By Vicki Huddleston, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Tibor Nagy, a vice provost at Texas Tech University. Both are former chiefs of mission at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16/11/07):
Nine years ago, two nations began the first modern war in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving in two years more than 100,000 dead. Today Eritrea and Ethiopia could reignite their old border conflict. Arms and money from radicals throughout the Middle East, as well as troops trained in Eritrea, have strengthened an insurgency in Ogaden Province, in southeastern Ethiopia.
A new war in the Horn of Africa would destabilize the region and bolster radical Islam’s push to build a Muslim caliphate.
Sadly, Congress is poised to fuel the march toward war by passing a bill that threatens to cut off technical assistance to Ethiopia, one of our closest allies, if it does not, among other things, release political prisoners, ensure that the judiciary operates independently and permit the news media to operate freely. Ethiopia has already freed opposition leaders, reformed parliamentary rules to give opposition parties greater legislative responsibility and approved a new media law that meets international standards. By singling out Ethiopia for public embarrassment, the bill puts Congress unwittingly on the side of Islamic jihadists and insurgents.
A far better approach would be to buttress Ethiopia against threats to its survival — by helping it resolve its border conflict and ensuring that it reopens negotiations with insurgents and traditional leaders and permits international investigation of reported military abuses (including allegations of rape and murder). Ethiopia has begun this process by allowing the United Nations and humanitarian aid agencies to assist civilians in the Ogaden.
Eritrea demands that the border be marked exactly as determined five years ago. But this places some Muslim and Christian villages on what they consider to be the wrong side of the border, cuts through others and splices certain roads several times. The United States should press both governments to let people who live on the border help reach a mutual agreement on the final boundary.
Ethiopia is a nation where 77 million Orthodox Christians and Muslims live in peace, engaged in building a democracy while besieged from within and without by enemies of democracy. Congress should put aside its bill and instead use creative diplomacy to deal with the combined threat of insurgency and war.