Medhane Tadesse is an academic specialising in conflicts in the Horn of Africa. He also acts as an adviser to the Ethiopian foreign ministry. Here he assesses developments in the
Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute and calls for de-politicising the Badme issue.
QUESTION: What is Ethiopia’s current policy with regard to Eritrea?
ANSWER: Ethiopia has not really had a policy with regard to Eritrea for the last two years, after the Algiers peace agreement - except to implement the peace agreement. Basically Ethiopia was trying to live up to the expectations of the international community and expectations of the Algiers agreement. So there was no clearly defined policy, or perhaps a policy of doing nothing. Recently there have been some discussions on Ethiopian foreign policy and it seems to centre on
conflict management, a cessation of hostilities. Apart from that I don’t think Ethiopia is ready for any kind of other engagement or normalisation or upgrading its diplomatic relations. It was only recently that the Ethiopians closed down their embassy in Asmara – that shows something. It was not closed even during the height of the war. I don’t think the Ethiopian government is ready for any kind of constructive engagement in the short term.
Q: What is their most pressing issue with regard Eritrea?
A: The most urgent issue is to deal with the border. Ethiopia has expressed its objections, its complaints on the decision but it seems committed to dealing with that in a peaceful way. I don’t think they will become more adventurous and provoke Eritrea into any kind of conflict. They have a lot of priorities internally – the issue of image, the economy, internal cohesion, the issue of poverty, so I don’t think they want to have a problem with Eritrea. They just want to finalise the border issue and have peace with Eritrea without any kind of further engagement.
Q: Do they want the border demarcated?
A: Yes they want the border demarcated because then they know where they stand with Eritrea. Then they have time and space to deal with their problems internally. I don’t think they have the luxury to bicker with Eritrea. Both regimes have been weakened by the war, both economically and politically. What they want is peaceful demarcation of the border but they also want to be satisfied on the border issue, because the result is somehow not satisfactory.
Q: How do you balance demarcation with issues like Badme [where the 1998-2000 border war flared up] belonging to Eritrea?
A: I don’t think they [Ethiopia] want swift demarcation. They need the demarcation, they need the process but they want it to be slower, with political consultations, phase by phase, gradual demarcation in sectors; starting from the east then proceeding to the west in a gradual manner. But they expect the [boundary] commission to be more flexible - involving the local population with political consultations and the like. They don’t want it to be in one sweep because there are things that are not resolved, mainly the local populations who oppose the decisions around the Irob and Badme areas. They are being cornered by their international obligations and public opinion.
Q: Is there a time frame?
A: There is no time frame. The commission had, according to the plan, hoped to start demarcation in July, but I don’t think that is realistic. And I don’t think the commission is ready. The commission has not met recently or responded completely to Ethiopia’s demands. So it difficult to know where the commission stands, but I think the international community and the commission are aware of the sensitivities of Ethiopia. I believe they may try to accommodate some of their concerns, like gradual sectoral demarcation and involving some kind of political consultations. There is a feeling there should be some kind of flexibility. And now we are seeing that the UN is appointing a humanitarian envoy so you can see that Ethiopia’s demands are being taken seriously.
Q: But how do you keep Eritrea on side, when it does not want proximity talks and wants demarcation started as soon as possible?
A: The Eritreans are taking a hard line. They are against any kind of consultation or negotiation. But at the end of the day they do not have much choice. For Eritrea, the best thing is to start somewhere with demarcation. Once you start it in the east and continue negotiations, whether they accept it or not, the fact that demarcation has started will satisfy the international community, and the Eritreans will not have any reason to oppose that. The fact that demarcation is more gradual, taking into account many other issues, could not be opposed blatantly by the Eritreans.
Q: The UN’s Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea describes the current status of the peace process as a hiccup. Do you agree?
A: No. It is politically very difficult for the [Ethiopian] regime to accept the decision as it is. They have to negotiate or oppose and file complaints because public opinion is against it. Ethiopia won the war but losing territory that has been administered for 100 years, it is difficult to work against the people on the ground. This is also the constituency of the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front], the very core group of the ruling party in Ethiopia. I think it is difficult to convince the population in a short time and that is why the government wants time. The issue is serious. It should not be underestimated.
Q: What about the Badme issue?
A: It depends on the response of the Eritreans, if the Eritreans are ready for some kind of compromise. It is possible for example to map out creative ways of dealing with that problem. In Latin America, contested areas have been turned into national parks owned by two countries. The only thing is to get the political will. Otherwise Badme is not that important with regard to resources. In order to de-politicise Badme there are a lot of creative solutions. What is required is the political will.
Q: So the solution is to de-politicise Badme?
A: The issue of Badme could lead to the downfall of a regime. Any government that controls Badme could easily destabilise the other regime, that is why is has become so politically sensitive. There are a lot of solutions.
Q: The commission’s ruling was, as both parties agreed, final and binding. Surely Ethiopia should swallow the bitter pill and get on with it?
A: But even if the ruling party swallows the pill, it doesn’t bring peace. There are people who have a stake in the area and are against the verdict. It is a matter of identity, nationality, history of these people. It is difficult simply to say that the commission has decided, both governments are ready to accept the decision whatever it means. Such problems have been taken to the International Court of Justice and Ethiopia still has that option. You can’t say this is final as long as one of the parties is not satisfied or has a big problem politically. I think it should be resolved in a political manner and not left just to the lawyers.
Q: What is the next step forward for the international community?
A: They should try to encourage both sides to come to the negotiating table, if not another Algiers. There are guarantors and witnesses to the Algiers agreement. They haven’t met for the last two years - Algeria, the European Union, the United States and the African Union. They should encourage both sides to have a political dialogue. There have been some attempts to bring both sides [together] and still there are some, maybe Maputo [the African Union summit in July]...
Q: What is Ethiopia’s next move?
A: They are waiting for the reply of the commission and the response of the international community on how to deal with the situation. But I think they are comfortable with some kind of sectoral demarcation starting from the east.
Q: Will that start in the next few months?
A: I think that the demarcation will start around October. As long as it starts in the east Ethiopia will not have any problem, as long as it is gradual and there is time to de-politicise Badme, and nor will Eritrea. Even UNMEE will have no problems.
Q: Is a conflict between both countries likely again?
A: Yes...There is no trust between the two regimes and there is mutual suspicion. It is difficult to have normalisation between Ethiopia and Eritrea while both regimes are in power. Demarcation will only solve the border issue in relation to the governments, but incidents will continue on the border and will not lead to normalisation. The conditions are not there for normalisation.
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