Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace-deal in Algeria on December 12 and formally ended a two-year border-war that has cost tens of thousands of lives, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and wrought havoc on the economies of two of Africa’s poorest countries. But the deal is being manipulated by the US to serve its own strategic interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region. Pursuit of such interests has traditionally encouraged conflict, rather than peace, the latest example being the US-funded war against the Sudan, in which both Eritrea and Ethiopia were active participants when fighting broke out between them in May 1998 over a strip of ill-defined territory.
The peace accord signed in Algeria calls for a permanent end to hostilities, exchange of prisoners and establishment of two commissions based in the Hague (the Netherlands) to demarcate the border and assess claims for compensation. The commissions will consist of two appointees from each party and an ‘independent’ chairman.
Under the agreement, the two sides are expected to finalise withdrawal plans by the end of December. Ethiopia is required to move back from positions that were not under its administration before the war broke out, while Eritrea must withdraw to 25 kilometres from Ethiopia’s new positions. The withdrawals are designed to create a ‘temporary security zone’, where 4,200 UN peacekeepers will be deployed to monitor the ceasefire. As an indication of the great importance Washington attaches to the success of this peace-process, 30 countries are contributing troops and military observers, including the UN’s new high-readiness standby brigade for the first time. 1,500 troops were already in place when the agreement was signed and 2,500 more were expected to arrive a week later. Although no timetable has been set for the peace process and demarcation of the border, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has said that he does not expect UN troops to be stationed in the region for more than a year.
Scepticism has already been expressed about the UN peacekeepers’ prospect of success. Sceptics cite the UN’s dismal record in its peacekeeping efforts in the African continent: UN forces have been taken hostage in Sierra Leone; a proposed 5,000-strong mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo failed to materialise. Others, however, point out that “unlike Africa’s other post cold-war conflicts, characterized by state breakdowns and a bewildering array of rebel groups, Ethiopia and Eritrea are believed to have effective control over their forces.” They add that the US, has sufficient diplomatic and financial weight to ensure success.
Similar scepticism has been expressed over the ability of the Boundary and Claims commissions to resolve a fiercely-disputed border and settle compensation-claims relating to hundreds of thousands of people. The Ethiopian and Eritrean members of the commissions are expected to find it difficult to work together, given the “level of abiding mutual distrust”, as one analyst put it.
It is true that Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, and Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president, both pledged at the signing ceremony to implement the accord. Zenawi pledged his country’s commitment “to the full and scrupulous implementation of the agreement”; Afwerki declared his county’s “commitment and desire to forget the past and look for a future of peace and mutual respect”. But at the same time, back in their respective capitals, government officials were making warlike noises. In Addis Ababa the Ethiopian government called for victims of the “Eritrean war of aggression” to come forward with compensation claims; in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, Ali Sayyid Abdallah, the foreign minister, accused the Ethiopian government of not being trustworthy, adding that in the past it had failed to honour its commitment to agreements it signed “before the ink was dry”.
The Americans are certain to exert strong pressure on both sides. Secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who was at the signing ceremony, promised extensive US aid, including ‘development aid’, to both. Washington is also expected to scupper the fledgling peace between Sudan and its two allies, restoring the state of war that existed between them beforethe outbreak of fighting between Addis Ababa and Asmara on May 6, 1998.
Washington will also try to involve the two in its war on the global Islamic movement, especially now that the security of US officials and troops in the Gulf and in Muslim countries is at risk. It may not find Zenawi and Afwerki lacking in enthusiasm.