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Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War
Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Preventing Further Conflict and Fragmentation in Ethiopia
Preventing Further Conflict and Fragmentation in Ethiopia
Briefing 48 / Africa

Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War

The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart; more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis.

I. Overview

The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart; more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis. To prevent this, the international community – in particular, the UN Security Council and the U.S., which is the single most influential outsider – must act immediately to give both sides the clearest possible message that no destabilising unilateral action will be tolerated. Once the immediate danger is past, efforts should be reinvigorated to ensure that the parties comply with their international law obligations, disengage on the ground and restore the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) – in a longer time frame – to develop political and economic initiatives for resolving the fundamental problems between the old foes.

Citing Eritrean encroachment into the TSZ, Ethiopia announced on 25 September 2007 that it was considering terminating the Algiers agreement, which ended the war in 2000. In reply Eritrea accused it of repeated violations of that peace treaty and called again for the Security Council to enforce the decision of the Boundary Commission Algiers established. The U.S. now estimates that Eritrea has 4,000 troops, supported by artillery and armour, in the supposedly demilitarised TSZ and an additional 120,000 troops nearby. In August it estimated that Ethiopia maintains 100,000 troops along the border.

Both sides agreed in Algiers to submit the border dispute to the Boundary Commission, whose mandate was to “delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law”. They further agreed that its decision would be final and binding. In April 2002 the Commission gave its ruling, delimiting the border on the map and in so doing locating the village of Badme, the site of the original dispute that sparked off the war in 1998, in Eritrea.

Since then Ethiopia, though it won on other aspects of the ruling, has blocked demarcation of the border on the ground, while Eritrea has called for the international community to insist on this without further delay. Eritrea has right on its side on this point but has played its cards very badly. Frustrated by the lack of progress, it has alienated many of its supporters, including a number of Western states, aid agencies and the UN. It has seized their vehicles, restricted their monitoring teams, expelled their personnel and arrested Eritreans working for embassies. In addition, its repression of its own people and lack of democracy have left it shunned by all but a handful of states.

The stalemate came to a head at the Commission’s most recent unproductive meeting, in September 2007, during which the Ethiopian delegate insisted on prior satisfaction of a range of extraneous measures. On balance, however, Ethiopia has played its hand skilfully. It has used its position as the major power in the region to win U.S. toleration of its intransigence and to keep criticism of its own human rights record to a minimum. Its military intervention in Somalia has drawn little overt adverse response. It would not be surprising if Addis Ababa believes an effort in the near future to stage a coup in Asmara and use force against an Eritrean government that has few friends would also be tolerated in Washington.

The rapidly approaching danger point is the end of November, when the Boundary Commission indicates it will close down unless it is allowed to proceed to demarcation. Before then it is essential that the two sides be left in no doubt that use of force, directly or indirectly, is not acceptable and that a party that resorts to it will be held accountable. Specifically this means that:

  • the U.S. should convey a firm private message to both sides that direct or indirect use of force to resume the conflict and reach a unilateral solution would be unacceptable and, specifically to Ethiopia where its influence is at this time stronger, that it will take appropriate diplomatic and economic measures against it if it attacks or seeks to overthrow the Eritrean regime; and
     
  • the Security Council should pass a resolution reiterating its support for the Boundary Commission decision, requesting it to remain in being beyond the end of November so that it is available to demarcate the border, and stating that even without such demarcation the border as found by the Commission is acknowledged as the legal boundary between the two countries.

Once this line has been drawn, the international community should resume with new urgency its efforts to break the immediate stalemate. Consideration might be given to the following:

  • a Security Council resolution or statement reiterating the requirement on Ethiopia to accept the Boundary Commission ruling unconditionally and cooperate in its implementation, including by pulling back from its forward military positions south of the border, and on Eritrea to withdraw its army from the TSZ;
     
  • appointment by the Secretary-General of a new Special Representative and head of the UN mission (UNMEE), who should press both sides to allow the international peacekeepers to reoccupy the positions they have been forced to leave in the TSZ and proceed unhindered in their work; and
     
  • discussion among members of the Security Council and within other key international constituencies including the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers agreement – the African Union (AU), the UN, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) – about incentives (primarily economic) and disincentives (credible sanctions) that would likely be required to obtain cooperation in de-escalating the situation on the ground and implementing the Commission decision.

In the somewhat longer run, Addis Ababa and Asmara will need to end their military and financial support for rebels operating on the other’s soil, respect the arms embargo on Somalia and restart a dialogue with the support of their regional and other international friends. None of the steps to break the current deadlock and begin to rebuild mutually beneficial relations will be easy or quick. But the immediate need is to prevent the war from restarting so that there is time to work on them.

Nairobi/New York/Brussels, 5 November 2007

Commentary / Africa

Preventing Further Conflict and Fragmentation in Ethiopia

High-profile assassinations, intercommunal violence and the question of Sidama statehood have endangered Ethiopia’s transition to a multi-party democracy. In this excerpt from its Watch List 2019 – Second Update, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support a parliamentary vote and assist with economic reforms.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 – Second Update.

Ethiopia is being buffeted by deadly unrest as it attempts a rapid transition to multi-party democracy under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. His government has chalked up significant achievements during the last eighteen months of political and economic liberalisation. But the challenges it faces were laid bare on 22 June when the president of one of the country’s regional states, Amhara, and the Ethiopian military’s chief of staff were assassinated in concurrent events in separate cities. The killings came after intercommunal clashes in more than ten areas in 2018 led almost three million Ethiopians to flee their homes, the world’s largest conflict-related internal displacement in any one country that year.

Strains within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), have contributed to the unrest. The EPRDF is almost inseparable from the Ethiopian state itself, controls all tiers of the federal system and has ruled for 27 years with an iron grip. Tensions among its four member parties have aggravated the country’s challenges while at the same time undercutting the government’s authority and ability to manage them. Ascendant ethno-nationalist and other opposition movements have exploited the ensuing political opening and further exacerbated instability. Particularly urgent is an evolving crisis in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State, where the Sidama, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia’s south, pledge to declare a new regional state on 18 July, potentially setting off unrest and clashes between Sidama activists and other ethnic groups. Political tensions and insecurity have also led officials, opposition actors and diplomats to question whether it will be possible to hold credible parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for May 2020 and which Abiy promises as a milestone toward more open politics, on time.

Regional EPRDF parties should avoid appointing hardliners to top slots.

Calming rising tensions before they derail Ethiopia’s transition is becoming critical. Each of the country’s major flashpoints likely requires its own set of de-escalatory measures. But Ethiopia’s leaders can take some general steps. Abiy and other EPRDF leaders should do everything within their power to rein in intra- EPRDF discord. Abiy himself should avoid fuelling the perception he is favouring his own Oromo political base. In this light, his recent appointment of General Adem Mohammed, an Amhara, as new military chief of staff, instead of the Oromo deputy chief who was next in line, was sensible. Central authorities should rely on federal security forces to deal with disturbances in regions only as a last resort, instead trusting regional forces where possible, lest federal forces stir up local anger; deploying the army in an attempt to thwart the Sidama’s self-declaration of statehood would likely backfire, for example. Regional EPRDF parties should avoid appointing hardliners to top slots. On some intra-EPRDF disputes, the mediation of respected former Ethiopian statesmen or military or religious leaders might help.

The EU and its member states should use the influence their good relations with Abiy’s government and their important aid bring by:

  • Continuing to engage Prime Minister Abiy and the EPRDF leadership and encourage them to adopt the measures above, notably seeking to dial back dangerous inter-communal tensions.
     
  • Given the urgency of the Sidama crisis, considering increasing European development assistance to accompany the south’s likely administrative rearrangement, in the event that the Sidama do unilaterally pursue their own regional state from 18 July. This could help avert protests among activists of other groups in the south by demonstrating that their concerns are also being attended to.
     
  • Aiming to cushion with financial aid and technical support any negative side effects of economic liberalisation, while EU diplomats can advise that economic reform be implemented carefully to avoid shocks, such as a severe reduction in construction jobs due to reduced infrastructure investment, or the rapid removal of subsidies on items like wheat, cooking oil and electricity that could exacerbate political problems.
     
  • Expediting the release of the EU’s planned electoral support package, with its first disbursements in September 2019, to help move forward preparations for the parliamentary vote.

Rising Ethno-nationalism and Potential Flashpoints

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition is fraying. The EPRDF has controlled all tiers of government from federal to village level since coming to power in 1991, routinely using repressive tactics to sideline challengers. Since taking office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy and his government have carried out bold and significant reforms, overhauling the federal security apparatus, making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, releasing more political prisoners and inviting exiles back home. But while these steps were long overdue, they have further weakened the EPRDF’s unity and authority, particularly as they came on the back of three years of anti-government protests before Abiy took office.

Disagreements have worsened over power sharing, regional autonomy and territory among the EPRDF’s four component parties, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (now the Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (now the Oromo Democratic Party), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At the same time, ethno-nationalist movements are on the rise in some regions, squeezing EPRDF parties, who have themselves taken harder line positions in response. These dynamics risk contributing to burgeoning inter-ethnic violence, which already over the last few years has reached levels unprecedented in decades. The 22 June assassinations and alleged attempted regional coup came as a stark illustration of the gravity of the crisis affecting both ruling party and country as a whole.

A handful of inter and intra-ethnic flashpoints are particularly worrying. First is friction between the Tigray and the Amhara. The main source is the Amhara’s longstanding claim to the Wolkait and Raya territories that are currently part of Tigray regional state and border Amhara. Tigray security forces have repressed protesters in Raya that were seeking to be part of Amhara and, previously, Amhara protesters and militia have killed and evicted Tigrayans from Amhara, particularly the Gondar area in northern Amhara state. The former Amhara regional security chief, Asaminew Tsige, whom the federal and Amhara governments blamed for the 22 June killings of Amhara’s regional president and two colleagues, also promoted the return of parts of Tigray’s territory to Amhara.

Tensions between the Amhara and Oromo have been aggravated by the 22 June assassinations and events leading to them.

Second are rising tensions between the Amhara and Oromo, Ethiopia’s two largest groups. The EPRDF parties representing them – the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) and the Oromo Democratic Party – united to propel Abiy to power and reverse the TPLF’s longstanding domination of the ruling coalition. But friction between them has mounted since, over matters including high-level appointments and disputes over the capital Addis Ababa. In the case of the capital, which is multi-ethnic but surrounded by Oromia regional state, in February Amhara and other groups opposed the Oromia government’s demolition of illegal housing on the capital’s outskirts, while in early March Oromo protested the transfer of new government apartments built in Oromia by the city administration to Addis Ababa residents. Addis Ababa, founded in 1887, is an autonomous city accountable to the federal government, but some Oromo factions say it is a colonial settlement on Oromo land and should be administered by Oromia region, or that the city’s encroachment into Oromia must be reversed.

Tensions between the Amhara and Oromo have been aggravated by the 22 June assassinations and events leading to them. The appointment of Asaminew, an Amhara nationalist who was jailed in 2009 for his part in a coup attempt and released by the federal government in February 2018, as regional security chief by the Amhara government in November 2018 reflected the ADP’s growing ethno-nationalism and its desire to outflank the one-year-old National Movement of Amhara, an opposition party espousing Amhara nationalism. Asaminew fuelled Amhara-Oromo friction by using provocative rhetoric about what he portrayed as impending Oromo domination and involving regional security forces in clashes with Oromo militia in an Oromo enclave of Amhara in early April 2019 that left dozens dead. Since the 22 June assassinations, doubts over the federal government’s account of the killings and a sweep of arrests of Amhara nationalists and others have hardened regional opposition to the Orom0-led federal government. Large crowds of Amhara gathered for Asaminew’s funeral, including uniformed security forces.

The third fault line is between the TPLF – which rules Tigray and, until last year, had long dominated the EPRDF and the security apparatus – and the federal government led by Abiy, the head of the Oromo Democratic Party. The TPLF’s main sources of grievance are its loss of federal power; what it argues are selective prosecutions of Tigrayan top officials – notably of TPLF Executive Committee member and former national intelligence chief Getachew Assefa – for human-rights abuses and corruption; and opposition to a federal commission that is tasked with assessing interregional boundary disputes, such as the Amhara claims on Wolkait and Raya. The TPLF sees the commission as likely to rule against it and rejects it as unconstitutional because its mandate allegedly clashes with that of the upper house of parliament. The TPLF-run regional authorities apparently refuse to detain Getachew, whose whereabouts are unknown but suspected to be in Tigray, despite the federal authorities issuing his arrest warrant.

The Sidama statehood demand could have a domino effect across the southern state, leading to its fracturing and more conflict and displacement.

Fourth is continuing unrest in Oromia. Three years of anti-government protests since 2015, which largely took place in that state, forced the internal shifts that brought Abiy to power. Violence has continued since. The September 2018 return of leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a formerly banned armed group campaigning for Oromo rights and autonomy, sparked ethnic skirmishes, as Oromo youth replaced national flags in the capital and surrounding areas with the OLF banner, provoking the anger of, and clashes with, other groups. If the electoral board registers the OLF, which is seen as the standard bearer of the Oromo liberation struggle, as a political party, it could sap votes in 2020 from Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party: while leaders like Abiy are popular with youthful protesters, many Oromo regard the ruling Oromo party as ineffective and for years subservient to the TPLF. Moreover, OLF-linked factions are still fighting the military in western Oromia, with each side accusing the other of being the aggressor.

Lastly, the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State, home to 45 indigenous groups, is in disarray. In 2018, the south’s largest ethnic group, the approximately four million strong Sidama, took advantage of EPRDF incoherence to renew claims to its own regional state. The federal government for months largely neglected the problem, neither preparing to meet its constitutional obligation to hold the referendum (the electoral authority that should administer the vote has also been undergoing reform) on forming a new state that the Sidama had requested nor reaching an agreement with Sidama leaders on rescheduling their statehood bid. Sidama leaders say they will self-declare their own regional state on 18 July, which the authorities are set to reject as an unconstitutional move. This risks triggering violence between Sidama and federal security forces in Hawassa City, currently the administrative seat of the Southern Nations but which the Sidama intend to make the capital of their new regional state. The Sidama statehood demand, and any attendant violence, could have a domino effect across the southern state, leading to its fracturing and more conflict and displacement.

Re-railing the Transition

Prime Minister Abiy’s government has rapidly advanced vital reforms, accelerating a transition set in motion under his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. But the 22 June killings and alleged attempted regional coup throw into sharp relief the enormous challenges remaining. Of these, rising tensions among Ethiopia’s regions, and among the EPRDF parties that govern them, pose the most immediate risks. A different set of de-escalatory measures is likely necessary for each flashpoint. Moreover, some grievances date back many years and will take time to resolve: the Amhara and Tigray are unlikely to settle their territorial dispute any time soon, for example, and aimed provocative statements at each other on 10 and 11 July 2019. But Ethiopia’s leaders can take some general steps that could help rein in intra-EPRDF tensions, lower the temperature overall and buy time for further reforms that would help build a more democratic system that is able to address such issues.

Abiy himself should avoid any action that might aggravate the perception he favours his own Oromo community, in both his high-level appointments and the government’s action against protesters and activists. He made a sound decision when appointing of General Adem Mohammed, an Amhara, to replace the military chief of staff killed on 22 June, instead of the Oromo deputy chief who was next in line. But the mass arrest of National Movement of Amhara activists and other opponents in the wake of the 22 June killings appears to have backfired.

The government should also be cautious about using federal security forces to deal with disturbances in regions. It should do so only as a last resort if there is a grave threat to the country’s stability or a risk of bloodshed that regional forces cannot contain. It should be wary about using federal forces to try and obstruct the Sidama’s declaration of statehood, for example. Similarly, the deployment of those forces to try and arrest former national intelligence chief Getachew Assefa would be highly likely to stir up local Tigray resistance. Instead the federal government should tackle such issues through concerted dialogue with the relevant regional leaders. For their part, the EPRDF parties should refrain from further inflammatory rhetoric and avoid appointing hardliners to top slots; finding leaders inclined toward compromise for the Amhara regional president and security chief may well prove a challenge but is critical. Respected former Ethiopian statesmen or military or religious leaders could potentially play a role in mediating among EPRDF leaders to find at least immediate fixes to problems related to existing grievances in order to achieve some short-term stability and set the transition back on track.

Increased EU development assistance could prop up government spending if necessary and support the authorities in undertaking economic reform.

The EU and its member states should use whatever influence they have with Prime Minister Abiy’s government to encourage such measures, while urging all actors to moderate demands and show patience. They can also take a handful of concrete steps to help minimise risks. First, if the Sidama self-declare their regional state on 18 July, the EU and European governments could offer financial support to accompany the broader administrative rearrangement that a new Sidama state would likely trigger in the south. The promise of additional funds for development projects could help assuage frustration among other groups – some of whom have concerns about the new Sidama state or harbour statehood aspirations of their own – and thus possibly avert protests by their activists that could turn violent. Any plan for increased aid should, however, guard against incentivising future attempts by local leaders to attract extra government resources through agitation, possibly by ensuring that the new arrangements represent a comprehensive settlement backed by all southern groups.

Secondly, increased EU development assistance could prop up government spending if necessary and support the authorities in undertaking economic reform in a manner is carefully sequenced and guards against a slowdown, which could aggravate political instability. European financial aid and technical support could be critical to such reforms.

Lastly, while parliamentary elections are still some way off, preparations are lagging. The new electoral board was formed only last month, for example; electoral laws are not yet finalised, parties may still table potentially far-reaching changes to the electoral system; and some parties are registered while others are not. Furthermore, the mounting tensions, intercommunal bloodshed and general instability since Abiy took office and for three years before could make conditions for the vote fraught. The Ethiopian authorities themselves need to move forward on the basis of consensus among the main political factions, inside and outside the EPRDF. But by expediting the release of its planned electoral support package, with its first disbursements in September 2019, the EU can help advance preparations.