On the 20th anniversary of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, an opportunity for sustainable peace may finally be on the horizon.
The Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict of 1998-2000 erupted 20 years ago today, when the two countries went to war over the scrubby and desolate plains of Badime that are hardly useful for anything. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, former comrades-in-arms who fought side by side and defeated one of Africa's largest and best-trained armies, morphed into absolutists. Belligerent narratives swiftly became dominant, causing a structural breakdown of communications between the two countries.
The result was a bloody and senseless WWI-style trench war in which tens of thousands of soldiersran into machine guns, tanks and artillery fire in waves. The war left an estimated 100,000 dead and more than a million displaced.
The war also had a devastating effect on the social fabric and the economy of the two countries. Both countries resorted to nationalist framings of identity, territory, and shared history, precipitating conflicting narratives. Both countries diverted scarce resources from vital public services and developmental endeavours into weapons procurement.
At the height of the war, Ethiopia increased the total size of its army from 60,000 to 350,000 and increased its defence expenditure from $95m in 1997/98 to $777m in 1999/2000. Overall, the cost of the war for Ethiopia was nearly $3bn.
In the meantime, the size of Eritrea's army increased to 300,000 (almost 10 percent of the population) through National Service Conscription following the outbreak of the war, and the government has been using the intractable stalemate between the two countries as a justification not to demobilise the unsustainably high number of troops for a small nation like Eritrea.
Conflicting interests, hegemonic aspirations
The outbreak of the war between the two countries was universally described as astonishing and bewildering. Scholars and commentators across the world, exasperated by the senselessness of the conflict over an imaginary line that runs through the craggy piece of land, offered various explanations ranging from Eritrea's economic woes to the divergent ideologies between the leadership of the two countries and Ethiopia's desire to regain access to the sea.
What is clear, however, is that the border dispute that was presented as the official reason behind the outbreak of the war was simply a mask for other much deeper and complex problems and hegemonic aspirations.
Although officially an armed conflict between two sovereign nations, the Ethiopian-Eritrean War was largely viewed as a conflict between the ruling elites belonging to Peoples' Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the two political movements which dominated the politics of the two countries at the time. At most, it is a conflict between the Tigrinya speaking people of the Eritrean highlands, and the Tigrayans of Ethiopia. As Gerbru Asrat, former Politburo member of the TPLF observed, "only Tigray, not the whole of Ethiopia, is Eritrea's target."
Though the underlying political and economic differences were far from being insurmountable, the animosity, rage, scorn and bitterness between these two movements and their leadership made a political resolution impossible.
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