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  • Eritrea – Ethiopia Conflict

  •   Leaders Personify Clash in Horn of Africa

    By Karl Vick
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Wednesday, June 17, 1998; Page A20

    BADAME, Eritrea—On the near ridge, dug in along either side of a Soviet-made tank, are the forces of Eritrea, a spanking new nation that two months ago was still being hailed the world over for putting its energies into development instead of war.

    A Personal Feud?

    Analysts say the current fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia is based on a falling out between the two leaders, President Issaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia. "It's very difficult to easily find an answer" to the border dispute, says Issaias.

    On the far ridge, where the percussive thump of mortar fire now rises, is the army of Ethiopia, an ancient country that until recently was another prime example of President Clinton's "African renaissance."

    And between the two ridges lies three miles of what has brought two of America's favorites to lethal blows -- a dusty terrain of termite mounds, goatherds and bushes just tall enough for a camel to graze upon comfortably.

    How the two old friends got into a war over this strip of land remains a mystery even to the men who started it, they say.

    "It's very difficult to easily find an answer," said Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki.

    "I was surprised, shocked, puzzled," said Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia.

    If the two sides fail to figure it out, the last remaining island of stability in the Horn of Africa will be Djibouti, a former French colony the size of New Jersey. Somalia, with no central government, is ruled in sections by warlords. And the vast Sudan, which the United States has dubbed a terrorist state, is under assault by rebels the Clinton administration has encouraged by sending such "nonlethal" military aid as radios and combat boots by way of adjoining states, including Ethiopia and Eritrea.

    But now they are fighting each other.

    "It's a dangerous neighborhood," said Susan Rice, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, who spent weeks trying in vain to head off the war. "If they don't resolve it peacefully, it's a step backward in Africa's recent progress that we have been so determined to support. How big a step backward I don't think we'll know for a while."

    Some of the damage was stanched Monday when both sides heeded Clinton's personal call to stop bombing each other. The cease-fire applies only to the air war, which in several rounds of raids over the last 11 days has produced mostly civilian casualties. The deadliest raid occurred in the Ethiopian city of Mekele, where Eritrea dropped cluster bombs near a school.

    "It was not intentional," Issaias said in an interview.

    Diplomatic efforts are now focused on halting the ground war, which last week raged on three fronts, including this section of the disputed territory. The United States and Rwanda continue to try to broker a peace plan that Ethiopia already has embraced. This week, Issaias and Meles will meet with four African heads of state dispatched by the Organization of African Unity in an effort to sort things out.

    This scrubby terrain is a likely starting point. It was here, more than 20 years ago, that the future governments of both countries first threw in their lot together. Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia at the time, and a rebel group co-led by Issaias was battling to liberate it. A second insurgent group was forming in the adjoining province of Tigray, and on the day they joined forces the Eritreans presented their new allies with a symbolic gift of 11 rifles not far from where they are now fighting.

    At the time, the common enemy was the Ethiopian government headed by Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Marxist regime so brutal that some historians hold it responsible for 1 million deaths. When it was finally defeated by the combined rebel forces in 1991, the new Ethiopian government headed by Meles gave Eritreans the option to secede. The referendum was overwhelming; the formal 1993 separation almost serene.

    At the time, both sides say, neither paid much attention to the border. The outlines of Eritrea were established by Italians who colonized it in the late 19th century, and who gave the region its separate identity. To keep border disputes at bay, many African states uphold the integrity of colonial boundaries.

    But between Ethiopia and Eritrea, proprietorship over several regions remained vague. One was the area known as Badame. Within Eritrea on maps, it continued to be administered by Ethiopia after Eritrean independence. That caused no conflict until last year, when Ethiopia did two things. It printed maps showing Badame in Ethiopia -- even on the country silhouette on the national currency, the birr -- and sent border police to enforce the new boundary.

    "The suspicion was growing," Issaias said.

    The key conflict occurred May 6, when a handful of Eritrean troops were killed in the disputed territory. Ethiopian officials maintain that the flash point came when the Eritreans refused to leave their weapons behind when crossing the border. Eritrean officials say their forces were challenging an Ethiopian crew that was moving boundary markers farther into Eritrean territory.

    In any event, the clash prompted urgent talks between the two governments. Meles, the Ethiopian prime minister, said he believed the delegations had agreed formally to address the territorial issue in two months. "There was the usual friendly chat and celebration and all the rest," he said.

    Then, two days later, the Eritreans moved tanks into the disputed territory. "It sort of reminds me of what happened just before the attack on Hawaii," Meles said.

    Told of the comparison to Pearl Harbor, Issaias made a face. "People tell stories," he said, then he repeated his own recent suspicions about previous border violations by Ethiopian forces that he had accepted at the time, he said, as innocent.

    The two leaders, once close, have not spoken in weeks. Speculation is rife that the dispute between their nations is actually between them.

    Ted Dagne, a Congressional Research Service analyst who monitors both countries closely, said the problem escalated dramatically when the two leaders stopped speaking. "I think the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is based largely on the relationship between Meles and Issaias," Dagne said. "When that relationship basically collapsed, you had a total breakdown in communications."

    Others, especially in Ethiopia, suggest the war has at least some of its roots in recent economic tensions. After Eritrea introduced its own currency, the nakfa, last November, Ethiopia insisted that what had been wide-open trade between the countries be conducted in dollars. Eritreans complained that letters of credit were being required and new duties levied.

    "They would stop the truck on the road to the border and take chickens out for taxes," said Daniel Mehretead, a businessman in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

    Whatever lay at the heart of the matter, the surface has sullied the reputations of at least two of Africa's "new generation of leaders." Meles said the image may have been simplistic in the first place.

    "If the image was [that] there is now a leadership in Africa that is incapable of making mistakes, even blunders, if that was the image, then this is clearly going to be a letdown," he said.

    "If the image was a more nuanced one, then this is just a tragic blip."


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