Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
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Wars within wars

By Dan Connell*

An Eritrean pull-back last week from territory claimed by Ethiopia appeared to signal an end to the recent escalation in fighting that has raged between the two former political allies since 12 May, claiming tens of thousands of casualties and displacing as many as a million people. But the crisis is far from over. Even a cease-fire between the two armies is unlikely to bring stability to the volatile area, as other forces are in play that will likely keep the conflict going.

Ethiopian leaders are now publicly voicing what Eritreans always feared -- that this war was never really about borders. Instead, it is a power struggle between two fiercely nationalistic political movements to determine which one will dominate the strategic African Horn. Now that Ethiopia has gained the upper hand militarily, its army is pressing on to restructure Eritrea's political landscape and cripple its ability to hit back in the future. These tactics may backfire, however, and fuel more fighting.

The question is whether Eritrea will be forced by international inaction to fight its way out of the corner it is in today -- confirming its conviction that it can rely on no one for help when the chips are down -- or whether pressure will be brought to bear on Ethiopia to halt its destructive military campaign and negotiate a peaceful resolution of outstanding issues. So far, the international community, particularly the Clinton administration, has done little to encourage such a solution, choosing instead to condemn both sides while remaining above the fray. This is not helpful.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawe said last week that he would not stop the war until Eritrea's military capacity has been substantially reduced, whether or not Asmara pulls its forces out of all disputed territories, as it pledged to do on Wednesday. An announcement Friday that Ethiopia would re-enter peace talks did not change this position. Meanwhile, Ethiopian commanders inside Eritrea are turning over control of captured cities and towns to Eritrean surrogates groomed for such purposes prior to the current military campaign. These forces, grouped under the banner of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF), include a motley array of splinter groups that broke with the nationalist movement in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Two of them -- the Democratic People's Movement of Eritrea and Saghem -- are extreme leftist parties that were sheltered by the Ethiopian rebels within Tigray in the mid-1980s after they were driven out of Eritrea. Others represent rightist Islamist forces nurtured until recently by neighbouring Sudan. Their present alliance masks deep and potentially explosive differences. Several of the opposition groups were given bases in Tigray in the late 1990s, as tensions mounted between the two neighbouring states. After war broke out, Ethiopia gave the dissident groups radio facilities -- though there was no sign of their presence within the country as recently as March, when I toured areas of western Eritrea now under Ethiopian control. Meanwhile, unless the international community succeeds in bringing the two countries to the negotiating table soon, the war itself could quickly escalate and spin out of control. Ethiopia holds a clear edge now; but the history of conflict between these two countries has shown that such advantages do not last.

Eritrea's current military strategy closely resembles that used in the former colony's 30-year fight for independence that ended only a decade ago. In the 1970s, Eritrean nationalists defeated Ethiopia's US-equipped army and took control of most of their country. However, once a self-described socialist military junta seized power and realigned Ethiopia with the Soviet Union, the tables quickly turned. When a massive newly mobilised, Soviet-backed army invaded Eritrea in 1978, the badly out-gunned Eritreans withdrew from vulnerable positions, just as they are doing now. Ten years later, they emerged from their mountain redoubt to soundly defeat the more numerous and better armed Ethiopians, setting the stage for independence in 1993.

Convinced that lasting peace was not possible without a change in government in Addis Ababa, the Eritreans also aided a small nationalist movement in the neighbouring province of Tigray, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF went on to seize power in Addis Ababa in 1991, with direct Eritrean military support. Today, the Tigrayan-led coalition that rules Ethiopia is flexing its political and military muscles, both within the country and against its former Eritrean supporters. In the mid-1990s, the government redrew Ethiopia's internal boundaries to reflect ethnic identity. The upshot was a federation of mini-states, with Tigray dominant for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century. The downside was that the Tigrayans then turned their attention to Eritrea, seizing control of small border communities, one at a time, until the Eritreans sent tanks into one of them to assert their counter-claims. This village was Badme. The mechanised attack took place on 12 May 1998. The next day Ethiopia declared war. But Badme was only the spark lighting a tinderbox already primed to explode. Once the Eritreans were pushed out of Badme in February 1999, Ethiopia raised new issues to warrant continued hostilities, insisting that Eritrean withdrawal from the town of Zalembassa was a precondition for an end to the fighting. Yet Eritrea's withdrawal Wednesday from Zalembassa has had no effect on the war. Nor is a pull-back from Bada or Burre -- the sole remaining villages claimed by Ethiopia -- likely to have an impact. Which is to say, this war is not, and has never been, about conflicting claims to these territories.

This war is a bid by the Tigrayan nationalists who now control Ethiopia to whittle down their feisty northern neighbour and to alter its political landscape. The cost in human terms is already staggering and will almost certainly worsen. Since the fighting started two weeks ago, more than half a million people have been displaced within Eritrea. This comes on top of an estimated 200,000 driven from their homes in earlier rounds of fighting. With at least this many also threatened with starvation by a persistent drought affecting much of the famine-prone region, at least a quarter of Eritrea's 3.5 million people are now at risk. With such highly charged forces unleashed, there is little likelihood that diplomatic shuttles between the two capitals will slow the killing, unless strong sanctions are applied to force both a cease-fire and the immediate and full implementation of an Organisation of Africa Unity peace plan that has been on the table for nearly a year. This plan calls for both sides to disengage their forces while border claims are adjudicated by outside experts. There is no other way to settle this dispute that will not lead to renewed fighting. However, the longer the conflict continues, the more possible it is that wars within wars will keep the region off-balance and open the door to a resumption of fighting once the pressure is off.


*The writer is the author of Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution (Red Sea Press)

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