“Brothers at War”: The Rare African Border Dispute of Ethiopia and Eritrea

Since the 1980s, the primary narrative emerging from the Horn of Africa, particularly from its stronghold, Ethiopia, to the West was one of famine and starvation, complete with necessary pathos-driven photos to ensure great flows of humanitarian aid into the region. While this story played out on screens across the Western world, another story played in the background of the region: one of civil conflict between a strong authoritarian state and Marxist-driven student rebels. The 1990s saw the conflict shift from state versus rebel to the new Ethiopian state against Eritrea. The region of Ethiopia that saw conflict, and Eritrea, are predominately of the same ethnic group and language: a war between brothers had begun. Democracy was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind, as peace was a more immediate and necessary goal. Thousands of miles away, there was serious talk around tables of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Diasporas. They had left the region, but all those they loved had not, as women and young children were forced to flee the conflict-ridden border and younger brothers perished in the dusty mountains of Tigray. The young children of immigrants watched the few videos available from back home intently, as wotaders, soldiers, on screen looked and sounded just like their family members.

These are the never-ending stories and images, those of famine and warfare, which defined my youth and that of many Diaspora like me. However, there are now quiet whispers emerging from the region that the stalemate between the two states is weakening. As Ethiopia has achieved limited albeit steady economic growth and political stability due to a strong state hold on all domestic actions since the stalemate of 2000, Eritrea has struggled immensely both economically and regionally. It has been repeatedly referred to as the “African North Korea”. In all, the regional instability that occurred due to the conflict between the local military strength like Ethiopia against the regional pariah, Eritrea, was extremely harmful to both the human security and attempts of democracy of the nations as well as economic trade and growth.

Therefore, for the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a politician not previously involved with the war, to be willing to hold talks with the Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki is a significant step in the relations between the two. Most recently, in December of 2013, the Ethiopian state discussed passing over Bedame, the small border town symbolic of the war between the two, over to Eritrea in order to broker a more stable peace. However, while there may be a chance of reconnection between the two nations, if the strong man of Eritrea remains, for now this is a remote possibility. Instead of continuing to squabble over decades-long border disputes, both nations should look to the future and realize that serious changes need to be made to promote stability, like multi-party democratic elections and the institution of freedoms of speech and assembly. Perhaps then the Horn of Africa can begin to alter the images the West has of their situation.

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