Ethiopia and the United Nations Organization

Making, Unmaking and Remaking of Boundaries

Negussay Ayele

(00) The topic of this brief deserves more research and more space to do justice to it. This modest reflective essay is prompted by the current ominous events with regard to “boundaries” swirling around The Hague, New York and Ethiopia-Eritrea. It focuses, understandably, on making, unmaking and remaking of boundaries in the region. As fate would have it, this is now the fourth time in the last half-century that the United Nations Organization has been seized with crucial decision-making on territorial sovereignty issues involving Ethiopia. That historical fact itself points to a need to look at Ethiopia and the UNO in perspective, as one contemplates what is in process currently.

(01) As is well known, with its strong commitment to ‘collective security,’ Ethiopia is one of the 51 founding members of the United Nations and an active participant in the Charter drafting and adopting process in 1945 in San Francisco. Ethiopia’s venerable Emperor Haile Sellassie was the leader who in 1936 predicted the demise of the spineless compromised League of Nations, survived the Italian Fascist onslaught of the 1930’s, saw to it that Ethiopia would be part of the Allied campaigns in World War II and lived long enough to address the new United Nations General Assembly as well. One of the United Nations most important regional offices, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, is located in Addis Ababa.

(02) It is somewhat paradoxical that Ethiopia-the oldest African nation should repeatedly be the turf for experimenting modalities for boundary formations in the continent where the overwhelming majority of the colonialist-generated boundaries, remain either un-delimited or un-demarcated. Furthermore, Ethiopia has consistently made positive contributions in the struggle against secession and for the preservation of territorial sovereignty of African states such as the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and even Somalia-with its perennial irredentist agenda against its neighbors. Yet, Ethiopia has today become the first-and so far the only-state in the continent to sustain forced secession of part of its people and territory along its Red Sea littoral. What is even more astounding is that Ethiopia-the indomitable country that had successfully fought so many anti-colonial wars to acquit its independent existence, now stands to be victimized by defunct and invalid colonial “treaties,” that were in the first instance designed to contain Ethiopia as a landlocked, truncated, weak and circumscribed country during the colonial era. It is those very colonialists themselves who crafted such unconscionable, uneven “treaties” that rendered them obsolete. The “treaties” were unilaterally flouted, violated, manipulated, reversed, rejected, superceded and/or overwritten by inter-colonialist cabal (e.g. 1906, 1925, 1936) at will. Why and how is it that such non-existent and non-applicable colonial “treaties” are about to hang as an albatross on Ethiopia’s scarred and tired shoulders? The real problem in Ethiopia-Eritrea is that the guerrillas (EPLF and TPLF) that fought to overthrow the government in power in Ethiopia which they did in 1991, have gone beyond that and are on a mission to overthrow Ethiopia as a state. In other words, their ultimate objective is the politicide of Ethiopia. Wittingly or unwittingly, outside elements, including the United Nations, that support this cabal against the Ethiopian people are aiding and abetting in the politicide of Ethiopia.

(03) The immediate question that juts out at this point is “WHY?”

More to the point, “Why has the United Nations become the vehicle of choice in 2000-2002, to deliver what appears to be a form of delayed or retroactive punishment against Ethiopia-which at the turn of the last century was referred to in imperialist circles in Europe as The Last Unresolved Problem in Africa”-ie, the only country that defied outright total colonial subjugation?” Countless Ethiopians from all walks of life and others have protested against the injustice of using null and void colonial “treaties” as a basis for determining borders or other sovereignty questions. They have pointed out incessantly to all concerned that the entire process of Eritrean secession, its sanction by a surrogate regime in Addis Ababa in 1991 and the sham “referendum” of 1993--in all of which the Ethiopian people have had no say whatsoever--were illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable by this or succeeding generations. Countless letters, resolutions, pleas and protests have been expressed via various venues since 1991, principally addressed to United Nations bodies and hierarchies. Why is it that responsible officers of the United Nations, whose Charter’s first Preamble line is “We the People of the United Nations…” has become deaf to the messages of some people? Let us ponder the above questions by looking at relations of Ethiopia and the United Nations in historical perspective.

(04) One of the first international problems, the relatively young United Nations Organization cut its teeth with, was deciding the future of the former Italian colonies of Libya, Somalia and Eritrea-something the Four Allied Powers could not agree on. Normally, when in May 1941, the Italians were booted out from the entire Horn of Africa including Ethiopia and former Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia, the region which was held by Italy as a single ”Italian East Africa,” should have become de-colonized altogether right then. At the very least, Eritrea, which had been carved out of historic Ethiopia in 1890, should have reverted back to its Ethiopian fold in 1941. But as this period was the onset of the European phase of World War II, the British-who were in the region giving a helping hand to Ethiopia’s struggle to oust the Fascist marauders, used the pretext of WWII exigencies in the region to hold on to Eritrea and to the Haud and Reserved areas of the Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia. Even after all that, with the absolute, categorical renunciation of all claims, treaty rights, properties in the post WWII Peace Treaty of 1947 that ended forthwith the colonial status of all former Italian colonies, including Eritrea. The British knew this very well, as they were the ones who lured and facilitated Italian colonial inundation of the region. But they held on to the Eritrean region for a decade, forever complicating matters and trying to annex part or all of it as their colony or--as they prefer to couch it--“protectorate.” Despite the end of the colonial border regime in the region as of 1941,the British used defunct Italian colonial territorial divides for “administrative” reasons during their ten-year interregnum in the area. The Horn of Africa region was in such nefarious and murky state when, in 1949, the United Nations assumed the task of determining the future status of the former Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia.

(05) The United Nations provided the forum for exhaustive deliberations by all concerned on the matter in the General Assembly and in its committees. More importantly, the Organization made field trips to the region of Eritrea to ascertain first-hand the wishes of the people and the mushrooming “parties” on their visions and choices about their future. To the extent that they remain intact, the United Nations archives on the period provide the full array of views expressed freely by the Eritrean people during this period. We cannot go into the details of those fascinating and enlightening proceedings now. The reader may refer to the UN publication which contains the operative resolutions and documents and summarizes what transpired at the time: Final Report of the United Nations Commissioner in Eritrea, GA Official Records, Seventh Session, Supplement No. 15 (A/2188) New York, 1952. Cf also this writer’s “In Search of the Historical DNA of the Eritrean Problem” ( which is a review article on the best book (in Ethiopic) published on the subject so far, entitled The Eritrean Affair (1941-1963) During the Reign of Emperor Haile Sellassie I, by Ambassador Zewde Retta. After all the exhaustive painstaking surveys and discussions, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 390 A (V) on 2 December 1950. It is worth revisiting the Preamble and the first paragraph of that historic Resolution. 

Taking into consideration, 

(a) The wishes and welfare of the inhabitants of Eritrea, including the views of the various racial, religious and political groups of the provinces of the territory, and the capacity of the people for self government,

(b) The interests of peace and security in East Africa, 

(c) The rights and claims of Ethiopia based on geographical, historical, ethnic, or economic reasons, including in particular Ethiopia’s legitimate need for adequate access to the sea,

The General Assembly recommends that Eritrea shall constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown.” (Emphasis added)

(06) To be sure, neither Ethiopia nor the disparate Eritrean groups called for or expected something exotic called federation. Very few people in the region fully fathomed it. However, whether the people of Ethiopia-Eritrea liked it or not, it was the compromise formula that got the necessary majority vote in Committees and on the floor of the General Assembly, out of dozens of propositions and options. Over the next two years, the UN Commission worked diligently to implement the Resolution and effected the transfer of power from the British to the new federal state. It established the necessary instruments and institutions, and saw to it that, as sovereign of the Federal government, the Emperor ratified the instruments of governance including the Federal Act and the Eritrean constitution. The Commission then quietly left the scene hoping that its efforts would succeed. At that point, there was no longer an international boundary separating Ethiopia and former Italian Eritrea. In 1952, the British left behind what they called an “administrative” border they used since 1941 for former Italian Eritrea. That was also what Ethiopia understood it to be when the Federation was established. No one, including the United Nations, raised the question of boundaries of the federal Eritrean unit nor made any objection to the fact that henceforth, whatever boundary was used between former Italian Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia was an internal, not an international boundary. There was no reference to colonial “treaties” of 1900, 1902, 1908, etc…by the United Nations or anybody else then. To be sure, there was no longer a colony called Eritrea, or a colonial boundary or applicable “treaty” of any kind in this region anymore. Sovereignty, including territorial sovereignty, in a federal state is single and indivisible, just as in a unitary state. The United States, for example, is a Federal State comprising fifty component unit states, but it is one Sovereign Nation. It has only one seat in the United Nations, not fifty seats. The borders within the United States are internal borders, not international boundaries. (As most experts recognize, the seating of some Soviet states in the General Assembly was an anomaly that had more to do with post-WWII East-West temporary arrangement among the big powers then, than an exception to the basic principle of the indivisibility of sovereignty). The last time one checked United Nations and other relevant records and rosters of the state of the world between 1950 and 1991, one does not find Eritrea listed as sovereign state, colony or Trusteeship territory. Thus, in so establishing the 1950 Ethiopia-Eritrea Federation, the United Nations made or restored the Red Sea littoral as the natural boundary of Ethiopia. Henceforth, any and all maritime commerce and communication as well as sea, land and air spaces in the Eritrean region were within Ethiopia’s sovereign jurisdiction, and they remained so until 1991. Articles 2 and 3 of Resolution 390 A (V) cited above, enunciates clearly the formula of how power is to be shared in the Federation and where state sovereignty resides:

“The Eritrean government shall possess legislative, executive and judicial powers in the field of domestic affairs”

“The jurisdiction of the Federal government shall extend to defense, foreign affairs, currency and finance, foreign and interstate commerce and external and interstate communications, including ports. The Federal government shall have the power to maintain the integrity of the Federation…”

(07) The Ethiopian-Eritrean federation was sustained under great strains until 1962, when, with the blessing and active political support of Emperor Haile Sellassie, unionist elements in the Eritrean Assembly garnered majority support to dismantle the Federation and opt for outright union with their Ethiopian motherland. Notwithstanding the fact that present-day secessionist elements dispute the circumstances and propriety of such outright transition from federation to union, the fact remains that the United Nations did not object, intervene or call for a reversal of the measure taken by the Eritrean Assembly. The matter was not a subject of deliberation at the UNO then and throughout the period till 1991. There was no mention of disputed international boundaries or “colonial treaties of 1900, 1902,1908” then. Eritrea has never been a colony of Ethiopia and there are no “colonial treaties” to invoke then or now. It would appear that that was the reason for the United Nations to have vacated whatever oversight functions it might have deemed necessary to involve itself in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. Although even then, the administrative border delineating former Italian colony of Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia was not adjusted or reconfigured until 1987, there was no confusion whatsoever about the extent of Ethiopia’s territorial sovereignty in that region. The early 60s had joined armed Eritrean secessionist struggles, aided and abetted by external elements in the region. Secessionist struggles are, of course, neither new nor confined to the Eritrean scene in the Horn of Africa. The United Nations (or its member states) had four long decades (1950-1990) during which time time moves to correct, redress or do something if international law was violated or acts endangering world or regional peace are committed in any region of the globe could have been taken. There was no such determination or action during this period in the Ethiopia-Eritrea region during the said protracted period.

(08) The second time in which the United Nations was involved with questions of territorial sovereignty and boundaries in the Horn occurred almost simultaneously with what has just been adumbrated above. This time it dealt with Ethiopia’s eastern frontiers along the Somali coast. The United Nations General Assembly had resolved in 1949 that former Italian Somaliland be placed in the UN Trusteeship system for ten years after which it would gain its independence. This time, however, the UN’s decision on Somalia and its territorial bounds were fundamentally different from the Ethiopia-Eritrea syndrome. Despite streneous Ethiopian objections it was resolved (Resolution 392 V) in 1950 that despite its invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s, Italy-not yet even a member of the United Nations-be returned to the Horn as the Trustee power. Secondly, the United Nations also called for immediate negotiations between Italy and Ethiopia to delimit the boundaries of the prospective Somalian state. The two parties started talks in 1952 under rather inconducive conditions, but they kept going through 1959 because the United Nations kept prodding them without letup. In fact, Secretaries General Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarsjold were more directly invloved to add weight to the matter. And, the talks under UN aegis ran the gamut from simple bilateral negotiations to mediation efforts and eventually to arbitration. However, for reasons that are too complex to go into here, the parties could not reach a denouement to the Ethiopia-Somalia boundary problem and, because the date of independence for Somalia was fast approaching, the Fourth Committee reported to the General Assembly that it had “no draft resolution to recommend.” Instead, Ethiopia and Somalia were urged to enter bilateral negotiations to delimit and demarcate their international border. An interesting aspect of those negotiations was that Ethiopia at that time was more willing to consider having those boundaries resolved based on its interpretation of the 1908 treaty whereas Italy, the other party to that treaty, was unwilling to abide by it alone. As is well known, the border between Somalia and Ethiopia is still un-delimited, and territorial conflicts between the two states have been ongoing since Somalia’s independence in 1960, culminating in a full-scale invasion of Ethiopia by Somalia in 1977. So, once again, despite best efforts and intentions, the United Nations could not materialize boundary delimitation in the Horn of Africa. Territorial or frontier issues in that part of the Horn are like dangerous time bombs for the future, unless a new breed of leadership with new visions for the future emerges in the region. (For more details on the boundary negotiations, see this writer’s “The 1952-1959 Ethio-Italian Boundary Negotiations: an Exercise in Diplomatic Futility,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. IX #2, pp127-148).

(09) Once again, when least expected, the United Nations entered the scene in the Horn of Africa in 1991-93 to weigh in on territorial sovereignty issues involving Ethiopia for the third time. In May 1991 the combined forces of guerrilla forces of the secessionist Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) defeated the military forces of the Derg and occupied Asmera and Addis Ababa. Shortly thereafter, a “conference” of carefully chosen persons was convened in Addis Ababa and a pre-agreed “Charter” was proclaimed, primarily to give a veneer of legitimacy for the secession of EPLF-Eritrea and to divide the rest of Ethiopia along ethnic/tribal lines in the name of the much abused notion of “self-determination.” This was a ploy to secure Eritrea’s secession and to facilitate Tigrayan minority hegemony in the country. At this time, there was no stable government in Ethiopia, but only a transitional martial power. Yet, the TPLF and its minions were making momentous decisions that were to have far reaching consequences. The martyred Surgeon, Professor Asrat Weldeyes, had stated that the gathering had no mandate from the Ethiopian people to decide on issues of sovereignty or right of secession of Eritrea or any other part of Ethiopia. Despite that, the TPLF and EPLF used their military preponderance and more conducive international situation to realize their own tandem agenda in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the United Nations and the world at large was fully aware of the fact that from 1987 on, Ethiopia had made adjustments in its internal administrative borders which had retained the name of Eritrea to the northern half (roughly) of the former province and the southern half (roughly) as the Afar region extending to the wider confines of the Afar-inhabited areas of Ethiopia. Thus, when EPLF and TPLF perched in Asmera and Addis Ababa, the northern borders of sovereign Ethiopia had already been changed, as internal borders change anywhere in the world from time to time. Neither the UNO nor any other relevant body raised questions or objections to this legitimate internal territorial restructuring by Ethiopia. So, given the sinewy political-territorial track record of the region, what borders did TPLF, EPLF, UNO and other involved parties have in mind when gratuitously confirming EPLF-Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia, then “referendum” and finally, its admission as a new member of the United Nations? (For more on these themes, the reader may wish to consult this writer’s recent articles, “On Ethiopia’s Legitimate Claim to its Natural Seashores,” “Reflections on Border Regimes and colonial treaties on the Horn” and Asseb as a Symbol for the Restoration of Ethiopia’s Natural Seacoast” in for maps and details on these issues.)

(10) It is in the context of such circumstances that we shall

glance at the role of Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Secretary General of the United Nations, in facilitating and expediting the dismemberment of Ethiopia, one of the Organization’s Charter Member States in good standing. Consider, for example, how eager and over-enthusiastic the Secretary-General was on the matter by referring to some UN documents of the 1991-1993 period. We cite here pertinent excerpts from communications emanating from Addis Ababa, Asmera and from the UN Secretary General's desk on Eritrea for comparative purposes. (a) In a letter (GA Official Records A/C.3/47/5) dated 13 December, 1991, Mr Meles Zenawi, the TPLF caudillo in Addis Ababa, who had no authority or mandate from the Ethiopian people but only the power of brute force in a transitional capacity, sent a letter to Secretary-General of the UN saying only that “the Conference on Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia, held in Addis Ababa from 1 to 5 July, 1991, adopted a Charter…the Conference determined that the people of Eritrea have the right to determine their future by themselves…” and asked that the United Nations supervise the forthcoming EPLF-run “referendum.” in 1993. (b) In short and synchronized order, the EPLF’s Referendum Commissioner in Asmera wrote a letter dated19 May, 1992 (GA Official Records A/C.3/47/5) to the Secretary General dittoing the request of the Addis Ababa regime, but saying “The Conference on Peace and Democracy, organized by the Transitional Government of Ethiopia in July 1991 and attended by almost all the political parties…of that country.” (c) When on 19 October 1992, Secretary General Boutros-Ghali communicated his report to the General Assembly (GA Official Records A/47/544) to relay these messages and to request authorization and budget for UN monitoring mission in Eritrea in 1993 this is how he summed up the message he had received. “The Conference on Peace and Democracy, which assembled all the political parties and relevant social actors in Ethiopia recognized the right of the Eritrean people to determine its political future by the internationally supervised referendum.” Apropos to an Ethiopian saying that ‘an over eager hyena bites the horn of the bull’ the three communicants could not even agree on composition of the July 1991 charade called “Conference on Peace and Democracy” The TPLF spokesman did not specify the make-up of the Conference. The sleuth in Asmara said that it was attended by almost all the political parties... However, the eager Secretary General Boutros-Ghali divined and decided that all the political parties…had attended and approved Eritrea’s secession. Was that a responsible act on the part of the Secretary General of the august body, the United Nations? Furthermore, in his reports and letters of the time to higher bodies in the Organization, Dr Boutros-Ghali glosses over the past roles played by the United Nations with only glib statements like “The General Assembly has had a historical involvement with issues pertaining to the political status of Eritrea…” without referencing relevant documents of 1949-1952 as UN documents normally do to present matters in historical perspective. And thus, UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali was instrumental in unmaking borders in the Horn by helping Eritrea secede from Ethiopia and blocking 60 million Ethiopians from their natural coastal regions on the Red Sea. What a feat by an international civil servant! (For more on Secretary General Boutros-Ghali’s tendentious role in Eritrea’s secession, see Tecola Hagos, “The Dismemberment of Ethiopia,” at

(11) It goes without saying that what followed in 1993, as the UN sent its monitoring team called UNOVER, was nothing but whitewashing whatever EPLF designed and did in that sham “referendum.” In other words, the UN was there to give a cover of legitimacy to an exercise that was neither free nor fair. One should keep in mind here that, for all intents and purposes, the TPLF Transitional Government in Addis Ababa and the EPLF Provisional Government in Asmara have insured that EPLF-Eritrea (whatever its boundaries) was independent as of May 1991. The so-called “deferred” referendum of 1993 was a superfluos charade for gullible elements abroad and to get the kind of support given by the UNO. The farcical event did not even have choices for those herded to participate. The EPLF had stated since 1980 that in a referendum under international supervision it would abide by free and fair vote on choices of (i) continuing with union (ii) restore federation (iii) independence. Now, in 1993, however, the ballot of the EPLF Provisional Government of Eritrea’s Referendum Proclamation 22/1992 dictated Yes or No to the question: “Do you approve Eritrea to become an independent sovereign state?” Some have also pointed out that while the above was for the benefit of English speaking elements, the wording of the ballot and the symbolisms used to characterize the yes and no votes in Tigrigna Arabic and other tongues, was even more frightening because it cast it as a choice between ‘freedom and ‘slavery.’ In the view of Tekeste Negash, a historian of Eritrean birth, "compared to what took place in terms of assessing the wishes of the Eritrean people during the two commissions of inquiry (1947 and 1950) the 1993 referendum-‘if you vote red you will be dead’-was a serious setback.” The Ethiopian people, whose 3.5 million inhabitants and 120, 000 or so sq.kilometers of sovereign territory were being severed, were shut out completely from any say or role in the so-called “referendum”-- courtesy of TPLF and EPLF as well as the nod of the United Nations and others. What a contrast between the UN’s painstaking and meticulous first (1949-1952) involvement in the region and the roughshod way it presided over the secession of a region of a member state in contravention of the UN Charter, Chapter II, Article 2 (7) which states, inter alia, that “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter…” Surely, UN Secretary-General, Professor Boutros-Ghali, was aware of the parameters and principles that govern his responsibilities, especially in regions close to his home, whose checkered and complex history require more caution, sensitivity and equanimity. Alas, the winds spawned by the unmaking of the Ethiopia-Eritrea boundaries in 1991-1993, resulted in the 1998-2000 whirlwinds of carnage. (The reader can refer to a well written legal brief by a distinguished international law professor, Menassie Haile, entitled “Legality of Secessions: The Case of Eritrea” Emory International Law Review, Vol. 8 # 2, 1994).

(12)This brings us to the present or fourth phase of creeping UN involvement in Ethiopia-Eritrea territorial sovereignty matters once again, which essentially commenced in 2000 and is still ongoing. When EPLF Eritrea launched a military offensive across the Tigrayan areas of TPLF-Ethiopia in May 1998, the UN and much of the powers of the New World Order did their perfunctory functions of calling for the parties concerned to cease and desist from escalating the conflict and enter into negotiations. The UN passed a number of resolutions to that effect, including slapping both aggressor and victim with sanctions on weapons purchases. The United States, the European Union and the moribund OAU also got into the act generating all kinds of initiatives to control the violence. However, it was not possible to stem the tide of violence that dragged for the next two years and subsided after casualties of upwards of 120,000 Ethiopians-Eritreans and untold damages and displacements were sustained. No one is yet certain as to what was achieved or prevented after such colossal losses. At any rate, a concerted effort by concerned powers in the early part of 2000, spearheaded by the United States, eventually succeeded in restraining the sibling combatants who were exhausted and strapped for arms and cash anyway. Unknown to the people of Ethiopia who paid dearly in life, limbs and wherewithals, the two regimes were negotiating behind the scenes for a face-saving way out of their self-inflicted destructive war. It is at this point that the UN more or less moves from the periphery to the center of the Horn of Africa, to deal with territorial sovereignty issues once again.

(13) The venue for direct UN involvement this time was Algiers where in December 2000, the two comrades signed a “Peace” Deal with a lot of hype, fanfare and high profile international witnesses cheering them on. The draft of the peace deal was leaked by EPLF a few days before the 12/12/00 signing event much to the chagrin of of the TPLF regime which might have preferred to keep it secret until it was signed. As I have said in an earlier article, the Algiers Agreement does nothing for Ethiopia Which loses its people land and seacoasts. But it does everything for EPLF-Eritrea because it awards it 120,000 square kilometers of Ethiopian land it never had. Furthermore, EPLF-Eritrea will now have de jure boundaries and territorial sovereignty that will be respected by its neighbors, including TPLF-Ethiopia. (See this writer’s “Commentary on the 12/12/00 Ethiopia-Eritrea Algiers Peace Deal” on ( From the get-go, Ethiopians at home and abroad in all walks of life protested against the signing of the Algiers Agreement and called upon all concerned not to go through with it because it is patently inimical to the national interests of Ethiopians. Its purpose is to make Ethiopia landlocked and Afar Ethiopians dismembered. It will plant the seeds of interminable instability and conflicts in the region for generations to come. It was also stated that all concerned should know that Ethiopians would not accept its terms as legitimate and binding even if it may be imposed. To make matters worse, the two regimes agreed not only to base boundary delimitation on the basis of defunct colonial treaties, but also to accept the determination of the UN managed Boundary Commission (arbitration body) as “final and binding.” Meanwhile, a 4000-plus UN monitoring force called UNMEE has been basking in the hills and valleys in a Temporary Security “demilitarized “ Zone along the de facto border, until the Boundary Commission in the Hague emerges with its diktat on the demarcation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary in the near future.

(14) Once again, Ethiopians have been crying out in the wilderness to forestall or prevent the Hague verdict. Some have directed their pleas to the Hague arbitrators directly only to be told politely that it is outside the bounds of the operational framework to entertain or respond to any and all communications by individuals or groups. In other words, they deal only with governments. Furthermore, they also let it be known that they are to determine the borders based on the defunct “colonial treaties of 1900, 1902 and 1908” as agreed to by EPLF and TPLF in Algiers. One recalls Ethiopia’s pleas for help at the League of Nations against Italian Fascist aggression in the 1930’s where Ethiopia was offered the choice between “assassination and suicide.” The United Nations is today poised in its latest round of decision-making to do the same to Ethiopia. But, there is still time to desist from this injustice against the Ethiopian people. It is sincerely hoped that injustice will not be visited again on the Ethiopian people under the watch of Secretary General Kofi Annan. For reasons that have been touched upon in foregoing pages, other articles, the myriads of open letters, petitions and resolutions, the Boundary Commission’s exercises-due to no fault of the Commissioners-- are based on invalid premises and directives. Therefore, it would be best to shelve the results and embark on a new course of action that will ensure justice for all and a better foundation for peace, stability and development in the region. Still, it is not enough to oppose what is patently wrong. This writer offers the following alternative modality and salient perspectives to be taken into account for remaking the Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary problem.

(15) Perspective One is to start from the beginning, with Ethiopia’s age-old natural coastal boundaries (Bahre Negash) in the Red Sea region, before the severing of a chunk of its territory in 1890 in the form of Eritrea. However one may slice the distant or median past of Ethiopian history, it will have been confirmed that Ethiopia always had coastal presence in the region throughout its history-certain areas of the coast being occupied by one or another regional power for periods of time, notwithstanding. In addition, after the Fascist wars, occupation and post-war UN involvement, Ethiopia’s natural coastline boundaries were restored once again in 1950 until 1991. So, the UN has that precedent also to bank on. We are talking now of several millennia of historical process before 1890 and before “colonial treaties of 1900, 1902 and 1908’” Colonial Eritrea’s history may have started in 1890, but that does not mean that the history of Ethiopia and the entire region has to start in 1890. The colonial era (1890-1941) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient basis for determining boundaries in a region that is hoary with age. (See for instance, Ethiopia: A Cradle of History, Ministry of Information, 1989, Addis Ababa, for a brief cartographic summary of state formations and evolution in the Horn). The ultimate issue for the peoples of the region, is not slivers of territory like Badme, Zalambessa, and so on here and there along the Tigrayan border, but the future of millions of dismembered Ethiopians and 120,000 square kilometers of Ethiopian land with its coastlines that was expropriated by TPLF and EPLF in 1991. Any approach to resolve the territorial disputes in the region that does not take this fundamental perspective into account, will not succeed to bring about a lasting peace in Ethiopia-Eritrea.

Perspective Two is to take into account Ethiopia’s internal boundary in 1991 that EPLF and TPLF inherited but conveniently shoved aside when they occupied Asmera and Addis Ababa. Either Ethiopia was a sovereign country or it was not in 1991. If it was, then it was within its sovereign rights to adjust its internal boundaries for administrative purposes. As was already noted, the two guerrilla forces overthrew the ruling regime in Ethiopia, not the State of Ethiopia. Changing governments and changing states are fundamentally different propositions. Now the line separating the two processes was and remains blurred since 1991. To the extent that the United Nations and other concerns, perhaps unwittingly, continue going along the wishes of TPLF and EPLF regimes, they are being complicit in the act of dismemberment and destruction of Ethiopia. The 1987-1991 border of Ethiopia-Eritrea was legitimate and EPLF and TPLF had no right to reject it out of hand, just because it did not serve their common but disguised interests. The Afar people of the region are also insisting on that 1987-1991 boundary of the region to restore their unity within Ethiopia. The exercise of boundary determination under the auspices of the UN or any other concern should not be a disguised effort to dismember Ethiopians permanently and deprive Ethiopia of its natural rights to its historic coastline. That is the only reason for any one to insist on invalid “colonial treaties of 1900, 1902, 1908,” and so on to delimit and demarcate boundariesin Ethiopia-Eritrea. Even when the administrative Ethiopia-Eritrea border remained in place from 1941 to 1987, Assab region was administered from Addis Ababa, rather than from Asmera.

Perspective Three rounds out the search for fairness, validity and enhances the probability of peace and stability in the Ethiopia-Eritrea region. The perspective takes into account the current de facto border agreed to by the EPLF/TPLF conspirators as the prevailing ‘fact on the ground’ with its bag and baggage. The proposal herein, however, consists of a package with two dimensions. Firstly, it is proposed that 100 sq. kilometers area corridor of the Assab coastal region of today’s EPLF-Eritrea up to Jibouti, be set aside to be administered provisionally by Ethiopia for the duration of the boundary study and without prejudice to the outcome of that study. To the extent that the main contours of the making, unmaking and remaking of boundaries on the Horn have the weight of evidence and logic on their side, the fact remains that there is no de jure international Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary. Whatever existed and exists is only a de facto boundary agreed to by the guerrilla forces in power. Therefore, until an Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary legally delimited and endorsed by the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea through a genuine referendum, it is suggested that the powers that be make moves to relax the situation. Among the confidence-building measures along this line is giving the divided and embattled Afar people a break. Furthermore, EPLF knows very well and anyone who knows anything about the region knows that Assab port has not, does not now and will not serve Eritrea proper. EPLF uses Asseb only negatively to spite Ethiopians It gloats at the prospect of having the temporary force-created chance at choking the country and making it dependent on its whims and conditions of utilization of the port of Asseb. Such a provisional arrangement will help reduce tensions in the region and build confidence among Ethiopians-Eritreans. Economic, cultural and political relations between the two entities can also be normalized while the boundary study continues. Secondly, the study will consider the current de facto border as another marker, as it were, along with Ethiopia’s historical Red Sea boundaries and the 1987-1991 borders. The current border represents a culmination of “thirty-year” secessionist armed struggles and the litany of woes scanned in these pages. Scores of thousands of Ethiopians-Eritreans lost lives and limbs, untold numbers were displaced, and the de facto borderline has been there since 1991 as a symbol of the spoils of war. Everyone concerned also knows by now that even the severing of 120,000 square kilometers of bona fide Ethiopian territory has not mollified the insatiable appetite of EPLF, which started a war of territorial aggrandizement in 1998 that incurred casualties of more than 120,000 Ethiopians-Eritreans. This border is taken into account not because it is consistent with a “colonial” border or because it is a legitimate de jure international border, but merely because it is the border that is in place at this time. It cannot be wished away right now, especially with the Addis Ababa regime supporting it to the death. It has to be faced, and the way to face it is to put it into the mix with the other two perspectives outlined above. This way the whole territorial sovereignty (boundary) issue on the Horn will have been studied in its fuller, more just, historical, juridical and political contexts and framework. It is to be stressed that this third perspective can only be taken as a two-part package. Taking all three perspectives together from the start of deliberations is a sine qua non for ensuring a proper boundary delimitation--and hence demarcation-of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.

(16) Alternative one features Ethiopia’s coastal boundaries along the Red Sea littoral before 1890. Alternative two unites the Afar region from Massawa to Asseb within Ethiopia while the northern part is Eritrea proper. The third alternative represents the current border shutting Ethiopia from its access to the sea completely. These are the alternative scenarios to reconcile. Not everyone will be comfortable with one or other of these scenarios. What else is new? That is why the region has been at war for decades so far. In fact one may even note that there may have been more Ethiopian-Eritrean casualties in the two-year (1998-2000) ‘brothers’ war than in the much-touted “thirty-year” secessionist war. At least these perspectives together have the merit of covering the gamut of relevant parameters for approaching the problem fairly and realistically by representing everyone’s concerns, convictions, perceptions, needs and sacrifices. The present generation of leaders and citizens of Ethiopia-Eritrea have a responsibility to bequeath a legacy of peace and stability for posterity. The fact nowadays is that those who talk tough abroad do not fight in Ethiopia and those who fight and die there do not talk. Talk is always cheap, but it does not often go hand in hand with the requisite price. And the point is to minimize and eliminate the suffering of the people in Ethiopia-Eritrea by generating an atmosphere that is conducive for enduring amicable relations in the region. This requires strategic thinking, courage and vision on the part of the people of Ethiopia-Eritrea. The boundary study so conducted may come up with one or more choices, which would then be submitted to the Ethiopian-Eritrean people in a genuine referendum that is not managed by TPLF/EPLF poachers.

(17) Embarking on a mission to study anew the remaking of the Ethiopia-Eritrea boundaries is likely to take some time, especially if it is to be done right. If the UNO, with the support of the international community, is committed to undertake the onerous task of helping to delimit and demarcate tenable boundaries mutually acceptable to the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea along lines proposed above, the implementation process is even more critical than getting to that point. The linchpin for success in implementing will be the United Nations readiness to assume full responsibility for conducting a truly free and fair referendum in Ethiopia-Eritrea on proposed plan(s). It should not be presented as an arbitration scheme to be taken as “final and binding” no matter what. People in the region should be trusted and given proper information, clarification, deliberation and time for reflection. Then they ought to be trusted to make choices by and for themselves, for a change. After all, they are the ones who will continue to live together long after experts, commissioners and regimes will have vacated the scene. In fact, especially in this instance in the Horn of Africa, the current regimes are suspect and not people friendly. Therefore, the less they are involved in boundary issues, the better. Their stunted guerrilla days illusions and delusions and their clever-by-half policies are responsible for bringing the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea to bitter and bloody conflict and two-way evictions for the first time in history. (For a profile of the fallout from the policies of TPLF and EPLF in the past decade, see this writer’s “Sow the Wind; reap the Whirlwind” on Before 1991, guerrilla forces and government troops were locked in combat, without Eritreans and the rest of Ethiopians being hostile to one another. One of the salutary by-products of such a genuine comprehensive referendum in Ethiopia-Eritrea, is that it will clear the cloud that still hangs around since 1991-1993 about Ethiopians having had no say in the severing of EPLF-Eritrea with the help of TPLF.

(18) All peoples in and from the Horn of Africa region as well as other folks of goodwill, will be grateful if this time around, the United Nations gets it right, ameliorates its past faux pas and makes a lasting positive contribution to the Ethiopia-Eritrea region that has suffered and is still suffering. The peoples of the Horn of Africa cry out for justice, peace and stability after one hundred and thirty five years of unrelenting anti-colonial, internecine, guerrilla, expansionist, secessionist and border wars.


16 February 02

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Copyright © 2000 Negussay Ayele / MediaEthiopia. Readers may redistribute this article for noncommercial use as long as the text and this notice remain intact. This article may not be resold, reprinted, translated or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author and MediaEthiopia.