Most wars are senseless. Some, however, are especially pointless. That is certainly the best way to describe the tragedy that has befallen the African nations of Ethiopia and Eritrea. A poorly demarcated border provided the excuse for a war that two of the world’s poorest countries can ill afford. This week a ceasefire was declared, but the conditions for an enduring peace do not yet exist.
There was little reason to expect such a conflict when the state of Eritrea was born in 1993. The country won its independence after Ethiopian rebels defeated then Emperor Mengistu Haile Selassie. In gratitude for Eritrean support, the new Ethiopian prime minister, Mr. Meles Zenawi, offered Eritreans their own state.
Relations between Mr. Meles and Mr. Isaias Afwerki, the new Eritrean president, quickly deteriorated. The two men had different styles of governing, and trade and economic disputes slowly escalated. The chief grievance was Ethiopia’s access to ports in Eritrea and complaints that Eritreans were exploiting leverage over their landlocked neighbor.
War broke out in May 1998, triggered by a dispute over border territory. The conflict sputtered along for nearly two years and then erupted in fury May 12 when Ethiopia launched a powerful land-air offensive. The fighting has left 35,000 Eritreans and 50,000 Ethiopians either dead or wounded.
This past week, Ethiopia declared the war over. It claimed to have retaken all the territory lost since 1998 and promised to pull out of sovereign Eritrean lands — once certain conditions were met. These include a guarantee of the prewar border by outside powers. Mr. Meles also hinted that he might demand a reduction in the size of Eritrea’s armed forces, but Mr. Isaias is unlikely to acquiesce.
The prospect of renewed fighting is a bitter one. Neither country can afford a war. Some 9 million people in both countries are at risk of starvation. And there is a danger that the conflict could inflame the entire Horn of Africa. Already, there are 900,000 Eritrean refugees; it is estimated that 100,000 of them have fled to Sudan. The presence of Eritrean dissidents in that country has prompted Ethiopia to try to make common cause with them. In response, Eritrea is reportedly trying to win support from Libya and is courting Ethiopian rebels in Kenya and Somalia. Hanging over this entire bloody scenario is a drought that, in combination with the war, has raised the specter of widespread famine.
Such considerations apparently mean little to the governments involved. Although Ethiopia and Eritrea are among the world’s 10 poorest countries, it is estimated that between them they spent $1 million a day during the war. Last year, Eritrea spent $236 million on military hardware. That is about half what Ethiopia spent ($467 million), but both governments should rethink their priorities. The international community will spend some $500 million on humanitarian aid in the region this year — less than the amount spent on arms by the warring countries.
Concern is warranted. The region was devastated by famine in the mid-1980s. Skewed priorities mean the international community must buy the food and other necessities needed to prevent widespread starvation. Such humanitarian concerns are proper, but the world must also work to ensure that local governments do not dump their responsibilities on others.
The contest has now shifted to the bargaining table. Ethiopia’s unilateral declaration of a ceasefire has been joined, at least temporarily, by Eritrean government. But it is fragile. There are already reports of shelling. The two governments seem more interested in playing to the international community than reaching an agreement at the peace talks in Algiers.
The first step requires settling the border dispute. That should not be too difficult. The land in question is arid and desolate. But the real issue is national honor, and the war has only increased the stakes. Ethiopia’s decisive superiority on the battlefield will only stiffen Eritrean resistance to a humiliating settlement.
To truly end the conflict, Ethiopia and Eritrea must hammer out an agreement that does not sow the seeds of another war. That the two governments once shared a common cause suggests that finding common ground is not impossible. The international community should help. A starting point would be an embargo on arms sales to the region. The governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea need no help in their self-destructive folly.
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