Behind Eritrea's Second Independence War
Laine Araia (Bochum, Germany.)
August 18, 2000


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.

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.

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.

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."

 6. Conclusion

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.