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Prime minister seeks to end row with Eritrea

[Ethiopia] Meles Zenawi at coffee conference.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (IRIN)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has announced a five-point plan to try and end the stalemate with Eritrea, saying his country would accept "in principle", the April 2002 ruling of the independent boundary commission that was intended to end hostilities between the two neighbours.

Reiterating his call for dialogue with Eritrea, Meles told the Ethiopian parliament on Thursday that his country would end its two-and-a-half year opposition to the commission's contested border ruling. He added that the current standoff with Eritrea could "derail" development in Ethiopia.

Meles, however, insisted that the ruling on their 1,000-km frontier with Eritrea, which sparked a bloody two-year war, was still "illegal and unjust". Any attempt to implement the Hague-based decision, he added, "might lead to a serious escalation of the tension between the two countries and thereby undermine the peace".

He said some "give and take" and further dialogue was needed before the border could be physically marked out, adding that adjustments to the ruling should be made to the delimitation decision when necessary.

"In the course of the dialogue, it is critical that the negotiations take into account and the resulting agreement be based on two key considerations: the acceptance by Ethiopia - in principle, of the decision of the commission, on the one hand - and adherence to the principle of give and take on the other," Meles said.

In a 35-minute speech, the Ethiopian leader called for the "root causes" of the conflict to be resolved through dialogue to help end tensions along their common frontier and normalise relations.

"Durable and sustainable peace is, moreover, in the mutual interest of the two peoples," he said. "Normalisation and good neighbourliness between the two countries is in the interest of peace and in their mutual interest."

Meles told the parliamentarians that, while Ethiopia still maintained its opposition to the border ruling, the real battle faced by the country was poverty.

"However, this matter is not more important than peace," he added, re-affirming the country’s commitment to solve the standoff peacefully.

"In light of the struggle, we are engaged in development and good governance," he said. "It is imperative that all these, that could become obstacles to the realisation of these major objectives, are subordinated to the need for the achievement of those objectives as well as to the objective of peace."

Describing the unresolved problem between Ethiopia and Eritrea as "ominous", Meles said his new initiative would "strengthen the struggle for peace" and was sparked by "the realisation that Eritrea steadfastly refused to accept earlier attempts to try and resolve the dispute".

The boundary commission was set up by Ethiopia and Eritrea under the Algiers peace deal to resolve the dispute over the border that sparked war. As many as 70,000 people were killed during fighting, which ended in December 2000 and cost the two nations an estimated US $1 million a day. Still, Ethiopia rejected the ruling shortly after its announcement and actual demarcation of the border - that aimed to bring peace - was indefinitely suspended.

In particular, Ethiopia rejected a decision to award the symbolic border town of Badme, where the war flared up in May 1998, to neighbouring Eritrea. Eritrea has declined to enter into dialogue with Ethiopia, calling on its neighbour to implement the border ruling in full.

To keep the two apart, the UN maintains a peacekeeping force of 3,800 troops patrolling the border between the two Horn-of-Africa countries.

In his five-point peace plan, Meles said Ethiopia was committed to solving the dispute with Eritrea through peaceful means.

"It is only when the resort to force is ruled out, as an alternative means to resolving disputes, that it would be possible to realise durable and sustainable peace," he said.

Ethiopia, he added, would allow boundary commission staff to carry out their work to prepare for eventual implementation of the ruling. However, no date was given when that might start. He also agreed that Ethiopia would pay its share of costs towards the boundary commission, which had been put on hold.

The house endorsed the peace deal with 428 voting in favour, 10 objections and three abstentions. Opposition MP, Beyene Petros, vice-chairman of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a 14-strong coalition of opposition groups, however, voted against the proposal.

"The proposal is too ambiguous for us," he said after the vote. "We are unsure what the government means by give and take. We think they may sacrifice territory as part of this give and take, and this is of serious concern to us."

Meles told the MPs that by accepting the decision, the "concerns" of the international community regarding Ethiopia’s stand would now be removed.

In reaction to the announcement, Reuters news agency quoted Yemane Gebremeskel, director in the office of Eritrean President, Isayas Afewerki, as saying: "The agreement is clear. The decision has to be accepted and implemented in full. There are no qualifications. If the acceptance is serious then the demarcation, which is long overdue, has to be implemented. If it is a public relations exercise, then it would not be helpful."

It quoted the African Union (AU) President, Alpha Omar Konare, as saying: "Ethiopia's acceptance of the decision shows to the world how Africa should deal with its conflicts through negotiations and dialogue. Any war between Ethiopia and Eritrea would have been a serious blow to Africa."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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