Eritrea, Ethiopia: Bordering on War, or Peace?

4 MINS READOct 19, 2005 | 03:09 GMT
The United Nations will continue operating in Eritrea with its remaining resources, though some operations will need scaling back, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea Legwaila Joseph Legwaila said Oct. 18. Legwaila's statement follows an Eritrean decision to ground U.N. helicopters, prompting the U.N. to say the move could signal Eritrean troop movements aimed at Ethiopia. While such moves would increase the chances of an accidental return to hostilities between the two nations in the Horn of Africa, the pair probably will soon seek further discussions regarding the demarcation of their shared border instead.
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea Legwaila Joseph Legwaila told a news conference Oct. 18 that Eritrean restrictions on helicopter movements inside the country would not halt U.N.-sponsored buffer-zone operations, but that some operations would have to be scaled back. The comments come one day after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the United Nations might find it necessary to suspend all operations in Eritrea, as the new restrictions — announced Oct. 5 without explanation — would severely hinder U.N. activities in the African nation. The U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) is staffed by more than 3,000 troops and more than 200 military observers who patrol a 16-mile-wide temporary security zone (TSZ) buffer on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, under an agreement established at the end of the 1998-2000 border war between the two nations in the Horn of Africa. Though both countries had originally agreed to accept a decision on the border made by an independent boundary commission, Ethiopia rejected the solution in 2002, leaving the door open to further conflict. Though the situation has been fairly calm in recent years, Asmara's recent actions underscore an increase in tensions and potentially dangerous posturing between the two sides. On Oct. 17, UNMEE said the inability to efficiently and effectively transport supplies and soldiers among U.N. bases would forced it to abandon 18 of its 40 manned outposts designed to keep the peace in the TSZ. With half of the posts no longer manned, the United Nations has no way to monitor Eritrean troop movements near many of the most hotly contested border locations, and no immediate method of preventing contact between the two armies should either side wish to provoke a conflict.
The two main factors preventing an outbreak of fighting are the fact that Ethiopia holds those parts of the border awarded to Eritrea by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) — reducing the likelihood that Addis Ababa would renew hostilities — and the presence of the U.N. peacekeeping troops in a position to halt possible incursions by Asmara. Eritrea's new restrictions effectively remove the second of those factors, making the chances of a small skirmish much higher. For even though both countries have disciplined militaries, a miscalculation by either side could happen at any time, resulting in renewed hostilities. Addis Ababa says it stands ready to resolve the border dispute, but Asmara has said it will not talk before the implementation of the full cease-fire agreement ending hostilities between the two nations. While Asmara's position might at first seem intransigent, both sides, have shown a propensity to take actions in order to leverage their respective bargaining positions. Though the tactic appears counterintuitive, recent Eritrean movements likely represent an effort to increase its leverage ahead of possible negotiations with Ethiopia regarding the 2002 EEBC border-demarcation decision. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — taking advantage of some of the momentum he gained after what was generally perceived as his fair election win — announced Oct. 16 he was ready to return to the negotiating table with Eritrean government officials. Zenawi, however, is somewhat constrained in his ability to end the border dispute due to his strong base of support in the Tigray and Amhara regions, where the feeling predominates that much of the territory deemed Eritrean by the EEBC should actually belong to Ethiopia. Eritrean government officials, however, refused the call to talks, and again denounced Zenawi for not following the original demarcation agreement. Instead, the Eritrean officials said they would only accept discussions aimed at implementing the 2002 demarcation decision. In any event, Eritrea lacks the capacity to win a large-scale military conflict, despite its continuing desire for the territories awarded it in the 2002 decision, including the much-disputed town of Badme. Moreover, as Eritrea can claim the moral high ground since it has agreed to the EEBC proposals, it has little reason to doubt that it would come out ahead in discussions with Ethiopia once both sides are brought back to the table. Finally, as the United States seeks to expand its influence in the region and to gain African allies in the war against militant Islam, Eritrea might feel that increasing the prospects of war in the Horn of Africa could garner the region greater attention from Washington — especially financial attention. As Washington has the resources and the desire to keep the Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict under control, the strategy might work.

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