IRIN Special Background Report 1998.10.26

IRIN Special Background Report 1998.10.26

U N I T E D N A T I O N S Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Integrated Regional Information Network for Central and Eastern Africa

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[This report is issued as a background document for the benefit of the humanitarian community only. It draws on a wide range of publicly-available sources and interviews conducted by IRIN in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but cannot be said to represent the views of the United Nations. It should not be directly quoted by media.]

ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: IRIN Special Background Report October 26 1998


"Senseless". "Appalling". "Completely unexpected". These are a few of the reactions from senior figures interviewed by IRIN in Ethiopia and Eritrea as their border war reaches a six-month stalemate. If they are surprised, their countries' friends, neighbours and investors are stunned. Profiled as dedicated strategists of African self-reliance, the two leaders, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are now locked in a dangerous military showdown, anaylsts and diplomats say.

Last ditch diplomatic efforts are underway to avert a renewed outbreak of hostilities which flared up last May. A key OAU meeting in Burkina Faso has been shifted back several times to 7 November at the earliest, diplomatic sources say. A news blackout shrouded an early October mission to both capitals by US envoy, former US national security official Anthony Lake.

This paper from the IRIN network attempts to place the current situation in context, as a background report. As tensions remain high, and both sides reportedly are mobilising for war, it tries to draw attention to the potential impacts of a failure to reach a peaceful conclusion to the crisis.


The armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea clashed on their common border in May and June this year. The two countries had close ties, due to their historical links - Eritrea became officially independent from Ethiopia in 1993 - and the personal relationship between their two leaders. Isaias and Meles were fellow rebel leaders, heading two liberation fronts which in latter years cooperated to overthrow the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Despite periods of ideological and tactical disagreement, Isaias' Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and Meles' Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), both formed in the mid-seventies, were the heart of the forces that defeated sub-Saharan Africa's then largest army in 1991.

The TPLF is the core of the multi-ethnic Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which now dominates the Ethiopian political scene. After Eritrean independence, overwhelmingly approved by a referendum in 1993, peacetime relations seemed set to remain firm.

Relations, however, noticeably deteriorated last year, when Eritrea launched its own currency and Ethiopia responded by insisting that cross-border trade be conducted in hard currency. Officials now claim that there had been other minor economic and political problems between the two sides, while Eritrea has recently revealed details of a hushed-up 1997 border clash at Bada in July 1997. Other causes of friction were new maps of Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, and an allegedly enlarged Ethiopian national map on the re-issued Ethiopian currency, the birr. Ethiopia's spokesperson, Selome Tadesse, however, dismissed earlier differences between the two as minor, saying "we had bigger issues to focus on."

Conflict broke out in May this year after disagreements over several points on the common border worsened, despite the creation of a joint border commission. Despite intensive peace efforts led by US and Rwandan facilitators, events escalated to a peak in early June, at which point land forces clashed heavily on three fronts (Badme, Zal Anbessa and Bure) and both sides exchanged air strikes.

Hundreds of soldiers were killed, up to 300,000 civilians have been displaced, schoolchildren were killed in an Eritrean air raid on Ethiopia's northern Tigray provincal capital of Mekelle and economic activity on both sides of the border has been disrupted. In the lull that has followed the June clashes, both sides have abided by a US-brokered moritorium on air strikes. Military clashes on the border have been kept to occasional artillery exchanges. Diplomatic efforts to broker an agreement are in a stalemate. The US-Rwanda plan originally asked the Eritrean forces to withdraw pending a final settlement, but Eritrea refused, saying it would only withdraw if the territory were demilitarised and controlled by a third force.

The mood in both countries is one of apprehension mixed with considerable anger and bitterness. The conflict-related migration of tens of thousands of civilians from each side has raised allegations of widespread human rights abuse and "ethnic cleansing". Military mobilisation has been accompanied by antagonistic propaganda from both sides. As the conflict drags on towards a sixth month, the prospects for peace are dim. Diplomatic rhetoric about an "African renaissance", led by younger leaders such as Meles and Isaias, is fatally undermined by the conflicts in the Horn and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


3.1 Humanitarian situation

Several hundred thousand people may already be displaced along both sides of the border, and official statistics say over 50,000 have migrated between the countries. Hundreds of thousands are considered affected - caring for or accomodating relatives displaced by war or conflict-related migration. The government institutions on each side are seeking a total of well over US $30 million to cope with the humanitarian impact. Humanitarian needs on each side have been met by a combination of local community resources, national, church, NGO and government institutions, and the efforts of international NGOs, UN agencies and donors.

Trade between the two countries has come to a halt. Ethiopia has yet to suffer shortages or significant price rises as a result of using ports other than Assab for its supplies, but a transport industry source says that Djibouti is likely to become "congested" with Ethiopian imports in coming months. The governor of the Eritrean port of Assab, cut off from the Ethiopian hinterland, says there is a "general shortage of supplies in the market", despite supplies arriving by sea.

3.2 Eritrea

The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) has appealed for US $20 million for war-affected Eritreans - about half of which is a six-month food ration for affected people. While displaced and directly affected people are numbered at 100,000, a further 160,000 are classified by ERREC as having "fragile livelihoods worsened by the general state of war". A 4 September ERREC health and water supply appeal for both migrants and war-affected Eritreans is costed at an additional $5.6 million. The UN's September appeal for Eritrea amounted to $8.9 million. The UN's assessment of needs was the result of field visits by two teams of aid officials, and seeks food rations for about 100,000 affected people.

An ERREC official told IRIN the priority at present was to secure cash to supply migrant families with funds and food to repay borrowings from the Eritrean Grain Board. The three biggest international donors to the ERREC appeal so far are the US, the EU and Italy. ERREC is not only seeking to cope with the needs of the temporarily affected, but also is allocating land to migrants who are not returning to Ethiopia. Food distributions within Eritrea have included Ethiopian beneficiaries. A food distribution under the auspices of ERREC in Assab helped feed 10,000 Ethiopians and 4,500 Eritreans, local officials told IRIN.

3.3 Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) reports that a total of 188,690 people are displaced due to the war in northern and eastern Ethiopia. Its 25 September appeal indicates needs for the next six months - until February 1999, which include 28,242 mt of food aid. Non-food needs are costed at 80 million Birr, about US $11.1 million. Following a week-long inter-agency assessment of needs, the UN agencies in Ethiopia devised a complementary response to part of the overall need in both food and non-food sectors. UN agencies are seeking US $4.1 million for emergency aid, complementary to the DPPC appeal. In Ethiopia, UN commitments already total $3.1 million.

Contributions from the public at home and abroad have been important for both countries, but observers say it is not always clear whether public donations are earmarked for humanitarian purposes or the more general war effort. The Ethiopian DPPC said that 71 million birr's worth of cash and goods had so far been donated - about US $10 million - but told donors that the breakdown between military and humanitarian fundraising could not immediately be provided.

3.4 Other humanitarian issues

About 64,000 mt of food aid cargo was in the Eritrean port of Assab at the start of the conflict in May, UN and diplomatic sources say. "It is not clear" where that food aid is now, a diplomat told IRIN. All of the food was destined for Ethiopia, some four million of whose citizens this year were due to receive some form of food assistance. WFP alone has 11,000 mt to account for - valued at US $2.2 million. US officials confirm 43,000 mt of their shipment was also in the port. So far, the Eritrean government has not clarified their policy towards the cargo. In the high temperatures of Assab, WFP is concerned the food "can't last much longer".

Ethiopia has insisted, through the International Maritime Organisation and the regional trade grouping COMESA, that Eritrea release all "import-export" goods that were in the ports.

3.5 Conflict-related migration

The conflict-related migration of Ethiopians and Eritreans arriving back in their home countries has become the most emotive issue of the war. When referring to a variety of population movements ranging from voluntary departures to forcible expulsions, IRIN may use in this and other reports the general term "conflict-related migration".

Both countries host large minorities of the other's citizens. About 130,000 Eritrean adults were registered in Ethiopia at the time of the independence referendum in 1993, but estimates of the total Eritrean population in Ethiopia range from 250,000 up to 500,000. The number of Ethiopians in Eritrea is estimated at around 100,000.

While the exact figures and the degree of coercion are disputed on both sides, it is clear that large numbers of people have been uprooted, repatriated, and are now living in temporary shelter or with relatives, disorientated and angry. The ICRC has been involved in "ensuring safe passage" of the migrants across the front lines on at least 18 occasions, but a carefully worded statement, issued last week, alluded to "recurrent humanitarian problems".

The Eritrean foreign ministry has announced that 30,000 Eritreans have come back from Ethiopia as of 21 October while Ethiopia says 27,000 of its citizens have returned as of 25 September, AP reports.

Human rights groups have criticised both governments for their treatment of civilians, but Ethiopia has come in for harsher criticism. Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged both governments to stop the "harassment and targeting" of civilians in a 17 June statement. HRW noted that the Ethiopian government had made an official demand on 14 June for Eritrean members of political and community organisations to leave. No such formal demand has been made by the Eritrean authorities on Ethiopians. A statement from the Eritrean ministry of foreign affairs on 25 September says, "Eritrea has no policy of expulsion of Ethiopian nationals". Ethiopia retorts that Eritrea makes life "intolerable for them [Ethiopians] while refusing them permission to leave". Both sides regard the treatment of migrants to be violations of human and economic rights, complaining of arrests, beatings and seizure of money and assets.

The ICRC also reports that it is able to visit civilian detainees in both countries, but regularly has access to prisoners of war only in Ethiopia. Reuniting unaccompanied minors with their families is part of the ICRC's work, while 700 Red Cross messages have been passed in and between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is proposing a human rights monitoring mission in both countries, perhaps in conjunction with the OAU, a UNHCHR official in Geneva told IRIN.


4.1 Mobilisation and arms expenditure

Officials from both countries accept estimates that a minimum of 200,000 armed soldiers have been mobilised altogether. A very significant military buildup has been continuing for months. Neither side denies that a process of rearmament has begun, with imports of weapons costing tens of millions of dollars, according to investigations by news organisations and arms trade lobby groups. Aid officials say it is inevitable that funds will be diverted from peacetime development efforts.

The threat of air attacks has raised public fears that the war will reach Asmara and Addis Ababa. The most notorious incident involving civilians in the war so far was an Eritrean bombing of a school in Mekelle. Eritrean spokesman Yemane Ghebre Meskel told IRIN "it was a mistake ... we regret it."

Particularly controversial has been the agreement, reported by the 'Jerusalem Post', of the Israeli government to allow Elbit Systems to supply upgraded MiG-21 fighter jets to the Ethiopian air force within one year. A 1995 report from 'Military and Arms Transfer News' estimated the cost of simliar upgrades on Romanian MiG 21 aircraft - which Elbit is exchanging for Ethiopian aircraft - at about $300 million for 100 aircraft.

Eritrea has been importing weapons from eastern Europe, and a Sudanese opposition source told IRIN that Eritrea, in any case, had inherited "mountains and mountains" of arms from the defeated former Ethiopian forces. "If you need them [arms], you buy them, that's obvious" said a senior Eritrean official. The Eritrean air force has six Aermacchi MB-339CD training jets purchased for $45 million in 1996. The 'Indian Ocean Newsletter' reporting the deal in 1996, said the MB-339CD "can easily be transformed into [an] attack aircraft".

4.2 Dangers of propaganda

Another fear of diplomats and observers is related to the level of propaganda on both sides. Neither side has yet dropped to the level of Rwanda-style "hate media", but in news broadcasts, commentary and state-sanctioned illustrations, both sides "demonise" the other. Three journalists in Ethiopia were arrested in July after publishing an article in their paper 'Nishan' warning against encouraging ethnic animosity, reports a press freedom watchdog, IFEX. Media sources said the three were recently released on bail. An Ethiopian, married to an Eritrean, said he and others in similar circumstances particularly feared the power of propaganda to "poison the mind".


5.1 Shifting regional alliances

"Ethiopia doesn't want surprises on its borders", a diplomat told IRIN in Addis Ababa. A number of signs have emerged that Ethiopia is strengthening relations with those it may need during a war or those it needs to keep at bay. Political support and alleged military help has gone to Somaliland, relations with Khartoum are improving, and in Somalia, Ethiopia's involvement took a new turn when Hussein Aydeed visited Addis in August.

Keeping potential supporters of the armed Islamic Al-Itahad movement, known to have harassed Ethiopia from Somalia, is said by observers to be the motive of the rapprochment with Aydeed, who was formerly not included in Ethiopian-sponsored negotiations. Ethiopia has also helped Djibouti with finance to improve its port operations.

Eritrea too, has been glad to reach agreement with Yemen over the disputed Red Sea Hanish islands - although its claims were largely denied. Eritrea has announced new trade deals with Libya, which had in the 1980s been accused of supporting anti-EPLF Eritrean groups. An African diplomat in Asmara said the "permutations are changing". The re-alignments resulting from the latest rebellion and intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo would also "change the configuration", the diplomat said.

5.2 My enemy's enemy is my friend?

If conflict or even the current low-level dispute continues, there is an increased likelihood of each side helping its neighbour's rebels as part of attempts to undermine and destabilise the enemy. This has in the past, often involved the use of neighbouring states as rear bases for the rebels.

Ethiopia's stand-off with Eritrea has warmed relations between the ruling EPRDF and some "unity"-oriented opposition groups, but others may take advantage of the current conflict to seek support from Eritrea or elsewhere, analysts say. Ethiopia-Sudan relations are coloured by the ability of both sides to foster rebellion, analysts say.

A Horn of Africa analyst told IRIN that a consolidation within the splintered Eritrean armed opposition, might also be encouraged by Addis Ababa. An exiled Ethiopian opposition figure has told IRIN that Ethiopian officials visited an Eritrean rebel faction in Germany earlier this year. Officially, Ethiopia says it has refused to allow Eritrean opposition groups to open offices in Addis Ababa, while Eritrea will admit only that the Eritrean rebel group known as Jihad makes "occasional incursions" into western Eritrea from time to time.

Ethiopia says Eritrea is supporting rebel movements, one being the Oromo Liberation Front - a veteran of opposition to Addis Ababa since 1974. The OLF, briefly in a transitional government with the EPRDF in 1991-1992, is a "mercenary group serving the EPLF", according to Ethiopian president Nagasso Gidada speaking on VOA radio in July.

In interviews with IRIN, spokespersons from both sides will admit the possibility of giving help and encouragement to each other's rebels only if the situation worsens. The prospect of dormant internal disputes breaking into armed conflict could greatly complicate the political, military and humanitarian situation, aid workers say.

5.3 Prospects for negotiated settlement

Diplomatic efforts have been deadlocked for months, as the original 4 June US-Rwanda four-point peace plan remains on the table (full text available from IRIN on request). Since then the OAU Council of Ministers (on 5 June) and OAU Assembly of the Heads of State and Government (on 10 June 10) have to varying degrees backed the plan. UN Security Council resolution 1177 (1998) stops short of endorsing the US-Rwanda plan. The Security Council resolution "notes" the OAU Council of Ministers resolution and "expresses its strong support" for the more cautious OAU Heads of State resolution. A team of OAU-mandated ambassadors after a fact-finding mission agreed that some areas under dispute had been under Ethiopian administration before 6 May.

However, an Eritrean government official told IRIN that the full OAU report was over 80 pages long, and had not been released. The upcoming OAU meeting in Burkina Faso is to consider the whole report. Eritrea, according to spokesman Yemane Ghebre Meskel, does not deny that Eritrean forces presently occupy locations previously controlled by Ethiopia, but says the flaws of the US-Rwanda 4 June peace plan, which most observers say was made public prematurely, were many - it was "incomplete", he said.

The most serious sticking point for both sides has been the "re-deployment" - read withdrawal - of troops from contested areas. Ethiopia demands the unconditional withdrawal of Eritrean troops and the re-establishment of the status quo ante, while Eritrea refuses, unless the contested areas are then patrolled by a neutral force, pending arbitration. Other parts of the US-Rwanda plan, such as the demarcation of the border and arbitration mechanisms are held up by the issue of re-deployment.

About five areas along the common border are disputed. A key difference in public statements so far has been Eritrea's emphasis on colonial boundaries, and Ethiopia's repeated mention of effective administration and historical precedent. A telltale section of the disputed border is the section marked (on maps issued by both sides) as a straight line between the Tekezze and Mareb-Gash rivers. Leaders on both sides have said they have no broader territorial ambitions, but analysts and media reports speculate that in the event of an all-out conflict, Ethiopia would covet Assab, Eritrea's southern Red Sea port that had served landlocked Ethiopia with most of its imports. Humera, on Ethiopia's border with Sudan and Eritrea, is mentioned as a possible strategic target for Eritrea.

Neither side has substantively modified its negotiating position since June, while no new diplomatic initiative has been launched publicly. Ethiopia, satisfied with the US-Rwanda plan, resists the idea of new "tracks", while an Eritrean diplomat, contacted by IRIN, suggests that the latest US mission by Anthony Lake might yet bear fruit and mentions other low-key efforts by African and European to break the deadlock. There have been contacts between the two Orthodox church leaders of each country, and diplomatic sources say a meeting of Christian and Muslim religious leaders is being planned in Norway.


A senior UN official told IRIN that a war between the former close allies, once started, would be hard to stop, saying "it's not a fire you can light and put out quickly." Humanitarian contingency planning is going on in both countries. A UN official said "it could go either way. But whether or not there's further fighting, there will have to be serious thinking about the new relationship between the countries."

Humanitarian aid, military expenditure and disrupted economic activity have already cost some US $100 million, but the historical and cultural links between the countries is a source of hope for some: "You can't permanently create a wall between these people", says Yemane Ghebre Meskel. "Both leaders are looking for a way out", a senior African commentator said.

A long-term analyst of the Horn of Africa told IRIN that in Ethiopia there was "very considerable pressure to fight" from a range of political directions. Emergent Eritrea too, can ill afford to lose face.

Even if peace is established, it will take time to undo the damage to civilian livelihoods, patch up damaged infrastructure and restore trade - politics and bruised pride permitting. Longer-term damage will be in the fields of foreign investment and tourism - where confidence has been badly rattled. However, the conviction on both sides is that they regard war - if it comes - to be just. Ethiopia's Selome Tadesse said it would be "as acceptable as war gets". UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and UN officials in the Horn point out that the war could be the first interstate conflict in a decade, and that such an event has not taken place in Africa since the Ethiopia-Somalia war of 1977-78.


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Date: Mon, 26 Oct 1998 12:19:51 -0300 (GMT+3) From: UN IRIN - Central and Eastern Africa <> Subject: Eritrea-Ethiopia: IRIN Special Background Report 1998.10.26 Message-ID: <>

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar,