Sensitive Horn

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. - HENNING KAISER/AFP

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. - HENNING KAISER/AFP

Peace continues to elude the Horn of Africa, with trouble brewing in Somalia and Djibouti, and Ethiopia and Eritrea on the verge of another war.

THE Horn of Africa continues to be one of the most volatile places in the world. Somalia still has no government and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for it. Signs are that the country is on the verge of splitting into three. The "Republic of Somaliland" recently held elections, signalling to the world that it was charting a course of its own. In western Somalia, the "Republic of Puntland" has its own government, while armed militias and warlords roam freely in the rest of the country. The much-heralded "unity government" that was to take over in Mogadishu earlier in the year has turned out to be a non-starter.

In neighbouring Djibouti, the Opposition has alleged widespread fraud in the elections held in October. However, the West, especially the United States, is not very concerned with the political skulduggery in this small African nation. Djibouti, strategically located along the Red Sea, provides military basing facilities to the U.S. and France. It is an important monitoring post for keeping track of militant activities. Al Qaeda is said to be particularly active in the Somali badlands.

However, the most serious threat to political stability in the Horn of Africa region comes from Ethiopia and Eritrea, where war clouds are once again looming on the horizon. The United Nations peace monitors deployed along the long border between the two countries have reported the massing of troops and heavy weaponry by both countries. When they fought a war between 1998 and 2000, more than 70,000 people lost their lives. The two countries are among the most impoverished in the world. Until 1993, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. After the defeat of the socialist government of Ethiopia led by Mengistu Haile Merriam, the new government in Addis Ababa allowed the Eritreans to secede. The government led by Meles Zenawi did not even bargain for a slice of the Ethiopian coastline. Thus, after 1993 Ethiopia became a landlocked country, dependent on Eritrea for its traditional imports.

The honeymoon between Zenawi and Issaias Afwerki, the Eritrean leader, soured within a few years. When they led their respective rebel movements, they were avowed Marxists, more radical than Mengistu Haile Merriam. Once in power the two governments became staunch allies of the West and embraced the free market ideology. A combination of factors triggered the downward spiral in relations and culminated in the bloody dispute over the demarcation of their common border in 1998. Tensions between the two countries escalated recently after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarded the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea.

As part of the earlier peace deal arranged by the U.S., the European Union (E.U.) and the African Union (A.U.), the two countries asked the Permanent Court to demarcate the border. "The potentially volatile situation could lead to a renewed outbreak of war," said Major-General Rajender Singh, Commander of the U.N. peacekeepers in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Some years ago, a senior U.N. official described the conflict between the two countries "as two bald men fighting over a comb".

The Ethiopian government has refused to acknowledge the verdict of the court. It would be suicidal for the government of Meles Zenawi to implement the Permanent Court's ruling at this juncture. The ruling party - the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) - won hotly contested parliamentary elections in May. The Opposition parties have charged Zenawi's party with widespread fraud and ballot rigging. E.U. monitors said that the elections failed to meet international standards. The EPRDF is viewed by many Ethiopians as a party dominated by a minority ethnic group, the Tigreans. When Meles Zenawi was leading the guerilla war against Mengistu, the EPDRF was called the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The majority ethnic groups in Ethiopia are the Amharas and the Oromos. Recent events have shown that these two groups have almost completely turned against the government in Addis Ababa. Zenawi narrowly survived a revolt against him in 2001, a year after the war against Eritrea ended. His rivals accused him of being soft on Eritrea. In the same year, the government used lethal force to subdue student activists on the campus of the University of Addis Ababa.

In the May elections, the EPRDF won control of two-thirds of the seats in Parliament despite the Opposition groups - the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces - sweeping all the seats Addis Ababa. The Opposition holds 174 seats in the 547-member Parliament. The Opposition and many observers of Ethiopia believe that gerrymandering by the government gave the ruling party an advantage at the polls.

The government has carved out nine regions along ethnic lines. It has been noted that it is easy for the ruling party to influence voters at the time of elections as the state continues to own all the land. The peasants depend on the government for the distribution of fertilizers and farm tools. According to election observers and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the government began to stuff ballot boxes in the countryside once it realised that public opinion was turning against it. The EPRDF won 80 per cent of the votes in the rural areas.

Soon after the results were announced, the Opposition took to the streets. In demonstrations immediately after the results were announced, more than 20 people were killed in police action and hundreds of Opposition activists were put behind bars. After the incidents, Zenawi imposed a state of emergency in the capital. The upsurge in violence in the first week of November is the most serious incident since then. This time the violence seemed to have spread far beyond the capital to Amhara- and Oromo-dominated areas.

Until the second week of November, according to media reports, the police had killed more than 200 Opposition activists in Addis Ababa. Children were reported to be among the hundreds of people wounded. The international community has seemingly winked at the heavy-handed methods adopted by the government. Zenawi has been a favourite of the West for a long time. British Prime Minster Tony Blair described him as a member of the new generation of African leaders committed to democracy and reform. The Ethiopian leader is a member of Blair's much-publicised "Commission for Africa".

The Eritrean government and some in the Opposition in Ethiopia allege that Zenawi is using the border conflict as a diversionary tactic in his bid to defuse rising domestic political tensions. For the record, all Ethiopian parties are against giving any concessions to Eritrea on the border issue. There are calls within Ethiopia for retaking some of the Red Sea coastline, including the port of Massawa, from Eritrean control. Culturally and linguistically, there is little to distinguish between the two countries. The only difference is that the region that is today's Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule. The Eritreans resented their incorporation into Ethiopia after the Second World War. Their long-drawn-out guerilla war went a long way in undermining the rule of Mengistu.

Since attaining independence in 1993, Eritrea has been under the authoritarian rule of Issaias Afwerki. To Zenawi's credit, Ethiopia witnessed multi-party elections, flawed or otherwise, at regular intervals. Afwerki did think about such formalities; he dealt brutally with dissent. His close ties with the security agencies of the West and Israel has ensured his political longevity. Eritrea has been used as a base to destabilise neighbouring countries such as Sudan. Rebel armies and movements have been given bases by the Eritrean leader.

The government in Khartoum accuses the Eritrean government of aiding and abetting the various rebel groups that continue to be active in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. In a recent high-level conference attended by the national security chiefs of the region in Khartoum, Eritrea was conspicuously absent (Frontline, November 4). In a recent survey of the world media by an independent monitoring agency, the finding was that Eritrea's journalists were among the most repressed.

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