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Battle in the Horn Friday, 12 May, 2000, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Stubborn leaders and national pride
President Isaias and Prime Minister Meles
President Isaias and Prime Minister Meles were once allies
By Regional Analyst Patrick Gilkes

President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia both come from the same Tigrean ethnic group, and each insists the other is to blame for the continuing conflict.

Both claim to have accepted the Organisation of African Unity's proposals to end their border war, reiterated at the end of the OAU summit in Algiers on 14 July.

But while Eritrea says it is committed to exercising maximum restraint to avoid further hostilities with Ethiopia, while reserving the right to act in self-defence, Ethiopia insists on Asmara withdrawing from all territories occupied since the fighting began.

Each country's war aims also appear to include the removal of the other's leaders.

Strained relationship

In 1991, Ethiopia's Marxist military dictatorship under Mengistu Haile Mariam was ousted by the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Meles Zenawi, and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (now the Peoples' Front for Democracy and Justice) led by Isaias Afwerki.

Troops are re-supplied during the rainy season
Troops are re-supplied in time to fight in the dry season
Two years later, Ethiopia formally accepted Eritrea's independence with a series of bilateral agreements over trade and security.

Eritrea was left free of debt and with significant assets; Ethiopia continued to use its former port of Assab to mitigate its new landlocked status.

On the surface, all was friendly; President Isaias and Prime Minister Meles kept in frequent telephone contact, and visits were numerous.

But underneath, the relationship rapidly became strained.

Eritrea's wars

In Eritrea, President Isaias established a highly centralised, tightly-controlled state, emphasising wartime discipline and self-sacrifice.

Domestic problems are often avoided
The conflict means that domestic problems are often avoided
He has even suggested that the conflict with Ethiopia, with its tens of thousands of casualties, has an advantage in showing the reality of the independence struggle to a younger generation growing up without full realisation of past efforts.

President Isaias himself is certainly unostentatious and accessible, often found chatting to customers in a bar near the presidency in Asmara.

But, strong in his own certainties, he also sees himself as the embodiment of Eritrean pride, castigating the OAU, the United Nations or the United States for their failures to agree with Eritrea.

Since 1993, Eritrea has gone to war with Sudan, Yemen and, in 1998, Ethiopia, and even found itself at odds with its smallest neighbour, Djibouti.

It is hardly surprising that it now has a reputation for aggression.

Constitutional conflict

In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi has found it necessary to create an ethnically-based federal structure, allowing a number of political parties, though under firm central control.

Eritrea has been at war with Sudan, Yemen and Ethiopia
Since 1993, Eritrea has been at war with Sudan, Yemen and Ethiopia
Though the 1995 constitution does allow it in theory, it is very unlikely that any region will be allowed to secede.

But the constitution does provide for significantly more political activity and freedom of expression than is the case in Eritrea.

Prime Minister Meles is as unassuming a figure as President Isaias, and prefers to work via consensus, but he is equally determined not to back down.

After several years of being patronised by President Isaias's assumption that he was the senior partner in any relationship, Mr Meles had had enough.

Economic dimension

Whatever the arguments over the border, the conflict has really little to do with territory, or even with ideology despite their different approaches to government.

There is an economic dimension. Eritrea, with virtually no resources, has talked of trying to emulate Singapore, processing goods for export.

This put it on a collision course with Ethiopia, also trying to develop its northern region of Tigray, from which Meles Zenawi comes.

Ethiopia was concerned about being relegated to the status of supplying cheap labour for Eritrea; by Eritrean use of their common currency, the birr, to acquire dollars; and by overcharging at the port of Assab.

When Eritrea brought out its own currency, the nakfa, in 1997, it assumed it would have parity with the birr.

It was furious when Ethiopia insisted on inter-state transactions being carried out in dollars.

Nationalist fervour

Most important now is nationalist fervour, whipped up by bitter propaganda put out by both sides.

For President Isaias, conflict has been a valuable distraction from domestic concerns.

There is growing criticism of Eritrea's internal problems, the lack of democracy, food shortages and limited development, and the fact that Eritrea's much vaunted self-sufficiency is not working.

For Prime Minister Meles, Eritrean aggression has given him the opportunity to prove his "Ethiopian-ness".

He refutes the criticism that his policies were pro-Eritrean while the war distracts attention from internal criticisms, including similar allegations of a lack of democracy, and that development has been largely confined to Tigray region.

Food and arms

Ethiopia is facing critical food shortages, affecting at least five million people.

Last year, all the best efforts of the OAU and the US merely stopped the fighting during the rainy season, allowing both sides to re-supply already massive stocks of armaments and raise new forces.

The rainy season has now started again, and there is little indication that either side is prepared to swallow its pride or moderate its nationalism.

Both still lay claim to inheritance of the regional hegemony previously exercised by the regimes of Emperor Haile Selassie or Mengistu Haile Mariam.

See also:

14 Jul 99 | Africa
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