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What Triggered the Devastating Ethio-Eritrea War?

8 mins read
Ethiopia and Eritrea entered into a bloody war on Ginbot 1990 E.C (May 1998 G.C) when the Eritrean government invaded some parts in Northern Ethiopia, Tigray region (specifically Badme and Zalanbesa – though Badme is usually referred to as the flash point for the war). Some people have written about the main reasons that turned these two long-time friendly governments into arch-foes, but there is not still a clear understanding of what really caused it. Many people are unable to comprehend the hidden political and economical reasons that led to the fade out of the relationships of the two countries and finally caused the break out of a full scale war. As we all know, the two countries stayed in a full-scale war for two years from 1990 – 1992 E.C (1998 – 2000 G.C) but the no-war no-peace situation continues until this very day.
In this article, I’m going to provide the main causes that triggered the war which has cost tens of thousands of lives and Billions of Dollars from both countries.
According to some independent scholars, one of the reasons for the war is the difference in economic policy that arisen between the two governments when the Eritrean government introduced its new currency, the Nakfa. The Eritrean government insisted that Nakfa should be exchanged with the Birr (the Ethiopian Currency) in the same rate which was not accepted by the Ethiopian government that insisted the two currencies should be valued according to international standard and exchange rates. When they couldn’t reach an agreement, the Ethiopian government changed the Birr Notes which angered the Eritrean government officials.
The second reason given is the absence of clear demarcation between the borders of the two countries. After Eritrea declared its independence as a country, known boarder agreements between the two countries were not made.  Things were running according to common understandings of the two sides without internationally binding and agreed-up-on demarcation on their border. Also, there were clear gaps in resources sharing between the two countries, such as a port outlet which is a hot topic of discussion among the Ethiopian people until now.
The third possible cause of the war is that the government of Eritrea wanted to build a unique Eritrean nationalism completely separate from Ethiopia. Because Eritrea was part of Ethiopia before it got separated, the people of the two countries are closely related in many ways – have become families due to marriage relationships, are culturally similar, have been together in social, religious, and other gatherings (celebrations) and generally share similar feelings in many aspects. The government of Eritrea saw this as an impediment in building a unique Eritrean nationalism and nationhood. On top of that, some section of Eritrea, though a few in number, didn’t support the separation from Ethiopia and were still opting to stay united with Ethiopia. The government of Eritrea doesn’t like such sentiments because they don’t go with its policy of building unique Eritrean nationalism and nationhood. The government of Eritrea instigated the war because it wanted to cut relations with Ethiopia to achieve its goal. On a similar note, the Ethiopian government was facing strong opposition from different parties for introducing Ethnic-based federalism and allowing Eritrea to go independent. Therefore, some Ethiopian scholars argue that the Ethiopian government saw the war as an opportunity to buy the heart of Ethiopian unity proponents and was able to line-up tens of thousands of people when it called people to join the military to defend their country from the Eritrean aggression.
A few years after independence, the Eritrean government started a forced conscription – declaring that every Eritrean should participate in a military training. This helped it to own a modern defense force and started to arm-twist neighboring countries to fulfill its political and economic ambitions.  This aggressive behavior of the Eritrean government is what has put it in war with all of its neighboring countries – Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Thus, one other reasons for the Eritrean government to aggressively invade lands deep into the Northern parts of Ethiopia and claimed them as its territory was because it knew the weakness and limitation of the Ethiopian defense forces.
The fourth reason for the war is the differences in the governance system the two countries practice in their respective constituencies. The Ethiopian government follows a decentralized Federal Democratic System of governance where the country is divided into federal states which have their own budget and government but all under the umbrella of a central federal government. The Eritrean government, on the other hand, follows a strictly centralized system of governance where every major decision flows down from the central government in a unidirectional way and every governmental body, be it in the upper, middle and/or lower government structure, is not a decision maker but simply implements what comes from above. The Ethiopian government, on other hand, labeled the Eritrean government as undemocratic for not providing freedom to its different Ethnic groups. Both governments saw this difference as something that can trigger a challenge to them.
As the nature of the subject under discussion is very complex (and information is hidden in most part), it’s not possible to list the causes of the war with 100% certainty. The reasons listed above are only some of the many that might have caused this devastating war. The two countries have been giving their own version of the story, but they mostly use it for propaganda purposes and lack honesty. In my next article, I’ll come up with detailed analysis of the consequence and the possible solutions of the war. Stay Tuned!