Trouble in the Horn

From the July 1998 Trumpet Print Edition

Following seven years of peaceful co-existence, former comrades-in-arms Ethiopia and Eritrea had a falling out this past June. Located in the Horn of Africa, both countries fought side by side for 30 years to overthrow the dictatorship of Marxist president Mengistu Haile Mariam. Successful in this conflict, the Eritreans established a provisional government in 1991, gaining ultimate independence from Ethiopia in May, 1993.

On the surface, this is a border dispute. The present border is sited along lines initially drawn up during the period of Italian occupation, 1885 to 1941. One thorny issue is that the division of Eritrea from Ethiopia gave Eritrea control of Ethiopia’s former major Red Sea port of Assab. Eritrea’s introduction of its own currency also sticks in the craw of Ethiopia, as it has damaged cross-border trade. In June, each side mounted air strikes against the other, resulting in multiple civilian injuries and deaths.

As troops continued to build up on both sides, the U.S. and Italian governments tried to bring the leaders of both countries together to find a peaceful solution. African leaders also attempted to mediate in the struggle.

As with all African conflicts, ethnic differences come to the fore. The Eritreans are a separate and distinct race from the Tigrayan Ethiopians, which are the dominant ethnic group in Ethiopia. Despite their cooperation in combining to successfully defeat Mengistu, the two national groups are historic rivals. Meles Zemawi, a Tigrayan, is president of Ethiopia. Isamas Afewerki, an ethnic Eritrean, presides over Eritrea.

The Horn of Africa is awash with military hardware supplied by the former Soviet Union. The potential for escalating, serious conflict is potent. Although Ethiopia’s population of 60 million vastly outnumbers Eritrea’s 15 million, the Eritreans are hardened fighters, the result of decades of guerrilla resistance to the Mengistu regime.

The U.S., as prime mediator in this conflict, is faced with a quandary. It officially supports both countries as part of its ongoing policy to isolate the Islamic government in Sudan. At issue is not just 155 square miles of border land to which both Ethiopia and Eritrea lay claim. With Sudan laying weakened by an ongoing civil/religious war and rampant famine, the U.S. would like to apply maximum pressure to oust Dr. Turabi. The “mad, evil genius” leader of the National Islamic Front seized power in Sudan eight years ago. His expansionist rhetoric is an obvious cause for concern in Washington.

Will the U.S. be drawn into another Rwanda-type fiasco, or another Somalia-type debacle in the strategic Horn of Africa? Will the Italians, already instrumental in diplomatic efforts to end the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict, invoke support from the European Union as the EU strives to develop the image of peacemaker beyond the bounds of the European

continent? Watch for more aggressive politics to be brought into play in efforts to influence the outcome of this conflict. The last thing the oil-dependent economies of the EU will want to see is the west bank of the Red Sea fall into insecure hands, particularly Islamic hands. Asseb, the strategic sea gate at the junction between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, is a rich prize which opposing forces will find hard to pry from the hands of tough little Eritrea.