By Daniel Spiegel,
YOU might not know it, but East Africa has been playing host for the past
five decades to an intense sibling rivalry between three of the poorest nations on Earth: Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
After a week long summit held between the leaders of Ethiopia and Djibouti that concluded on February 9th, the two delegations accused Eritrea of pursuing a “continuous destabilization policy” in the Horn of Africa and called on the UN to tighten sanctions directed against the latter’s government. Inflammatory statements followed from Eritrea, which deemed the communiqué an “act of hostility”.
Could this apparently petty dispute flare up into a major East African war?
Like most geopolitical struggles, the bone of contention between the three countries revolves around territorial claims – Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after an independence war that lasted some 30 years. Tensions flared up again in 1998, when the 6-million strong Eritrea,
invaded the 80-million strong Ethiopia and tried to wrest control of several slivers of land from its neighbor.
After a painful two-year campaign, which cost upwards of a hundred thousand deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars, the conflict was solved by an international agreement that awarded the disputed territories to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia refused to implement the decision.
Having failed to obtain its pound of flesh from Ethiopia, Eritrea turned its attention to Africa’s smallest country, Djibouti. In a 2008 three-day skirmish, Eritrea’s military
invaded Djibouti and tried to claim another chunk of territory. France provided support, Eritrea retreated and Qatar was called in to mediate between the two warring parties.
Tensions have also been maintained high with non-military means. Political chicanery have been rife, when a leader of the toothless Djiboutian opposition was imprisoned after having called on the president of Eritrea to invade the country, topple the incumbent government and support his own ascendency to power. A 2014 UN report found [NO] evidence that Eritrea supplied weapons and offered support both to an Ethiopian-based rebel group that seeks regime change and to al-Shabaab militias operating in Somalia.
The Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, a former rebel leader that has ruled his country with an iron fist since independency, is accused of providing support for Somali rebels. Since 2001, there are no private news outlets and the government is famous in the West for being the bottom feeder in most international reports, such as Amnesty International, Transparency International or Human Rights Watch.
Is the pot calling the kettle black?
In spite of simmering tensions, the three countries are in reality quite similar, so much so that it would be difficult to argue which one has indeed the main destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia has repeatedly ordered military strikes against Eritrea around the disputed border area flanked by the town of Badme. Ethiopia is the main supporter of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, partly out of the need to maintain a semblance of stability in its neighborhood but also to ensure that its own Somali minority, which has longed clamored for a “Greater Somalia” state, won’t start irredentist movements on its territory. Ethiopia has also been at odds with Egypt, Cairo accusing its southern neighbor of building a dam on the Nile that will completely destroy its agriculture.
Like Eritrea, Ethiopia has an atrocious human rights record. The government intensified its campaign of arrests, prosecutions and unlawful force to silence criticism least year in the run up to the 2015 elections. Dozens of journalists were persecuted and independent newspapers were closed, showed Human Rights Watch in a damning report released in January.
What about Djibouti? Described by Politico as “an [American] airstrip with a Subway”, the country has enjoyed the protection of both Western powers, China and Iran, largely thanks to its position on the eastern tip of Africa, a short 30km away from al-Qaeda infested Yemen.
Ruled by strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh since 1999, Djibouti has maintained close ties to “friend and brother” Iran, has signed multiple commercial deals and defense partnerships with China, all the while allowing the U.S. to operate its main African military base on its territory in an unsavory game of double-dealing. Similarly to Ethiopia, the government’s human rights record is replete with abuses, jailing of political opponents and media crackdowns, while Guelleh has so far not ruled out running for a 4th consecutive presidential term in 2016.
The three countries are bound to keep their horns locked for the foreseeable future. What is clear though is that the uneasy balance of power in the Horn of Africa is largely kept in place not by any action taken by Ethiopia, Djibouti or Eritrea but by the intervention of external actors (such as the U.S., Qatar and China) keen on protecting their own strategic interests.