Border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000)
After independence, the sovereignty over many areas along the 1,000-kilometer border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was never officially determined. This had led to occasional skirmishes between the two armies in several locations. One such place was Badme, a western border locality that had passed under EPLF control in November 1977. According to several historical sources, on 6 May 1998 Ethiopian troops shot Eritrean soldiers near Badme. This incident provoked a heavy military response from Eritrea, soon matched by Ethiopia, which quickly escalated into war.
This was not the first time Eritrea had experienced a border dispute with one of its neighbours. On two occasions before it had disputes with Yemen regarding the Red Sea. The first, concerning Yemeni fishing in Eritrea waters, was settled by an agreement on 14 November 1994. The second – about the sovereignty over the Hanish Islands, equidistant between the coasts of the two countries – led to a three-day war from 15 to 17 December 1995 and the subsequent occupation of the Islands by Eritrean forces. Diplomatic resolution of the conflict having failed, the case was brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which, after two years of proceedings, concluded that the Islands should be under shared sovereignty. Both countries accepted the ruling.
The post-World War II period saw the former Italian colony of Eritrea become a region of Ethiopia, but growing dissatisfaction with the Ethiopian occupation led to a prolonged period of armed struggle by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) against the Ethiopian Marxist government. The war against Ethiopia ended in 1991 and coincided with the end of the Ethiopian civil war in which a coalition of rebel groups – the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – overthrew the government and came to power under the leadership of Meles Zenawi. Following a referendum in Eritrea in May 1993, the sovereign state of Eritrea was formed with the EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki as President (EPLF was later renamed the People's Front for Democracy and Justice). The immediate period following Eritrean independence saw generally friendly relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in part because the governments had fought together against the previous Marxist government that formerly controlled Ethiopia.
Similar to the disputes with Yemen, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia reflected deep-seated political differences and economic and political competition for markets and influence in the region. When the war for independence ended in 1991, anti-Ethiopian feeling led to tens of thousands of captured Ethiopians soldiers and an estimated 30,000 of their wives and children, many of whom were Eritrean, being expelled into Ethiopia. At the same time, the Governments in Asmara and in Addis Ababa, bound by ties developed during the armed struggle when the EPLF supported the TPLF to seize power in Ethiopia, developed good relations.
Eritrea renounced its claim to war reparations, and trade agreements with Ethiopia were concluded in 1992. Eritrea initially continued to use the Ethiopian currency Birr, opened its markets to Ethiopian companies and recognised Assab as a “free port". However, conflicts over land, taxes on trade, monetary policy and the adoption in November 1997 of an Eritrean national currency, the Nakfa, led to further tensions between the two neighbors.
The 1998 war developed in three phases. The first phase saw Eritrean troops seize control over virtually all the disputed territory around Badme and on the Assab road. In May 1998, fighting broke out between Eritrean soldiers and Ethiopian militia and security police in the Badme area, which was under Ethiopian control. Within a week, the Ethiopian Parliament declared war on Eritrea, and all-out war ensued. Both countries devoted substantial resources to growing their armies, augmenting their military equipment, and fortifying their borders, which included digging extensive trenches.
At the end of May 1998, a team of mediators which included Rwanda and the United States presented a proposal to the belligerents which invited them to redeploy their forces to positions held prior to 6 May – the day of the initial incident – in order to allow investigations and an agreement to demarcate the disputed border.
Eritrea rejected the proposition on 3 June, and intense fighting resumed until early February 1999. Several diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict failed in short order. heavy fighting resumed in February 1999 as Ethiopia succeeded, despite high casualties, in retaking the border town of Badme, but the battles around Tsorona-Zalambessa were not conclusive. By the end of February Ethiopia had retaken Badme and much of the disputed territory. On 27th February, Eritrea announced that it was ready to accept the OAU Peace Framework proposal, but Ethiopia refused and resumed its assault on Eritrean positions.
The last phase of the war started in May 2000 when Ethiopia opened a military offensive on three fronts: west of Badme; near Zalambessa; and close to Assab following which Ethiopian troops broke through Eritrean defences and, by mid-June, occupied the disputed territory and large parts of Eritrea. During its course, one-third of Eritrea’s territory was occupied by the Ethiopian army. This war proved to be a turning point: not only did it interrupt the positive developments, it plunged the emergent state into a spiralling crisis. Deprived of the necessary labour and investments, the economy fell into deep recession, with immense human and social consequences.
On 19 June, the two countries signed a cessation of hostilities before a peace agreement was reached on 12 December 2000, in Algiers. The Algiers Peace Agreement established a 25-kilometer-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) on the Eritrean side of the disputed border, to be monitored by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which was created by the United Nations Security Council in July 2000. The Algiers Agreement provided for the creation of a joint Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, with a view to issuing a definitive ruling on the demarcation of the border between the two countries.
Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission established that Badime, the border town at the heart of the dispute, belongs to Eritrea. Representatives of the international community, specifically the UN, AU, EU and US, were mandated as witnesses and guarantors to ensure implementation of the ruling. However, when Ethiopia rejected it, they abdicated their responsibility, and Ethiopia continues to occupy the town.
Outnumbered and outspent, Eritrea suffered an enormous loss of economic resources and human lives. By the end of the conflict Eritrea’s economy was crippled and nearly a third of the population was dependent on food aid. The President, who had defiantly boasted about Eritrea’s self-reliant stance, was quick to negotiate deals for famine relief with the international community.
Today there is a state of no war and no peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. At the time of Eritrean independence, both countries claimed sovereignty over three areas: Badme, Tsorona-Zalambessa, and Bure. Eritrea, which is under UN sanctions, says world powers have failed to push Ethiopia to accept an international arbitration ruling demarcating the boundary. Ethiopia‘s government has said it wants talks on implementation.
The UN in 2000 deployed a ceasefire monitoring force on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border but withdrew it in 2008 in response to restrictions imposed on it by Eritrea that the UN said at the time made it impossible for the mission to function.
Eritrea and Ethiopia reportedly maintain "large military presences" along their shared border. In 2007, news sources reported on Eritrean military activity in the regions of Gash-Barka [southwest Eritrea] and Tsorono [south-central Eritrea], among other areas. There is reportedly a military training camp located in the Waime [or Wema] district of Asab province.
The two neighboring countries have been bitter enemies since a long-running war saw Eritrea claim independence from Ethiopia in 1991. The two countries clashed anew between 1998 and 2000, and remain at loggerheads over the flashpoint town of Badme. The border settlement is still controlled by Ethiopia, despite a UN-backed commission awarding it to the smaller neighbor.
Immediately following US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s stern warning on 07 August 2008 that Eritrea should stop supporting al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia, Eritrea’s Information Minister, Ali Abdu, said the United States had better stop meddling in Somalia’s affairs. He urged the United States “to leave the Somali people alone to freely determine their own future."
UN resolutions from 2009 and 2011 imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its alleged support to the Al-Shabaab terrorist organisation and for its failure to resolve the dispute with neighbouring Djibouti. The accusa- tions were later expanded to include Eritrea’s support for Ethiopian opposition groups. Since 2007 Eritrea has been supportive of al-Shabab, sending in weapons, sending in trainers and also training hundreds of al-Shabab fighters in some of its military camps. This support is not ideological. It was essentially meant to counter Ethiopia's influence in Somalia, and the Ethiopian occupation was the height of Eritrea's involvement in Somalia.
Eritrea’s envoy to the United Nations said inJanuary 2012 that his country was vindicated following a recently-released preliminary UN report by the the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea that found insufficient evidence that Asmara provided weapons to Somalia militant group al-Shabab in 2011. Eritrea had often maintained its innocence over accusations it supports militant groups including al-Shabab, which accusers said destabilized not only Somalia, but the entire Horn of Africa region.
The Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014) of 19 October 2015 found no evidence that Eritrea was supporting Al-Shabaab. It did, however, find that Eritrea was continuing to support and harbour some regional armed groups, including a newly formed unified front of armed Ethiopian opposition groups, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM) and the military leader of Ginbot Sebat.
The area between the two countries remains heavily fortified. Governments in Asmara and Addis Ababa also regularly trade accusations over backing rebels and protests on each others' territory. Addis Ababa often accuses the government in neighbouring Eritrea of supporting rebels, which Asmara staunchly denies.
In March 2012, Ethiopa attacked an Eritrean military base in Dankalia, claiming the Asmara regime supported "terrorist activities" from across the border. The incident was the first cross-border attack by the sides since they ended the two-year border war in 2000. On 14 March 2012 Ethiopian troops carried out a cross-border attack against military training camps inside Eritrea. Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal says Ethiopian troops crossed into Eritrea to strike military outposts used by what he called "hit-and-run" subversive groups operating in the remote region. "The Ethiopian National Defense Force has entered into Eritrea, 16 kilometers from the border of Ethiopia, and launched a successful attack against military posts that have been used by subversive groups organized, supported, financed and trained by the Eritrean government," said Shimeles. Little is known about the rebel group called the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, or ARDUF. Analysts say the group occasionally attacks tourists on the slopes of Ethiopia's Erta Ale volcano, then seemingly disappears into the desert for years at a time. Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh said the incursion was part of a history of "unlawful and provocative attacks" by Ethiopia. He urged the UN Security Council to take measures to "ensure justice and the respect of the rule of law."
In December 2013 Ethiopian armed forces attacked rebel bases inside Eritrea, accusing its neighbor of training fighters who had carried out border raids, including a January 2012 attack that killed five tourists.
In June 2016 Ethiopian troops "unleashed an attack" at the heavily militarized border with Eritrea, according to Eritrean officials. The heavy clashes, which came just days after Eritrea marked its 25 years of independence from neighboring Ethiopia. The government of Eritrea said 16 June 2016 its forces killed more than 200 Ethiopian troops and wounded more than 300 during fighting Sunday and Monday 10-11 June 2016 in a contested border area. There was no independent confirmation of the figures, released by Eritrea in a government statement.
In an interview with VOA's Horn of Africa Service, Ethiopia's Communications Minister Getachew Reda suggested the figures are inaccurate but stopped short of denying them. "A retreating army and an army in disarray under normal circumstances does not have a sense of what happened," he said. He also said Ethiopia has no interest in disclosing its assessment of damages during the battle.
Ethipian sources claimed that Eritrea had launched a full-scale attack in northern Ethiopia, following the recent report by UN Commission of Inquiry, in which it says the regime has committed crimes against humanity. According to these sources, heavy fighting is taking place in two separate fronts, Tsorena and Zalanbesa. Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications minister told Bloomberg news agency from Frankfurt that the incident could be an effort by the Eritrean government to distract attention from a June 8 United Nations report that said its leaders committed crimes against humanity.
Both countries claimed the upper hand in the fighting, which took place in the area of Tsorona, an Eritrean town that was a flashpoint during the border war the countries fought between 1998 and 2000. Eritrea said that its forces "quashed" the Ethiopian attack and forced the troops to retreat beyond their starting points. Ethiopia said its force drove back an Eritrean attack and chose to withdaw from the site of the clash "once our objective was achieved." Despite the fact that these clashes were dismissed by some as “skirmishes" similar to others that had periodically flared up, they were quite serious. These actions involved heavy bombardment using medium- and long-range artillery weapons and it went on both sides. These were not mobile units or militia using their handguns or light weapons. It makes it different in scale which meant that there are damages endured by either or both sides.
Cedric Barnes, the Nairobi-based Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, stated that since 2011, there had been eight confrontations along the militarized border. Some directly involved the national militaries of the two countries, while others involved rebel groups supported by one side or the other. “Once it seems that this action has died down and various forces withdrawn maybe to their original positions it [reoccurs] nevertheless and shows how tense the border is, how vulnerable it is to flare ups," Barnes said.
The failure of the international community to address the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict has severely affected Eritrea. The international community has been remarkably complacent about the refugee crisis.
On 22 June 2016 the government of Eritrea told the UN Human Rights Council that Ethiopia was planning to launch a full scale war against its territory. Girma Asmerom Tesfay, Eritrea’s UN Permanent Representative, said that there is clear evidence that Ethiopia has adopted a hostile policy towards his country. “The evidence is their own statement that they have made in their parliament, and a lot of [Ethiopian] officials have been saying… that they will attack Eritrea, they will take military action, they have changed their policy towards Eritrea, they will go for a regime change… support opposition armed groups to attack".