When President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria visited Eritrea in late May 2000 to continue his mediation efforts and help stop the fierce fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia, one of his principal messages was to convey to the Eritrean Government the Ethiopian Government's yet another demand for withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Bada and Burrie at the eastern front. According to a statement by the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs of May 25, 2000, President Issaias Afwerki was reported to have told his Algerian counterpart that Bada and Burrie are sovereign Eritrean territories with no Ethiopian presence prior to the conflict. "Nonetheless", the statement continued, "President Issaias formally informed the OAU Current Chairman that Eritrea commits itself to redeploy its troops from Bada and Burrie in order to deny Ethiopia any pretext" to continue the war.
The President's move to go another extra mile to desperately secure peace and save lives is commendable. This article will however show the futility of the President's latest approach and try to shed light on why and since when Ethiopia was looking for a pretext to pick a fight with Eritrea and how it managed to get that pretext from its completey unaware northern neighbour to enter into a well prepared major armed conflict.
It is not my intention here to deal with the political, military and diplomatic developments surrounding the current Ethio-Eritrean conflict which has been - with a sort of irresponsible and ignorant oversimplification - depicted as "a dispute over some barren and useless border areas". It suffices to mention here that - dressed up in a border conflict - economic and trade issues that followed the currency divorce in late 1997, longstanding political and ideological differences between the ruling parties of both countries and Ethiopia's determination to get rid of the obstacle called Eritrea in its wild ambition to emerge as the uncontested regional power in the Horn of Africa have mightily contributed to blow the dispute out of proportions.
It is also beyond the scope of this article to deal with the largely uneasy ties between the EPLF and TPLF when they were liberation movements until the early 1990s. It should be enough to state here that these two organisations, while their longstanding political differences remained unresolved, managed to join forces in the late 1980s and successfully defeated the Marxist regime of Col. Mengistu Hailemariam in May 1991.
My point in this article is to try to make clear to the reader that the current conflict is a continuation of the first Ethio-Eritrean war which ended in May 1991. Those who call this world's biggest conventional war "a dispute over barren and useless piece of border land" or "a dispute about two bald men fighting over a comb" are either irresponsibly unknowledgeable or gullible enough to copy the official version advanced by the mediators as the reason for the war. Why do I believe this war is a continuation of the first Ethio-Eritrean war and not a simple border dispute? The following are some of my reasons:
1. The TPLF never really accepted Eritrean independence out of conviction
Despite its numerous public pronouncements in support of Eritrean independence, the TPLF, currently the ruling party in Ethiopia, never in good faith accepted the idea of an independent Eritrean State. And the more it abandoned its original political and military objective to achieve independence for Tigray, the more it increasingly became hostile to the idea of Eritrean independence from Ethiopia. This was clearly spellt out by Meles Zenawi in an interview he granted to Mr. Paul Henze, an American veteran diplomat and a pathological hater of the very word Eritrea, in late March 1990. Meles told Henze in unambiguous words that an independent Eritrean State was not in the interests of Ethiopia and particularly not in the interests of Tigray. And in order to cleverly convey the impression that an independent Eritrea could spell unspeakable instability in the Horn, Meles also voiced his concern about the religious and ethnic conflicts that could shake Eritrea once its war with Ethiopia was over.
While the views expressed in the above mentioned Meles-Henze-Interview continued to represent TPLF's real position on the Eritrean issue, the defeat of the Dergue troops in Eritrea was approaching with breath-taking speed. By the time Asmara was about to fall to the EPLF forces, the US State Department hurriedly organised a peace conference scheduled to take place on May 20, 1991 in London and to be monitored by Herman Cohen, the Bush Administration's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. The main aim of the conference was to form a coalition government for Ethiopia, composed of representatives of the Dergue, of the main Ethiopian guerilla movements (TPLF and OLF) and, surprisingly enough, including Eritrea's EPLF.
Sensing an imminent total victory and determined to create more facts on the ground, the forces opposing the Dergue managed to achieve a postponement of the peace conference and the EPLF launched its most crushing military offensive on the Dekemhare front and other positions of the enemy in the vicinity of Asmara on May 19, 1991. After five days of heavy fighting, the Eritrea-stationed "legendary" Second Revolutionary Army of the Dergue, meanwhile its commander-in-chief busy with his political asylum in Harare and its senior commanding officers on the run towards neighbouring countries, was totally defeated and surrendered Asmara without a single shot. The dream of Eritreans who fought a bitter armed struggle for 30 years became reality. In other words, a fait accompli was already created on the ground when the EPLF delegation, headed by Issaias Afwerki, the Dergue delegation, headed by PM Tesfaye Dinka, and the TPLF delegation, headed by Meles Zenawi, travelled to London by May 27, 1991 to take part in the postponed peace conference.
Tesfaye Dinka's delegation was sure it was only travelling to London to sign the Dergue's capitulation, while Zenawi and Cohen, faced with the de facto Eritrean independence, knew very well that they had no cards more left to throw on the negotiating table to circumvent the very sensitive issue of Eritrean independence. Consequently, Meles did not dare to push with the position he assumed in his Henze-interview roughly a year earlier and accepted the Eritrean demand for a referendum to take place to decide on the future of Eritrea.
Herman Cohen threw away his original plan to form a coalition government for Ethiopia including EPLF-represented Eritrea, declared Tesfaye Dinka "a powerless man", ordered the EPRDF forces to enter Addis Ababa "to help stabilise the situation" and formally announced that the US recognised the right of the Eritrean people for self-determination. He made history. We need to particularly emphasise here that both Zenawi's and Cohen's positions were forced by the de facto Eritrean independence and not necessarily out of conviction.
Needless to say, Cohen has shown us his true face most recently during the current invasion by publicly extending his ugliest pieces of advice to the Ethiopian Government on how it should proceed on the ground to dismantle Eritrea and at the negotiating table to virtually kill the OAU peace package. It is upon Cohen's most recent advice that the Ethiopian Government is blocking the peace process by demanding that delimitation and demarcation be deleted in favour of arbitration. For the benefit of those who had not the opportunity to follow his BBC interview in late May 2000, Cohen's irresponsible advice in this regard was this: If delimitation and demarcation is going to be carried out by a neutral international body, Ethiopia will be the loser!
And to be honest, those Ethiopians and some in the international community who fiercely accused Cohen of playing the "midwife" in the birth of independent Eritrea nine years ago, should now in hindsight apologise to him for their unfair attack. The man is by nature a die-hard Ethiophile, but he had then no other option in London if he was to come out with a formula that was to save Ethiopia from further bloodshed including the risk of Balkanisation.
Meles was in a political and military dilemma. At the same time he was in London to help shape Ethiopia's future, mechanised EPLF divisions were playing a pivotal role within the EPRDF forces in their final drive to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Therefore, from political point of view, he could not afford to enter into an open confrontation with the EPLF. Militarily, owing to his war-weariness and the EPLF's formidable war machinery, he was not in a position to continue the war with Eritrea in the name of Ethiopian unity, just the way his predecessors did. Moreover, he had very well realised the TPLF's dependence on the support and goodwill of the EPLF to consolidate his grip on power over the huge Ethiopian state.
Nevertheless, while cautiously avoiding an open provocation or confrontation course with the EPLF, he never abandoned his glowing conviction that an independent Eritrean State is detrimental to the interests of Ethiopia in general, and to the interests of Tigray in particular. This was again clearly articulated in a press conference he held in Addis Ababa shortly after he returned from London and entered Menelik II palace escorted by EPLF tanks and flanked by US diplomacy. Asked what he thought about Eritrean independence, he simply paraphrased the views he disclosed to Mr. Henze and replied: "The tendency in the world is a tendency towards unity. Therefore, we would also like to maintain a unified Ethiopian state. But we have strong reservations about our possibilities to convince the Eritreans of the idea of unity."
Meles, of course, having found himself in a militarily and politically inferior position, and having formed a minority government that had to first assert and legitimise itself in the rest of Ethiopia outside Tigray, could not vow to the Ethiopian people and the international community to continue the war with Eritrea to maintain Ethiopian unity and safeguard Ethiopian as well as Tigrayan interests. Instead, he and his TPLF rather opted for a peaceful approach to find an arrangement which falls short of total Eritrean independence and keeps the latter around the Ethiopian political orbit.
2. The TPLF tried peacefully its best to abort formal Eritrean independence
It is important to remember that this peaceful approach was at the core of the agenda of the TPLF-sponsored conference of representatives of a number of Ethiopian political groupings who gathered in Addis in the first week of July 1991 to discuss a charter prepared by the TPLF. This five day conference, where the EPLF was represented by a high level delegation with an observer status, indeed debated the Eritrean issue in depth and finally agreed on allowing the Eritrean people to decide the political future of their country in a referendum. But at the same time the TPLF-engineered conference asked the EPLF leadership to postpone the referendum for two years. And this is what I call the peaceful approach of going around the uncomfortable issue of Eritrean independence.
What was actually the real motive behind this move which created a political and legal limbo in Eritrea and placed its people on a hard test for two consecutive years? For those who closely followed developments in the Horn of Africa in those highly turbulent days, the answer is very easy to figure out. Meles and his TPLF carefully introduced this design and hoped for at least one of the following developments to materialise, developments which are not mutually exclusive in their final result!!
1. Having taken over a completely ruined country and economy that severely bled for thirty years in a brutal and costly war, the EPLF leadership and its Provisional Government will have failed to build a workable Eritrean State within the period of two years. As a result, the old Ethiopian philosophy that Eritrea's very economic survival largely depends on its close linkage with its "mother Ethiopia" will gain wide currency in the Eritrean public opinion and possibly influence the outcome of the referendum to be in favour of remaining around the Ethiopian political orbit.It is not necessary for me at this junction to evaluate the meaninglessness or meaningfulness of this approach which aimed, from TPLF's point of view, at firmly keeping this "geopolitically extremely important northern province of Ethiopia" within the old Ethiopian Empire. It is not as well my intention here to laugh at some participants of the conference who strongly argued: "If we, Ethiopians, show the Eritrean people enough love and inclination in the coming two years, there is no reason why they (the Eritreans) should not ponder to drop their demand for independence." What I am trying to stress on is the fact that the approach did make every sense from Ethiopian point of view, and Meles and his TPLF did everything at their disposal to thwart formal Eritrean independence even when it was already de facto won with the most sweeping and annihilating military victory never witnessed in the annals of modern African history.
2. Frustrated by the economic hardship and huge social problems that directly result from the wounds of the thirty years war and from the very fact of living in a political and legal limbo, disappointed by the fact that de facto independence has failed to deliver the expected economic and social fruits, two years are long enough for the idea of independence to lose its allure among the majority of the Eritrean people. Consequently, referendum voters will favour some sort of political arrangement which falls short of total independence.
But it is also important to note here that the EPLF, knowing fully well that it needed the crucial support of the TPLF to legitimise the outcome of the referendum and to pave the way for international recognition, prudently avoided any confrontation course towards the TPLF and demonstrated enough flexibility and goodwill to accomodate TPLF's demands and concerns. This was clearly manifested by its restraint from unilaterally declaring an outright independence after the total victory, its acceptance of the TPLF demand concerning the referendum timetable and the liberal arrangements it agreed to regarding the use of the port facilities at Assab.
While the two years of political and legal limbo proved to be painful to the Eritrean population in terms of socio-economic hardship, the futility of the two Ethiopian anticipations discussed above was however crystal-clear from the very beginning. The Provisional Government of Eritrea, despite the enormous challenges it had to face due to the virtually destroyed economy and infrastructure it inherited from the Dergue, successfully managed to lay the foundations of a workable Eritrean State and organised the referendum with military efficiency.
Meanwhile, international journalists and other observers who were visiting the new country were writing glowing reports that the wind in Eritrea was not blowing in Ethiopia's direction and that the overwhelming majority of the population was behind voting in favour of total separation from Ethiopia. Reports that must have sent shock waves into the spines of optimistic Ethiopians and other expatriates around the Ethiopian cause who had been swearing of the "unattainability of Eritrean independence" until the eve of May 24, 1991.
But why were nevertheless those two famous years, introduced by Meles and company to only serve Ethiopia's longterm political design on Eritrea, somehow hostile to the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) and its population? There were concrete grounds for this:
Inexperienced in the mechanisms and machinations that govern international politics and world diplomacy, the PGE had initially hoped that the international community, faced with the fait accompli on Eritrean soil and following the new US policy on Eritrea, would move forward to take notice of the existence of the de facto Eritrean State. This was, as events proved very soon, in vain. To the frustration and astonishment of the PGE, the international community told it in unambiguous terms that it (the PGE) was in fact governing a territory which is an integral part of the Ethiopian State. Consequently, the international community, without some exceptions including Italy, never bothered to open some sort of informal representation in Asmara which would at least hint at an indirect recognition of the de facto Eritrean Statehood.
And to add insult to injury, some major Western powers who dominate the game in the international politics, were telling the PGE they would only ponder to recognise the outcome of the referendum if and only if Ethiopia were ready to give them its prior blessing to do so. And worse enough, some Western journalists went even so far as to ask the Ministry of Information of the Transitional Government of Meles Zenawi to be allowed to visit the "northern Ethiopian province of Eritrea". Some Addis Ababa based Western diplomats also simply set out for Asmara "to monitor the situation in the province" without prior notification of the Eritrean authorities. This was indeed intended to purposely humiliate the EPLF leadership and its PGE which was adminstering Eritrea with all modest but practical governmental and state structures at its disposal, including a Ministry of Information and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the humanitarian and development aid area, leading governmental and non-governmental organisations preferred to hide behind the excuse of the "undefined status" of the Eritrean territory and hesitated to extend their assistance to the war-torn country to mitigate the humanitarian crisis that was visited upon its people. In short, the international community was unwilling to see the birth of a new nation called Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It is particularly important to remind ourselves of the behaviour of the international community which saw the other way when we haemorrhaged for thirty years during the armed struggle and of its subsequent treatment during the period of 1991-1993 if we are willing to correctly understand the reasons behind its silence in the face of the current invasion of Eritrea by Ethiopia. In other words, the international community never wanted the emergence of a sovereign Eritrean State; it emerged in defiance. And it is reluctant to voice its opposition or condemnation in the current invasion because it would like to see Eritrea be part of Ethiopia.
In late April 1993, the Eritrean people were finally allowed to exercise their right for self-determination in a plebiscite and voted with overwhelming majority in favour of independence from Ethiopia. Ethiopia under Meles and his TPLF finally realised their postpone-your-referendum-for-two-years-strategy had suffered a huge blow. Hiding their wounded pride and grave disappointment, Meles Zenawi's Transitional Government of Ethiopia accepted the outcome. And a minimum sense for fairness towards them dictates to mention here that they even managed to demonstrate a sort of diplomatic decency and publicly congratulated the Eritrean people on their "historical achievement".
The international community also finally obliged and moved forward to formally recognise Eritrea as a member of the world family of nations. The TPLF strategy of peacefully keeping Eritrea around the Ethiopian political orbit was shattered. Ethiopians, without some exception, began to slowly resign themselves to the reality of Eritrea's separation from Ethiopia, not necessarily out of conviction but as a fait accompli. Surprisingly enough, some influential editors-in-chief of the independent Ethiopian media even managed to write editorials where they advised Ethiopians to accept the Eritrean independence with dignity, and predicted that their common history and economic necessities would one day bring the two countries together.
But there remained a small, dangerous, aggressive and highly influential elite in the Ethiopian society which has effectively declared the outcome of the Eritrean referendum "null and void" and has since failed to reconcile itself to the reality of Eritrean Statehood. This group has since been openly calling for the forceful re-annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia and carries behind the scene major responsibility in the ongoing conflict (to which I will come back later in this article).
3. The TPLF wanted to see an Eritrean State with no particular independence
Now let us come back to Meles and look at his next move and other longterm strategy in his ambitious drive to see an independent Eritrean State which should not be particularly independent and which should not take its newly achieved independence seriously. In other words, an Eritrean State which should be mercilessly punished if it dared to break the already existing axis (for instance the de facto currency union) between Asmara and Addis.
In order to take part in the celebrations that marked the formal declaration of independence, Meles travelled to Asmara in late May 1993 in his capacity as an Ethiopian head of state. Making full use of the famous Tigrayan proverb which reads as "nHamashen bimaHla, nderho bmeshela" (rough English translation: "You can fool an Eritrean by swearing, and you can fool a hen by giving her some sorghum"), Meles managed to deliver a speech that touched almost every Eritrean emotion and soul. It was adorned by appeals for the need for "reconciliation" and the need not to "scratch the wounds".
After his famous speech, many Eritreans who do not have any clue of the above mentioned Tigrayan proverb, and I wholeheartedly believe the Eritrean Government is here no exception, felt they can sleep assured because there was no more danger coming from the giant southern neighbour as long as a man called Meles Zenawi remained in firm control of the Ethiopian political locomotive. They were wrong! And what about those Eritreans, especially the elderly, who fully understand the exact meaning of the well-known Eritrean proverb which reads as "shiH enteKone Hyaway, ayt'meno ntgraway" (English translation: "Never trust even the most innocent and harmless Tigrayan")? And what about those Eritreans who had seen the newly repaired and improvised "marriage of necessity" between the EPLF and TPLF with great scepticism? They doubted and did not take Meles at his words. They were right!
Shortly before his departure back to Addis Ababa, President Meles was generous enough to grant an interview to a German journalist, Mr. Walter Michler, reportedly known to be expert on Ethio-Eritrean issues. It was a joint interview where President Meles and President Issaias sat together to alternately answer questions raised by Mr. Michler. It is equally important to remember in this context that on the eve of the formal declaration of independence, President Issaias had held a press conference where he, among other things, proposed a number of specific areas of cooperation with Ethiopia. Asked what his plan of cooperation differed from a confederation with Ethiopia, he flatly answered: " I don't also exclude the idea of confederation in the future". For this "pragmatic course" the President had won much international praise and admiration.
Having this in mind, Mr. Michler wanted to know from President Meles how he viewed the proposals of his Eritrean counterpart regarding the issue of economic cooperation and the idea of confederation between Eritrea and Ethiopia. To Mr. Michler's astonishment, Meles showed himself as not particularly impressed by the ideas of economic cooperation and confederation. Concerning the question of economic cooperation, he only focussed on the importance of maintaining the de facto currency union between both countries. On the issue of confederation, he amazed the readers of his interview (and probably his interviewer) by wanting something more and bigger. He spoke of something he never told his Eritrean audience when he delivered his famous speech on the previous day. He told Mr. Michler flatly that his longterm political objective was not confederation but re-unification. He spoke of re-unification between Eritrea and Ethiopia at a moment when Eritrea as a formally independent nation was less than 24 hours old! And in order not to upset his Eritrean mentor and counterpart who sat beside him, he fled to a softer wording and spoke of the idea of re-unification based on the free will of the peoples of both nations. Anyway he managed to convey his very important message that he was less impressed by confederation and more inclined towards re-unification. He made history:
Firstly, he indicated that he was not particularly interested to see a really independent Eritrea by stressing on the maintenance of the currency union where Eritrea had no say in the monetary decision-making process which was the exclusive business of the Ethiopian National Bank. Secondly, by refusing to go into the details of the issue of confederation and instead emphasising the idea of re-unification, he conveyed yet another important message that his longterm political design was the undoing of the just formalised Eritrean independence.
4. The currency divorce and TPLF's belligerency towards Eritrea
Ethio-Eritrean relations after the formal independence in May 1993 were nevertheless reported to be, at least by outsiders' evaluation, "excellent". Several agreements on economic and security issues were signed after May 1993. A joint commission that looks at several areas of cooperation was set up and there were initial reports of positive signs of progress. According to sources close to the Eritrean Government, the volume of goods passing through the port of Assab to and from Ethiopia was reported to be five times higher than it was the case during the highest period of the Mengistu era. In short, Ethiopia was not in any way choked by Eritrea's independence. Eritrea also preferred to refrain from raising the issue of war reparations arguing that Ethiopia itself was "in bad economic shape" due to the policies of the Mengistu regime. And Ethiopians of all walks of life, citing the currency union, began to console their wounded pride due to the loss of Eritrea by constantly reminding Eritreans of their not particular independence and were telling them this: "You cannot claim to be an independent nation while your pockets are full of notes of the Ethiopian Birr carrying the very Ethiopian slogan of 'Ethiopia Tikdem!'"
Observers had however very early seen a potential cause of friction in the de facto currency union between Eritrea and its former oppressor, not for reasons associated with the above stated provocation by Ethiopians but for economic reasons. As briefly mentioned before, Eritrea was excluded out of the monetary decision-making process. This meant that Eritrea had to keep in step with the fiscal and monetary policies of Addis Ababa although it did not agree with some of them, including deficit financing. Ethiopia had also adopted a structural adjustment programme which affected Eritrea's economic options. It must also be mentioned here that, as hindsight reports have already shown, a potentially dangerous tension was simmering in the border areas, although this was kept strictly secret and only made public after the current conflict came into the open two years ago.
Eritrea very early realised that the ultimate solution to its economic problems associated with the currency union to be the introduction of its own currency. Therefore, a technical team was early set up by the Eritrean Bank to consider that and other issues. By the time Eritrea was printing its new currency, the Nacfa, around the summer of 1997, alarm bells began ringing in official Addis Ababa. Ethiopia felt strongly the only remaining axis between Asmara and Addis was about to be broken by the imminent currency divorce. The TPLF government began to realise that its peaceful and longterm political strategy of at least keeping Eritrea as a junior partner of Addis Ababa around the Ethiopian hegemony was a bitter disappointment. Consequently, it swiftly abandoned its peaceful tactics and increasingly tended to assume an aggressive and belligerent policy against Asmara. Hell-bent on a confrontation course, it looked eagerly for a flimsy pretext to draw Eritrea into unnecessary military engagement.
Exploiting the undemarcated nature of the 1000 km long common border, the TPLF strongly believed it could provoke Eritrea by encroaching on its undisputed territory and creating facts on the ground here and there and finally incite it towards a serious armed conflict. And as a means of political provocation that should help catalyse the actions on the ground, it had carefully prepared a new map of "Greater Tigray" which violates the established colonial boundaries and incorporates large pockets of undisputed Eritrean territories and which was made public at almost the same time the Ethiopian Birr was replaced by the Nacfa in Eritrea.
According to documents released by the Eritrean Government shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in early May 1998, the first armed provocations took place in the summer (July/August) of 1997 in the Bada (Adi Murug) and Badme areas, where Eritrean villages were forcefully occupied, their inhabitants forced to relocate and their civilian adminstrations were dismantled by the Ethiopian armed forces. And according to the same documents, the Eritrean Government's reaction was only limited to diplomatic protests and engagement in silent diplomacy with the Ethiopian authorities. It should be enough to mention here that President Issaias protested to Prime Minister Meles by two letters he sent to the Prime Minister in August 1997, and that presidential adviser Yemane Ghebreab and PFDJ Secretary General Alamin Mohamed Said travelled to Addis in the same month to express Eritrea's concern about the deteriorating situation at the border and to unsuccessfully ask the Ethiopian Government to reverse the occupation of the village of Adi Murug. This is the case where one can claim that Eritrea, by its diplomatic and restrained reaction to the numerous provocations, inadvertently denied the TPLF the flimsy excuse it was looking for to enter into a major military confrontation.
It is also very interesting here to have a look at the timing of events during the summer and early autumn 1997. The fact that the Nacfa was being issued around the summer of 1997 and the TPLF's calculated first provocative actions on the ground took place at exactly the same time was no coincidence but a direct expression of its infuriation over the currency divorce and Eritrea's seriousness with its independence. And the fact that the timing of the issuance of the new "Greater Tigray" map was synchronous with the abolishment of the Birr in Eritrea was again no coincidence but another calculated escalation of the tension that was dangerously building up between the two countries.
It is beyond the capacity of this article to deal with all the events that took place between the Nacfa's introduction in November 1997 and the outbreak of the war in early May 1998 since this has been already adequately covered in other numerous articles (for instance: "The Cause of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Conflict" by Alemseghed Tesfai). It should be enough to stress here that the end of the currency union was a slap in the face of Addis Ababa and Mekelle and even a cause for a serious stir in the Ethiopian Parliament where die-hard nationalists found the opportunity to again attack Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for "allowing" Eritrea's separation from Ethiopia only to end up being ruled by "a bandits' President." It is also worth noting that Ethiopia's refusal to accept the Nacfa disrupted trade between both countries and did considerable harm to their respective economies.
Ethiopian officials were however heard giving contradictory statements in this regard. While Mr. Abbay Tsehaye, a senior TPLF politbureau member and Mekelle's leading war-monger, was honest enough when he told Reuters in June 1998 (during the first round of fighting) that "relations deteriorated late last year after Eritrea introduced its own currency because Ethiopia believed this would harm its economy", Prime Minister Meles failed to demonstrate the same honesty and integrity when he dismissed this in a BBC interview three months later by simply claiming: "The move has only relieved Ethiopia of another unnecessary burden." But despite the Prime Minister's denial, a careful analysis and evaluation of the actions and measures taken by his government as a result of the divorce do not support his claim and can only lead to the confirmation of a famous German saying which reads as: "Beim Geld hoert die Freundschaft auf", which roughly translated means: "A friendship ends over a dispute about money."
5. The invasion of Eritrea: TPLF's legitimacy at the expense of Eritrea
The analysis so far has only focussed on the currency divorce and the "Greater Tigray" agenda as the reasons behind the TPLF's belligerent position against Eritrea. This is indeed a simplistic view of the problem at hand. The "Greater Tigray" agenda is after all an idea as old as the TPLF itself and fully known to the EPLF leadership since 1976. While these are undoubtedly two important developments which catalysed the swift deterioration of relations between both countries and served the TPLF as a pretext to escalate the tension, we need also to understand that some internal dynamics of the Ethiopian political reality and the TPLF's political and societal place within this Ethiopian political atmosphere have been behind its insatiable appetite for warfare against neighbouring Eritrea.
Since its seizure of power in 1991, the TPLF has been extremely unpopular in the multi-ethnic Ethiopian society. The main reason for its unpopularity lies in its strong emphasis on ethnic federalism and extreme concentration of centralised power and its monopolisation by this minority political group which represents roughly 6% of the Ethiopian population. This has been meeting strong resentment across all sectors of the Ethiopian society, especially the steel-hard nationalists and the charming elite of the country. The virtually complete absence of support and followers outside its home region Tigray soon created legitimacy crisis for the TPLF leadership. While it had succeeded to consolidate its grip on power by brutal and coercive measures as well as by following the strategy of divide and rule, it realised slowly that it cannot survive in power in the long run without a minimum level of support and loyalty from other sectors of the Ethiopian people.
The idea of how to secure legitimacy and guarantee longterm survival in power for the TPLF has long been subject of discussion in the ranks of TPLF leadership. While one group in the leadership argued that the survival of the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF as a ruling party of Ethiopia depended on its good relations with the Eritrean Government, another group of hardliners has been of the opinion that the TPLF must achieve legitimacy and draw the necessary mass support in Ethiopia by proving its Ethiopianness to the Ethiopian people.
Later developments indicate clearly however that advocates of the "Let us prove TPLF's Ethiopianness" have prevailed in the final analysis. According to reports by Africa Confidential in early 1998, at a TPLF party congress held in February 1998, TPLF hardliners including Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and Army Chief of Staff Major General Tsadkan Ghebretensae harshly attacked Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his close relations with Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki. Meles was later reported to have drastically reduced his contacts with President Issaias until this finally collapsed following the outbreak of hostilities in May 1998.
As already briefly mentioned further above in this article, there has been a small, aggressive and highly influential elite in the Ethiopian society which has effectively refused to reconcile itself to the reality of Eritrean independence. This group is one of the staunchest critics of the TPLF policies and has been holding it responsible for the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Moreover, the group has effectively declared the outcome of the 1993 Eritrean referendum "null and void" and has been openly calling for the forceful re-annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia. Owing to its influentiality and dangerosity, the TPLF has been pondering to come to appeasing terms with this highly aggressive group too.
In its drive to prove its Ethiopianness, secure legitimacy and cement its survival in power at the expense of Eritrea, the TPLF crafted two "complementary strategies" in planning its major war against Eritrea. The first maximalist strategy aimed at reversing Eritrean independence or at least at reducing it to the level of non-state state, an Eritrean Somalia if you will, only answerable to commands from Addis Ababa and Mekelle. It was having this ambitious strategy in mind that TPLF defence officials were boasting in January 1999 that the war, once started, would not stop at Badme before reaching Ras Kesar. Excuse my poor knowledge in geography, but I think Ras Kesar is located on the northern tip of Eritrea north of Karora, several hundred miles from Badme; and paraphrased in simple English, the threat means: We will occupy and destroy every inch of Eritrean territory. Moreover, we were told confidently that the EPLF and Polio would disappear from Africa by the year 2000.
Failing to achieve the military objectives as envisaged by the maximalist strategy, the second minimalist strategy was supposed to implement TPLF's wherewithal to drive to the sea, grab the port of Assab and incorporate the whole Denkelia region and its coastal lines proper into the Ethiopian territory. It was again bearing this war plan in mind that Ethiopian Vice Foreign Minister, Dr. Tekeda Alemu, told a crowd of cheering Ethiopians in Washington DC on June 14, 1998 the following "gratifying" message: "You will soon hear good news, Ethiopia will soon have its own port, we will take Assab within few days."
By suddenly whipping up traditional Ethiopian patriotism and by acting as the embodiment of the Ethiopian imperial dream in conducting the war against Eritrea, the TPLF strongly believed to successfully finish the following homework:
By subjugating Eritrea and effectively reversing its independence according to its maximalist strategy, the TPLF hoped to gratify or at least neutralise the aggressive elite and other bone-hard nationalists and imperialists around it who have been conveniently accusing the TPLF of betraying the territorial indivisibility of Ethiopia by allowing Eritrean independence to take place. By gaining control of Assab and the whole coastal lines of Denkelia and hence securing an access to the sea for Ethiopia according to the minimalist strategy, the TPLF was dead-sure the move would gratify every Ethiopian soul across all sectors of the Ethiopian society and draw huge mass support necessary to delete its unpopularity and to overcome its legitimacy crisis. In May 1998, the TPLF believed to have sufficiently pacified the rest of Ethiopia and to have made all the necessary military, political and diplomatic preparations to declare war on Eritrea. Having failed to trigger Eritrea's military reaction by its series of territorial encroachments and harassment of the Eritrean border community the preceding ten months, the TPLF believed strongly that a direct and unprovoked military attack on Eritrean armed units would surely infuriate Eritrea and force it to react to the fire with the fire. And exactly this was what happened on May 6, 1998, the so called Badme incident where several Eritrean officers were killed by TPLF's armed men while "they were approaching them to discuss tension in the area". By its military reaction to the incident, Eritrea was convinced that it was acting in self-defence and undoing the illegal territorial encroachments that took place in the area ten months earlier.
Unfortunately for Eritrea and to the delight of the TPLF, Eritrea, completely unaware of the TPLF's carefully prepared dangerous grand war plan, delivered the golden pretext to the TPLF on a silver platter. Not surprisingly, the TPLF swiftly cried to the international community, successfully portrayed Eritrea as the "aggressor party" and cemented the political and diplomatic moral high ground it needed before it formally declared war on Eritrea on May 13, 1998. Dressed up in a border conflict, one of the biggest military undertakings in the annals of Ethiopia's history was set in motion with the sole aim of destroying tiny Eritrea.
The current Ethio-Eritrean war is a continuation of the first Ethio-Eritrean war which ended in 1991. The TPLF first intended to at least politically resist Eritrean independence. This was foiled by the de facto independence before Meles and Co. could seize power in Addis Ababa. The TPLF then drew the postpone-your-referendum-for-two-years-strategy to thwart formal Eritrean independence. This was again defeated by the 99.8% referendum vote in favour of independence. The TPLF then resigned itself to make the best of an independent Eritrea which should not be particularly independent and which should behave itself as a junior partner of Addis Ababa. This strategy was aborted by Eritrea's seriousness with its independence and the currency divorce in late 1997. The TPLF finally decided to re-annex and totally subjugate Eritrea. This was deflated by crushing the countless offensives it unleashed against Eritrea in the past two years.
For the past two years, Eritrea was not fighting a border war, but a war about its independence, a war about its very survival as a free and sovereign nation. It is for this reason that the authoritative "Le Monde diplomatique", an international affairs monthly magazine, in its July 2000 detailed analysis of the current invasion of Eritrea by Ethiopia, has correctly come to the following conclusion: "ERITREA IS REALLY FACING ITS SECOND INDEPENDENCE WAR."
Eritrea is the victim of TPLF's naked aggression, the victim of a war meticulously planned to satisfy TPLF's territorial, regional and domestic ambitions. And if you have failed to agree with everything I have said so far, the following is probably something where we will have no disagreement: Eritrea is also the victim of its government's virtually zero vigilance towards the southern neighbour in the seven years of its independence, not for lacking commitment to the country's security but because it trusted wholeheartedly the untrustworthy current leaders of Ethiopia, because it stayed relaxed believing strongly that Zenawi's Ethiopia was no security threat to Eritrea.
How the Eritrean Government could totally fail the security of the country at the southern flank is untold. Forget the warnings of humblest Eritreans who always rightly followed the EPLF-TPLF alliance with great scepticism. Forget the ordinary but wise Eritreans who always warned against being too trustful to the Tigrayans, understanding the exact meaning of the famous Eritrean proverb of "shH enteKone Hyaway, ayt'meno ntgraway." But how come that the Eritrean Government even failed to draw security contingecy plan for the south in the face of warnings by knowledgeable observers of the region who had predicted the current political and military developments in Ethiopia as early as 1992, developments what they even termed "Abyssinian fundamentalism"?
The Eritrean Government had virtually no clue about the serious danger looming Eritrea from the south. Even after hostilities erupted in early May 1998, the Eritrean Government had no flair at all for what was behind the whole exercise. All the harassment and forceful relocations of the Eritrean border community over the years was dismissed by the Eritrean Government as minor actions by ambitious local officials of the Tigray Adminstrative Region without the blessing of the central Government of Ethiopia. It was only after the issuance of the "Greater Tigray" map in October 1997 and the introduction of the new Ethiopian Birr (on which undisputable Eritrean territories are proudly displayed) that it slowly began to suspect the central Government of Ethiopia of being behind the game. And even then its eyes were only fixed on that new "Greater Tigray" map and could not see all the other Ethiopian war objectives discussed above in this article.
Worse enough, after the Badme incident of May 6,1998, the Eritrean Government was not expecting a declaration of war by Ethiopia. What it was expecting was diplomatic protest and engagement in silent diplomacy by Ethiopia. This was clearly articulated by Eritrean pesidential adviser Mr. Yemane Ghebreab in an interview with a journalist in August last year. Mr. Yemane told his interviewer that after the takeover of Badme by Eritrea following the May 6 incident, Eritrea was expecting Ethiopia to react in the way Eritrea reacted when Ethiopia occupied Adi Murug in July 1997. In plain English: Eritrea was expecting Ethiopian diplomats to come to Asmara to protest against the "occupation" of Badme and ask the Eritrean Government to reverse the "occupation." Mr. Yemane also described the way Ethiopia reacted to the Badme incident as "a breach of trust". While the text for the declaration of war on Eritrea was ready in Mekelle and Addis Ababa, Eritrea was still thinking in terms of trust and trustworthiness in its relations with Ethiopia.
Another evidence of the magnitude of unpreparedness for the worst case scenario on the side of the Eritrean Government is a brief comment Mr. Petros Solomon gave shortly after the eruption of the war in May 1998. Bearing in mind the deployment of TPLF troops in the Bada and Burrie areas far from the spot of the Badme incident, a German NGO staff member asked Mr. Petros Solomon what he thought about the possibility that landlocked Ethiopia could seize Assab by force. And Mr. Solomon flatly replied with the rhetorical question: "Are the Ethiopians so crazy?" Mr. Petros Solomon, the man who served in the Eritrean Government as Defence and Foreign Minister, and most notably, the man who served the EPLF as the brightest and most successful head of security and intelligence during the armed struggle, was not reckoning with the possibility that the TPLF might drive to the sea to grab Assab while Ethiopia's Vice Foreign Minister was heading for Washington to tell his compatriots there how and when his country would gain ownership of Assab.
The fact that Assab was saved from falling to Ethiopian hands in the May-June 1998 fighting is actually a credit of Radio Woyane in Mekelle which was openly raising the following rhetorical question to its listeners and inadvertently helped to alarm the Eritrean Government: " Eritrea has three million people and two ports while Ethiopia has sixty million people and no ports. Why then can't Ethiopia take one?"
The most grave statement that clearly hinted at how the Eritrean Government underestimated the danger that was clouding over Eritrea was made by President Issaias after the bombing of Asmara airport by Ethiopian fighter jets in June 1998 and at the end of the May-June fighting of the same year. Refering to speculations of more aerial bombardments by Ethiopia and more full-scale fighting, the President commented before foreign journalists as follows: "Those who are speaking about more aerial bombardments are bluffing, and those who are speaking about full-scale war are also bluffing. Surely, we could have skirmishes here and there, but ...... ."
I would be the first one to ask President Issaias at the next opportunity what drove him to make such uncautious statement at the end of full-scale conventional fighting at three major fronts which lasted for several weeks. How the man who led one of Africa's most formidable liberation movements to a victorious end by defeating one of the biggest, best equipped and best organised African Armies south of the Sahara could ignore the basic military rule which reads as: "Never underestimate your enemy!" is a puzzle and will surely remain a puzzle. We know today, after two years at war with all of its human, material, economic costs and possibly its political consequences before our eyes, who was bluffing in May-June 1998 and who was not.
It takes only guns and some obedient soldiers guided by some trigger-happy commanders to start a war. But it takes great courage to walk away from war to win peace. President Issaias' decision to withdraw Eritrean troops even from areas that were not the bone of contention in the current conflict is one way of walking away from war to embrace peace. But to say that his move was thought to deny Ethiopia any pretext to continue the war is belated and therefore ineffective. If Eritrea had at all any chance to deny Ethiopia a pretext to war, then the President's most recent manoeuvrability should have been in the right place on May 6, 1998 and not May 25, 2000. Needless to say, the fiercest set of battles with the heaviest casualties in the latest invasion were fought after Eritrea withdrew from Bada and Burrie to give peace the last possible chance.
The tragedy of Eritrea on that fateful day of May 6, 1998 and during all the previous provocations that preceded the Badme incident is that the Eritrean Governemnt failed to clearly identify, with some sort of sure instinct, the TPLF's grand war strategy that was hidden behind the whole exercise and hence was not in a position to react in a manner that could have taken the TPLF the groundwork for its declaration of war. Unfortunately for Eritrea and its people, all the Eritrean Government thought at that time seems to have been that a brief showdown and muscle-flexing at the flashpoint of the incident would finish the job and facilitate the work of the Joint Border Commission that was established in late 1997 at Eritrea's initiative.
I know someone is to interject here and say this: The TPLF could have anyway started the war irrespective of the manner of Eritrea's reaction. Yes, the TPLF could have found any other pretext to set its well planned war agenda in motion because it was hell determined to do so for the set of multiple reasons I have tried to make clear in this article. But Eritrea could have spared the diplomatic and political defeat it suffered when the conflict first made headlines because the TPLF successfully portrayed it as the "aggressor party" by first crying to the international community.
Eritrea could have avoided this diplomatic defeat by alarming the international community and displaying the bodies of its six dead officers as an evidence of the TPLF's unprovoked aggression. Having first made this and having convinced the international community of its victimhood, the military option was always there. It is in recognition of this misstep and its negative political and diplomatic impact on Eritrea that presidential adviser Yemane Ghebreab shortly after the July 1999 OAU summit in Algiers and Eritrea's acceptance of the Modalities and Technical Arrangements admitted that Eritrea's failure to alarm the international community "has hurt Eritrea."
It is of paramount importance to note here the interdependence between the military and diplomatic components of the conflict. By President Issaias' own admission at a briefing to some ten thousand Eritreans on 19 December 1999 in Frankfurt, Eritrea fought the war until the Algiers OAU summit from a politically and diplomatically inferior position. This is probably the main reason that forced Eritrea not to make full advantage of its undisputed military upper hand in the May-June 1998 fighting and gave the Ethiopian side enough time to prepare its second round of offensives that was unleashed in February 1999. And while Eritrea succeeded to gain some political and diplomatic ground by its full acceptance of the OAU peace package in July and August 1999, it is its fear to lose this moral high ground that forced it to persist on its slogan of "we will not fire the first bullet" to only give the TPLF again enough time to prepare its most destructive May-June 2000 invasion.
Lessons and the way forward
The question now remains to be about how we deal with all what transpired in the two calamitous years of war in particular and the nine years of independence in general. Are we ready to critically face and discuss what went wrong or right politically, diplomatically and militarily in the past two most painful years in the histroy of an independent Eritrea? Are we also ready to face and discuss about what went wrong or right in the nine years of independence of our country, politically, diplomatically and economically? Are we ready to carefully reconsider our hitherto foreign policy and possibly redefine it relating to all our neighbours, but especially relating to our neighbour to the south? Are we ready to seriously deal with the issue of how Eritrea's future national security and sovereignty can better be guaranteed in the face of being encircled by largely hostile neighbours and with all the geopolitical interests of the big powers of the world directed against us? The vicissitudes of politics might change, the reality of geography will not!!
Are we also willing to finally address the issue of national reconciliation, something we have miserably failed to address since independence and which has created a considerable gap in our unity during the current invasion? We cannot, especially those of us in the Diaspora, after all claim for us the slogan of "Hade Libi Hade Hizbi" while some of us have correctly rallied around the government to foil the invasion, some of us have remained passive and indifferent in the face of the aggression and some of us have even managed to side with the invaders to destroy Eritrea. Are we also willing to at least listen to those members of the Eritrean opposition who have saved themselves from committing political suicide and self-emasculation by siding with the aggressors and instead have demonstrated political wisdom and patriotism by rallying around the Eritrean Government and their people to defend Eritrean sovereignty?
Are we courageous enough to demand from the Eritrean Government political and economic Glasnost and Perestroika of Eritrean nature? Are we willing to demand from the Eritrean Government public participation in the decision-making process, constitutional and democratic governance, and transparency? In short, are we ready to demand for more say from the government while we support it and to support it while we demand for more say in the country's state of affairs, just to borrow a paraphrased version of Meles Zenawi's famous reply to the OAU's appeal to stop fighting and return to the negotiating table in Algiers? Or are we going to say: NO TO HINDSIGHT ANALYSIS, BYGONE IS BYGONE AND THE REST IS THE BUSINESS OF THE ERITREAN GOVERNMENT!!
Eritrea is now at crossroads. It is the writer's conviction that there
is no alternative to confronting the hard reality of hindsight analysis
and to addressing all the questions stated above if we want to draw
the correct lessons from the past nine years in general, and from
the past two calamitous years of war in particular. If we want to
draw the correct lessons concerning Eritrea's national security and
sovereignty. If we want to draw the correct lessons from Eritrea's
foreign, domestic and economic policies of the past nine years. Should
we fail to do so and instead prefer to blindly follow the road of
"bygone is bygone", then this would do a historical disservice to
Eritrea and, I am afraid, history could repeat itself in Eritrea
time and again.