TOPICS > Politics

Assistant Secretary Susan Rice on Eritrea and Ethiopia

June 16, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHIL PONCE: We’ll have an interview with the Clinton administration’s point person on Africa on developments in Nigeria and on the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. First though some background on Africa’s newest war. The conflict between neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea began last month. It intensified last week when Eritrean aircraft bombed the Ethiopian border town of Adigrat on Thursday, reportedly killing at least four people and injuring thirty. The fighting erupted when Eritrean forces took up positions on land Ethiopia claims as being within its borders. Since then, hundreds of Eritreans and Ethiopians have been killed in ground and air battles fought on three fronts along the 625-mile border. Ethiopia’s prime minister called the attacks a betrayal of the friendship between the two countries.

MELES ZENAWI, Prime Minister, Ethiopia: Had we suspected that our friends are capable of targeting and murdering schoolchildren by air raids, we would have taken more precautions.

PHIL PONCE:The president of Eritrea said his country faced serious choices.

ISAIAS AFEWERKI: What matters here is, do we have to be drifted by the escalation? Do we have to be desperate and very reactive to what is happening? Or do we have to seriously commit ourselves to restraint and continue to persist in finding a peaceful solution?

PHIL PONCE: The conflict is new but has old roots. Eritrea and Ethiopia were historically separate entities. Italy colonized Eritrea in the 19th century and under Mussolini took over Ethiopia in 1936. In 1952, the United Nations granted Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, administrative jurisdiction over Eritrea, which he annexed in 1960. Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after fighting alongside Ethiopia’s current leaders to depose the dictator who had taken power. The precise border between the two states was never quite worked out. The dispute is over a barren piece of land–the Yirga Triangle– which Ethiopia claims is part of its Tigre province and whose status has been ill-defined for more than a century. A border commission set up in 1996 was unable to settle the dispute. Eritrea has accused Ethiopian officials of trying to colonize the area over the last year–by sending in thousands of settlers and pushing out the Eritrean inhabitants. On Sunday the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia accepted an American proposal to halt the air attacks

PHIL PONCE: We’re joined now by Susan Rice, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. She has been in Eritrea and Ethiopia recently working on a proposal to end the fighting. Welcome.

SUSAN RICE: Thank you.

PHIL PONCE: These two countries were once allies, the two leaders who we just saw were considered close friends. What happened?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think in the first instance the fact that when Eritrea became independent, the borders were never entirely fully defined has contributed to this. There are also some underlying political and economic tensions between the two countries that perhaps have been manifested in this most recent flair-up along the border.

PHIL PONCE: What kinds of political and economic tensions are you talking about?

SUSAN RICE: Well, on the economic front the two countries are pursuing sovereign economic policies that haven’t always been compatible. There have been issues with respect to their currencies, issues with respect to their relationships to the international financial institutions in their macro economic policies that have made it inclusive at times, sometimes difficult for them to harmonize their economic policies, and as a result, tensions have emerged. On the political front these are countries that are taking narrow and sometimes quite different paths towards participatory democracy. Neither one of them is fully there yet, but they’ve approached it differently. And at times that also has led to different perspectives and divergent approaches.

PHIL PONCE: You were shuttling back and forth between Eritrea and Ethiopia. What were you hearing?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think we were hearing several things. In the first instance we were hearing both sides express what we believe to be a genuine desire to resolve this conflict peacefully and a genuine desire to get to the root causes of the conflict. But both sides understand that the border has not been fully and clearly defined, and at the end of the day, one of the crucial steps forward will be the final determination of the border and its actual demarcation on the ground.

PHIL PONCE: Now, there was a commission that attempted to come up with the demarcation of the border. Why wasn’t it-why was it that that commission wasn’t able to come up with some finality?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think that the commission, itself, ended up being overtaken by events. The tensions on the border erupted rather suddenly into fighting, and once the fighting emerged, I think confidence broke down on both sides, and both sides felt the need to look to third parties, and in this case the United States and Rwanda, as friends and partners of both, and asked if we might lend our support to help them find a peaceful way out of the conflict.

PHIL PONCE: And what was it that you came up with?

SUSAN RICE: Well, we spent a good deal of time-almost actually a month-listening very carefully to the perspectives of both sides, trying to understand how they see a peaceful solution. We actually found a good deal of common ground between the two sides and we put together a series of recommendations, recommendations as friendly facilitators, as to how they might resolve their differences, and where there wasn’t common ground, we tried to suggest a compromise, a middle path to leap to a peaceful solution. We also had urged both sides to stop the air strikes and the threat of air strikes, which have been one of the most dangerous and deadly elements of the recent conflict.

PHIL PONCE: And did both sides sign off on what you had come up with?

SUSAN RICE: Well, both sides have most recently agreed to halt the air strikes and the threat of the use of air strikes, and that’s a positive step forward. With respect to the package of recommendations we’ve put on the table, the Ethiopian government has made it clear that it’s prepared to accept recommendations. The Eritrean government has said that it accepts many aspects of it, but there are specific issues of implementation and detail that need to be worked out. And, more recently, in fact, they’ve suggested that the conflict has evolved to the extent that perhaps direct discussions between the two sides are what’s needed to resolve the conflict.

PHIL PONCE: And how likely is that to happen?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think unfortunately in the near term it’s not likely, because there are some fundamental issues which divide them. The government of Ethiopia has made it very clear that it’s not prepared for face-to-face negotiations unless and until Eritrea withdraws from territory that Ethiopia claims belongs to Ethiopia. So there’s some stumbling blocks still in the road.

PHIL PONCE: And is that the main stumbling block, the reluctance on the part of Eritrea to withdraw from that territory?

SUSAN RICE: That’s the stumbling block from the Ethiopian perspective, I’m sure. The Eritreans, on the other hand, view this as land that is theirs, and so the question is: without prejudicing the ultimate issue of whose land is whose, which is really for experts to determine, neutral third party technical experts, is there a way to bring both sides to a peaceful resolution of this and stop the fighting long enough for the border, itself, to actually be demarcated?

PHIL PONCE: And how would you describe U.S. interests in this conflict?

SUSAN RICE: Well, the United States is friends with both these countries, and sees them as linchpins for a larger effort in the horn of Africa to bring about stability and food security and to contain some threats that emanate from neighboring countries like Sudan and Somalia that are dangerous not only to the countries in the region but potentially to the United States. And so we have an interest in trying to see two countries, which up until this point had made quite substantial progress in their economic development and political reform, find a swift and peaceful way forward.

PHIL PONCE: Moving on to Nigeria, recently the new military leader of Nigeria released nine political prisoners. How do you interpret that?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think this is a positive step and one that we’ve welcomed. Nigeria has had a sudden but I think very momentous window of opportunity with new leadership coming to the fore, leadership that says it’s committed to making credible the transition to civilian democratic government. And we certainly hope that that commitment is genuine. We see positive early signs in the release of these nine political prisoners, including some very prominent political prisoners, and we hope this will be followed by the release of all political prisoners without conditions and that steps will then be taken to make this transition process real.

PHIL PONCE: The most prominent political prisoner, Mr. Moshood Abiola, has not been released. Is that troubling to the United States? He’s the person who-was the apparent winner of democratic elections in 1993.

SUSAN RICE: Well, we have long called for his release, and we still think that’s a fundamental step, along with every other political prisoner in opening up a very genuine and credible democratic process, and so we do hope that he very soon will be released, and that he and everybody else who may wish to compete in the upcoming elections are allowed to do so.

PHIL PONCE: Speaking of credibility, you mentioned credibility earlier, military dictators in Nigeria have been promising over the years that they’re going to restore civilian democratic government. Do you believe then now?

SUSAN RICE: Well, in the past actually there have been instances of military leaders in Nigeria handing over to civilian governments. And, in fact, President Obasanjo, who was among the prisoners whose release was announced yesterday, was the prime example of that. So it’s not unprecedented, and we would hope that this would again be a turning point in Nigeria’s history, where the military would recognize that it can best serve the country by playing the traditional role of the military, responsive to civilian control, so that Nigeria can take its rightful place as the leader not only in Africa but around the world.

PHIL PONCE: President Clinton spoke with the current military leader of Nigeria the day before these prisoners were released. Is there a connection?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I don’t think it’s possible to draw a direct connection. President Clinton conveyed a general but very important message, which is that the United States wants to be helpful to Nigeria as it makes a credible transition to democracy. We want a stable, prosperous, democratic Nigeria, and if we can be helpful in bringing that about, we would like to put the steps like the one that was taken yesterday is important-more need to be taken for Nigeria to earn its rightful place.

PHIL PONCE: The former ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, is quoted as saying that Nigeria is the most important nation in Africa. What are the U.S. interests there?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Nigeria, first of all, is the largest nation in Africa in terms of population. It has got some of Africa’s most important natural resources, oil, gas, and other resources. It has a large military, which has actually made some important contributions to regional peace and security in Liberia and more recently in Sierra Leone. So we have an interest in that economy growing and it achieving its full potential. We have an obvious interest in promotional democracy and respect for human rights, and we’d also like to see Nigeria continue to play a leadership role in Africa and a constructive role in regional affairs.

PHIL PONCE: So you’re saying that notwithstanding the leadership there, Nigeria has, nonetheless, in certain respects been a stabilizing force in that part of Africa?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Nigeria has played a constructive role in peacekeeping in various parts of West Africa. But unless and until Nigeria itself is democratic and respects human rights, it too may well be a source of much greater instability as political repression limits the ability of the people of Nigeria to achieve their full potential. So we hope that the progress that we’ve seen in the last little while will continue, that Nigeria will be a force for stability within its own quarters, as well as in the broader sub-region, and that this actually represents a good opening and a way forward.

PHIL PONCE: Assistant Secretary Rice, thank you for being here.

SUSAN RICE: Thank you.