Last week Ethiopia’s military launched a surgical attack against small but strategic targets in Eritrea describing it as a “proportional response” against a proxy group that had been staging terrorist attacks with Eritrean assistance.
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal was quoted by the international press justifying the strikes as retaliation against a shadowy rebel group claimed to have killed and kidnapped European tourists about two months ago in the Ethiopian region of Afar.
Does the story sound a little familiar to the one heard in Kenya in October 2011? Yes! Kenya had to invade Somalia in an attempt to pacify the Al Shabaab terrorist group following similar incidents of several attacks on European aid workers and tourists in the northeastern Kenya.
Initially, Kenya planned to finish the operation to capture the port city of Kismayu by December 2011, but failed miserably and as we speak, Kenya is part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) which is financed by the United Nations. Additionally, the Ugandan-led Amisom comprises official forces from Burundi and Djibouti, and technically, Ethiopia.
Disappointingly, despite its high level of poverty, Eritrea is proving to be an issue in the Horn of Africa as it is the only nation that supports Al Shabaab, and last year things got so serious to the extent that Kenya had to level a diplomatic complaint at the UN in New York. Eritrea was believed to be sending supplies to Al Shabaab soon after the Kenyan troops launched the operation.
Eritrea and Al Shabaab may be working together because they both have one common enemy, that is, Ethiopia. Al Shabaab believes that they have a duty to one day recapture the disputed territory of Ogaden on the Ethiopian border, and that is why Ethiopians will never allow Al Shabaab to settle in Mogadishu.
Why did Ethiopia take two months to retaliate against Eritrea? Notably, it is not all about Al Shabaab and the killed tourists; these two poor countries have been at war before, first as an internal insurgency and secondly as a fully fledged war with Eritrea losing a piece of its land it wanted to liberate.
Here is how it started. When the Italians left Eritrea in 1952, Ethiopia annexed the country in 1962, and that sparked a liberation war that lasted until 1991. Luckily for Eritreans, in the 1970s some Ethiopians started a rebellion to fight the communist government of military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who now lives in exile in Zimbabwe.
The two fighting rebel groups toppled Mengistu in 1991, then a referendum followed and in April 1993 Eritrea became independent but a border dispute inherited from the colonial era remained.
That border dispute pushed the two countries into a grossly irresponsible war between 1998 and 2000 ending up killing almost 100,000 and burning several million dollars.
Since 2000, tensions and even skirmishes at the border have been a permanent occurrence because Eritrea wants back its territory captured in 2000. In fact, at one time the International Court of Justice even ruled in favor of Eritrea but Ethiopia remained adamant. So Ethiopia is not clean in this matter, at least, but that does not justify whatever is going on between the two countries or its assistance to Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia claims that it had no choice but to attack military posts used by the Eritrean government for training rebel groups, in particular the so-called Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF).
This is one small, unknown group that can disappear for years before resurfacing and attacking again.
Now look at this: Ethiopia says Eritrea is training ARDUF so that it launches a proxy war against Ethiopia, but Eritrea says ARDUF doesn’t exist, but that Ethiopians are using it as a pretext to attack Eritrea. Then, if an attack happens, Eritrea tells Ethiopia to ask ARDUF claiming it is an Ethiopian problem since Afar belongs to Ethiopia. In the end nobody in the international community knows which is which.
According to the Voice of America, Eritrea went as far as to describe the recent attacks as a “flagrant aggression” designed to divert attention from Ethiopia’s illegal occupation of Eritrean territories, but “wisely” the Eritrean government decided not to respond against its powerful neighbour.
Right now, the animosity between the two countries is serious despite the fact that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki are cousins. Last April, following an accusation that Eritrea had attempted to stage a high-profile bomb attack in Addis Ababa during an African Union summit, Zenawi stated in parliament that his government would actively support anyone trying to overthrow Afewerki. Can you imagine?
Here comes the question: What is the problem between these Africans who have a lot in common? Why should an interstate conflict happen today in Africa? Frankly, these people need to sit down, talk and behave!
Mr Matinyi is a consultant based in Washington, DC