Ethiopia Harbors Expansionism

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Africa Commentary

The devastating two-year (1998-200) border war between Eritrea and
Ethiopia, though widely seen as rivaling sovereignty claims over a
small town of Badme, was a clear case of simple expansionism.

Ethiopia lives in a state of schizophrenic perpetual denial of the
irreversible geopolitical realities precipitated by 19th Century
Colonialism that it is constantly trying to undo in its favor by
military aggression.   

Ethiopia did not end the war after “recovering” the town of Badme but
proceeded to conquer a sizable chunk of undisputed sovereign Eritrean
territories including the failed attempt to re-occupy the Eritrean port
city of Assab, which is Ethiopia’s ultimate dream goal. When it was
time to settle the dispute via legal arbitration, Ethiopia did not
limit its claim to the town of Badme but questioned Eritrea’s entire
territorial sovereignty and demanded a re-determination of it

The boundary commission did its job. The border dispute, be it over
Badme or in terms of the entire shared border, which was all that they
fought and then sought legal arbitration for, was ultimately and
indisputably resolved now over five years ago and case referred to
immediate physical implementation exactly as decided and determined. It
didn’t happen yet simply because the Algiers Peace Agreement failed to
clearly stipulate specific enforcement mechanism should either party,
in this case Ethiopia, defy the ruling of the boundary commission. Case

Not so fast, there is more than a border conflict says writer John
Harbeson—he starts with the brazen distortion of the irreversible
geopolitical realities brought about by 19th Century Colonialism.

The often-repeated term “Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia” is
a sorry attempt to imply Eritrea’s cession from Ethiopia, on the one
hand, and to perpetuate Ethiopia’s expansionist and irredentist claims
over Eritrea’s territorial and national sovereignty, on the other hand.

The reality is, Eritrea re-claimed its rightful national independence
in 1991 by the same means it was denied of at the end of Colonialism
first by British military occupation (1941-1951), then UN imposed
“federation” with Abyssinia (1952-1962), and finally by Abyssinia’s
willful dissolution of even the forced ‘federation’ and subsequent
military occupation for 30 years (1961-1991).

Haberson’s audacious assertion that Eritrea’s independence brought
about “the first and only boundary change in Africa since the end of
colonial rule” is not only a blatant denial of to-date existing
geopolitical realities precipitated by Colonialism but also a lazy
attempt to legitimize and justify Ethiopia’s 30-year military
occupation of Eritrea and declaring it to its 14th province, just like
one would legitimize and justify Iraq’s occupation of Quwait and
declaring it to its province (1991) or Indonesia’s forcible occupation
of East Timor (Portuguese colonial territory) and declaring it to its
27th province (1976).

The fact is, Eritrea’s independence in 1991 did not bring about any
boundary change but certainly re-instated the undeniable reality of a
colonial boundary that was forcibly obscured for 30 years for the first
time because Ethiopia’s as well as Eritrea’s boundary at independence
in 1991 is exactly the same boundary that existed at the beginning and
end of Colonialism.

By Haberson’s own admission, Eritrea’s 30-year armed struggle to
re-claim national independence was in response to Ethiopia’s military
occupation (forcible annexation) of Eritrea in 1961. Then turns around
and asserts that between 1961-1991 “the border between Ethiopia and
Eritrea was of no importance because it was an internal boundary
separating one Ethiopian province from another.”

Well, what were Eritreans fighting for then? Fighting for Eritrea
without borders? That statement bears validity only if Haberson wants
to justify and legitimize Ethiopia’s military occupation of Eritrea and
serves Ethiopia’s expansionist and irredentist claims over Eritrea’s
sovereignty. “But the border was created somewhat ambiguously as a
result of Menelik's victory over Italian armies at Adwa in 1896,”
writes Haberson. There is no ambiguity about the course of Eritrea’s
territorial sovereignty. Eritrea’s boundary was created, established
and secured by legal colonial treaties of 1900, 1902, and 1908.

Then, Haberson indulges in the issue of ‘the right of nations to
self-determination’ and draws utterly preposterous comparisons between
Eritrea and the Somali and Oromo ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Good lord!
Eritrea is neither an ethnic group nor a connotation for an ethnic
group. Just like the word Ethiopia, Eritrea is the name of a country
not ethnic group. As a matter of fact, Eritrea is a multi-ethnic
country that has been militarily occupied by another multi-ethnic
country, Ethiopia.

Moreover, Eritrea is not a subject of “the right of nations to
self-determination” but a clear case of a nation state, a colonial
territory, under the blatant military occupation of Ethiopia. Hence,
the issue is how to end the forcible occupation for it is not Eritrea
trying to secede from Ethiopia but Ethiopia trying to perpetuate its
military occupation of Eritrea. 

Haberson argues that in Ethiopian eyes “Eritrea’s constitutional
strategy offends legitimate ethnic aspirations to political autonomy.
Some ethnic communities in each country overlap these borders.” That is
certainly understandable because it kills Ethiopia’s irredentist
claims. Other than that, ethnic communities overlapping borders of two,
three, even four countries is the norm in post-colonial Africa where
colonial borders were drawn arbitrarily not according to ethnic
affiliation. For example, Somali ethnic communities overlap Somalia,
Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti borders.

“Thus, more is involved than a mere border. If there is an eventual
demarcation of the border and Eritrean troops withdraw, the larger
political and economic issues will remain,” concludes Haberson. 

Who cares about that? Ethiopia. Eritrea has not even intimated let
alone raise those “large” issues because bilateral relation between
nations on all pertinent societal aspects are voluntary not a demand
that is dictated by the needs of either nation.

Haberson brought that up only to underline and as a warped but clear
reference to Ethiopia’s persistent expansionist territorial and
irredentist claims over Eritrea’s seaports. For what else, in Eritrea,
would bear such a make-or-break significance to Ethiopia?


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