Reflections on Border Regimes and Colonial Treaties on the Horn

Professor Negussay Ayele  

After two years of on-again, off-again, armed struggles and propaganda warfare, the regimes of Addis Ababa and Asmara slugged it out for over a month and it seems that one or both parties have had it for now. Nine years ago the Ethiopian people were told that the only way Ethiopia can have peace was by enabling EPLF to slice the Eritrean region of Ethiopia as its own and that, if anybody else wanted to continue the war, they can try it but TPLF would not be part of it. The refrain then was , “Never Again!” Well, seven years after that political diktat, the putative peace was breached by EPLF and the TPLF regime in Addis Ababa, enlisting wide support of Ethiopians at- large, resumed the very conflict in Eritrea it had eschewed. In fact, in this latest round of battles, its road into EPLF’s Eritrea was paved ‘smooth with cloth’ as the Ethiopian saying goes. Sixty-five years ago, it was an Italian colonial entity that penetrated south across the Mereb river. History repeated itself with variation of the same theme today as an Ethiopian/Tigrean entity crossed the same Mereb northwards and then tumbled down. No doubt, the TPLF stalwarts probably congratulate themselves for having done something that Emperor Menelik did not do after the 1895-1896 battles of Amba Alage/Mekele/Adwa against Italian colonialists. What remained then and what remains now, however, is the same Eritrean problem which prompts a number of questions for all Ethiopians to ponder on.  

"What remained then and what remains now, however, is the same Eritrean problem, which prompts a number of questions for all Ethiopians to ponder on."

It is an exercise in futility for anyone not in the inner circle of decision-making in both Asmara and Mekele/Addis Ababa to try to come up with some reasonable conclusion about the causes, processes, expectations and outcomes pertaining to the collusion/collision relationship between EPLF and TPLF in the past nine years. We await for adjusted claims  of victory by the combatants regardless of  what has transpired, because truth is the first casualty in war. In the process, an institutionalized culture of lying is creeping in upon us in the Horn of Africa. And this is on top of the chronic culture of violence prevalent in the region.  

One of the tragic by-products of these recent conflicts is that for the FIRST time, the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea have been involuntarily drawn into conflict. This was not the case in the pre-1991 period of the  “thirty years war” or “longest war” as touted by EPLF, when the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea at-large were not at war. Many of the high level officials and functionaries in the EPLF hierarchy (including Mr Isaiass himself), who grew up and were educated in and by Ethiopia as Ethiopians, as well as millions of Eritrean residents on either side of the post-1991 border can attest to. That deadly struggle was limited to government troops and ELF/EPLF guerrillas. There was no animosity among the masses of the population. Sadly, all this has been changing as of 1991 with EPLF deporting tens of thousands of Ethiopian residents in the Eritrean region and, when TPLF followed suit in 1998 by doing the same to Eritrean residents in the rest of Ethiopia. In this brief we will not tackle the question of why the armed struggle flared up or who won and who lost in the process and what strategic objectives are at play for both parties. What concerns us here is some of the terms of the OAU peace plan which the Asmara regime has accepted promptly (as it did the “Technical Arrangements” earlier), and it is now announced that the regime in Addis Ababa has also embraced it.

It should be known by all concerned here that outside bodies, organizations, governments or individuals (including pet mercenary/consultants) cannot be expected to handle political cum military matters like this one, (i.e., the conflict between two entities on the Horn) as if it were their own conflict and vital to their respective national interests. Needless to say, Europeans or North Americans or any other group certainly do not expect Ethiopians to know better or to give advice on what is best for Europeans, etc. This is neither good nor bad in and of itself; it is only a reality the peoples of the Horn have to appreciate as they consider peace potions offered by others. One can recall, for instance, the now defunct “Technical Arrangements “ proposals some months back. If one side to a conflict ends up losing in one sphere what it has won in another sphere it, in effect, means that the losing side in the earlier bout can win what it lost.


Ethiopia-Eritrea border Regimes and Colonial Treaties in Perspective  

With the foregoing  in mind, I should like to make some observations for the here and now or for posterity, as the case may be, concerning references to the 1964 OAU resolution on borders and colonial treaties. The so-called OAU peace plan has some good provisions if one were to isolate specific points or paragraphs. However, some of the premises on which they hinge are historically flawed and invalid, and these flaws are consequential as they are deliterious to Ethiopian national interest—even if, de facto, national interest is determined or declared by a given ruling elite at a given time for the duration of its incumbency.  

The first fallacy one notices is the reference to the Cairo OAU 1964 AHG/Res. 16/1 resolution calling for “respect for borders at time of independence…” This OAU resolution cannot be applicable here or invoked to compel Ethiopia to admit that it is the colonial country which the resolution speaks of vis--vis the Eritrean entity. At the time of passage of AHG/Res 16/1, the OAU recognized or accepted or considered (as you wish) Ethiopia including present day EPLF Eritrea as one indivisible sovereign member of the OAU—a fact which remained unchanged until 1991. The OAU never recognized or supported EPLF as an anti-colonial  freedom fighting group in Africa. So, whence comes the relevance of AHG/Res. 16/1 to the current conflict between Addis Ababa and Asmara regimes? EPLF’s Eritrea  did not win independence from Italian colonialism; it seceded from independent Ethiopia by force of arms and by the gratuitous connivance of the TPLF martial regime in Addis Ababa which gave the OAU, the UN and other bodies and countries the green light and even urged the world to recognize the break up of Ethiopia as legitimate. Neither the OAU nor the UN welcomed or recognized the secession attempts of Katanga from the Congo, of Biafra from Nigeria or of Puntland from Somalia. But, when the Addis Ababa  regime itself legitimized the secession of a part of its sovereign people and territory, how could others refuse to oblige! The bottom line here is that the 1964 AHG/Res. 16/1 has no relevance to the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict. It is misplaced.   


A more fatal flaw in the proposed peace deal is the reference to “…pertinent  colonial treaties …” Shortly after the Badme incident two years ago, there was an Open Letter on the Internet to the PM Meles Zenawi (one of many then) which forewarned him that constant references by him and by the Asmara group to “international treaties” and also some shameless Italian bureaucrats purporting to come up with maps and treaties was out of order. Unless one or both parties to the conflict wanted to settle their sibling rivalries quickly and save face using bogus and non existent “treaties”, there are no valid or lawful treaties that can be invoked with regard to the so-called “international” Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary. Once again, the same misleading language has reared its head as the current (June 12, 2000) OAU peace proposal calls for getting ready to “determine (the borders) on the basis of pertinent colonial treaties…” It looks like an innocuous, politically correct and impartial mode of settling the conflict. But on closer scrutiny this is an even bigger flaw based on a false premise. WITH REGARD TO THE ETHIOPIA-ERITREA BORDER, THERE ARE NO VALID OR PERTINENT TREATIES TO INVOKE. Why is that, one may ask. 

To begin with, there have been several variant border regimes. In fact, borders have been eliminated sometimes and drastically altered at other times thereby making it unclear as to which border regime one refers to. Each border regime supplanted the other with no continuing thread of state succession or invoking earlier “treaties” or agreements with respect to borders.


(1) The first border regime covers the period of 1896 to 1936 when a series of boundary agreements or treaties were first signed between Italy and the government of independent Ethiopia—which itself was a unique happening in Africa. These agreements were signed as a result of Italy’s defeat at Adwa in 1896. Though these treaties were at times undermined by contradictory Anglo-Italian treaties relating to trijunction points of what would have been Ethiopian territory on the one hand and British (Sudan) and Italian colonial claims in the region, they remained in place at least theoretically until 1935-36. This despite the fact that the Italians overrode their agreements with Ethiopia when they signed the infamous tripartite treaty in 1906 with the British and the French partitioning Ethiopia. As we shall see below, Italy nullified those colonial “treaties” when, unprovoked, it invaded Ethiopia, obliterated the borders and created a totally new border regime in the region.


(2) Mussolini and his fascist hordes unilaterally violated the border in 1935-36, declared a new Italian East Africa border regime in the area, abrogated the treaties and created new borders dividing the whole area into six regions including an expanded Eritrea-Tigrai region and a Somalia Grande. The Ethiopian people on both sides of the Mereb river, suffered and died during this Fascist period. During this period then, ipso facto all boundary treaties and agreements were rendered null and void. No one ever recalled, invoked or referred to any border treaties from 1936 through all succeeding regimes in the region until now in 1998/2000. This fascist period border regime lasted from 1936 to 1941. When Mussolini’s troops were thrown out of the region, Emperor Haile Sellassie resumed his throne in Addis Ababa while the British assumed the role of dealer/caretaker in Asmara. Nobody was concerned about the boundary and the law of inertia applied at this time. It was thus the colonialists themselves who destroyed the treaties by their aggression. Ethiopia cannot invoke them as valid or appropriate to solve border or othe problems today.


(3) The third border regime covers the long period of 1941 to 1987 and has three phases.

   a) The first phase (1941-1962) of this period focused on post war determination of the future of Italian colonies in Africa (Libya, Eritrea and Somalia) when all kinds of claims and partition plans as well as a lot of diplomatic posturing and jockeying took place. The Ethiopian Emperor made deputations and vigorous representations at post-WWII Allied forums and later at the nascent United Nations to have Eritrea reunited with its motherland--Ethiopia. Even though, as the losing Axis party in the War, it was divested of all rights and privileges in its erstwhile colonies, Italy lobbied to be returned to Eritrea. Throughout this period no one needed or invoked  colonial treaties with respect to Eritrea. In the event, in December, 1950, the United Nations General Assembly, after due consultations with Eritrean parties and peoples, decided by Res. 390 A (V) that Eritrea be an “autonomous federated unit under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown.” If one is to invoke border regime documents this United Nations Document could certainly qualify as defining a border regime that has more validity in the course of the region’s long checkered history than defunct colonial “treaties”. This, of course, is the international legal regime that in effect did away with the notion of borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the two entities were subsumed under one and the same Ethiopian sovereignty. As a recent book in Amharic by former Ambassador Zewde Retta covering the period 1943 to 1962. shows clearly, the Ethiopian-Eritrean people were shortchanged by the powers that be when the federation formula was, for all intents and purposes,  imposed on them.

  b) The second phase of this period begins in 1952 when the federation was consummated with the Emperor cutting a ceremonial ribbon at a crossing point on the Mereb river and declaring that henceforth there will be no border dividing the two parts of his kingdom. The phase ends in 1962 when, after a decade of tenuous federal status, the Eritrean Assembly voted to do away with the federation and outright union was declared. As is well known, this spawned secessionist armed struggle in Eritrea. One should note here that neither the United Nations, the United States nor any other relevant body cried foul publicly when the federation was dismantled. A political adjustment made during this period that has received little notice abroad is that the Assab port area was made an integral part of  Wello province of Ethiopia and administered under the Addis Ababa Ministry of Interior instead of from Asmara. And this remained the case until 1991 even though this change was not reflected physically on maps.

  c) The last phase of this period is from 1962 to 1987 which witnessed, among other things, a socialist oriented revolution in Ethiopia in 1974 and a change of rule from Emperor Haile Sellassie to a military junta better known as the Derg. When the OAU was formed in 1963, Ethiopia including Eritrea, gained membership as a single sovereign country despite ongoing secessionist (in the Eritrean region) and irredentist (in the Ogaden region) armed struggles. Inasmuch as secessionist and dissident struggles were widespread then, no one in Africa saw the Eritrean struggle as unique or different. In fact, at that time, the Ethiopian government was more obsessed with or gripped by the irredentist threat from Somalia and considered the 1964 AHG Res 16 (1) of the OAU as a victory for its side in its boundary/sovereignty altercations with that country. Although it had the sovereign right during this period to make changes in its internal boundaries on the Mereb Melash region, the Ethiopian government chose not to and once again inertia ruled.


(4) The next border regime pertinent to Ethiopia-Eritrea sovereignty and boundaries is from 1987 to 1991. What is unique about the regime of this period was the Derg’s decision to remake the internal administrative boundaries of Ethiopia. After several years of  research by an Institute of Nationalities, a drastic reordering of the physical and political landscape of the country was unveiled in 1987 which included a reshaping of the Eritrean region into autonomous zones reflecting ethnic/cultural population spread. This was not unlike what the TPLF has been doing in the rest of Ethiopia since 1991. Elements of the population in Eritrea had welcomed these changes at the time and some even called for a change of the name Eritrea (which was adopted by colonial Italy in 1890) also, even as EPLF and its allies vowed to fight to put an end to this new border regime in Eritrea. Still, for four short years the internal borders of northern Ethiopia were changed. Neither the OAU nor the United Nations nor any other relevant international body objected to this exercise of sovereignty by Ethiopia in 1987 as illegal or contrary to international law or to colonial ‘treaties.’ The 1964 AHG Resolution on African borders was not invoked because it was not relevant then, and it is not relevant today.


(5) 1991 represented a new border regime when the two victorious groups, TPLF and EPLF ascended to power in Addis Ababa and Asmara, respectively. Between 1991 and 1993, one can argue that EPLF's Eritrea was, for all intents and purposes, part of TPLF's Ethiopia (or vice-versa) despite its de-facto secession. The  guerrilla forces of EPLF and TPLF could have reached any mutually beneficial border agreements on the  Ethiopia-Eritrea tabula rasa they found on their laps. Both guerrilla leaderships could have anticipated ensuing prospects and problems in their relations and, above all, figure out what would be in the best interests of mutual development, peace and security in the region. Even after 1993 announcement of EPLF Eritrea’s separation, there was plenty of time for them to huddle on Badme, Tsorona, Zalambessa, Assab, etc… and obviate the bloodshed that occurred over small slivers of territory especially by the Addis Ababa side after it had surrendered the whole of the Eritrean region to EPLF. Once again, during this period another event, EPLF’s invasion in 1998 brought the issue of border regimes to the fore anew and for two years no negotiations were held on outstanding economic, security, territorial, regional issues. Instead, we witnessed a return armed engagement in the year 2000 from the Addis Ababa side across the Mereb river. Ethiopia was made to lose a whole region, but the givers and the receivers of that booty called Eritrea are now fighting for little chips of land here and there.

Concluding Remarks 

I hope I have shown some of the pitfalls and indicated caveats about invoking invalid “treaties” and fallacious premises as well as the need to avoid being entrapped in ambiguous propositions that are inimical to Ethiopia’s long-term interests. There is no doubt that EPLF would have gotten a much better boundary settlement some years back if it had not precipitated the conflict two years ago. There is also no doubt that the TPLF can exact a better boundary arrangement for itself today in light of its

"And with that, the government in Addis Ababa stands poised to right the wrongs done to Ethiopia’s long-term historic, economic, political and strategic interests heretofore."

current military presence in the area. Invoking or inserting bogus “pertinent colonial treaties” can only confuse the situation and raise more problems than it solves. No doubt, there will be numerous third party experts and technicians who will offer to interpret irrelevant “treaties” to unsuspecting native clients. The fact of the matter is that May/June, 2000, represents a new opportunity with strong presence for the Addis Ababa government to establish a border regime that benefits Ethiopia (if only because it is normally assumed that it is the one to speak for Ethiopia) and is conducive to peace and security for the region.


With blood, sweat, tears and depravations as their lot, the Ethiopian people have done everything to help the Addis Ababa government to execute its desideratum on this sorry war front. And with that, the government in Addis Ababa stands poised to right the wrongs done to Ethiopia’s long-term historic, economic, political and strategic interests heretofore. It can do this if it wants to; the question that remains is: Does it want to? Only the TPLF alias EPRDF can answer that in deeds, not words.   

June 17, 2000