The Search for a Lasting Resolution of the Ethiopia/Eritrea Conflict

Tasneem Jamal Africa, Armed Conflicts

Leenco Lata

The Ploughshares Monitor March 1999 Volume 20 Issue 1

Leenco Lata is a former leader of the Oromo Liberation Front of Ethiopia and participated in the political restructuring of Ethiopia after the overthrow of the military regime. He is currently a researcher and analyst living in Canada, and is associated with the International Resource Group on Disarmament and Security in the Horn of Africa (IRG).

Attempts to resolve the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict need to address root causes, using a holistic approach that encompasses the entire Horn of Africa region. Everything must be done to end the hostilities, but thinking about a more lasting and constructive resolution must not be neglected.

Common predicaments of the Horn

The Horn of Africa is inhabited by some of this world’s most impoverished societies and is threatened by rapidly expanding environmental deterioration, inter-state conflict, intra-state armed strife and an inter-communal scramble over diminishing resources. The intimate interplay among these threats seems to demand an imaginative holistic approach if they are to be comprehensively addressed and eventually resolved. Attempts to address and resolve these problems in isolation or strictly within the borders of one state are not promising.

In the Horn, the state actors are perceived to be advancing the political, economic, and cultural interests of a particular regional, ethnic, or religious group. The rest of Djibouti’s communities view the state as being partial to the Issa Somalis who have dominated the country since independence. All the previous Ethiopian regimes were seen as the upholders of Amhara political, cultural, and economic hegemony while the present regime is seen to do the same for the Tigreans. Some sectors of Eritrea’s lowland Muslim communities seem to view the new state as being dominated by Tigrinya-speaking Coptic Christian highlanders. The state policy to project an Arab and Muslim image for the Sudan is emphatically rejected by the predominantly Christian and Animist South. Somalia’s eventual implosion largely resulted from a growing constriction of the state’s support base from its numerous tribal and clan groups. Hence, in none of the countries are state institutions and policies perceived as impartial, legitimate or embracing the interests and identities of all component communities.

As a result, official state images and the legitimacy of those exercising power are being challenged from within. The challengers’ demands range from a redefinition of the state’s image, to power sharing or decentralization and devolution, to self-determination in various forms.

Meanwhile, tension persists between these states. For its entire existence as a functioning state, Somalia’s irredentist agenda pitted it against Ethiopia and threatened Djibouti’s emergence and survival as a separate independent state. Relations between Ethiopia and Sudan have oscillated between long periods of belligerence and brief moments of peaceful co-existence. Newly independent Eritrea, which started with very cozy relations with Ethiopia and Sudan, is now locked in conflict with both, as well as with Djibouti.

These inter-state tensions and internal challenges have routinely reinforced each other. They have also clearly bred a psychology of paranoia in the minds of the authorities ruling these inherently fragile states. In addition, both positive and negative developments within each state have had direct implications for its neighbours. The birth of a proud, independent Somali state had clearly influenced Ethiopian ethnic Somalis. It appears equally inevitable that a just and democratic resolution of the South Sudan question would impact on the thinking of the adjacent Nilotic sector of Ethiopia’s population. The on-going ambition to translate Eritrea’s independence into a springboard for rapid economic and social development is predicated on preferential access to Ethiopia’s resources and market. That its realization remains questionable in a region of growing poverty has not deterred others from harboring envy and a similar dream. The adjacent Ethiopian Tigray region’s success in imitating the same policy, allegedly at the expense of the rest of the country, partly accounts for the present state of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, while generating jealousy and anger in the rest of Ethiopia. A truly functioning Afar self-government in Ethiopia would have had implications for Eritrean and Djiboutiene Afars. One can go on to list many such instances in which possible positive reforms within one state would tend to threaten the position of a neighbouring regime.

Negative internal state developments have similar impacts on neighbours. The exchange of refugees has been the most common interaction among the Horn states. Also common is the suspicion that a neighbour is aiding and abetting dissident groups in another state. Often states act on these suspicions, and pit dissident groups against each other, souring the relations between the concerned communities. At the same time, the purely tactical basis of the policy to extend haven and assistance to such groups has made them pawns that are routinely traded in diplomatic deals. The end result has been the persistence of suspicion between state actors, ill-directed conflict between non-state actors and frequent sudden abandonment by their respective hosts as well as inter-communal conflict that is becoming increasingly pervasive.

While the region’s inhabitants are preoccupied with these inter-human conflicts, a very dangerous environmental time bomb is ticking. Vegetation and wild life are fast disappearing from neglect and misuse. At the same time, the population growth rate is continuing to outstrip the productivity of the land. The desert is encroaching on the last remaining arable areas at an alarming rate. Traditional competition among the region’s pastoral communities over fast disappearing grazing and watering areas has expanded and taken on a new nature with the availability of automatic weapons. This type of conflict is bound to be eclipsed by an even more devastating one among tillers if the growing pressure on arable land continues unabated. Distinguishing such inter-communal conflicts over resources from overtly politically motivated ones is becoming increasingly difficult.

The diversity of agendas for change

Struggles for change are going on in all the Horn states. Some of the concerned movements’ leaders are demanding a greater say in the affairs of the state. The most extreme are demanding a drastic restructuring of the state or even its breakup. A careful examination suggests that the fundamental issue is to re-articulate both people-to-people and people-to-state relations. To date, these relations have largely been characterized by exclusion and alienation. Peoples’ relationship to the state that was supposed to serve as the symbol of their collective empowerment and the guarantor of their security has routinely been inverted into one of prey and predator. This antagonism is now spilling over into inter-communal relations.

This sad state of affairs has many root causes. Perhaps the most glaring one is the assumption that these states can, and need to, cast themselves in the mould of European nation states. The way the principle of self determination was understood in the post-World War II era appeared to make the fashioning of a culturally homogeneous society out of diverse communities absolutely necessary. Thus each group scrambled to equate its ethnic or religious attributes to those of the ‘nation’, at the expense of the identities of other groups. The refusal to accept this tacit erasure of identity has inevitably fueled a growing demand for self-determination.

The challenge that is confronting the state and non-state actors of the Horn is picking the version of self- determination that puts an end to playing a zero-sum game. The attempt to cast the Horn states in the mould of the so-called European nation states was obviously based on misconceptions. Its unworkability and potentially disruptive consequences are no longer in doubt. On the other hand, perhaps some lessons can be drawn from the on-going European experiment to pool the voices, energies and potentials of peoples.

Ethiopia: centre of the Horn

For a number of reasons, Ethiopia is perhaps the most promising and key place in the entire Horn region to start shaping a more positive relationship between peoples and states. First, a form of state structure that allows Ethiopia’s peoples to have a say in the running of their local affairs while participating at the central level on a fair basis is, in principle, in place. The major lingering problem is the obstruction of such a right by the strict hierarchical ordering of the ruling party, the EPRDF. The resulting political atmosphere has turned the federal system of government into a sham, breeding disappointment and frustration. However, if Ethiopia’s state structure were coupled with a respect for the rule of law and democratic liberties, it could serve as the basis of a system of governance that practically demonstrates that the good of all reinforces the good of each group.

The success of such an experiment in Ethiopia would inevitably affect the rest of the Horn states. The Horn’s most populous country, Ethiopia is situated at its centre and shares borders and communities with all the rest of the region’s states. So, the effects of either positive or negative changes within Ethiopia normally spill over its borders to affect at least the thinking in the neighbouring states. Thus democratizing Ethiopia could serve as the starting point for doing the same in the rest of the Horn countries.

Formulating a more positive state-to-state relation in the region can also begin by restoring co-operation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. There seemed to be a very cozy relationship between these very closely related states until the recent outbreak of conflict. Although very unfortunate, this conflict helps to underline the need for restoring and putting on solid ground the partnership between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, there are some Ethiopian forces who wish to go to the extent of reversing Eritrea’s independence. Any sober person can easily see the impracticality of this ambition. Even the less ambitious desire by some Ethiopian elements who might want more influence over Eritrea’s government does not appear to be easily realizable. Conversely, the Eritrean authorities may entertain the idea of once again putting in power a more malleable Ethiopian government. This too appears equally unrealizable.

Only by negotiating a more mutually acceptable relationship between the two states can this conflict be resolved. Perhaps a new inter-state structure that enables a fair share of resources and infrastructure can serve such a purpose. Such a structure may be instrumental in striking a fair balance between formal independence and actual interdependence in the security, economic and communal spheres. If, and when, such a structure is defined and ratified, it can then serve as a nucleus of a regional body to which the other states may be attracted.

The resolution of the present conflict could be handled as an entry point for restructuring relations between the two warring states along the same lines to serve as a precursor of a new regional spirit. Admittedly, IGAD already serves such a purpose. Thus this suggestion does not necessarily conflict with the aims on which IGAD is established. On the contrary, it can be carried out in such a way that IGAD’s mission is strengthened and enriched. Much more importantly, it can help to draw all concerned political, civic, community and religious groups into the process of participating in the articulation and implementation of a new relationship, first between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and then among the rest of the Horn states.


At first, the proposed vision of articulating a more participatory system within and between states may appear too theoretical and unrealistic. Still, it is definitely a more responsible option than the tendency by the overthrown Ethiopian elite to join one of the conflicting parties to fan the outbreak of full-scale war. Even defining an apparently idealistic form of resolution to this conflict can set a target towards which state and non-state actors can direct their energies.

The underlying assumption of this vision is that peace cannot prevail between states unless it also exists within them. Hopes for enacting a just order between states will remain unrealizable unless justice is practiced within each state. The consequences of the emergence of a hierarchical set-up within states cannot be restricted within their borders.

Everything must be done to avert full-scale war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. One must caution, however, that a resolution that treats this conflict strictly as an inter-state border dispute might fail to address the root causes. The resulting state of tension between the two countries would necessitate a diversion of resources and energy to unproductive defence and security measures. The long-range consequences of such a stance could be comparable to the immediate effects of the outbreak of full-scale war. While everything must be done to turn the present hiatus in the conflict into a more permanent secession of hostilities, thinking about a more lasting and constructive resolution must not be neglected.

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