Tensions on the Rise in Horn of Africa

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The International Crisis Group is warning that war is again likely between Ethiopia and Eritrea, just five years after a conflict between the two African nations killed tens of thousands of people. Matt Bryden, ICG director in the region, tells Linda Wertheimer why the group is concerned.


It's been nearly five years since Eritrea and Ethiopia called a truce to a border war that killed tens of thousands of people. Now those countries may be on the brink of war again. The International Crisis Group has released a report calling for the United States and other foreign powers to intercede. Matt Bryden is the director for the Horn of Africa of the International Crisis Group, and he joins us from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Could you explain why tensions are so high right now? Is there a proximate cause?

Mr. MATT BRYDEN (International Crisis Group): Well, there is. Since October, Eritrea has imposed a ban on helicopter flights by the UN peacekeeping forces along the border, and then in December, demanded that the nationals of some of the countries participating in that peacekeeping force be withdrawn. And that is what's triggered the immediate crisis that we see today.

WERTHEIMER: Why did they ask the peacekeepers to withdraw?

Mr. BRYDEN: Well, Eritrea's frustrated that since 2002 when a ruling was handed down on the delimitation of the border with Ethiopia, that there's been no progress towards demarcating that border, that Ethiopia refuses to accept the delimitation decision and maintains forces and administration in what Eritrea considers to be its sovereign territory. Eritrea's frustrated not only with Ethiopia's failure to accept the decision, but also with the international community's apparent inaction and lack of pressure on Ethiopia to abide by the decision.

WERTHEIMER: The last war shattered both Ethiopia and Eritrea. As I understand it, it was old-fashioned trench warfare of a century ago, with a great many deaths. Do these countries have the stomach for another war? Do they have the means to conduct one?

Mr. BRYDEN: Neither country had the means to conduct the first war and both indebted themselves enormously with arms purchases, and the cost in terms of human lives was extraordinary. It was the most destructive war, interstate war, on the continent since the end of the Cold War, since the early '90s. Both, however, consider the stakes to be high enough that I think it would be a serious mistake to underestimate their willingness to go to war if the need arises.

WERTHEIMER: Has this conflict been energized at all by other countries in the region or other international powers? Does anyone stand to gain if Ethiopia and Eritrea cannot resolve their differences and go to war again?

Mr. BRYDEN: On the contrary, I think other countries in the region stand to be destabilized. Somalia, which doesn't have yet a functioning government, of course, would probably become another front line, as it did during the first war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Sudan, as well. And the peace process in Sudan, particularly in the south and in the east of the country, is intimately tied to the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and war between them would enormously complicate that relationship and probably destabilize the peace process in Sudan.

WERTHEIMER: Is there something specific the United State should be doing? Does the US have a role here?

Mr. BRYDEN: Well, both countries have made it clear that they see a lead role for the United States in the final resolution of this dispute. We believe that it's important for the United States to appoint an envoy and to re-engage with both parties. American leadership is probably the key to reviving international engagement and getting both parties to come back seriously into the peace process to bring it into its implementation phase.

WERTHEIMER: Matt Bryden is the director for the Horn of Africa of the International Crisis Group, talking to us from Johannesburg in South Africa.

Mr. Bryden, thank you very much.

Mr. BRYDEN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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