Eritrea’s fighting talk takes region to brink

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 14/12/07):

Little guys often make up in aggressiveness what they lack in size – and tiny Eritrea, the Horn of Africa’s plucky bantam, is no exception. The Red Sea nation of 5 million people is currently engaged in verbal fisticuffs with the United Nations, the US government, and its giant neighbour, Ethiopia (population 77 million). As they say in boxing, it is ducking and weaving like a good ‘un.The problem with this latest David and Goliath act by Eritrea’s mercurial president, Isaias Afwerki, is that even the smallest miscalculation could bring disaster. An estimated 225,000 troops are now within glaring distance of each other along the disputed Eritrea-Ethiopia border. UN demarcation efforts have collapsed, bilateral dialogue is non-existent, and independent observers are warning of a Christmas war.

“The risk of renewed fighting is at its greatest since the signing of the peace accord in December 2000,” the Economist Intelligence Unit warned last week, referring to the 1998-2000 conflict that cost 70,000 lives. “The military build-up has reached alarming proportions… The international community must act urgently to prevent turmoil in the entire Horn of Africa,” the International Crisis Group said.

Eritrean diaspora groups are working themselves into a frenzy over perceived international conspiracies against their homeland. Public meetings in the US, Britain, Australia and Germany heard calls for solidarity and cash. They condemned “war crimes committed by the Ethiopian regime” and claimed donor money was being used by the government of the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, to dominate Somalia and Eritrea.

Broad western acquiescence – and direct US support – for Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia one year ago to topple an Islamist-led administration (linked by Washington to al-Qaida) has heightened Eritrean paranoia and hastened its hunt for friends. Afwerki hosted security talks this week with Sudan, Libya and Chad, an unlovely alliance with a dry anti-western flavour.

Sources say Egypt and other Arab countries are quietly stoking anti-Ethiopian sentiment. “Once again, the regime [Ethiopia] and its masters [the US] are preparing to launch a suicidal war,” the Eritrean ministry of information’s website,, declared this month. “The next aggression will be dealt a crushing defeat.”

So far at least, Ethiopian officials have responded to the hostile rhetoric, and what they see as numerous, gratuitous Eritrean provocations, with notable restraint. They argue that the Somalia intervention was forced upon Addis Ababa by destabilising anarchy next door that threatened to spill over into Ethiopia and Kenya – and may yet still do so. They say Eritrea is harbouring, arming and aiding Islamist insurgents in both Somalia and the Ogaden, a view shared in western capitals. The US is considering whether to designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles, vowed recently: “We will never, ever go to war with Eritrea unless there is a full-scale invasion. I do not think that the Eritrean government would launch an invasion. It would be suicidal for them.” All the same, there are worries that Eritrea’s military may exploit Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia to spring a nasty surprise.

Strange to say, Ethiopia’s attempts to be reasonable are being undermined by its most powerful ally. Lobbied by diaspora exiles, the US Congress has endorsed a bill, opposed by the Bush administration, linking further US aid to Ethiopia to improved human and civil rights. Ethiopian officials admit the country’s record is not perfect. But they say critics have vastly exaggerated the problems in eastern Somalia and elsewhere, and are distracting attention from the real challenges of security, expanded foreign investment, commodity trade and human development.

All is not lost. A senior UN official, Lynn Pascoe, is due in the region for consultations. And the security council is seeking a special representative to tackle the border dispute. As was said of the last Ethiopia-Eritrea punch-up, this silly, pointless scrap is akin to two bald men fighting over a comb. But it remains explosively dangerous for all that.