TOPICS > Politics

Ethiopia and Eritrea

May 30, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: It has been two years of on again off again war and a few weeks of ferocious battle. The opening of peace talks between Ethiopia and Eritrea was overshadowed by attacks at an Eritrean airport yesterday 12. Ethiopian jets bombed a military airstrip near the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Ambulances raced to the scene of the daylight attack, the first on the capital since the conflict began. The talks that opened today in Algeria, after several postponements, were the latest sign of a possible end to the war. But peace talks have broken off before with disastrous results. Earlier this month, Ethiopia launched a major offensive along the disputed border just eight days after planned talks had collapsed. But even a month ago, U.S. officials said it would be difficult to reach a settlement at the peace talks. Susan Rice is the U.S. Assistant Secretary for State for African Affairs. She told the NewsHour in April it was apparent how difficult negotiations would be.

SUSAN RICE: One of the tragedies of this conflict is that they’ve agreed from virtually day one on how to end the conflict. They have agreed that the end state for peace is a final and permanent demarcation of the border. But there have been various disagreements on how to get there.

RAY SUAREZ: Both countries are located in the Horn of Africa. The war began in 1998 as a border dispute in the region around Badme claimed by both countries. The toll is high: More than 50,000 people– perhaps as many as 70,000– have died in this war. Until the war began, the two countries, both among the world’s poorest, were close allies. Ethiopia has a population of more than 60 million. Eritrea, with a population of 3.5 million, was an Italian colony, then a northern province of Ethiopia. After a long civil war, Eritrea gained its independence in 1993. But war broke out when Eritrea moved its troops along the border and seized land under Ethiopian control. Now Eritrean soldiers say they are protecting their country from an Ethiopian power grab.

SPOKESMAN: I’m preparing to go to the front to defend our country, to defend our country from the enemies that are invading our cities and destroying the people who live there.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent days, Ethiopian forces have been routing their opponents. Eritrean soldiers have been captured, along with their weapons and ammunition. The Ethiopian military successes have reportedly sent hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fleeing from their homes. The war could not come at a worse time. Both countries also face famine after back-to-back years of drought. Eight million people, or one out of every seven Ethiopians, are on the brink of starvation. Another one million Eritreans also face starvation.

RAY SUAREZ: Today the Ethiopian foreign minister said his country’s sweeping successes on the battlefield mean the Organization of African Unity’s peace plan has to be rewritten– for example, the verification of disputed territories, which he called irrelevant, now that Ethiopia has recaptured it all. For more on war and peace in the horn of Africa, we get three perspectives. Marina Ottaway is senior associate and director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. John Harbeson is professor of political science at City University of New York graduate center and the city college of New York. Both have taught at the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. And Ruth Iyob is assistant professor of political science and international studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and author of “The Eritrean Struggle for Independence.” She was born in Eritrea, and is now a U.S. citizen.

RAY SUAREZ: Marina Ottaway, for a long time this battle front was quiet. Why did this war burst into flame again?

MARINA OTTAWAY: Because the Ethiopian government had decided they had to break the stalemate. That the peace negotiation had stalled and they decided that they needed to do something decisive to make it possible for negotiation to resume I think.

RAY SUAREZ: And this, what, puts them in control of the rest of the peace process?

MARINA OTTAWAY: It certainly puts Eritrea in a position where it has to accept the peace process because Eritrea has pretty much lost its capacity to fight for the time being.

RAY SUAREZ: Ruth Iyob, what is your explanation for why after months of quiet, there was such a ferocious battle on this front again?

RUTH IYOB: The reason I think my view or perspective of this would be, one, is I seem to be in disagreement with Marina Ottaway because the Eritrean army is not really incapacitated and the second issue is that the peace negotiations were really not made to be workable. There was a conflict of vision between the two sides, and that conflict of vision created a clash of interests. This is more an issue of jurisdiction, and sovereignty so that one of the reasons why it has started again now is that the peace — the so-called peace talks were stalled by Ethiopia later and first by Eritrea. So that at this point what you have is people who are not interested in actually working on the peace issues. This is changing facts on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: But both sides, during the long cessation of battle pointed fingers at the other side and said, well, the framework is there, it’s the other guys keeping us from making peace.

RUTH IYOB: Except there was a juncture in February 1999 what Ethiopia broke through Eritrea trenches and was able to take back Badme, the first disputed area. Since then in August 1999, I think the Eritrean president actually wrote accepting the peace plan and, you know, the framework and technical arrangement a very detailed piece of work with scheduled days, et cetera. Even much more than the ones that the Ugandans are working on to get out of Kisangani — but both — in the cases of the central Africa there was disagreement by all sides there was the agreement. What is missing in the horn in the Eritrea and Ethiopia conflict is the absence of such a body like the Lusaka agreement.

RAY SUAREZ: John Harbeson, the Ethiopian foreign minister called into doubt the future of the OAU framework today in Algiers. He called some of its strictures and some of its policies irrelevant, saying they would have to be written. Does this push the time line for peace far off into the future?

JOHN HARBESON: I think it may do exactly that. I think the underlying issue is that back in 1993, these two countries signed a broad peace agreement, and didn’t consider any of the ways in which their interests might diverge not only on the border, but issues of an economic relationship – – on currency, trade, and taxation, very different political philosophies and their whole power relationship in the horn of Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: So they didn’t do the hard work when it should have been done?

JOHN HARBESON: That’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you do now?

JOHN HARBESON: I think if the peace talks in Algiers are to get somewhere we’re going to have to begin to address some of these issues. I think underlying Ethiopia’s technical objections lies much deeper issues, the kind that I referred to.

RAY SUAREZ: Marina Ottaway?

MARINA OTTAWAY: I don’t quite agree with that. I think, probably, this fighting is going to lead to an agreement much sooner in terms of, the issue was where the line was, to which both side would have to withdraw pending international arbitration. I think the Ethiopians had the Eritreans where they wanted them to be. I expect, very frankly, the Ethiopians will withdraw back to what they consider to be the proper line, and at that point the negotiations will go on. I think that’s what the foreign minister was referring to, when he said some of the issues are now obsolete. They are obsolete because the withdrawal has taken place as far as they are concerned, but I think the biggest item I’ve not seen is anything that indicates to me that indicates that the basic points of the peace agreement are no longer on the table.

RAY SUAREZ: But do you think this war is about where that line is any longer, now that it’s been going on for a couple of years with those horrendous losses, or is there something more that the Ethiopians are looking for? Perhaps a tamed Eritrea, an overthrown government in Asmara?

MARINA OTTAWAY: I think they would love to see the last of the… I think they would love to see a change of government but I doubt they are going to continue the war until that takes place. I think the Ethiopians know that Eritrea becomes very dangerous to them, if they move from a conventional war to guerrilla warfare. They have seen the Eritreans in action in the past. They know that if they begin to get into warfare, the Ethiopians don’t have a chance. They are never going to regain control of the country, so I think they’ll withdraw to the line that they consider the proper line between the two countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Ruth Iyob, the Ethiopians have taken up big chunks of Eritrean territory, created a lot of refugees. What does Eritrea do now?

RUTH IYOB: What Eritrea has done is it has resorted to its old traditions. They have headed for the mountains. But I think clearly what should not be forgotten is… What should not really be forgotten is the method and the process that is being used. Eritrea is a sovereign country. So is Ethiopia. Sovereign countries have disagreements. They have conflicts. How do they resolve them? I think as John Harbeson put it, the demarcation of boundaries were delayed, and they were delayed because the two leaders at that point were allies, they were former guerrillas turned into statesmen, but they delayed it. But we should also remember that when Eritrea ascended or became a sovereign state, no one, especially Ethiopia, made claims on those territories.

So at a certain point what we are seeing is if Ethiopia claims at this point that Eritrea is going to be a danger to it, and argues that they are going to emasculate – emasculate the Eritrean army, what exactly does it mean? I think it’s important to unpack that concept. Emasculate: How do you do that? Are you going to exterminate people who are capable of fighting? Are you going have a “final solution,” as they said now. Nowi was quoted as saying, “we’ll, we’ll finish with this war quickly, then deal with it.”

So it is partly the appeasement of Ethiopia’s designs, whatever they are, whether they want to retain Badme, and the other areas or not — the issue at this point, is that the Eritreans feel their survival is at stake and the silence of the international system, the U.S., the E.U., The OAU, et cetera, until it’s almost too late is just amazing. So what it has made the Eritreans feel is that they, and only they, can save themselves. So they’ve headed to the mountains, which means that the view among policy makers, that stability depends on Ethiopia is under question, because if Eritrea is under threats of extinction, or under threats of war, because its visions conflict with that of Ethiopia, this gives us terrible precedence.

RAY SUAREZ: John Harbeson, we just heard two very different visions of this war. Maybe we could talk a little bit about the international community. It got involved early. The United States was trying to act as an honest broker. The OAU was in there from early on, in the first days of the war. Why has international help been so ineffective?

JOHN HARBESON: Well, they got in early, once the war started. But the conflicts I referred to earlier were under the radar screen of diplomatic concern for seven years or five years, before the war broke out. I think if they had paid more attention earlier… by this country and others to underlying issues we might have gotten further. I would just point out that the Ethiopians have not agreed to negotiate on what the boundary really is. And they have said that they will define… they alone will define where that boundary is going to be.

RAY SUAREZ: There are a lot of different maps floating around.

JOHN HARBESON: There sure are.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think it’s even possible to say with some certainty what the boundary is?

JOHN HARBESON: I don’t think — I don’t think it is. I mean I think one could demarcate on the basis of the Italian treaties, but I’m not entirely sure that that is satisfactory to both sides.

MARINA OTTAWAY: I have not heard the Ethiopians saying that they would not allow the final boundary to be decided by international arbitration. Neither Meles nor the foreign minister have said anything along those lines. I don’t see anything that indicates that they are… what they want now is doing more than pushing the Eritreans back to what they consider to be the line before May 1998. They have not said that they alone will decide where the final boundary is supposed to be.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, your reply.

JOHN HARBESON: They have said that they and they alone will determine when they have recovered all their land. They are not negotiating that.

RAY SUAREZ: Finish your point.

MARINA OTTAWAY: That is different from saying that is going to be the permanent line. They have not said that they, and they alone, will determine the permanent boundary. They said that this attack was to force the Eritreans to go back to the status quo until May 1998. And they have said that they alone will determine when that point has been reached, but that is not the final settlement.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.

RUTH IYOB: Thank you. I think that, yes, there will be disagreements, but I think there are two things to remember here.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly please.

RUTH IYOB: The OAU principles that colonial boundaries are sacrosanct are being challenged, and basically the foreign minister today, as reported by BBC and Algiers has said that the colonial boundaries should not be the sole basis. This is a key issue. This is not just an Ethiopia- Eritrea war at this point. It is trying to unilaterally using military force to overthrow a principle that has kept peace in the African state system since the post-colonial era, so I think that is important to pay attention to.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, from what you are all saying it doesn’t sound like an end to hostilities any time soon. Thank you, guests, all.