When Peace Is a Problem
By Michela Wrong Ms. Wrong has spent over two decades reporting on the African continent, visiting Ethiopia and Eritrea repeatedly. June 8, 2018 If nature abhors a vacuum, politics abhors a military standoff, especially between two nations in one
By Michela Wrong
Ms. Wrong has spent over two decades reporting on the African continent, visiting Ethiopia and Eritrea repeatedly.
If nature abhors a vacuum, politics abhors a military standoff, especially between two nations in one of the poorest, most volatile and most strategically sensitive regions of the world.
And so there was much excitement when the government of Ethiopia announced on Tuesday that it would fully accept the ruling of an international tribunal in the country’s boundary dispute with Eritrea — some 16 years after the judgment was issued.
In 2002, a special international commission delineated the border between the two countries, as they had agreed in the peace deal that ended their 1998-2000 war. Demarcation on the ground was expected to start swiftly, allowing cross-border trade and cooperation to resume. But none of this happened.
Ethiopia accepted the ruling in principle but called for further dialogue and, crucially, kept its troops in place, including in what had been declared Eritrean territory. A few years later, the boundary commission dissolved itself, and in 2008, the United Nations peace monitoring force meant to oversee actual demarcation pulled out, its services unwanted.
What once seemed unsustainable — an indefinite state of neither peace nor war — became the norm. Both countries hosted guerrilla groupscommitted to overthrowing the other one’s government. They cynically fought a proxy war in neighboring Somalia. There were repeated flare-ups at their border, triggering apocalyptic predictions that Ethiopia and Eritrea were going to fight again, and next time to the bitter end.
Legally, Ethiopia clearly was in breach, having committed in the 2000 peace deal, like Eritrea, to uphold whatever decision the boundary commission issued. The United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and the United States had pledged to act as guarantors, and so were also in the wrong. Eritrea, for its part, had good reason as a fledgling country to crave international recognition for its borders.
But given the choice between a giant traditional ally led by an emollient prime minister and a tiny new-kid-on-the-block with a notoriously prickly president, the major Western powers opted to side with the bigger player — and all the more readily because it cast itself as an ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
So what prompted Ethiopia’s announcement this week? Age and sickness is one answer. Over the years, local analysts and former guerrilla fighters have told me that Ethiopia’s dispute with Eritrea was partly being kept alive by animosity between the two countries’ longtime leaders and their immediate entourages.
Years ago, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki, whose families both hail from the Tigray region that straddles the border, joined the forces of their rebel movements against Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. They managed to oust him in 1991, paving the way for Eritrea’s formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993 — and then Mr. Meles’s rise to prime minister of Ethiopia and Mr. Isaias’s to president of Eritrea.
Source: The New York Times