Tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea snapped in June in their most dramatic way for the last 15 years.
Fighting that erupted at their border involved tanks and heavy shelling and left hundreds dead. While military ordinance has stopped falling for now, any truce – if that word is applicable, such is the ill will on both sides – hangs by a thread, as does the welfare of both countries and the fragile peace and development spreading in the Horn of Africa.
Initially, speculation circulated among critics of both countries' governments that the clash was a fabrication to distract from recent critical reports published by the United Nations and advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Such scepticism, however, became harder to sustain as reports mounted about the gravity of the clash near the border town of Tserona.
Eritrea calls Ethiopia the aggressor engaging in “reckless military adventures” and puts the number of Ethiopian dead at 200 and wounded at 300. While rejecting that toll, Ethiopia’s government acknowledges that “a major engagement” took place; observers suggest it took action over Eritrean support of subversive elements inside Ethiopia.
This flash of instability actually occurred amid increasing harmony across the region thanks to increasing trade and economic integration between the likes of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland.
However, any sort of harmonising effect has long been absent at the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, which is frozen in a cold war-type stalemate following a fraught history between the two and in spite of shared bonds such as language, culture and family ties.
After Eritrea was subsumed into Ethiopia in 1962, it fought a 30-year liberation war against the powers in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. This culminated in the fall of Ethiopia's military dictatorship in 1991 after Eritrean fighters teamed up with Ethiopian rebels.
A referendum followed in 1993 in which the Eritrean people voted in favour of independence. Ethiopia’s new government – created by those same rebels – supported the referendum and its decision, while Eritreans had great hope for their country’s future.
But relations between the two then went downhill and by 1998 fighting broke out over the border around the village of Badme, an inconsequential piece of land; pride, however, has never been in short supply in either country.
The following two-year war brought about a disastrous loss of life – 70,000-100,000 people are estimated to have died in scenes of modern trench warfare – and of financial resources for both sides.
A ceasefire was followed in 2002 by an internationally brokered border resolution to safeguard the peace. Overall it suited both sides, apart from one key detail: Badme was to return to Eritrea.
With forces already ensconced in Badme, the Ethiopian government was loath to withdraw from territory gained through thousands of Ethiopian lives lost. So it proposed that implementation of the resolution required further talks – which didn’t happen – while its troops remained on what everyone acknowledged as Eritrean land.
That’s the way it has stayed ever since, though it has not helped that the international community has looked the other way. Now the worry is of the increasing possibility of full-scale war breaking out with a fight to the finish.
On paper, Ethiopia, with its larger, well-trained and better equipped military, backed by years of economic growth and development while Eritrea stagnated, would come out on top.
But there’s no telling how a final contest, or its aftermath, would play out. And if a decisive blow was delivered against Eritrea’s regime, what then? There are enough examples of how the travails of winning war prove nothing to sorting what follows.
The last thing Ethiopia needs as it tries to cement its recent economic and developmental gains is another failed state next door, while the likes of Djibouti and Somaliland do not want a country that many call the “economic locomotive of the region” impeded in its progress – or worse, derailed.
Other reasons exist to dissuade either side from instigating a final round of destruction: Ethiopia is trying to become a more respected and engaged international player, while Eritrea shows increasing signs of tiring of its economic isolation and of contemplating increased international co-operation.
However, when a conflict’s fault lines are defined along common heritage, among neighbours and even relatives, the sense of betrayal and anger felt is personal and runs deep – proving much more difficult to resolve than antagonism between strangers.
All the while there remains that apparently unmovable hurdle throughout the decades, pride, which is nurtured by mutual loathing between the respective governments.
So now would be an excellent time for international diplomacy to finally help sort out a real and lasting compromise settlement – but with diplomacy of an assertive nature, rather than the half-hearted approach of before. Neither Ethiopians nor Eritreans are pushovers.