Ethiopia and Eritrea (June 1999)
by Patrick Gilkes, Independent Consultant, London June 1999

Statistics underline that the Eritrean/Ethiopian war is the biggest war in the world, yet it is almost totally ignored outside the region. Over half-a-million troops are deployed on both sides of the disputed border. Since the fighting flared up again in February, both sides have claimed nearly 100,000 killed, wounded and captured in three major battles: at the end of February, the Ethiopians re-took the disputed village of Badme, seized by Eritrea in May last year; an Ethiopian assault in mid-March at Tserona failed; an Eritrean attempt to recapture Badme in late March was also unsuccessful.


The war has been fought using First World War tactics – artillery barrages followed by tank and infantry assaults – but with modern weapons. Both sides refuse to disclose their own casualties or allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to the war zones; suspicions are now growing over the treatment of prisoners and of the age of soldiers, and each has accused the other of under-age recruiting.

Neither country can afford the conflict. Currency reserves in both countries have been seriously depleted by several hundred million dollars worth of military equipment. Ethiopia has bought from China and Bulgaria; Eritrea from Romania and Ukraine. Russia has sold to both sides. Suppliers have insisted on cash in advance. Defence spending is likely to double again this year. For Eritrea – population 3.5 million – the deployment of 270,000 troops has produced a serious labour shortage. Many families are running into difficulties as wage earners are drafted and remittances from abroad re-directed to the war effort. After February’s losses, there has been a shortage of recruits; draft dodging in the urban areas has appeared. The government stopped exit visas for all those under 40 and halved the length of military training for national service conscripts to three months. The government has also raised income tax, and marketed treasury bonds to fund the war effort. Eritreans overseas, who contributed US$400m last year and already pay a 2 per cent tax on earnings, are now being told they must donate at least US$900 if they want passports or visas. Libyan assistance has proved less than initially hoped, and Eritrea’s bid to re-invest itself as an Arab state has not produced the desired response. In April, the government finally admitted that the economic growth rate had halved in the last year; most observers believe this remains over-optimistic.

In April, the government relaxed previously strict restrictions on international NGO activity to try and encourage more aid, allowing a joint Oxfam, SCF and Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Committee assessment visit to southern Eritrea.

Ethiopia, with its larger population of 60 million, has yet to face recruitment problems but it, too, is finding the war a similar strain. The country has been hit by falling world coffee prices, with export earnings from July 1998 to March 1999 down 38 per cent compared to the 1997/98 period (total coffee earnings for 1997/98 were US$445m). Like Eritrea, Ethiopia had an excellent harvest last year. This year prospects are uncertain. The short rains have been poor and there is already a severe drought in southern Ethiopia, as in Somalia. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have called for international aid to help those displaced by the fighting. In April, the WFP launched a nine-month US$15.4m emergency food programme for 268,000 displaced Eritreans, mostly women and children (the men have largely been drafted). In March, WFP agreed a similar programme, for $24.3m, for 272,000 out of the 330,000 Ethiopia claims have been displaced on its side of the border. Figures should be treated with some caution.

Both sides are now actively trying to extend the conflict. Eritrea has backed Djibouti’s opposition forces in an attempt to disrupt Ethiopia’s rail and road access to Djibouti port, and has been sending arms to the opposition Oromo Liberation Front in southern Ethiopia causing problems along the Kenya–Ethiopia border. It is also arming anti-Ethiopian factions in Somalia. Ethiopia is arming its own supporters in Somalia, and with Sudan has been backing the creation of an opposition Alliance of Eritrean National Forces. It has also sponsored a Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation to activate Afar opposition to the Asmara government.

In February, after defeat at Badme, Eritrea suddenly accepted the OAU’s framework for negotiations. This calls for both sides to withdraw from the areas occupied since 6 May 1998, and for international monitoring of a ceasefire and of the disputed areas while a border commission establishes an acceptable boundary. Despite Ethiopia’s earlier agreement, dispute then followed with regard to whether the plan referred specifically to Badme (as Eritrea claimed) or all occupied areas (as Ethiopia maintained). In April, Ethiopia conceded that it would accept a ceasefire prior to a complete Eritrean withdrawal from all occupied territory providing that a firm timetable for withdrawal was agreed. This encouraged the UN’s Special Envoy, Mohammed Sahnoun, to make another effort at mediation, shuttling between Asmara and Addis Ababa in April and May. While Sahnoun has made little apparent progress, Eritrea, apparently worried by the prospect of a war on two fronts, signed a six point agreement with Sudan at the beginning of May. Both sides have promised not to support each others’ dissidents, though there is yet no timetable for implementation.

A negotiated outcome remains extremely difficult to achieve. Both countries are hurting far more seriously than they are prepared to admit, and the effects on development will be serious and long lasting. But it is, in many respects, a popular war, with both sides locked into a pattern of nationalist rhetoric and pride. Both President Issayas of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia have gained politically from the conflict; neither can afford to lose.