The possible resumption of the world’s stupidest war

One of the ugliest and stupidest wars of the past decades was the one fought between Eritrea and Ethiopia over their border. Between May 1998 and June 2000, tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded in trench warfare, and the economies of two desperately poor nations were diverted to support a war that, ultimately, resulted in fairly minor border changes. Adding to the weirdness of the situation, Eritrea had seceded from Ethiopia less than a decade before with almost no conflict, and the leaders of both nations are former comrades in arms against the brutal Derg regime that dominated Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s.

A ceasefire signed at the end of the conflict led to a UN boundary commission – the EEBC – which specified a border through the Badme Plain. Eritrea was largely satisfied with the results of the 2002 arbitration; Ethiopia was not. Now the good folks at the International Crisis Group are warning that both sides may be preparing to resume their futile war.

It’s probably instinctive to ask “Who are the good guys?” when contemplating international conflicts. I’ll save you the trouble – there are none here. Eritrean president Isaias Afewerke has created one of the most repressive states on the continent, banning anything resembling a free press and detaining and probably torturing opposition leaders. Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi has a much better sense of public relations, but showed his true colors when elections in 2005 threatened his grip on power – his government fired live ammunition into crowds of protesters, arrested thousands of people who demonstrated against rigged elections, and imprisoned nearly a hundred opposition figures, charging some with “genocide” and “treason”. Nice guys, both of them.

What’s changed since the 2002 armistice is the posture of the United States. Governments in eastern Africa have been lining up to present their anti-terror credentials and receive military and fiscal support in return. Thus far, Zenawi seems to have played this game better than any other. With cooperation of US Special Forces, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to support the weak Transitional Federal Government against the Union of Islamic Courts, who had managed – briefly – to stabilize that unhappy country. (Predictably, the TFG hasn’t been able to hold Mogadishu, and violence between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian and AU troops is widespread, causing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the city.)

The US government believes the Union of Islamic Courts is connected to Al-Qaeda (and there is some evidence that some forces allied with UIC have Al-Qaeda ties) and is therefore willing to support Ethiopia against the spectre of Islamic terror, even as stories pour in about human rights abuses by Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden, the part of Ethiopia closest to Somalia. (Many of the people in the Ogaden speak Somali and have family ties to people within Somalia. Some forces in Somalia would like to see a “greater Somalia” which includes the Ogaden – this possibility terrifies Zenawi.)

Some forces in the US appear to be trying to soften the ground for US support for Ethiopian aggression in Eritrea. A remarkable op-ed appeared in the New York Times last week, authored by Vicki Huddleston and Tibor Nagy, both former chiefs of mission at the US Embassy in Addis. It’s a direct reaction to a resolution passed by the US House of Representatives which ties continued aid to Ethiopia to improvements in human rights. Critiquing that resolution, Nagy and Huddleston characterize Ethiopia as “a nation where 77 million Orthodox Christians and Muslims live in peace, engaged in building a democracy while besieged from within and without by enemies of democracy,” and suggests that the US “should press both governments to let people who live on the border help reach a mutual agreement on the final boundary.” Uh, that final boundary was determined by binding arbitration five years ago, an arbitration which Eritrea (understandably) is demanding be honored.

Most of the heavy lifting on demonizing Eritrea is being carried out by Dr. Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. The US closed an Eritrean consulate in Oakland in retaliation for percieved diplomatic slights (the inspection of the US diplomatic pouch in Eritrea), and used the press conference around that closure to suggest that Eritrea might be termed a state sponsor of terror for supporting the UIC in Somalia.

Writing about the situation in the horn of Africa, Yohannes Woldemariam and Okbazghi Yohannes argue that Frazer “…has actively been on a personal crusade to orchestrate an international demonization of the Eritrean leader and his regime as part of a coordinated effort to facilitate aggression.” In other words, if Eritrea is a state sponsor of terror, we should be in support of our reliable ally, Ethiopia, even if they invade Eritrea because they don’t like the UN’s decision regarding the Eritrea/Ethiopia border.

The US stance on Ethiopia is a confusing one, even for conservative republicans. Representative Tom Tancredo, best known for his fanatical opposition to immigration, asked Frazer if she could explain why the State Department seems to play ball with some human rights abusers and shun others:

Is there some criteria, specific criteria, that the State Department uses to determine at what point we change from being antagonistic because of their human rights abuses to being supportive… Because it seems quite confusing to me. In certain conditions, in certain situations, we seem to overlook these human rights abuses; in others, we don’t…

Can you help me understand what the thinking process is inside the State Department to determine which countries we will support, even if their human rights abuses are as identified in these reports in Ethiopia?

She couldn’t, characterizing our relationship with Ethiopia as “complex” and “multifaceted.” A useful guide to understanding those complications is my friend Akwe Amosu’s essay, “Dangerous Times for Africa“, where she points out
that the US manages to condemn Zimbabwe, but has renewed bonds of friendship with more repressive Equatorial Guinea. Reading our positions in Africa requires an understanding of where the oil is and where we believe we’ll get support in the global war on terror. And that stance helps contribute to the growing sense that the US is deeply hypocritical about its commitment to democracy, human rights and the values of open societies.

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18 Responses to The possible resumption of the world’s stupidest war

  1. Your point was echoed last week, over lunch, by the executive of an advocacy organization leading the crusade in DC for more attention to northern Uganda. President Museveni of Uganda visited the White House about two weeks ago, and it was a love fest gone wild. Little serious talk was had about the stalled peace talks or of Museveni’s changing of the constitution in order to run for a third term, Frazer is said to be exceedingly close to Museveni, and he is represented by lobbyists very close to the White House. Meanwhile, the meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus was reputably no more nasty than a tickle fight.

    The link? Museveni has long been a darling of the West, in many instances for real and remarkable gains and improvements he has wrought in Uganda. But Museveni is also the only leader contributing troops to the ‘war on terror’ in Somalia. My guess is that his military cooperation has insulated him from pressure to pas the democratic mantle on to others, and to bring about a real settlement to the tragic war in the north.

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  3. Ethan says:

    Great point, Chris. When I refered to the competition to be as compliant to the White House’s wishes as possible, I was largely thinking of the competition between Museveni and Zenawi…

  4. Kill_terrorist says:

    It might seem stupid but it’s not. eritreans are sidining with terrorist and fighting a;qaedas proxy war and they did not left any options for ethiopia. The only way to stop the war is 1. issaias has to go 2. They[Eritreans have to hand over terror leaders.

  5. Ethan says:

    I just don’t think that’s true, “kill_terrorist”. Certainly, that’s what the Ethiopian government is saying, but I’ve seen very little evidence that a) Eritrea is arming anyone in Somalia and b) that the forces Ethiopia opposes in Somalia are Al Qaeda proxies, or even aligned with AlQ. What leaders do you want to see Eritrea hand over?

  6. Akwe says:

    But even if “kill_terrorist” produces the evidence, issuing ultimatums just doesn’t work; brute force mostly fails to have the last word. That kind of commandist approach was behind Washington’s idea of funding a group of warlords to defeat the Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu in mid-2006; but instead the ICU won and took charge in Mogadishu. Then the next scheme of supporting the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to overthrow the ICU and install the transitional government; less than a year later, those initially routed Islamic forces are now back in Mogadishu mounting a serious attack on Ethiopian forces – and the African Union peacekeepers to boot. Far away in Washington, simple “instrumental” prescriptions look fine – “our short term interests can be achieved with firepower and financial clout”. But on the ground, real people are fighting for their own real interests – they aren’t just pawns of Al-Qaeda or anyone-else. Restoring lasting stability will require a political solution and their buy-in, not just a show of muscle. Persuading the actors in Eritrea or Somalia or any other state onto a new course is a complex business that implies pragmatism, compromise and taking the long view; ultimately, peace will need to be negotiated. Which is why the death and displacement of so many already vulnerable people in these wars is so obscene.

  7. jonah84 says:

    Hi Ethan. Thanks for posting this article. I glad you gave the story a context and not narrowed it to the the binary- good vs. evil type of narrative.
    However, I would like to point out that in your story you say that eritrea seceded from Ethiopia without conflict but the reality was that Eritrean nationalist had fought for about 30years get their “independence”.

    As person from that part of the world, I know both of countries have many ethnic groups, however, one ethnic group dominants political leadership in Eritrea and Ethiopia- the Eritrean president Afewerke and Ethiopian president Zenawi both belong to the Tigrinya ethnic group. In terms of trying to make sense of the war, I guess this info only makes it more stupid.

    On the other hand, the war makes a lot of sense for 2nd hand arm dealers and mercenaries.

  8. Well researched article. I’ve read a fair bit on Eritrea and Ethiopia and I have to say there really is a long way to go in terms of coming to a lasting peace.

    What bemuses me is that they are essentially fighting over nothing. The US on-off support in Africa depending on oil is all too apparent. When it comes to Africa it appears as if we are living in a world of real-politik.

  9. Matt Stone says:

    Ethan, what do you make of recent reports that the Ethiopian govt is running a campaign of mass murder, bordering on genocide, in the Ogaden region? Of course, the govt is portraying it as a fight against the ONLF with “unfortunate” civilian casualties, sort of like what the government in Khartoum said at the beginning of the Darfur genocide. Might this – the start of genocide in Ogaden – blow back to the point that the US can’t support Zenawi’s regime due to the media fiasco it would stir?

  10. Henok says:

    The hundred thousands people and solders who died because of this war? If they weak up and ask the people “For what did we die” what will be the Ethiopia and Eritrean government answer? . It aggravating to see brothers and sisters killing each for nothing.

    What is the problem with Ethiopia and Eritrean politician? What is in their mind that makes them to act and make crazy decisions? Did they forget that history would condemn them for playing game with the people mind and blood?

    In small knowledge I have the war between Ethiopia and Eritrean isn’t to solve or have land. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrean is a tribe and family War. One tribe or family showing the other family member we are better than you. Because we are better than you we can fight.

  11. Ethan says:

    Jonah, thanks for that clarification. I didn’t mean to diminish the struggle for Eritrean independence – my point was mainly that the countries split not via a civil war but through reasonably peaceful agreement, something that has been cited as a model for how state formation could take place in Africa.

    Matt, my cynical take is that there won’t be nearly enough media attention on the Ogaden situation to have an impact. My experience is that even reasonably well-educated Americans are unaware of US support for Ethiopia in the invasion of Somalia – I have trouble imaginging enough coverage of the Ogaden to have an impact. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine any situation in the Horn taking attention away from Darfur… and, unfortunately, attention around Darfur hasn’t accomplished much yet in terms of tangible change.

  12. mike says:

    Tragic stuff.

    Specific to the border issue, I have heard more than one person characterize these sad states of affairs as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’.

  13. Russel says:

    About five years ago I had an Ethiopian roommate. He told me that Ethiopian’s despise Muslims; don’t regard themselves as Africans, and want their empire back (hankering back to the days of the Queen of Sheba).

    I guess they’ll back any one who’ll support their ideals.

  14. mesfin says:

    All wars are stupid, no question about it. However, what is even more stupid is to lump both the aggressor and the aggressed upon together.Why not call a spade a spade. Which country is really stablizing the horn, or in violation of international law? and why is the violation tolerated? if we can answer these questions, we will be able to single out the culprit.

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  16. Simon says:

    Mr. Zuckerman,

    Hats-off to you. Your article is one of the best I have read in presenting factual depiction of events pertaining the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. “Kill-terrorist” is misinformed. The border war, as stupid as it looks, is not about the disputed area (Badme).

    Initially it may have been for economical reasons, but it quickly escalated to all out war. The leaders of the two countries let their ego’s get in the way, instead of resorting to dialogue and are to be blamed equally. The port city of Asab, which is not part of the contested border is an issue for the Ethiopians. Ever since Eritrea became independent Ethiopia has been a land-locked country. The US and Israel worry the Red Sea will be controlled by Arabs or worse by terrorists if Eritrea has full control of its territorial waters including Asab. Eritrea is in a strategic location. In fact, starting during the Second World War the US Army had a base in Asmara, Eritrea for 30 years. I believe, both Eritrea and Ethiopia have about half of their population Christian and the other half Muslim. Certainly, the leaders of the two countries are Christians. The government of Ethiopia has played its card well in winning the support of the west by collaborating against so called Al Qaeda in Somalia. In contrast the Eritrean government has done everything wrong in the diplomatic world.

    Jendayi Fraser, much worse than her predecessor Susan Rice, is bent to support Ethiopia despite the UN’s Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) final and binding arbitration. It’s as though the US State Department has it’s most favored nations protected under all circumstances. The sad part is that the candidate that I am actively supporting become the next president of the US, Barack Obama, has signed on Susan Rice as on of his foreign advisors. Obama’s “Change” card is out the window when his cabinet is comprising of unseasoned Washington Insiders.

    I hope the “World’s Stupidest War” does not resume. However, if it does, it will be because people like Jendayi Fraser want it and not the people that live there. I doubt, despite the tough talk, the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia want it as well.

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