By Dr Yacob Haile-Mariam
While we may cautiously rejoice over the new day that has dawned on Ethiopia in recent months with tantalizing promises, we unfortunately cannot say the same thing about Eritrea. Nonetheless we cannot wait until Eritrea is on the same keel with Ethiopia in matters of democracy and other elements which characterize each of the two countries.
It is now a common knowledge that the two fraternal countries Ethiopia and Eritrea have been marooned in no war no peace quagmire. While this situation may be preferable to the possible slaughter of tens of thousands of young men and women in a useless war, it is nonetheless a situation which cannot be sustained for long. It may explode into a conflagration any day without notice. It is therefore absolutely necessary to come to some sort of negotiation and settlement without delay.
In this effort to restore peace kudos is due to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy for initiating a call for peace which we hope and pray his counterpart President Isayas will reciprocate with similar gesture. It is our fervent hope that the two leaders will totally expunge war as a means for settling conflict between the two fraternal peoples. It is incumbent on all Ethiopians to encourage and support our Prime Minister (my first time in my life to say my Prime Minister) in his effort to bring about peace between these two countries whose destinies are inextricably intertwined not only by blood but also by geo-political realities prevailing in the region. After all
both are referred to as by some protagonists as “habash” followed by poisonous reptile. It is our hope that Eritreans will also stand up and be counted just as their Ethiopian counterparts in favor of peace and brotherhood.
Congratulations is due to the young and not so young people at home and abroad who in recent years have taken up peace and reconciliation as the the only way out of the quagmire the two countries have been plunged into by myopic leaders who could not see beyond the tip of their noses. In this effort I am tempted to mention the indefatigable Prof.Tesfatsion Medhane who from day one has been struggling to bring these countries closer together despite the fact that so many anti unity forces were stacked against him.
The dangerous stalemate existing now is the consequence of involving foreigners in the mediation and settlement of the conflict following the 1998-2000 war which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of young people on both sides. The Algiers Agreement which was brokered by a longtime enemy of Ethiopia Abdelaziz Bouteflika who worked all his life to the dismantlement of Ethiopia in fact widened the chasm instead of closing or narrowing the gap and bringing them closer. The Agreement and the decision of the Border Commission established by both Eritrea and Ethiopia never addressed vital issues such as giving Eritreans free access to the vast Ethiopian market and allowing them to invest in Ethiopia if they wished. The greatest lacuna in the Agreement and decision was however the failure to address Ethiopia’s right of access to the sea through its own port of Assab. While Ethiopia pays more than two billion dollars a year to Djibouti for port services and its security is always under threat any agreement for durable peace without addressing the issue of Ethiopia’s access to the sea through its own port is indeed a pipe dream because no country willingly subjects itself to be asphyxiated within a walking distance to the sea. Ethiopia has the dubious distinction of being the largest landlocked country in the world with the shortest distance to the sea.
The Border Commission indeed delineated the border assigning Badme to Eritrea as per the agreement between Ethiopia and Italy. However Badme had always been under the Ethiopian administration, the people paying tax to the Ethiopian authorities, being represented in the Ethiopian Parliament and Italian or Eritrean Government never contesting Ethiopian ownership. Under these situations Eritrea is interdicted from raising the question of ownership under the legal theory known as “effectivite’” which means one cannot lay a claim to anything it had abandoned for a long time and it has been under use by another person with the knowledge of the original owner. The lawyers representing Ethiopia never raised the matter and therefore the Commission awarded Badme to Eritrea. This is just one example among many where Ethiopia gave away its rights because of poor representation of Ethiopia at the Commission. The Commission as per the Algiers Agreement was required to delineate and demarcate the border between the two countries. This meant drawing lines on paper showing the border and planting border markers such as pillars.However Ato Isayas kicked out the UN Peace Keeping Force which was entrusted with the enforcement and supervision of the work of the Commission. The Border Commission fearing for its safety followed suit and packed and left the area without demarcating the border as was required by the Algiers Agreement.Therefore the assignment of Badme to Eritrea is not a done deal yet even by the reckoning of the Border Commission.
For lasting peace and for restoring the brotherhood that existed between Ethiopians and Eritreans the Algiers Agreement and the decision of the Border Commission should be scrapped and denounced by both parties. The Agreement and the Border Commissiondecision were based on illegal colonial treaties which the UN abrogated in 1947, Italy renounced them after its defeat in war and Ethiopia cancelled them in 1952 by Order 6/1952 published in the Negarit Gazetta. Therefore the Agreement and the Border Decision are ab initio illegal and therefore null and void. In addition equality of arms between the two countries did not exist as nobody represented Ethiopia’s interest in earnest. In fact Ethiopian representatives objected to the assignment of Tsorena to Ethiopia and forced the judges of the Commission to award it to Eritrea.
Finally Eritrea and Ethiopia should not seek external mediators for settling the conflict they are mired in now. This is a quarrel within a family and as such should be settled by elders and intellectuals of the two countries who traditionally are quite adept in settling conflicts. While I have full confidence in our Prime Minister I hope Ato Isayas realizes that this is hopefully a new day in Ethiopia where the interest of the country reigns supreme as opposed to parochial ethnic interest which has been leading our country down a dark alley.
The writer, Dr Yacob Haile-Mariam, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org