Horn of Africa Seminar (Bonn)
Border and Territorial Conflicts between Eritrea and Ethiopia
Background, Facts and Prospects

By: Andebrhan Weldegiorgis
Ambassador of the State of Eritrea to the EU
16 April 2004

Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I wish to thank AKE for organizing this Seminar on the Horn of Africa and inviting me to make a presentation on the Border and Territorial Conflicts between Eritrea and Ethiopia: Background, Facts and Prospects.

I will begin with brief introductory remarks on the situation in the Horn of Africa and proceed to an overview of the Eritro-Ethiopian conflict with a special focus on the historical background, the root cause and the framework for a lasting resolution. I will conclude by raising a number of questions regarding the prospects for the region.

I. The Situation in the Horn of Africa:

The Horn of Africa adjoins the oil-rich Middle East and straddles the vital shipping lanes linking Africa, Asia and Europe across the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb and the Indian Ocean. It lies at the cross-roads where Sub-Saharan Africa meets Asia. It comprises Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. According to the World Bank's August 2003 World Development Indicators, the Horn of Africa has a total population of about 82 m, an area of nearly 2 m sq kms and a coastline stretching for over 4000 kms.

The region is endowed with a strategic location, a base of requisite natural resources, hard working and resourceful peoples and a rich cultural diversity. Yet, despite its big geographic and population size and considerable potential embedded in its natural endowment, the region's present annual GDP per capita of less than USD 200 makes it one of the poorest in the world, lying at the bottom of the development index. Why?

We can all agree that the main reason lies in the history of wars and conflicts, both inter-state and intra-state that continue to ravage the region. Even today, three out of the four countries are either in a state of hostilities and/or in a situation of internal conflicts. The state of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia persists, armed resistance movements abound in Ethiopia while Somalia remains stateless for the 14th year in a row.

If we look at the periphery or the adjacent areas, in the context of the Greater Horn, we see that the Sudan, burdened by an Islamic fundamentalist regime, continues to be afflicted by a perennial civil war in the South, a new war in the West and armed resistance in the East. Further south in Uganda, the so-called Lord's Resistance Army continues to wreak havoc in the north of the country.

Indeed, a cursory reading of the history of the region shows that successive generations of its peoples have been denied peace and security. In a very real sense, recurrent wars and conflicts have contributed to the weakening and, at times, even the destruction of entire economies, communities and institutions, with dire consequences on the precarious human condition of its peoples. The effects of this man-made calamity, aggravated by recurrent drought, have condemned the peoples of the region into a wretched state of abject poverty and chronic famine.

With these introductory remarks, let me now turn to my main topic, namely, the Eritro-Ethiopian conflict.

II. Historical Background:

I will confine my statement to the post WW II history of the relations between the two countries. These relations have, in the main, been defined by extreme conflict arising from the pursuit of mutually antagonistic national objectives. These are the legitimate aspirations of the Eritrean people for national self-determination and sovereign statehood, on the one hand, and the expansionist ambitions for territorial aggrandizement and political hegemony of Ethiopia's Abyssinian rulers, on the other.

I submit that it is the brutal interplay of these yet unresolved antagonistic national objectives that lay at the heart of Eritrea's 30-year war of national liberation and the latest war of national defense against Ethiopia's old and new rulers. I also submit that it is only when Ethiopia's rulers accept that Eritrea is here to stay as an independent sovereign state and respect its territorial integrity that this historical antagonism can be fully resolved and a durable peace secured between the two countries.

The people of Eritrea gained liberation in May 1991 after 30 years of arduous armed struggle, triumphantly ending the longest and bloodiest war of national liberation in modern African history. May 1991 also saw the liberation of the peoples of Ethiopia from the Dergue’s military dictatorship. These two events, inter-linked as they were, capped, in the main, a 15-year alliance between the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and ushered in a potential for a new era of durable peace and cooperation between a free Eritrea and a democratic Ethiopia. This augured well for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and gave the promise of rapid and sustainable development within the framework of a historic reconciliation conducive to bilateral co-operation and regional economic integration.

In May 1993, Eritrea became an independent sovereign state when its people exercised their right to self-determination, voting overwhelmingly in favour of independence in an internationally monitored referendum. In the immediate aftermath, the State of Eritrea formally came into being. It was duly recognized by the international community and joined the family of nations as a sovereign and equal member. The TPLF-dominated EPRDF Government in Ethiopia was among the first to officially recognize and formally establish diplomatic relations with the new state.

The two governments, led by two erstwhile allies, embarked upon the path of reconstruction and development of their respective war-shattered economies and set out to nurture a new partnership in the service of a wide ranging and multi-faceted programme of bilateral and regional co-operation. Shuttling of high-level Government officials and delegations between Asmera and Addis Ababa became a routine phenomenon. Various agreements were signed and Higher Political, Economic, and Social Commissions established to promote the interests of the overall economic co-operation and eventual integration of the two countries on an equal footing.

That early period was characterized by a great deal of optimism. There were high hopes in Eritrea, Ethiopia, the region and the world at large that war, strife and conflict will finally and irrevocably give way to peace, harmony and co-operation. The stage was set and an earnest effort launched for the close co-ordination of policy on key diplomatic, regional and international issues. The new Eritro-Ethiopian relationship was hailed as exemplary, both regionally and internationally.

The hard-won peace, the new-found freedom, the commitment to policy co-ordination and the drive toward regional co-operation generated new hopes and aspirations for rapid and sustainable development and the uplifting of the life of the peoples of the region from the prevailing abyss of poverty, famine, diseases and ignorance.

Implementation, however, was to prove elusive. There was inertia. There were impediments. The drive began to stall. There were recurrent incidents in the border areas involving unarmed Eritrean villagers and armed TPLF militias resulting in the loss of life and property. Repeated efforts to resolve the problem amicably failed. There were signs that the historic antagonism was reviving.

In 1997, the Ethiopian army encroached on Eritrean territories in the Bada and Badme areas. Eritrea's attempts to tackle the problem through the establishment of a Joint Border Commission did not succeed. To cap it all, the world was surprised on 13 May 1998 when Ethiopia declared war on Eritrea and initiated hostilities on three fronts along the long common border. It launched air strikes on Asmera and declared an air and sea embargo, threatening international commercial flights and shipping to Eritrea. Under the circumstances, Eritrea responded only in self-defense, both on the ground and in the air.

What followed is now history. Ethiopia mobilized for all-out war and launched three consecutive offensives in June-July 1998, February 1999 and May-June 2000. Throughout the three offensives, the Ethiopian army's forced human wave attacks against Eritrea's entrenched defenses turned the battles into killing fields that verged on crimes against humanity.

By mid-June 2000, the Ethiopian war machine ran out of steam and came to a grinding halt. A cessation of hostilities agreement was brokered on 18 June 2000, followed by a comprehensive peace agreement on 12 December 2000, in Algiers. Once again, Ethiopia's designs on Eritrea, or parts thereof, were thwarted. In the process, the two countries paid a huge price in blood and treasure. Besides, the war entailed the massive displacement and deportation of peoples, gross violations of human rights, immense destruction of property and a significant opportunity cost for development.

Mr. Chairman,

It is difficult for many observers to understand the reasons for this war. This difficulty is compounded by the war's staggering human and material cost. Moreover, it postponed the development agendas of the two countries, magnified the suffering of their peoples, undermined regional peace and security, and put on hold the drive towards regional cooperation. Indeed, this costly war was senseless, unnecessary and avoidable. So, why this war? What is its underlying cause?

III. The Root Cause:

The root cause of the war was the revival of the historical antagonism between Eritrean aspirations and Ethiopian ambitions. The new political order failed to resolve the historical antagonism. To illustrate, I shall briefly highlight the evolution of the alliance between the EPLF and the TPLF and the attempts to resolve the historical antagonism by forging a new relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In Eritrea, the EPLF, now the PFDJ, has always believed that freedom, peace and security are regionally indivisible. Thus, the struggle for self-determination in Eritrea and the fight for democracy in Ethiopia were inseparable. Hence, the EPLF set out from the beginning to establish and nurture relations of mutual support and solidarity with Ethiopian democratic opposition movements. The EPLF believed, as a matter of principle and practical necessity, in forging a strong alliance between the Eritrean liberation movement and the Ethiopian democratic opposition, both to Haile Selassie’s feudal empire and to Col. Mengistu's military dictatorship.

It is on record that the EPLF had, since the early 1970’s, established and worked to cultivate relations of co-operation and solidarity with the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Afar Liberation Front (ALF), All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (ME’ISON), Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (EPDM), Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), etc.

The success or failure of these relations was predicated upon the acceptance, both in principle and in practice, of two fundamental perspectives on the part of the various Ethiopian opposition movements. These two perspectives were:

1. The recognition of the right to self-determination of the Eritrean people whose exercise was their exclusive prerogative; and

2. The commitment to struggle against the successive Addis Ababa dictatorships for a democratic Ethiopia.

In the interest of time, I will confine myself to brief comments on the evolution of the relations between the EPLF and the TPLF, both before and after the liberation, in the context of the two basic principles of their historical alliance.

When the TPLF was formed in the mid-1970’s, its programmatic objective, as declared in its Manifesto 1976, was to establish an independent Republic of Tigray that incorporates large territories from adjacent regions in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although it helped train and arm the TPLF right from its inception, the EPLF maintained that there was neither a historical basis nor a socio-economic justification for the claim to an independent Tigray. The TPLF never fully accepted this logic.

The EPLF’s firm stance on the demand for Tigrayan independence faced continuing TPLF equivocation. This constant equivocation, or dualism, became a source of tension between the two fronts, caused ups and downs in their co-operation and led to an open rift, resulting in the severance of relations in the mid-1980’s.

Relations were restored after the EPLF's spectacular military victory of 1988 and the TPLF was soon persuaded to embrace the idea of fighting for a democratic Ethiopia. As the demise of the Dergue’s military machine approached, there was an urgent need to prepare for a viable alternative and avoid a power vacuum in Addis Ababa. Hence the EPRDF was hastily established with the active intervention and support of the EPLF, incorporating various Ethiopian opposition movements.

In the aftermath of victory, the EPRDF, dominated by the TPLF, seized state power. The TPLF was prepared to put its Tigrayan agenda on hold provided that, and so long as, it could secure its domination over Ethiopia. This dualism in TPLF orientation and policy fanned the historical antagonism between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The historic alliance between the EPLF and TPLF, based on the support for Eritrean self-determination and the pledge for a united democratic Ethiopia, was strategic for the EPLF. The EPLF had, ever since the liberation, endeavoured to transform this strategic alliance between the two fronts into a base for the development of a genuine partnership between Eritrea and Ethiopia as well as a nucleus for regional co-operation and integration. This vision constituted the basis for Eritrea’s bilateral and regional agenda with Ethiopia.

For the TPLF, however, the alliance was tactical, merely intended to help consolidate its power and buy time. Meanwhile, it took three crucial steps to pave the way for the pursuit of its unfinished agenda:

First, the reorganization of Ethiopia into a Federal Republic of regional states based on ethnicity. This served as a pretext for the incorporation of large territories from adjacent regions, resulting in the enlargement of Tigray from 55 000 sq kms to 105 000 sq kms.

Second, the proclamation of a new Ethiopian constitution providing for the right to secession of any regional state, alias ethnic group, from the Federation. This represented a significant step towards the eventual realization of the TPLF’s programmatic objective of an independent Tigray.

Third, the concentration of resources and development effort in Tigray at the expense of and/or through diversion from the rest of Ethiopia. This was designed to build-in economic viability for a future Republic of Tigray.

In the TPLF's scheme of things, these territorial, constitutional and economic measures prepared the necessary ground, within Ethiopia, for the pursuit of its parochial objective. With Tigray significantly enlarged by the incorporation of large areas from Begemder and Wollo, with the constitutional requirements for secession put in place, and with the concentration of resources and development in Tigray, the moment had come to pursue the TPLF’s hidden agenda vis-ŕ-vis Eritrea. Hence, the unilateral redrawing of the colonial boundary and the precipitation of the present crisis through stealthy military encroachment followed by an open declaration of war. Badme was and remains a mere pretext in the pursuit of this agenda.

To sum up, 1991 represented a critical juncture for Eritro-Ethiopian relations. The liberation of Eritrea and the ascendance of the EPRDF to state power in Ethiopia presented a historic opportunity for the final and lasting resolution of the historical antagonism between the two countries. But, it was not to be! What went wrong?

The praxis of the two governments was diametrically opposed. The Government of Eritrea sought to draw up and implement a programme of bilateral cooperation with Ethiopia aimed at harmonizing macro-economic policies, eliminating economic borders and securing the free movement of people, commodities, services and capital. It sought to adopt common political and diplomatic positions on key regional and international issues, such as the Sudan, IGAD and the Great Lakes.

Eritrea's policy looked outward beyond its borders into Ethiopia, beyond Eritrea and Ethiopia into the Horn of Africa and beyond the Horn of Africa into the continent and the world at large. TPLF policy remained rigidly myopic and ethnocentric focused away from Ethiopia and inward towards Tigray. For all practical purposes, Tigray became the repository of national economic, political and social activity.

The inability to harmonize these two contradictory policies led to a widening rift and a steady deterioration in the relations between the two governing fronts. The TPLF’s expedient precipitation of the present crisis fanned the flames of the historic antagonism with Eritrea and struck a powerful blow at the hope for a democratic Ethiopia.

Mr. Chairman,

In more concrete terms, the root cause of the present crisis lies in Ethiopia's violation of Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity: the transgression of the colonial boundary as well as the willful claim and physical occupation of swathes of Eritrean territory. This violation was manifest in the official map issued in 1997 and subsequently embossed in the country's new currency notes that came into circulation in November that year. These frontiers, established under Italian colonial rule at the turn of the century, had hitherto remained the internationally recognized boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Ethiopia went further than laying claims on paper to create a de facto situation on the ground. This occurred in July and August 1997 when the Ethiopian army entered the Bada and Badme areas and dismantled the Eritrean administration in the newly occupied localities.

These violations were a cause of grave concern to Eritrea. The President of Eritrea wrote to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia on 16 and 25 August 1997, respectively, protesting Ethiopia's acts of forcible occupation, urging him to take appropriate action to avert an unnecessary conflict and proposing the setting up of a Joint Border Commission to resolve the problem.

Despite Eritrea's efforts to contain and resolve the problem, Ethiopia continued to bring under its occupation the Eritrean territories that it had incorporated into its map. The situation deteriorated when on 6 May 1998, the eve of the second meeting of the Joint Commission, the Ethiopian army attacked an Eritrean army unit on patrol in the Badme area. This incident led to a series of clashes that heightened tension between the two countries. Ethiopia accused Eritrea of aggression in Badme, declared war and invaded.

In brief, Ethiopia’s unilateral re-drawing of the colonial treaty boundary, coupled with its flagrant acts of creating facts on the ground, was the underlying cause of the current crisis. In reality, Ethiopia’s accusation of Eritrean aggression in Badme was false, designed to hoodwink international public opinion. The irony of the claim is captured in an Arabic proverb: '' ©Smk{đ Č kŠ [ki{đ Č …_oŠ '' which roughly translates into 'He beat me up and cried and complained first'. It took the delimitation decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission to set the record straight on this score.

V. The Framework for a Lasting Solution:

The framework for a lasting solution is already in place. The Algiers Agreements of 18 June and 12 December 2000 between Eritrea and Ethiopia brought the war to an end and provided for a comprehensive and lasting resolution of the conflict. The accords provide for, inter alia, the cessation of hostilities, the peaceful settlement of disputes, mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity and the establishment of three neutral commissions, i.e., the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, the Claims Commission and the Investigation Commission, under the auspices of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The Boundary Commission (BC) was mandated to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on the pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902, and 1908) and applicable international law. The parties agreed the decision to be final and binding. In its Decision of 13 April 2002, the BC found that Badme is sovereign Eritrean territory. The Commission's Decision has, in juridical terms, settled the issue of territorial sovereignty and paved the way for the definitive resolution of the conflict.

As the inevitable outcome of a combined judicial and arbitral process, the Decision awarded Ethiopia face-saving strips of sovereign Eritrean territory in the central and western sectors. It must be noted that, in these areas, the Decision signifies an adjustment of the historical colonial treaty border in favour of Ethiopia. Despite the loss of territory, Eritrea decided to honour its treaty commitment and expected Ethiopia to do so.

Expeditious demarcation was meant to complete the peace process and lay the basis for the gradual rebuilding of reciprocal confidence, normalization of relations and the healing of the wounds of war. However, having initially declared its acceptance of the Decision, Ethiopia schemed to systematically obstruct its implementation until it formally rejected it on 19 September 2003 (PM's letter to UN).

Ethiopia's rejection violates the Algiers Agreements, flouts international law, defies relevant UN Security Council resolutions and jeopardizes regional peace and security. Unless reversed, the rejection of the BC's final and binding Decision would have ominous implications:

First, it would undermine the peace process as a whole, provoke another senseless war, disrupt regional peace and security and impose an enormous cost in blood, treasure and suffering on peoples who have already suffered too much.

Second, it would create a dangerous precedent of flouting international treaties and resorting to the law of the jungle.

Third, it would undermine the sanctity of colonial borders and open up a Pandora's box in Africa, plunging the continent into a quagmire of endless inter-state conflicts.

There is, thus, an urgent need for the international community to act swiftly and decisively to save the peace process and ensure regional peace and security by persuading and/or forcing Ethiopia to reverse its position, accept the rule of law and comply with UN Security Council resolutions.

Implementation of the Algiers Agreements is guaranteed by the AU and the UN, with the EU, the US and Algeria as witnesses. In the event that one or both parties violate the agreement, Article 14 of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities provides for appropriate measures to be taken by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The UN Security Council has rejected Ethiopia's defiance and called on it to reverse its position, publicly accept the Decision and fully cooperate with the BC for expeditious demarcation, insisting that only full implementation of the Algiers Agreements will lead to sustainable peace. The President of the BC has refuted and rejected Ethiopia's arguments and reaffirmed that the only way forward is for Ethiopia to comply with its treaty obligations.

I submit that Ethiopia's acceptance of the Boundary Commission's final and binding Decision and the full implementation of the Algiers Agreements, resulting in the establishment of a clearly demarcated and internationally recognized boundary between the two countries, will signify its recognition of Eritrea's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Only such a recognition will create the necessary condition for the resolution of the historical antagonism between the two countries.

The resultant normalization of relations, the gradual healing of the wounds of war and the eventual restoration of bilateral cooperation to build on the complementarities of the two economies for the benefit of both peoples, will complement the sufficient condition for the final and durable resolution of the historical antagonism between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Mr. Chairman,

It is clear that Eritrea has fulfilled all its obligations under the Algiers Accords and signaled its will to resolve the historical antagonism. It is also equally clear that Ethiopia stands in violation of the Algiers Accords. In blocking progress and creating an impasse in the peace process on the verge of its success, Ethiopia seeks to keep the war option open and perpetrate the historical antagonism in pursuit of its territorial and hegemonic ambitions over Eritrea. Today, just as in May 1998, Badme remains a mere pretext.

In an effort to break the impasse and advance the peace process, the UN Secretary General, supported by the Security Council, has appointed a Special Envoy to facilitate the implementation of the BC's Decision and political dialogue between the two governments. Viewing the initiative as an 'alternative mechanism' that could derail the peace process, Eritrea had initially declined the offer, insisting that the UN Security council should, instead, take the necessary enforcement action to effect Ethiopia's compliance.

As one of the brokers and witnesses of the Algiers Accords, the EU has also remained seized of the peace process. At the start of this month, it sent a Ministerial Troika Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia to help resolve the impasse. The Ministerial Troika's constructive discussions in Asmera have served to allay Eritrea's concerns, affirming that there can be no 'alternative mechanism' and that the mandate of the Special Envoy is only to facilitate the expeditious implementation of the BC's Decision as final and binding, and not to reopen it for negotiations. Eritrea has subsequently agreed to engage with the Special Envoy, provided that the terms of reference of his mandate are as clearly defined in a public and transparent manner.

Ethiopia has, however, persisted in its rejection of the BC's final and binding Decision and thwarted the EU's latest effort to help resolve the impasse. Well, can Ethiopia afford to persist in its violation of the Algiers Agreements and continue to defy the will of the international community in blind pursuit of its territorial and hegemonic ambitions? Only time will tell!

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It lies at the bottom of the development index. Its stability is uncertain under the current ethnic minority regime. It is kept afloat by an annual subsidy of USD 900 m donor aid while 15 million of its people depended on emergency relief aid last year. Surely, what the people of Ethiopia need is peace, not more wars.

Eritrea and Ethiopia are signatories to the ACP-EU Cotonou Agreement. The Partnership's objective of reducing and eventually eradicating poverty consistent with the aims of sustainable development and the gradual integration of these countries into the world economy cannot be pursued, let alone attained, in a climate of war, hostility and rising tensions. Besides, defiance of international law and belligerence run counter to the Partnership's policies of peace building, conflict prevention and resolution.

Given political will and Ethiopia's vulnerability, the application of a concerted and credible enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and the invocation of Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement can save the peace process and ensure its success. The peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia must be spared the madness of another senseless war. Ethiopia must be persuaded or coerced, if need be, to accept the rule of law for the sake of the peoples of Ethiopia, Eritrea and the region.

The UN Security Council and the EU wield considerable leverage that could be applied to avert a new war and secure peace by ensuring Ethiopia's acceptance and implementation of the BC's final and binding Delimitation Decision. The ensuing reality of a clearly demarcated and internationally recognized boundary would signal Ethiopia's de jure as well as de facto recognition of Eritrea's sovereignty and territorial integrity and effect the requisite condition for the resolution of the historical antagonism between the two countries.

Once the Algiers Agreements are implemented and the peace secured under the force of international law, I trust that shared historical relations, strategic interests and a common destiny will help the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples overcome the tragedy of the war and move on to build a better future.

VI. Prospects for the Region:

Is the Horn of Africa condemned to re-live its gloomy past of wars, social upheavals and chronic famines or does it have a brighter future? Can the present divisions, conflicts and strife be healed and the current axis of belligerence superceded by a regional alliance of genuine solidarity and cooperation in the service of the peoples? Can IGAD be revitalized as a regional instrument for development?

What would be the long-term impact of the present strife and turmoil in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan? How would the global war on terrorism affect the overall stability and security of the region? What are the realistic prospects for this highly strategic, volatile and crisis-prone region of Africa?

I hope that the various presentations and informed discussions in this Seminar will help shed some light on the situation in the region and contribute to answers to these questions.

Personally, I believe that, given the push of an optimal mix of national effort, regional good will and international leverage, peace is possible in the Horn of Africa. The success of the Naivasha process, the Somali Reconciliation Conference and the Algiers Accords can operate to achieve peace in the Sudan, resurrect state authority in Somalia and resolve the historical antagonism between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

A region at peace with itself will then be able to reorient its focus and utilize its resources and energies to consolidate the peace, build the infrastructure and promote cooperation. These are indispensable for the development of the region and the improvement of the human condition of its peoples.

I thank you.