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Letter From Eritrea | The Nation

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Letter From Eritrea

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Asmara, Eritrea

About the Author

Dan Connell
Dan Connell is a senior lecturer at Simmons College, Boston, and a visiting scholar at the Boston University...

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Hundreds of thousands have fled dictatorship—only to face trafficking, exploitation and hostility throughout North Africa and the Sahel.

The present lull in the fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia may lead to a shift in their bitterly fought contest to the negotiating table, but an end to hostilities between two of the poorest but best-armed states in Africa is not in sight. Ethiopia has added new conditions to the cease-fire--calling for further Eritrean withdrawals prior to talks--placing its ally in the region, the United States, in a delicate position. After badly bungling the peace process prior to the latest round of combat, the United States now has a window of opportunity to promote lasting peace, though it is rapidly closing.

Pitched battles raged across four separate frontlines last month as Ethiopian forces pounded Eritrean defenses with daylong aerial and artillery barrages and large-scale infantry assaults, breaking an eight-month truce during which a parade of mediators sought to defuse the crisis. When I toured the front during a brief moment of quiet, the harsh desert scrubland was pocked with shell holes, and the slopes in front of the Eritrean trenches were littered with decomposing bodies. The fighting finally halted after the Ethiopians breached Eritrean defenses near the disputed village of Badme--where skirmishes last May sparked the crisis--and the Eritreans withdrew, announcing they would now accept a US-designed peace plan whose terms they had earlier rejected.

However, more than a half-million heavily armed troops remain deployed along the countries' 600-mile border, whose demarcation is the ostensible cause of the conflict. They are backed by a dizzying array of artillery, tank brigades and fighter aircraft in one of the largest armed confrontations in African history. Yet this is a war that leaves most observers scratching their heads in disbelief--what are they fighting about, and why didn't they simply accept the OAS-brokered peace plan and move on?

To start with, far more is going on here than a petty border dispute. At issue is the very definition of these new--or newly reconstituted--states, each ruled by fiercely nationalistic movements that fought their way to power and are not easily cajoled or coerced into compromises. Erstwhile allies in the effort to overthrow the previous Ethiopian regime, their alliance has steadily unraveled over the past eight years, as their long-deferred aspirations collided over a tangle of economic and political issues.

The superficial cause of the conflict is a dispute over which country holds title to a barren strip of land identified with Badme. This remote peasant hamlet was under Eritrean administration in 1985 when I visited it with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, and it appeared within Eritrea on all maps of the day. However, as with many frontier communities of mixed ethnic makeup, its political administration shifted back and forth between the Eritreans and their guerrilla allies from Ethiopia's neighboring Tigray region.

In 1991, after the Eritreans won their thirty-year war for independence and helped a Tigrayan-led coalition seize power in Ethiopia, the two new governments set up local committees to iron out conflicting border claims, as well as a joint commission to promote political cooperation and economic integration. They also revived a regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, that drew Kenya and Uganda into common economic planning and that proposed peace initiatives aimed at ending civil wars in Somalia and Sudan.

This evident promise led President Clinton to tout these countries, with annual growth rates of more than 8 percent, as cornerstones of an "African renaissance"--borrowing a term from South Africa's Thabo Mbeki--on his trip to the continent a year ago. The US Agency for International Development drafted a proposal for a "Greater Horn of Africa Initiative"--Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and others were included under this umbrella--intended to promote food security and conflict resolution (although Congress simultaneously drafted legislation to privilege US investors at Africa's expense). But before funds were allocated the entire edifice seemed to crumble. First, Rwanda and Uganda were drawn back into the conflict in Congo. Then hostilities broke out, as if from nowhere, between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Much has been made of disputes between these two countries over economic policy--punctuated by Eritrea's issuance of a new national currency in 1997 and Ethiopia's refusal to accept it--but the roots of the crisis lie elsewhere. Once in power in Addis Ababa in 1991, the Tigrayans--who launched their movement sixteen years earlier with calls for an independent Tigray--redrew Ethiopia's internal borders on the basis of ethnic identity, establishing Tigray as an autonomous state-within-a-state among a coalition of similar ethnic ministates. This complicated the adjudication process of the border dispute with Eritrea by turning it into a three-way affair. It also marked the unleashing of a resurgent Tigrayan nationalism, suppressed for much of this century by the Amharas, who dominated Ethiopia until the early nineties.

After the Tigrayans annexed districts from neighboring Ethiopian provinces--using historical claims as a pretext--they began to encroach on Eritrean territory. But it was only after Ethiopian military units moved into other Eritrean villages in the mid-nineties and then issued a new map in late 1997 showing them inside Tigray that the Eritreans realized they had a serious problem. Neither an exchange of letters between the two countries' leaders nor an official commission charged with resolving the growing number of Tigrayan claims made any headway before the situation spun out of control and fighting broke out.

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