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Ethiopia and Eritrea: War or Peace?
Ethiopia and Eritrea: War or Peace?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Report 68 / Africa

Ethiopia and Eritrea: War or Peace?

The next few weeks will go far to determining whether Ethiopia and Eritrea resume a path toward war – which took some 100,000 lives between 1998 and 2000 – or solidify their peace agreement.

Executive Summary

The next few weeks will go far to determining whether Ethiopia and Eritrea resume a path toward war – which took some 100,000 lives between 1998 and 2000 – or solidify their peace agreement. Ethiopia must decide whether to allow demarcation of the border to begin in October 2003 even though the international Boundary Commission set up under the Algiers agreement that ended the fighting has ruled that the town of Badme – the original flashpoint of the war – is on the Eritrean side. The outcome will have profound implications for both countries and the entire Horn of Africa, as well as for international law and the sanctity of binding peace agreements and arbitration processes. The international community, particularly the U.S., the African Union (AU), and the European Union (EU), all of which played major roles in brokering the Algiers agreement, need to engage urgently to help Ethiopia move the demarcation forward and to assist both parties to devise a package of measures that can reduce the humanitarian costs of border adjustments and otherwise make implementation of the demarcation more politically palatable.

The two warring states agreed at Algiers to establish the Boundary Commission and accept its judgement as final and binding. The Commission made its ruling in April 2002. After a series of technical and political delays caused largely by Ethiopia’s objections, in particular to the disposition of Badme, it announced in July 2003 that physical demarcation on the ground should begin in October. On 12 September, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which monitors the border, and called on both parties to fulfil their commitments under the Algiers agreement by creating “the necessary conditions for demarcation to proceed, including the appointment of field liaison officers”, providing security for the demarcation process, and pursuing political dialogue.

The governments of both Ethiopia and Eritrea face harder line elements that believe too much has already been given away in the peace process and are unwilling to countenance further flexibility. Many Ethiopians are determined not to cede any territory to Eritrea after having allowed its independence. The most potent mobilising factor for Eritreans is the threat of encroachment by Ethiopia on their hard-won sovereignty. For Ethiopians who opposed Eritrean independence, the threatened loss of Badme is emblematic of the loss of Eritrea, while for many Eritreans the fate of that town of 5,000 cannot be separated from their worry that Ethiopia may one day try to regain access to the sea. For both sides, losing Badme would make the sacrifices of the 1998-2000 conflict much harder to justify.

While neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea wants to return to combat, incidents of isolated violence have been occurring with increasing frequency along the border, as have reports of incursions by troops into the neutral zone. There is no real dialogue between the parties. Each views the other’s government as decaying and its military as weak and unprepared. Each supports elements of the other’s opposition, and, perhaps most dangerously, underestimates the will of the other to hold together if there is a new military confrontation. All these are attitudes eerily similar to those that prevailed prior to and during the war.

The integrity of the peace agreement is on the brink of being compromised. Despite its renewal of the UNMEE mandate and its correct insistence that the agreement be implemented immediately and without renegotiation, the UN Security Council remains relatively unengaged and preoccupied with other responsibilities. Washington, which negotiated the agreement in tandem with the AU, has largely ignored the issue, despite its interest in regional stability. The AU has remained largely silent as well.

The international community cannot afford to look away and hope for the best, however. Vigorous diplomacy is needed now. While the parties should not be permitted to deviate from implementing a Boundary Commission decision that both agreed would be “final and binding”, creative solutions can be found to make implementation more politically acceptable by reducing the security and humanitarian impacts while demarcation proceeds. These diplomatic efforts should not be the prerequisite for implementation. But an early demonstration that the international community is serious about finding ways to soften the losses perceived by both parties would be a positive inducement for constructive action. Timing is important since an Ethiopian decision not to cooperate with the October schedule could set in motion a rapid deterioration of the situation, and a small incident – whether unplanned or provoked by either side – could easily escalate out of control.

Nairobi/Brussels, 24 September 2003

Men sing after taking part in morning prayers to celebrate the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, 17 July 2015. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Briefing 117 / Africa

Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful

Ethiopia’s struggle with domestic religious radicalisation has shifted toward top-down intervention, a policy that has contained violence but is generating new risks. Political accommodation and compromise are vital to defuse faith-based radicals’ opposition to what they perceive as overly secular rule by the dominant party.

I. Overview

Ethiopia provides a significant example of the struggle governments are undertaking to find and implement effective policy responses to faith-based violent extremism and sectarian conflict. Given both demographic shifts and greater religious freedoms, the management of religious conflict and practice has of necessity been a complex and sometimes fraught task. A changed context has seen the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government shift from mediating conflict between faith groups to regulating religious practice, especially where there are political or extremist overtones. Local actors have used the state’s interventionist inclinations in the confessional realm to gain advantage in wider leadership struggles within Ethiopia’s ethnically based regional states. Opposition groups, not always within formal parties, have also used religious issues to score political points. The Ethiopian experience shows not only how faith is an increasing political resource, especially at local levels, but also lessons that can be learned from top-down interventions in the religious sphere.

Although often regarded as a predominantly Christian country, the confessional landscape is diverse and evolving, and religion is increasingly politicised by a range of domestic actors, including the state. Faith runs deep, and its religions (particularly the Orthodox Church) have at various times in history been intimately connected to the Ethiopian state and its administration. Always a significant but institutionally disadvantaged minority, the Muslim population has grown in relative terms in recent decades and is at least as numerous as that in Sudan, Ethiopia’s predominantly Islamic neighbour. Previously discriminated against (including by the state), Muslims and Protestants have embraced and capitalised on the lifting of religious restrictions by the 1994 secular constitution. 

Faith-based communal conflicts have, in modern times at least, been rare though deadly, bringing prompt community and government responses. Sporadic confessional violence over the last decades has not translated into a real threat to a long tradition of religious (though often unequal) co-existence. While inter-confessional tensions remain, they appear to have been largely superseded in recent years by tensions between the government and faith communities. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike have accused the former of undue interference in their internal religious affairs, whereas the government sees itself as holding the secular line against politicisation and extremism. 

Ethiopia, like its immediate neighbours, is faced with difficult policy choices involved in guarding against internal radicalisation through systematic (at times constitutionally questionable) interventions that have tended to favour established religious authorities. The government, and donors keen to support global efforts against violent extremism, should always consider first, the risk of such interventions to the state’s neutrality as mediator, and secondly, that taking sides in intra-religious debates could exacerbate communal faith-based conflicts. Above all, those backing interventions should always seek better understanding of what faith means to multi-ethnic, religiously diverse societies like (but not limited to) Ethiopia, in which the distinction between group and individual identity is often not well defined, and rival local actors are apt to make use of religious disputes where social and governmental constraints inhibit open political competition.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 February 2016