The one noticeable result of the 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is that both sides came out bad losers.
When, in May 1998, two brigades of Eritrean soldiers marched through an Ethiopian administered town of Bademe, a small and dusty town along the border with Eritrea, the pictures emerged didn’t alarm onlookers that it would take the two countries into a two-year civil war that claimed the lives of more than 70,000 from both sides.
Few years before that nasty war with Ethiopia, Eritrea, led by its trigger-happy president Isayas Afeworki emerged from a 30-year war for independence that left close to 30% of its households overseen by women. By the time this nation of mere 5 million decided the ill fated raid against its neighbor Ethiopia, there were an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 land mines scattered throughout the country and one out of five Eritreans was in need of emergency food aid.
Its neighbor Ethiopia, on the other hand, emerged after a 17 year civil war meant to topple Africa’s modern day dictator, the Derg, led by its strongman colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. The gorilla fighters who toppled the Derg in 1991 inherited literally a dysfunctional state that they had to build almost everything from a scratch.
The last thing both nations would have afforded was therefore to be tangled in another two years long costly civil war that left both in a state of bitter enmity.
A little more than a decade now there is no trade talks between the two, no diplomatic relations, and no flights of whatever kind between Addis Ababa and Asmara. It is a terrible deadlock forcing both to lose immensely. And in the midst of it all there were countless times when many analysts believed war was to resume between the two states as both continued accusing each other over many things. A plot to conduct terrorism in each other’s soil and supporting different factions in Somalia to hurt each other are the prime ones.
Last week, the government in Addis Ababa took its tone a few steps harder when its Prime Minister Meles Zenawi spoke to an Eritrean opposition radio station based in Addis Ababa that a regime change in Eritrea was long overdue and that his government will “either work towards changing Eritrea’s policies or its government”. “This could be done diplomatically, politically or through other means.” Mr. Zenawi said. Following his stern warning, foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told various media outlets that Ethiopia “will take all the necessary measures” to stop Eritrea from turning it into a suicide safe heaven.
What makes the recent warning by Ethiopian authorities, to which Eritrea hasn’t reacted, yet, unpleasant is the timing. The Arab uprising that started from afar in Tunisia is now shaking the trees in Yemen, a close neighbor to both. What started as a simple protest in Libya is now a full scale civil war that involved not just pro and anti Ghaddafi protestors but an ally of super powers, Syria and Bahrain are testing the waters of civil unrest and Ivory Coast is rushing to nose-dive into another civil war. The last thing the world might tolerate is therefore a stimulated war by two nations capable of negotiating for peace than confronting in the battle fields.
No matter how futile diplomatic efforts proved to be in the past, both sides must continue to pick the pieces that will eventually lead them to live side by side and contribute to a regional stability. Horn of Africa region has already seen enough of endless cross-border conflicts and distrust between each nation. The last thing this fragile region needs is to lose its nerves over a prospect of another pointless war.
ED’s Note: the above editorial is a re-print from April 2011 edition of Addis Standard magazine