The international community is concerned that recent violence in Ethiopian cities and along the country’s border with Eritrea may plunge the region into another war and is calling on all sides to show restraint.
The border region between Ethiopia and Eritrea is mostly barren and sparsely populated. According to most observers, it is hardly a region worth fighting for. Yet, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a two-year war over it, between 1998 and 2000, in which an estimated 70-thousand people lost their lives. Robert Rotberg, Director of Harvard University’s Program on Interstate Conflict says despite the 2000 peace agreement, the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains unresolved.
“It’s a conflict that supposedly was over and they essentially fought a silly war between two friendly countries and two friendly presidents who had fallen out," says Professor Rotberg. "And they fought a war not over anything real, but over a border and a few towns that don’t matter to anybody.”
As part of the 2000 peace accord, both sides agreed to accept a new border drawn by an independent commission. But when the commission made its ruling in 2002, deciding that the town of Badme belonged to Eritrea, Ethiopia rejected the decision. Professor Rotberg says the dusty town of Badme with barely a school and a clinic is not the real reason for the conflict.
WHAT'S BEHIND THE CONFLICT?
“What is really at stake and can’t be touched by the war is Ethiopian access to the port of Massawa, which is the best port on the Red Sea. One thing you will discover, which is essential, but wasn’t a reason for the war and it may be the reason now, is that Eritrea’s independence made Ethiopia landlocked,” says Professor Rotberg.
But Issaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who together fought to depose Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam, did not express such concerns in 1993 when Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia.
Many analysts say current tensions may have been sparked by Eritrea, whose leadership is increasingly frustrated by the failure to implement the 2000 peace agreement. Last week, U.N. observers reported incursions of troops and movement of weapons into temporary security zones on both sides, which raised international concern that violence might escalate.
Imru Zelleke, a former Ethiopian ambassador, who fled the country in 1975 when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and now lives in the United States, says the Ethiopian government may be willing to renew border hostilities with Eritrea to justify its authoritarian rule.
2005 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION
“In May, there was an election which went very well, very orderly. Twenty-five million people voted. There were three hundred or maybe four hundred foreign observers. There were about 1500 local observers and there was no question that the opposition won the majority of seats. But this is a minority regime and immediately, even before the votes were counted, they declared that they had won. And they introduced martial law, emergency law, for about two months and they have continued to refuse to recognize the winning votes of the opposition,” says Mr. Zelleke.
Western observers generally agree that despite irregularities, the ruling Ethiopian
People's Revolutionary Democratic Front won the majority of seats in parliament. But the high number of votes captured by the opposition caught both sides unawares, says William Zartman, Director of the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University. The opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy accused the regime of rigging the election and organized street protests.
“We don’t know what the basic truth is and that is part of the problem. But as I see it, both sides were surprised by the results and they overreacted. I think that’s probably the most usual outcome in a case like this. Martial law was established and that was an overreaction. The opposition thought that they did better than they did and therefore reacted and that was an overreaction,” says Professor Zartman.
CALM HAS RETURNED, BUT FOR HOW LONG?
After six months of calm, last week’s opposition street protests spread from the capital of Addis Ababa to other Ethiopian cities. In the ensuing violence, more than 40 people were killed. More than 150 were reported wounded. Since May 15 election more than a thousand protesters, including opposition politicians, civic leaders and journalists have been arrested. Some critics say the West, focused on preventing terrorism, has been too tolerant of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s crackdown on the opposition. Many analysts, including William Zartman, say the international community’s first priority should be to prevent the border war with Eritrea from breaking out again.
“That means a stronger U.N. presence backed by stronger pressure by the world on both sides to keep them from heading toward an absolutely pointless battle, says Professor Zartman. "Then, I think, it’s important to move ahead with the parliament as it is constituted, that is with a large opposition bloc in it, and work toward a government."
The United Nations, the United States and some 20 countries that provide millions of dollars worth of aid to Ethiopia have appealed to all sides to exercise restraint. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles has promised that every effort will be taken to prevent an escalation of violence. But he has sent mixed signals on whether he will accept the independent commission’s decision on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border. And he has refused to release jailed opposition leaders, saying they will be charged with treason, a crime punishable by death.
Meanwhile, the United Nations is contributing about $200,000.000 a year to maintain peace along the nearly 1000-kilometer long Ethiopia-Eritrea border – a costly mission with no clear end in sight.
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