Professor Mammo Muchie, Faculty of Management Sciences, Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa.

“We do not need borders between Eritrea and Ethiopia because it is not easy to demarcate them and get it right short of relying on colonial maps that divide families. In Africa the borders are artificial and mostly irrational. Drawing them and imposing them excludes and divides families.”

1. Introduction

Eritrean and Ethiopian flags at talksIs it the case, as Issias says, that even the angels or Christ may or may not bring normalisation of relations between the regimes in Ethiopia and Eritrea?

How is it that the situation reached such a level where even God may not normalise it even if He were to try?

It may be foolhardy for us to try to offer something where the angels and Christ are said they may or may not succeed if they try according to Issias’s quote above.

It is indeed very worrying when such statements are uttered by those who should know better. They have no solution to offer only problems to multiply over an already problem saturated region of Africa. They have no intention to be like angels or Christ for the sake of making peace and try to make genuine efforts to normalise daily life for the people. What is the alternative? If they remain the demons of war and belligerence and have no wish to be the beacon of peace and civilisation, is it not long overdue they pass the baton to those who can act with the spirit of reconciliation and wisdom? But the leaders say they will not leave1. They intend to stay, though war, hubris, arrogance and contempt will continue to prevail over commonsense, reason, humility and wisdom over the people and the region.

All those who think big, think deep and think with commitment and knowledge, being also open to wisdom and humility from Eritrea to Ethiopia, from Ethiopia to Somalia and Djibouti must not remain indifferent to the plight and suffering of the people of the region whose lives are inextricably interconnected as if they are joined by one garment of destiny. They must try to find the solutions of peace, development and civilisation by any means necessary now, not tomorrow! The longer the conditions of conflict persist, the more the people die and the whole region continues to be a failure. All the thinking elements of the region must defy this failure, stop the executioners of war and try to bring back hope and success.

2. The Origin of the Problem between Eritrea and Ethiopia

Eritrea, both as a name and entity, came into being as a consequence of the European Scramble for Africa. The Ethiopian kings were at the time engaged in a modernising and unification project grotesquely misconstrued by many ethnic entrepreneurs today with their often very divisive agendas as a ‘colonising’ (sic!!!) project, when, in fact what the Ethiopian kings of the time did was to confront the European onslaught to colonise Africa as a whole.

After the Second World War, ex-Italian colony Eritrea became federated with Ethiopia. Eritrea, and Ethiopia2 were put together in a federal arrangement supported mainly by the then allied victors of the Second World War, principally the two Governments of the UK and USA!

In 1961 an armed revolt started opposing the Eritrean federation with Ethiopia by describing Eritrea falling under ‘Ethiopian colonialism.’ The fight continued until May 27-28, 1991 when Eritrea’s current rulers hurriedly declared in London at a news conference and formed the ‘Eritrean provisional government.’3 There appeared to be a brief honeymoon period with the TPLF leaders who, for their own part, declared a ‘transitional Government in Ethiopia,’ days later in Addis Ababa.

‘A special relationship’ phase seemed to take place between the former rebel leaders of the TPLF and EPLF specially since the TPLF leaders were bending backwards to facilitate Eritrea to breakaway from Ethiopia, even though this meant Ethiopia can be a landlocked nation!

However, the honey moon for the special relationship did not last long since a war broke out between the TPLF and EPLF leaders during 1998-2000, where nearly tens of thousands perished and nearly a million people were displaced. The war ended without a victor and an infamous deal was made in Algiers that brought UN peacekeepers to keep the hostile armies at bay. Since then there is a ‘no war, no peace’ situation with severe costs to the people on both sides of the Mereb River. Given Eritrea and Ethiopia cannot live with war or under the threat of war, what must be done to go from this special war situation to a special peace or special relationship?

We take the risk to reflect on this daunting problem in the hope of injecting reason and dialogue to prevail over the state of protracted unreason, arrogance and belligerence that prioritise war and death over life, peace, development and civilisation over the entire Horn of Africa region today.

3. The roots of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Conflict

The story of the relationship of Eritrea and Ethiopia has been nothing but tragic since the 19th century European Scramble of Africa brought Eritrea both as a name and an entity into being. That the seeds of war were planted by the imperial project is inconvertible for all to see. What is deeply disturbing is that the negative gaze issued from the Scramble for Africa has not ended in this region long after it has formally closed its chapter in the rest of Africa. This is all the more disturbing as Ethiopia has been one of the staunchest anti-colonial resistance-nations in Africa, and if not, indeed, in the world.

Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have been victims of colonialism. Their divisions and fight is rooted in the European colonial project over Africa. In that sense there is no difference between them and what happened to the rest of Africa. But this understanding has not been attained by the generations that currently rule or wish to oppose those that rule both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Instead of sympathising with them and condemn what made them both victims and come together, the generations that should have done better fell into the pits of murky fighting from which they have not been able to find an escape route to date. Instead of the special relationship, they embroiled the region with a cynical special war. How to bring about a special peace founded on the special relationship from the special war is the overriding priority of the time brooking no delay at all.

Today, the current tragedy of war that continues to torment the region has been spearheaded mainly by internal actors in pursuit of their own power tenure needs with an alliance with covert and overt external divisive forces. In fact external forces work together with internal actors in contributing to complicating the relationship by working with divisive internal forces.

Minus these forces that have imposed a tragic barbaric war situation, the people left to their own can live amicably without the danger and the frequent outbreaks of war between them by employing traditional mediation and customs to arbitrate any disputes that may arise between them.

The people are capable and rely on commonsense and the decency that they inherited from their long history and God- fearing collective behaviour to live in peace and harmony. If it were not for the decent character of the people themselves, Ethiopia would have been in a worse shape today than it is now. The elite seem largely to behave with deception, intrigues and cruelty lacking any semblance of historical and moral depth. Specially the ruling elite lack moral and historical sense, and intellectual honesty and principles in doing politics, thus being uncaring in throwing the region into unending turmoil unmindful of the fact that the region has been suffering under the colonial-imperial gaze for centuries! The elite has thrown the region to be in a much worse tragic condition today more than ever when it should be free from the means of death during the 21st century.

Franz Fanon called the post-colonial African ruling elites a’ useless class’ by judging their awful actions with regard to bring welfare and freedom for the people. Let alone these elites to be a force of good and wellbeing, they are not even good at ‘exploiting’ the people without oppressing them with violence, confounding language games, and tribalism. Fanon could not see their usefulness. He saw their utter uselessness! Sadly, he continues to be right! How we wish he was wrong by the elite re-emerging with great historical vision, political principle and intellectual honesty!!!

4. From the Scramble of Africa to the Present no War, no Peace Situation

After the post world war II settlement brought Eritrea into a federation with Ethiopia with the support of the victorious powers of the war, the relationship became like a bad marriage since 1961. After a generation of brutal war the final divorce came in 1991.What is even more tragic is that after the divorce, the hostile relationship continues without any closure with the ruling parties on both North and South sides of the Mereb River going to full scale war between 1998-2000, and continuing to talk with confounding hyperbole and moral abandon by signing a treaty in Algiers which the Ethiopian general who led the war on the Ethiopian side tells us now openly that it should not have been signed at all. (See Ethiomedia).

Now we are left with a dilemma: What can work to bring normality between Eritrea and Ethiopia? Eritrea being in a federation with Ethiopia led to war for a generation and did not bring peace. Breaking the federation and going for the ‘special relationship’ did not bring peace either. We are left with the query: what would work to create a peaceful relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia again, if ever it is possible?

We hear today with wonderment when the EPLF leader advocates one Ethiopia! Equally also we hear with astonishment the TPLF leaders declare they would leave no stone unturned to fight anyone including even those who came from Eritrea who dare to threaten an independent Eritrean state. If the Eritrean leader would fight for one Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians fight for an independent Eritrea, one wonders why they have chosen to impose a ‘no war, no peace’ oppressive and killer situation that continues to disrupt normal life in the wider region of the so-called Horn of Africa. Do they really mean what they say, or is what they say no more than a public relations stunt? Their actions and their words seem to be up side down and incoherent to say the least.

If the leader of Eritrea advocates for one Ethiopia, one would expect him not to fight Ethiopia. If the leaders of the TPLF advocate for an independent Eritrea, one should expect behaviour not to fight Eritrea by them.

But their words belie their actions. What we see is that the Eritrean leaders fighting Ethiopia and the leaders of the TPLF fighting Eritrea! Both seem comfortable creating at present a no war no peace situation to the determinant of the people on both sides of the Mereb River.

Not only do these forces talk opposite to their walk, they also are engaged in a tit-for tat opposition, where one supports, the other opposes strangely almost like a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps their intention may not be evil, but their real actions of war continue to have lethal consequences to the people on both sides. If the leaders of TPLF join the coalition of the willing, the Eritrean leaders join also the coalition of the willing, not because they believe in fighting in Iraq in support of the USA, but for the reason not to be out foxed by the TPLF leaders who have chosen to be part of the coalition against the global war on terror!

Closer to home, with respect to the Indian Ocean neighbour Somalia, the TPLF leaders are embroiled supporting the transitional Government that has in it former warlords, and the Eritrean leaders side supports the growing opposition constituted from the former Islamic Courts and sees a big opportunity to weaken the regime in Ethiopia. In the May 13,2008 Reuters interview, Issias does not wish a UN and US role as doing ‘any useful purpose’ in Somalia claiming such moves are meant only to “weaken the Somali Resistance!” Issias hopes the Somali resistance’ will prevail at the end of the day.” As long as the TPLF leaders are involved, Issias can only see supporting the resistance against them. It is not for Somali peace, it is more against the competitor enemy- the TPLF leaders that Issias’s attention is focused upon.

Here again they may both be claiming they want peace in Somalia, but their actions demonstrate the spreading of war and the cultivation of a generalised insecurity and war community over the Horn prompting USA policy makers to designate the whole region one of the most dangerous fronts for conducting the ‘global war on terror’ second only to Afghanistan-Pakistan, replacing Iraq!

Though the Eritrean leader says Eritreans stand for one Ethiopia, the same leader sees no contradiction in supporting any opposition to the regime in Ethiopia that he thinks can be used to undermine the TPLF regardless of whether the opposition has plan to disintegrate the one Ethiopia they advocate in their glossy magazines in three languages!

Likewise in Ethiopia, the TPLF leaders support opposition to the ruling party in Eritrea despite the fact the said opposition may have elements that may be reactionary jihadists associated with the Sudanese Islamist regime.

We have ruling parties who say what they do not mean, think only to undermine each other, full of opportunism and myopia, do war when they can, embellished though with rhetoric of peace, unable to care for the people and the region to emerge from its generalised status of humiliation by wasting time and money on weapons and protection for themselves and their loyal entourages.

At the same time all along the Eritrean ruling party leader Issias and some intellectuals always have claimed Eritrea has and should have a special relationship with Ethiopia.4

Right now there is no special relationship. What exists is a special war, where the war is fought not to bring conclusive results but to maintain a long-term unstable no war, no peace state, when possible, or with a real risk of a state of war when things go out of control! What we are left with is an endless play with obscurantist language games by morally bankrupt useless elites on the back of the enormous suffering and humiliation of the gentle people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. We live in the shadows of confounding talks of war and an imminent threat that can be triggered by design, provocation or sheer accident.

5. Is the Special War to maintain the special relationship in a violent form?

It is said disputes that go out of control amongst brothers can be very cruel and vicious. The Eritrean leader to his credit has never abandoned the special relationship talk between Ethiopia and Eritrea that was formally declared in the 1980s when there was a full guerrilla war between the EPLF and the Military Government in Ethiopia. After Eritrean independence there appeared to be a brief honey moon for the special relationship until the outbreak of the special war in1998! After the war the special relationship does not seem to be abandoned only that it seems to be expressed with a special war. The question is why the special relationship is not founded on a peaceful pedigree? What went wrong? Even better how can it be re-founded on a peaceful pedigree?

The USA and Britain have a special relationship. But it is based on the understanding the USA is the stronger power and Britain is a special ally that always supports the USA even if it has private misgivings about some of the steps taken by the USA. Britain knows it is a junior partner and is very comfortable with her diminished status. The special relationship is not a relationship of equal. It is a mature understanding who is more powerful and how the less powerful adds power to it by allying with the powerful.

When Eritrea and Ethiopia describe a special relationship, it looked there is no clarity who is the older brother and who is the younger brother. What seems to define the relationship is arrogance in abundance held by both sides to the brim. Both have their self- justified narratives. And they are right. No one can dispute what they think, plan, say and do and still be accommodated or tolerated. TPLF said we helped you to get your independent state. EPLF countered by saying we helped you to assume state power in Ethiopia. Neither was willing to budge an inch from this position. Far from relating specially they ended up relating competitively on every front. And problems that remain unsettled could not be settled once the leaders and the parties have squandered the good will for each other. The special relationship could not stand the pressures of solving political problems.

After the Algiers Agreement the two leaders signed a deal to station a UN sponsored peace keeping force on the Badme area, the border of dispute they have been telling the world they went to war for! They want to use a 1902 unequal colonial treaty to settle the border and this treaty appeared to put Badme within Eritrean border, if the demarcation is accepted. This is a big scandal. What colonial treaties across Africa did is split family from family, and here we have those who tell us are liberation fronts trying to impose an unequal colonial treaty that they should emphatically have rejected.

Today in Africa the most natural integration efforts take place through cross border movements of people. Cross border trade is booming and families and relatives that have found themselves in different states by artificially drawn borders are defying the checkpoints by the states. Can anyone understand why Eritrea and Ethiopia could go to war to enforce a defunct colonial unequal treaty?

In a workshop we held in Aalborg University, the Afar paper presenter relayed a moving story. He said he knew families that live in four states. For example a husband had four wives who live in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. What this means is that to visit brothers, sisters wives and husbands the family visitors need visas. In the case of the belligerent countries, Ethiopia with Eritrea, and Djibouti with Eritrea, it may not be even easy to get the visas. So families are separated. It seems the independent post-colonial state comes at a heavy price, the cost of splitting families. Since this may not affect the elite, they may not care it is a problem.

Those who want to hold conferences in Addis Ababa may not do so if Eritreans have to participate or the vice versa because apparently of visa restrictions. That is what those invited to participate have claimed. This affects the flow of knowledge, the flow of people and the life and well being of people. It also affects many Eritreans who have Ethiopian families, and conversely many Ethiopians who have Eritrean families.

6. The Algiers Agreement and the Special Relationship?

The opportunity to recreate a special relationship may have occurred when the Algiers agreement was concluded, but it did not take place either. Instead of trust the agreement complicated the situation by bringing in UN peace keepers with troops drawn from over 60 countries!!! Now we have reached the point that this UN keeping force is no longer welcome. Troops have been building up with occasional skirmishes that may lead either by accident or design once more recreating the major slaughter of the 1998-2000 brutal war.

If the Eritrean leader advocates a one Ethiopia policy, and the leaders in Ethiopia will go to war to defend Eritrean sovereignty, how can they justify a war over finding and settling a border between them without resorting to war? Why re-create a state of enmity and violence, the state of belligerence, the preparation for war, and the hostile propaganda? How come they continue the state of the special war? Today there is a protracted imposition of a neither peace nor full war situation? What is mind boggling is that this state seems to suit the conflicting parties to extend their respective rules of a country they split into two and are desperately seeking to foster an evil and cruel atmosphere of a never ending enmity. When are they likely to change this status?

7. Concluding Remark: From Special War to Special Peace?

History will absolve those who take risks for peace even though they may have been waging a criminal war. The first challenge is to appeal to those who are committing the historical crime against the people and the region: We appeal to the current executioners of war to change from their current misguided ventures and come out, openly and publicly to join the call against war and for peace, development and civilisation. They desist from their war course to engage in peace cultivation by declaring and committing themselves that they are against war now or in the future putting at risk the welfare and development of both Eritrea and Ethiopia and the region as a whole. Even when one side starts it, they would not overreact the way Russia reacted to the Georgian provocation! They would work to dilute the provocation and stop the fighting. They will not even be provoked if others wish to indulge in provocation in the first place, should be the correct attitude. This bold step requires the existence of people sensitive leadership as opposed to what we have currently in the region’s very arrogant power sensitive leadership. Such people-empowering and people well being enhancing leadership does not exist now on both sides of the Mereb River. We would like to call for courage and foresight to emerge and bold people sensitive leadership to come from the current power- hungry and arrogant leadership either by the conversion of those who are arrogant or those who are not coming forward to leadership. A risk for peace is worth taking. Take it now!!!

If indeed the border demarcation is the issue, stop using 1902 unequal colonial treaties. Create an open border free zone where active local government based on the choices, deliberations, mediations of the people resident in the border areas can run affairs with a jointly framed and conceptualised supporting Eritrean-Ethiopian overall regulatory authority.

We do not need borders between Eritrea and Ethiopia because it is not easy to demarcate them and get it right short of relying on colonial maps that divide families. In Africa the borders are artificial and mostly irrational. Drawing them and imposing them excludes and divides families. When the families try to cross borders they are stigmatised as criminals when in fact what they do is sensible, see their wives and children!!! So the border is a non- issue. It has been an issue for ulterior motives no doubt. It is a crime that a two year war was fought over it at the cost of so many lives!! Those that started this war must submit to history’s world court of judgment and honestly admit their mistakes and move on to address the rebuilding of the lives of the people.

Immediately stop the politics of whoever is against the regimes is worthy of support. Stop this childish game in a region where death and destruction is the overwhelming reality and image. Whoever opposes the TPLF leaders is a friend of the EPLF leaders or the vice versa is too insane to indulge in and make it ones major line in politics.

Establishing step by step a genuine and trustful road to mending the Eritrean-Ethiopian special relationship is necessary. If as Issias says even the angels and Christ may not normalise the current regimes, efforts must be made to bring to the forefront those who can be like angels to normalise the relationship. There are some tough issues that need to be addressed whether the angels or the demons had to deal with them: coming to terms with the war is important if not to learn never to repeat it again ever!

The use of the ports by Ethiopia is another issue.

The principles for gradual integration of the two states to forge a large Horn of Africa regional integration are relevant to start thinking about.

The terms of the special relationship after the special war to bring about a special peace that will sustain a future of stability, security and prosperity has to be re-worked. Under what arrangements can the principles of the special relationship to be founded? There should be a frank and open discussion of how best to develop the Eritrean-Ethiopian relationship from the economy, the army, governance, security, the state, citizenship, press freedom, rule of law, civil society and a host of other related issues.

The opposition should take establishing the special relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia as a priority matter. Opposition groups must refrain from using the games played by the TPLF regime and EPLF regimes against one another. Their ‘angel and Christ’ character should prevail over the deceptive, cruel, demonic character that characterises much of the politics of the region.

Opposition from Eritrea should build links with opposition in Ethiopia and should subvert the possible misuse by the regimes of each others oppositions against one another.

Any war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is not justified by any ground. There are no issues worth fighting for. If the TPLF is comfortable to make Ethiopia landlocked, there is absolutely no reason to fight over border demarcation when it is clear such borders are not easy to demarcate dividing the same people!

If for any reason war erupts, both Eritreans and Ethiopians should not fight, instead they should extend to each other the warm and sincere hands of peace and brotherhood to say never to war and work tirelessly for peace and civilisation. Strong anti-war movements must be forged in alliance with each other and the broadest possible peace front should abort the war mongers’ schemes to create slaughter.

Finally, Ethiopia and Eritrea must not be expected to make peace until the angels or Christ comes to normalise their relationship! The time when Christ comes may not be known. It is not just or fair to let the Ethiopian and Eritrean people hold hostage to war until Christ comes. We need His support to end the war. He always helps those who are eager and engaged to work for peace. Let all Eritreans and Ethiopians from those who are oppressively ruled to those who rule them with oppression and war come to believe peace is possible and it can be made. Let each one of us all go for it so that all can go together to stop war and open society and the region for peace, development and civilisation!

1 “I will stay as long as it takes. That is not my choice. That is not my preference. It has to be decided based on the situation on the ground…. I will not be scared someone coming and telling me ‘well you have to go, we have to find a change… I am not a fool.” (Issias, Reuters Interview May 13,2008)
2 Ethiopia’s relation with the colonising powers has been seen by some as if Ethiopia too played a role like the colonisers themselves. That is a gross historical fiction having been peddled by the ethnic entrepreneurial project that has been imposed on the country, abetted and nurtured by the Eritrean Fronts since 1961 in describing the defunct Eritrean federation with Ethiopia as a relation of the colonizer and the colonized. Ethiopia as a country was very much a victim of colonialism and not a coloniser to be ranked with the big powers during the Scramble for Africa. Ethiopia as the country was under constant colonial pressure mainly from Italy, Britain and France during the Scramble for Africa, falling periodically under the conquests, unequal treaties, wars and intrigues of the colonial powers, though despite all these imperial-colonial machinations and manipulations, it remained formally un-colonised. That it remained un-colonised does not elevate its status to a colonial power. Its own drives to unify the country under the threat and pressures of colonialism cannot be described as colonialism. This point must be repeated time and time again until both friends and foes of Ethiopia get it completely and clearly.
3 I was at the time Chairman of the Ethiopian Community in Britain when the provisional Government was declared by Issaias on May 28, 1991. We were in a demonstration at the US embassy in London when a BBC news hour reporter
4 ’Ethiopia and Eritrea have a special relationship.’ See Amare Tekle, Eritrea and Ethiopia from Conflict to Cooperation, RSP, p.2
5 They asked me to join their studio at 1pm. I went to the studio and the BBC played the statement from Issias. The BBC reporter asked me now that Eritrea is declaring a Government and what my views were. “My reply was that there will be war soon.” He asked me how can there be war when the TPLF is also backing the Eritrean independence: “I repeated my answer: there will be war’. I cannot tell you the precise time, I added. A year later Martin Plaut asked me similar question, I repeated my answer by reiterating there will be war. Two years later there was a one day workshop on Eritrea and Ethiopia in Oxford on economic cooperation and development, I raised the awkward issues saying the politics needs to be settled properly before we talk about long-term economic cooperation between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Some of the Ethiopians from the Ethiopian Economic Association tried to shout me down. But I held my position that we must address the political problems that would lead to war. I wished I was wrong. But the war came. That it came may not be a problem. Bu that there is no end to it is a real worry. We must go to the root and find solutions that endure the test of time and history!

The author is Eritrean and Ethiopian flags at talksa fellow of the South African Academy of Sciences, the African Academy of Sciences and the African Science Institute. He is also currently adjunct Professor at the Adama Science, Technology University, Arsi University, Addis Ababa University and University of Gondar, Ethiopia.​He has been senior research associate at the SPMTDC programme and also has become Senior Research Associate at the TMD Centre of Oxford University. He is also a Chief Editor of a new TUT Journal of Creativity, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (JCISE).



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here