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by Guled Ismail
Saturday, September 15, 2007


The United States is once again interfering in a volatile region and taking sides in local conflicts as it relentlessly pursues its war on terror. This time it is siding with Ethiopia, a favourite ally, against Eritrea an arch rival. It is taking sides in the Somali civil war too. Below I look at why this is the wrong approach and how the US can still rectify it.  


Eritrea is Africa’s youngest nation gaining its independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1993. Since then it had had an uneasy existence as it desperately tried to carve itself a place in this volatile but strategically important region straddling East Africa and Red Sea. Its first task was to assert itself as a sovereign and viable Nation State. This meant among other things, preserving its territorial integrity and it went about this with the same vigour that won her its freedom from Ethiopia after thirty bloody years of almost constant war.


What their bigger neighbours did not expect is the ferocity with which Eritreans defended their land and sea borders and the enormity of risks they were willing to take in order to protect their patch. The Yemenis, Sudanese and even the  mini state of Djibouti which is home to huge French and US military bases initially made attempts to bite off chunks of the new state’s land and sea but they were all sent packing and all learnt to give the Eritreans a respectful wide berth ever since.


But Asmara’s main foe was always going to be its giant former colonial master Ethiopia. Initially the new Ethiopian leadership under Meles Zenawi’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front(TPLF) have shown great political courage and generosity in accepting the inevitability of Eritrean independence and decided to part friends with their former countrymen. After all the TPLF itself were trained and resourced by the Eritrean liberation movements during their long common struggle in the 80s against Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist regime.




But the TPLF leadership soon felt it had been out-manouvered and outsmarted by the Eritreans during the negotiations for separation. Meles Zenawi was ridiculed by many Ethiopians for giving this ancient nation the unwelcome distinction of being the first country in the world to make itself intentionally landlocked. He was depicted by the urbanised Amhara gentry in particular as a naïve Tigrayan farmer boy who sold the country short through his lack of political and diplomatic skills. “Surely he could have negotiated with the Eritreans to keep an access corridor to sea in return for land along the border?” They asked. The Eritreans maybe fiercely patriotic but they could have been persuaded to part with few miles of Danakil desert attached to a hellhole port along the Djiboutian border in exchange for farmland in the gentler slopes of Ethiopia’s highlands.


The sniggering of the elites might have stung but Mr. Zenawi is a fairly shrewd man and he knew Ethiopia could survive and thrive without a seaport of its own. He had a choice of ports in neighbouring countries all ideally situated to cater for particular regions of the vast Ethiopian hinterlands. Djibouti, Berbera in Somaliland, Mogadishu in Somalia, Port Sudan and even ports in Kenya could all easily replace Eritrean ports should Asmara decide to close Assab and Massawa ports to Ethiopian goods.




But Mr. Zenawi was nonetheless determined not to make any further concessions to his former allies in Eritrea. He felt, rather unjustifiably perhaps, that he had been somehow betrayed by his former comrade Mr Afwerki in Asmara when in fact all the latter did was to secure his country’s independence on its internationally recognised borders.


So one leader was determined to safeguard what he considers to be his nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and another convinced he already gave away too much without getting anything in return. Neither was in a mood for compromise.


The scene was set for conflict but when it came in 1998 the sheer scale of it took everybody by surprise. The expected grandstanding and hostile rhetoric soon led to massive ground and air war involving hundreds of thousands of men and hundreds of tanks and airplanes. The whole 620 mile long border was aflame and countless thousands lost their lives. The war ended in a stalemate although the Ethiopians claimed some sort of victory by holding on to the town of Badme which served as the spark that triggered the all out war.


Badme’s importance


Invariably described as `two goat town’ and `dusty village’ and a collection of barren rocks’ by the ever patronising western media, Badme became a symbol of the whole conflict. The Eritreans repeatedly asked Ethiopian militiamen who were occupying it since 1991 to leave Badme as the settlement was clearly inside Eritrea. The Ethiopian militias, many of them de-mobbed former TPLF fighters who were given farmland in the area by the Ethiopian government, simply ignored the Eritrean demands and proceeded to seize more land and confiscate more farms. The Eritreans had had enough and eventually entered the town in March-April 98 leading to the devastating all out war a month later.

 The Ruling


The United Nations boundary commission which was tasked with the demarcation of the border between the two countries firmly and unequivocally put Badme inside Eritrea. The symbolic value of this ruling is huge because it implies whoever owns Badme was the `right’ side in the conflict while the other was the obvious aggressor. No wonder that Ethiopia fought the ruling and strongly appealed against it. When it lost the appeal, Addis simply ignored the UN ruling and to this day occupies Badme illegally.


Double Standards


The Eritreans point out the US did not put any pressure on the Ethiopians to abide by the UN ruling on Badme. This has deep resonance in the wider region because it reminds people of what is perceived as US `double-standards’ in the application of UN rules and regulations and upholding of international law. Millions of Arabs and Muslims are outraged by the US allowing Israel to flout UN resolutions at will while encouraging the full-blooded implementation of any UN resolution or sanction against Arab or Muslim nations, particularly if these countries are not allies of the US. This is not wholly fair but it touches a nerve among many in the area and the Eritreans are the latest to feel hard done by by what is seen as American collusion with injustice.


 The Somalia dimension


The current US support of Addis Abeba is largely influenced by events in the neighbouring failed state of Somalia. After 15 years of anarchic lawlessness, the Southern half of the nation of 10 million was taken over by hard line group of Islamists calling themselves the Islamic Courts Union(ICU) in June 2006. The US and Ethiopia accused them of harbouring Al-Qaeda fugitives and Ethiopian troops supported by US Special forces and local Somali allies ousted the Islamists in December 2006. Eritrea, in a classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend sided with the Islamists who launched Iraq-style insurgency with almost daily attacks on the Ethiopian troops and their Somali allies.  When the Ethiopians and their Somali allies organised clan reconciliation meetings in Mogadishu in August this year the Eritreans convened an alternative one in Asmara attended by, among others, Sheikh Aweys, the reclusive head of the Islamic Courts Union who is accused by the US of supporting International terrorism.


Condemn and be damned


The US State Department angered by this Eritrean effrontery, are now condemning Eritrea as a `rogue state’ and worse still flirting with the idea of adding it to the list of nations supporting international terrorism. This list is seen by many as nothing more than blunt political tool to threaten those who cross American policies. A kind of US `Fatwa’ as one Eritrean source described it recently. It carries no moral or ethical value in the eyes of most of the world because essentially, the US decides who is a terrorist and then sanctions them and anyone who supports them. It is also an ineffective political tool as we saw it in Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea.


Wrong game


The Eritreans are not entirely blameless. They are misguided to support the insurgency in Somalia simply to irk their Ethiopian foes. Somalis, including the Islamists currently meeting in Asmara full well know the last thing Eritrea wants to see is Ethiopian withdrawal from Mogadishu. It wants Addis bogged down in Somalia thus minimising the chances of Ethiopia waging war against them. Besides, the Somali Islamists are not seen as nationalist freedom fighters by the overwhelming majority of Somalis but as ideologues hellbent on imposing their particular militant brand of Islamism on the traditionally moderate and politically secular people of Somalia. It is true that all Somalis would like to see the back of the Ethiopians whom they view with suspicion at best but that does not automatically translate into a mass popular sympathy for the Islamic Courts. In reality the most solid support for the Islamists is not based on religion but on the thoroughly secular loyalties of the Hawiye clansmen to whom almost all of the Court’s leaders belong to. 


The Islamic Courts are nonetheless an integral part of the current political situation and should not be ignored or dismissed as terrorists. They should be cajoled and persuaded to join the political process. This is where Eritrea could play a positive and constructive role if given a chance by the US and their Ethiopian allies.




The first thing the US needs to do is be fair and be seen to be fair. Fairness may never have been a major ingredient in world politics but it is the most pragmatic and in the long-term the most productive option the US could pursue in this particular region and perhaps across the world.


It should put pressure on Ethiopia to accept international law and give up Badme. It should then seek a comprehensive rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea including solving all other outstanding border issues. If any one nation could bring these two together it is the US. It can and should use its local allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt as intermediaries if necessary. It should stop condemning Eritrea for pursuing its national interests or what it perceives to be its national interests. It should initiate a dialogue with Asmara instead of trying to threaten it into line.  The US should also stop demonising the Somali Islamists as some kind of Al-qaeda spawned monsters. They are not. They are home-grown urban political movement using religion as a uniting factor and guiding ideology. They are for the Somali people to accept or reject not America’s or Ethiopia’s or anyone else’s for that matter.


The US should stop siding with the Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government(TFG) which its harsher critics say is neither Federal nor Transitional and most certainly not a Government. In the eyes of most Somalis it is no more or less legitimate than the Courts Union since neither has a popular mandate from the Somali people. Moreover the TFG is widely seen as a construct of Ethiopia and many Somalis dismiss them as no more than traitors and puppets for bringing foreign troops onto Somali soil. Again it is for Somalis to weigh those choices and make those judgements.


In other words the message to the US is to learn from its mistakes elsewhere in the world and not to repeat them in the Horn of Africa. Condemning, threatening, bullying; even outright military interventions do not always work.  Protecting friends and allies even though they are in the wrong is not a virtue but an abhorrent practise that might come back to haunt you in the long-term. Acting on fairness and on the principle of neutrality; using dialogue instead of hostile rhetoric - just might do the trick


In fact I am convinced that in this particular region, it is the only option. 

Guled Ismail
E-mail: [email protected]

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