Unfinished Peace in the Horn of Africa
Unfinished Peace in the Horn of Africa
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Unfinished Peace in the Horn of Africa

When Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a deal in 2000, it was supposed to mark the end of their two-year war. The so-called "Algiers process" did deliver a cease-fire as well as a mechanism designed to resolve their border dispute. But eight years on the two countries are no closer to lasting peace, constantly on the verge of returning to the all-out violence that took 100,000 lives a decade ago.

Fears over regime survival and aspirations to subjugate the other have brought the leaderships of both countries to support - by hosting and supporting financially and militarily - the enemies of the other, domestically and regionally. Resolving the border issue and wider security concerns between Ethiopia and Eritrea would thus bring benefits to more than just these countries. Somalia in particular is unlikely to see peace until the two states, which are currently fighting a proxy war there, settle a final deal.

Under the Algiers agreement the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission was established to make the final determination on the location of the border between the two countries. However, once that body marked the line on the map in 2002, handing the small but symbolic village of Badme to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to implement the decision. In November 2007, the Boundary Commission washed its hands of the dispute and demarcated the border by coordinates - what became known as "virtual demarcation."

For years unhappy with the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMEE), Eritrea finally expelled it from the Temporary Security Zone, a 25-kilometer-wide area on Eritrean territory that had been acting as a buffer between the two sides, saying that as the border was now demarcated, the UN had fulfilled its mandate and should leave. This action has won the Eritreans few friends - though quite frankly they did not have many before that - and it has refocused international attention away from insisting on Ethiopia's compliance to dealing with Eritrea's bad behavior.

The lingering, slow-simmering conflict on the border is unsustainable. Not only does it risk war, but it is used by both countries' governments to justify political repression. With an enemy always threatening and a war ever near, both regimes have clamped down on their societies, impeding all hope of democracy and economic growth.

The international community's overall approach has been weak, first failing to push Ethiopia to comply with the Boundary Commission's decision, which both had agreed would be final and binding, and then not reacting more strongly to Eritrea's de-facto termination of UNMEE. The official closing of the mission by the Security Council last Thursday was a reflection of this unassertiveness.

What is needed now is a new international envoy of considerable regional standing to initiate a fresh process. The aim would be to facilitate physical demarcation, but crucially also to address the deep-seated issues which remain fundamental to a resolution of the conflict, such as growing authoritarianism and regional rivalry. The process will only be successful if it emphasizes win-win scenarios on each issue and develops incentives for both sides to remain engaged. This should include development project pledges from donors, in coordination with the European Commission's Horn of Africa strategy. 
The key obstacle to convening such a process would be finding the political will from both parties, but also the international will to seek their renewed cooperation. The United States government is important in this respect because of its strong relationship with Ethiopia.

Cementing the fragile peace into a lasting one will take a number of steps. First, all parties - Ethiopia, Eritrea and the UN Security Council - should formally endorse the Boundary Commission's virtual demarcation of the border and declare it legally binding. Following that endorsement, the UN should appoint a special envoy to launch a political dialogue to address the disengagement of troops from the border, the normalization of bilateral relations and ending support to the armed groups in the other country. The result should be the physical demarcation of the border in accordance with Boundary Commission's decision, accompanied by cross-border development projects. To this end, the Security Council should aim to reconfigure its peacekeeping mission to facilitate demarcation and press on with the demining of the war zone.

Convincing the two sides will obviously not be easy, but there are some attractions for both to help the process along. Eritrea wants to consolidate its independence, prefers physical border demarcation to virtual demarcation, seeks Ethiopian withdrawal from Badme in particular and desires better relations with the West. Ethiopia is keen to obtain access to Eritrean ports and an end to Eritrean support for its internal armed insurgencies. Those factors should encourage the two sides to move past stalemate to lasting peace.

And if that does not convince the two sides and the international community, the prospect of a devastating return to all-out war - still very possible in the current stand-off - ought to focus everyone's mind on finding a lasting settlement.

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