May 30, 2000
Where is the world's largest conventional war? Sierra Leone? It's neither large nor conventional. Iraq? Despite the continued genocide carried out in our name, the war is not even official. The Congo, the Sudan? Right continent, wrong wars. The largest conventional war being fought today is between Ethiopia and Eritrea in East Africa. At least to some extent, it is our fault.
At the moment, the Ethiopians are winning. By the time this is published there may even be a formal ceasefire. The Eritreans will probably surrender to Ethiopia the disputed villages on the Badme strip, local predominance in the Horn of Africa and the ability for Ethiopia to use Eritrea's ports for trade. The Ethiopians are winning with "human waves" of conscripts to overwhelm the military of Eritrea with its smaller population. After two years, it seems to have worked, with the trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War being replaced with rapid Ethiopian advances into Eritrean territory. The advance is so successful that the Eritreans are suing for peace.
It is hard to see which side is the heroic one in this conflict. Eritrea while being small and plucky, is in fact a dictatorship where no election has been allowed since independence in 1993. The occupation of the Badme strip was initiated by them, and their refusal to negotiate until now has been instrumental in continuing the war (more of that later). The Eritreans have also been remarkably good at picking fights with other neighbours, such as the Yemen and Sudan, and they ruthlessly used their lock on landlocked Ethiopia's trade to stunt her economy.
The Ethiopians on the other hand are not angels either. Although they have held an election in the last month, it has been dogged by accusations of fraud although to be fair the very fact that these accusations can both be made and reported on in Ethiopia says something. The expulsion of ethnic Eritreans in Ethiopia, could not be said to live up to Western standards (except for Roosevelt and the Japanese). Ethiopia has shown what can only be described as callousness towards her own population, with the use of large "human waves" to overcome the well entrenched Eritreans, with the predictable results. The other callousness shown by the Ethiopian authorities has been the refusal to use Eritrean ports to import relief for the famine in southern Ethiopia. The fact is that neither side is particularly attractive, and in an area with no real strategic import for the West there is no reason for us to fight for either side. And indeed we have not been, so why have I written about this fight?
It is fairly clear that Eritrea would not win a long drawn out war with a country with fifteen times the amount of people. Any long drawn out border war, fought in Ethiopian or disputed territory, would of necessity turn on who had the most resources and men. Ethiopia would be bound to win a war on those terms, except if she intended to occupy Eritrea, which she does not seem to. So why is Eritrea being so obstinate, insisting until recently on holding on to her early gains?
The fact is that both sides, particularly Eritrea, have been angling for Western support. And why ever not? The West has interfered in other places where there is no clear moral winner, and no real strategic interest. The old idea that Kosovo would be different from Africa because Kosovan Albanians are white has been disproved with the intervention in next door Somalia and the recent intervention in Sierra Leone. The Eritreans have constantly been calling for Western intervention, with expatriates demonstrating in European capitals and with Eritrean radio calling for Western help. Eritrean writers have compared the Ethiopian regime to Slobodan Milosovic (or Mellesovic, a play on the Ethiopian President's name) with the obvious allusions. They have also been heartened by the reassurance of Susan Rice, the State Department Official, that America would come down on Ethiopia "like a ton of bricks." If Eritrea could attract Western sympathy and support, then the balance of power in the war would be reversed, with the resources of the West facing Ethiopia. This hope for intervention has been fueled by an opinion piece by Benjamin Gilman in the Washington Post (chargeable to view it), taking Eritrea's side, obviously not a move that would make peace easier.
The reason I have been writing on this benighted war is that we need to expose the reason for its continuation. The very prospect of Western intervention in all corners of the world keeps these wars going. Instead of local balances of power, and the acceptance of limits, each power that can plausibly claim to either be smaller or more democratic, can hope for outside interference. This means that the normal equilibriums are overturned. The futility of a long drawn out war is overlooked because there is a prospect, no matter how slight that the US air force will come in. The very prospect of intervention lengthens Africa's misery. It may be ironic that intervention harms the peace which it is supposed to guarantee, just as aid entrenches the poverty it is meant to alleviate, but this does not stop the tragedy.
If you want to get involved, the exAfrica forum is dedicated to getting the West, particularly Britain, out of Africa, come and join. We in the West are responsible for at least some of this mess, and will continue to be responsible while there is a single British or American troop in Africa.
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