Intelligence Brief: Eritrea

Posted in Africa | 11-Oct-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

On September 13, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1622 (2005), calling on Eritrea and Ethiopia to move toward peacefully resolving their longstanding border dispute. The Security Council was clear in its insistence that Ethiopia "accept fully" the demarcation of the border determined by the independent Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (E.E.B.C.) in 2002, but it also urged the two countries to engage in detente and diplomacy, and did not contemplate sanctions or other pressures on Addis Ababa to comply with the Commission's decision.

Asmara responded to the resolution defiantly, threatening that it would consider taking military action to protect its sovereign interests if the international community did not press Addis Ababa to accept the E.E.B.C.'s demarcation. Following Asmara's threat, the U.N. secretary general's special representative on the border dispute, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, warned that the two sides were at an "impasse" and were heading toward war, and called on the Security Council to send a mission to the region to restart negotiations, which Asmara had broken off after Addis Ababa refused to abide by the E.E.B.C.'s ruling. Legwaila assured Asmara that if it entered talks with Addis Ababa, the 2002 demarcation would remain final. Asmara remained distrustful.

The Border Dispute

The origins of the border dispute go back to the U.N.'s decision after World War II to compromise the divisions in Eritrea over whether the country should become independent or be integrated into Ethiopia, by opting for a federal solution in which Eritrea would have its own parliament and administration within Ethiopia. Eritrea had previously been a British protectorate and before that an Italian colony, and had never enjoyed independence in its modern history.

The federal solution broke down in 1960, when Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, resulting in an armed rebellion by pro-independence forces who were later joined by pro-federationists dissatisfied with Addis Ababa's rule. The conflict escalated in 1974 after a coup in Ethiopia by a Marxist military junta which then initiated an offensive against the Eritrean insurgency. In 1991, the Eritrean independence movement defeated the Ethiopian army and Eritrea gained independence after a 1993 referendum.

Eritrea's independence left its border with Ethiopia undemarcated, creating a point of tension between the two countries that broke into open hostilities in 1998; when Ethiopian soldiers entered the disputed Badme region, Asmara responded by invading the region with a substantial force and Addis Ababa followed by declaring "total war."

Ethiopia won a substantial victory in May 2000 when it conducted a successful offensive that led to its occupation of 25 percent of Eritrea's territory. Addis Ababa then halted the war and Asmara accepted a peace pact, including independent border demarcation.

When the E.E.B.C. awarded Badme to Eritrea, Addis Ababa refused to accept the result, although it had agreed to honor the Commission's conclusions, opening up a period of stalemate marked by increasing impatience in Asmara and leading, finally, to its recent threat to renew the war.

Recent Developments

With a population of more than 60 million to Eritrea's 4.5 million, Ethiopia has clear advantages in its dispute with its rival. Most importantly, it is what area expert Michela Wrong calls a "linchpin nation" in north-central Africa, with strategic significance for outside great powers, particularly the U.S., which is actively seeking stability and support in the region as it executes its strategy of suppressing Islamic revolution by gaining the cooperation of friendly governments.

Aware of its edge, Addis Ababa has been confident that it can wait out Asmara and retain control of Badme. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who leads an increasingly authoritarian regime, would face serious internal threats to his rule if he made concessions to Asmara. Addis Ababa has, in consequence, called for renewed dialogue with Asmara and has not responded in kind to Asmara's threats.

Asmara, in contrast, has felt pushed into a corner. The Eritrean regime of President Isaias Afwerki, which has also moved toward authoritarianism, faces growing disaffection stemming from persisting poverty, rigid press censorship, restrictions on religious freedom and crackdowns on growing numbers of military deserters and draft dodgers. Like Zenawi, Afwerki cannot afford to make concessions, especially since the international community, through the U.N., agrees that Eritrea has a legal right to Badme.

In its position of relative military and diplomatic weakness, Asmara has pursued a strategy of trying to get the interested outside powers -- especially the U.S. and the E.U. -- to pressure Addis Ababa to respect the E.E.B.C. demarcation. As it has become apparent that the concerned powers are not willing to move beyond Security Council resolutions and the periodic renewal of the U.N. Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (U.N.M.E.E.), which provides peacekeeping forces in a Temporary Security Zone along the disputed frontier, Asmara has resorted to its military threats, risking international isolation.

Although it is far from likely that Asmara will initiate full-scale military hostilities against Ethiopia in the near term, its threats cannot be discounted given Eritrea's record of a willingness to fight tenaciously against stacked odds. Asmara is betting that a more assertive strategy might begin to tilt outside powers in its favor by arousing their fears of instability. Asmara also knows that Addis Ababa would prefer not to renew the war since it wants to preserve its international standing and domestic stability.

Asmara initiated its assertive strategy on August 31, when it declared that its decision to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.) from Eritrea was "irreversible." Stating publicly that it was "uncomfortable" with U.S.A.I.D.'s operations, Asmara sent a message through Eritrea's government-controlled press that "the non-resolution of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border issue is negatively affecting the necessary cooperation between Eritrea and the United States."

Washington, which seeks Asmara's cooperation in its campaign against Islamic revolution and has faced its resistance to military cooperation, accepted the expulsion reluctantly.

When, two weeks later, the U.N. Security Council failed to do no more than call for Addis Ababa to honor the border demarcation, Eritrean Finance Minister Berhane Abrehe, addressing the General Assembly, warned that "Eritrea is determined, and has the right, to defend and preserve its territorial integrity by any means possible." As a direct result of the warning, U.N. envoy to the region Legwaila warned, in turn, of a dangerous "impasse," moving toward Asmara's position.

The Bottom Line

Washington, its E.U. allies and other great powers have been placed in an uncomfortable dilemma by Asmara's assertive strategy. If they fail to place more effective pressure on Addis Ababa, they will set a destabilizing precedent for other conflicts throughout Africa and court the risk that Asmara will play its military card. If they do try to sway Addis Ababa, they risk alienating a "linchpin nation" and destabilizing its regime.

Look for Asmara to continue to pursue its assertive strategy, as both Ethiopia and Eritrea mobilize troops near the disputed border. Look for the great powers to continue to avoid decisive action as the impasse continues to deepen.

Although a renewed war is not yet imminent, the prospects for regional instability have substantially increased.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].