Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
27 May - 2 June 1999
Issue No. 431
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Front Page

Nation at war

By David Hirst

David Hirst Seven weeks after the battle of Tsorona, the bloodiest yet of this desert "border" war, Ethiopian soldiers still lie unburied on the baking plain, just yards from Eritrean trenches; an occasional breeze, otherwise welcome, brings only the stench of decomposition. A good fifth of Eritrean combatants are women. "I was born in Addis Ababa," said Agib Haile, a comely 21-year-old, "Ethiopians are my friends. I love them so much. It was horrible." The horror, it seems, lay less in what Eritreans themselves suffered -- though she lost her closest friend -- than what they inflicted on the enemy.

The Ethiopian commanders' strategy was brutally simple. Assembling tens of thousands of barely trained recruits along a 5km front, they drove them forward, wave upon wave, with the sole mission of blowing themselves up on minefields until, reaching the Eritrean front line, they had cleared a path for better trained infantry, mechanised forces and armour. In the third or fourth wave, about 5,000 peasants came with them, their mules and donkeys bearing food and ammunition for the anticipated Ethiopian breakthrough.

It didn't work. The doomed men hardly raised their weapons, but linked hands, a sort of despairing communal solace in the face of certain death from one of four sources: the mines, pin-point artillery fire which the gunners had been perfecting for months, the trenches, and, finally, their own officers at the rear, who shot them if they turned and ran. This was the horror of which Agib and her companions spoke, of mowing down the oncoming horde till their Kalashnikovs became too hot to hold, their fingers raw with the unclipping of grenades.

What began, a year ago, as a "border" war, a squabble over a few patches of remote, and largely infertile, land, has turned into an all-out struggle between two of Africa's most militarily formidable, if indigent, countries. Over half a million men are now deployed along their 1,000km frontier, recently the scene of two huge battles, of which Tsorona was one, and Badme, the main focus of territorial dispute, the other. The Eritrean losses, never officially divulged, have been considerable, but their claims to have killed 40,000 to 50,000 enemy troops -- a sixth of the army -- are deemed quite credible by European diplomats in Asmara.

Yet it's not really a "border" war at all. Eritreans have long suspected a "hidden agenda" far broader than that. The evidence for such an agenda, or at least for one that incrementally unfolds as the war proceeds, grows increasingly plausible. And the impulse that lies behind it grows clearer and clearer too: it is Tigrayan ethno-regional nationalism, the attempt of a small component of the multi-ethnic Ethiopian state to assert itself, at the expense not only of neighbouring Eritrea, but of all other nationalities inside it.

Eritreans and Tigrayans together brought down the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Mengistu Mariam in 1991. The Eritreans opted for their long-cherished goal of complete secession. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) seized power in Addis Ababa. But that decision to stay within the Ethiopian polity was at odds with the goal of Eritrean-style independence which the TPLF, too, had long proclaimed. According to its "independence" manifesto of 1976, Tigray was to have access to the sea, and -- though it was not spelled out -- this could only come via Eritrean territory.

The Mengistu collapse was so complete that, with Eritrean help and encouragement, the Tigrayans were in a position to take over, and entirely dominate, the Ethiopian state. They ended the "chauvinist" supremacy of ethnic Amharans through whom the Emperor Haile Selassie and then Mengistu had ruled. In theory they replaced it with "unity based on equality". In practice their multi-party system, constructed on rigidly ethnic lines, was but a thin democratic facade for a Tigrayan supremacy which, being more unnatural than the Amharans', was even more extreme. "The essence of democracy is majority rule", said a former ambassador to Addis Ababa, "but here we have 4 million Tigrayans lording it over 18 million Amharans, and 20 million Oromos, always the most oppressed." They dominated the administration, completely controlled security services, police and army. Long and bitter memories of Amharan "chauvinism" seemed to pervade and envenom their new sense of mastery.

The Ethiopian state in their hands, they persisted, if surreptitiously, with their strictly Tigrayan agenda. They never formally repudiated their original manifesto. The right of secession was enshrined in the new constitution. Meanwhile, they diverted state resources to their own people and region. These had priority in development, and foreign investment was steered in their direction. They enlarged Tigray province at the expense of others, Wollo and Gonda, achieving contiguity with Sudan.

In 1997, when the border troubles with Eritrea began, it was merely a new threshold in the unfolding agenda. The TPLF published a new, so-called "political map" of Tigray incorporating some of the territories -- Eritrean according to colonial boundaries which, in Africa, are the ultimate, sacrosanct reference -- over which the two states are now at war. Though allies during their common "liberation" struggle, the Tigrayans harbour a traditional animosity towards the Eritreans which now came out, with extraordinary, crude vehemence, in the semi-official rhetoric. They accused the Eritreans of looking down on them -- which many do. "They say of us," said the governor of Tigray, Gebre Asrat, "that a can of Flit is good for 3,000 insects, a cat for fifty mice."

Scenes of war, destruction and hope amid the ruins and a semblance of order in the midst of chaos. A priest clutches his cross and cane and behind him the ruins of his church; a destitute old woman and her grandson made homeless by the war; a truck load of fighters on the way to the battlefield; a woman at war -- aiming at the enemy from a trench; an old Muslim merchant stands aghast in front of his ruined warehouse
photos: Tomas Hartwell
All-out war looming, they mobilised the Ethiopian state on their behalf. The army, overwhelmingly Tigrayan, was vastly enlarged, to some 250,000 men, with the recruitment of other nationalities. Mengistu's Amharan generals were released from gaol, Amharan officers re-enlisted. But Tigrayans still furnish a good 80 per cent of the officers; other than as "advisers", there are few Amharans above the rank of captain. Politically, they adopted the full pan-Ethiopianist discourse, in a partially successful bid to win over the Amharans -- many of whom were never reconciled to the loss of Eritrea -- as their new allies of convenience.

When the war resumed, on a larger scale, this February, yet more of the unfolding agenda came out with it. They had begun, about this time, to speak openly of bringing down the "Isaias regime", and replacing it with a "transitional government" drawn from a small dissident group, the Eritrean Liberation Front, defeated by President Isaias Afewerki's followers early in the "liberation" struggle.

Here, at Tsorona, it was no longer a question of territorial claims: this part of the border is not in dispute at all. Tsorona was simply the natural pathway to the capital, Asmara. Prisoners-of-war say that they were given instructions on how to get there, which particular cars they could appropriate when they did. Obviously, with a puppet regime installed in Asmara, the TPLF could have easily imposed what is probably its maximalist territorial agenda -- access to the sea at Assab -- and simultaneously gratified the pan-Ethiopianist irredentism of the Amharans. It would have been a great triumph.

But Eritrea has so far foiled such ambitions. Its population, at about 3 million, is a mere twentieth of Ethiopia's 60 million, but it has -- yet again -- more than made up for this disparity with the vastly superior military skills that are the legacy of its epic, 30-year "liberation" struggle: technical and organisational prowess, iron discipline, high motivation, a capacity for rapid, large-scale mobilisation. True, Ethiopia did achieve a success of sorts -- officially claimed as a "smashing victory" - in its offensive at Badme, when Eritrea announced that its troops had staged a withdrawal. The breakthrough came as a bad shock to the Eritrean public. But the military and political elite argued, persuasively enough, that orderly withdrawal to defensible high ground was the responsible thing to do under such an onslaught, whose cost was in any case so immense that it amounted to an Ethiopian defeat. The public's morale was restored by the rout of the next Ethiopian offensive at Tsorona.

The Ethiopians had apparently been expecting that, even if they couldn't deal Eritrea a knock-out military blow, it would eventually collapse, economically, politically, psychologically, under the burden of keeping no less than a tenth of its population under arms at the front. But that has not happened, and is most unlikely too. Ethiopia has spent an estimated one billion dollars, about two thirds of its annual imports, on new weapons; it is said to pay $20,000 a month on mercenary pilots, Russian, Ukrainian, Croatian, who fly its newly acquired Sokhoi bombers. By contrast Eritrea has spent only an estimated $150 million on new weapons, including MiG-29's. But this drain has been made up for by a $200 million increase in the flow of remittances from Eritreans abroad, always the chief source of hard currency. A model of frugality and self-reliance, Eritrea has no foreign debts. Its growth rate has fallen to four per cent from eight, and may be negative this year. But all the signs, experts say, are that, economically, heavily indebted Ethiopia is now hurting much more than Eritrea.

So, thwarted, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his TPLF face a fateful choice: to retreat -- with grievous loss of face, within Tigray as well as Ethiopia as a whole -- or pursue the war -- with the risk of yet greater setbacks.

At the moment, they still seem bent on the second course. But nothing illustrates its unsustainability like the horrors of Tsorona. If the conduct of war is a measure of a government's fitness, and ultimately its ability to rule, then Tsorona can only be described as a terrible indictment of the TPLF. Basically, it was ignorant Oromo peasants whom it selected as human minesweepers, and Tigrayan officers who shot these wretches from the rear. Yet it showed hardly less contempt for its own people. It was local Tigrayan villagers who were pressed into that suicidal baggage train. And it was mainly Tigrayan soldiers who died in the tanks -- scores of newly acquired T-54's lie alongside those decomposing corpses -- which the regime, for security reasons, could entrust to no other nationality. "Even Mengistu", said a veteran of the "liberation" struggle, "did not sink to this level."

Not surprisingly, resentments are reportedly deep and growing inside Ethiopia. It is far easier for Eritrea to exploit the simmering, potentially volcanic hatreds of that country's oppressed nationalities than it ever can be for Ethiopia to exploit a discredited, unrepresentative Eritrean opposition. With the supply of arms to Oromos and others, it has apparently begun doing so.

Ethiopia's only real success has been on the diplomatic front; on the outbreak of war, it had generally managed to portray Eritrea as the "aggressor" and win international acceptance for the demand that it should withdraw from the area, Badme, which it claims as its own. But there, too, it is now losing ground. Since February, and Eritrea's acceptance of the Organisation of African Unity's (OAU) so-called "framework" agreement, opinion has been shifting its way. European diplomats in Asmara argue that, with Ethiopia now putting forward new "preconditions" -- Eritrea's withdrawal not just from Badme but all disputed territories -- it is itself clearly emerging as the obstructionist party.

If, under international pressures that can only grow, the TPLF were to go for a compromise now, it could, Eritreans believe, save itself, along with Tigrayan ascendancy over the Ethiopian state. If it doesn't -- they confidently forecast from the president down -- their small country will sooner or later become that catalyst of great upheavals within its giant neighbour which it has so often been before.

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