Dec 5th 2007
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire
Tension grows, again, between Ethiopia and Eritrea
The likelihood of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is at its highest level in seven years. Eritrea is in the weaker position, politically and economically.
At the end of November the UN-mandated Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) shut up shop and announced that its mandate had been fulfilled, notwithstanding the fact that neither government had agreed to the border first delineated by the EEBC in April 2002. This is unlikely to have come as a great surprise to commissioners: immediately after the April 2002 ruling Ethiopia stated that it would not accept the proposed border, and that serious mistakes had been made throughout the delineation process. Eritrea accepted the EEBC's proposal, but only after it had been rejected by Addis Ababa.
From the outset the EEBC failed to inspire confidence in the two governments between which it was supposed to mediate. The UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), a peacekeeping force of 4,200 soldiers (now reduced to 1,700), rapidly became the main focus of operations along the border, while rumours that EEBC officials had failed to visit the most contentious areas along the border, and that large physical landmarks had been put on the wrong side on the border in early maps, did nothing to win the trust of either side.
However, the EEBC's biggest miscalculation was to award the symbolic city of Badme—administered by Ethiopia for decades, and reportedly where the 1998-2000 conflict between the two sides first began—to Eritrea. It should have been apparent that taking away territory held long before the conflict would not be acceptable to the Ethiopian government, particularly as Ethiopia clearly had the upper hand when the cease-fire was agreed.
It would be unfair, however, to blame only the EEBC. Neither government has been a particularly amenable partner, although Eritrea has probably proved the more difficult, since over the past seven years it has expelled UN employees; confiscated UN vehicles; suspended UN helicopter flights; and imposed curfews on UN personnel. The truth is that the original agreement was flawed and never should have been structured under the "final and binding" framework without the proviso of further talks once an initial boundary had been proposed by the EEBC.
Stuck in the middle
At present there are 1,700 UN peacekeepers standing between an estimated 120,000 Ethiopian and 120,000 Eritrean troops. The EEBC has officially delineated its proposed border on all official maps and closed down, and while there have been suggestions that the UN Security Council may try to appoint a new facilitator to renew talks between the two sides, the repeated failure of such attempts over the past seven years makes this unlikely. As a result, the risk of renewed fighting between the two countries is at its greatest since the signing of the peace accord in December 2000. Without a UN agency mandated to solve the border problem, there is little reason for either side to engage in talks based on the premise that the line that has been drawn cannot be changed—and such an alteration cannot occur without a new border commission or similarly sanctioned UN entity.
Since the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Ethiopia has become an important American ally in the combating of international terrorism in the Horn of Africa; this would most likely provide Ethiopia with some diplomatic protection within UN development agencies should fighting break out again. The World Bank has also voiced its commitment to Ethiopia's poor and has refused to say that a return to war would mean an automatic withdrawal from the country.
Not too many friends
Conversely, Eritrea seems to have done everything possible to alienate itself from potential allies: its treatment of UNMEE and other UN personnel, and its rocky diplomatic relations with a number of EU countries and the US, has won it few friends. Perhaps most importantly, in August 2007 the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said in a press briefing that the US State Department was considering including Eritrea on its list of countries that repeatedly provide support for acts of international terrorism. Ms Frazer—who cited Eritrea's role as "the primary source of support" for insurgents and terrorists in Somalia—stepped up the pressure in September when, during a visit to Ethiopia, she said that the presence of a Somali Islamist, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, at a meeting in Asmara was further evidence that Eritrea provided sanctuary for terrorists. The combination of Eritrea's antagonism towards the UN and the terror link proposed by Washington could lead to a sense within Ethiopia that an invasion would be tolerated by the international community, and it would take very little provocation to provide even a weak argument for launching an attack. In addition, Ethiopia's economy has been growing at record speed in recent years, while Eritrean growth averaged just 1.6% a year over the 2004-07 period: its military remains large, but investment in equipment has not matched that of Ethiopia in recent years. All of this may prove too tempting for Ethiopia and some of its Western allies, making a return to war increasingly likely.