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Redie Bereketeab

Inter-State Conflicts in the Horn of Africa

The article seeks to analyse inter-state conflicts in the Horn of Africa (HOA) with the focus on Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. It further argues that the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict plays a central role in the relation between Eritrea and Djibouti.

Inter-state conflicts, compared to the rampant intra-state conflicts, are very rare in the HOA. When they take place, however, they engender devastating effects to human life, property and environment. A devastating inter-state war, after the Ethiopia-Somalia war of 1964 and 1977 - 78, took place between Ethiopia and Eritrea, 1998 - 2000. The war ended following the signing of the Algiers Agreement of December 2000. Nonetheless, although the border dispute was resolved through the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision in April 2002, there still exists ‘no war no peace’ situation.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict still holds a central position and has a serious implication to the conflicts running in the Horn of Africa. One of these conflicts is the Eritrea-Djibouti conflict. Eritrea and Djibouti have been experiencing border disputes since 1994, on and off. The latest conflict and most serious one however emerged in June 2008. The two countries were briefly involved in military confrontation that led to a number of casualties.

The government of Qatar offered its mediation services to the two countries which they accepted and the border dispute is being settled through the Qatari mediation process. The intractability of the conflicts in the HOA is also reinforced by geostrategic security and interest driven interventions. Conflict for the purpose of this article is understood in a broad sense. Therefore war is defined as a violent conflict.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict

When the Ethiopia-Eritrea violent conflict (1998 - 2000) broke out in May 1998 it came as a shock to many observers as well as citizens of both countries. The shock derived from the unexpected turns of events that were until the last minute, at least to an external observer, completely undetected because the relation between the two governments following the end of the first Ethiopia-Eritrea war (1961 - 1991) appeared to stand on firm ground.

The liberation fronts – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – that ascended to state power in Ethiopia and Eritrea, respectively, following the demise of the Dergue (committee in Amharic) were comrades-in-arms during the liberation struggle against the Dergue regime. Unlike the commonplace understanding, however, the relation of the two fronts was fraught with fundamental difference. This difference was never discussed or settled pursuant their victory and when they initiated their post-Dergue cooperation.

The unresolved differences are presumed to have contributed to the outbreak of the second conflict. The early post-Dergue years, 1991 - 1997, heralded a new era in Ethiopia-Eritrea relation. Indeed the relation was depicted as exemplary post-conflict model of relations between nations that had been embroiled in a chronic warfare. The praise was overwhelming and it was suggested that the model was worth emulating in other cases. The leaders of the two countries were heralded as new breed of African leaders. But something went terribly wrong.

Following the signing of the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement in 1993 the EPRDF government and EPLF government embarked on a cooperation course that was to entail economic, political, diplomatic, security and cultural cooperation as well as free movement of goods and people across borders. As an expression of their diverse cooperation agreement, both Asmara and Addis Ababa closed all doors for opposition activities that might have disturbed stability not only of respective countries (intra-state) but also of the region (inter-state or regional). While Eritrea was reported to have been involved in the pacification attempts by the new Ethiopian government targeting forces such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ethiopian government gave a blind eye when Eritrean opposition figures were abducted from the heart of its power base Tigray.

Therefore no wonder the post-liberation and post-Dergue Ethio-Eritrean relations were depicted in the larger world, perhaps hastily, as an ideal model for post-conflict democratic relations. It was indeed praised as a model for other conflict-ridden societies to draw lessons from. Yet internal apprehension, particularly from the Ethiopian public, was mounting, reflecting the lack of public and institutional anchorage of the relation. Apparently, the amicable relation was founded on false hopes and expectations. As it was to be clear a few years later the two governments premised their plans on diametrically opposed expectations.

The Eritrean leadership’s expectation out of the relation seemed to be to exploit the larger Ethiopian market as maximally as possible in the intention of rebuilding its warn-torn nation. Ethiopia in turn had in mind containing Eritrea within its sphere of control, with the hope of leading, finally, to political unity. A strategic calculation premised on long term political ambition underpinned Ethiopia’s permission to Eritrea to use the Ethiopian market. Economic dependence will lead to political dependence seemed to be the logic behind Ethiopia´s calculation. Another serious drawback of the agreement was that it was not based on an institutional foundation. The main upholders of the agreement were the leaders of the two countries; the people in both countries were kept in the dark.

The shaky foundation of the so-called exemplary relation was exposed when Eritrea issued its currency in 1997. The issuance of the Eritrean currency seems to have shattered the illusion that Eritrea was on its way to join Ethiopia. This realisation triggered a sequence of events leading to the rupture of the relation. Afterwards, miscalculations by both sides coupled with deeply rooted grievances, the main of which being the independence of Eritrea, led to the violent conflict of 1998-2000.

The war came to an end with the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement on December 12, 2000. One of the provisions of the Algiers Peace Agreement was the establishment of Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) mandated with the task of delimitation and demarcation of the boundary on the basis of colonial agreements and pertinent international laws. The verdict was to be final and binding. The Commission’s verdict was delivered on April 13, 2002, but failed to bring peace and stability to the people of the two countries.

Hence, the ‘exemplary relation’ was short-lived, and by May 1998 not only was it substituted by deadly enmity but also contributed to the rearrangement of the regional pattern of coalition of forces plunging the region into turmoil and insecurity. Ethiopia in its drive to isolate the Eritrean government became the main architect in bringing about the Sana’a Forum that brought together Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen in 2002. In addition, in what was broadly seen as taking their conflict to Somalia, they embarked in proxy wars.

In the home arena, the two governments openly hosted each other’s opposition groups. Eritrean television broadcast Ethiopian opposition groups’ programmes in Oromifa (Afaan Oromoo), Somali, Afar and Amharic. Ethiopia also accused Eritrea of arming, training and financing the Oromo Liberation Front, Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Union of Islamic Courts (in Somalia) and other Ethiopian opposition groups. All these groups are labelled by Addis Ababa as terrorists. The Ethiopian government also began to actively support Eritrean opposition groups in the hope of ousting the government in Asmara. Ethiopia was behind the formation of the alliance of Eritrean opposition groups in 1999. These Eritrean opposition groups are now entirely based in Ethiopia. It has become common practice that both regimes persistently trade accusations of promoting terrorism in the region.

The biggest stumbling block in the normalisation of the current Ethiopia-Eritrea relation was the non-implementation of the final and binding Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) boundary verdict. Ethiopia rejected the EEBC verdict of April 2002, when it realised that the flashpoint of the war, Badme, was rewarded to Eritrea and was demanding bilateral dialogue to resolve the dispute. Eritrea, referring to the final and binding nature of the Algiers Agreement, rejected any dialogue before demarcation of the border. In November 2007, the EEBC wrapped its work by demarcating the border by virtual coordinates, and declared that the border was legally demarcated. Ethiopia disavowed the EEBC declaration blaming it illegal, while Eritrea not only accepted it but also concluded that the border was demarcated, and Ethiopia was occupying Eritrean territory illegally. Hence, the stalemate continues, giving way to ‘no war no peace’ situation. This dangerous situation perpetuates the tension and generates instability in the Horn of Africa.

Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute.

Eritrea-Djibouti Conflict

The Djibouti-Eritrea relations have been characterised by intermittent hiccups due to unclear border lines but also due to regional politics. The first time the border issue came to light was in 1996 when Djibouti accused Eritrea of producing a map that included part of Djiboutian territory. According to Eritrea’s response it was a misunderstanding. The dispute seemed to fade away.

Nevertheless, in 1999, a dispute between the two countries re-emerged when they traded accusations. Eritrea accused Djibouti for siding with Ethiopia during its war with the latter because Ethiopia was using the port of Djibouti to import weapons in the middle of the war, while Djibouti accused Eritrea for supporting Djiboutian opposition groups engaged in overthrowing the government and of having claims on Ras Doumeira region. Once more the difference seemed to re-emerge influenced by the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflicts.

After what seemed a steady improvement in relations, following the end of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, suddenly, in April 2008, Djibouti accused Eritrea of amassing armies to their common border. Moreover, Djibouti accused Eritrea of occupying Djiboutian territory. Eritrea, not only strongly refuted the accusations but also charged that foreign forces were behind the campaign. The Eritrean President in an interview with a French newspaper Le Monde on 19 May 2008 lamented that the Djiboutian accusations were pure fiction and Eritrea was not interested in being dragged into acts that were intended to destabilise the region. He further stated that Eritrea was investigating the motives and forces behind the campaign.

The Eritrean President seemed to be convinced that forces besides Djibouti were behind the campaigns. What was puzzling with the outbreak of the recent conflict, however, was that the two nations were pursuing a process of normalisation: they were engaged in earnest in setting down infrastructures, for example building roads, to connect the two countries. In that sense the outbreak of conflict loses any rational meaning.

A few factors, linked with the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, probably contributed to the fact that Eritrea amassed army to its borders with Djibouti. These were the meeting of the Eritrean opposition groups in April 2008 in Addis Ababa where they were reported as saying they will employ every means to depose the government in Asmara. Moreover, there was information that Ethiopia moved a large size of its army on the border of the three countries, Mount Ali Mousa. In addition, there were unconfirmed reports of the US intelligence activities around Ras Doumeira.

All this might have startled the Eritrean government into thinking of an eminent Ethiopian invasion in that part of its borders and, therefore, Eritrea moved its army to the common border with Djibouti. Whatever the reasons were for Eritrea to amass army to the border, Djibouti reacted strongly. Instead of trying to find bilateral solution, Djibouti directly referred it to Arab League, African Union (AU) and UN.

Two factors might have driven Djibouti to push the dispute directly into the public arena. First, it might have been a strategic calculation to once and for all settle the nagging border issue when Eritrea was diplomatically in a weaker position. Second, Djibouti might have felt strong since the big powers (France, USA and Ethiopia) were on her side diplomatically, and even militarily, because of Djibouti’s recently gained strategic importance. Therefore, she probably wanted to once and for all resolve the lingering problem. Indeed, Ethiopia was on the record as saying that ‘Ethiopia is prepared to secure its vital trade corridor with the Red Sea port of Djibouti in the event of any conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea’.

There were also reports in some websites that French forces had sunk an Eritrean small military boat in the Assab area of the Red Sea, a strong indication of what might happen if Eritrea ventured to enter into war with Djibouti. In addition, some sources claim that Djibouti was able to boost its warfare logistics immensely because as a result of the conflict France had supplied it with modern weaponry, tanks, aircrafts, armoured vehicles, etc. The Earth Times News reported that a French colonel, Ducret, told a Djibouti news agency that, ‘Since the beginning of hostilities, French soldiers stationed in Djibouti have been providing assistance in logistics, medical but also support in terms of intelligence service to the Djibouti army’. The US also dispatched 200 soldiers to Djibouti in connection with the outbreak of the conflict. A delegation of the Development Committee of the European Parliament to the Horn of Africa, for instance, noted that.

France, which has a military basis and a defence agreement with Djibouti has come in with logistical and military support. It has to be assumed that Ethiopia would also get involved on the side of Djibouti should the conflict escalate further, as Ethiopia depends on Djibouti to access to the sea (European Parliament Committee on Development 2008: 3).

The confrontation between the two countries led to a brief military showdown. In June 2008 military skirmishes between the two countries left several casualties. Indeed, it was reported that a dozen Djiboutian soldiers were killed, There were also casualties on the Eritrean side. According to the European Parliament Committee on Development, in June 2008, ‘violence escalated at the border between Eritrea and Djibouti in Ras Doumeira, which resulted in 35 fatalities and dozens wounded’ (European Parliament Committee on Development 2008: 3). According to a Djiboutian version of events,

the fighting had started after Eritrean deserters has crossed the border and Djibouti had rejected to return them. After an Eritrean ultimatum had passed, Djibouti soldiers had been attacked “during prayer times” (European Parliament Committee on Development 2008: 3).”

Fact Finding Missions that included the UN and EU were sent to the region to ascertain dimensions of the conflict on the ground. All but the EU one were rejected a visiting permit by Eritrea. The EU Fact Finding Mission visited the region (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia) 25 October – 2 November 2008. The Mission spoke to officials in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti and compiled its findings. It came to the conclusion that as long as the border remains not clearly demarcated it will be difficult to make sense of the claims and counterclaims.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sent a Fact Finding Mission which visited Djibouti on 1–4 August 2008. The outcome was, ‘the fact-finding team was able to establish that there were major divergences of opinions between the two countries about the border. The exact position of the land boundary in Ras Doumeira is critical for establishing whether Eritrea has actually occupied Djibouti territory since March, as claimed by Djibouti authorities’. In fact Eritrea denied any border dispute. Some Eritrean sources attributed the problem to existing differences in colonially produced maps at the hands of respective states: While Eritrea’s map, produced by Italy, shows that Ras Doumeira is located on the Eritrean side of the political border, the map in the possession of Djibouti, produced by France, locates Ras Doumeira on the side of Djibouti.

Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute.

Role of External Intervention and Arbitration

>Intervention and arbitration are aspects that complicate conflict dynamics in the Horn of Africa (HOA). The phenomenon of external intervention in the HOA has a long history. Following the Cold War, the war on terror and piracy define external intervention, with devastating effects on the HOA. The Cold War superpower rivalry supported and armed rival states in fighting one another. The Soviets supported Somalia and Sudan at one time, and Ethiopia at another. The Americans supported imperial Ethiopia and later Somalia and Sudan. The current war on terror and piracy also constitutes tension in the region because it divides states between friends and enemies.

External mediation also contributes to insecurities and tensions in the HOA, because it is driven by geostrategic interests and not always in confluence with the interest of the people of the region. The geostrategic driven mediation favours client states and not only quite often fails to resolve conflicts but rather may exacerbate them. A typical example of this is the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict.

The two-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was ended through mediation of the Organisation of African Unity/African Union (OAU/AU), UN, EU and USA. The mediated settlement included a peace keeping forces known as UNMEE (United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea) and EEBC (Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission). The signatories committed themselves to uphold the agreement as final and binding. When it became clear that the flashpoint of the conflict, Badme, was awarded to Eritrea, Ethiopia reneged from its commitment and asked for dialogue, while Eritrea insisted the final and binding Agreement should be unconditionally implemented and only then could it initiate dialogue.

The guarantors (OAU/AU, UN, EU, USA) were also tasked as per the Agreement to make sure that it was implemented, and if one or both signatories reneged from their commitment the guarantors were authorised to take the necessary measure to enforce the EEBC resolution. The politics of appeasement hindered the guarantors from taking measures of enforcement that gave rise to the situation of no war no peace. Geostrategic considerations hampered the guarantors from exerting veritable pressure on Ethiopia. In this sense mediation not only failed to resolve the conflict, but rather, aggravated it: the conflict between the two countries has gone worse and as a result the security of the region has suffered.

The other inter-state conflict considered here, the conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti, was finally mediated by Qatari government. The parties agreed on the modality of arbitration and mechanism of delineation and demarcation of the border. Whether it will be resolved through the arbitration is something to be seen. The ratio of success of this mediation seems to be better, however. The mediator could be perceived neutral thus the mediation objective and even-handed.

Perhaps the first idea that comes to mind in the structure of mediation or arbitration of inter-state conflicts is that regional organisations would play important roles. In this context the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) would be expected, as a regional organisation, to be involved in preventing and bringing the conflicts to an end. The presumption is that following the threshold of the New World Order, through compartmentalisation of the African continent into regional economic communities (RECs) regional problems would be handled by the RECS, in the manner of ‘African problems, African solutions’. In the architecture of the RECs therefore IGAD was supposed to deal with the conflict afflicting the region. IGAD, however, has miserably failed to mediate and resolve conflicts between its member states. Two reasons could be provided for IGAD’s failure in dealing with the conflicts under consideration. One is intervention by geostrategy-driven external actors. The second is the domination of IGAD by Ethiopia that is part of the conflict.


Inter-state conflicts in the Horn of Africa (HOA) are relatively rare compared to the festering intra-state conflicts devastating the region. A major inter-state conflict, following the Ethiopia-Somalia one of 1964 and 1977/8, is the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict of 1998-2000. The June 2008 dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti was brief and limited, yet could be considered as inter-state conflict. Many observers have concluded that the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict occupies central position in a set of interconnected conflicts in the HOA. Therefore resolving it would certainly facilitate the resolution of other conflicts.

Legally the dispute was resolved in 2002 through the EEBC decision. Yet, since Ethiopia rejected the resolution a ‘no war no peace’ situation exists. The guarantors, the international community in general, failed to pressure the parties into implementing the resolution. The reason for this failure is related to geostrategic interests. External mediation and intervention driven by geostrategic interests have failed the peoples of the region by pursuing policies that are characterised by double standards and uneven handedness. This in turn aggravates the conflicts in HOA.

Redie Bereketeab

The author is researcher at The Nordic Africa Institute, heading a research project on Conflict and State Building in the Horn of Africa.

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