The Cause of the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border Conflict

Part III (Final part)

by Alemseged Tesfai


III. Events Leading to the May 6 Incident at Badme

  1. Incidents and disputes along the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia are not a new phenomenon and they were never about the boundary. Like all colonial divides the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia is, at points, an arbitrary line that separated people who once lived together; people related by blood and intermarriage for whom international borders mean very little.

    The nature of the conflicts in these areas, therefore, was never different from any similar conflicts within Tigrai or within Eritrea - for the population, that is. Problems usually arose when one coveted the others 92 grazing area or places of settlement. Thus one cannot accuse simple farmers of deliberately crossing boundaries to cause international conflicts and the same with those who rise to defend what they consider their own.

    Previous administrators on both sides of the border, even during the Italian and British periods in Eritrea, understood this very well and never gave more attention to land disputes around the border than they deserved. In the 1950's, during the decade of the Ethio-Eritrean federation, the Ethiopian Ministry of Interior is known to have issued directives warning against alterations of the old Italian boundary lines as it thought such an act would give rise to serious complications.

    Border incidents, therefore, were seen as problems that required careful and proper handling, probably also ways of creating an atmosphere whereby both sides could develop disputed areas together. Upon Eritrean independence and the coming to power of the TPLF, there was every reason to believe that old border disputes would finally come to rest.

  2. However, that is not what happened. Ever since its creation in the 1970's, the TPLF had given to the border issue an attention that was not reciprocated by the EPLF. Whereas the TPLF invariably exacerbated existing border problems, EPLF people chose a different approach. They were of the opinion that border misunderstandings were not an urgent matter, that they could be deferred to the settlement of the whole issue at the state level. There was, however, no reciprocal disposition on the other side.

    Thus, beginning in 1990, when the TPLF took over Tigrai, new conflict areas were added to the old ones. This is particularly true of the upper Indeli (a border-demarcating river), where bands armed by the TPLF invaded an Eritrean village inhabited by the unarmed Hazo. On this incident of 30 December, 1993, 32 Hazo houses were completely destroyed and the inhabitants driven out of their original habitat. Attempts at compensating the victims and resettling them, undertaken by joint efforts, were often frustrated by a lack of commitment of the TPLF and by the insistence of its members that the village invaded was Tigrayan and the rebuilding should take place on what they pointed out as Eritrean territory.

  3. At this same time, the rumblings of a dispute were being heard from Badme. By now, everyone knows that the village of Badme forms a small part of the Badme Plains, through which the Ethio-Eritrean border crosses, joining the Tekezze-Setit river with the Mereb at Mai Anbessa. The town itself is on the north-eastern side of the border, secure in Eritrean territory. Decades ago, this wild country, a haven for wild animals, started to be settled by Eritreans descending from the highlands. These even crossed deep inside the Tigrai side to establish settlements.

    Until the mid-1990's, movement along this border was probably the freest as no cause ever arose for strict border controls. Eritrean administrators never doubted where the boundary lay, and always deferred that issue to the more formal demarcations expected to be effected by both governments. From 1993 onwards, however, some incidents started to take place and these caused a lot of concern for Eritrea.

    In 1992-93, Tigrayan authorities in the Lower Adiabo area, adjoining the Badme sections of Eritrea, started to talk about a demarcation line. Eritrean farmers who had lived in the area for decades were reporting that they were being penalized and their property confiscated for "illegal entry".

  4. On 20-21 July 1994, a high-level meeting was held between the EPLF and the TPLF, led by Secretary Alamin Mohammed Said and Politbureau member Tewelde Weldemariam, respectively. Regarding the border issue, they agreed:-

    • that both parties should work towards the strengthening of the relationship between the people, officials of the two fronts and government administrators in the border areas; ways of solving minor misunderstandings existing in those areas were also to be found.

    • that the disputes between neighbouring villages and people on both sides of the border were similar to those found within one country and, in order to solve the problems in conflict resolution seen amongst officials on both sides, the political activities of the fronts were to be strengthened and misunderstandings to be quickly avoided in the spirit of friendship

    • cadres from both fronts in the border area were to meet every three months to discuss issues of common interest.

  5. The meetings foreseen by the above decision did not take place as soon as expected. Two meetings scheduled for first and 15th November 1994, the records show, had to be postponed because the Tigray side sent minor officials to meet with high-level delegates from Eritrea, and it often turned out that the former had no authority to decide even on minor matters.

    In the meantime, 1995 saw the unabated continuation by the Tigrai authorities of the harassment of Eritrean farmers for "trespass" into unilaterally demarcated territory.

  6. In 1996, TPLF officials intensified their campaign of harassment and expulsion of Eritreans from border villages. A few examples follow:-

    • On June 7, 1996, 12 villagers of Adi Mahrai (Zibra) were taken into custody

    • On July 19, six armed TPLF members entered Gheza Sherif, and demanded that 34 farmers leave the village. These had lived there for 15-20 years. When the farmers refused, a confrontation ensued and this was stopped by the intervention of the Eritrean administrators of the sub-region.

    • On August 4, 1996, 16 armed TPLF soldiers again entered Gheza Sherif and demanded that all the inhabitants move out. When they refused, three "representatives" including a woman, were taken under custody.

    • On 17 June, 1996, 24 farmers of Adi Mahrai (Zibra) were ordered not to work fields already plowed and cultivated, rendering 66 hectares of harvest totally out of use.

    • At this same time, 29 farmers of Denbe Himbrty, were forced to leave their habitat by similar orders of TPLF armed administrators and militiamen.

    A total of 18 items of similar acts of arbitrary expulsion and harassment are listed in the report of the rainy and cultivation season of 1996 alone.

  7. When the destruction of houses and expulsion of Eritreans continued deep into the first quarter of 1997, a joint-meeting of high level administrative officials was held in Shire, Tigrai, with the aim of finding a temporary solution to the problem. This meeting, which was led by the Vice President of the Tigrai Region, Ato Tzegai Berhe and the Deputy Administrator of the Gash-Barka Region of Eritrea, Ato Tesfamichael G.Medhim lasted for two days, 20-21 April 1997, and included all the major officials of the corresponding border districts.

    In this meeting, the Eritrean side expressed its opposition and misgivings about the series of unilateral demarcations effected by the Tigrai Administration inside Eritrean territory. It pointed out that these "demarcations" were neither known nor acceptable to the Eritrean government. It also demanded that the arbitrary expulsions of Eritrean nationals stop immediately. The Tigrai representatives insisted that the demarcations had been laid down in 1986-87, during the struggle, and that the EPLF had known about them. After a serious discussion and exchange of views, it was decided to set up a sub-committee from the adjacent districts to study the matter on the ground and to see if some intermediate solution could be found.

  8. In accordance with the Shire decisions, the designated sub-committee met from 22-27 June, 1997 to make a tour of the "demarcations", a length it determined at about 40 kms. At the preliminary meeting of the 22nd, the Tigrayan representatives argued that the purpose of the meeting and the tour was for the Eritrean side to visit and accept the line as demarcated by the Tigrayans. That, they said, was how they understood the Shire agreement.

    The Eritreans rejected this. The purpose of the tour, they said, was for them to see the Tigrayan unilateral demarcation and compare it with what they believed to be Eritrean territory. They were not there to be told where their boundary lay. Although this disagreement threatened to disrupt the meeting the tour was made all the same.

    It was established then that, not just one, but a set of at least three demarcations, each creeping deeper into Eritrea had been laid on the ground. This was, naturally, highly objectionable to the Eritrean representatives.

    During the armed struggle, many EPLF fighters had seen or known about a the map of a larger Tigrai that included parts of Eritrean territory. It had been taken note of but, obviously, the more urgent matters of those days took precedence over raising it as a matter of contention. Since, after independence, the two governments were on very friendly terms, most of the border incidents were consistently being down-played by Eritrea, as the excesses of some border officials.... Now, the Badme demarcations started to bring the issue to the fore. As a border where Eritreans formed the clear majority on both sides for decades, movement had been fluid. For the Eritrean government or regional officials, the location of the border and what belonged to whom was never a question. Raising it as a point of difference, when such lofty objectives like breaking the trade barrier, creating the free trade area (FTA), moving towards economic harmonization.... were being discussed was simply seen as inappropriate and counter-productive. This is what all the directives and internal Eritrean circulars show.

    The Badme demarcations and the Tigrayan insistence that that was the border, however, sent an ominous warning to the Eritrean side. The Eritrean sub-committee consequently suggested that since matters affecting the border should not be decided by border and district officials, the issue be very seriously taken up and quickly settled at central government levels. It also advised and demanded that the Tigrayan side stop any further moves at harassing and expelling Eritreans.

    The Tigrayan sub-committee in its response demanded that no armed Eritrean enter the line of demarcation. In addition, it ordered that no Eritrean farmer was to plough fields or build houses or sheds beyond the line and that the inhabitants of two villages, Gheza Sherif and Enda Tchi 92a, were to be evacuated.

    All the elements of a border conflict were, thus, put in place.

  9. By July, 1997, the harassment of Eritrean inhabitants in the whole "unilaterally demarcated" areas was intensifying. The exchange of letters between the Eritrean administrator of the Shambuko sub-region and his counterparts in Sheraro, Tigrai, tell an interesting story. One of these, written by the Eritrean administrator on July 16, 1997, appeals for restraint on the part of Tigrayan authorities and police, as tensions were running high amongst the inhabitants from what they saw as unwarranted expulsions from land they had developed over lifetimes. He calls on the Tigrayans to "observe maximum care and to wait for the meeting of a higher-level committee so that the situation does not go out of control."

    The July 17 reply of the Tigrayan counterpart was to warn the Eritrean administrator that in the event of any worsening of the situation, he would be held responsible, since, as he put it, "the incursions into our demarcated territory are being carried out with your full knowledge."

  10. On 18-19 July 1997, three truckloads of Ethiopian troops entered the Badme area and planted radio communications equipment. Toyota pick-ups were also reported to be bringing in light and medium arms. Eritrean territory inside the "unilaterally demarcated" area was, thus, put under patrol.

    On the following week, 26-27 July 1997, 15 Eritrean families that had lived in Gheza Sherif for at least 30 years each were evacuated and sent across what the TPLF now determined was the new Ethio-Eritrean border. 11 wells belonging to the village were destroyed. The same day, 30 families were evacuated from Enda Tchi 92a - their doors were broken, their silos destroyed and their cultivated fields uprooted and opened up for grazing.

    Document No. 62 01/90 of 21/8/1997 (or 16/12/1989 Ethiopian calendar), written by a Tigrayan police chief of the border sub-district refers to the campaigns of 11, 19 and 20 July. Here, he gives the following figures as the result of the campaign of the said dates:-

    The officer further indicates that a total of 755 campaigners, that is, Tigrayan soldiers, members of the police force, militiamen and farmers participated in the operation. "We only have ten trespassers on the Deda side still at large," he concludes "In other areas, no person or crop has been spared. Our mission has been accomplished."

    The Case of Adi Murug

  11. The date of 19 July, 1997 ought to be noted as very significant. On this same day of the arrival of Tigrayan troops into Badme and their subsequent massive expulsion of Eritreans, a potentially more dangerous situation was developing at Adi Murug (Bada), at the northern tip of the former Denkalia, but now within the North Red Sea Region of Eritrea.

    Historically, Adi Murug has figured as the fourth village of the Bada district - Boleli, Li 92en and Irimali are the three remaining and there was an Eritrean administrative unit at Adi Murug. Prior to July 19, Ethiopian administrators from the Afar Kelil had asked permission to assemble the inhabitants of Adi Murug for various purposes, but the Eritrean administrators had turned them back since the matters they wanted to discuss did not concern the inhabitants of Adi Murug.

    On July 19, two battalions of the Ethiopian army came to Adi Murug and its commander met with representatives of the Eritrean army in the area. The Ethiopians explained that they were there to chase armed Ethiopian opposition elements whom they believed to be in the Bada area, and requested entry. The battalions were let in on this understanding.

    Five days later, July 24, Ethiopian administrators from the Afar Kelil moved into Adi Murug and instructed the Eritrean Administrators to disband - they were taking over. The Eritreans resisted, but on July 28, at a meeting of the whole Adi Murug inhabitants, the Ethiopians declared Adi Murug Ethiopian territory and appointed their own administrative committee. The inhabitants 92 objections that they were Eritrean citizens with proper ID cards and that they had known Adi Murug as Eritrean territory did not matter.

    The Eritrean military commander tried to reason with his Ethiopian counter-part, but to no avail. To the argument that border matters ought to be referred to the central government and not be handled so high-handedly, the Ethiopians replied that the Afar and Tigrai Kelils had declared Adi Murug Ethiopian territory and there was nothing they could do to change the decision. That the Adi Murug and Badme incidents fell on the same day or week cannot be a coincidence and it certainly was not. Something was cooking in the minds of the TPLF leadership. This could no longer be downplayed as the excesses of ambitious or troublesome border officials. Although, as a trend, it had been there, it was suddenly assuming a character that needed urgent attention.

  12. On 8 August 1997, about three weeks after the Adi Murug and Badme incidents, Secretary Alamin Mohammed Said and Political Affairs Head Yemane Ghebreab of the PFDJ travelled to Addis Ababa to discuss the matter with Tewolde Welde- mariam of the TPLF (EPRDF). Here, they tried to impress upon the other side that what was happening at Adi Murug and in Badme was inconsistent with the friendly relationship between the two sides. They argued that using force to create facts on the ground was not acceptable. They also asked that the Ethiopian government reverse the steps it had taken. Any outstanding matters, they maintained, could be handled in a spirit of understanding and taking the welfare of the border population into consideration

    Mr. Tewolde's answer at the time was to flatly claim Adi Murug as Ethiopian territory. On Badme, he alleged that the source of the problem were Eritrean Administrators who were continuously instigating their farmers to cross demarcated lines. He further refused to accept Eritrea's suggestion that steps taken by the Ethiopian authorities be reversed.

  13. Less than a month after the Adi Murug and Badme incidents of July 19, Eritrea's President Isaias Afeworki wrote the following letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia on August 16, 1997:-*

    Comrade Meles;


    I am being compelled to write you to day because of the preoccupying situation prevailing in the areas around Bada.

    It cannot be said that the border between our two countries is demarcated clearly although it is known traditionally. And we had not given the issue much attention in view of our present and future ties. Moreover, I do not believe that this will be a cause of much concern and controversy even in the future.

    Be this as it may, there have been intermittent disputes in the border areas arising form different and minor causes. Local officials have been striving to defuse and solve these problems amicably. However, the forcible occupation of Adi-Murug by your army in the past few days is truly saddening.

    There was no justification for resorting to force as it would not have been at all difficult to settle the matter amicably even if it was deemed important and warranting immediate attention. It would also be possible to quietly and without haste demarcate the boundaries in case this is felt to be necessary.

    I, therefore, urge you to personally take the necessary prudent action so that the measure that has been taken will not trigger unnecessary conflict.

    Best Regards

    Your comrade

    Isaias Afwerki


    Prime Minister Meles's undated terse reply came subsequently. It read as follows:

    Comrade Isaias,


    I have seen the letter you sent me. I had also heard that the situation in the border areas does not look good. I was also informed that the matter was discussed between your colleague (Yemane), who had come here, and ours (Tewolde). We did not imagine that what happened in Bada could create problems. This is because the areas our comrades are controlling were not controversial before and we believed that prior consultation was only necessary for disputed areas. We moved to the areas to pursue the remnants of Ougugume (Afar Opposition) who were obstructing our peace efforts from positions there. We believe we can ease the tension concerning the borders on the basis of the understanding reached previously between your team and our colleague (Tewolde). Perhaps, it is also necessary to settle the border demarcation issue after the necessary preparations are carried out by both sides.

    In the meantime, the situation was worsening in Badme and President Isaias felt obliged to, once more, write to Prime Minister Meles on 25 August 1997:-

    Comrade Meles,


    Regarding the situation in the border areas, my information establishes that the measures taken at Adi-Murug were not in areas that are undisputed but in our own areas and by expelling our officials and dismantling the existing administration. Concerning the Ougugume, your action (in Adi-Murug) came as our Defence was preparing to co-operate on the basis of the request from your Army. Moreover, similar measures have been taken in the Badme area.

    I had indicated to you, these measures are unjustified. In order to expediently check any further deterioration and pave the way for a final solution, we have assigned on our part three officials (Defence Minister Sebhat Ephrem; PFDJ Head of Political Affairs, Yemane Ghebreab; and National Security Advisor, Abraha Kassa) I suggest that you also similarly (or in ways you think best) assign officials so that both sides can meet as soon as possible to look into these matters. I await your thoughts.

    Best regards

    Your Comrade

    Isaias Afewerki


  14. In accordance with President Isaias 92 suggestion, the Joint Border Commission was set up - the Eritrean side to be led by General Sebhat Efrem, Minister of Defence. The first meeting was scheduled for November, 1997.

    Before this took place, the October 17 (12 October, 1990 Ethiopian calendar) issue of the TPLF magazine Weyin, printed the new map of the Tigrai Kelil. The official map of the Kelil, showing a much more enlarged Tigrai - from large expanses carved out of Begemider, Wollo and Eritrea - was also printed by the Ethiopian Mapping Authority. Here, the straight line linking the Tekezze-Setit with the Mereb at Mai Anbessa had disappeared and was replaced by an oblique line entering deep into Eritrean territory. Not only the "demarcated" area that was causing concern, but large chunks of other Eritrean land had been included. Besides this, Eritrean territory like Alitena, Bada and areas south of Tzerona were also demarcated as Ethiopian domain. The old colonial borders of Eritrea had been changed by the unilateral actions of the TPLF government.

  15. In November, 1997, the Joint High Commission met in Asmara and agreed to meet again within three months. There was no discussion on substantive matters. In the meantime, in January 1998, Ethiopian troops were deployed to the border on the Assab line to demand that the Eritrean border post situated on the Assab-Addis Ababa road move several kilometres towards Assab, as the area was being claimed by Ethiopia. A patient handling and quiet diplomacy on the part of Eritrea averted a what could have been a dangerous confrontation.

  16. When all this was happening, tension was building up in and around Badme. Land confiscated from Eritreans evacuated from the unilaterally demarcated areas was being re-allocated to Tigrayan farmers who moved into the area. A letter by the Administrator of Tahtai Adyabo, Ato Abraha Berhane, written on March 10, 1998, clearly indicates that that practice was government policy and was to be encouraged. By May 1998, tensions had run quite high.

    On May 6, 1998, Ethiopian troops fired on an Eritrean platoon on routine duty along the border around Badme. Several of its members were killed. This triggered off a chain reaction on both sides that culminated in the May 13, 1998 declaration of war by the Ethiopian Parliament.

    The Eritrean Government has already invited neutral parties to examine the circumstances that led to the incident of May 6. That is, of course, meant to determine who made the first move as far as the armed clashes of that date is concerned. As this paper has attempted to show, however, all the elements of the conflict had been put in place by the TPLF's continuous and provocative incursions into Eritrean territory and its cadres 92 willful harassment of Eritrean inhabitants of the border areas.

  17. As suggested in the introduction to this paper, the border issue had nothing to do with the post 1991 cooperation agreements between the two sides. The trend that this problem had been following has its own origin and runs way back to the time when the TPLF was still in the process of formation.

The genesis and development of the border conflict being what it is, nothing can explain the Ethiopian military build-up at Zalambessa, the Assab border and elsewhere along the boundary when the area of conflict, according to the Ethiopian Parliament's decision and subsequent declarations by Ethiopian officials, is Badme. Nothing can ever justify the hate-campaign against Eritrea and Eritreans immediately launched by the Ethiopian government. Nor can the Ethiopian boycott of Assab and Massawa port facilities, the cancellation of Ethiopian Airlines flights, the bombing of Asmara on June 5, and, worst of all, the expulsion of thousands of Eritreans from Ethiopia ever be rationalized.

The border conflict is senseless and neither party is likely to gain from its continuation. It has its roots in the TPLF's persistent incursions into Eritrean territory, an act that can only be explained in terms of the expansionist tendencies of that Front's leadership.

The chance for peace lies in the immediate cessation of hostilities, direct talks, demilitarization, demarcation of the whole border in accordance with existing international treaties and, as a final resort, adjudication by international courts. War will only further complicate a simple problem.