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You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!

The decision of the Executive Committee of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) decided last week to unconditionally implement the December 12, 2000 Algiers Agreement, which formally ended the 1998 to 2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the decision of the neutral Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EE BC) caught Ethiopians completely off guard. Concluded soon after Ethiopia’s crushing defeat of Eritrea in the bloody war, Ethiopia’s recent overture to Eritrea after almost 18 years of stalemate has sparked controversy. At this critical juncture in Ethiopia’s history it is important to focus on issues that facilitate a constructive dialogue between the two sides. It’s also imperative to go back in time and dwell on the questionable turn of events which transpired during the honeymoon period for the EPRDF and Sha’ebia, the Eritrean regime, following the end in May 1991of the 30-year war to cede Eritrea from Ethiopia. Furthermore, it must be asked if the Eritrean government is interested in reciprocating the goodwill shown by Ethiopia in restoring peace between them.

When Eritrea went its separate ways from Ethiopia in 1993, without the say-so of Ethiopians, courtesy of the bizarre referendum whose wording was “Do you choose freedom or slavery?” a plethora of blunders were made owing to the fact that the then leaders of the EPRDF did not want certain fundamental issues to be raised. No one listened when many who were infuriated that Ethiopia became a land-locked nation as a result of the referendum called for border and nationality questions plus economic relations between the two countries to be sorted out immediately. Following the establishment of diplomatic ties between the newly minted sate and Ethiopia, Sha’ebia agents used Eritrea’s embassy in Addis Ababa as a staging ground to commit economic sabotage against Ethiopia. They were mired up to their eyeballs in such illicit acts as black market currency trading as well as contraband trade in commodities like coffee, grains and live animals. They also managed to infiltrate key government positions and secure favorable treatment for Eritreans. They even resorted to arm-twisting when their brazenness elicited widespread criticism. Finally this, coupled with the Ethiopian government’s firm rejection of the idea that Eritrea’s official currency, the Nakfa, become legal tender in Ethiopia at an equal exchange rate drove the Asmara leaders to use the unsettled border issue as an excuse to invade the border town of Badme and its environs. So it’s the parasitic behavior of the Eritrean regime that was the real cause of the destructive war.

Notwithstanding their disgruntlement with the weakening of Ethiopia’s defensive capabilities and efforts to undermine its unity, the people of Ethiopia mobilized en masse to defend the sovereignty of their beloved nation. In the meantime the local population and militia valiantly stood their ground and repulsed the invading army. They also provided valuable rearguard support to the defence forces in breaching a fortification that Sha’ebia bragged was unbreachable. Thousands perished to liberate Badme, shaming President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea who had said that reclaiming Badme was tantamount to the sun rising in the West and setting in the East. In the wake of the fall of Badme the Eritrean forces there and the General in command beat a hasty retreat to Asmara with Ethiopian forces breathing down their neck. This forced Isaias to abandon his recalcitrance and implore the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and the African Union to save his skin. As the victor Ethiopia ought to have compelled Eritrea to come to the negotiating table on its own terms. What it did, however, was negotiate as equals with the vanquished. The decision to do so was a mistake of epic proportions.

Ethiopia should have insisted on Badme remaining part of its territory and Eritrea to make a concession on access to sea. Sadly the agreement it ultimately signed desecrated a victory that was attained at a great cost. Ethiopia’s willingness to be bound by colonial era boundary treaties and to forgo its right to appeal the decision of the Boundary Commission stands out in this regard. To make matters worse Ethiopia bungled some of the arguments it made before the Commission and ignored offers of help by historians, lawyers and other professionals well versed in the subject matter. What riled Ethiopians even more was the announcement by the government that Badme was awarded to Ethiopia even though EEBC’s 2002 decision clearly stated that it belonged to Eritrea. A couple of years after the EEBC handed down its decision the government of Ethiopia proposed a five-point peace plan in which it affirmed, among others, that it accepts, in principle, the decision. The plan was met with vehement opposition and has not seen the light of day since it was tabled. Consequently, EEBC has been unable to demarcate the boundary it has delimited in a spirit of give-and-take. 

The delimitation undertaken by EEBC is fraught with practical difficulties. It places a single household on opposite sides of the border as it does the residence and farmland of a family as well as church grounds and cemeteries. It’s common practice to demarcate a border having regard to existing realities and the interests of all parties. Believing it has the upper hand he Eritrean government rejected out of hand the plan proposed by Ethiopia in such a spirit. This entire mess was made by the EPRDF-led government. Given that Ethiopian communities presently living in the areas said to belong to Eritrea by virtue of EEBC’s decision are profoundly affected in terms of potentially being displaced from their land and deprived of their Ethiopian nationality, it is of critical importance to take due care when implementing the decision in order to avert the perpetration of any act on the part of the Asmara regime that is detrimental to the interest of Ethiopia.

The human cost of the two-year war was enormous, with Ethiopian losses accounting for the majority of the estimated death toll of around 70,000 on both sides. The war also disrupted the livelihood of communities residing in affected areas and entailed considerable material loss. Aside from spending hundreds of millions dollars during the war the country is still allocating funds for the deployment of thousands of troops along the border. Although Ethiopia and Eritrea have not been locked in active hostilities since the end of the war, the Eritrean government has on several occasions infiltrated agents into Ethiopia that have killed, abducted and tortured Ethiopians. The regime has also gone to war with Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen and has been subjected to a United Nations sanction for providing support to armed groups undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia. Just like tango it takes two to negotiate and reach an agreement. Thus far Asmara has not responded officially to the peace offer extended by Ethiopia early last week. So how can peaceful relations be restored with a belligerent entity? Is it genuinely desirous to achieve lasting peace or is its response dictated by elements harboring ulterior motives? The public wants a definitive answer to these concerns. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!”