Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

4th June 2000

Two bald men fighting over a comb

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NEW YORK A senseless border war between two one-time allies in the Horn of Africa has been aptly described as a fight between two bald men over a comb.

Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of the world's poorest countries, are embroiled in a war which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people in a region plagued by drought, famine and natural disasters.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Issias Aferwerki were once close friends who fought side by side in a 30-year guerrilla war to overthrow the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In 1991, when the pro-Soviet Mengistu government fell, the new Ethiopian government led by Zenawi willingly gave Eritrea its independence.

But the new nation state, which formally came into existence in April 1993, lasted only five years. The beneficiary and benefactor went to war over a border dispute that broke out in May 1998.

The conflict has some relevance to Sri Lanka because Eritrea is one of the few countries whose creation was the result of a separatist war that has now gone awry.

The dispute between the two nations is over a 400 square kilometre rocky triangle of land deemed worthless. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls the conflict "an incomprehensible war".

"There can be no justification for such large scale death and suffering, especially at a time when both countries are wracked by drought and hunger," he said last week.

Described as one of the world's largest conflicts involving an estimated 600,000 troops the war has also resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and displaced over 60,000 civilians.

Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun, the UN Special Representative mediating the dispute, has called it the most devastating war in Africa in terms of the number of people killed.

Fearing escalation of an already intense war between the two neighbours, the UN Security Council last month imposed an arms embargo on Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The resolution, which was adopted unanimously, bans the sale or supply to Ethiopia and Eritrea of a wide range of military equipment, including ammunition, military vehicles, paramilitary equipment and even spares.

The 15-member Security Council, which includes key arms suppliers to sub-Saharan Africa, decided to cut off all military supplies to the two countries in order to force the two warring parties to the negotiating table.

Before the embargo was imposed, Russia and some of the Eastern European nations were selling weapons to both sides in the conflict.

Conscious of the rising military expenditures in both countries, Western nations have been reluctant to provide food and humanitarian assistance.

Last month the German government criticised both Ethiopia and Eritrea for spending millions of dollars on their border war at a time when monies could have been channelled into food supplies.

"It is extremely hard to understand that while these governments are spending considerable resources on armed conflict, they are at the same time calling on the international community to aid their suffering population," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer complained.

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, has delivered at least six fighter aircraft to Eritrea and eight to Ethiopia, all of them in 1998.

The Russian-made MiG fighter planes have been deployed by both countries in dog fights over sub-Saharan skies. Ethiopia has also taken delivery of 50 T-55 battle tanks from Bulgaria and 40 from Belarus.

The United States, another permanent member of the Security Council, supplied four Lockheed C-130 military transports to Ethiopia during 1995-1996. All four were secondhand aircraft provided cost-free under American legislation designated "Excess Defense Articles."

Eritrea has a population of only about 3.9 million compared with Ethiopia's 60 million people. The battle has been uneven although hard fought.

After the ouster of the Marxist regime, the new Ethiopian government also launched a bold new experiment under which regional and ethnic groups were given the right to secede, if they so chose.

Under the present constitution, Ethiopia has legally recognised the sovereign rights of every one of its more than 80 ethnic groups in the country.

But other African nations warned Ethiopia that its experiment could lead to the unravelling of one of the basic political tenets of the 54-member Organisation of African Unity (OAU), namely that of safeguaring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the new nation states carved out of a colonial past.

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