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from issue no. 11 - 2005

For a fistful of sand

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Two lads receiving aid in the Adikeshi camp

Two lads receiving aid in the Adikeshi camp

If a new war is allowed to occur, it will be like cheering for a return fight between Goliath and David.
Ethiopia, the only African country to have kept its two thousand year old freedom during the colonial period, except for the five years of subjection to fascist Italy, has already fought and surprisingly lost the war of 1998-2000 against tiny Eritrea, a state founded in 1993. For Asmara – that had experienced long Italian colonialism and British administration, was federated in 1952 to Ethiopia and annexed by it in 1962 (causing the thirty years of Eritrean resistance up to 1991) – it was the worst of its ordeals: the Ethiopian attempt at invasion left a hundred thousand dead on the field.Addis Ababa is the capital of a country ten times larger and with a population sixteen times bigger than that of Eritrea, but both leaders, the Ethiopian Meles Zenawi and the Eritrean Isaias Afeworki, know each other well, they fought for a long time on the same side when Meles was struggling to overthrow the Derg military junta that had seized power, and Isaias was fighting that same junta to give the Eritreans back their freedom. The two young revolutionaries achieved their purpose in 1991: Meles came to power and two years later Isaias was able to celebrate the independence of Eritrea with a referendum voted unanimously. In May 1993 Zenawi, as a guest in Asmara, shared in the joy of his neighbours. He and Afeworki were the emerging leaders, the new faces of Africa that even Washington lauded and that – despite the fact that from 1995 onwards they headed more or less consciously into the tunnel of misunderstanding that was to lead them to the war of 1998, on the pretext of the border dispute – they had kept their appeal almost unblemished at the signing of the Algiers peace treaty in December 2000, an outcome due in no small part to the commitment of the Organization for African Unity.
When the ceasefire was established in June 2000, the UN Security Council set up a 25 kilometer “temporary security zone” on the border, controlled by a mission of about four thousand men, and after the peace of Algiers an international commission was created that should have resolved the border question for ever. All this along with a thousand hopes of peace and restoration of the old friendship and regional, political and economic collaboration (obviously of more concern to little Eritrea than to Ethiopia).
We now come to the dangerous current crisis. Despite the fact that at Algiers there was clear agreement that the results of the border Commission, then produced in April 2002, were to be “final and binding”, Ethiopia has never respected them. In November 2004 Addis Ababa admitted accepting them only in principle, aiming to change them in the moment of the concrete demarcation of the border. And since December 2004 Ethiopia and Eritrea have been building up troops on the borders, and now it is estimated there are around 300,000 soldiers there.
In the fear, then, or in the wait, for pandemonium to break out again, on 4 October 2005 the government in Asmara imposed a ban on overflights by UN helicopters. On 23 November the Security Council asked Eritrea to withdraw the ban and Ethiopia to finally accept the decisions of the border commission, and both not to use force but diplomacy, giving UN Secretary General Kofi Annan forty days to report on the fulfilment of the Council’s demand, on pain of sanctions.
Ethiopia has said that it will at least accede to the demand to withdraw its troops from the border, while Eritrea instead has given notice and confirmed the expulsion of all members of the UN mission of United States, European Union, Canadian and Russian nationality (and who therefore will be transferred to Ethiopia). An incomprehensible move unless you look at things from the point of view of Asmara. The government doesn’t feel itself guaranteed by the Security Council, given that in more than three years it has never been capable of putting sufficient pressure on Addis Ababa, her large – and menacing – neighbor, to get the border question settled. A notion repeated by the American representative to the UN, John Bolton, on 14 December, to the great satisfaction of the Eritreans. «Might makes right», the Eritreans believe so there’s nothing left but defence to the last ditch, not least because the temporary security zone presses on Eritrean territory, over which the full sovereignty of Asmara is meant to be shown by this bitter anti-UN escalation.
In this situation there are those who claim that war on the enemy is also an effective brake on having to satisfy internal demands for freedom and democracy, and that both Meles and Afeworki are well aware of it. It’s another chapter that could and should be opened to everyone’s advantage. But now the clock is ticking quickly towards the moment when, given Eritrea’s formal disobedience, the UN will have to debate on sanction. But above all it has to avoid a new, instrumental, futile war and help towards a peaceful and agreed solution to Ethiopia’s torment of not having access to the Red Sea, the real motive for the conflict. Let us remember, finally, that without international aid millions of Ethiopians and Eritreans go hungry.
Will it be possible to use sanctions against Eritrea without re-examining Ethiopia’s failure to comply? If for the American State Department, Meles and Afeworki remain for the moment two leaders necessary to the “global war on terrorism” (both have backed the war in Iraq), it is precisely from the Security Council that Asmara is looking for help, in particular from one of its permanent members, China, with whom Isaias was close at the time of the struggle for independence and on whom Africa has been staking high for some time. In the meantime the Aja court of arbitration decided on 19 December that in 1998 it was Eritrea that first unlawfully attacked Ethiopia, but that it was not an attack intentionally planned and directed to unleash war. But the war then followed. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself.

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