Ethiopia , Eriteria conflicts

Category: World Affairs Topics: Conflicts And War, Eritrea, Ethiopia Views: 1874

It is easy to dismiss the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which dates to May of 1998, as a petty border dispute. The war, which represents the first use of sophisticated modern weaponry on African soil, evidences many elements of an irrational border conflict between bitter enemies. There is the refusal to budge an inch on captured territory, the bombing of civilian targets and the use of propaganda to demonize the other side.

Yet where the Iran-Iraq War or the Gulf War focused on oil rich land and key strategic points, the current war in the Horn of Africa is being fought over 100 square miles of mostly useless, arid, scrub land. So what other factors are contributing to the conflict?

To be sure, there are economic reasons behind the war. Ethiopia is a land-locked country and, at least in the past, required access to Eritrean ports, particularly Assab, for its shipping needs. When Eritrea introduced its own currency in November of 1997, Ethiopia was forced to pay more for its shipping. But when Ethiopia declared war on Eritrea, it successfully rerouted all of its shipping through Djibouti proving it did not require Eritrean cooperation for its shipping needs.

According to Dan Connel, an analysist for the Middle East Report and the author of a book tracing Eritrean independence, a reissue of the Ethiopian currency, also in November of 1997, depicts a map where the disputed border land already belonged to Ethiopia. So the current war is not simply the result of recent economic tensions nor is it simply concerned with territorial gains. This war is being driven by both of those issues as well as the divisive issues of misunderstood ethnic tensions and the ambiguities and complications of the post-Cold War reordering of alliances.

The Eritrean independence movement began in 1961 in response to U.S.-backed Ethiopian emperor Haile Sallassie's violation of a U.N. resolution granting limited autonomy to Eritrea. As a result, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) was formed. It was joined in 1975 by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in response to Sallassie's ouster by a Soviet backed coup. The Tigray province of Ethiopia borders Eritrea to the southeast, and while the Tigrayan people are outnumbered by the Oromo and Amhara peoples as an ethnic group in Ethiopia, they constitute a majority in Eritrea. When a TPLF-led coalition, aided by the EPLF, took power in Ethiopia in 1991, the new government maintained close ties with Eritrea. The leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia, Isayas Afeweki and Meles Zenawi, are reportedly close friends who fought together in parallel liberation struggles. So how then did these ties fall apart?

Recent Ethiopian antagonism towards Eritrea is partially the result of internal ethnic conflict within Ethiopia. The Amhara and Oromo resent the continued Tigrayan hold on power and accuse the minority group of compromising Ethiopian sovereignty by agreeing to Eritrean independence in 1993. As a result, the Tigrayans, who would otherwise be most amenable to peaceful negotiations with Eritrea, have now been forced into a hard line stance against their neighbors in order to protect their own integrity as the legitimate rulers of Ethiopia. As Dan Connel observes, "One factor pushing the resumption of conflict with Eritrea may be the need to focus attention on an external threat in order to unify the fractured society within Ethiopia." In a recent statement reported by the BBC, Chester Crocker, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, expressed a similar perspective in noting that the current conflict is the result of ethnic tensions within Ethiopia as a result of the Tigrayan ruling minority.

The Ethiopian-Eritrean war is further complicated within the context of regional and international politics in the wake of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States supplied billions of dollars in military equipment to competing factions in Ethiopia, but when the Marxist regime was overthrown in 1991, U.S. policy continued to support both Eritrean and Ethiopian liberation governments. When tensions flared last year, U.S. policy still supported both countries but Eritrea has since accused the U.S. of favoring Ethiopian claims.

U.S. foreign policy would no doubt be better off were the conflict to end. This is because of the United States' larger aims in East Africa. Following the Cold War, the U.S. organized the impressive Ethiopian and Eritrean arsenals, together with Uganda and opposition groups in Sudan, in an alliance against the Islamic government of Sudan. The recent conflict has strained the alliance. And on May 3, Eritrea signed an agreement with Sudan to stop supporting opposition groups within each other's countries.

The agreement with Sudan can be attributed in part to Eritrean disillusionment with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa. Eritrean officials have made several high-level visits to Libya despite U.S. criticism. Relations with Israel, traditionally strong for both Ethiopia and Eritrea, have become strained in recent years and an Israeli-Eritrean arms deal was recently suspended. Eritrea has further thwarted U.S. policy by declaring its desire to join the Arab League.

These moves on the part of Eritrea show that discontent in the Horn of Africa is at least partially due to U.S. attempts to affect the regional power balance. Dan Connel notes that the Ethiopian and Eritrean hostilities were nearly resolved in May of last year, but fighting broke out again because of U.S. mediation's "carelessness with a key provision to demilitarize a contested corner of Eritrea."

The Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict bodes ill for U.S. foreign policy in the Horn of African and undermines the U.S. vision for increased stability and investment in Africa, some of which had hinged on the cooperation and congeniality of the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders. The ethnic and regional tensions present in the area are major forces behind the current war, and the continued misrepresentation of the conflict as a border-war risks further misunderstanding and exacerbation of tensions.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Eritrea, Ethiopia
Views: 1874

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