It’s Time for Eritrea and Ethiopia to Bury the Hatchet

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Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is inevitable because the irrepressible conflict is not going to last forever, we liked it or not
Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is inevitable because the irrepressible conflict is not going to last forever, we liked it or not

By Dawit Gebremichael Habte,

Mr. Herman Cohen, the former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has published an article titled “Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold” on 16 December 2013.

In his article, Mr. Cohen has done a commendable job in detailing the sequence of events that took place since Eritrea’s formal independence from Ethiopia. I also fully agree with Mr. Cohen’s recommendation to normalize the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia “following the end of UN sanctions against Eritrea” and the normalization “would have immediate benefits for both countries.”

I only take exception with Mr. Cohen’s characterization of the “root-cause” of the “border-conflict” between Eritrea and Ethiopia. I believe Mr. Cohen could have served his readers better had he presented Eritrea’s relationship with Ethiopia in its proper historical and political context.

As part of his “root-cause analysis”, Mr. Cohen stated that “[t]he relationship [between Eritrea and Ethiopia] started to cool in 1997 when the Eritreans created their own currency, the Nakfa. They did this without arranging to establish a system of daily settlements for cross border trade between their currency and the Ethiopian Birrh,” implying that Eritrean government’s decision to issue their national currency without consulting the Ethiopian government was the root-cause of the “border conflict” between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

If we are to look at the issuance of the Eritrean currency as an isolated event, we might have sympathy to Mr. Cohen’s claim. But, we have to put Eritrea’s relationship with Ethiopia in its proper historical and political context in order to have better understanding of the “root-cause” of the “border conflict” that never was.

With respect to the successive Ethiopian rulers’ policies towards Eritrea, Emperor Haile Selassie openly declared that Ethiopia was interested in Eritrea’s land, but not its people.

Colonel Menghistu Hailemariam, Emperor Haile Selassie’s successor, on his part declared that he will “dry the sea in order to kill the fish”, using the “fish” as a metaphor for the Eritrean’s armed struggle for independence and the “sea” for the people of Eritrea.

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s last Prime Minister, in his part, while publicly telling the people of Eritrea “not to scratch their wounds”, in private, he was telling US intelligence officers such as the late Paul Henze, “we really hope that Eritrea can remain part of a federated Ethiopia.” Meles Zenawi saw Eritrea’s independence only as a political expediency.

The answer to the “root-cause” of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia is found in Meles Zenawi’s interview conducted with his longtime supporter and US intelligence officer, Mr. Paul Henze, in April 1990. The interview was conducted one year prior to Eritrea’s independence in May 24, 1991. This is what Meles Zenawi had to say when asked what his preference would be when it comes to Eritrea’s independence:

“We look at this from the viewpoints of the interests of Tigray first, and then Ethiopia as a whole. We would like to see Eritrea continuing to have a relationship with Ethiopia. We know that Tigray needs access to the sea, and the only way is through Eritrea. Whether Eritrea is part of Ethiopia or independent, we need this access…”

Meles Zenawi was “not sure that differences among [Eritrea’s] different [religious] groups can be kept under control” once Eritrea declared its independence because, according to Meles, “[t]here are serious tensions between Eritrean Christians and Muslims”.

Meles Zenawi wrongly believed that Eritrea’s religious and cultural diversity would become a cause for conflict once Eritreans obtained their independence from Ethiopia. He could not have been any more wrong. Once independence was confirmed in 1991, Eritrean Christians and Muslims took themselves to the daunting task of reconstruction and nation building.

Unfortunately, this did not last long. In June 1997, Ethiopian military units started destroying farmlands and harassing farmers in the area of Bada and the towns bordering the Tigray region, the region where Meles Zenawi and members of his party hail from. About a year after that, in May 13, 1998, the Ethiopian Parliament led by Prime Meles Zenawi declared an all-out war in the name of a “border-conflict” and ended up seizing a third of Eritrean territory at the cost of tens of thousands in human lives. The mediations and peace process that followed the cessation of hostilities is well detailed by Mr. Cohen.

When dealing with matters of “peace and war” between Eritrea and Ethiopia, we cannot undermine the historical and political misgivings Eritreans suffered in the hands of Ethiopia and the international community. Eritrea has been betrayed by the international community for the umpteenth time. Putting historical mishaps to the side, in 2000, Eritrea accepted a peace agreement that was drafted by Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s special envoy, and Susan Rice, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the time. Eritrea accepted the “final and binding” peace agreement to delimit and demarcate the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia in accordance to “pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law“.

According to the “final and binding” peace agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia and witnessed and guaranteed by the United States and the UN, the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) was explicitly forbidden from making any decisions “ex aequo et bono“. Once the Commission rendered its decision, however, Ethiopia rejected the decision and retracted on both conditions: it wants to negotiate the “final and binding” decision because it wants the court to decide “ex aequo et bono“. According to Ethiopia, the delimitation decision of the neutral commission was “illegal, unfair and unjust.”

Eritrean has proven its respect and adherence to the international law a number of times. It’s time for Ethiopia to do so. Ethiopia needs to abide by the “final and binding” Algiers Agreement it signed as first step to building confidence and trust between the two nations. It is also time for the international community and especially for the United States to let Ethiopia know that it must abide by peace agreements it signed. For the US and the international community to be considered as honest brokers, they have to be impartial and fair.

Mr. Herman Cohen’s recommendation for Ethiopia to vacate Eritrean territories it is occupying by force and for Eritrea to immediately start dialogue with Ethiopia is the best proposal that has yet to come from current or former US government officials. This is refreshing and needs to be taken to heart.

Ethiopians need to fully understand that the Eritrea that was illegally and forcefully annexed to Ethiopia in 1960 is no more. At the same time, irrespective of their historical misgivings and the repeated miscarriages of justice rendered upon them by the international community, Eritreans need to look forward to their peaceful coexistence with Ethiopians, their neighbors to the South. Both Eritreans and Ethiopians need to look forward to the peace dividend.

It is time for Eritrea and Ethiopia to bury the hatchet so that the people of both nations can realize the intrinsic and instrumental values of the peace dividend.

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