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Fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke out last week in the tiny Eritrean border town of Tsorona. It was the most significant clash between the two east African adversaries since the 1998 border war, and has consequently brought up worries of another full-blown war. The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been called one of “no war, no peace” in reference to its Cold War-like stalemate.
It’s unclear which side initiated the skirmish in Tsorona, as both nations have aggressively pointed fingers at one another.
The ill feelings between the two nations are no recent development. Eritrea, a former Italian colony, fought for liberation for 30 years after it was declared an autonomous province of Ethiopia in 1962. The 1998 border war, which left 80,000 dead, sparked over the tiny town of Badme, which both sides laid claims over. The war was largely deemed pointless, as it made little to no progress in defining borders or mending relations between the two countries. The signing of a peace accord in 2000, which stated that Badme was to be a part of Eritrea, brought the two countries to a ceasefire. Ethiopia signed the agreement, but later stated that it did not agree to the terms. The two nations have remained bitter enemies ever since.
There are various reasons why either side may have initiated the recent clash in Tsorona. There has been speculation that the Eritrean government may have done so in order to detract attention from a recent UN report condemning its human rights atrocities. Nicknamed the “North Korea of Africa,” Eritrea has come under considerable fire by the UN on multiple occasions for its dismal human rights record and tight control of the press. The report, published on June 8 by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights, found that the Eritrean government had committed crimes against humanity “in a widespread and systematic manner,” namely with regard to its mandatory indefinite military conscription, which the government claims is in place due to its tense relationship with Ethiopia. Mandatory military conscription drove tens of thousands of Eritreans to apply for asylum in Europe last year alone. The government maintains war-time controls and a “suspended enactment of a constitution” reportedly as a result of wanting to “use the stalemate as an excuse to keep the country on war footing and to deny civil liberties.”
Ethiopia may also have had significant stake in starting the recent clashes. In addition to having a poor human rights record, Ethiopia may have initiated the fighting due to bitterness over its loss of trade ports on the Red Sea and as a result, it must go through other countries to trade and ship goods along the sea – a notable consequence of Eritrean sovereignty. There has also been supposition that the move could have been payback for an armed raid in southern Ethiopia carried out by an opposition movement that the government has labeled a terrorist organization. Furthermore, the government has been reluctant to withdraw troops from Badme specifically due to the perceived public backlash that would likely ensue due to thousands of lost Ethiopian lives throughout the conflict’s history.
It may never be known which side started the clash in Tsorona, but that specific detail is unimportant in the grand scheme of the conflict. The crucial point is that further conflict will continue to hurt both nations significantly. As Foreign Policy points out, “an undemarcated frontier between two governments that loathe each other is a grenade whose pin has been pulled,” and “the grenade will eventually explode.”
Photo courtesy of Zehabesha.com