Asmara, Eritrea

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.

The incident that triggered the fighting came on May 6 of last year, when Tigrayan militiamen fired on an Eritrean patrol near Badme, killing four. This set off skirmishes that stopped briefly when Eritrea moved in regular armed forces to restore order on May 12. The next day Ethiopia responded with a declaration of war. What followed–amid frantic US efforts to head off a fight–thoroughly cemented the positions of the two combatants, and the “peace process” effectively stalled in its opening phase.

The stumbling block–embedded in the original Organization of African Unity peace plan drafted in June 1998 and carried forward in subsequent elaborations by the OAU and the UN with US support–hinged on Ethiopian insistence that Eritrea withdraw from disputed territory prior to mediation. Eritrea objected to this out of fear that a unilateral pullback would open the door to Ethiopian annexation. Yet Ethiopia, whose face had been bloodied in the fighting, could not accede to a pact that did not give it a way to save face. So how did such an unworkable position become an integral part of the “peace plan”?

Sources close to the June talks–Eritreans and Americans–say that mediators had nearly reached an agreement that included an Eritrean withdrawal when the Eritreans panicked at hints that Ethiopian “hard-liners” were about to pre-empt the process with an attack that would decimate Eritrea. Despite the dubious military analysis behind this, US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Susan Rice not only held a hasty press conference with Ethiopian officials in Addis Ababa to announce a breakthrough on terms favorable to Ethiopia but flew to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to secure the support of OAU members meeting there, based on the mistaken assumption that Eritrea was about to sign on. The only ones not told were the Eritreans, who learned about the proposal through the media.

Both the form in which this was done and its substance militated against Eritrean acceptance. The fact that Ethiopia went on to deport more than 53,000 people of Eritrean descent–including the ambassador to Ethiopia and the OAU–rendered the risk of signing on to the agreement politically untenable in Eritrea and virtually insured further fighting. Yet the Clinton Administration doggedly insisted that no other option was acceptable for Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, the Eritreans viewed this as confirmation that the United States was siding against them and with the US ally in the region. Eritreans will not soon forget that it was the United States that rammed a proposal through the UN in 1950 to place the former Italian colony under Ethiopian rule rather than grant it independence–or that, until 1976, a large amount of all US aid to Africa went to Ethiopia in an effort to crush the Eritrean liberation war after it got under way in 1961.

In the latest conflict, however, the main winners seem to be Russia, which sold new combat aircraft to both sides, and Sudan, which negotiated a backdoor deal with Ethiopia to make common cause against Eritrea. Eritrean countermoves to aid ethnic opponents of the Ethiopian government could lead to that country’s disintegration along the ethnic fault lines that are built into the state itself, as no one group is now positioned to unite the others in the event of a political crisis.

Yet the exit from this cul-de-sac has always been painfully simple, even if the precise steps to get there have not been. The only viable basis for a sustained cessation of hostilities is for both armies to withdraw simultaneously from all the disputed areas, place a neutral third force between them and bring in outside arbitrators to demarcate the border. Now that Ethiopia has retaken the village of Badme–at enormous human and material cost–and declared a victory in the border war, the peace plan’s onerous requirement that Eritrea unconditionally withdraw from the disputed region is now moot, and following the plan would mean a monitored withdrawal of both sides. Although Eritrea is now willing to accept this, Ethiopia, which still covets access to the Red Sea, is suddenly dragging its feet. With as many as half its forces amassed near the southern Eritrean port of Assab, where there are no disputes over the border, this may be the real prize of an extended military campaign. It is critical that the United States exert the same pressure on Ethiopia that it formerly applied to Eritrea and that it take a strong stand in favor of the OAU agreement, which it has long touted as the preferred solution. Scandinavian states with a history in the region have offered to fund a peacekeeping force, and several African states have agreed to supply the personnel. However, there are many potential sticking points, not least of which is whether colonial treaties or more recent–and contentious–patterns of settlement will be used to determine the border.

Despite media reports to the contrary, Eritreans were not totally defeated. Their withdrawal from untenable positions along the border to more secure ground inside their territory is typical of the strategy used throughout their protracted war for independence–one designed to minimize losses while they protect their advantage for future combat. The Eritreans have indicated that if this crisis is allowed to fester without a durable solution–and another cease-fire in which both sides rearm without resolving the border issue is no solution–they will carry the war across the border into Ethiopia. In such a scenario, the entire region could go up in flames.