History Judging Poor Judgments

December 2, 2007

On November 30, 2007, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission's mandate expired without any border demarcation between the two countries.

In its November 28, 2007, issue, a Newsweek story under the title Dueling Dictators asked the following question: "These two nations should be as close as the U.S. and Canada. So why are Ethiopia and Eritrea on the verge of war—again?"

After dropping out from the same university, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia's capital, the two dictators, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, went to the jungle to fight the previous Ethiopian government. Meles Zenawi came to the helm of Ethiopia's power in 1991 as a leader of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), the core of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Isaias Afewerki took power in Asmara, Eritrea's capital, in the same year as a leader of the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF).

The fight between the Ethiopian government under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship on the one hand and the EPLF, the TPLF, and other liberation fronts on the other hand over an extended period of time has cost Ethiopia countless lives and left its economy in shambles at the time of Mengistu’s departure from power in 1991.

Even though Meles and Isaias had friendly relationships for a short while after their victories, to the extent Meles’ actions would seem to favor Eritrea at the expense of Ethiopia, the relationship was clouded by the war that mysteriously erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 and went on until 2000. The death toll in that war is estimated by many sources at a minimum of 70,000 soldiers and goes as high as 120,000 by other estimates.

The war was stopped with the help of international mediators and a peace deal was brokered and signed in Algiers in 2000 by Meles Zenawi representing Ethiopia and Isaias Afewerki representing Eritrea. The United Nations deployed its Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor a Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) between the two countries. A January 2007 United Nations Security Council report shows that just for the July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007, period, its gross budget for UNMEE was $182.24 million. Based on this figure alone, we can easily estimate that the total cost for UNMEE must have been enormous by the standard of Africa's economy.

Since taking power in Ethiopia, Meles' government has shown a semblance of democracy by calling for legislative elections three times, the latest in 2005 that was considered the only one that had elements of democracy in it in the run up to the elections. However, it was marred by post election turmoil that left nearly 200 people dead. The investigations have led to the United States House’s unanimous passage of H.R. 2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007. Even though the U.S. Senate is yet to pass the Bill to be signed into law by President George W. Bush, the turmoil and the passage of the Bill has led to a remarkable development in the U.S. and Ethiopia relations. Eritrea is yet to have a its own constitution and conduct democratic elections.

The Newsweek report notes that both Meles and Isaias were born to ethnic Tigre families less than 90 miles apart under Ethiopia's postwar imperial regime. It also notes how Eritrea that was a part of Ethiopia until 1993 is culturally close to Ethiopia, how many people in both countries speak common languages, and practice the same ancient branch of Orthodox Christianity.

Looked at with hindsight of the close relationship between the two leaders, these episodes of schooling, dropping out of the university, leading guerilla movements, assumption of power in a country with a remarkable historical past, leading costly wars, struggling with debilitated economies of their respective countries, entering into agreements for an artificial international boundary in an otherwise naturally bonded social environment, and finally stopping at a dead end must have been a grueling experience for both leaders, not to mention the suffering peoples of both countries. Interestingly, even the story of the organizations Meles and Isaias led are marred with conspiracy theories of inter-fighting, expulsions, imprisonments, and liquidations. The fact that two university dropouts from the same university in a society that has produced far more educated and skilled manpower may be an indication that neither the duo nor the organizations in which they found an easy access to the top of their organizational power ladder have been mature enough to lead their organizations let alone a country with a complex history in a mature way.

Perhaps, the natural connection between the peoples of the two countries may have been so strong as to be broken down by all kinds of efforts to the contrary. The EEBC ended its mandate by stating its 2002 delimitation decision as "the only valid legal description of the boundary." According to Meles, the virtual demarcation is legally nonsense. As of the writing of this article, no official statement was posted at the Eritrean Ministry of Information outlet website, regarding the EEBC's final statement before its andate expired.

What will hold for the future relationships between the two countries and their peoples remains to be seen. The verdict of past poor judgments is already out for the world to see. Any future deliberations that sideline the peoples that are directly affected risks the natural bond that has been at odds with what has been attempted to be imposed on it by ill-trained and fatigued leaders. Certainly, another war is not the solution. History has judged the poor judgments of the past by various groups from near and afar.

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