Eritrea becomes independent
When the EPRDF captured the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in May 1991, the Eritrean rebels were able to occupy Asmara at the same time. Eritrea became virtually independent then, in 1991. Legally, it was consolidated by a UN-monitored referendum in Eritrea in April 1993. Over 99 percent of Eritreans voted for independence – and it happened with the good memory of the Ethiopian EPRDF government.
But tensions soon arose in the cooperation between the two new governments. They continued to disagree on the demarcation between the countries, and disagreements arose over currency and trade issues. Through Eritrea’s independence, Ethiopia had become a country without its own coast, and was dependent on access to the Red Sea for its foreign trade.
When Eritrea decided at the end of 1997 to introduce its own currency, nafka, instead of Ethiopia’s birr, things really took off. Firefighting took place at the disputed border.
Border strife triggers the war
In May 1998, the conflict suddenly escalated. After gunfire at the small community of Badme in the lowlands to the west, Eritrea entered with a larger force and captured areas that had been under Ethiopian control. Ethiopia responded by mobilizing large forces to strike back at Eritrea. Both sides fired artillery across the border, and soon the war became a fact. Despite the previous fighting, few had predicted that full-scale war would break out.
The battles lasted in rounds for two years. Mediation attempts were made by Rwanda and the United States, and by the Organization of African Unity, OAU (predecessor to the African Union , AU).
The war, which from the beginning concerned the control of a dusty small town in a remote area, gained enormous proportions. It became the bloodiest conflict between two countries in Africa in modern times. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers took part in a trench war. Both sides were well equipped with modern weapons, and targets far into each country were attacked. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed, and between 500,000 and one million were deported or fled the fighting. The war was far more devastating to the young state of Eritrea than to the much larger and more powerful Ethiopia.
In May 2000, Ethiopia launched a massive offensive and quickly regained ground, threatening to continue its advance on Asmara. The Eritreans were forced to retreat from the disputed territories. A ceasefire agreement was signed in June, and a formal peace agreement in December. According to the so-called Algerian Agreement, a buffer zone along the border was to be patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force, Unmee (UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea). The UN would also set up two independent commissions to mark the border, investigate the underlying causes of the war and determine damages.
Continued position war
In early 2001, Unmee was on site with more than 4,000 troops in the buffer zone, a 25-kilometer-wide strip of land located in Eritrea. The Commission that would determine the border between the countries presented its report in April 2002. Both parties had promised in advance to approve the statement of the Border Commission, which came under the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The report, which was based on historical agreements, contained maps with exposed boundary markers, but Badme was not included anywhere. The homeland remained unclear for the small town that was at the center of the war. It was not until March 2003 that a clarification came and now the Border Commission determined that Badme belonged to Eritrea. According to the plans, the border would be marked later in the year. But Ethiopia did not want to accept the decision, despite earlier promises.
A little over a year later, the government in Addis Ababa declared that it “in principle” approved the border commission’s conclusion, but that it wanted to negotiate how it should be implemented in reality. Instead, Asmara refused to join. Meanwhile, Ethiopia retained control of the Badme area.
The Eritreans protested loudly against the fact that neither the UN Security Council, the Western powers nor the AU reacted significantly to Ethiopia’s failure to comply with the border commission’s ruling. Eritrea withdrew its ambassador from the AU and gradually began to restrict Unmee’s freedom of movement. In the autumn of 2005, a flight ban was imposed on Eritrean territory and all UN personnel from Western countries were ordered to leave the country. Eventually, Eritrea cut off fuel supplies, and in July 2008, the UN withdrew its peacekeeping force completely.