Conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea Part I

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war triggered by a border dispute between 1998 and 2000. Up to 100,000 people died before the fighting ended. In a first peace agreement in 2000, the parties agreed to let a commission appointed by the UN decide the demarcation between the countries. However, when the Border Commission ruled that the disputed town of Badme belonged to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to leave the area. It took until 2018 before Ethiopia, on the initiative of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, announced that the country was now ready to fully accept the UN Commission’s ruling. A new peace agreement was signed and the conflict was declared over.

Until the summer of 2018, it sometimes rumbled alarmingly along the border and minor incidents occurred. Warnings were issued several times that the war was threatening to flare up again. Meanwhile, Ethiopia continued to control the disputed area around Badme.

Although the border dispute was the triggering cause of the war, there are other issues in the background, which concern, among other things, the economy, trade and national identity. Eritrea liberated Ethiopia in 1993, after 30 years of armed struggle. It happened with the approval of the then new Ethiopian government, but some Ethiopians still believe that Eritrea belongs to Ethiopia. There is mutual suspicion in both countries.

The parties have accused each other of supporting rebel groups in the other country. Both have also been involved in conflicts in other countries in the Horn of Africa. Especially in Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea can almost be said to have waged war against each other, through agents.

In December 2009, the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its involvement in the conflict in Somalia. Eritrea saw it as evidence of a hostile world that had taken Ethiopia’s side despite the fact that Ethiopia had failed to comply with its commitments under the peace agreement.

A turning point came in April 2018 when the reformist Abiy Ahmed Ali became Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister. He began a dialogue with Eritrea which ended in a new peace agreement in June 2018. The peace has lasted and in 2019 Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

In 1998, a new war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The fighting was triggered by a border dispute, but had several other underlying causes. A peace agreement in 2000 was not fully accepted by Ethiopia, which opposed the conquest of the border town of Badme in Eritrea. In the summer of 2018, a second peace agreement was concluded which was accepted by both parties and which led to lasting peace. It was created on the initiative of Ethiopia’s newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has roots that stretch far back in time. From the end of the 19th century, Eritrea was an Italian colony, which the British took control of during World War II. Ethiopia was temporarily occupied during the war but has never been colonized.

After the war, Ethiopia wanted to incorporate Eritrea, while most Eritreans wanted independence. The decision ended up with the UN. Eventually, the international community decided on a compromise: in 1952, Eritrea became an autonomous entity in federation with Ethiopia. The decision was made under pressure from the United States, which had military cooperation with Ethiopia, and promised the right to a military base in the Eritrean capital Asmara.

It soon became clear that Ethiopia did not attach much importance to Eritrea’s right to self-government. The legislature that the Eritreans were allowed to appoint according to the agreement was deprived of all decision-making power. Nationalist currents in Eritrea grew stronger, and several liberation movements were formed. The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) took up arms in 1961.

The following year, 1962, Ethiopia dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea. It happened in violation of international law and the UN decision, but still the UN did nothing. The annexation gave rise to a strong suspicion among Eritrean nationalists: against Ethiopia and against the UN and the Western powers, not least the United States.

Prolonged war of independence

The Eritrean war for independence lasted for 30 years. Breakers from the ELF formed the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in the early 1970s. The two groups occasionally fought against each other, as well as against the Ethiopian military. Eventually, the EPLF emerged victorious from the battle against the ELF.

At the same time, from the mid-1970s, an armed resistance emerged in Ethiopia, against the military regime that had seized power there. To the north was the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was formed with some assistance from the EPLF. For the Eritrean rebels, the Ethiopian guerrillas acted as a buffer between Eritrea and the Ethiopian army.

In addition, there was ethnic affiliation: the Tigers who dominate northernmost Ethiopia are also the dominant ethnic group in Eritrea, both politically and numerically. But the two rebel groups had different views on what nationality and ethnicity played. They also had different political objectives, different military strategies – and conflicting views on the demarcation between Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia.

At times, the EPLF and TPLF cooperated in the fight against the Ethiopian military, but for a period, relations were completely broken. Gradually, they advanced on their respective fronts. The TPLF merged with other Ethiopian guerrilla movements to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea Part I