsor of terror for supporting the UIC in Somalia.
Writing about the situation in the horn of Africa, Yohannes Woldemariam and Okbazghi Yohannes argue that Frazer “…has actively been on a personal crusade to orchestrate an international demonization of the Eritrean leader and his regime as part of a coordinated effort to facilitate aggression.” In other words, if Eritrea is a state sponsor of terror, we should be in support of our reliable ally, Ethiopia, even if they invade Eritrea because they don’t like the UN’s decision regarding the Eritrea/Ethiopia border.
The US stance on Ethiopia is a confusing one, even for conservative republicans. Representative Tom Tancredo, best known for his fanatical opposition to immigration, asked Frazer if she could explain why the State Department seems to play ball with some human rights abusers and shun others:
Is there some criteria, specific criteria, that the State Department uses to determine at what point we change from being antagonistic because of their human rights abuses to being supportive… Because it seems quite confusing to me. In certain conditions, in certain situations, we seem to overlook these human rights abuses; in others, we don’t…
Can you help me understand what the thinking process is inside the State Department to determine which countries we will support, even if their human rights abuses are as identified in these reports in Ethiopia?
She couldn’t, characterizing our relationship with Ethiopia as “complex” and “multifaceted.” A useful guide to understanding those complications is my friend Akwe Amosu’s essay, “Dangerous Times for Africa“, where she points out
that the US manages to condemn Zimbabwe, but has renewed bonds of friendship with more repressive Equatorial Guinea. Reading our positions in Africa requires an understanding of where the oil is and where we believe we’ll get support in the global war on terror. And that stance helps contribute to the growing sense that the US is deeply hypocritical about its commitment to democracy, human rights and the values of open societies.