The Eritrea/Ethiopian war is a hard-line war; the antagonists are bereft of any form of communication with each other save via the language of belligerence. The nationalistic nature of the war has polarised the masses of both countries; likewise, the intellectuals of both sides find themselves engaged in a war of ideas presented in the form of international law (Eritrean side) versus historical justification (Ethiopian side).

This hard-line war has not even allowed for the exploration of Chinese style (Ping-Pong) people’s diplomacy. The following article explores an avenue of what can be classified as a variant of people’s diplomacy. People’s diplomacy does not in any way affect the dynamics of official diplomacy negatively; neither does it question nationalist positions. The aim of this article is to highlight certain nuances of the negotiation process in the belief that national interest is best served by peace. Readers are expected to react in a way that lends the sails of peace a whiff of wind.


 In a lecture delivered at the Khartoum Lawyers Club, on March 3rd, 2000, I inserted the following thought regarding the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia:

The Eritrean government sees the conflict as a matter of drawing colonial borders on the ground. The Ethiopian government sees the conflict as a matter of sovereignty and demands Eritrean withdrawal from Ethiopia administered territory. If it is not too late in the day, negotiators are advised to seek a solution to the stated positions by applying the methodology of using vintage political terms in new political situations. It is quite possible that pressures for Regional Union will transform the political content of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’.

  1. The Eritrean government based its claims on the established principle that colonial boundaries of yesterday are the international boundaries of today. In this regard the UN, the OAU, and the international community concur with the Eritrean position.
  2. The Ethiopian Government bases its claims on the credo that uncontested administration over Badume (the disputed territory) should be reinstated before the boundary question is tackled.
  3. The Rwanda/US peace proposal took into account the claims of both contestants. That is to say: a) Eritrea should abandon areas previously administered by Ethiopia, so that b) disputed areas claimed by Eritrea may be demarcated by international agencies and supported by the international community.

The difference of emphasis of the Eritrean and Ethiopian positions seems to have been the basis of the Rwanda US proposal. The Eritrean position can be abridged to mean: ‘since we are in control over our territory what remains is demarcation on the ground by courtesy of the OAU and the UN.’ The Ethiopian position can be summarised to mean: ‘the re-instatement of our sovereignty over territory previously under our administration precedes demarcation.’

The commencement of the military conflagration between the two neighbours rendered the Rwanda/US peace proposal redundant. The Rwanda/US peace proposal had the advantages of triggering the possible withdrawal of the Ethiopian declaration of war and the retention of the continued goodwill and engagement of the US as a key player in resolving the conflict.

During the lifetime of the Rwanda/US proposal there was hope of avoiding war and confining the conflict within manageable limits. The commencement of full-scale warfare has thrown up new dimensions that go beyond the original premises of the conflict. To the issues of the border conflict have been added issues of warfare. Disentangling issues of the war and its consequences from the issues of border conflict is an essential threshold to be crossed in the process of resolving the armed conflict at hand: Some the consequences of the war are:

  1. Both sides have armed themselves for air and ground warfare at a scale not witnessed since the Iraqi/Iranian war.
  2. Armed Ethiopian and Eritrean youth are massed all along the border; prime human resource has been wasted and still remains exposed to further mass-death.
  3. In the name of national security Eritrean nationals have been expatriated from Ethiopia.
  4. The Development and Welfare Funds of both countries have been diminished to a dangerous level.
  5. The victory of one side over the other might result in the hegemony of one state over Northeast Africa; alternatively, the continuation of the war might spell the ‘Somalization’ and ‘retribilization’of the region.
  6. Politically, the agenda of constitutional and multi-party democracy is likely to be delayed or distorted.
  7. By the same logic, interminable warfare can not but delay the future commonwealth cooperation between Eritrea and Ethiopia.


In what central way does the Algiers Model differ from the Rwanda/US Model? The Algiers deliberations (as opposed to those of Burkina Faso) were conducted under circumstances where a relatively manageable conflict had already been transformed into a full-scale warfare. Secondly, and not less importantly, Ethiopia recaptured Badume and put new Eritrean territory under its control.

At the Algiers conference, the Ethiopians expressed the view that part of their objective has already been achieved by force of arms; consequently, they forwarded the new position that there remained only the question of the unilateral withdrawal of Eritrean troops from other areas previously administered by it.

The Algiers Model balanced the demand for Eritrean withdrawal (from the remaining, previously Ethiopia administered areas) by linking it to Ethiopian withdrawal from newly acquired territories in Eritrea. Modalities were formulated with the objective of facilitating the work of peace forces in the difficult task of implementing the Algiers peace package.

It, somehow, appears that the Algiers Model operated as if the war did not raise overwhelming issues and changes in the territorial tug-of-war. Is it really possible for peace forces to execute the heavy schema of the Algiers peace package in an atmosphere of total confrontation? It appears that the in-built suspicion of the two armies (that have tasted war and are rearing to go at each other’s jugular) made the Algiers project a non-starter despite sincere commitment on the part of Eritrea.

Another possible reason for the bad start of the Algiers Model was its failure to separate issues of war from the original causes of conflict. Future negotiators need to separate the de-escalation of the war and gradual disarmament from the other issues enumerated above.

Under the new circumstances, priority should be given to the frightening consequences (escalation and high-tech armament) generated by the war, while keeping sight of the original causes as a constant. The first aim ought to be to attain an ironclad agreement that prevents a new round of fighting from breaking out. That achieved the second aim should be to remove the threat of war by mutual de-escalation and disarmament. The third aim should be directed towards the removing of the defence lines of the antagonists from their present forward, explosive, positions. The question is: under what negotiating context is this tall order acceptable? For this we need to explore the statements made by Ethiopian leaders regarding conditions for peace.


The reaction of the Ethiopians has been: ‘let us go back to the status quo ante or to the situation that pertained before the conflict’. Let us now explore what the status quo ante argument holds for peace.

An oft-repeated demand by the leaders of the Ethiopian government has been: ‘you Eritreans know the areas you have occupied; withdraw without further ado if you wish the peace process to commence’. Negotiators need to take note of the fact that there are two status quo antes: 1) the status quo ante that obtained before the conflict and declaration of war, and 2) the status quo ante that obtained before the war. The Ethiopian proposition ought to be of interest to negotiators if only because it is linked to the core of the Rwanda/US Model.

For the peace process to be launched both sides of the conflict need to declare categorically their willingness to return to the original status quo ante. The major objection to the Ethiopian demand of unilateral withdrawal by Eritrea is that a programme of withdrawal does not accompany it. In the absence of such measures the Eritrean government and the Eritrean people can only interpret unilateral withdrawal as unilateral surrender.

The Ethiopian interpretation of the status quo ante may give a negotiated settlement a fighting chance if the following programme accompanies it:

  1. The first step should be the acceptance of a revised version of the Rwanda/US Model.
  2. The second step should be the acceptance of withdrawal by the Eritrean government from areas previously administered by the Ethiopian government.
  3. The third step ought to be the formulation of a joint and formal scheme of de-escalation, disarmament, scaling down of forces, and withdrawal from forward positions
  4. The final step should be the specification of a mutually acceptable timetable for the demarcation of the international border between the two contestant states.

The effort of the negotiators should be aimed at returning to the situation that obtained prior to the commencement of the war. All other outstanding issues such as war indemnities, deportees, and the like, should be detached from the issues of the war and projected to the relations that shall obtain during the post-war period.

Failure of a negotiated settlement of the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict entails resigning to the possibility of one side knocking down the other or both sides collapsing from the burdens of war; in both cases, a dismal future can be predicted. This scenario is too grim to consider; that is why a return to a revised version of the Rwanda/US Model should be considered seriously by both negotiators and the parties to the conflict.

The peace process should direct its efforts toward the benefits of future cooperation. Territorial integrity and sovereignty are central; but they need not be treated as chastity belts. The day will come when ethnic nationalism will be mellowed by co-operation.

In the perspective of commonwealth cooperation, territory may be treated as both a demarcation point of sovereignty, and as a contact point between neighbours for the transit of men, goods, and services. Thus, devastation forestalled today is investment for tomorrow. History teaches time and time again that what appears to be a matter of life and death today might appear as sheer madness tomorrow.

STOCKHOLM, 2 000-04-08

HERUI TEDLA BAIRU: a political scientist, is one of the founders, organizers, and theoreticians of the Ethiopian Students Movement (ESM) in the early 1960’s. He was the Vice President of the Eritrean Liberation Front and the head of its Political Bureau for the period 1971-75. Later, he, became the General Secretary of the Eritrean Democratic Movement (1977-90). After independence Herui served as a member of the Eritrean parliament. He later became Secretary General of the Eritrean Alliance, consisting of sixteen organizations, for the period 2002-2005. He is presently the chairman of the influential Eritrean Congress Party.

Disclaimer: The author of this article is a member of the Board of Directors of the Forum for National Dialogue, but the views and opinions expressed in this article are his only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Forum for National Dialogue. FND does not espouse any official policy or position on any issues. Members of the Board are free to express any opinion they hold.

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