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Ethiopia-E Eritrea Ties: Past, Present, FUTURE M. Venkataraman analyses the transformation of Eritrea-Ethiopia ties from one of harmony and mutual gains to hostility and conflict, and the prospects of resolving the border row between the two neighbours


he Horn of Africa has witnessed turmoil during the past decade. Endless conflicts –– both inter-regional and intra-regional –– have been the hallmark of the countries situated in this important region. Nevertheless, when viewed in terms of the much talked about “globalisation” trying to encompass the whole world, it would not be an exaggeration to state that the Horn of Africa has not invited much attention nor been given the much needed impetus to harness the “benefits” of globalisation. This is primarily due to the fact that countries in the Horn have been locked in constant struggles –– both internally and externally driven –– making their prospects for development bleak. This article unravels the situation by taking the case of Eritro-Ethiopian relations since Eritrea’s de-facto independence in 1991. “Any Ethiopian of this or future generations will be able to forget the disadvantages that our country suffered in the days that we didn’t have access to the sea. It has been for a long time the desire of Ethiopia to be returned their ports to the native mother...situated in the renowned strait of Bab al-Mandeb, through which more ships pass than in any other strait of the globe ...Ethiopia will be a sentry to help and to attend the great number of ships that caters to the world trade.”1This statement by Haile Selassie makes one ponder over the current claim on Assab by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government in Ethiopia and the present stalemate over the Badme issue, which has lately gained prominence in their bilateral relationship in spite of it having little geographical or strategic value. The Frontiers The frontier that Eritrea shares with Ethiopia is 1,000 kms long and it was negotiated by means of diverse treaties signed between Italy and Ethiopia between the years 1890 and 1908. Of these the most important is the treaty of May 15, 1902, signed in Addis Ababa. Its first article says: “The frontier treaty among Ethiopia and Eritrea previously certain for the line Tomat-Todluc will be mutually modified in the following


way: Beginning the union of the Khor Um Hagar with the Setit, the new frontier follows this river until the union with the Maieteb, following this river in such a way that the mount Ala Tacura is on the side of Eritrea until finding the Mareb and its fork with Mai Ambessa.”2 These frontiers were ratified in the constitution given to Eritrea on September 11, 1952, at the time of its federation with Ethiopia. Article 1 of this constitution says: The territory of Eritrea, including the islands, is that of the Italian former colony of Eritrea.3 The long frontier that both of them share and the growing amalgamation due to the annexation of Eritrea with Ethiopia for almost 50 years is a complex and conflicting issue for two important reasons: Firstly, the population living in the province of Tigray on the Ethiopian side has a lot to share with the population of Tigrinya on the Eritrean side in terms of language, culture, religion and common history and secondly, Eritrean independence has left Ethiopia without access to the sea making Ethiopia look for the possibility of acquiring the port of Assab.4 What is noteworthy is that the frontier is an open one that separates densely populated areas in both countries. The Eritrean highland extends into the territory of Ethiopia until it reaches Addis Ababa. In times of peace, it can be a frontier that could amalgamate the two populations and a strong economic/commercial exchange can be developed as it did in the initial years of Eritrea’s independence. But, in a state of war, it is a frontier that presents strong vulnerabilities for Eritrea and is extremely expensive to defend militarily. And obviously, aspirations to have access to sea according to the geo-political law by Ethiopia would be a factor determining their bilateral relationship. Hence, outlet to the sea would be an important aspect of Ethiopia’s foreign policy. Period of Initial Cordiality Eritrean independence was achieved by efforts of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the TPLF who, in union with other political forces, overthrew the leftist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. In fact, in both Eritrea and in Ethiopia, there were changes in government.

February-April 2007


February 2007-April 2007