Badme: Ethiopia’s Never Ending Game
Yohannes Woldemariam
June 21, 2003

As the month of July approaches, the air is heavy with expectations in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The demarcation of an internationally recognized 1000-km border is expected to begin sometime in July, if Ethiopia stops contesting the final ruling by the EEBC (Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission), which puts the village of Badme 1.8 km deep inside Eritrea. Michela Wrong of the Financial Times (6/12/2003) accurately describes Badme as “a sand-blown one-road frontier settlement,” but as the flash point of the beginning of the conflict between the two countries, it has a disproportionate and high symbolic value. What happened in Badme in early May 1998 may well reveal to the world who the real aggressor is in the conflict, which Ethiopian propaganda has to this day successfully managed to muddle and confuse. For example, Herman J Cohen, a former assistant secretary of State for Africa, as early as in June 1998 said: "Eritrea appears to have provoked the current round of hostilities by occupying the border territory.”i Unethical politicians and lazy journalists were all too willing to assume the worst about Eritrea and accept Ethiopian claims at face value.

More recently, after the rulings by the EEBC, the issue of border demarcation between the two countries is often mentioned by the Western media in the same breath with the lack of democracy in Eritrea and with violations of human rights by the Eritrean leader, Mr. Isaias Afwerki. A dubious connection is made between the two issues when in fact there is no relationship between them. Border demarcation is a legal right of Eritrea as a sovereign state on which the issue of democracy and internal Eritrean or Ethiopian politics should have no bearing. Ethiopia’s attitude towards the ruling by the EEBC may well be understood and interpreted within the context of the interplay of domestic political forces and the survival calculations of the minority TPLF regime. The issue however cannot and must not be about the staying power or longevity of the current Ethiopian regime or the nature of governance in Eritrea. The state of Eritrea has the right to border demarcation regardless of who leads Ethiopia or whether Eritrea is democratic or not. It must be emphasized that the ruling by the EEBC is a binding legal decision on Eritrea and Ethiopia as sovereign states and subjects of international law.

The last five years have taught me not to be surprised by any outrageous demands or bizarre behavior from the Ethiopian authorities. They have a culture of systematically repudiating any agreements whenever they perceive that a given decision is not to their liking or doesn’t serve their political interests. It is not a coincidence that Solomon Enquay, the parliamentary speaker of Tigray made the following statement even before the verdict was in: ‘these are Ethiopian territories and remain Ethiopian. There is no force that can change this reality…We shall not accept any decision that attempts to alter reality on the ground in the face of clear and solid evidence.ii

It is hard to imagine Mr. Enquay making such statements without approval or even instructions from the central government. In his recent press conference, the Ethiopian Prime Minister (PM), Meles Zenawi, departed from his established pattern to speak through local authorities from Tigray and came out in the open to essentially challenge the Hague decision on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

He said:

Accepting that war is unacceptable is one thing… accepting something that is wrong and unjust as right and just would not be fair, would it? We have made it abundantly clear that we will not shoot at anybody, Eritrea included…the only circumstance where we may have to shoot is if shot at - that is the only circumstance.iii

How are we to understand Mr. Zenawi whether he is accepting or rejecting the binding and final verdict of the border commission? Given the disturbing pattern of Ethiopia’s behavior, the statement can only suggest that Ethiopia is having second thoughts about the verdict. In this thinly disguised statement, the PM is actually saying that Badme is still Ethiopia’s and therefore Ethiopia will not withdraw from Badme. On the other hand, to deceive the world and appear peaceful to donors and kind hearted but gullible celebrities like Bob Geldof, the PM claims that he will not be the first to shoot at Eritrea. Mr. Zenawi has perfected the art of double-talk and making anti war statements that serve to hoodwink the public even while planning and preparing for war. He is also adept at manipulating international opinion and donor attitude by essentially repeating seductive phrases that appeal to Western ears. For example, Mr. Zenawi is no less a dictator than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and yet Bob Geldof calls for Mugabe’s ouster while at the same time saving Zenawi from the calamity of famine for which his policies are significantly responsible. Even the normally credible critic of the IMF and the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, sings the praise of Mr. Zenawi at every opportunity. I personally heard Stiglitz rave about the democratic qualities of Mr. Zenawi in a lecture he gave and he has also written extensively on the virtues of Mr. Zenawi and his government. In his book “Globalization and its Discontents” Stiglitz wrote: “Meles combined intellectual attributes with personal integrity: no one doubted his honesty and there were few accusations of corruption within his government (p. 26).” It is a testament to the Machiavellian and deceitful skill of Ethiopian rulers that under the pretext of fighting famine, they are able to rally scholars of Stiglitz’s caliber and international support for their dangerous and war mongering agenda.

What must be surprising to the seasoned as well as casual observer is the fact that few in the West seem to see the Ethiopian government for what it really is. By now one would expect the whole world to see through the workings of the Ethiopian authorities. Among other things for example, the previous UNMEE (United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea) Dutch commander, Major General Patrick Cammaert, was forced to resign because of baseless accusations of bias against him by the Ethiopian rulers for allowing journalists to visit Badme. We must also recall that in early October 2002, the UN made an official protest to the Ethiopian authorities after a group of Ethiopian militiamen illegally entered the TSZ (Temporary Security Zone) and threatened UNMEE peacekeepers. The militiamen fired several bursts over the heads of the UN forces in a major violation of the peace agreement signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia in December 2000.

In contrast, Eritrea has already accepted the verdict of the commission that both Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed upon in Algiers and decided to be binding and not subject to appeal. Indeed, Eritrea has a history of accepting international court of justice (ICJ) verdicts even when the decision was not favorable to it as evidenced by the Hanish rulings, which rewarded most of the important islands in the southern Red Sea to Yemen. What else is expected from Eritrea in this regard? As the Financial Times editorial (The Perils in the Horn) of June 17th 2003 aptly asks: “when is a ‘final and binding’ decision reached by a neutral body of legal experts open to negotiation?” Why is the West always accommodating and trying to appease the Ethiopian authorities? Where is the evenhandedness? For example, the British government recently extended extremely generous aid package to Ethiopia. Moreover, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, “to placate Ethiopia the US and the EU have offered increased overall aid—including funds to build a “new” Badme—and to facilitate future talks with Eritrea over access to Assab port.iv Paradoxically, the more Ethiopia becomes intransigent and violates international norms; the more generously the West rewards it. Ethiopia as a result feels emboldened to challenge the EEBC rulings because it does not really believe that it will suffer any consequences for its actions of defiance. It feels entitled to ask the EEBC to change the April 13, 2002 decision and vary the border. According to the EEBC report,

"… Ethiopia has continued to seek variations to the boundary line delimited in the April Decision, and has done so in terms that appear, despite protestations to the contrary, to undermine not only the April decision but also the peace process as a whole…it may be regrettable, but it is by no means unusual, for boundary delimitation and subsequent demarcation to divide communities…"v

In order to achieve a just peace, Ethiopia must fully and unconditionally withdraw from Badme and all occupied Eritrean territories. All peace-loving peoples must call on the co-sponsors of the peace process, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, other concerned states, international organizations and institutions to ensure compliance by Ethiopia. We need more and sustained voices along the words uttered by the New Jersey democrat, Rep. Donald Payne, who warned, “Ethiopia must respect the Border Commission’s decision.”vi However, words like the Congressman’s while welcome are not enough. The co-sponsors have a historic and moral responsibility to spell out the price and consequences for Ethiopia of deviating from the decisions of the border commission. For the co-sponsors to have any credibility at all, they should threaten sticks including the power of the purse against the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia should bear the sole and full responsibility for any violence that may erupt due to its failure to earnestly abide by the verdicts of the I.C.J. We should recall that resort to the I.C.J has been seen, as a last option to peaceful settlement of the dispute after all else failed. Eritrea justified its recourse to the adjudication jurisdiction of the I.C.J after it exhausted all the other procedures of pacific settlement. If the I.C.J is to overcome the label given to it as a “toothless bull-dog,” the Charter of the United Nations, which makes adequate provisions for sanctions, must fully be applied if Ethiopia fails to abide by the EEBC rulings. Article 94, Paragraph 2 of the UN Charter empowers the Security Council, to take action to ensure that states conform to international obligations and outcomes of legal proceedings in the I.C.J. Furthermore, the Security Council in pursuant of Article 39, Chapter 7 of the Sans Francisco Convention of June 1945 can institute collective action against an erring state, which is in breach of international peace and security. A basic norm of inter-African relations is respect for territorial integrity, which is enshrined in the 1963 Article III of the Organization of African Unity charter. The OAU charter was further reinforced by the Cairo resolution of the following year, which reaffirmed the unqualified acceptance of, inherited colonial boundaries. Many boundaries in Africa cut across populated areas where people interact and trade and Badme is no exception in this regard. However, any post conflict regional cooperation would require the existence of mutually recognized demarcated lines on the ground. As William Zartman writes: “good fences-- with gates—make good neighbors.”vii But Ethiopia resists good fences and true to character is now victimizing Sudanese farmers along the common border between the two countries. The similarity of the current Sudanese predicament to the pre-Badme conflict experience of Eritrean farmers is striking. The following report by the AFP illustrates this point:

Sudanese farmers near the border with Ethiopia have urged the government to speed up demarcation of boundaries to resolve a long dispute over the ownership of farm lands, a newspaper reported Sunday. … The farmers in Gedaraf state demanded an immediate demarcation of the borderline to settle a seven-year dispute over ownership of 750,000 acres (300,000 hectares) of highly fertile land seized by the Ethiopians. The paper quoted local farmers union member Jaafer Ali as fearing that the situation might not be resolved soon and Sudan would continue losing produce of 2.8 million tonnes of sorghum and 1.4 million tonnes of sesame each year. The unionist accused the Ethiopian side of procrastination in conducting the demarcation by a joint committee, which he said, had been set up two years ago for the purpose.viii

As this new situation with the Sudan demonstrates, Ethiopia has become accustomed to bullying its neighbors and this must not be allowed to continue. The Eritrean demand for justice is therefore an appeal to the international community’s sense of balance and proportion in dealing with different states. The international community by its double standards, silence and by rewarding Ethiopia, is implying that Ethiopia has a natural right to conquer Eritrea and that justice simply has no place in relations between states. Allowing Ethiopia to flaunt international law is in effect legitimizing the law of the jungle and setting a dangerous precedent that it is fine for poor and weaker states without oil to be kept down by the stronger and sending a message that it is Ok to acquire something by force and aggression. It is tantamount to asserting that there are no laws with teeth in them, which states are not only obliged to obey but also whose violation will provoke dire punishments.

In the interest of consistency and justice, it is long overdue that Ethiopian rulers be reminded about the rule of law and warned against blackmailing the very world that is bailing them out from a famine that they themselves helped create. Actions taken by Ethiopia to change the physical character, demographic composition, and the institutional structure of Badme must unequivocally be condemned and punished. The Ethiopian policy of settling of its population and new immigrants in Badme prior to demarcation constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a just and lasting peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The EEBC, on July 17th, 2002 ordered the Ethiopian authorities to halt and reverse population movements and resettlement along the border but indications are that this has persisted. Ethiopia must refrain from taking measures that create new facts on the ground and must abide scrupulously by its obligations under international law. Demarcation must take place on schedule and without roadblocks!


  1. Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times June 8, 1998
  2. Anthony Morland, AFP (Agence France Presse), Ethiopia steps back from pledge to respect border ruling, February, 24, 2002
  3. Africa News, Border Ruling "Wrong And Unjust", Meles Says, UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, May 27, 2003
  4. The Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Report, Disagreements Arise Within EPRDF Over Boundary Ruling, June 1, 2003
  5. EEBC, Observations of March 21, 2003
  6. "Congress and Africa: Perspectives of Congressman Payne and CBC" Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa (Washington, DC) Document, April 30, 2003
  7. I. William Zartman, Bordering On War, Boundaries Between African Nations, Foreign Policy, May 2001, p66
  8. Agence France Presse (AFP), Sudanese farmers demand demarcation of boundaries with Ethiopia, June 15, 2003
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