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Djibouti-Eritrean Clash Called Minor Incident, But Adds to Regional Volatility

Tuesday, troops from Djibouti and Eritrea clashed along their common border, reportedly leaving a number of soldiers dead or wounded. There have been tensions between the two countries in recent months.

For a closer look at the incident, VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua spoke with David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and a professor at George Washington University.

“I think it’s playing into a competition that is going on between particularly Ethiopia and Eritrea throughout the region. And we certainly have seen that in Somalia it self and I think it’s starting to play out to some extent in the case of Djibouti. Djibouti has been an important ally of Ethiopia, particularly economically, in terms of virtually all Ethiopian exports and imports passing through the port of Djibouti. This of course is a huge moneymaker for Djibouti, so it’s in their interest to continue this relationship. Eritrea may see the concept of putting pressure on Djibouti as perhaps indirectly creating some additional concern in Addis Ababa,” he says.

How important was Tuesday’s incident? Shinn says, “In the grand scheme of things (it’s) a very minor development.… We’re talking about small numbers of forces. We’re talking about a very tiny piece of territory that is in fact in dispute going back to a 1900 treaty between France and Italy that never properly demarcated the border itself. So, there is reason for Eritrea to be concerned about who owns the actual land, but this is obviously no way to deal with the problem. It should go to binding arbitration or something.”

Asked whether the clash makes the overall region even more volatile, he says, “It clearly does that, although I don’t want to overstate the importance of the Djibouti-Eritrean issue, in spite of the fact there were apparently some casualties along that border yesterday. That’s unfortunate. I think that may be a one-time kind of event. Although you could have a similar outbreak of violence that’s instigated for local reasons because you’ve got soldiers facing each other cheek-to-jowl along that border. You could always have another incident. But I really don’t think it will result in a major conflict…. It’s just one more thing to worry about. In the Horn of Africa there are far too many things to worry about.”

Shinn says countries such as the United States need an overall policy for the region. “You have to look at the region as a whole. You can’t try to address any of these issues by looking separately at one country. I mean obviously there are bilateral relationships and you have bilateral dealings with each country. But if you treat your policy on strictly a bilateral basis it’s almost guaranteed to fail,” he says.