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.