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by Konrad Licht 

in context of the Seminar: 
“ Discussion of the Future of Ethiopia in the Internet” 
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz 
Institut für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien 
WS 2001 / 2002 

The Ethio-Eritrean Relationship 


I full length version 

1. Looking back 
2. Early relations 
3. Being in power 
4. Arguing about their border 
5. The international diplomacy and its failure 
6. And the winner is… 
7. Conclusions 

II short version 

The Ethio-Eritrean Conflict 

I. full length version 

1. Looking back 

If one wants to understand the today’s relationship of these two countries, one has to look back at least to 1890. In this year, what is known as Eritrea today, became an Italian colony. In fact it became the centre of the Italian Empire in Africa. When this happened, the differences and problems begun to grow between the two nations. When the Italians took Eritrea, they also took the Ethiopian access to the sea. The sea route was the main access to manage in- and export. It was a kind of trade basis. Nowadays Ethiopia has to arrange itself with Djibouti what means high losses by paying taxes to get their products to the sea. But that was not the only problem, which the Italian colonialism created. The Italians divided the Tigreans. The main people (about 40%) of Eritrea are Tigreans. On the other side of the border is the province of Tigray. Due to that division the Tigreans lost influence on the political life. This problem is extremely important because today it is the restructured TPLF from Tigray that governs Ethiopia and the EPLF, which is also a party from the Tigreans, governs Eritrea. One could imagine a very harmonic relationship between these two governments – they have the same roots and if we look closer at the two parties, we will find out that they also have fought together side by side to achieve their power. But the imagination of this peaceful coexistence is not combinable with the today’s reality. But we can look at this issue later on. 
In the first decades of the Italian colonisation, the relation between the two countries was dominated by co-operation. This lasted about 45 years. In 1935, the Italian army, which exited of Eritrean soldiers, occupied territories in Ethiopia and tried to colonise Ethiopia. But in 1941 the Ethiopians defeated the Italians. With that loss the Italian empire in Africa broke down. Before their invasion there were three treaties on the demarcation on their border. Whether these treaties should have any value in modern times or not was debated heavily by the two today’s governments. The Ethiopian government claims that with the occupation of the Italians, that treaty has no longer value, since the Italians broke their promise. The Eritrean governments on the other side used this loophole to start a conflict that escalated into a massive war. There are many different maps available where the border has gone more to the south and where it moved further to Eritrea. Eritrea wanted to rely on the map of the Italians. 

One must be aware of the impact of the Italian colonialism on the relationship between the two countries: The Italians split what used to be brothers. They built up differences between them. And then they send the Eritrean brothers against the Ethiopians brothers. What has been created by the Italian period are the differences between the two countries. Of course there had been also differences between them before the Italians arrived, but the colonisation of Eritrea put the differences between them onto a extremely higher level. Throughout Eritrea can be heard, that Eritrea is the better Ethiopia. Of course, the colonisation had made what some might call „improvements“. A small working class has been built up and administration has been more built up. This led to a kind of Eritrean identity, which the post-Italian government under the EPLF wanted to widen. One reaction to this is that a feeling in Ethiopia was established, that the Eritreans rejected them. In one conclusion: The Italian colonialism divided the two brothers, and this division leaves many traces. 

2. Early relations 

After a non-extreme period where Eritrea was kept under British administration, Eritrea was linked to Ethiopia. Just like the good old days? It could have become like this, but it went towards a different direction. Observers could have predicted problems, but, somehow, the two countries were left alone with their problems. The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) wanted to solve these problems. Or one could also think that they wanted to use these problems for their purpose. Anyway, they started to fight for an independent Eritrea. They were not alone. The ELF had the same aim. In the northern province, the TPLF was established by the EPLF. The TPLF has the same Tigrean root, so it was very closely linked. Also their language linked them. The TPLF was trained and supported by the EPLF. One cannot overstress their familiarity. The leaders were friends who studied together and the people who supported them had the same social background. But: the EPLF was Eritrean and the TPLF on the Ethiopian side. What they both had in common too, was their aim: the struggle against the Ethiopian dictatorship. The EPLF wanted Eritrea to be independent. The TPLF wanted Tigray to become either independent or to take part in the government. The TPLF supported the wish of the EPLF for an independent Eritrea. The EPLF on the other hand claimed that Tigray has not the historical and political right for independence. In the eyes of the EPLF the aim for the TPLF should be a democratical Ethiopian. I think, that the EPLF wanted the TPLF to govern Ethiopia also to be sure, that the Ethiopian government goes along with the line of Eritrea. If the two parties could govern the countries, it is very likely to imagine a kind of troubleless neighbourhood. The two parties came to power, but a troubleless togetherness was not achieved. But first I want to stay a bit with their struggle. 
As mentioned, the two parties that were opposition movements in the beginning have the same roots. They presented similar ideologies. Both came out of student movements, and as it was common, student movements in that time presented often an ideology that had something to do with Marxism. But the two movements agreed not completely with each other. The TPLF thought that the main problem of Ethiopia was the ethnical dominance of the Amhara – not the class differences like in classical Marxism. So the TPLF thought early very much along ethnical lines: The Tigreans were those who get exploited by the Amhara. The EPLF on the other hand tried to loose this kind of ethnical thinking. What they needed was an unity among Eritreans. Because both parties came out of the Tigreans, this difference in thinking was a direct confrontation. Another problem in the early days of the movements was that they were not alone: the EPLF had problems with oppositions that were fighting for power and the TPLF had problems with oppositions in Tigray. The TPLF found itself between the fronts: on the one hand they wanted to stay in good relationship with their older brother, on the other hand they wanted to arrange themselves with other movements inside Ethiopia. This let to misunderstand able and overlapping relationships. As the TPLF had to struggle with oppositions in Tigray, they cut off the military support for the EPLF. The EPLF reacted to this kind of breaking their trust by cutting off the biggest emergency route to Tigray in 1985. Also because this happened in a period of famine, this led to a break off of their relations. Three years later, they arranged themselves again to a marriage of necessarity. Both were in need of military support. The TPLF supported the EPLF in their struggle for independence and the EPLF fought against oppositions. Together they achieved what they were fighting for. 1991 the TPLF came to power. They restructured themselves into the EPRDF. The EPRDF presented the end of dictatorship and military regime. They proposed at least officially a new democratical Ethiopia: A government that accepts opposition, as it is a government for their people. In the first period of power, they asked the AAU to take part in creating a new charter. The University should be given the possibility to create their own charter on a democratical basis. The hope for a change in the right direction seemed to be realistic. And then the line of the EPRDF changed: They did less and less take care of the opinions of the peoples of Ethiopia and begun to take decisions without respecting democracy. In 1993 the EPLF achieved independence for Eritrea. What began now was that two movements, which had fought with weapons for power, began to govern and how they went on making policy with weapons is a terrible history of war as a political strategy. 

3. Being in power 

In the first discussions of the new governments, the two parties wanted to achieve a harmonic co-operation. Their economical network was extremely linked to each other. Eritreas manufacturing products and salt had a great impact on the Ethiopian market. And Ethiopia was the main trade partner for Eritrea. Economically appeared huge problems between them. Ethiopia paid attention that they can exist without dependence on Eritrea. The Tigrean government started a development program for the province of Tigray. The earlier governments paid no attention to that region, and Tigray had barely survived as a kind of transit between Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia. With the EPRDF in power, these priorities changed: in Tigray should and could be produced the products that were manufactured in Eritrea. Tigray became concurrent to the ex-Italian colony. For Tigray, it became a central element to replace Eritrea. Eritrea of course was not confirm with loosing their trade position. Real independence would mean being economically independent. One big symbol for real independence is an own currency. As Ethiopia refused to deal in the new introduced Eritrean Nafka, the blockage of the two states became clear. What then started were hard accusations in the media. Each side claimed that the other side wanted to make the life of the other hard. The other side reacted with a stronger accusation on each accusation. Another thing that came between them was the discrimination of Eritreans in Ethiopia and Ethiopians in Eritrea. The governments accused people of being dangerous to the security of their nation. Many people were deported from both sides . Thousands of them hang around today in the streets of the cities and get no support from the government. They serve as silent creators of the enemy-imagine. Both parties became frightened that the other one wants to destroy their power. It could be heard that the EPLF saw the only enemy in Ethiopia within the TPLF clique, the party that was ones so close to them. The EPRDF on the other hand wanted the Eritrean EPLF to be weakened or toppled. Both started to support, create, and finance oppositions groups. The governments did not pick up their guns against each other, but they told others to pick up their guns. 

And in this difficult period of their relationship, it was Eritrea that turned their eyes to a problem that longs back to the Italian period: The Border problem.

4. Arguing about their border 

One may really ask oneself why these governments fought against each other for such a small and marginal land. The largest part what was fought for is some 100 km² big: the Badme area. The Italians used the power of cards when they included this area into their territory. As mentioned before, there were three treaties. And Italy broke all off them by occupying Northern Ethiopia. What was left is a problem that was never really solved. Who has the legitimacy to claim that this land belongs to them? After the Italians, it was kept under Ethiopian administration. And it was first again discussed in 1970. In that year the TPLF and the ELF discussed about this area. During that discussion, the EPLF assisted the TPLF and fought back the ELF. The border issue was raised again in August 1997. In the context of the bad economic relations, which I presented before, the President of Eritrea wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. In this letter he claimed the bad border situation and wanted Ethiopia to take measures against this. Also he suggested a committee to look at this issue. Eritrea saw in the border discussion a possibility to put some pressure onto Ethiopia. Eritrea wanted Ethiopia to rethink its politics. 
The demanded commission met in November 1997. But the parties could not find any conclusions. While the second meeting was held, a small group of Eritrean soldiers already entered the disputed zone. This happened on the 6th of May in 1998. What then really happened can only be read in the stars. The Ethiopian side argued that the aggression started from the Eritrean soldiers that entered the Badme zone. The Eritrean side claims that the violence arose from the Ethiopian police. However: Eritrea was prepared for that aggression. They held back a massive army, which was ready to enter Badme. The Eritreans started an offensive. By threat of force, Eritrea wanted Ethiopia to negotiate. As a reaction, the Ethiopian Prime Minister warned with all activities that are necessary on the 13th of May. Both countries prepared themselves for war. 

5. The international diplomacy and its failure 

In this period of the conflict, several third parties offered their assistance to solve the conflict peacefully. Ethiopia and Eritrea accepted a team that consisted of diplomats from the US and Rwanda. This commission regarded the conflict only as a discussion about the demarcation of the border. They did not or did not want to see the deeper causes of the conflict. The US-Rwanda delegation suggested a withdrawal of the Eritreans and Ethiopian administration . This seemed to press the guilt only on one party. Ethiopia of course quickly accepted the plan, but Eritrea asked for some details to be clarified first. Ethiopia used this time to mobilise their army. With the US-RWANDA team on their back, Ethiopia seemed to start to make the rules of this tragic game. Eritrea on the other seemed to loose influence and the possibility to put pressure onto Ethiopia. On the 5th of June, Ethiopia started an airforce bombing on Asmara airport. Eritreas answer were bombings on Mekelle, where they hit also a school. Seeming to loose influence and feeling misunderstood, Eritrea demanded an OAU initiative. In the first protocol of the OAU, it was noted that the Badme area did not necessarily belong to Ethiopia. But they also referred mainly to the US-RWANDA peace plan with the difference that they suggested a withdrawal of both armies. Eritrea had bare issue to these meetings. The headquarter was situated in Addis Ababa and also that Djibouti was highly involved into the delegation, was for Eritrea a sign, that the OAU peace plan was standing on one side. Eritrea had also difficulties and clashes about the Djibouti to Eritrea. Diplomacy made no real progress. Ambassadors of both countries addressed the UN. But the role of the UN was also not as it could have been. The UN thought the OAU to be the best way to achieve peace. They urged to stop all weapon deals with the two countries. Both governments found this extremely provocative. Ethiopia saw a parallel to the embargo of 1936 when weak Ethiopia fought against strong Italy. This embargo can be seen as a turning point for the relationship between Ethiopia and the international community. Every diplomatic negotiation failed and preparations for major offensives started. On the 27th of January 1999 Meles Zenawi gave forewarnings of war and started a major offensive on the 5th of February 1999. 

Since that day the battle quickly escalated into the biggest battle in Africa since WW II. Eritrea was well installed and protected by a surrounding minefield. What Ethiopia did was sending soldiers wave by wave into sure death. This lasted until most mines were exploded and the Eritrean soldiers were out of munitions. Ethiopia called this 3-day wave strategy „Operation sunset“ which is still today glory celebrated . On the 26th of February the Eritrean troops were fought back. 

6. And the winner is… 

A day after its defeat Eritrea, accepted the OAU framework agreement. At that point they had nothing to loose since the demanded withdrawal was achieved by force. Ethiopia on the other side could not accept anymore since an acceptance would mean, that they had to leave the area that costed more than 10.000 of their soldiers. The EPRDF argued that the acceptance of Eritrea was nothing more but a tactical move to save time. The following days were defined by mistrust. No party thought or wanted to think that the opposition really wishes peace. The war at the border continued. Now it was Eritrea that put Ethiopia under pressure to sign the OAU framework. 10 month earlier it was Ethiopia who put pressure onto Eritrea to sign the same framework. Ethiopia demanded a new OAU process. In July 1999, the OAU presented the „Modalities for the implementation of the OAU framework“ . Ethiopia presented itself still sceptical but accepted the framework. 
The UN and the USA published that this was a great process and the beginning of peace. But the two governments even intensified their propaganda and their support of oppositions. The NATO established a security zone along the border, where no army of the two nations were allowed to be present. The direct confrontations could be ended and one can even say that the border conflict has been solved or at least is on a good way to be solved. What remains is their relationship: the governments still point there fingers at each other and there is no sign of diplomacy between them. The war has divided them. Probably forever. About 500.000 men are said to be killed in this war. Many have been deported and lost their homes and futures. 

7. Conclusions 

The conflict between the two states is not only an example of the failure of establishing a new state and peaceful relations but also an example of failure of diplomacy on both levels: on the regional and international level. Of course the main responsibility lies with the two parties. It seems to be easier to use war as a political strategy than to run a country peacefully. The main cause of the escalation of the conflict is that no party – neither the two governments nor the UN nor the US nor the OAU – was willing to address the deeper causes of the conflict. The border discussion was only a pretext. What rests are the difficult economic relations and the deep resentment of the wish of the Eritreans to be excluded from Ethiopia. The Ethiopians felt that the Eritreans rejected them. The defence of territorial sovereignty has been carried out as if there were no international observers. And one should not forget that the main actors in this conflict were the TPLF and the EPLF that are seasoned guerrilla soldiers. 
They came to power with the use of weapons. They fought together against the Ethiopian dictatorship. When they came to power they were confronted with several problems. They were facing oppositions; they were facing famine and difficult economic positions. They used the image of a dangerous enemy to reduce the importance of the problems they were facing. When the war escalated, the voices against their own government went down. First of all, the government should handle the external danger. And now as the hot war is over, the problems appear again. And the voices of oppositions can be heard again more loudly, also within the governing party. Somehow the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea have to deal with them. All problems that can not be solved are a kind of platform for oppositions. If a government cannot solve the present problems, why not give the chance to a different government? The Ethiopian government is afraid of loosing power. And they try everything to stay in power. They never really stopped using guns for achieving and staying in power. This is what happened when the police entered the campus of the AAU and massacred students. Intellectuals are the most dangerous danger for fighting for a change in politics. The EPRDF knows that. They themselves came out of a student movement. They still use violence and violation of human rights. The tension inside the horn of Africa that appeared in the context of the fighting against terrorism could be another chance for the Ethiopian government to legitimise their violent power. In the context of the Anti-terror war Ethiopia could ones again fight against their oppositions and this time with broad support and appreciation of the worlds most powerful nation. 
The radical changes inside Ethiopia over the decades all have one thing in common: the discrimination of oppositions and the use of force to keep them down. I think, it will last a very long time until this will change. It will last even longer until the wounds that the violence of those who are in power created begin to heal. 
The TPLF and EPLF fought against violent power. With their coming to power, they surely made improvements. But : being at power always brings the risk that what they were fighting against will be forgotten. In their times of rebellion, hope for a better Ethiopia was a central element. Making changes and giving the people more power and respect. With the coming to power this kind of hope became past and was put into the hands of other rebellions. Into the hands of oppositions. Good way of making policy is accepting changes. But those who are in power are always concerned about staying in power, not loosing it. The real meaningful solved task by those being in power now was the changing of the conventional way of thinking in the context of policy. They ended decades of dictatorships. They brought in the idea of a different policy. But they stopped being open for changes. They even fight against everything that could awaken a different way of thinking. Their task was made ad absurdum. They started to dictate the media, they started to hide problems, they pick up the guns against those who want to tell what should be changed, and they started to fight against different thoughts. And they started to violate human rights. Guardians of the human freedom are always those who are not in power, are always the rebels. And with rebels I do not only mean those who are looking for a massive change in politics, but those who are supporting a change in the consciousness of the people. 

Short version 

The Ethio-Eritrean Conflict 

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has its roots in their histories. The two nations were ones very closely linked. Even today the government cannot deny their same roots. One can say that when the Italians started to colonise what is today’s Eritrea, the basis for the conflict was built up. With the colonisation of the Italians, Eritrea moved into a different direction than Ethiopia did. A small worker class was built up, and more importantly, a different identity was formed. First, the relation between the two countries was friendly. But with the occupation of the Italians, the dream of peaceful coexistence had come to an abrupt end. The Italian army, which existed of Eritrean men, tried to colonise Ethiopia. Before that outbreak of violence the two countries agreed on a map, that marked their borders. Today Ethiopia argues that this treaty has no longer value since the Italians ignored their part of the treaty. Eritrea on the other side used this misunderstanding to present a reachable conflict. They started to fight for a small part at the border. But one who looks closer at this conflict that escalated so quickly into the biggest battle of Africa since WW II, must recognise that the reasons for this war have a deeper cause. 
After Ethiopia defeated the Italian army, Eritrea was under autonomy linked to Ethiopia. But soon, the voices for independence appeared in Eritrea. One of the main parties, which were formed for that goal, was the EPLF. In northern Ethiopia, the province of Tigray, a small brother of the EPLF was formed: the TPLF. The TPLF fought together with its older brother against the dictatorship in Ethiopia. In 1991, the TPLF (which restructured itself and renamed itself into EPRDF) came to power in Addis Ababa. In 1993 the EPLF achieved the independence of Eritrea and became government. Both parties had fought together for power, but there were also differences and problems between them during their struggle. The TPLF had to arrange itself with other parties in Ethiopia, which were against the aim of the EPLF. Their relationship was also under pressure since they presented different ideologies: the TPLF thought very much inside ethnical lines – they followed Marxism but saw not the class differences as the main problem, but the political dominance of the Amhara. The EPLF on the other hand wanted to loose the thinking along ethnic lines, in order to built up an Eritrean identity. That difference would mean no big deal, if their ethnical roots weren’t the same ones. Tensions like these arose early and started to boil on a little flame. 
When Eritrea became independent, the situation changed. The first months, they were still looking for an harmonic co-operation, but their political strategy made it clear that each party went in a different direction. One of the most visible reasons is their economic relationship that became worse and worse. Eritrea wanted to act as independent as possible but at the same time did not want to loose the market in Ethiopia for its products. The EPRDF started a development program for the northern part of Ethiopia. The aim: to replace the importance of Eritrean imports. The more this difficult relationship became clear, the more the two governments started to block each other. When Ethiopia refused to deal in the new Eritrean currency, this came to a point, which Eritrea did not want to accept. Both started to fear that the other wants to destroy their future. They started to see the other one as a danger. The two parties that were ones so closely linked became enemies. What followed was that the EPLF started to support oppositions in Ethiopia which were against the EPRDF. And the EPRDF on the other hand started to organise and finance oppositions to the EPLF. The Media was used for propaganda, and is still used for that purpose today. The creating of the enemy-image of both side was in one way wanted and appreciated. If a new government has a foreign enemy, the voices inside the country against the party that govern it loose importance. First, the outside enemy has to be defeated, then we can look patiently at the problems inside the own government. The war was used to keep potential oppositions down. To which extend is not really clear. But some oppositions groups argue strongly today, that the war was also used to reduce the basis for oppositions by sending them to death in this war. One can read this kind of interpretation against the Ethiopian government on the Oromo webside ( 
But because a government can not say: „Well – we know war and do not think much of running a country peacefully.“ – the two government started to discuss on a different level. They discussed about a small part along their border. The biggest part was the Badme area, which is some 100 km² of the most marginal land. Because the discussion about the border had never totally come to an end, there were different possibilities of interpretation. The EPLF wanted this territory (and small ones) to be included into Eritrea. So, they started to invade on the 6th of May 1998. With this kind of direct confrontation they wanted Ethiopia to rethink its politics. By threat of force Eritrea wanted Ethiopia to negotiate. Ethiopia on the other hand could not accept how Eritrea spoke with them. Both countries started to mobilise and prepared themselves for a massive battle. 
Several third parties offered their help in that period. A delegation from the USA and Rwanda prepared a peace plan. This plan seemed to press the guilt only on the Eritrean side. That’s why Eritrea could not accept their proposal of an Eritrean withdrawal. What followed where bombings on Asmara and on Mekelle in June. The border conflict quickly started to escalate. The diplomatic function of the OAU that followed discussed also only the conflict on the basis of the border conflict. No party involved was able or willing to speak about the deeper causes for the conflict. The UN weren’t able to prevent an ongoing war either. The UN recommended the OAU peace proposal and urged all nations to stop weapon deals with the two countries. Ethiopia found this embargo extremely provocative. They saw a parallel to the embargo when they fought against strong Italy. In February 1999, Ethiopia started the „operation sunset“ that its still glory celebrated in the Media. That 3-day wave strategy defeated the Eritrean installed troops. Eritrea was well fixed and protected by mines. What Ethiopia did was sending one wave of soldiers after another into the sure death. This lasted until most mines were exploded and the munitions on the Eritrean side had come to an end. Ethiopia re-entered the Badme – Plains. For this little marginal area they paid several 100,000 lives. Just like this. So many people died – for what? So many people lost their homes. Thousands of them hang around in the streets in the cities. If they can still walk they go from one car to another and try to beg. If they can not walk, they sit and beg. And the governments do nothing to support them. The wounds of that war will take many years to stop bleeding and decades to heal. 
And still no government is willing to change their position. Still they use propaganda against their neighbour. Still they point their fingers at each other. Their relationship seem to have no realistic chance to become better. What seems to be solved is the presented border problem. Their hostile relationship is still the same. It has even worsened. After the defeat of Eritrea, the UN started to built up a security zone along their common border. No one can say what will happen when the international soldiers start to leave this security zone. 
The history of that conflict is a good bad example for how diplomacy can fail. Diplomacy between the two new governments but also international diplomacy. Of course the main responsibility lies within the two parties. And somehow I believe that no one of them will ever accept that. They keep on pressing the guilt on the other. How the future of this conflict will look like, must be seen in future. And with the current military situation in the Horn of Africa, a next phase of the conflict is predictable. 

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