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What now?

Ethiopia’s recent military strike against rebel-controlled outposts inside Eritrea sent a signal of yet another full-blown war in the making. All things can happen but that, says Tsedale Lemma

For the leaders of two countries who embraced war as their best resort to get desperately needed power there is nothing as tickly as dragging on indefinitely in a state of no peace-no war for more than a decade. And when each leader accuses the other of cunning political games to destabilize his country, slowly but surely things tend to get tough.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and his former brother-in-arms President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea know this all too well. After they have successfully battled a common enemy, the two countries fell out half a dozen years later over the border town of Badme, and fought a costly war between 1998 and 2000.

Following the border war – which should have never happened in the first place – what came next was a diplomatic nightmare during which time both Ethiopia and Eritrea held the world in constant apprehension. There were countless attempts for a lasting and definitive peace brokered by different states and institutions. They all failed and led Eritrea and Ethiopia to remain locked in a bitter state of enmity.

The two countries knew this state of affairs could not be dragged on indefinitely. Regrettably though, neither of them is able to break the vicious cycle. Although Ethiopia managed to mobilize international condemnations and a UN embargo against Eritrea, that didn’t seem to satisfy it; nor to deter Eritrea from carrying on provocative acts – mainly supplying arms to rebel groups fighting against Ethiopian peacekeeping troops in Somalia, which is confirmed by a UN report, and planning to disrupt a 2011 AUC annual summit in Addis Ababa.

March no more, Please

That doesn’t necessarily make Ethiopia the Good Samaritan trying to rescue Eritrea from the tyranny of Isaias Afeworki. Instead of exploiting full diplomatic channels to engage with Asmara, Addis Ababa too is involved in political games to try and unseat Isaias Afeworki. So far there hasn’t been any independent source showing Ethiopia’s involvement in militarily helping rebel groups to launch attacks against Eritrea. But it provided an Eritrean opposition group media space and attention to increase the odds of unseating the government in Asmara.

The condemned kid

Ethiopia is fed up with the status quo, according to this magazine’s diplomatic sources, and sees the deterioration in the political and economical landscape in Asmara as a good opportunity to finally get rid of Isaias Afeworki. The ever-increasing erratic behavior of the government in Asmara mean Eritrea doesn’t have any substantial diplomatic relations with the rest of the countries in the Horn of Africa either. Every day hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are making treacherous journeys to escape from their motherland; most are sheltered by Ethiopia, while a few make it to the Sudan, Kenya and elsewhere in the region.

There is a growing sense in the Horn that the government in Asmara is brutalizing its own people, and is engaged in offensive acts that if left unchecked would destabilize not only Ethiopia but also the entire region, which is already politically and economically fragile. Kenya and Djibouti, for instance, have been tetchy about Asmara’s unholy meddling inside Somalia. Both have peacekeeping troops fighting in the war-torn country with the hopes of defeating the militia of Al-Qaida linked Al-Shabab.

How losers communicate

There is no secret that Isaias Afeworki is the condemned kid in the power corridors of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In January 2012, five tourists – two German, two Austrian and one Hungarian – were killed while visiting Ethiopia’s well-known Erta Ale volcano located in the remote and deserted Afar region along the border with Eritrea. Although the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) claimed responsibility for the attack, Eritrea was the easy target of IGAD member states that convened in Ethiopia in February and issued a statement condemning the government in Asmara.

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A few weeks ago, Yemeni fishermen captured an Eritrean soldier “after Eritrean naval boats attempted to assault Yemeni fishermen inside international territorial waters,” said the government in Sana’a. Before the incident, Eritrean vessels intercepted three Yemeni fishing boats at Taklai area, located in the international territorial water between the Sudan and Eritrea. As expected the incident has infuriated the government in Yemen. There have been countless other confrontations between Asmara and Djibouti, Asmara and Khartoum, Asmara and Nairobi and Asmara and Sana’a. According to a Kenyan diplomat based in Addis Ababa, such incidents are mostly triggered by the Eritrean Navy monitoring international waters within the Red Sea and are followed by a deadly silence as no actions have been mounted against Eritrea.

 Breaking the silence?

Now in what seems to be breaking that deadly and lingering silence, in mid-March 2012 Ethiopia attacked three military outposts inside Eritrea but it says the camps were run by the rebels of ARDUF. The military camps were located at Ramid, Gelehibe and Gibina, between 15 and 18 kilometers inside southeastern Eritrea. This was followed by a further threat that Ethiopia will continue targeting other sites inside Eritrea in a similar fashion.

Ethiopia has everything that it takes to get tough on Eritrea: internationally, the strike was welcomed with a disturbing quietness; regionally, everyone is tired of the government in Asmara; militarily, Eritrea is in a much weaker position than Ethiopia is; and diplomatically, Ethiopia has a towering high ground over Eritrea as it is home to the African Union Commission (AUC) and is helping with the fighting in Somalia.

No one knows this better than Eritrea. Responding to Ethiopia’s attack, Eritrea’s Information Minister Ali Abdu told AFP: “We fought enough for 30 years, and we will never be dragged into war through such hostile provocations as this.”That makes perfect sense but it is a strange response for a government whose Navy takes pleasures in troubling fishermen in the Red Sea, and whose explicit backing of rebel groups and terrorist organizations inside Somalia continues to upset the whole Horn of Africa.

“Eritrea will never get tired of another war,” says an Ethiopian official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Instead, Eritrea realizes what it stands to lose if it retaliates.”

Apart from risking diplomatic isolation, Eritrea knows it may lose the recent mining contracts with giant international mining companies, which are engaged in explorations of gold and potassium facing the harshest terrain and bureaucracy.

Recently, Nevsun Resources, a Canadian mining company which owns the Bisha gold mine in Eritrea, said it “made $78.3-million in net after-tax earnings in the last three months of 2011,” but regretted that was about “12% lower than the previous quarter’s profit, as output and prices shrunk.” Nonetheless, there are increasing numbers of western companies registering in Eritrea for gold and potash explorations.

The last thing Eritrea wants is to stir the waters with talks of another war with neighboring Ethiopia.

That gives Ethiopia a complete upper hand to get rid of the vulnerable government in Asmara, but how exactly it would go about it must be a matter of diplomatic precision rather than military muscle.

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