Ethiopia Eritrea

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Background of the Ethio-Eritrean conflict

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Two years before the war actually broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the two governments set up a secret committee to decide what was to be done about the disputed areas.

It was able to achieve very little apart from noting the contentious points. On paper, the Eritreans have a better case.

Declarations of 14 and 20 May 1998 they are only claiming the colonial border that is the line drawn at the beginning of this century between the kingdom of Italy and the Ethiopian empire.

The frontier was defined by a series of international agreements after the Italian troops was defeated in Adwa in 1896, based on a tripartite treaty which Britain, Italy and Ethiopia signed on 15 May 1902. This defines the western and central part of the border where the recent incidents occurred.

From west to east, starting at Khor Um Hagger on the Sudanese border, the frontier line follows the river Tekezze (Setit) to the point at which it meets the river Maieteb, then runs in a straight line to the river Mereb in the north, at its confluence with the Ambessa. After that it runs along the Mereb, crossing most of the central plateau, then along its tributary, the Melessa, to the east and finally along the river Muna.

There is no sign that the Ethiopian government is disputing this line, which has remained unchanged since 1902. It appears on all Ethiopian official and tourist maps, including those given to foreign ambassadors by the foreign minister in Addis Ababa on 19 May this year.

The Eritreans, nevertheless, are accusing the Tigrayan local authorities of using another map published in the Tigrayan capital, Mekele, in 1997.

According to this map, small enclaves to the north of the Melessa-Muna line (Tserona, Belissa, Alitenia) and a larger enclave to the west of the straight line between Tekezze and Mareb, in Badme, are shown as part of Ethiopia. It was here that the trouble flared early in May.

In 1902 the Badme region was almost unpopulated. At the time, Badme was the name of a plain which the border ran across. It’s situated below the Abyssinian plateau and is an extension of the Eritrean region of Gash-Setit, a semi-arid lowland area stretching westward as far as Sudan.

In the last few decades, the area has gradually been settled by farmers from both Eritrean and Ethiopian high plateaus and the Kunamas, the earliest inhabitants, have villages there.

When the United Nations federated Eritrea with Ethiopia in 1952, the 1902 line became useless.

Ras Mengesha, the Tigrayan ruler, paid very little attention to it, developing agricultural settlements administered by the Tigrayan district of Shire on both sides of the border. Since then, the area has been once in a while disputed.

In 1976 and 1981, for instance, it was the scene of clashes between the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

ELF and TPLF united to fight against Mengistu’s government and the problem was temporarily shelved after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) took control of the Eritrean resistance.

In 1987 the Colonel Mengistu government further intricate the issue by changing administrative boundaries.

At the end of the war, in 1991, the Tigrayan still regarded the area as theirs, though it was patrolled by soldiers from both countries.

The intergovernmental committee was faced with a situation that was very clear on paper – the “colonial” borders were legitimately acknowledged by both states, as well as by the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations.

However, it was highly complex in practice, especially since all the Kunama tribes’ territory had been included into Eritrea under the 1902 treaty and the Kunamas evidently took very small notice of an imaginary straight line drawn across the plain.

In the central border region, the small enclaves that were already claimed by the TPLF program in the 1970s had been in the same vague position since 1991.

However, at least this western and central part of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border is clearly defined on paper, which is more than can be said of the line to the east, along the Red Sea, separating the Eritrean Dankalia region from the Ethiopian Afar region as far as Djibouti.

According to the 1908 treaty in which this border was established, it was supposed to follow the coastline at a distance of 60 kilometers and a joint committee was to mark it out later in the field. But when the UN opened the files forty years later, they found no record of a demarcation.

The margins between the former Italian colony and Ethiopia are well known locally, but they are still unclear in a few places, particularly Bada Adi Murug, which the Ethiopians occupied last year.

The border runs right through a small fertile region overlooking the Gulf of Thio in the distance, to Burie, on the road to Assab.

Keywords: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Adwa, Tekezze, Setit, Maieteb, Mereb, Tserona, Belissa, Alitenia, Badme, Gash-Setit, Kunamas, Ras Mengesha, Tigrayan, Bada Adi Murug, Burie, Assab,


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