Eritrea has not known prolonged peace since the late Emperor Haile Selassie annexed it to make it Ethiopia’s 14th province in 1961. The country then had to endure through a 30 year war of independence that cost thousands of lives and a lot of resources for both sides.
Relief came in 1991 with the ouster of Haile Selassie’s murderous successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1991. The new government chose not to continue laying claim on the region, even though it meant that Ethiopia would end up being landlocked. After a UN organized referendum, Eritrea declared its independence in 1993. But in 1998, war broke out again over disputed border territory. The war ended in a UN mediated truce in 2002 that handed most of the disputed territory to Eritrea. Naturally, Ethiopia failed to acknowledge this ruling and instead sent more troops to the volatile border region.
Right now, there are about 1700 UN peace keepers sandwiched between just below 300,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. Each side is talking of the potential annihilation of the adversary if the situation ever degenerates into a full out war. There seems to be a real threat of a return of bloodshed, especially over areas like Badme and Baru. It is hard to imagine that just less than two decades ago the leaders of the two countries were allies in their guerilla struggle against the oppressive regime of Mengistu.
If an all out war breaks out, the real casualties will be the ordinary people on both sides of the border – most of whom have already lost loved ones or have been displaced in the previous wars. The onus is on the leaders of the two countries. Prime Minister Zenawi and President Afewerki should not play around with their citizens’ lives just to assuage their egos. The land they are willing to sacrifice their countrymen for is a barren frying pan, to put it mildly.
As it stands the odds do not look good for Eritrea. With a population of 4.4 million and a struggling economy, it can ill-afford a war of attrition against Ethiopia with its 75 million strong population and a recent resurgence of US military support to fight extremists in the region. I have a bad feeling that if war breaks out again, the Ethiopians might just make good of their threat to drive the Eritreans into the Red Sea.