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30 August 2004

Fertile ground for the bad guys

As politicians focus on Darfur, another African conflict threatens open warfare again. And the west'

By Michela Wrong

Bagpipes wailed and an Indian military band in Day-Glo orange turbans drummed a tattoo as the British commander of the 4,000-strong United Nations force stationed in Ethiopia and Eritrea formally handed over responsibility to his Indian successor.

Staged on a clearing outside the Eritrean capital of Asmara last month, the handover ceremony went off smoothly. But that it took place at all marks a crushing failure for international diplomacy. By rights, the force should have left Eritrea not months, but years ago. And that Major General Robert Gordon was passing the baton, rather than leading his troops to say goodbye, signals trouble ahead not only for the two nations, but for the Horn of Africa as a whole. Little wonder that Eritrean officials boycotted the event, a snub accepted with resignation by its organisers, who share their hosts’ exasperation with a festering status quo.

Two years have passed since the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission in The Hague issued its unanimous ruling on the route of the 1,000km border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a dispute over which was the initial cause of the war that began in 1998 – a war which killed roughly 100,000 people and sent hundreds of thousands more flooding into refugee camps.

Diplomats were relieved when both sides swiftly declared their acceptance of the ruling, but the rejoicing proved premature. Though both leaderships had agreed it would be “final and binding”, Ethiopia rescinded its decision. That rejection illustrates the stalemate that keeps a UN force stationed in the Horn, at an annual cost to its members of more than $200m. Originally scheduled to last 18 months, but now entering its fourth year, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea can pack its bags only when the parties physically demarcate the border. And there is no sign that Ethiopia is ready to allow the concrete pillars to be put in place.

The UN envoy to the region – Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, a Motswana diplomat – does not conceal his frustration. Our interview at his Asmara office, staged amid the battering of a seasonal hailstorm, was a near repeat of one held a year earlier. Since then, he acknowledged, “nothing has changed”, and that risked making a mockery of what once seemed a model mission.

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For a long time, he said, it had been regarded as a successful operation. “I was celebrated by the Security Council when I went back to New York. But if we return without demarcation, more than $1bn will have gone to waste.”

Ethiopia is disputing the ruling on the grounds that the frontier as delineated in The Hague makes no provision for existing settlement patterns, cutting Ethiopian villagers off from schools, cemeteries and ancestral farmlands, and sowing the seeds of future conflict. The decision to assign Badme, where the 1998 conflict began, to Eritrea has gone down particularly badly in Addis Ababa, where the village has acquired huge symbolic value.

Eritreans, however, see a more sinister agenda behind this rejection. They won independence from Ethiopia only in 1993, after a 30-year guerrilla war. Many Ethiopians have never accepted the loss of the country’s northernmost province, with its strategically important Red Sea coast. In Asmara, it is seen as evidence of a rejection of Eritrean sovereignty, a stance that justifies President Isaias Afewerki’s determination to keep Eritrea in a permanent state of military readiness. “What we do not understand,” one government minister told me, “is why no one wants us to survive.”

What is puzzling for anyone such as myself – who has spent the past few years shuttling between London and Asmara and who was in Addis Ababa when the Ethiopian government originally announced its “unconditional” acceptance of the Hague ruling – is how limp the international community’s efforts have been in persuading Ethiopia to honour its commitments and thus defuse this gathering crisis.

As long as the border remains undemarcated, there is the danger of a trivial border incident degenerating into all-out conflict – exactly the scenario that unfolded back in May 1998. Neither country has allowed its dependence on western aid to feed its people to prevent it from rearming; Ethiopia is upgrading its fighter jets and Eritrea purchasing tanks.

“I think we’re closer to war than we’ve been at any time since the actual conflict,” warned one western military expert, a man who came across as an optimist on my previous visit to Eritrea. “There’s an awful lot of talk of war, which gets everyone jumpy. And with no progress on the diplomatic front, the options are running out.”

A new war promises to be far grimmer than the 1998-2000 conflict. Clearly, neither government, this time, would leave the issue to be decided by arbitration. One can only guess at the destabilising impact on the Horn, which already contains one non-state in the form of Somalia and is at present being traumatised by the Darfur crisis in Sudan.

All this is happening in a region that has been used as a base by al-Qaeda in the past, and where US concern about Islamist fundamentalism runs so high that Washington has set up a military camp in tiny Djibouti specifically to tackle perceived terrorist threats.

“In an area that contains Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, it’s important to have stable partners,” a State Department official acknowledged. “Instability in the Horn creates fertile ground for the bad guys.”

If these factors were not pressing enough, there is also the terrible precedent that Ethiopia’s rejection of a “final and binding” ruling would set on a continent where western governments routinely push belligerents down the arbitration route in the hope of averting unnecessary bloodshed.

“I find it astonishing the international community doesn’t understand what is at stake here,” says Lea Brilmayer, a Yale law professor working for the Eritrean government. “If this goes ahead, it’s not going to be possible to end a war by going to judicial procedure in future, because the side that loses will simply go back to war.”

Yet since the border commission announced its ruling, there has been no concerted international drive to persuade Ethiopia to swallow its medicine – a formula most analysts believe would involve investing in a new Badme and arranging internationally guaranteed Ethiopian access to the Red Sea. Nor has any effort been made to impress upon Addis Ababa that violating international law comes at a price.

Quite the opposite. When Tony Blair held his first press conference for the Commission for Africa, the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, was one of two African leaders invited to sit at his side, a move that prompted incredulity in Asmara. “How can Meles be on a commission to solve Africa’s problems when he is one of the problems?” scoffed Yemane Gebremeskel, an adviser to the Eritrean president.

Downing Street’s invitation was consistent with the announcement in February by Hilary Benn, the UK Development Minister, that Britain would triple its bilateral aid to Ethiopia.

When I asked one high-ranking UN official what he thought of the British aid increase, he positively barked his answer. “Abso-lutely appalling! It sent out completely the wrong signal.” A G8 ambassador in Asmara rolled his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation. “I couldn’t agree more,” he sighed, when I suggested that Hilary Benn’s timing had been unfortunate.

A new conflict would render irrelevant the argument that donor governments use to justify continuing with developmental support for Ethiopia: that millions of rural poor should not be made to pay for their government’s foreign policy. Nothing halts development projects in their tracks more dramatically than war; few events prove more costly to western donors than the major refugee exoduses that follow.

An age-old vision of Ethiopia and its position in the Horn lies behind the donors’ reluctance to apply the huge leverage they enjoy. With its population of more than 60 million, frontiers bordering five nations and a capital city serving as headquarters of the African Union, Ethiopia has been regarded since the days of Emperor Haile Selassie as a linchpin nation, an anchor state to be courted and kept onside. Even if tiny Eritrea, with its 4.5 million people, is legally in the right about the border, realpolitik comes out in favour of the regional giant.

Isaias Afewerki, the Eritrean president, has played his part in allowing this view to take root in foreign capitals. While Meles charms visiting dignitaries, Isaias is curt to the point of rudeness. A recent meeting with the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, went so badly that a press conference scheduled afterwards had to be cancelled. Isaias’s refusal either to try or to release a group of arrested former ministers who criticised his conduct of the 1998 war has also contributed to the image of Eritrea as a “pariah state” that no one can do business with.

“These guys have got too much damn testosterone,” one Asmara diplomat told me. “If they could just be a bit more warm and cuddly, it would help enormously.”

Diplomats are pinning their hopes on a meeting of the witnesses to the Algiers peace agreements, signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000, to be staged when foreign ministers gather in New York this autumn for the UN General Assembly. The idea is that the witnesses – the African Union, the European Union, the United States and Algeria – would note the stalemate and kick the peace process back into action.

Yet the brutal truth is that the only power capable of convincing Ethiopia that it must uphold international law is the United States. And American attention is at present focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, with Darfur taking up what little appetite for foreign problems remains. “In a pyramidical organisation, there’s only so much people can focus on,” one State Department official told me. “It’s a very, very hard sell. Maybe things will change when the blood begins to flow.”

As the international community dithers, ignoring the way inaction in itself constitutes a form of action, the UN is quietly fine-tuning plans to “right-size” its forces in the area, a euphemism for cutting personnel in Asmara while maintaining numbers in the sensitive border zone. All this while two of Africa’s poorest countries are busy rearming, and simultaneously holding out their hands for western food donations.

Michela Wrong is a New Statesman columnist and the author of I Didn’t Do It For You, a book on Eritrea to be published in January by Fourth Estate