East Africa: Eritrea-Ethiopia, 2, Wed, 28 Oct 1998

East Africa: Eritrea-Ethiopia, 2, Wed, 28 Oct 1998

East Africa: Eritrea-Ethiopia, 2 Date distributed (ymd): 981028 Document reposted by APIC

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Region: East Africa Issue Areas: +security/peace+ Summary Contents: This posting contains part 2 of a special background report on the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network for Central and Eastern Africa (IRIN). Part 1 is being sent in a separate posting.

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UNITED NATIONS Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Integrated Regional Information Network for Central and Eastern Africa (IRIN) Tel: +254 2 622147 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail:

[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.]

(continued from part 1)


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.


[The material contained in this communication comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN IRIN Tel: +254 2 622123 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail: for more information or subscriptions. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. IRIN reports are archived on the WWW at: or can be retrieved automatically by sending e-mail to Mailing list: irin-cea-weekly]

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Message-Id: <> From: Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 16:09:46 -0500 Subject: East Africa: Eritrea-Ethiopia, 2

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar,