Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopian-Eritrean skirmishes

Border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea boiled over into hostilities earlier this month, but further escalation is unlikely, writes Haitham Nouri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia and Eritrea have accused each other of attacking their shared border on 12 and 13 June, heightening fears of a renewal of the bloody war between 1998 and 2000 that left more than 70,000 people dead on both sides.

Information about the border skirmishes is still unclear. It is not yet known who began hostilities, what caused them, and how many casualties were inflicted on either side.

According to media reports, bloody clashes took place in Tserona region on the border. Horn Affairs reported that 300 soldiers and 300 others were killed. Eritrea claimed that its forces killed some 200 Ethiopian soldiers, but did not release casualty numbers for its own troops, according to Voice of America.

Ethiopia released no casualty counts for either its own forces or those of Eritrea. Ethiopian Minister of Information Getachew Reda said that the figures released were not accurate and his country had no interest in concealing its losses in the battle, but he did not announce how many Ethiopian solders were killed or wounded.

AFP reported that according to Reda these clashes were the worst since the end of the war between the neighbouring countries in 2000.

“There are heavy injuries on both sides,” Reda said. “But a precise number has not yet been determined.”

Both states have accused the other of starting the fighting.

According to The Trumpet news site, a heavy exchange of artillery began at dawn on Sunday, 12 June, around Eritrean Tserona and lasted until Monday morning.

Many analysts and observers do not believe tensions will escalate further.

It is no secret that the two countries have not been on good terms since Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, following a decades-long war for independence.

The fight for Eritrean independence began in the 1950s, rising up against the Ethiopian emperor and later against Marxist President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The ruling parties in both Asmara and Addis Ababa fought as allies against Haile Mariam for nearly two decades, but the alliance came apart with Eritrean independence. Just a few years later, a war erupted between the neighbouring countries that shook the Horn of Africa. It ended with the signing of the Algiers Agreement on 18 June 2000.

Eritrea claims that some 19,000 of its soldiers were killed in the war, while Ethiopia puts its war dead at between 34,000 and 60,000.

Yet the two countries have proved unable to respect the peace treaty. While it has been breached on more than one occasion, it has never reached the severity of the recent clashes.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the fighting comes at a critical time for both nations. On the Eritrean side, Asmara is attempting to emerge from its years of isolation, while Addis Ababa seeks to strengthen its regional role in the Horn of Africa region.

After the war, Asmara became increasing isolated internationally, which came to a head in 2009 when the growing human rights crisis and economic decline spurred thousands of youth to flee the country illegally, especially due to the long, open-ended periods of compulsory military service.

In these years, Asmara supported the jihadi Shabaab in its operations against Ethiopia, particularly during the Ethiopian military presence in Somalia. This stance provoked the ire of numerous Western states, but when the war erupted in Yemen between the Saudi-led Arab alliance and Houthis and forces loyal to deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Eritrea suddenly acquired new importance.

Eritrea has a long coastline on the Red Sea, the third longest after Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and it lies in close proximity to Yemen, which became highly significant when the Arab alliance attempted to impose a blockade on the Houthis and Saleh’s forces from the east.

According to an ICG report, Gulf states extended assistance to Asmara to bring Eritrea in as an unofficial ally in the war.

Eritrea lost sovereignty over the Hanish Islands in the southern Red Sea in international arbitration with Yemen.

The ICG report states that the UAE paid hundreds of millions of dollars to lease Assab Port, the southern Eritrean port near Yemen. The EU also began offering aid to the regime to stop the flow of Eritrean migrants to Europe. Investment in the Bisha mining zone bolstered regime revenues as well. It is therefore not in the interest of the regime of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to enter into a war that could bring his country back to square one.

The war would damage Ethiopia as well. Over the last decade, Addis Ababa has achieved the highest economic growth rates on the continent. Dam projects have been highly successful, making the country a source of electricity with Chinese assistance.

Ethiopia is also working to improve railroads linking the capital to Djibouti Port, the sole maritime outlet for the country. In addition, the country has had notable success in limiting the ability of Shabaab militants to strike at vital Ethiopian interests.

These factors are likely to minimise the chances of increased border tensions between the two countries and improve the chances of applying the recommendations of the border committee formed in 2002.

Improved conditions in both countries will likely bolster peace in the Horn of Africa and may make it less likely that either party would risk supporting regime opponents in the other country.

Such a peace could extend to others in the area. Sudan could not stand with either country against the other, since both would have the capacity to hurt it. Both states have also supported the Sudanese opposition against the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir in the past, which is the last thing Khartoum wants to see.

Ethiopia’s efforts to support peace in South Sudan could also be strengthened if Eritrea chose neutrality, or at least left Addis Ababa to work, and could even limit Khartoum’s interference in South Sudanese affairs. Nevertheless, comprehensive peace in South Sudan and between South Sudan and Sudan is still a long way away.

Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia weakens the Shabaab militant group and increases the likelihood of peace in Somalia, although unity in the latter is also not on a near horizon.

Peace between Asmara and Addis Ababa could bring peace to the entire Horn of Africa, even if fragile, allowing its countries to devote themselves to development and regional cooperation, however limited.

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