Ethiopia – Eritrea: A tale of Two Halves

The current Ethiopian regime must put an end to its threat of war or the war will put an end to its existence
The current Ethiopian regime must put an end to its threat of war against Eritrea or the war will put an end to its threat. (Photo Credit: @Sami Sallinen)

By Yohannes Kifle,

The 1990s were a very peculiar decade for both Eritreans and Ethiopians. After sacrificing over 65,000 lives, Eritrea was able to win a protracted war and achieved its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. At the same time Ethiopia was able to overthrow one of the most brutal regimes in Africa led by Mengistu Hailemariam.

The joint effort to overthrow the Mengistu’s regime was engineered by the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) with several faction groups in Ethiopia, including the Tigray People Liberation Front participating in a common cause. When Mengistu’s regime was defeated in 1991 a united partnership of those faction groups was created and became known as the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) prior to assuming power. 

Fast-tracking to the future, in 1993 Eritrea held a United Nations-sponsored referendum and the overwhelming majority of Eritreans voted for independence and a nation was born. While Eritreans were celebrating their independence and prepared to build their war-ravaged country, the people of Ethiopia were dealing with mixed emotion. They celebrated the fact that the protracted war between the two nations was a thing of the past and a ruthless dictator was removed. But for Ethiopians losing a province including two ports that were once part of Ethiopia was hard to swallow.

However, in spite of the fact that these two peoples belong to two different states and resentment was prevalent at the time, personal relationships among Eritreans and Ethiopians for the most part remained intact. Between 1991 and 1997 the leadership of these two nations also enjoyed a very good relationship. It wasn’t a coincidence that these two countries that fought bloody wars for several years were able to enjoy a short-lived peace while economically prospering. The economic prosperity both nations enjoyed from 1991 to 1997 was the byproduct of the momentary peace that lasted for almost seven years.

Although Eritrea’s intention to strengthen the relationship with Ethiopia was a genuine one and was a conscious effort to rebuild the relationship between these two countries with a clean slate, the regime in Ethiopia had an ulterior motive and apparently couldn’t conceal it for long. Whether the ulterior motive was bred by external forces or merely generated from within, the TPLF leadership embraced it enough to go to unnecessary and bloody war with Eritrea in 1998. The burning questions are:

How did the TPLF/EPRDF that was despised by most Ethiopians for allowing Ethiopia to be a landlocked nation as far as its citizens were concerned manage to pursue its ill-advised war against Eritrea in 1998?

Why is the same regime that barely survived the 1998 war still infatuated with another potentially devastating war with Eritrea?

Recently, Prime Minister Hailemariam of Ethiopia made a public statement about starting war with Eritrea. If the regime carried out its threat it could be winner takes it all. What would be the military outcome of such a war, and subsequently what is the political result expected to follow the military outcome?

POST-INDEPENDENCE 

In 1991 the sentiment shared by almost 99% of Ethiopians was that their country should be given the port of Assab in exchange for them to accept Eritrea as an independent nation. Unfortunately for those who share the opinion of keeping the port of Assab under Ethiopia’s possession, Eritrea has never been and will never be willing to accommodate the idea of sacrificing its sovereign land in return for lasting peace. Though it was clearly evident that Ethiopians had no ill will toward Eritreans, nevertheless, the TPLF/EPRDF was not immune to that sentiment. As a matter of fact, that attitude manifested itself once the bloody 1998 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia became a reality. Perhaps, the ugly feeling the regime had carried for a long period of time against the people of Eritrea and its leadership was one of the contributing factors for the bloody war that claimed so many precious lives on both sides.

Most Ethiopians including intellectuals remained vocal for several years about the loss of access to the sea. While some expressed their resentment directly against the current regime in Ethiopia for facilitating Eritrea’s independence, others were encouraging the regime to re-negotiate the return of Assab by any means necessary with force to be entertained only as a last recourse. The ulterior motives of the regime in Ethiopia was to take advantage of the emotion of those Ethiopians who felt betrayed by their government for losing the port of Assab that they believed to be their sovereign land. Intellectuals were encouraged to criticize the regime openly about the loss of the port. With false assertions and intellectual dishonesty most continued to argue about Assab being the sovereign land of Ethiopia. The regime used it to gauge the nation’s feeling and the type of support it would be receiving if it decides to invade Eritrea. The regime in Ethiopia was contented enough to start pursuing its aggression against Eritrea to carry out its war of revenge in order to feel self-worthiness. The only thing missing from these detractors was motive.

THE 1998 WAR 

The Ethiopian regime’s military aggression in some parts of Eritrea that was initially perceived by the government of Eritrea as innocent mistakes was the beginning of many episodes until the perfect motive was handed to the regime when retaliation occurred after the Badme incident.

Subsequently the government of Eritrea chased the regime’s force out of Badme and fully controlled it. Though the scale of the military conflict was a reason for relationships between these two countries to deteriorate, the ulterior motive escalated the devastating and unrestrained war in 1998.

Video: Former president Negasso Gidada reveals that out of the 19 members of the executive committee, 17 were against war with Eritrea but two

While the regime claimed to the whole world to have been invaded by Eritrea, and claimed full scale war was justified against Eritrea to defend its sovereign land, privately regaining access to the sea was underlined at its main objective. This sentiment was also shared in so many different ways to the citizens of Ethiopia and to the international community to galvanize support for the war, at the same time, the hidden agenda about recapturing access to the sea kept its critics briefly muzzled. The regime’s critics found it very difficult to not be on the side of their government during the conflict with Eritrea. After all, they had the desire to see Eritrea brought back as part of Ethiopia and reverse the independence or worst case scenario recapture the port of Assab and establish ownership of the port. Seemingly, the desire to gaining access to the sea is the only thing that brought the regime and its critics together. War was justified for that reason.

The 1998 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was perceived to be one of the most devastating wars in the modern era. While Eritrea was fighting to defend its sovereign land and to try to preserve its independence, the regime in Ethiopia’s objective was fluctuating based on its daily military feat in a given day. Included in the list the regime outlined as its objectives in the war against Eritrea were defending Ethiopia’s sovereign land, teaching Eritrea a lesson, freeing Eritreans from oppressive government by capturing Asmara and dismantling the current government.

Whereas the regime was pretending to have a military superiority against Eritrea, the facts on the ground suggested otherwise. The failure to capture Asmara or the port of Assab was a major disappointment to the regime and its supporters. The loss of human lives and material followed the disappointing failure was catastrophic. With over 150,000 soldiers killed and 2/3 of the military arsenal being used for a losing cause, the regime’s option to stay in power was to simply accept what Eritrea had already accepted – the Algiers agreement.

The famous bravado by the late Prime Minister “give us 72 hours and we will finish the war” leads one to believe that the regime had no military credential. The genesis of the 1998 war between the regime in Ethiopia and Eritrea was stated by most as a “senseless war”. Given the outcome of the war and the mechanism put in place to end the war clearly exposed the irrationality behind the war.

Video: Former Ethiopian PM explaining his country’s ultimate plan about Assab in the long run

True, Eritrea sacrificed 19,000 precious lives to defend and preserve its independence. In a clear and unambiguous manner, Eritrea made it clear that this was a war it shouldn’t have been fought. For that reason, Eritrea continued to follow the international law in defending its territory. Eritrea’s engagement in this war was a universally accepted position, that is, self-defense.

On the other hand, the regime in Ethiopia, with erratic behavior in conducting the war, couldn’t rationally present its objective for continuing the war. The regime was showing its frustration by bombing cities, economic sectors and non-military targets such as airports as its effort to capture the two most important cities, the port of Assab and Asmara the capital city of Eritrea, diminished by the minute.

Between May 12th and June 18th of 2000, the regime in Ethiopia bragged about winning the war. The propaganda machine that was installed in Addis Ababa continued to report victory after victory while innocent Ethiopians were thrown into the line of fire from which they couldn’t escape. The regime’s military forces, with an appetite to capture more of Eritrea’s land, was spread thin and ended up being a target. The Military force of the regime that pretty much attacked Eritrea from every position known wasn’t able to achieve its objective. Its military adventure might have brought brief political victory. However, the hollow victory the regime and its supporters continued to convey to the world was not able to disguise the military defeat the regime had suffered in the hands of the Eritrean defense force. Soon the war was over with both countries heading to Algiers to sign the peace agreement.

Even though Eritrea accepted the Algiers’ agreement and sent its leadership to Algiers for the signing ceremony, the regime in Ethiopia was bemoaning its loss after the 72 hours extension it received from the U.N. to continue the war of aggression that was defended successfully. Eritrea was ready to sign the Algiers agreement after successfully defending its territory. On the other hand, the regime in Ethiopia was forced to finally show up with nothing to show for its war of aggression. Yes, Badme remains under its control. Nevertheless, it is just a matter of time before Badme returns to its rightful owner.

THE POLITICAL AND MILITARY DILEMMA THE REGIME 

From the Ethiopian perspective, Eritrea had lost the war and therefore not only Badme but access to the sea should be part of the negotiation. The regime and its supporters were deliberately misleading the people of Ethiopia about the nature of the agreement and most certainly about the outcome of the war. Of course, the matter had to be handled in a delicate manner to ensure the survival of the regime.

As time goes by, the people of Ethiopia started asking questions about the result of the war and the true nature of the agreement. The questions were ranged from what was the human loss to what is the status of the port of Asseb. Apparently, the people of Ethiopia never received adequate response with regard to the human cost of the war.

Finally, most Ethiopians discovered that the hollow victory was in fact an agonizing defeat and the chance of gaining access to the sea was merely depending on a civilized relationship with their neighbor country, Eritrea. For the past 16 years, the regime’s strategy was to conceal the facts from its own citizens. The costly war the regime instigated with Eritrea failed to produce any of its unpredictable objectives.

Today, the people of Ethiopia are more concerned about the well-being of their nation. Gaining ownership of the port of Assab is no longer on their agenda and Badme is no longer on the Ethiopian radar. Their first priority is to take ownership of their country by eliminating the current regime. The regime’s opponents are flooding the country and those who chose to fight are finding shelter with the government of Eritrea. There are number of freedom fighters against the regime in Ethiopia. In their own right, they have become formidable political and military opponents and pose a serious threat to the regime’s existence. Today, the regime in Ethiopia is faced with a political and military quagmire.

A POTENTIAL SECOND ROUND WAR? 

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended over a decade and half ago. The first half of the tale is over. But today there are those posturing to renew war between the two nations. Will there be a second half of the tale?

For the past few years, the regime in Ethiopia has been threatening Eritrea with another round of war. The regime was creating a perception that it has the military might to crush any opponent, including Eritrea. This message was designed for local consumption, especially directed at those who are prepared to confront the regime militarily. In addition, the threats were orchestrated to divert attention from internal issues. Whatever the case may be, a threat of war against a sovereign nation is not accepted by international law.

Moreover, Eritrea has the right to defend itself. In fact, Eritrea doesn’t need to wait until Ethiopia fires the first bullet now that the irresponsible prime minister is on the record saying that his administration’s future policy will embrace military attack against Eritrea.

Obviously, Hailemariam inherited the prime ministry seat from his predecessor. Sadly, the position is not the only thing he inherited. Between the current prime minister and his predecessor, countless threats were made to attack Eritrea. The first war with Eritrea had a perfect scenario for the regime, its supporters and critics. They all were galvanized under the underlined objective of taking the port of Assab by force. The aftermath of the war produced a legal document that endorsed Badme and the port of Assab to be within the territory of Eritrea. Today, it is unambiguous that the regime in Ethiopia lost the war and the legal issue in 2000. Most importantly, Badme, the focal point of the war with Eritrea is now the sovereign land of Eritrea.

As far as Ethiopians are concerned, there is no legal ground to declare war against Eritrea. The support Ethiopians afforded to the regime in 1998 will not be there today. As a matter of fact those critics of the regime have become opponents and ready to overthrow the regime. Amazingly, the very same opponents who supported the regime in its endeavor to capture access to the sea are now working with the government of Eritrea in their attempt to unseat the regime.

The regime has no clear motive to start war with Eritrea. Support afforded by its citizens in 1998 war with Eritrea will not be available. Most importantly, the regime has created more enemies within and these enemies of the regime have military capability to attack the regime from every direction. A potential second round war with Eritrea may not be imminent. However, given the irrationality the regime had displayed for the past 20 years anything is possible. If this regime starts war with Eritrea, “A tale of two halves” will be completed.

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