Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea are more willing to end their conflict – Ambassador David Shinn

By Ambassador David Shinn
This is not a rejoinder to Hank Cohen’s piece – Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold – published by African Arguments on 16 December 2013. It is rather an analysis of the same issue with the added suggestion that it will be exceedingly difficult to achieve the laudable goals identified by Ambassador Cohen.
I agree with Cohen that it is long past time to end the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is also time for the United States to try again to improve relations with Eritrea. I accept there is no solid evidence that Eritrea is continuing its support for the al-Shabaab terrorist organization in Somalia, thus removing this argument from the list of reasons that obstruct better relations.
Finally, there is some evidence that both the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea are more willing to see an end to their conflict. President Isaias Afewerki’s silence following the death in 2012 of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was also helpful.
But it is important to take into account the complicated background that led to this conflict. The movement of Eritrean troops into Ethiopia in May 1998 represented the culmination of a long list of grievances on both sides of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border. With the benefit of hindsight, there were many warning signs that no one seemed to appreciate at the time.
While the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of Meles Zenawi and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) of Isaias Afewerki often cooperated in their battle to remove the Derg regime from Ethiopia, they also periodically had tactical and strategic differences. In the post-Derg euphoria, these earlier disagreements were usually overlooked by outsiders.
More importantly, the very systems of government established in Ethiopia and Eritrea after the fall of the Derg were significantly different and not much appreciated in each other’s capital. Isaias especially thought Meles’ concept of ethnic federalism was misguided.
There was and perhaps still is a negative psychological element to the relationship, at least for Ethiopia’s Tigrayans who live on the other side of the Eritrean border.
Many Tigrayans believed that the more highly educated Eritreans with their experience of Italian colonialism looked down on Tigrayans. Some Ethiopians perceived that Eritreans saw them as fodder for filling low level positions in an Eritrea that would become the industrial center of the region.
Ethiopia would be the source of cheap labor and Eritrea would reap the developmental advantage. It is not important if this perception was accurate; perception becomes reality. Ethiopia had every intention of creating its own industrial sector, which was already in progress.
Eritrea created its own currency, the Nakfa, to replace its use of the Ethiopian Birr. This was not a surprise and, in fact, in an interview with an Eritrean publication in May 1997 Prime Minister Meles said it is “necessary” that Eritrea have its own currency and issuance of the Nakfa “will not affect the relationship of the two countries.”
But the handling of this issue did become one of many reasons for the breakdown in trust between Addis Ababa and Asmara. Eritrea announced in July 1997 that the Nakfa and the Birr would circulate on both sides of the border and it would retain its stock of Birr for use as it desired.
ethiopia-eritrea-war-375x251Ethiopia saw this arrangement as unfair, announced a trade policy based on hard currency and letters of credit, and immediately issued new Birr so that Eritrea’s Birr holdings would be worthless.
Since the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopia had obtained much of its refined petroleum from an antiquated Eritrean refinery in Assab. Eritrea asked Ethiopia to increase the share it obtained from the refinery and demanded additional payment in hard currency.
Ethiopia balked at this arrangement and by the summer of 1997 began to import refined petroleum products elsewhere rather than rely on the Assab refinery. It also shifted more of its imports to Djibouti. Once Ethiopia terminated use of the Assab refinery, the facility became uneconomical and Eritrea closed it down. This also forced Eritrea to import its fuel needs in hard currency and at higher cost.
There were several small border incidents preceding the May 1998 conflict that were never made a major public issue by either Ethiopia or Eritrea.
The most serious one occurred in July 1997 at Adi Murug in the Bada area of Eritrea. Eritrea claimed publicly after the outbreak of conflict in 1998 that two battalions of the Ethiopian army came to Adi Murug, declared it Ethiopian territory and appointed an Ethiopian administrative committee. Ethiopia claimed that it only briefly entered Eritrea in hot pursuit of remnants of the Afar opposition and then returned to Ethiopia.
Then there was the appearance of the map prepared by the Ethiopian Central Statistical Office for the 1994 census that indicated Ethiopia claimed areas to the west of the diagonal border (the Badme area) separating southwest Eritrea and western Tigray between the Mereb and Setit Rivers.
The map also suggested Ethiopia claimed additional small pieces of territory that virtually all other maps show as part of Eritrea. In 1997, the issue returned when the regional government in Tigray issued a similar map. Ethiopia never provided a convincing response as to why these maps appeared.
All of these issues, including some other lesser ones, provided the backdrop for the outbreak of conflict in 1998. Following several minor, alleged incursions by Eritrean forces into territory administered by Ethiopia, there was an incident in the vicinity of Badme on 6 May 1998 involving Eritrean regular forces and hardened TPLF local militia.
According to a well-informed Ethiopian account, there were eight deaths on the Eritrean side and none on the Ethiopian side, suggesting the likelihood of an ambush. Eritrea sent a negotiating team to Addis Ababa to resolve the matter.
That team unexpectedly returned to Asmara on 10 May and within 24 hours, Eritrea invaded the Badme region, which had been administered by Ethiopia, with a large military force. Thus began a conventional type war on 12 May in which an estimated 100,000 soldiers on both sides perished in the next two years.
Time does tend to heal wounds, but both the Ethiopians and Eritreans have long memories and it is not clear how much of this baggage they can put aside.
Much of the discussion since the outbreak of conflict in 1998 has focused on Badme, which is only symbolic of greater differences. Ethiopians and Eritreans must conclude it is in their mutual interest to normalize relations and then begin to solve these political, economic, social, and geographical disputes.
Ethiopia needs to approach the problem with the understanding that it probably has to give up control over Badme. In effect, it has already acknowledged this possibility.
Eritrea needs to be more flexible on the sequencing of issues. It would be helpful to drop its demand that Badme be turned over first so that negotiations on other issues can begin. Both sides must also understand that small, mutually agreeable changes need to be made along other sections of the disputed border.
It is important that all of the economic differences be on the table, including future long-term access to the port of Assab by land-locked Ethiopia. Trade, open borders, telephone links, and air travel need to return to normal.
Eritreans and Ethiopians should be able to move across the border without difficulty and, following the laws in each country, work there. All of this is hard and will take many months to sort out, but Ambassador Cohen is correct that it is time to make the effort.
As for the improvement of relations between the United States and Eritrea, I also agree this would be a positive development. The United States does have a small embassy in Asmara headed by a charge d’affaires.
On several occasions in recent years, Washington has explored the possibility of improving relations with Asmara. They have come to nothing and not just because of U.S. concerns about earlier Eritrean support for al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Even if it is now possible to put this concern aside, it is not clear that President Isaias is truly interested in improving relations with the United States.
There is not much point in assigning an ambassador to Asmara if he/she does not have regular access to the senior levels of the Eritrean government. This is not an excuse for Washington to do nothing, but it is important to understand that the reluctance is not necessarily confined to one side.
Whatever Washington does in the coming months, its relationship with Addis Ababa is more important than the one with Asmara. Although the United States might decide to try again to improve relations with Eritrea, it will not do so at the expense of its ties with Ethiopia. Ideally, the United States, Ethiopia and Eritrea will collectively decide the time has come to normalize/improve relations so that Eritrea can come in from the cold.
David Shinn was the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999. He blogs at: http://davidshinn.blogspot.co.uk/ This article is part of an ongoing series examining the current state of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.


  1. DEAR WRITER, you better stay away from what you do not really know. It is because of spies like you that many African ckuntries are at loggerheads to date. This piece betrays you that you are a sheep messanger in a wolf’s skin sent by Shaibia to propagate falsehood as something which you claim it to be true. Do not be deled to that magnitude. We Ethiopians do not want any peace or friendship with Etitrea. Let Eritrea stay away as beautiful and slumbering as it has been for the last 12 years. We do not want to host phagocites any more. Our relationship for so many years has bedn a bleeding one, and this has ended with bloodshed for seemingly groundless, but profoundly meaningful reasons.
    A line in the book “The Count of Monte Christo” reads “It is not the tree, but the flowdr that leaves the tree.” And the destiny of the fruit? Well you think it over

  2. DEAR WRITER, you better stay away from what you do not really know. It is because of spies like you that many African ckuntries are at loggerheads to date. This piece betrays you that you are a sheep messanger in a wolf’s skin sent by Shaibia to propagate falsehood as something which you claim it to be true. Do not be deled to that magnitude. We Ethiopians do not want any peace or friendship with Etitrea. Let Eritrea stay away as beautiful and slumbering as it has been for the last 12 years. We do not want to host phagocites any more. Our relationship for so many years has bedn a bleeding one, and this has ended with bloodshed for seemingly groundless, but profoundly meaningful reasons.
    A line in the book “The Count of Monte Christo” reads “It is not the tree, but the flowdr that leaves the tree.” And the destiny of the flower? Well you think it over.
    In simple terms, do not meddle in others affairs. Just walk out about and have some coffee at the Starbucks, and have a great time for yourself. That behooves you and is a sane way. If you have enough time to devote for world issues think of how your capitalist system is pumping blood out of desperate workers to keep itself running, and think of the desperate situation Americans are dying because they do not reallg know what they are eating. So you can involve yourself in much more useful and revolutionary thinking than playing in the home affairs of poor countries.
    Just stay away and do your own homework. It is because of such ambassafors who tinker in the affairs of other based on romours and gossip than the bottomline facts that America has been caught in tragic wars and diplomatic failures both of which led many brave American taxpayers and strong workers into bloodshed. Please think much better Ambassador, please.

  3. David shin is a failed individual who is deliberately working against the interests of the ETHIOPIA/ERITREA.
    Instead of helping to bring about democracy , freedom and justice in Ethiopia and Eritrea he is now meddling and trying to decide who should get what land. Land dispute can only be resolved in a democracy, where transparency and the rule of law are upheld.
    Shin should understand that whatever land he is proposing for one side or the other, as long as there are fascists and ethno-centric dictators holding power there wont be a lasting peace.
    Shin and his bosses are deliberately ignoring the need of the people in the horn region for freedom. Shin is sabotaging the struggle of the people for democracy and justice by trying to impose his own ‘solution’ as the only one to carry out.
    SHIN HAS FAILED IN THE PAST and there is no reason to suspect that what he is suggesting now as a solution for the people of Ethiopia/Eritrea would bring any lasting solution.

  4. I do hate this racist American man. I wish I could meet him in person and talk to him what the hell he wanted from my country, He is no David, but Devil.

  5. I thought David Shinn is better than Cohen, but he is the same as of that of Cohen. Why do Americans think they have to meddle in Ethiopia? Mr. David, what the hell do you want from my country? While you build Universities in many Afrab countries, you did not even build a high school in Ethiopia? what the hell do you want? How can we beg American leaders to stay away from our affaires? Who invited you to be the mediator? What we need from you is only bilateral relation, I mean government to government relationship based on mutual interest. But we do not need you to tell us what we must do. I ask to stay away from Ethiopia, meddlers. It is not non-of your business to meddle in our affaires. Why you did not stop the war the consumed 100 000 souls ? why you did not stop the Rwanda genocide? why you do not help Somalians who have been without government for the past 22 years? Mr. David, you Americans love sticking your noses in the affaires of other countries. Please go Somalia and bring peace. leave Ethiopia alone. Thank you. We do not need your advises. Give your advises to somebody else. This is ignorance and racism, you are doing this because you think you are superior, I do not see other reasons fro sticking your nose into the affaires of other country. I beg you to stay away from our national affaires. We have to solve our problems ourselves. I beg American politicians to leave us alone.

  6. it is mind boggling as to why Mr. Cohen and Ambassador Shinn are now coming out and stating the fact that should of been better left alone. Why are they not telling us about the cable communications from Asmara and Addis Ababa to Washington during those dark days? President Isaias does not suffer from ethnic based syndrome. His isolation from the world stage is a fabricated lie. He truly believes Federalism based on ethnic division is futile. You can give a book analysis as to why the war started. The logical thinker knows it is “economical” than a boundary issue. Albert Camus once said “Peace is the only battle worth waging”. Will Ethiopia and Eritrea live in peace? My calculated answer is NO. They are better separated and staying that way for good!

  7. @mossad
    በጣም ጥሩ ማብራሪያ ነው።
    ብዙ ጊዜ አስተሳሰብህ በጣም ራዲካል ነው። እግዜር ይመስገን የኒኩለሩ ቁልፍ እንኩዋን አንተ እጅ አልሆነ፣ እንጂ አንተ እንጅ ቢሆን ኖሮ ሀገር አለቆ ነበር። ለሀገርህ ያለህ ቁጭት ጥሩ ነው፣ ግን አንተ መሄድ የምትፈልገውን መንገድ መሄድ ከባድ መንገድ ነው።በኢትዮጵያ ጉዳይ ከብዙ ሀገሮች ጋር ተባብሮ መስራት ጥሩና አስፈላጊ ነው።ልቀቁን፣ለብቻ ተውን ግን የሚጠቅም ነገር አይመስለኝም።

  8. Mr David Shin is behaving more like an USA-Eritrean envoy. Actually he is trying to use Ethiopia as a bargaining chip for better diplomatic relation with the recalcitrant Eritrea. The USA main target is limiting islamist extrimist stronghold in the horn region and USA needs Eritreas cooperation for that. What David Shin does not want to hear is the fact that Eritrea is built on the model of affinity with islamic extrimism. EPLF drew its support on the basis of fighting whta he calls afanatic christian nation in an island of islams. EPLF want to pay its allegiance to islamic extrimism as a pay back to the support it obtained for eritreas independence. The so called the Eritrean revolution was a popular war supported by the mainstream arab nations and was an important strategic and historical victory which the egyptians talk about it in emotional terms. Now david shin wants to baptise isayas against his religion at the expesne of poor and push over ethiopia. After all what is the gurantee that Eritrea will not withhold ethiopian items that pass through the port of Assab as it did in the past. What is the gurantee that Eritrea will not hike up the port fee any day on ethiopia any day it wants. What is the gurantee that the peace negotiation between eritrea and ethiopia as mediated by the USA will not end up making ethiopia the colony of eritrea as ambassador shin indicated in his writing because eritrea wants ethiopia in any case as its colony for raw materials to its industry. What is the gurantee that Eritrea will not invade ethiopia once again after the buffer zone is eliminated. What is the gurantee that eritrea will not stop its policy of creating havoc in ethiopia.

  9. am a proud ethiopian, if u believe me or not i want a guy like president isaias to lead ethiopia because he does not divide his people by tribe and religion . we need to have a country first the rest is secondary.

  10. የድር ገጽ አዘጋጆቹ ከምንም በፊት የጽሁፎች መመዘኛቸዉ ኢትዮጵያዊነት በሆነ በተገባ ነበር እነ ጁዋርን/ተስፋዬ ገ/አብን ከ ተከበሩት አክሎግ ቢራራ ጋር እኩል ካስተናግዱ ችግር አለ ማለት ነዉ። ሲጀመር ኢትዮጵያዊ ያልሆነ ጽሁፍ እዚህ ምን ይሰራል? ሻቢያ ሃሳቡን እዛዉ ለሻቢያዎች በትግርኛ ወይም በኤርትርኛ ይንገራቸዉ እኛ ደግሞ እዚህ የኛን ጉዳይ እንወያይ። ሲጀመር እነሱ እዚህ ምን ይሰራሉ? ንጻነት ብለዉ ሂደዉ የለ? ንጻነት ዳቦም ዘይትም ይስጣቸዉ እዚህም አይምጡብን ኢትዮጵያም አይሂዱ የኢትዮጵያ ትዝታቸዉን አስመራ ሂደዉ ያሳልፉ መዋጮዋቸዉን ከፍለዉ ከሆነ። የድር ገጽ አዘጋጆችም የተጣለላችሁን ሁሉ አንስታችሁ የኛን አእምሮም አታቆሽሹ። እንደዉም እነዚህ ሶስት ልጆች ሁሉም ሻቢያኖች ናቸዉ የፊት አወራረዳቸዉ ሞሶሎኒን ይመስላል።አመሰግናለሁ

  11. I agree with those people who comented on the article. IT IS MUCH BETTER FOR ETHIOPIA TO CONTINUE AS IT IS NOW. WE HAVE PEACE WITH OUT BLOOD SUCCERS. ETHIOPIA DOES NOT MISS ANYTHING IN THE PRESENT SITUATION.Yes eriteria miss everything.BUT THERE ARE MANY ER.BLOOD SUCCERES THAT HAVE ESTABLISHED THEM SELVES IN ETHIOPIA AND STEAL OUR PROPERTY.”Ertera yegelachin Ethiopia yegarachin” is their slogan.These americans are working to harm ethiopia.Choen have done it 22 years ago, and now he comes back with his bloody idea.WE ETHIOPIANS WILL CONTINUE THE WAY IT IS.IT IS PEACEFULL NOW THAN IT WAS BEFORE 1998.

  12. This is another face saving move by sheen and Cohen. They are worried the terrorist tplf is going to loose power on the coming election due to the armed traits that comes out of Eritrea.at accuse Eritrea supporting al shebab and sanction didn’t work second try assassination atemept advised didn’t work now negotiation nice try but it will fail again. Once again tiplf is asking their masters to come to their help. As always do.

  13. Tekeze, I am not Woyane ass licker. I am an Ethiopian. I do not believe in inequality or racism because I am not woyane. Woyanes wish everyone to think like them. No, big no; there is nothing Ethiopia needs from other countries except bilateral and multilateral relations based on mutual benefit. I do not believe Ethiopians politicians has to interfere in Americans affaires. American welfare must be decided by American only, not by Ethiopian politicians. This applies to all human being. Why would an American politician decide the destiny of an Ethiopian from Washington DC? Why? Mr. David Shinn wanted Ethiopia to give badme and wanted to access Assab port? Does Dave know the ports are our own ports and we do not need him to tell us what we must do? unless is an arrogant and racist? If Americans believe in democracy why do they stick their r noses and hands in the affaires of other societies, nations, countries? is that democractic? or democracy allows Americans to meddle everywhere?
    We love the American people, Ethiopians do love Americans by default with no condition including myself. But my loathe for Cohen is reaching the roof and Mr. David is also following him? They are in a mission and they know what they are doing, this is nothing than insanity utmost. They are insensitive, racist, suffering from superiority complex? do they know we give damn shit to their skin colour? I do not believe in skin colour. Unless it is racism based on colour of skin, why would an American man tell an Ethiopia do this and do that? why?
    American politicians like Cohen are our enemies. They hate our country and all they wanted is to divide our country and to push it into war. Now there is no war in Ethiopia like before ,and they are trying to reignite war. For Cohen it is like playing computer game to watch Ethiopians killing each other. He has enjoyed all his life when Ethiopians were killing each other. He was the sponsor of Shabia and woyane. No Ethiopian is now concerned about Eritrea, why Americans like Cohen and Mr. David are sticking their nose deciding our future from USA. Here is my policy: Mr. Cohen you made me live all my life in war field and you made all my life to live as refugee because you sponsored rebels all along and who deprived us peaceful life.
    Now; I want both Mr. David Shinn, and Cohen to shut up and stop sticking their nose into my country and messing up the futures of young Ethiopians. We do not want USA officials to decide the future of our country. We will solve the Ethio-Eritrea problem ourselves. We love the Eritreans more than Cohen and Mr. David. They are not actually Eritreans, Eritrea is a colonial name; they are Ethiopians. We will sit under a fig tree or Daero and solve our problem traditionally.We have a traditional method of resolving confilicts among ourselves. We do not need a mediator all the way from USA. USA official better focus in their country which is now overtaken by China while they are wasting time, energy , money meddling everywhere and China is taking them over. They are even in debt in trillions of dollars from China. Besides, 60 million Americans have no access to primary health care like in Europe and Canada. Americans has to cross border to Canada to get free medical services. Their country’s economy is controlled by 1% of the population and the difference between rich and poor is astronomical. If I was an American I would rather focus in my country ‘s problem than sticking my nose elsewhere because of superiority complex.
    I do love the American people, but I am losing my patience with Cohen and Mr. David. They must stop their racism, ignorance and primitivity. This is pure racism and arrogance. It is unfair the destiny of 97 million people have to be decided by American officials from Ney York and Washigton? This is an injustice. If they believe in democracy, this is also not democractic. They are imposing themselves on the poor people of Ethiopians. We are human being like them and we can think and solve our problem ourselves.

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