By Edmond J. Keller
The war of national liberation in Eritrea has now been raging for over thirty years. What is more, the conflict could go on for another thirty years unless there are renewed, serious attempts to find a negotiated, political settlement to the problem. Given the strategic location of Ethiopia and Eritrea, continued armed conflict has pro
found implication for not only the regional security of the Horn and Africa. This could also have global implications.
African Americans have generally been silent on the Ethiopia-Eritrea issue. Historically they have equated Ethiopia with the heroic persona of Emperor Haile Selassie I. The Marxist-Leninist experiment that was attempted following the demise of the Emperor has been hardly under stood by the African American community. Most of their attention in recent years has been riveted on Southern Africa, and South Africa in particular. The Eritrea-Ethiopia crisis cries out for a sophisticated understanding on the part of African Americans of the issues involved, and the competing perspectives of the two sides. This would provide the basis for much needed lobbying efforts for the United States to do what it can to not only find a resolution to the conflict, but also take the leadership in devising strategies for the rehabilitation and development of the Horn region as a whole.
The scope and intensity of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict in large measure can be traced to the Cold War competition in the Horn between the US and USSR from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. During this period the US spent billions of dollars supporting the militaries of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Oman, in an effort to encircle Marxist Ethiopia. At the same time the USSR was spending more than $13 billion on Ethiopia’s defense establishment. However, many of these armaments and other military supplies have been taken by the Eritreans as spoils of war — tanks, anti-aircraft guns, artillery, trucks, etc.
Since 1976, the Ethiopian military has grown from 65,000 to more than 350,000 troops. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front grew from 10,000 to more than 50,000 combatants. In the process, it is estimated that over the three decades of the conflict more than 4 million people have died; 500,000 on the Eritrean side alone.
Added to this is the fact that over the past three years, internal war in Ethiopia has grown out of hand. The government has lost control of vast portions of the north-central part of the country to armed opponents demanding democracy and social justice. The deteriorating situation forced the regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1989 to agree to open peace negotiations with the EPLF under the mediation of former US President Jimmy Carter, and with its internal opponent, the Tigre People’s Liberation Front, with Italian mediation. However, after several meetings in 1989 and 1990, both talks failed, never going beyond procedural matters. In late 1990, the US government, in an unusual move, attempted to get the Eritrea-Ethiopia talks started
At the same time, the Mengistu regime has declared that Ethiopia’s scientific socialist project is a thing of the past. The state has relinquished its control of most aspects of the economy, and has abandoned its intentions to collectivize the peasant agricultural sector. It has also invited in foreign capital, and agreed to World Bank and IMF structural adjustment requirements for loans. What is perhaps more remarkable, Mengistu has pledged political liberalization. The Worker’s Party was replaced by the Ethiopian Democratic Party, and it has been suggested that other political parties may be allowed. Yet, these reforms have had little if any effect. The regime continues to be as authoritarian as it ever was.
War is in the way of liberalization and development. Peace is absolutely essential if any progress can be made in solving Ethiopia’s major political, social and economic problems. The Ethiopian armed militant opposition wants Mengistu out, and they want an interim government of national reconciliation. The Eritreans want a referendum
on their national self-determination.
In this era of glasnost and superpower detente Africa is being forgotten by the rest of the world. This is doubly true of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict. African Americans should not let this continue in the area of the US’s African policy. Both superpowers have a special role to play in cleaning up the mess that they in part have created in the Horn. They both should provide assistance in the form not only of good offices, but also economic incentives in the form of debt relief and technical assistance to help Ethiopia, Eritrea, and even Sudan and Somalia, recover from war, human and environmental degradation. The Superpowers could provide the incentives to encourage the development of the economic integration of the Horn and its environs. This would set the stage for a lasting peace not only in Eritrea, but in the region as whole. No matter what the Soviets do, African Americans should make sure that the US gets busy in trying to find a negotiated settlement to not only the Eritrean question, but also the other civil conflicts in the Horn of Africa.
Edmond J. Keller a contributing editor of ER, Professor of Political Science at UCLA and President Elect of the African Studies Association. Among his more recent works are: Revolutionary Ethiopia and Afro-Marxist Regimes: Ideology and Public Policy.