Saturday, November 22, 2008

The crazy Eritrea-Djibouti conflict

Written by Owei Lakemfa [Vanguard Media Limited ] - Friday, 21 November 2008

Tragically, Djibouti is threatening to resume its border war with Eritrea. In the first place, the “conflict” between the two countries is childish and stupid.

Going to war like they did on June 10 and 11, 2008 was a great disservice to the African people.
The so-called dispute is primarily over a piece of land not more than one hundred metres; that is a land mass the average Olympic sprinter can cover in ten seconds.

The area disputed by these two tiny African countries is, itself, so tiny that you cannot build a buffer zone.

You cannot even erect a tent on the disputed area that can accommodate ten persons.

The temporary demarcation site on top of the Ras Doumeira Hill dividing both armies is so tiny that soldiers on both sides can actually shake hands.

The International Herald Tribune reported that “The distance between the rival armies is shorter than the barrel of a gun. Hundreds of opposing troops are lined up on the border, staring each other down, from just inches away”.

The hill itself is of no known historical, cultural, economic, social or military significance to either country. So why the conflict, and the eagerness to resume a stupid war?

The immediate events that led to the dispute began in January 2008. Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, met twice with Djiboutian officials and briefed them from the point on the hill where his country intends to build a demarcation separating both countries.

The point he chose is the Ras Doumeira Hill. Doumeira itself comprises the hill, a hill range and an almost abandoned tiny island.

Both countries had been colonized by Italy and France and both colonialists did not make any demarcation; they merely acknowledge the hill as their boundary. Eritrea and Djibouti acknowledge this, and generally accept that the northern slopes of the hill are part of Eritrea while its southern slopes are in Djibouti.

It is not clear why Eritrea wants to build an identifiable demarcation, but it might not be unconnected with the boundary disputes it had with its neighbours, including Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia.

It might also show Eritrea’s discomfort with the presence of American and French bases in Djibouti; in fact, less than ten kilometers south of the hill are the “Seven Seas” which is the main American base area.

The Djiboutians have not disputed the Eritrean claims that their president met with some Djibouti officials before beginning work on the demarcation point. Their official claim is that the Eritreans asked if they could cross the Djiboutian side to get some sand to build a road. “Instead, they occupied a hilltop and started digging trenches”.

Ordinarily, a war between the two countries would have been a no-contest as Djibouti, with its 700,000 populace, cannot take on an Eritrea of five million people backed by a highly disciplined army.

But an African proverb says that with human backing, the dog can kill a monkey. With Djibouti backed by France, Ethiopia and United States, it is not the case of the David Djibouti taking on the Goliath Eritrea, it is more of the French and American goliaths watching to see if Eritrea will try to roll over Djibouti. This is the point; the conflict is not really over a tiny undefined border; it is actually a proxy war in the making.

Both countries are at the mouth of the Red Sea which has strategic military significance for the big powers and is a gateway to oil supplies from the Gulf to most industrialized countries.

But, while Djibouti is open and enjoys a lot of trade, its neighbour, Eritrea, is an enigma to most of the international community. During the cold war, the Eritrean war of independence was the only international conflict I know where the Soviet Union, Cuba, the US and NATO were all on one side; the colonial Ethiopian side, while Eritrea was abandoned.

The reason for this strange alliance was that the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the anti-colonial war, was a Marxist group, and the US, its allies and almost all the Arab States did not want revolutionaries take over Eritrea.

On the other hand, Ethiopia, that had annexed Eritrea, was under Colonel Mengistu Haile Marian who was running a Marxist regime.

The logic of the Soviets and Cubans seemed to be that it was better to have a unified Ethiopia with Eritrea as a province under Mengistu than have a small Eritrea which can be crushed by US, if it became an independent nation.

The Eritreans fought their war of independence from 1961 to 1991 when it militarily defeated Ethiopia. Since then, it had fought border wars with Ethiopia which claimed 100,000 lives and Yemen - over the Hamish Islands.

It is also accused as being the main backer of Islamic Court forces (the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia) in Somalia who are fighting the Ethiopian-backed Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

With these conflicts, and many not understanding the Eritreans, Djibouti President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, and his international backers have sought to portray Eritreans as crazy war mongers. On the other hand, Eritrea believes that Djibouti is merely being used as proxy.

The international mediators, including the UN Security Council, have made little effort to conceal their bias against Eritrea.

The 1897 treaty between Ethiopia and France in which the former recognized the Ras Doumeria hill and area as French, will not be of much help. Ethiopia did not, and does not, own Eritrea, so it cannot give what it does not have.

The solution is not technical or legal, it is political; how to get both sides to agree on a consensus while, in the process, keeping away the international hawks who may benefit from Djibouti-Eritrea war. This process can be midwived by the African Union.