Commentary On The 12/12/00 Ethiopia-Eritrea Algiers 'Peace' Deal

Professor Negussay Ayele

Introductory Remarks

Let me first state some basic points with regard to the recent Ethiopia-Eritrea armed conflict which former President Clinton characterized as "the biggest conventional war in the world in recent years…" The view of the author of the article at hand is:

(1) The armed conflict that transpired from 1998 to 2000 between TPLF-Ethiopia and EPLF-Eritrea occurred as a result of clever by half policies by both regimes which in turn caused EPLF-Eritrea to pull the trigger and attack the Badme region in Tigray. This is the first time in history that the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea have been forcibly drawn into full-scale war in the region.

(2) In May 1998 TPLF-Ethiopia was compelled to respond in kind to EPLF-Eritrea's aggression. The war escalated and continued on and off for about two years incurring the loss of over a hundred thousand lives.

(3) Many Ethiopians sacrificed their lives, limbs and livelihoods resisting and partially reversing what they regarded was an ungrateful blatant aggression by EPLF-Eritrea.

(4) After all that sacrifice, however, Ethiopians feel betrayed by the government in Addis Ababa for having failed to at least partially redress its earlier grievous error (in 1991) in making the country landlocked and keeping the Afar people of Ethiopia dismembered.

(5) Ethiopians welcome the end of the carnage on the Eritrean front and the search for a just and viable peace in the region. They are also duly grateful to all third parties who are ready to help in that direction with equanimity.

(6) However, Ethiopians strongly protest against certain provisions of the 12/12/00 'Peace Agreement and the manner in which it was concluded. The Agreement does not address fundamental issues of Ethiopian national interests in the region in the long run. It renders Ethiopia landlocked by will of the signatory rulers--absent popular deliberation and express will of the people in such a crucial matter.

(7) Under the circumstances, Ethiopians who have followed events and do not share the position of the current government in power in Addis Ababa on this matter have expressed their views in print copiously. They have concluded that the said Agreement or peace deal, as is, will not be acceptable as valid and legitimate by this and/or succeeding generations of Ethiopians.

Folks who have been reading some of my recent postings on this website,, will recall the article, "Asseb As Symbol for the Restoration of Ethiopia's Natural Seacoast" (Oct.1/2000). The article ended with an application of an old Ethiopian parable, used by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, of the mother and her son who first stole eggs, then chicken with impunity, but got whacked trying to steal a bull. When his mother tried to chastise him for his latest dastardly act, the budding kleptomaniac of a son is said to have told her that she should have set him straight way back when he first stole the eggs. Having applied the wisdom of this parable to contemporary collusion/collision pattern of relations between TPLF-Ethiopia and EPLF-Eritrea, I had said:

"Now, in the post-May 2000 period, we stand at a crossroads warning, watching and waiting to witness if, how and when the Bull is to be stolen—by way of formalizing the theft of Ethiopian (territory including all of its) seashores through bogus and defunct "treaties" that aim to render Ethiopia landlocked in the near future."

What was willed, formulated and kept alive since 1975 by EPLF and TPLF, reached a new level of formalization and gratuitous international sanction on 12 December 2000 in Algiers. It may be easy and convenient for foreign governments and international organizations, who need not concern themselves with the sinewy history of the Horn of Africa, to see the 12 December 2000 'Peace' Deal between EPLF-Eritrea and TPLF-Ethiopia as a way of ending the 'border' conflict triggered in May of 1998. But, for those of us from the region who have grown old through decades of domestic and regional conflict and bloodletting, it is not such a simple matter. The regime in Addis Ababa has the power or brute force, but not the right or legitimacy to sever Ethiopia and to dismember Ethiopians. It has exercised that power in 1991 to fulfill a desideratum it and EPLF had willed a quarter century ago. Outside elements with no stake in the outcome may also help --and indeed did so all along the way--to endorse or enforce the illegitimate deal, but they cannot legitimize it.

As a preface to this commentary on the 12/12/00 Asmera-Addis Ababa "Peace" Agreement in Algiers, I shall begin with an acknowledgement of a cross-section of Ethiopians and other persons as well as of publications that made valiant, civil and timely intervention efforts in writing in recent years. These endeavors sought to articulate views on various dimensions of Ethiopia's relations with EPLF-Eritrea. Among other topics, the writings and comments dealt with circumstances of EPLF-Eritrean secession, Ethiopia's vital national interests and legitimate claim to its seacoast, invalidity of colonial treaties, peace with justice, Asseb and the unity of the Afar people, principles and parameters of boundary negotiations, etc--especially since the armed struggles of 1998*. In addition to that, a number of Ethiopian academics, civic leaders and representatives of political organizations from Europe and North America held a teleconference session on the Sunday before the 12/12/00 Algiers signing event. After due consultations, the group reached a consensus on an Open Letter to be dispatched to relevant powers and bodies and the broader public summarizing opposition to the draft Agreement as posted on an Eritrean website at the time. That 12/10/00 Open Letter is annexed to this article for historical reference.


(a) Writers and Commentators On Ethiopia-Eritrea

Tsegaye GM Araya Hassen Umer Abdella   Dagmawi S.
Sultan Ali Mirah Hauaria Poet Laur.Tsegaye G.M.
Solomon Bekele Prof. John Markakis Dula Abdu
Kiflu Taddese Dejazmach Zewdie G.S. Prof. Marina Ottaway
Gebre Medhin Araya Sebhatu Weldeyes   Dr Hailu Fullas
Prof. Sven Rubenson Dr Tekeste Negash  Ledetu Yalew
Dr Fissehatsion M. Prof. Chris Clapham  Samuel Fassika
Prof. Asrat Woldeyes Dr T. Lyons  Prof. T. Vestal
Col. Goshu Wolde Dr Aleme Eshete Dr Admasu G.
Dr Maimire M. Amb. Imru Zeleke Merera Gudina
Dr Alem Hailu Alemnesh G. Hiwot Mekonnen K. Seyoum
Dr. Yaeqob H. Mariam Dr. Gabriele Ciampi  Amare Afele
Tolossa G. Kassane  Megersa G. Tsadiq Leikun Berhanu
Pr. Ermias S. Sellassie Dr Alemseged Abay Afera Gebru
Yeharerwerq Gashaw Gen. Jagema Kello  Satenaw
Brook Yeteshaworq  Girma Bekele   Belay Teklu
Prof. Minasse Haile  Cmdr. Assefa Seifu  Zeru Kehishen
Prof. Harold Marcus  Dr Tarekegn Adeb Prof. Don Levine
Benyam Kebede Tesfaye Demmelash     H. Baykedagn
Amb. Zewde Retta Commodore Tassew D. Genanew Kassa
Alula Aba Nega Gidey Bahrishum Abraham Yayeh
Amb. Tefera Haile S.  Prof. Richard Pankhurst Dr. Minga Negas
Dr G. Calchi Novati  Sylvia Pankhurst A. Del Boca
Dr. A. Sbacchi Tekle Tsadiq Mekuria Dr John Young
Haile Sellasie Girmay Yemiru Worqneh   Dr Hailu Araya
Dr. Beyene Petros  Dr Getachew Metaferi Dr Aklilou Habte
Belay Abbai Tesfa M. George  Andargachew Assegid
Dr Asfa W. Asrate Dr Mamo Muchie  Tedros Berhan
Yirga M. Estifanos  PM Aklilou Habtewold  Berihun Asfaw
Dr Tesfatsion M. Amb. Herman Cohen Dr Haile Larebo
Germachew Merid Medhanie Taddese Hailu Gemoraw
John Sorenson Melake Selam Demetros Bitweded Asfaha W.M.
Prof. Bahru Zewde     Sotal                   Dr Daniel Kinde
Getachew Garedew Dr Tsehai B. Sellassie  Weldu Hailu
Prof. Tilahun Yilma Alemseged B. Adal        Patrick Gilkes
Girmai G. Yesus Gen. Jagema Kello Alex de Waal
Tesfaye Mekonnen  Dr Hagai Erlich    Melaku Tegegn
Dr Taye W. Semayat Dr Assefa Negash Dr Paulos Milkias
Emawayish Gerima Dr Mekonnen Bishaw Dr Fikre Tolosa
Prof. Mesfin W. M. Prof. John Spencer Dr Mesfin Araya
Dr Lapiso Dilebo Dr Shumet Sishagne Dr Getatchew Haile
Dr Tsegaye Tegenu Prof. H. Churnet    Dr Mekonnen B.
Wondimu Mekonnen Prof. Hagos Gebreyesus Prof. Negussay A.

(b) Political and Civic Groups

Medhin EDP
Amdehibret EDUP
Irob Community in North America Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO)
Ethiopian Democratic Action League  Ad-hoc Committee for the Preservation of Ethiopia's Red Sea Coast 
Int'l Symposium on War, Peace and Democracy (11/4-5/00) (ENC)

(c) Ethiopian Periodicals and Newspapers

Reporter Tobia Moged
Gafat Tomar Guramyle
Raij Atkurot Andnnet
Amarach Genanaw Alef
YeAfriqa Qend Mahlet Tewledd
Addis Tribune Moresh Etiopis
Maebel Menyelek Gugsa
Aemero Etyopia Hawaria Ruh
Landafta Mebreq Salem
Ethiopian Register Etiop Goh
Ethiopian Review Muday Tarik
Tiqur Dem Beza Sinksar
Erkab Eletawi Addis Asqual
Kebrit Zegabi Seife Nebelbal

(d) Internet websites


EEDN EthioForum
Kunama Walta  ZeraiDeres, Jr.



Contextual Overview of the 12/12/2000 Agreement


It is to be remembered that the the militarily victorious guerrilla force, TPLF/EPRDF, organized a hand-picked conference in Addis Ababa—1-4 July 1991--to adopt a transitional "charter." The charter's main objective was to endorse the secession of EPLF-Eritrea. Having served its purpose, the charter has since been thrown into the dust bin. The leader of the conference was Mr Meles Zenawi, also head of TPLF/EPRDF and now the Prime Minister. At that conference, he made it clear to the participants that no individual, group or party, including the TPLF/EPRDF, was there because of democratic mandate from the Ethiopian people. No one was deputized by the express will of the people but because of martial victory or support thereof. Ambassador Herman Cohen, the very architect of the "soft landing" of TPLF in Addis Ababa and EPLF in Asmara tells us in his recent book ( Intervening in Africa…" 2000) recalls that "While most Ethiopians rejoiced at Mengistu's departure, the citizens of Addis did not rejoice at the arrival of the TPLF peasant army." Yet, it was that TPLF army and its cohorts that in 1991 issued the "charter" primarily to endorse the secession of EPLF-Eritrea and also to facilitate its own ethnic hegemony over Ethiopia. The late Professor Asrat Weldeyes had expressed strong reservations about the mandate or legitimacy of the conferees to make such capital decisions involving the severing of a component part of the people and territory of Ethiopia. Many other Ethiopians at home--including Addis Ababa University students--and abroad also protested peacefully but vociferously that the TPLF/EPRDF had no legitimacy or popular mandate from the Ethiopian people to enforce the secession of Eritrea with all of Ethiopia's natural seashores and thereby also perpetuate the dismemberment of Afar Ethiopians.

For its part, the EPLF--the beneficiary of this unusual collaboration--ensured its internal control of the reigns of power in the Eritrean region by virtue of its martial/propaganda success and TPLF's unreserved cooperation and moral, diplomatic and material support. The TPLF muzzled any and all opposition to Eritrea's secession and made no efforts to have any Ethiopian representation in the forthcoming pro forma 'referendum'. It used the next two years to dig in its heels so that in 1993 it could run the charade known as the "referendum" in which the choice was between 'freedom and slavery.' The whole point of scheduling the referendum two years hence was to make it look like Eritrean independence was being achieved 'legally' through a referendum witnessed by all-too-eager United Nations operatives. That fake 1993 "referendum " cannot legitimize an already illegitimate 1991 act despite acquiescence or recognition by other governments and international bodies. Those governments were not endorsing the dismemberment of their own countries. For benign or malign reasons, governments do things like that all the time. Such actions often create finite force majeure situations to deal with politically. Governments recognized Korea as one country at one time; today, those same governments recognize two Koreas. Likewise, governments recognized two Yemens at one time; today those same governments recognize one Yemen. Those interested in a deeper understanding of the issue of secession and its legal ramifications, are advised to consult Professor Minasse Haile's trenchant analysis, "Legality of Secessions: The Case of Eritrea" (Emory International Law Review) Vol. 8, # 2, 1994. Cf also D. Clark and F. Williamson, (eds) Self-Determination: International Perspectives, 1996.

Then, in 1998 EPLF-Eritrea attacked certain areas along an undefined 'border' with Tigrai National State. Its aggression had opened the whole border question to the fore. Very many thousands of Ethiopians gave their lives and limbs to thwart EPLF-Eritrean invasion and to redress the injustice done to Ethiopia in 1991-1993 when Eritrea seceded. The rulers in Addis Ababa were urged by Ethiopians to use the occasion as of 1998 imposed upon them by forced upon Ethiopia by EPLF-Eritrea to redeem their earlier betrayal of Ethiopia's vital national interests. Despite all the sacrifices and civil counsels and pleas by Ethiopians, the TPLF/EPRDF regime failed to restore Ethiopia's natural sovereign seacoasts and reunite the Afar people. It even declined to make these issues the subject of post-war settlement negotiations. And, these vital and fundamental issues are nowhere to be found in the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement. Throughout the 1998-2000 period--which witnessed perhaps more Ethiopians killed and maimed fighting against EPLF-Eritrea than during the past 'thirty years' of secessionist guerrilla struggle. Countless Ethiopians and others at home and abroad tried to reason with the rulers in Addis Ababa not to continue to betray Ethiopia's vital national interests vis--vis secessionist Eritrea. The TPLF/EPRDF regime exploited the patriotism of the Ethiopian people to win its parochial war of siblings.

Despite all the civil counsels and pleas and the horrendous death and destruction sustained by both sides of the 'border' region, however, a 'peace' deal signing ceremony was announced in early December designed to reward EPLF-Eritrea with a formal border dismembering the Afar people and making Ethiopia landlocked for the first time since 1941 by the deliberate choice of its current rulers. Three months prior to signing the December 12 Agreement in Algiers, Prime Minister Meles was on an extended tour in the United States where he made speeches had interviews and made press appearances. It is safe to assume that the top echelon of the rulers in Addis and Asmera had probably already seen the Algiers draft and had, at least in principle, agreed to it by that time. Several of his remarks during this visit provide us with some of the premises and rationalizations for making the 12/12/00 Algiers agreement which most Ethiopians who have registered their voices, denounce categorically as being inimical to Ethiopia's vital national interests.

Those that have followed events a few weeks prior to the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement between Asmera and Addis Abeba, the period of the signing as well as developments since that date will have noticed something extraordinary. The Prime Minister has been the sole spokesperson making statements, announcing decisions, briefing the media or diplomats and others, handling "parliament" etc., on the Algiers agreement, and especially on his government's policy on the issue of Asseb. In fact, the Prime Minister has said more on Asseb than have all officials in his government and Eritrean officials put together during this span of time up to this writing. One wonders why that is. His thesis on Asseb--or more broadly speaking on Ethiopia's right to its natural seashores—has been consistent since 1975. In essence, his position is that Asseb belongs to EPLF-Eritrea and Ethiopia has no right to its own seashores--call it Asseb or whatever. In fact whenever he mentions Asseb, it is to stress and defend his position that the Ethiopia he rules has no right to seacoasts. He goes even further to say that it does not need its own ports or seacoast because it can rent them. It is astounding to hear a ruler of a country argue that way. It is a phenomenon for the Guinness Book of Records in the annals of history. He marshals spurious grounds to rationalize his views on the subject while at the same time not addressing the issue of the dismemberment of the Afar people in the region. Throughout this recent conflict, the government in Addis Ababa has been at odds on this issue with Ethiopians at home and abroad, as many of the writings heretofore by most writers and commentators listed above attest. (See also the Open Letter annexed at the end of this article). On the other hand, there is such unison between the views of the Prime Minister in Ethiopia with the Asmera regime's views and positions on Asseb, that the latter hardly needed to articulate its own stance. Asmara could not have made a better claim on Assab than has been done for it from Addis Ababa. Let us briefly scan a couple of typical passages below that illustrate this unusual cabal in modern political history.

In a 15 September 2000, Washington, D.C. National Press Club session, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had this to say on Asseb:

"I know that there are some Ethiopians who feel that we should have gone all the way and occupied Assab, particularly because the military possibilities of doing so were not beyond reach. We felt that this would not be the right (way) to go. That is why we stopped the war before we took control of Assab. We felt that this nation, Ethiopia, has been a law-abiding nation, was the only member of the League of Nations in Africa; it is a founding member of the United Nations; it's a founding member of the OAU. Our prime objection to the aggression carried out by Eritrea have to do with their act of thuggery, with their act of aggression. We do not believe that (the answer to?) aggression is reverse aggression. That is why we did not go for the idea of snatching Assab from Eritrea. After all, Eritrea is an internationally recognized member of the OAU and the United Nations. It may have been a former province of Ethiopia, and indeed it was, but now it's a sovereign independent state. Now, you don't go around snatching territories from independent states. That would be thuggery, fit only for the leaders of Asmera" (emphasis added).

This statement on Asseb is a cocoon of contradictions, false premises and questionable claims. We cannot thrash out all these here, but let us touch on some that are germane to our evaluation of the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement. The statement posits that Ethiopians are out to grab by force land and seashores that do not belong to them whereas the current regime, out of the goodness of its heart, refrained from doing so even when it was able to take Assab. This is a loaded statement. Ethiopians who see the whole thing differently from the Prime Minister and his government, have all along asserted and peacefully argued that Asseb and its environs wherein the Afar people of Ethiopia reside was Ethiopian sovereign territory in 1991 when TPLF and EPLF decided to sever the Eritrean region from Ethiopia by force of arms. Therefore, restoring Asseb to Ethiopian sovereignty peacefully, if at all possible, by an Ethiopian government or the government in power in Ethiopia is a legitimate national duty—not thuggery or aggression. After all, it was the Eritrean side that forced a border issue in asmuch as there was no international border to begin with. The claim that the TPLF/EPRDF government "stopped the war before we took control of Assab" is dubious, to say the least. Dissident Ethiopians, EPLF-Eritreans, neighboring states and other interested powers with more sophisticated snooping resources have their own takes on how and why the war stopped short of entering Asseb. Nor does being a member of the UN, OAU or IGAAD or any other organization enjoin any country from pursuing its legitimate national interests. A government of (or in) a country is expected to defend its interests, not those of another government with which it is at war or in conflict. In this case, however the government in Addis Ababa is more comfortable, more articulate, more resolute and more categorical making a case for the rights of Asmera on issues such as Asseb than on Ethiopia's behalf. The Prime Minister betrays what I call a convenient if tautological 'default logic' which he uses as a cover for his policy on Eritrea in general and Asseb in particular. After having declared Eritrea to be a colony decades ago, and assisting in its secession militarily, sponsoring its independence politically, diplomatically, and materially in 1991 illegally, he now turns back and tells people that "… after all, Eritrea is an internationally recognized member of the OAU and the United Nations. It may have been a former province of Ethiopia, and indeed it was, but now it's a sovereign and independent state. Now, you don't go around snatching territories from independent states…." Of course, what is conveniently forgotten here is that prior to 1991 Ethiopia including its "former province" of Eritrea was a bona fide member of the UN and OAU, etc. but a chunk of its people and territory were snatched from it. Conveniently glossing over that uncomfortable historical fact, the default logic used by the Prime Minister is to have his listeners or readers concentrate on what some like to call "the facts on the ground" which the EPLF and TPLF brought into being forcibly and illegally. Thus, what matters to him and to Mr. Isaiass is who has what, now--however it may have occurred. The statement aims at transforming a de facto border regime into a de jure one.

The Prime Minister was asked more pointedly (paraphrased here) "You keep talking about service of ports (including Asseb), but the issue for '95 to 99 % of the Ethiopian people' is about land and port that rightly belonged to Ethiopia, and your government is not addressing that question; why?" His answer was:

The assertion that Assab has not been part of the province or whatever of Eritrea is a matter for historians and geographers to determine. I happen to have seen the treaty of 1908 signed by Emperor Menelik and the Italians. That treaty seems to suggest the contrary. Now, one can disown this treaty, if one wishes to but it is difficult to disregard facts as they were then. These facts may be unpalatable to many of us, but however unpalatable, they are facts. Among these facts is the Treaty of 1908, whereby the border between Ethiopia and the Italian colony of Eritrea would be demarcated 60 kilometeres inside from the Red Sea shore, right up to the border connecting Ethiopia, Eritrea and what was then French Somaliland. I doubt whether 99 percent of Ethiopian people are aware of these specific details, particularly because 85 percent of them, as you know, live in the rural areas and do not have the access to some of these details. What I know is that 99 percent of Ethiopians who do the fighting when it comes to it, who do have to pay in blood and tears when it comes to it, do not want to pay in blood and tears for the aggrandizement of the concept of Ethiopia.

A bundle of questions cry out for answers in the above revealing rendition on Ethiopia-Eritrea which, among other things, forms the basis for the 12/12/00 Algiers Deal. By exhorting his listeners not to deny that "Assab was…part of the province of Eritrea…" the Prime Minister is unwittingly admitting that as a province, Eritrea was part of sovereign Ethiopia—not a colony--and therefore, Red Sea regions like Asseb were part of that sovereignty. Then he says that he happens "to have seen the 1908 between Emperor Menyelek and the Italians whereby the border between Ethiopia and the Italian colony of Eritrea would be demarcated 60 kilometers inside the Red Sea coast… He adds that "one may disown that treaty…but however unpalatable…it is difficult to disregard facts as they were then…" Many of us Ethiopians have also read that 1908 Treaty and have followed what has transpired since. What the Prime Minister--for whatever reason--is disinclined to do is to place that and allied treaties of the time in their proper historical context, in order to determine whether they have validity today and whether they legitimately serve the interests of Ethiopia which he rules.

It cannot be lost on the Prime Minister that it was the Italians that in the 1930's —unilaterally disowned, violated and hence nullified the 1908 Treaty. Subsequently, they committed colonial aggression against Ethiopia and did away with the borders altogether. Surely, while the need for TPLF scapegoating of Emperor Menyelek may be apparent, the Prime Minister must have read historical accounts (especially by expatriate 'experts') of the colonial scramble in Africa in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th Century. In so doing, one cannot but appreciate the predicament that Ethiopia was in with simultaneous British, Italian, French, Belgian, Egyptian, and Dervish onslaughts against it. Still, despite all that, Emperor Menyelek managed in war (Adwa in 1896) and in peace (border treaties, 1897 and after), to keep Ethiopia independent when the rest of the continent had sadly succumbed to colonialism. The notions of borders and treaties were not initiated by African leaders, including Emperor Menyelek, but by the colonialists or would-be colonialists. The colonialists used borders and treaties to formalize their respective colonial territories. The Horn of Africa was practically the only region where the colonialists dealt with an African land that they could not subdue by force; instead they sought to confine and contain it by treaties. They managed to carve out the coastal regions all around Ethiopia and in effect, forced Emperor Menyelek to sign those concessionary treaties. Still, he signed them to keep the peace. Even while he honored those treaties, the tripartite colonial powers-- Britain, France and Italy--ignored the treaties and agreed cut Ethiopia up into their respective spheres of influence in 1906. [In addition to his classic work on the subject, The Survival of Ethiopian Independence (1976), see Professor Sven Rubenson's article, "The Last Unresolved Problem in Africa" In Fifty Years' Perspective"—with illustrative maps 1989.] The albatross of history for signing away bona fide Ethiopian people and sovereign Ethiopian territory, including its seacoasts in the year 2000, will not be on Emperor Menyelek's neck.

Even if one chose to absolve Emperor Yohannes who really lost Eritrea and fault instead Emperor Menyelek for signing a border treaty in 1908 under prevailing circumstances, what about developments since? Did the clock of history stop 92 years ago for TPLF and EPLF to reset in 2000? What about the fact that the Italians themselves abrogated and nullified the treaty or treaties they signed which was still respected by Ethiopia then, despite it all? What about the United Nations decision of federating the "Eritrean unit with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown?" What about the fact that since 1941 Ethiopia had de facto control of its seashores around Asseb, and since 1952 it had reclaimed de jure sovereignty over the whole region of Eritrea? "Why are these facts not palatable to the Prime Minister and his government in Ethiopia? And why are some quarters in the international community complicit in this brazen violence to historical truth regarding Ethiopia?" No doubt with advantages of satellite and other reliable information at his disposal, Mr Samuel Berger, Assistant to President Clinton for National Security Affairs, has also described the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war as "the most deadly conflict in the world since the Iran-Iraq war…" Why is it that a regime in Ethiopia, which has just presided over the death and maiming of tens and tens of thousands of Ethiopians in this brutal war with a frankenstein of its own making, play havoc with the vital interests of Ethiopia? The question many Ethiopians have been asking—even if it sounds rhetorical--and will go on asking, especially in light of the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement, is: "What was all that loss of Ethiopian life and limb for?"

The Prime Minister then goes on to say that "99 percent of Ethiopians who do the fighting are not aware of specific details (like Asseb or Badme) How then did they figure out to fight for Badme and not for Asseb? The incontrovertible answer is, of course, the TPLF government in power decided what, where, when and how the 99 percent should shed their "blood and tears" So it was the Addis Ababa regime's decision and not that of the 99 percent of the Ethiopian people that fighting for Badme is kosher but fighting to restore Asseb to Ethiopian sovereignty is harram—it is fighting for "the aggrandizement of the concept of Ethiopia." This view has been challenged by alternate voices and arguments by unarmed Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora. Under the circumstances, the issue revolves around which set of views, premises and historical determinations best approximates the vital national interests of the Ethiopian people as a whole. So far, Prime Minister Meles's government has completely ignored such alternate views and counsels by Ethiopians and others--even when such views were sound and applicable. Well over a hundred thousand Ethiopians/Eritreans are said to have lost their lives in the last two and a half years in a horrendous war for a sibling dispute in an otherwise common cause between the authorities in Addis Ababa and Asmara.



A Brief Scan of the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement


The Ethiopia-Eritrea Agreement consists of Six Operative Articles (hereafter referred to as Sections) with forty-seven sub-articles and, of course, a Preamble which reaffirms prior agreements by the two parties under the auspices of the OAU. We shall touch on some of the problem areas in the Agreement from the vantage point of Ethiopians, whose perception and determination of Ethiopia's vital national interest is not the same as that of the Addis Ababa government.

Section Three deals with the issue of determining who started the armed conflict in the first place. This was a matter insisted upon strenuously by the government in Addis Ababa. In 5 subarticles, the section provides for an independent body appointed by the OAU and the two parties to investigate the genesis of the conflict. Then, after getting inputs from both conflicting parties, the independent body is to submit its findings to the Secretary General of the OAU. The latter will then "communicate a copy of the report to each of the two parties which shall consider it in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Framework Agreement and the Modalities" (emphasis added). Since both sides have been accusing the other for triggering the armed conflict in the first place, these provisions do not promise finality to the issue whatever the findings unless it is declared that it was nobody's fault. There is no answer to the plausible question, "So what if one side was the culprit?" What is even more puzzling is the statement that the independent body's findings and conclusion will be passed on to the conflicting parties "to consider it." Unless, some other behind the scenes provisions accompany this section, it is hard to understand what the point of it all is or who benefits from it One leitmotif for Addis Ababa's insistence on this matter was for the world to know with finality that it was Asmara which started the war, and that the UN or other powers should not have lumped TPLF-Ethiopia (the victim of aggression) with EPLF-Eritrea (the aggressor) to be equally subjected to an arms embargo. Now, either we will never know the definitive answer or the matter will have been moot or controversial by the time we do. As it is crafted this Section promises to be nothing more than an exercise in futility.

Section Four is by far the most critical and consequential part of the Agreement. This is the one that deals with the determination and demarcation of the borders between EPLF-Eritrea and TPLF-Ethiopia. And predictably, this is the one that is fraught with serious problems, especially for Ethiopia. It begins, of course, with the provision that the Boundary Commission has "the mandate to delimit and demarcate the colonial border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900,1902 and 1908) and applicable international law" and on the 1964 OAU Resolution on African borders, to boot (emphasis added). In countless articles, commentaries, editorials, open letters and resolutions, Ethiopians have tried to argue that the said colonial treaties were abrogated and nullified unilaterally by the colonial signatory itself (Italy) when it overran the borders of its colonial enclave and invaded the whole of Ethiopia in the 1930's. How can these defunct treaties now be invoked to sanctify the borders of a territory that seceded from sovereign Ethiopia by force in 1991 with the unreserved support of the TPLF regime in Addis Ababa? Furthermore, it has been pointed out in black and white as persuasively as humanly possible by many Ethiopians (including the present writer) that there have been several successive 'border regimes' on the Ethiopia-Eritrea region since the 1930's that should also be taken into account in the determination of borders in the region. The Agreement starts with a patently false premise which, thanks in no small measure to TPLF's connivance, only benefits EPLF-Eritrea. It is a zero-sum game where Asmara gets everything it never had and Ethiopia loses everything it did have .It is also of note that according to sub article 2 "The Commission shall not have the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono". This means that the Commission is forbidden to determine matters pertaining to equity and reason where such may be called for. Rather it is the obsolete and inapplicable "colonial treaties of 1900, 1902, 1908 that it interprets for us in the 21st century.

This brings us to sub article 7 and the functions of the UN Cartographic Unit in the whole process of delimiting and demarcating the border. In September 2000, the UN Cartographic Unit issued a reference map portraying the borders of the region on behalf of UNMEE (United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea) in anticipation of determining TSZ (Temporary Security Zone) where it will deploy its 4,200 peacekeeping troops. Of course, the Cartographic Unit had to start from some map. The map that is convenient to start with is some colonial version, which jibes with the colonial treaties it served to highlight. Shortly after that several Ethiopians, including Afar and Irob people, who come from disputed localities, questioned the source and the validity of this working map, which they argued was inaccurate and misleading. As far as is known, neither the Asmara nor the Addis Ababa governments raised any objections or questions on the map, at least publicly, right through the final signing of the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement and long after UNMEE was in the final stages of deployment.

In a paper delivered at the recent XIVth International Conference of Ethiopia Studies in Addis Ababa, right under the noses of government officials, an Italian cartographic expert raised serious questions about the discrepancies of colonial treaties and existing Italian maps that are supposed to represent the letters of those treaties. (See Gabriele Ciampi, "Cartographic Problems of the Eritreo-Ethiopian border". The article was posted at the end of December on website. More recently, again after the said agreement was signed and sealed, the public gets wind of some reservations or questions raised by Addis Ababa's UN ambassador Abdul-Mejid Hussein on 11/21/00 (the contents of which have not been made public in the same manner as the response to it) of a response by the UN concerning the said map. As posted on the Internet, the response dated 12/14/00 by the UN Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations to that earlier letter. In essence, it says that the issuing of the UN reference map will not prejudice the work of delimiting and demarcating the border by the Commission. The question now is, why was it issued then, and if it is not the one used what other cartographic reference will the Commission begin its work on? Where can one find maps of the region that are not tied up with the invalid colonial treaties? If the treaties are null and void, so are the maps based on them. Who made such maps in the first place, and why refer to them now? If to start with, reference maps are needed, then why not use all maps since 1900 right through 1991? Surely, we have not yet heard the last of the cartographic snafu. The reader is, however, cautioned that the arguments made here with regard to the Agreement do not apply to the position of EPLF-Eritrea on the matter, as it is fundamentally different from sovereign Ethiopia from which it seceded in 1991. For example, it is quite understandable that EPLF-Eritrea will cling for dear life to the 1900, 1902, 1908 colonial treaties and to colonial maps. This Agreement is therefore, tailor-made for EPLF-Eritrea. But why should a government that purports to represent Ethiopia make what in tennis is called "unforced error" by giving up Ethiopian peoples and territory lock, stock and barrel. The TPLF has repeatedly shown more commitment to Eritrean interests and illegitimate claims than to Ethiopian interests and legitimate claims?

Perhaps the most fatal of all the provisions of the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement is sub article 15 in the same Section Four. It says that "the parties agree that the delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding." Each party shall respect the border so determined, as well as the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party." (Emphasis added) This is an unprecedented and extraordinary forfeiture of Ethiopian national sovereignty and territorial integrity for a government to agree to. One can appreciate if the dispute was about a horse that bolted from one side of a border to another, a dispute about a national mascot or about some other movable properties that are in dispute between the parties. What one is dealing with here, however, is a territorial dispute involving substantial Ethiopian land and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. By its own deliberate choice, the Addis Ababa regime excluded the vital question of Ethiopian seacoasts from consideration. As indicated in foregoing pages as well in my earlier writings on this website (June 17, September 26 and October 1—2000), as far as Ethiopians are concerned this Algiers agreement is based on false premises and illegitimate colonial treaties. Furthermore, since 1991 it was handled by the TPLF and EPLF without the mandate, popular participation and legitimate sanction of the Ethiopian people. So, what is being done now is to legalize what has been illegal all along. Unfortunately, the international community that is backing this agreement is callously imposing the injustice on the Ethiopian people now and in the near future.

Only a regime which does not care for Ethiopia as a whole and for Ethiopia's sovereignty, security, stability, development and the vital interests of its people enters an agreement which--regardless of what will be determined by a third party—agrees in advance to accept it as final and binding. What the Addis Ababa regime is doing on behalf of EPLF-Eritrea, is to transform the de facto recognition in 1991 of territorial limits to a de jure status with willing international elements clapping for it. For EPLF-Eritrea, of course, this is a dream come true. It will now have borders it never had and a treaty with international sanction enjoining its neighbor to the south "to respect the border so determined, as well as (its) "territorial integrity and sovereignty." Portions of the Ethiopian people will be dismembered in the process. Relying on what I call 'default logic, the spokesperson of the Addis Ababa regime will tell us ad nauseum: " Well, the Agreement was approved by the ruling TPLF/EPRDF; the "parliament" (after a few hours of discussion of such a momentous and technical legal document) passed it; so many (third party) heads of states and functionaries lauded it; the Prime Minister signed in Algiers has come up with these borders with EPLF-Eritrea; Ethiopia is landlocked; Eritrea is a sovereign independent country; there is nothing else to do but abide by the Agreement, because it is agreed in advance as "final and binding". Ethiopia has to accept it as is because Ethiopia is a law abiding country, a founding member of the UN, OAU…" It has not violated international law, and it cannot do so now as that would be "thuggery"--all over again. One can forsee all that and more if present trend continues. Legal minds should check the legality of all facets of this Agreement against the 1969 Vienna Convention On The Law of Treaties. It is of note that no African borders has been so determined.

One of the problems facing this 12/12/00 Agreement is not just its unjustified reliance on invalid colonial treaties, but also on prior arrangements between the two parties, the terms of which were not always clear. An example of this is the reference in the Preamble to, among others, the Algiers 18/06/00 Cessation of Hostilities accord between the TPLF and EPLF regimes. Inter alia, it calls (article 1:9) for Ethiopia to "submit redeployment plans for its troops from positions taken after 6 February 1999, and which were not under Ethiopian administration before 6 May 1998, the Peacekeeping Mission…." This provision does not specify what criterion is to be used to determine under whose administration certain disputed areas were before hostilities erupted. "Wasn't that what the dispute is supposed to be about anyway?" The new 12/12/00 agreement does not clarify or reinterpret this crucial provision, which may result in putting post- 12/12/00 matters back to square one. When all this is said and done, the Commissions have an ace in the hole in the form of the pre-agreed provision that which they proposed will be "final and binding". So, they can use finesse and make it appear as though now this side, then that side conceded something in the interest of peace. That way they can make their determination and close shop declaring their mission accomplished. 

Finally, the elaborate Section Five (with 18 sub-articles) dealing with mutual claims of human rights violations and compensation for damages, is a veritable Pandora's box. In format, this Section is structured essentially as the preceding one. The Commission does not have the power to decide matters ex aequo bono and its decisions and awards or penalties are "final and binding" on the parties. In a more realistic tone, this "Compensation" Commission will take at least three years, unlike its sister Commission on borders which is said to complete its work in six months. But, here again there are two caveats to consider. One is that the longer this matter drags out, the more tensions, accusations and recriminations between the conflicting parties are likely to be exhibited, with all that that implies. Secondly, the 12/12/00 Algiers Agreement stipulates that the expenses of the Commissions are payable on demand by the Asmara and Addis Ababa governments, no doubt in hard currency because either these officials come from hard currency regions or most want it. So, the longer the missions of the Commissions, the more cost is incurred. How are these hard currency strapped territories going to meet their pecuniary obligations? At least, as an EPLF economics expert put it recently, the fact that the vast majority of UNMEE mission personnel are made to operate (by dint of TPLF myopia, according to him) the blessing in disguise is that a considerable amount of hard currency flow will accrue to EPLF-Eritrea coffers for local goods and services. In fact, some EPLF stalwarts find it hard to conceal their glee at how Asmara is hustling and bustling these days, thanks to UN peaceful penetration of Eritrea. The same cannot be said for TPLF-Ethiopia. So, it may be advantageous for one of the parties to drag these UN operations as long as possible on cost-benefit calculations for itself and for its antagonist. One might also add here that the parties to the conflict are required to "…pay (each other) any monetary award rendered against them promptly." However, this sub-article (17) does not specify whether such payments are to be made in Birr, Nakfa or other currency—something that could be a problem later on as the "binding and final" decisions and awards are handed down.

I have raised the points adumbrated in the foregoing paragraphs to illustrate my contention that the 12/12/00 Algiers agreement--and everything it is predicated on--between the Addis Ababa and Asmara governments is patently inimical to the fundamental and vital interests of the Ethiopian people now and in the future. It may serve the interests of EPLF-Eritrea and TPLF's historical bonding with it but not the interests of the peoples concerned. Except to say that they keep their fingers crossed and hope the agreement holds, EPLF-Eritreans have, so far, not raised any objection, criticism or disclaimer on it. It is not because they are afraid of the TPLF regime, at which some are taking verbal swings these days, but what could they object to in this god-sent agreement. Eritrea will keep all it arrogated by force in 1991. It will keep Ethiopia landlocked and hopes to make it dependent and vulnerable. It will have international borders sanctioned by "the international community" for the first time in history. It will use its well-known time and struggle tested propaganda skills and cunning manipulations of international gullibility to extract as much psychological advantage and financial gain as it can from TPLF-Ethiopia, much like it was doing from 1991 to 1998. "What is Ethiopia gaining or about to gain from this agreement, judged especially from the standpoint of the hundred thousand or so casualties and untold destruction it sustained since 1998?". Maybe one needs supernatural powers to divine something between lines to convince oneself that there must be something in there for Ethiopia and for all Ethiopians. As it is, however, the cabal of EPLF and TPLF, involving the forcible secession of Ethiopian people and territory in 1991, is being formally established through the instrumentality of the 12/12/00 Algiers agreement. It may not be surprising if, in fact, a theory emerges that either or both TPLF and EPLF leaders instigated this conflict to accelerate the sealing of the borders the way they have wanted to do so all along. This may sound outlandish now, but it is not that far out of the scope of possibility if not of probability, to peoples of the Horn, who have carefully followed the relations of the culprits for the last quarter century--not just since 1998 as most outsiders tend to do.




There has been a flurry of activities since the signing of the Algiers deal. The deployment of UN forces in Ethiopia-Eritrea border areas has a Shangri-La flavor to it. Nearly 80 countries are represented in teh form of troops and staff by one [e.g., Rwanda] to as many as more than 1000 [Netherlands] nationals.  Both sides are to be congratulated for a reasonably speedy exchange of prisoners of war in accordance with Section Two of the agreement despite murmurings and accusations of torture of Ethiopian prisoners in EPLF goals. TPLF/EPRDF trade delegations are undertaking much publicized business tours in the United States and elsewhere trying to entice investments, now that the "war is over." The World Bank made a high profile announcement of a $US 400 million dollar loan to TPLF-Ethiopia to sweeten its signature of the Agreement. Interestingly, although a similar carrot was thrown EPLF-Eritrea's way—perhaps much more substantial in per capita terms than was released to TPLF—no mention of such loan or allocation has been announced except in connection with World Bank's outlays to other countries also. UNMEE operations are said to have encountered some snags in trying to implement provisions of the agreement because of some dispute by the conflicting parties as to where the pre-6 May 1998 boundary line is. EPLF-Eritrea and TPLF-Ethiopia have announced--but not disclosed their names and resumes--the appointment of their respective Commissioners. The United States is said to have tried to spearhead a move to lift the UN Security Council ban on arms imports imposed on the conflicting parties. However, despite his earlier upbeat enthusiasm about the war "being over" between Asmara and Addis Ababa, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has fallen short of a categorical recommendation to lift the ban yet. So, as of this writing it is still in the books.


The Italians--longtime acquaintances of Ethiopians--have been clawing and crawling their way back to the 'border area' in the form of 200 or so UN personnel—60 years after they left the area in defeat. It is also interesting to note here that EPLF-Eritrea's President Isaiass Afewerqi first went to Rome to huddle with his counterpart there immediately following the signing of the Accord in Algiers. The Italians are doling out some lira right and left. They have cleverly orchestrated a public relations campaign to make it appear that they have the dolce for TPLF for signing the accord Accordingly, they have announced that they are getting ready to return an Obelisk they stole from Aksum in 1937, which they were supposed to return since 1947 along with untold numbers of Ethiopian documents and national treasures. Professor Richard Pankhurst and many others, and more recently an organization (AFROMET) he established to campaign for the return of Ethiopian treasures including the Obelisk, have been pressing for that for decades. No word yet from the Italians about returning so much more loot they have that properly belongs to Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the United States has a new Republican Administration, and it remains to be seen where on the totem pole of its priorities, conflicts and problems of peacekeeping in remote places like the Horn of Africa will be, and whether it is prepared to build on what the outgoing administration has bequeathed it, or whether it will start afresh with new policies. The changing of the guards in Washington, DC in 2001, recalls what transpired a decade ago shortly before the Clinton Administration took over from then President George Bush. It is instructive for anyone interested in international relations between a superpower (I prefer the term omnipower) and third world minions here and there. We have—courtesy of former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Mr. Herman Cohen—a relatively frank revelation in his book (cited above) of the role he personally played in 1991 on behalf of the United States, facilitating the political transition in Ethiopia, including the secession of Eritrea. In the passage below Mr. Cohen is relating a brush with his boss, Secretary of State James Baker, regarding what he had just accomplished in London regarding the change of regime in Ethiopia and the formation of a new Eritrean entity.

"Very soon after the opening of business in Washington, I received a call from Secretary Baker. This was unusual since Baker spent very little time worrying about Africa, essentially leaving policy to me. When I needed policy guidance, I usually consulted Under Secretary Kimmit. Baker expressed concern about my endorsement of self-determination in Eritrea, fearing the Washington press corps could exploit it to cause problems. The German government, he explained, was exerting pressure on the United States to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. The United States was resisting because we feared that unilateral declarations of independence in Yugoslavia could lead to violence. My support for a referendum in Eritrea could open the door to press accusations of policy inconsistency. If self-determination is good enough for Eritrea, why isn't it good enough for Croatia and Slovenia? I protested that consistency is not necessarily the best way to deal with specific country problems, an argument he found nave. Fortunately for me, the Washington press corps did not harass Baker on Eritrea, so when he arrived in Lisbon on 30 May to witness the signature of the Angola peace accord, he had forgotten our phone conversation. He was all smiles over the double victory for US policy in Ethiopia and Angola in the space of one week, especially its highlighting of US-Soviet cooperation. (Emphasis added)


In brief, what is intimated, if not explicitly indicated, in this revealing passage, is that a third or fourth level official of the US Foreign Policy establishment had the autonomy to craft and implement policy on Africa to the extent Mr. Cohen did regarding in this case Ethiopia-Eritrea. It is also instructive for all concerned that Secretary Baker, of necessity, had to see policy choices and decisions from a larger global perspective, which he displayed in this tete-a-tete with his lieutenant. However, in this instance, there is no mention of questioning about the intrinsic merit of the facts and principles involved that informed Mr. Cohen's recommendation of "self-determination" (or secession as Ethiopians see it). Nor was mention made about how the peoples concerned--not just the guerrilla fighters of TPLF/EPLF--felt about the whole thing, and to what extent the United States government should be involved. Rather, Secretary Baker used the classic linkage paradigm as a criterion for questioning the wisdom of Mr Cohen's position on Horn of Africa matters. He related it to other global situations, potential reactions by other governments and, closer to home, to possible press criticisms and exposes. Reference to consistency also prompts one to ask, "What about consistency/inconsistency of US policy? It helped orchestrate the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation and recognized and supported Ethiopian territorial integrity for four decades, but now (in 1991) abruptly, a US official recommends in effect that Ethiopia should be dismembered—however he may have phrased it? One notes also how quickly Secretary Baker is said to have forgotten this serious consequential single-handed policy decision by Mr Cohen, which was devastating to millions of people in Ethiopia. Both of them just moved on to relish "the double victory for US policy in Ethiopia and Angola…" It might have been a double victory for US policy then, but who can be oblivious to what has been happening in both Angola and Ethiopia and their respective regions since that time? And is it a case of de ja vu all over again a decade later for Ethiopia?


For more than two years now, the Ethiopian people have been enmeshed in this Ethiopia-Eritrea war they did not start. They have borne the brunt of the death, destruction, destabilization and impoverishment visited upon them. While the war in the north has commanded so much attention and consumed enormous resources, it has also tended to obscure and camouflage even more serious economic, political, social and international problems in the country, which Ethiopians cannot afford to ignore or overlook. We cannot now go into those other burning issues, but they include problems of relations with neighboring countries, Nile waters questions, famine, AIDS and other diseases, prisoners of conscience, problems of national security, ethnic and regional conflicts, threats of fundamental religious movements in the region, human rights repression, impoverishment and unemployment, evicted nationals, disarmed soldiers and rehabilitation, educational deterioration, ruling party parapartals and economic elephantitis, children at risk and homelessness, etc…

I shall conclude this essay with the following five questions for all domestic and international actors involved in triggering and administering the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war as well as in drafting, facilitating and enforcing the 12/12/00 Algiers Deal.

"How and when will Ethiopians be on the same page to tackle genuine common national problems and forge a common front to withstand real threats to Ethiopia's national security?"

"What can be done about the fact of repeated malign interference to undermine Ethiopia's political and territorial sovereignty, by powers and interlopers near and far, throughout its rugged history?"

"What really was the 1998-2000 war--which for the first time in history pitted the Ethiopian-Eritrean peoples at large against each other and caused so much death and destruction--all about?"

"How does the 12/12/00 Algiers agreement (and its antecedents) serve the vital national interests of Ethiopia?"

"Would any head of state from one of the countries--that have endorsed this agreement and have been urging Ethiopia to sign—care to step up to the plate and assert publicly that he/ she would have signed the same kind of agreement on behalf of his/her state?"

10 February 2001

Annex: 12/10/00 Open Letter On The Peace Accord



Foot Note:

* This is a random listing of hard copy and internet literary outputs by Ethiopians and Ethiopianists (mostly in English and some in Amharic) on various aspects of TPLF-Ethiopia and EPLF Eritrea relations. These include historical, economic, political and other relevant perspectives on the region, the 1998 EPLF aggression and its aftermath, Asseb, Afars and Ethiopia's vital national interests, secession, invalidity of colonial "treaties" and "borders," international law and institutions, premises of decision-making, Ethiopia's legitimate claim to its natural seashores, the role of external forces and on just and stable peace in the Horn of Africa. Readers are reminded that the list is not exhaustive; it only represents one man's compilation on the subject. It is also hoped that readers will tolerate possible errors with respect to earned titles, name spellings, abbreviations and non-sorting of pen names. Natural titles--Mr., Ms--are, of course, assumed. It should be added that occasionally international organizations and regional concerns as well as media sources do make some worthwhile contributions regarding Horn of Africa issues.

Copyright 2000 Negussay Ayele / EOW. Readers may redistribute this article for noncommercial use as long as the text and this notice remain intact. This article may not be sold, reprinted, translated or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author and EOW.