Africa’s forgotten war
For two years Ethiopia and Eritrea fought over a rugged border in what became the 20th century’s last great conventional war. But the question remains: who won?
For two years Eritrea and Ethiopia fought bitterly over the disputed border
The 1990s offered little respite for Africa, with bloodshed and disorder carving a destructive path from Freetown to Mogadishu. As the decade neared its end one of the continent’s youngest states was proving to be a difficult neighbour. Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 after 32 years of struggle against Ethiopia, which had itself almost collapsed following the overthrow of its Soviet-backed Marxist Derg regime in 1985 and the subsequent internal conflicts that followed.
When Eritrea’s tough freedom fighters, clad in their iconic leather sandals, seized the colonial city of Asmara in 1991, a new state was cobbled together under the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and its taciturn strongman Isaias Afwerki. But as ideal as the country’s territory looked on the map – flanked by the Red Sea on one side and a tranquil land border with Sudan on the other – Eritrea was soon bickering with neighbouring countries over unclaimed land, first with Djibouti over their overlapping geography, next with Yemen because of uninhabited islands, and then with its former nemesis Ethiopia, as a new border couldn’t be drawn up between them.
The borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia did resemble a jagged scrawl on any map. Stretching almost 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) from end to end, it followed a colonialera boundary that didn’t reflect the region’s demographics. During the 1970s the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which was perhaps the finest guerrilla army since the Viet Minh, sought to roll back the Derg regime’s control over its homeland. Eritrean resistance began as a revolt against the late Emperor
Haile Selassie’s inept governance over the former Italian colony. The EPLF emerged from a collection of rebel groups with a pan-eritrean nationalist agenda. Even the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, who undertook a precarious trip to Eritrea in the 1980s, couldn’t stop himself from praising the organisation’s civic virtues and unfailing discipline. The Eritrean patriots he met dug caves out of mountainsides to turn them into hospitals and provided free
schooling for the fighters, whose apparel was often made form sacks and assorted clothing.
As the EPLF’S power grew in the fortified mountains of northern Eritrea, it slowly forged an alliance with the Tigray dissidents in Ethiopia who were also chafing under the Derg’s harsh rule. When the EPLF finally drove back the
Derg forces from Eritrea’s cities, the Tigrayan rebels launched the final push that drove the hated dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam into exile and supplanted the regime dominated by the Amhara ethnic group.
In that moment of tumult, two new countries were fashioned, and the near future looked promising. Prospects for trade and co-operation were good and Eritrea could possibly assume the role of transit hub for landlocked Ethiopia, which was now governed by Tigrayan reformists.
But the once-budding relationship soured over a town called Badme, located along the western edge of a border region known as the Yirga Triangle. Exactly where did this bothersome settlement fall? In the Eritrean capital Asmara the regime made it clear, through official statements and the local press, that Badme was Eritrean. Whatever the arguments, in May 1998 thousands of Eritrean troops converged on the town to enforce Asmara’s will just days after Ethiopian guards shot a delegation of visiting Eritrean officers. To nobody’s surprise, the arrival of thousands of Eritrean soldiers triggered a belligerent
“IN WHAT PROVED THE MOST INTENSE FIGHTING IN EAST AFRICA SINCE WWII, THE ETHIOPIANS SOUGHT TO DRIVE AWAY THE ENTRENCHED ERITREANS WITH SOVIET-VINTAGE TANKS AND ARTILLERY, BUT THESE EFFORTS WERE BLUNTED BY DETERMINED RESISTANCE”
response from Ethiopia, and a protracted battle was soon underway. Within weeks the meagre air forces of both countries struck each other. Ethiopian jets attacked the airport in Asmara while the Eritreans bombed a school in the city of Mekelle.
In what proved the most intense fighting in East Africa since WWII, the Ethiopians sought to drive away the entrenched Eritreans with Soviet-vintage tanks and artillery, but these efforts were blunted by determined resistance. The Eritreans, whose veteran leadership had fought in the long and difficult struggle for independence, were not going to back down, and sent thousands more troops to the front. As the fighting dragged on for weeks, the
international community barely mustered a response to this latest African quagmire. It had been just four years since the Rwandan genocide and in 1998 the drama of Kosovo’s own struggle against Serbia commanded Western primetime news coverage.
But at the very least the United States, through its State Department, tried in vain to diffuse the war. A ceasefire drawn up with help from the Rwandan government sought to cool Asmara and Addis Ababa’s grievances. Yet a settlement couldn’t be agreed on beyond the promise of an ‘air strike moratorium’, where both capitals swore to avoid bombing each other’s populated areas.
Fighting continued for the rest of the year as the armies hurled artillery rounds at each other from fixed positions, with the Eritreans using captured stocks of howitzers seized during the war of independence. As a means of further retaliation, mass deportations were carried out on Eritreans living in Ethiopia. Of course, Eritrea responded in kind by forcing Ethiopians to leave the country.
As the war dragged on for months, the penury of the belligerents had a strange effect on the actual fighting. At the time Eritrea was ranked among the ten poorest countries in the world. This was understandable, since its underdevelopment was caused by decades of civil strife. But to put its economy in perspective, Eritrea’s only rail network – a late 19th-century relic from its colonial past under Italian administration – was revived by the persistent efforts of elderly workers with help from the army. Local industries were little more than sweatshops for basic goods and so little infrastructure was usable.
At the outbreak of the war, neighbouring Ethiopia had an annual GDP below $10 billion and half its population lived in poverty, but its size and positive demographics compensated for its underdevelopment. Under the leadership of Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) relations with the West were restored and Addis Ababa was seen as a key actor in regional stability. But the unexpected border conflict with Eritrea dimmed its aspirations, and the state’s
“ETHIOPIA HAD SUFFICIENTLY MOBILISED ITS RESERVES AND REPLENISHED ITS ARSENAL. IT NOW HAD, ON PAPER, 250,000 SOLDIERS READY WITH HUNDREDS OF TANKS AND ARMOURED VEHICLES”
precious supply of foreign exchange went to arms shipments from China and Eastern Europe. The biggest expense went to 14 advanced Sukhoi Su-27 multirole fighters. These twinengine aircraft were seen as critical investments at a time when the Ethiopian air force’s assorted Migs were showing their age.
In 1999 the war entered a new phase, as Ethiopia had sufficiently mobilised its reserves and replenished its arsenal. It now had, on paper, 250,000 soldiers ready with hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles.
Not to be outdone, the Eritreans mustered an equal number and fielded heavy weapons cannibalised from leftover stocks from the war of independence. True to the egalitarian values of their independence movement, women were deployed alongside men in the Eritrean military, and foreign journalists grew a habit of mentioning how one-fifith of those conscripted for national service were women. Asmara also scrambled to strengthen its arsenal and imported vast quantities of munitions from Eastern Europe. Little could be done, however, to blunt Ethiopian airpower on the frontlines since there weren’t sufficient anti-aircraft weapons available.
But Ethiopia’s war plans quickly bogged down owing to its shabby logistics. Fleets of trucks had to be commissioned for transporting its manpower, who were often ill-trained and carried no rations, and when motor transport was lacking thousands of pack animals were
“IT WAS DIFFICULT TO ASCERTAIN THE WAR’S DEFINITIVE OUTCOME BEYOND THE HYSTERICAL PROPAGANDA SPREAD BY THE BELLIGERENTS”
gathered in long caravans to haul food and ammunition. Despite the modern weaponry it moved against the Eritreans, the forthcoming battles seemed closer in spirit to the doomed Italian campaigns against the Abyssinian empire in the late 19th century.
In what was named Operation Sunset, on 23 February 1999 thousands of troops were thrown into battle against the Eritreans in the Yirga Triangle, who had put their own knowledge to good use by building elaborate fortifications along the border. After four days of combat, Addis Ababa made sure to inform the international press that the offensive had resulted in an overwhelming victory.
But there was scant evidence of this on the frontlines, which were unchanged. One of the curious encounters of the battle was a minor air engagement. As neither country had sizable air forces, the few jets that were utilised often played cat and mouse over the sun-drenched terrain. In one particular duel, an Ethiopian Su-27 intercepted a MIG-29UB and shot it out of the sky with its cannon. Upon landing, the Sukhoi pilot was hailed for a unique distinction: Captain Aster Tolossa became the first woman to confirm an air-to-air kill in a fighter jet. Distinctions were scarce on the ground, however, as the fighting usually left staggering body counts and murky outcomes.
A much larger assault took place a month after Operation Sunset in a different location 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the Yirga Triangle. The objective this time was another border settlement named Tsorona. Once again, the Eritreans held fast. A precise account of the events in this battle has yet to surface, but what has been pieced together from disparate reportage offers up a chilling chronicle. Like Operation Sunset before it, the Ethiopians massed their forces and sent them in waves against the enemy. The outcome was grisly, as the Eritreans – young men and women with just weeks of training – witnessed the first human wave get annihilated by land mines. The assaults that followed were mowed down by artillery and machine-gun fire. During the night and early morning the combat moved to close quarters, and when the Eritreans began their counterattack they wiped out the remaining Ethiopian units, including their baggage train of donkeys and horses.
The battle for Tsorona may have seen the complete loss of several Ethiopian divisions. Apparently, the high command in Addis Ababa never conceived a plan of using their attack aircraft, helicopters and tanks to pierce the Eritrean lines. Groups of journalists who were given tours around the Tsorona front witnessed the carnage. Thousands of uncollected bodies were left strewn on the sand and rocks, sometimes piled in dreadful rows, baking under the unforgiving heat. The Ethiopian army didn’t have a proper system for collecting its war dead, and the horrific losses were broadcast and published by the world’s press agencies.
Both sides were loathe to admit how crucial the Tsorona campaign was. If the Ethiopians had prevailed, their army would have seized the roads leading to Asmara, allowing them to threaten the very existence of the Eritrean state. While the Ethiopian commanders did fail to meet any objective, once a new round of peace talks was opened the Eritreans were more receptive than during the previous year. Owing to the impenetrable propaganda broadcast by Eritrean television and government-controlled newspapers, it’s still a matter of speculation if the Eritrean military was indeed broken in Tsorona – having suffered their own crippling losses during the days of hard fighting, and no longer having enough supplies to prosecute the war.
As the months dragged on the Eritreans seemed overjoyed at symbolic instances such as collecting prisoners of war or downing the occasional enemy aircraft. In the middle of 1999 an Ethiopian Mi-24 attack helicopter was destroyed over the eastern border running parallel to the Red Sea. Journalists were immediately transported to the site and shown the burnt wreckage, including the charred bodies of its crew. The Eritrean soldiers present, attired in their motley uniforms, danced around the fallen helicopter and celebrated as if a mortal blow had been dealt to their foes.
A reluctant peace
“A PRECISE ACCOUNT OF THE EVENTS IN THIS BATTLE HAS YET TO SURFACE, BUT WHAT HAS BEEN PIECED TOGETHER FROM DISPARATE REPORTAGE OFFERS UP A CHILLING CHRONICLE”
The fighting did come to a halt after the UN successfully brokered a ceasefire in Algiers on 18 June 2000 and a token unit of peacekeepers arrived in Ethiopia to separate the belligerents. On 12 December that same year a peace agreement was signed, ending the war. An absurd condition of the agreement was keeping the useless arms embargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia in place. In Ethiopia, for example, the embargo was shelved a few years later when Addis Ababa agreed to help the US
military pacify Somalia as part of the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’. This meant Ethiopia could import weapons again and even receive free deliveries sanctioned by the US, and had a mandate to send its army abroad.
As part of the Algiers agreement a small peacekeeping force was deployed to Badme and other disputed areas to guarantee that both sides demobilised. The effort had limited success. Even when the Hague ruled that Badme was inside Eritrean territory an Ethiopian garrison remained in the town. This frustrated the work of the 5,000 peacekeepers who formed the UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). The unit’s mission was to preserve the Algiers agreement and demilitarise the shared border. But as logistical support from Eritrea and Ethiopia dwindled, so did the project’s long term feasibility. UNMEE was ended in 2008, and since then the border has become tense once more.
One of the war’s more problematic outcomes is ascertaining who won. To this day, Eritrea insists it emerged victorious because its troops slaughtered thousands of Ethiopians, and Eritrean propaganda claims that armed citizens blunted a full-scale invasion to re-occupy their land. But Eritrea fared worse in the years after the war. Isaias Afwerki’s iron grip on the PFDJ allowed him to rule as a dictator for life, and the country embraced a bizarre economic program focused on self-sufficiency. The oppressive national service led to widespread discontent as many Eritreans were torn from their families and jobs, disappearing for years in the dreadful conscription system.
But Ethiopia prospered in the ensuing decades as a magnet for foreign investment and a model of stability in a rough region.
It was Eritrea that turned rogue, keeping its army mobilised for years on end and burning its bridges with the international community. In what amounts to a complete failure to reconcile, 20 years after the Badme question neither Asmara or Addis Ababa bothered to convene and establish new borders, which means the same conflict could erupt again at any point.
This already happened in June 2016 when a pitched battle was fought in Tsorona, the
“WITH SO MANY STUDENTS AND PROFESSIONALS TRAPPED IN UNIFORM, THE ERITREAN STATE HAS MANAGED TO CRIPPLE ITS ECONOMY AND FREE ENTERPRISE”
same settlement that was the site of the last war’s most gruelling battle. The clash couldn’t have come at a worse time, as both Eritrea and Ethiopia were – and still are – reeling from domestic troubles. In the latter’s case, decades of one-party rule by the EPRDF inflamed tensions between ethnic Amhara and Oromo, who feel they’ve been harshly marginalised by the current Tigray-dominated government.
In 2018 the spectre of widespread civil unrest spreading across Ethiopia’s cities forced the EPRDF to fast-track the rise of a new leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is tasked with charting a way out of the current crisis. Unfortunately, in what amounts to a standard ploy by less-than-democratic regimes, the EPRDF has also assigned some blame to Eritrea for its present troubles.
The ultimate consequence of the bloody two years Ethiopia and Eritrea spent fighting each other was how much was left unresolved despite the losses incurred by each side. Like so many other frozen conflicts, the murky borderlands separating Eritrea and Ethiopia will likely remain a flash point for years to come.
To prosecute the war, Ethiopia mobilised thousands of reservists and militiamen, who were thrown straight into battle. Many perished during the conflict
An Ethiopian soldier carries a PSL sniper rifle as he moves along the disputed border
ABOVE: Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has been in power since 1993. Known for his prickly disposition, under his leadership Eritrea became a regional pariah
Old Soviet T-55 medium tanks proved invaluable in the gruelling stalemate of the 1998-2000 war. Both sides used tanks as mobile fortifications to shore up their ever-shifting defensive lines
Strong discipline and coordination allowed the Eritrean military to hold their own against the numerically superior Ethiopians. An offensive by the latter in February 1999 collapsed within days in the face of determined resistance
The dismal economies of the belligerents meant the war was punctuated by many long pauses where neither side could afford to attack the other
Eritrean migrants gathered in huge numbers in ‘The Jungle’ camp in Calais, fleeing poverty and repression in their home country