Is the Cease-fire Holding? Barely, But That's Not bad Considering..
Tekie Fessehatzion
July 25, 2000

Things that were expected to happen at the Lome OAU Summit this month, but didn't are likely to have a far-reaching impact on the search for a peaceful resolution to the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. In bypassing President Eyadema of Togo, the current OAU Chair, in favor of the past OAU Chair, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, to continue handling the mediating role in the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, the Lome OAU Summit signaled its seriousness about finding a peaceful resolution to the carnage in the Horn of Africa.

Had the assignment been given to President Eyadema, it would have been another missed opportunity, given the cloud that hangs over his head about his role in exacerbating the conflict in the Congo and Angola. A man who perpetuates conflict because he chose to act as a conduit for conflict diamonds and illegal arm shipments could not be counted to act as a dependable mediator to settle the Horn conflict. President Compaore of Burkina Faso, the OAU's Chair the first year of the conflict, had failed to move the process forward. President Compaore's involvement in the civil war in Sierra Leone is well documented, and for the same reasons as President Eyadema. Another appointment in Cmpoare's mold would have been a catastrophe.

The reappointment of President Bouteflika to the role he played last year, on the other hand, augurs well for the peace process. It is a reassuring appointment considering the confusing and confused role Washington has been playing since the beginning of the conflict. The United Nations Security Council, for its part, sent equally compelling message that it too intended to work hard for peace when it sent Maj. General Timothy Ford, head of UN peace keeping mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia. General Ford visited Addis Ababa and Asmara and termed his visits successful. He has indicated that he would recommend that UN peacekeepers be deployed as soon as possible. These two events, President Bouteflika's reappointment to the mediation role, and General Ford's forthcoming recommendation indicate, that perhaps, for the first time in the last two years, there's a flickering ray of hope that may be a major shooting war is a thing of the past.

By endorsing the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities and the other two components of the OAU peace package, the OAU Lome Summit, aborted Ethiopia's attempt to bypass delimitation and demarcation in lieu of arbitration, and to do away with the role of the UN's Cartographic unit. Those were Ethiopia's principal objectives at the Washington proximity talks early in the month. President Bouteflika's continuing role in the mediation process means the OAU Summit wanted the speedy implementation of the OAU peace package. Ethiopia's attempt to short circuit the process are unlikely to bear fruit, now that President Bouteflika, and not President Endyma is in charge of the peace process. If the Clinton team does not interfere with the process, we may be at the beginning of the end of the shooting war.

To be sure, we have been through this before, only to see our hopes dashed because at the last minute something happens to torpedo the peace efforts. Even now there are booby traps along the way. Ethiopia has signed the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities that mandates the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Eritrean territory, within two weeks, after UN peacekeepers have been deployed inside Eritrea. The same document said UN peacekeepers would remain deployed until demarcation has been completed.

Only a fool would think that Ethiopia will voluntarily abide by the June 18 agreement. There will be Ethiopian provocations to pull Eritrea into retaliatory responses, to break the Agreement. The most recent invasion of Eritrean air space over Assab, in which two out of three Ethiopian Air Force fighter jets that invaded Eritrean air space were hit, is a case in point. There have been other minor incidents of violations of the Agreement. But up to this point the violations, intended to elicit Eritrean reaction to undermine the Agreement, do not add up to a resumption of the shooting war. The cease-fire is holding, perhaps barely, but under the circumstances, it's all we can hope for. Ethiopia knows there is very little it could do prevent the implementation of the Agreement. The die is cast. The UN Security Council is making plans to send peacekeepers to the area.

Despite the provocations, the end of a major shooting war is a possibility, if not a sure thing. We know that unless the OAU under Bouteflika and the UN are firm, our latest hope may go the way of the previous ones-down the drain. Yet if our hope is to be realized two hurdles must be crossed. One: Ethiopia is as of yet to openly and for the record state her claims. Right from the start Ethiopia had accused Eritrea of crossing into Ethiopia, but then refused to indicate where the international border was. There was a reason for the refusal to be open about Ethiopia's claims. Prime Minister Meles had said once that only Ethiopia would decide what areas Eritrea had occupied. No third party would be allowed to speak on Ethiopia's behalf. This means an Ethiopian territory is whatever Ethiopia claims is hers. In practical terms, this means only Ethiopia can decide where the May 6 line is supposed to be. So even if Ethiopia abides by the terms of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, there's no guarantee that the May 6 line Ethiopia is supposed to return to may not incorporate uncontested Eritrean territory.

The second hurdle deals with the so-called peace agreement Prime Minster mentioned as a precondition for Ethiopian deployment from Eritrea. This is a new demand, unmentioned in any of the three key OAU documents. As if he had not read the document on Cessation of Hostilities he had signed, Prime Minister Meles, said at the Summit that Ethiopian troops would remain in Eritrea until a peace agreement has been signed between the two countries. What peace agreement is the Ethiopian leader talking about? No one is sure. But he's probably referring to the preconditions he set while accepting the Agreements on Cessation of Hostilities: protection of the rights of Ethiopians-read Tigrayans-in Eritrea; compensation for the loss in Zalambessa; arbitration and not demarcation; and, limitation on Eritrean military capacity. Prime Minster Meles is behaving as if he had militarily occupied Eritrea, and that he was presenting Eritrea with conditions for reinstating Eritrea's sovereignty. That might have been the objective of the invasion. But since the invasion was foiled, one assumes Prime Minister Meles would re-write his conditions to conform to the mandates of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities Ethiopia have signed June 18.

So have we reached the end of the terrible roller coaster? We would not know for sure if we have made significant progress until Ethiopian troops withdraw to their May 6 line. Ethiopia may not have indicated where the line is, but, surely, the U.S and the UN have a way of determining where the line was. Both could compel Ethiopia to fulfill the mandate of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, and move to the internationally endorsed May 6 line. If Ethiopia refuses then it would be a matter for the UN Security council to handle.

If we believe that the cessation of hostilities is likely to hold, then the time may have come for the public to move on to other things. We cannot remain hostage forever to every twist and turn in Addis Ababa's diplomatic maneuvering to frustrate the end result of the process-demarcation. With Ethiopia's belated signing of the June 18 Agreement, the case goes to the UN Security Council for implementation. If Ethiopia wishes to break the Agreement, the problem becomes one for the Security Council to deal with. The job of following the implementation of the Agreement and the entire process leading to demarcation will be a task for diplomats and legal experts. The rest of us should go back to other things. There are some immediate tasks-resettlement, rehabilitation, and reconstruction that require our undivided energy. Above all, there is the all-important matter of implementing the constitution, a process that was aborted because of the war.

 In the mean time, Ethiopians and Eritreans have to do a lot of thinking how we got into this mess. Both have to find a way of letting the scars heal, if that's at all possible, considering the brutality of the TPLF led Ethiopian army. Ethiopians would have to decide on their own whether the war was worth the lives lost, and resources wasted.

For Eritreans there are tough times ahead: first, how to clear the debris of this war in all of its manifestations--emotional, economic, and social. Second, how to avoid the calamity's recurrence; and, third: how best to safeguard Eritrea's sovereignty. None of the questions are easy; nor are the answers likely to be. But they must be faced. Eritreans have been through tough roads before, and they prevailed. No reason why they should not do it again. All it takes is massive mobilizations of resources- material; financial, and intellectual, to get the job done, to give Eritrea a secure future.

The post-conflict Eritrea will be a far different place than a lot of people realize. In case no one has noticed, there has been a massive paradigm shift in our understanding of what needs to be done to protect Eritrea's sovereignty. The old ways of doing things no longer hold. New ideas are desperately needed. But first we must acknowledge that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Not the government. Not the much-maligned intellectuals-whoever they are. And definitely not the assorted finger pointers and champion scapegoat hunters, proud "graduates" from the "University of 20/20 Hindsight." The later have very little useful and timely ideas to contribute. At best what they have to offer are no better than boilerplate solutions designed for other places and other times. Still our version of the Golden Rule remains: Let all good ideas compete, and the best ones will eventually rise to the top.

As a starter we must begin with what amounts to a national confession. As a people we are not good listeners when we conduct political discourse. We think we have all the answers for everything. Sometimes we feel no one can tell us anything new. It maybe true that we may know a lot and that we may even have many good answers. But there are things we don't know, and what we don't know may be more important for our future than things we already know, things we have already mastered. At this juncture in our history, some of the things we have not mastered--like attentive listening, may be more important for our political well being. As we have said, no one has a monopoly on good ideas.

This time, we must do something contrary to our national character: let's listen to other voices. Who are the other voices? These are people who, for a variety of reasons, did not believe they were listened to in the past. They are people with a different perspective on things relating to Eritrea. They cover the entire political spectrum. They come from all walks of life. They believe, rightly, or wrongly, that Eritrea is on the wrong track. The country is facing new challenges, unprecedented in its short history. These challenges require bold new actions. The voices come from every walk of life, covering the entire political spectrum, former fighters, and civilians. Some are in government, others in the business sector. Some come from among the "opposition" groups. When the war came, those in the Opposition reacted in different ways. Some who fought to defend Eritrea have earned the respect of their countrymen; others who joined the enemy have elicited their scorn. And a few, who sat on the sidelines, have garnered their society's pity. The manner they reacted will undoubtedly affect their future roles in Eritrean society.

The overwhelming majority among the voices drew a distinction between their opposition to specific government policy or approach, and the threat to Eritrea's sovereignty. They postponed their criticism to defend the country. A few, perhaps not more than a handful, took the opportunity to collaborate with the enemy, hoping that the enemy would anoint them as Eritrea's rulers. And some chose to sit on the sideline because they felt so strongly about their opposition to government policy that even the threat to Eritrea's sovereignty was not sufficient to persuade them to get off the fence.

The three groups have made their choices with which they have to live with. The collaborators have lost all moral standing to be taken seriously. People who commit treason have no political future. The fence sitters will have time to explain why they sat out when Eritrea was invaded. They have to defend themselves why they went in a huff when Eritrea's sovereignty was threatened. Of the three, the first group has earned the right to be listened to on everything dealing with Eritrea's future. At the most critical moment in independent Eritrea's history, the group opted to close ranks with the people to defend Eritrea. These are the other voices worth listening, for the simplest of reasons that they have earned the right to be heard, the right to be present at the discussion table.

Next: "Listening to other voices"