BY SOPHIA TESFAMARIAM | SHABAIT
After 16 years of silence on the Ethiopian occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories, there is a sudden barrage of articles about the Eritrea-Ethiopia “border” issue coming from the regime in Ethiopia, its surrogates in the mainstream media and from a notorious, if insignificant, segment of its cow-towing “academicians”.
Ethiopia’s commentariat has gone into its usual and predictable tizzy, with the same old tired nonsensical analysis, interviews and special reports on an issue that is done, resolved.
Ethiopia may not accept that the issue is resolved legally. That is not Eritrea’s problem. It is up to the international community to decide whether it can enforce international law or not. It bears full responsibility for whatever happens next.
The shallow analysis found in The Reporter’s 5th May 2018 article, “Breaking the deadlock: Ethio-Eritrea relations”, insults the intelligence of its readers, as the author deliberately misrepresents the “border conflict” and its resolution through legal arbitration.
Like all previous diversionary, time buying gimmicks and ploys employed by the regime and its ilk, the latest media hoopla attempts to present the regime in Ethiopia as an honest partner for peace in the region. Its record speaks otherwise and while those who do not know the regime may be hoodwinked by its sugar-coated shenanigans, astute Eritreans are not falling for its frontings.
May 6 marks the 20th Anniversary of Ethiopia’s unprovoked attack on an Eritrean platoon near the border town of Badme. Several members of the platoon were killed. Unfortunately, that incident and the many others before it are conveniently ignored by the regime in Ethiopia and its surrogates in the propaganda about Eritrea.
Eritrea is not interested in revisiting the past, but considering the minority regime’s propensity for lies and outright fabrications, it is important to remind readers of what really transpired some 20 years ago. For brevity’s sakes, in this sitting, only four elements pertaining to the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict: origin of the conflict, dialogue, legal arbitration, and the sanctity of colonial borders, will be addressed.
Origins of the conflict
Contrary to the prevailing narratives and Ethiopia’s propaganda since, the border war did not erupt suddenly in May 1998, or with Badme. The all-out war was preceded by several provocative acts. Suffice it to mention some of the major incidents that led to Ethiopia’s aggressive war of invasion and occupation in 1998-2000:
• From 1996 onwards, Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) authorities began to harass and evict Eritrean villagers in the Badme area. In retrospect, it is clear that these reckless and illicit acts were neither localized nor spontaneous. This was indeed part and parcel of a generalized land grab – albeit stealthily – that the TPLF set out to implement in accordance with new claims and associated map that it produced, to take a large swathe of sovereign Eritrean territory in the western part of the country.
• At the same time, the TPLF began to seize territory in the same manner in central Eritrea. On July 19, two battalions of the Ethiopian army came to Adi Murug and its commander met with representatives of the Eritrean army in the area. The Ethiopians explained that they were there to chase armed Ethiopian opposition elements whom they believed to be in the Bada area, and requested entry. The battalions were let in based on this understanding.
• Five days later, on July 24, Ethiopian administrators from the Afar Kelil moved into Adi Murug and instructed the Eritrean Administrators to disband – and that they were taking over. The Eritreans resisted, but on July 28, at a meeting of the whole Adi Murug inhabitants, the Ethiopians declared Adi Murug Ethiopian territory and appointed their own administrative committee. The intruding TPLF units had to withdraw a few weeks later after unremitting pressure from the Government of Eritrea.
• In January 1998, contingents of the Ethiopian army crossed the Eritrean border in the Burre areas (Assab) and set camp deep inside Eritrean territory. They were forced to withdraw after stern warnings from Eritrea’s Armed Forces at the highest levels.
When these unexpected but potentially dangerous events began to unfold, and particularly in the wake of the Adi Murug incident, President Isaias Afwerki wrote two-hand written letters to the Ethiopian Prime Minister to draw his attention to these unsettling developments.
President Isaias underlined in his letters the urgency for a prompt and peaceful resolution of the problems through an effective bilateral mechanism without bringing undue disturbance in the lives of the two peoples. These letters are matters of public record.
The fact was, in light of the good relations that existed between the two neighbors and their avowed objective of promoting regional integration, the Eritrean government believed that the issue of borders was of secondary significance and should not thus be allowed to obstruct the development of bilateral and regional cooperation. Consequently, Eritrea consistently worked to resolve the tension arising from border issues quietly, peacefully, and in as much as was possible, bilaterally.
As it happened, Eritrea did not go public or lodge a protest within the OAU and/or UN when Ethiopian troops occupied the Adi Murug area of Bada and forcibly evicted farmers from the Badme area, razing to the ground their dwellings and farms. It did not issue ultimatums or threaten all-out war. It instead called for the formation of a Joint Border Commission to resolve the issue on the basis of the colonial treaties that established the border between the two countries.
Ethiopia mistook Eritrea’s restraint for weakness. It rejected all peaceful attempts by Eritrea to resolve the issues bilaterally and chose to escalate the issue by declaring war against Eritrea on 13 May 1998 through its parliament.
Indeed, while the bilateral talks were going on, Ethiopia was busy producing a new map of Tigray. This illegal map which incorporated swatches of sovereign Eritrean territories (by the way, this map also takes chunks of land from the Gondar and Wollo provinces of Ethiopia) was embossed in its new currency notes issued in November 1997.
The regime in Ethiopia keeps harping about dialogue with Eritrea, but it is the same regime that rejected dialogue in the first place. During the Eritrea Ethiopia border war, Eritreans and Ethiopians were introduced to the phrase, “Proximity talks”. That meant talks between the two parties would not be direct, as Ethiopia did not want to have any direct engagement with Eritrea, but chose instead to engage through third parties. No doubt the regime could not say in front of Eritrea what it was saying behind closed doors. So the many negotiators shuttled between Asmara and Addis Ababa, while the war raged on.
The same pattern of indirect or proxy talks continued in other venues – Algiers, Ouagadougou etc. – and the facilitators had to invariably hold separate meetings with the parties even when they stayed in the same or adjacent premises.
The regime in Ethiopia and its intelligentsia continued with threats and vicious cyber rattling throughout the course of negotiations. Ethiopia repeatedly rejected Eritrea’s calls for a ceasefire and Meles Zenawi announced that Ethiopia would not stop fighting. He said, “We shall negotiate while we fight and we shall fight while we negotiate”.
But the Ethiopian regime’s hostilities and refusal to have Eritrea in any discussions continued in the international arena too. Ethiopia routinely refused to sit adjacent to Eritrea in all regional / international forums until 2002. Ethiopia’s delegation would thus sit somewhere far from Eritrea in the alphabetical sitting arrangements of member countries in the forums of the Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD), the African Union (AU), and other international Summits and Conferences. Eritrea was also barred from attending conferences relating to Somalia and other regional issues, because of Ethiopia and its handlers. So it is mindboggling today to hear the regime calling for dialogue with Eritrea, sitting at the table with Eritrea etc.
Ethiopia’s aggressive war of invasion and occupation cost the lives of thousands and the destruction of vital infrastructures, many wantonly destroyed by Ethiopia’s marauding army. The war ended after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Cessation of hostilities Agreement in June 2000, and the Algiers Agreements on 12 December 2000.
The Algiers Agreements called for the establishment of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) with a mandate to delimit and demarcate the border. It delivered its final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions on 13 April 2002 and November 2007 respectively. There is a legal resolution to the “border conflict”. What remains is for Ethiopia to vacate sovereign Eritrean territories it has occupied for the last 16 years.
Sanctity of Colonial Borders
Eritrea was born, not from a redrawing of colonial boundaries, as is often stated, but from a return to them. Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia is among the most clearly defined of colonial boundaries and Eritrea was confident that it could be demarcated through peaceful and legal means on the basis of the treaties that established it.
Eritrea’s borders remained the same throughout the Italian colonization, the British Administration and throughout the 30-year struggle. The saber rattling about, “human geography”, “divided villages”, “religious affinity”, etc. will not bode well for Ethiopia and others in the region.
If one were to use the same arguments presented by Ethiopia’s intelligentsia, Ogaden, as well as Kenya’s Northern Frontier Region, should be part of Somalia.
Tampering with colonial boundaries will be like opening a Pandora’s Box in the region…
Hollow statements and false bravado will not advance peace in the region…abiding by the rule of law will.
Pacta Sunt Servanda! (agreements must be kept!)