Eritrean-Ethiopian War

From New World Encyclopedia
The disputed village of Badme (population approximately 800), cause of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.

The Eritrean-Ethiopian War took place from May 1998 to June 2000, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, forming one of the conflicts in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea and Ethiopia—two of the world's poorest countries—spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the war, following an earlier 30 year conflict over Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia, which had ended in 1991. Both states suffered the loss of tens of thousands of their citizens killed or wounded as a direct consequence of the conflict,[1] which resulted in minor border changes. For both countries, whose people needed education and development and health care, to spend so much money and to waste so much life on two wars (both were also engaged in civil wars) is a tragedy of immense proportion.

The war ended with an agreement to establish a border commission, which diplomacy, not war, could easily have achieved and which had in fact already been agreed before the war began.[2] Before the colonial period, boundaries in this region were fluid, with families often spread over territorial borders. Different emirates and even the Ethiopian Empire did not police their borders in the contemporary manner. Post-colonial African states, through the Organization of African Unity, have agreed to abide by colonial borders, but in this case no firm agreement existed on where one country ended and the other began. What can be said is that concerted effort needs to be made by all involved in peace-keeping to ensure that such tragic waste of life and resources does not happen again.


From 1961 until 1991, Eritrea had fought a long war of independence against Ethiopia, ultimately leading to a referendum and peaceful separation in 1993. Following independence, the two neighbors disagreed over currency and trade issues, and both laid claim to several border regions including Badme, Tsorona-Zalambessa, and Bure. However, since the two governments were close allies, they agreed to set up a commission to look into their common border and disputed claims in 1991.[3]

Border dispute

Of particular issue was the border through the Badme Plain. As a result of the Treaty of 1902, the Badme Plain is bisected by the border which runs in a straight line between the Gash and Tekezé River. This was a tripartite colonial treaty between Italy, Great Britain, and Ethiopia demarking borders after Italy’s territorial acquisitions in the Horn of Africa towards the end of the nineteenth century. Ethiopia’s interpretation of this treaty awarded to pass to Ethiopia, but the Border Commission affirmed that this was within Eritrea.[4] In the pre-colonial period, borders in this region had been fluid. In 1902, remote and almost unpopulated, the area was not considered to be of any great significance. Indeed, it is difficult to see how much importance could be attached to this area today. The various emirates and even the Ethiopian Empire did not resemble nation-states in the modern sense, with controlled immigration and citizenship policies. People moved about with much more freedom. Even when Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia was officially accepted at the end of the 30 year freedom struggle, “no one paid too much attention to the details of the divorce settlement,” or to this disputed territory.[5] While Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, the question of where the border lay was academic. According to the BBC, Ethiopia has tended to push its border beyond the colonial boundary, although for decades it had claimed that Eritrea was an historical part of Ethiopia. The 1902 treaty had defined the border somewhat vaguely. Ethiopia especially wanted to retain access to the Red Sea. Badme does not facilitate this without also providing a corridor to the coast.

Eritrea and its borders with Ethiopia.



On May 6, 1998, a small number of Eritrean soldiers entered the Badme region under Ethiopian administration, along the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia's northern Tigray Region, resulting in a fire fight between the Eritrean soldiers and the Tigrayan militia and security police they encountered. On May 12, 1998, two (or possibly more) brigades of Eritrean soldiers, with tanks and artillery support, attacked Badme and other border areas in Ethiopia’s Tahtay Adiabo Wereda, as well as at least two places in neighboring Laelay Adiabo Wereda. On the same day, and over the following several days, the Eritrean military advanced along the Badme plain to occupy higher ground in the east. Reports claim that the Ethiopian armed presence in the region, which responded to this advance, was comprised mainly part-time militia and local police, who had little choice but to retreat before a superior force. If this description is true, this was an illegal action under the United Nations charter, since the Eritrean soldiers attacked without provocation. This was later judged to be a break of international law at a Commission at The Hague (December 21, 2005). On May 13, 1998, Ethiopia, in what Eritrean radio described as a "total war" policy, mobilized its forces for a full assault against Eritrea in what it described as self-defense against an Eritrean invasion of its territory.[6]

The fighting quickly escalated to exchanges of artillery and tank fire leading to four weeks of intense fighting. Ground troops fought on three fronts. On June 5, 1998, the Ethiopians launched air attacks on the airport in Asmara and the Eritreans retaliated by attacking the Ethiopian town of Mekele. These raids caused civilian casualties and deaths on both sides of the border. There was then a lull as both sides mobilized huge forces along their common border and dug extensive trenches.[7]

International intervention

Both countries had already spent several hundred million dollars on new military equipment, which neither side could afford and so a United Nations embargo on the sale of arms to either side was widely reported as unlikely to prove very effective.[8] This was despite the peace mediation efforts by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the U.S./Rwanda peace plan that was also in progress at this time. The U.S./Rwanda was a four point peace plan that called for withdrawal of both forces to pre-June 1998 positions. Eritrea, however, demanded for demilitarization of all disputed areas along the common border overseen by a neutral monitoring force and direct talks. On June 26, the UN Security Council called for an immediate cessation of armed conflict, and requested both side to allow the Organization of African Unity to mediate.[9]

Conflict escalates

With Eritrea's rejection of the U.S./Rwanda peace plan, on February 22, 1999, Ethiopia launched a massive military offensive to recapture Badme. Tension had been high since February 6, 1999, when Ethiopia claimed that Eritrea had violated a moratorium on air raids by bombing Adigrat, a claim it later withdrew.[10]

Following the first five days of military set back at Badme, by which time Ethiopia had broken through Eritrea's fortified front and was 10 kilometers (six miles) deep into Eritrean territory, Eritrea accepted the OAU peace plan on February 27, 1999.[11] Ethiopia did not immediately stop its advance because it demanded that peace talks be contingent on an Eritrean withdrawal from territory occupied since the first outbreak of fighting. Ethiopia launched an offensive that broke through the Eritrean lines between Shambuko and Mendefera, crossed the Mareb River, and cut the road between Barentu and Mendefera, the main supply line for Eritrean troops on the western front of the fighting.[12]

By May 2000, Ethiopia occupied about a quarter of Eritrea's territory, displacing 650,000 people and destroying key components of Eritrea's infrastructure. The Eritreans claimed they withdrew from the disputed border town of Zalambessa and other disputed areas on the central front as a "…'goodwill' gesture to revive peace talks" while Ethiopia claimed it was a "tactical retreat" to take away one of Ethiopia's last remaining excuses for continuing the war,[13] "The scale of Eritrean defeat was apparent when Eritrea unexpectedly accepted the OAU peace framework."[14] Having recaptured the most of the contested territories—and hearing that the Eritrean government, in accordance with a request from the Organization of African Unity, would withdraw from any other territories it occupied at the start of fighting—on May 25, 2000, Ethiopia declared that the war was over and that it had won.[15]

Comparison with World War I

The widespread use of trenches has resulted in comparisons of the conflict to the trench warfare of World War I. The Eritrean defenses were eventually overtaken by a surprise Ethiopian pincer movement on the Western front, attacking a mined, but lightly defended mountain (without trenches), resulting in the capture of Barentu and an Eritrean retreat. The element of surprise in the attack involved the use of donkeys as pack animals as well as being a solely infantry affair, with tanks coming in to secure the area only later.[16]

Regional destabilization

The fighting also spread to Somalia as both governments tried to out flank one another. The Eritrean government began supporting the Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group seeking independence of Oromia from Ethiopia, that was based in a part of Somalia controlled by Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Ethiopia retaliated by supporting groups in southern Somalia who were opposed to Aidid, and by renewing relations with the Islamic regime in Sudan—which is accused of supporting the Eritrean Islamic Salvation, a Sudan-based group that had launched attacks in the Eritrea-Sudan border region—while also lending support to various Eritrean rebel groups including a group known as the Eritrean Islamic Jihad.[17]

Casualties, displacement, and economic disruption

Eritrea claimed that 19,000 Eritrean soldiers were killed during the conflict;[18] Most reports put the total war casualties from both sides as being around 70,000.[19] Other news reports simply state that "tens of thousands" or "as many as 100,000" were killed.

The fighting led to massive internal displacement in both countries as civilians fled the war zone. Ethiopia expelled 77,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin it deemed to be security risk, thus compounding Eritrea's refugee problem. The majority of the 77,000 Eritrean and Ethiopians of Eritrean origins were considered well off by the Ethiopian standard of living. They were deported after their belongings had been confiscated. On the Eritrean side, around 7,500 Ethiopians living in Eritrea were interned, and thousands of others were deported. As of October 2007, about 80,000 Ethiopians or Eritreans of Ethiopian origin fled Eritrea to Ethiopia (or were deported), although thousands more remain in Eritrea, many of whom are unable to pay the 1,000 Birr tax on Ethiopians relocating to Ethiopia. According to Human Rights Watch, detainees on both sides were subject in some cases to torture, rape, or other degrading treatment.

The economies of both countries were already weak as a result of decades of war, civil war, and drought. The war exacerbated these problems, resulting in food shortages. Prior to the war, much of Eritrea's trade was with Ethiopia, and much of Ethiopia's foreign trade relied on Eritrean roads and ports.


Cessation of hostilities

On June 18, 2000, the parties agreed to a comprehensive peace agreement and binding arbitration of their disputes under the Algiers Agreement. A 25-kilometer-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) was established within Eritrea, patrolled by United Nations peacekeeping forces from over 60 countries (the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). On December 12, 2000, a peace agreement was signed by the two governments.[20] On June 31, the Security Council, by resolution 1312 (2000) established UNMEE (the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea). Peacekeepers would monitor and verify compliance with the cease-fire and troop withdrawal. UNMEE consisted of “3,300 peacekeepers and military observers from some 40 countries, 191 civilians and 74 UN volunteers working at the mission.”[21]

On April 13, 2002, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission established under the Algiers Agreement in collaboration with Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague agreed upon a "final and binding" verdict. The ruling awarded some territory to each side, but Badme (the flash point of the conflict) was awarded to Eritrea. A few months later, Ethiopia requested clarifications, then stated it was deeply dissatisfied with the ruling. In September 2003, Eritrea refused to agree to a new commission and asked the international community to put pressure on Ethiopia to accept the ruling.

On December 10, 2005, Ethiopia announced it was withdrawing some of its forces from the Eritrean border "in the interests of peace."[22] Then, on December 15, the United Nations began to withdraw peacekeepers from Eritrea in response to a UN resolution passed the previous day.

On December 21, 2005, a (Article 2, paragraph 4, of the UN Charter) Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that Eritrea broke international law when it attacked Ethiopia in 1998, triggering the broader conflict.[23] Regardless of the territorial dispute, at the time the incursion took place the land was “then under peaceful administration by Ethiopia.”

The Eritrean position is that it is Ethiopia who breaks the law in failing to accept the decision of the Boundary Commission, which has awarded the disputed territory to Eritrea.[24]

Ethiopia and Eritrea have since remobilized troops along the border, raising new fears that the two sides could resume hostilities. In December 2005, Eritrea announced that all non-African members of the UN peacekeeping force must leave. This further fueled concerns about renewed conflict. In November 2006, Ethiopia and Eritrea boycotted a Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission meeting at the Hague which would have demarcated their disputed border using UN maps. Ethiopia was not present because it does not accept the decision and as it will not allow physical demarcation it will not accept map demarcation, and Eritrea was not there because although it backs the commission's proposals, it insists that the border should be physically marked out.[25]

Despite the peace treaty, tensions remain between the two countries. Both nations have been accused of supporting the dissents and armed opposition groups against each other. The border dispute has not yet been resolved.


Both sides are left with humanitarian needs, displaced people in addition to the material and personal cost of the war. Estimates vary, but a UN source says that 1.9 million people were affected, “including internally displaced persons and their hosts, returning refugees and expellees.” Hundreds and thousands of children are “living in extreme poverty due to prolonged drought, the aftermath of the border conflict” and its economic impact.[26] Early intervention by the international community may have prevented the war from lasting longer than it did. Some regard the role of the African Union as crucial, since in the post-colonial space there is a suspicion that the non-African powers have their own agenda. There is an increasing preference for Africans to help Africans, although in its peacekeeping mission, the African Union needs international financial support if it is to act without the support of non-African troops. Despite the high cost of the war, the initial dispute remains unresolved. Only diplomacy and negotiation can solve where the border line is to be drawn. More problematic for many Ethiopians is loss of her former sea ports due to Eritrea's independence. Ethiopians argue that lack of sea access has economical consequences hindering trade and commerce, the exporting and importing of goods. Comparison has been made with similar disputes in other contexts, such as that of Bolivia and Chile.[27] The actual dispute over Badme that caused this war is all the more puzzling because the land appears to have no particular value or to be of strategic significance.


  1. Marc Lacy, Eritrea orders Westerners in UN mission out in 10 days, International Herald Tribune. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  2. BBC News, Eritrea: final deal with Ethiopia. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  3. Alemseged Testfai, The Cause of the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border Conflict, Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  4. Ghidewon Abay Asmerom, In Search of Badme: From Mai Tenne to Mai Teb to Sittona, Dehai Eritrean News. Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  5. BBC News, Border a Geographer’s Nightmare. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  6. BBC News, World: Africa Eritrea: "Ethiopia pursues total war." Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  7. Peter Biles, Ethiopia's push north, BBC News. Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  8. BBC News, Will arms ban slow war? Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  9. Human Rights Watch World Report, Ethiopia: The Role of the International Community. Retrieved May 23, 2008
  10. Visafric, Ethiopian Leader admits allegation of Eritrean air strike based "on wrong information." Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  11. BBC News, Ethiopia declares victory. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  12. Patrick Gilkes, Ethiopia's war Strategy, BBC News. Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  13. Alex Last, Eritrea's "tactical retreat," BBC News. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  14. Martin Plaut and Patrick Gilkes, Conflict in the Horn: Why Eritrea and Ethiopia are at War, Relief Web, Briefing Paper New Series No I. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  15. BBC News, Ethiopia says "war is over." Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  16. CNN, Eritrean independence celebrations muted as Ethiopian troops advance. Retrieved May, 24 2008.
  17. Patrick Gilkes, The Somali connection, BBC News. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  18. BBC News, Eritrea reveals human cost of war. Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  19. Xan Rice, Total war casualties on both sides, The Times. Retrieved May 23, 2008
  20. BBC News, Horn peace deal: Full text. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  21. BBC News, Eritrea to Expel UN Peacekeepers. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  22. BBC News, Ethiopia "to reduce" border force. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  23. BBC News, Ruling: Eritrea broke law in border war. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  24. Grima Asmderom, An Eritrean Perspective on the Demarcation of the Eritrean Ethiopian Border. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  25. BBC News, Horn rivals reject border plans. Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  26. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ethiopia-Eritrea: Border dispute remains a major challenge.
  27. Abo Crailo, On out access to the sea: Parallels from Bolivia, Media Ethiopia. Retrieved May 24, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Banks, Arthur, Thomas Muller, and William Overstreet (eds.). Political Handbook of the World 2005-6. Washington, DC: QC Press, 2005. ISBN 1568029527.
  • Hammond, Laura. 'This Place Will Become Home: Refugee Repatriation to Ethiopia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0801443077.
  • "International—The cruel Ethiopian-Eritrean war." The Economist. 350 (1999):8110:90.
  • Lyons, Terrence. Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Ethiopia and Eritrea. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2006. ISBN 978-0876093689.
  • Negash, Tekeste, and Kjetil Tronvoll. Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. Oxford: J. Currey, 2000. ISBN 978-0852558492.
  • Woodward, Peter. US Foreign Policy and the Horn of Africa. Routledge, 2006. ISBN 978-0754635802.
  • Zegeye, Abebe. The Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict: A Critical Observation. Johannesburg, ZA: Institute for Global Dialogue, 2007. OCLC 211204707

External Links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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