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The Tragedy in the Horn

by Kole Kilibarda 6/20/00

 The images are appalling: trench warfare, rows of soldier's corpses lined up under a searing African sun, deaths in the tens of thousands, and the notion that some 9-million people are threatened with famine while the elites in Ethiopia and Eritrea try outdoing each other in rhetorical flourishes and bravado. And all this death and mayhem is apparently over a "meaningless patch of ground" in what is merely a "border conflict" between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a conflict which "Western leaders have condemned and want to see come to an end."

At least this is the dominant image that we get if we listen to the Western media. The image of this conflict reinforces the old European racist notions of Africans as irrational and prone to outbursts of senseless and brutal violence. It makes us believe that Africans will fight over anything and that only with the help of the more "rational" or "developed" states in the West can Africa achieve stability.

The reason I write this is to counter the propaganda that intends to impose such simple dichotomies. In order to do this we also need to counter completely false notions perpetrated by some peace-activists that Eritrea is an innocent victim of US backed aggression, because this narrative serves to: 1) obscure the true extent of specifically American support in the creation of a militaristic and aggressive Eritrean client state, 2) to pin-the blame on Ethiopia, one of the least deserving targets of blame for the present hostilities in the Horn, and 3) to hide the extent of the West's criminal involvement in the Horn and in the rest of Africa.

Naturally those trying to convince us that Ethiopia is simply doing the bidding of Washington omit one very important fact: US backing, training and financing of the Aferweki regime in Eritrea! In fact, as indicated recently in the Washington Post, the World Bank and the United States have fuelled the conflict over the past two years from both ends by releasing some $1-billion in quick disbursement loans which both countries used for the purchase of weapons and to pay for military advisors. The criminal nature of Western involvement in Africa clashes with the image and spin of our leaders as concerned humanitarians simply reacting with good intentions to crisis after crisis. In fact the seldom-seen but very real fact of Western powers deliberately engineering instability abroad is a lot closer to the truth. It is important that antiwar activists understand the real dynamics of these conflicts because they help counter the racist dichotomies our media tries to perpetrate when it comes to Africa.

Eritrea The Hammer of the Great Powers

Since independence in 1993 Eritrea has clashed with ALL of its neighbors: Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, and of course Ethiopia have all fallen victims to Eritrean aggressions. Eritrea is a heavily militarized one party dictatorship fully backed by the United States. While we are often told that Ethiopia is financing the current conflict at the expense of a starving populace, official figures would suggest the opposite. Ethiopia spends only 2% of its GDP on arms while 8 million Ethiopians (almost 15% of its population) are threatened with famine as a result of Western imposed neoliberal economic mismanagement. Eritrea, on the other hand, at the behest of its handlers in Washington has consistently spent upwards of 20% of its GDP on its military while nearly 1-million Eritreans (almost 30% of its population) are also threatened with famine. Meanwhile, the Western media consistently focuses on Ethiopia for such criminal behavior.

As mentioned above Eritrea has clashed with all its neighbors. But why would Eritrea undermine the interests of its neighbors in order to fulfill the cruel foreign policy machinations of Washington? To longtime observers of the region Eritrean provocations come as no surprise. Since the 1991 overthrow of the Mengitsu government by the combined forces of the EPRDF (TPLF) (the current government in Ethiopia) and the EPLF (the current government in Eritrea) the US has invested a lot of money in building up security networks along the Red Sea ports of what became Eritrea in 1993. Washington is preoccupied with neutralizing potential or real anti-Western movements and governments in the Horn of Africa.

American multinationals also naturally covet the rich resources of Eritrea's Red Sea coast such as oil, gold and natural gas and would rather deal with a country of 3.5 million people than a country of 65 million with a tradition of anti-imperialism. To this end Eritrea was used during the 1990s as a staging ground for the US backed incursions into Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan in an attempt to stamp out movements hostile to the US and to control recalcitrant states. One could even say that Eritrea, by assisting the US operation in Somalia, played a crucial war in the development of the notion of "humanitarian intervention."

US intelligence operatives, consultants, and trainers have been dispatched to Eritrea and Ethiopia since 1991 to fulfill specific foreign policy objectives in this geostrategic region. In 1996 Eritrea went so far as to produce a 1935 map drawn unilaterally by Benito Mussolini to press territorial demands upon Djibouti. International legal experts rejected the Eritrean claims immediately and the Organization of African Unity condemned the action.

If one considers the history of an independent Eritrea however these pro-imperialist actions should come as no surprise. After all "Eritrea" is an Italian creation dating from the end of the 19th century. There is no such thing as an "Eritrean" just as there is no "Ethiopian" because both countries are multicultural and share similar ethnic make-ups. The creation of Eritrea was simply meant as a staging ground for Italian expansionism in the Horn of Africa until the 1940s and to cut off Ethiopian access to the coast. Just look at a map.

This is not to say that the peoples of this Red Sea region do not have a distinct history. Beginning in the 8th century AD Muslim traders and converts managed to establish several kingdoms in the region with varying degrees of autonomy and sometimes independence from the ancient Ethiopian kingdom that has traditionally ruled the region.

The point is, however, that the Italians manufactured the concept of "Eritrean" identity. "Eritrea" as such never existed until the Italians placed it on the map in the late 19th century. This means that the historical narrative that serves to "other" Ethiopian history from that of Eritrea is wholly a legacy of European and fascist colonial rule.

Of course one cannot neglect the existence of a vociferous independence movement in Eritrea, yet this cannot be divorced from attempts by Soviet and then American administrations during the Cold War to destabilize consecutive Ethiopian governments that didn't fit either of the great-powers plans in controlling the Horn. The current Eritrean leadership sees its role in destabilizing Ethiopia for Soviet and then American administrations during the Cold War as entitling it to regional dominance. This arrogant stance is behind calls for Eritrean hegemony over the Horn and has been used as an element in justifying its attacks on its neighbors.

The Conflict

In late 1997 Eritrea ruptured its cordial relations with Ethiopia through the introduction of an Eritrean currency. This disruption in normal relations between the two states was followed in the spring of 1998 by Eritrea's invasion of Ethiopia, calling once again upon maps produced by Mussolini to press its claim to the Badme region. Ethiopia responded as any state would to the invasion of its territory by attempting to dislodge the occupation force.

The international communities reaction was muted. A joint American and Rwandan peace initiative stated that Eritrea should withdraw but no sanctions or threats were made to realize this demand. There was no incentive produced for Eritrea to withdraw, in fact the loudest discussion was about imposing an arms embargo in order to punish both states for Eritrean aggression.

It is a well-known principle of international law that boundaries cannot be changed by force. However, this principle was clearly broken by the Eritreans precisely at a time when US diplomacy was initiating its attempt to sideline sovereign rights worldwide. The US was threatening Iraq with intervention and by the summer US missiles hit Afghanistan and Sudan and were beginning to threaten Yugoslavia.

Ethiopians were incensed that the international community, although chiding the Eritrean aggression, tried to mute its criticism of an occupying army. The fact that this occupation was based on fascist-era precedent created a psychological climate in Ethiopia of fear and outrage that the outside world no longer objected to such behavior. This is no small fear since the rewarding of Italy's fascist aggression against Ethiopia in 1935 led to the dissolution of the League of Nations and the onset of WWII.

The ensuing conflict claimed tens of thousands of lives. Among the first targets of US-trained Eritrean pilots were a pharmaceutical plant and grain storage facility in Adigrat and a cement factory in Meleke, facilities that provided northern Ethiopia with a measure of self-sufficiency in its medical, dietary and construction needs. True to its American handlers Eritrean jets dropped cluster bombs and targeted civilian targets. US-trained Ethiopian pilots retaliated by hitting airstrips in Eritrea and in one case knocking out a water-production facility.

In short order, although both states underwent grueling World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs, the homegrown industries that still offered a measure of self-sufficiency in both countries were destroyed. The destruction and toll on both countries was immense. Population swaps occurred and recently Eritrea has gone so far as to intern military aged Ethiopian men living in Eritrea in collection centers that fail to meet the standards of the Geneva Conventions.

While the fighting raged and arms, credits and assistance to both parties flowed from many sources a "diplomatic" solution was being sought. Instead of pinning blame on Eritrea for opening up hostilities the West blamed Ethiopia for human-rights violations, neglect of its own population and atrocities while the Eritrean government's invasion and similar crimes went largely ignored.

Dispelling the Demonization of Ethiopia

Those who wish to undermine Ethiopian sovereignty have historically resorted to demonizing it. It is no surprise that current anti-Ethiopian propaganda tries to portray Ethiopian political traditions as authoritarian and imperialist and the state as a huge violator of human rights. In Eritrean national mythology, fostered by the Italians, Ethiopia is a colonial aggressor and Eritrea an innocent victim.

Only those unfamiliar with Ethiopia's true significance, and unfortunately there are a lot of us in the West, could fall prey to such distortions. As the oldest sovereign state in Africa, Ethiopia has always stood as a symbol of African independence and resistance to European encroachments. In this vein Ethiopia has inspired generations of black leaders in Africa and in the West. In the 1930s from Harlem, NY to Kingstown, Jamaica theaters where packed with blacks that wanted to learn more about Emperor Haile Silassie and the Ethiopian resistance to Italian fascism.

The colors of Ethiopia's centuries old flag are the official colors of the pan-African movement. In the Rastafarian and Black Nationalist movements, especially those inspired by Marcus Garvey, Ethiopia is equated with a black-Zion. Bob Marley, for instance, saw Ethiopia as a beacon of liberation for blacks, and many African Americans were inspired by its promise.

Ethiopia was instrumental in founding the Organization of African Unity, in pushing for the foundation of the Nonaligned Movement and seeking to improve the lot of black-Africans. Haile Silassie extended universal suffrage to his population, worked to abolish slavery, which continued to exist along the Red Sea and in northern Ethiopia, and sought to inspire Africans to resist those who would divide them.

Naturally reality is much more complex than either the "good" or "bad" image of Ethiopia, but it is important for activists to realize what lies behind the symbolism of Ethiopian sovereignty. An attack on Ethiopia isn't simply an attack on the abstract, although fundamental principal of sovereignty, but also constitutes an attack on what Ethiopian sovereignty has meant to all the peoples of Africa.


The fact is that the entire tenor of popular nationalism in the region is heavily anti-imperialist. This is why both sides, while owing their power to the Americans, need to portray their struggle at least to their domestic constituency as a struggle against the Great Powers. In fact the war only serves the long-term interest of the West and no one else. By crippling these states they will be left open to further foreign interpenetration and dependence. A framework for regional "peace-plans" will seek to consolidate the neoliberal order and the interests of the West in regions with great geopolitical significance. So long as the "facts on the ground" do not conform to the consolidation of this scenario the peace in Africa will be illusive.

The dominant image of Africans today is of a people at war. All the "good news" from Africa, and there is a lot of it, never makes it to our screens. All we see is poverty, violence, killer cults, fanaticism, substance abuse, natural disasters, genocide and despair. Africans are invariably presented as divided, incapable of governing themselves and subjected to forces beyond their control, we are never confronted with images of Africans acting independently or as being in control of their own destinies. This war has helped reinforce the growing media image of Africa as the "Heart of Darkness." The point of this is to show and pressure the Western public and intellectual elites into saying "something must be done" and that the West "is not doing enough to help poor Africans."This of course means military intervention The problem however is the complete opposite. The fact is that the West is doing too much in Africa, it is fueling and perpetuating continued conflict, genocide and suffering on the continent. Those African leaders who actively oppose this policy are slandered, attacked and demonized in the Western press in order to neutralize sympathy for African alternatives to the neoliberal process of globalization.

Although I disagree with his notion of Eritrean victimization at the hands of Ethiopia I agree with Thomas C. Mountain's challenge to activists when he asks, "are there enough of us in the west who care enough to expose this crime? Or don't a million African refugees and another 100,000 dead Africans matter?" It is high time that we say enough to Western destabilization of Africa and support efforts towards pan-African solidarity, the payment of Western reparations and the building of truly independent and strong African states.

Kole Kilibarda is an antiwar activist and student organizer currently based in Washington D.C.


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