My review of the Horn of Africa continues…

A particularly toxic legacy of the colonial era is the set of borders it left behind. In the Horn, almost every border is still violently disputed.

Some historical background is in order. Ethiopia was cheated out of access to the port of Massawa by England in 1885. England had asked for Ethiopia’s help in evacuating stranded soldiers in the interior before they were massacred by the Mahdi, the Osama bin Laden fundamentalist of his time (played by Lawrence Olivier in the 1966 film “Khartoum”). Landlocked Ethiopia’s reward was to be free access to the port of Massawa, and, it  hoped, maybe even control. Ethiopia did its job: the only British-led troops who survived the Mahdi’s army were those rescued by Ethiopia’s Emperor Yohannes. In Khartoum, General “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston) and the rest were slaughtered.

But Italy, not Ethiopia, got Massawa.  England wanted a friendly European power to occupy the port to keep it out of the hands of its main rival, France. England and France both needed a fueling station between Europe and their Asian colonies now that the Suez Canal was open. England already had its port at Aden.

France then established a port at Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea. In 1890, Italy founded and called its colony ‘Eritrea’, a newly invented name.  Wanting more territory, Italy pushed southward into Ethiopia until, in 1896, Ethiopia resisted.  To the shock of the world and the humilation of Italy, an African army defeated a European power at Adwa! Emperor Menelik then went home, unable to sustain his huge army in the field. Italy kept Eritrea. Over the next decades Italian cartographers drew new maps that naturally served Italian purposes.

When Fascist Italy took over Ethiopia in 1936, the border with Eritrea became internal and purely administrative.  After World War II, the fate of Italy’s Horn colonies was up for grabs. Ethiopia wanted Eritrea back, but some Eritreans preferred independence. The compromise was to give Eritrea a large measure of home rule, but within Ethiopia. As the provisions of home rule were slowly eliminated and replaced by annexation, an Eritrean independence movement arose, which persevered for thirty years. In 1993, Eritrea formally became an independent state. The internal provincial border between Eritrea and Ethiopia once again became an international boundary, but one that had never been clearly demarcated. The Italians had fudged the border and Ethiopia lacked the capacity before World War II to call them on it.

In 1998, Eritrea attacked the Ethiopian-administered small border town of Badme, which it claimed was properly in Eritrea. Ethiopia counterattacked and two years later, after horrifying battles in which thousands of soldiers charged across open fields into machine gun fire, tank duels, massive artillery exchanges, of dogfights between modern jets, at least 70,000 were dead in battle.


The yellow band, entirely within Eritrea, marks the 25-km-wideTemporary Security Zone monitored by the UN

A ceasefire agreement in 2000 gave the problem to a Border Commission to be convened in The Hague. Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed to abide by the border it would define, using maps dating back to the last time the border had meaning, i.e. the colonial period. When the results were made public in 2003, Badme was found to be in Eritrea. Ethiopia rejected the decision, despite its commitment to abide by the Hague’s decision. The guarantors of the ceasefire agreement - the UN, US, EU and African Union - did nothing.

UN Peacekeepers monitored the 600-mile border until they were ejected in 2008 by President Isayas Afewerki, Eritrea’s still infuriated president. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, still hiding behind the passivity of the international guarantors, makes periodic empty statements about being ready to discuss practical adjustments to a map drawn thousands of miles away and never validated on the ground.

Today, hundreds of thousands of troops still face each other, often within sight and sniping distance. Neither side can afford war but neither leader can afford to back down. Eritrea says it is willing to discuss problems with the border, but only after formal demarcation on the ground. Ethiopia says discussions must come first.

And so things remain.  Next time…the other bad borders in the Horn.