The Ethiopia-Eritrea impasse carries serious risk of a new war and is a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa, most critically for Somalia. Following Ethiopia’s refusal to accept virtual demarcation of
the border by the now disbanded Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC), Asmara unilaterally implemented it and forced out the UN peacekeepers (UNMEE), significantly raising the stakes and shattering the status quo. Its insistence on recovering territory the Commission awarded it – Badme in particular – could lead to unilateral military action by either side but is only one of several war scenarios. The Security Council and key individual states (the U.S., in particular) must recognise the dangers of their inaction and advance a reconfigured political process with new determination if there is to be a change in the calculations of the parties, who appear to be dangerously content with trying to maintain a level of simmering but unpredictable hostility.
The 2000 Algiers agreements, which provided a ceasefire and the institutional mechanisms to resolve the border dispute, have not been fully implemented. The EEBC was unable to bring Ethiopia to accept the physical demarcation foreseen in Algiers, leading to political stalemate. In the absence of adequate support from Security Council members, the EEBC dissolved itself on 30 November 2007, after providing a demarcation by coordinates. Its disappearance removed an important forum where, even if they disagreed, the parties exchanged views regularly before a third-party arbiter.
In January 2008, Eritrea began deploying its army in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and forcing UNMEE off its territory by blocking fuel supplies. It considers the EEBC’s virtual demarcation the end of the border dispute and argues that the continued presence of UNMEE or Ethiopian troops on its territory is tantamount to occupation. Furious at the lack of international support for the EEBC ruling, Eritrea tried to provoke a reaction by expelling UNMEE. Ethiopia views the EEBC’s virtual demarcation as “legal nonsense” and continues to insist on the need for a dialogue on normalisation of relations ahead of physical demarcation. Asmara in turn perceives dialogue and normalisation of relations as Ethiopian stratagems to undermine the EEBC ruling and, ultimately, its sovereignty.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have had no incentive to resolve the frozen border conflict. Indeed, both regimes have used it as an excuse to enhance their domestic power at the expense of democracy and economic growth, thus reducing the attractiveness to them of diplomatic compromise. They support the other’s domestic rebels, and each is convinced that the fall of the other’s regime is imminent and the only real solution to the border dispute. At the same time, the key international actors have allowed this situation to remain frozen because of overriding concerns, such as Washington’s concentration on its counter-terrorism priorities. However, the significance of the bilateral dispute has been magnified by its impact on the region, especially the conflict in Somalia, where insurgents backed by Eritrea battle Ethiopian troops that support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
The departure from the scene of the EEBC and the de facto expulsion of UNMEE have made this conflict much more dangerous, removing the means of continuing dialogue between the parties and its “brake lining”. A miscalculation on either side could lead to a disastrous return to conflict. The likely alternative to a solution to the border dispute and other bilateral issues is not continued frozen conflict but a war that would produce chaos in the region and quite possibly result in the loss of power of both contestants’ leaders (President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia).
The international community urgently needs to take a number of steps, including acceptance by the Security Council of the virtual demarcation of the border; transformation of UNMEE into a more mobile, faster-reacting tripwire mechanism with a lighter footprint patterned after one of several models that worked well in Sudan in the 2002-2005 period; and appointment by the UN of a senior and widely respected special negotiator to set up and manage an alternative forum for dialogue. The immediate priority is to persuade Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from all land the EEBC awarded Eritrea and for Eritrea to pull its army back from the TSZ. Dialogue on normalisation of relations should start in parallel with progressive border demarcation. This would be consistent with past Council resolutions, which demanded both Ethiopian acceptance and implementation of EEBC decisions and the start of a bilateral normalisation dialogue.
The basic goals remain to get Ethiopia to accept the border, Eritrea to accept the need for dialogue and the international community to provide the carrots and sticks needed to press the parties, including financing for trans-border development. Overcoming so many contrary predilections, even in the Security Council and major capitals, but especially in Addis Ababa and Asmara, will be hard. But there are some objective considerations that might attract both sides to the process recommended below. Eritrea wants to consolidate its independence, prefers physical border demarcation to virtual demarcation, seeks Ethiopian withdrawal from Badme in particular and desires better relations with the West. Building a reconfigured progress on the EEBC’s conclusions about the border should give it enough to be open to a wide-ranging dialogue. Prospective access to Eritrean ports and essentially an end to internal armed insurgencies should be meaningful incentives for Ethiopia.
Regardless of the obstacles, the attempt must be made. The consequences of renewed war for everyone’s interests are too serious to permit anything less.
(c) 2017 International Crisis Group