A Speech Delivered By Seyoum O-Michael, At The Conference on the Ethiopian-Eritrean Conflict; Amsterdam, 11.07.1998 !!

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This Document is Posted in Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary the Death of Seyoum Ogbamichael! 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Coming as it did without clear signals which concerned circles could be aware of,  the  current conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has, no doubt, taken by surprise both peoples and more so world public opinion. So far, the warring sides have given no clear and understandable explanation of their side of the story as to why the war came and escalated the way it did. Political observers, policy makers and the media in general were left to surmise or gamble with the scanty information available in their attempts at analysing the overall situation that led to the present unwanted but dire conflict.

Here lie the importance and relevance of this timely and inclusive peace conference- a conference which has brought together both Eritrean and Ethiopian academics and political activists for the first time after the birth of independent of Eritrea to discuss the question of war and peace. So please allow me, ladies and gentlemen, to express my admiration for the superb job Drs. Tsegezab Gebregergis has done in organizing this conference and in selecting the thought provoking topics.I know he has spent many months in planning the event. Likewise, I would also like to thank you Professor Gerd June of the University of Amsterdam  who has taken the initiative, together with Drs. Tsegezab Gebregergis,  for planning and organising this conference with foresight for the analytic understanding of the conflict and its regional and global ramifications.

Ladies and gentlemen Africa has witnessed a number of conflicts  between neighbouring states; few have, however, taken the form and scale of a sudden and massive military campaign nor developed into full blown wars involving entire armies and peoples. Although the colonial background is always there as a common legacy and bound to express itself in all aspects of our peoples’ life, in one mode or another, no two recent conflicts have been comparable, given the difference in the setting of the states and the political, economic and cultural factors involved in both local and regional levels.

The current conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia could best be understood basing ones analysis on the history of co-operation and contradiction between the ruling parties, the EPLF and the E.PRDF . Available experience points to the wisdom taking up the war and the border dispute as two separate issues, each with its own genesis and developments. Indeed, these are more things that seem to have uncomfortably converged on the arena.

Ladies and Gentlemen,  a close look at the events and developments that led to the present situation is telling enough that the war was coming anyway with or without the border issue. This, in my opinion, is the objective approach that  could lead to an incisive  and  comprehensive  understanding of the concrete elements of conflict and war involved. The two ruling parties were set on a collision course, since the establishment of their alliance in the seventies. With relations at their best,  the border was no issue at all, and it never had been one between the two organizations. I think serious efforts should be made to come  up  with  satisfactory  clarifications  and  explanations relating to the causes of the conflict in the way of putting  it in a proper perspective, basing our evaluation on the following  pivotal  points.

a. The basis of the alliance between the current rulers of both countries and the global context it fitted;
b. The developments that led to the collapse of that alliance;
c.The significance of the events that preceded the time of the flare-up of hostilities;
d.The why ‘s  and  how’s  of  the  sudden jump   from  a  state  of  apparent  cooperation  to an  all-out military confrontation; and,
e.Why has it, so far, proved so difficult to stop the war and bring the two governments to face-to-­face.

Dwelling on these and related matters could, in my opinion, help explore into the nature of the Ethiopia-Etitrean conflict and its impact on the region and the prospects for its solution.

The sixties and the seventies were characterized by a surge of revolutionary fervour and movement on a global level. The rise against the evils of unbridled capitalist exploitation, covered the entire planet, with non-capitalist option of development on the rise among countries of the third world. Almost all political and social forces in the world fitted in one form or another into the two competing camps. Many a state, cause or movement were ‘Wronged and victimised as the cold war reached its high point. The fate of the Horn of Africa was no different. The longest and outstanding conflict there being the Eritrean national revolution versus Ethiopian occupation which was to be followed by the confrontation between the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia and the Monarch that turned life in Ethiopia into a venture of misery. In the arena, with the Eritrean struggle gaining momentum and the Ethiopian expansionist thrown into the defensive and the campuses and then the barracks heating up as hotbeds of opposition to the regime in Addis Abeba, the ground was well worked for the popular uprising against the regime. ‘The US+Israel and the West in general had all along registered their support to the Emperor as a cold war political ally. The ELF-RC spearheaded the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle and successfully rallied the Eritrean people under the national democratic banner. This in itself constituted much moral support for the Ethiopian  freedom fighters.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the sense of mutual sympathy and affinity that evolved between the Eritrean and Ethiopian revolutions with the coming of the EPRP,and later the Tegrean movements to the arena of armed resistance, was the natural product of the interplay of factors and elements of that era. The EL.F-RC soon reviewed the developments in Ethiopia and acknowledged the need to help the Eritrean people cope with the developments and educate themselves about the reality of the situation in Ethiopia so that our view of the war might assume its proper perspective not as a war between two peoples but for what it really is, a war that rallied occupied Eritrea and oppressed Ethiopians in one camp and the ruling classes of Ethiopia and their masters on the other. The Eritrean Revolution was, thus, well poised to stage practical work of solidarity, though too sincere and naive to begin with.

The attitude and position of the ELf’-RC was governed by and fully expressed in the resolutions of the first and second General National Congresses and reflected in its dealings with various Ethiopia and other movements. II could be summarized in the following words.

a. Recognition of the full right of the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia to determine their future and realise their democratic aspirations as a people and as oppressed nationalities;

b.Abiding by the basic principle that the relationships between the two revolutions should evolve on the basis of mutual respect and revolutionary solidarity without interference in each other’s Internal affairs.

c. Being young and vulnerable at the time., the Ethiopian movements should be assisted and their forces bolstered to enable them to stand on their own feet and acquire the capability to meet the challenges against the common enemy.

Even as a second and a nascent force in the Eritrean arena, EPLF behaviour and above all its policies with the Ethiopian opposition was primarily influenced by its power ambitions in Eritrea and its Self-imposed contradictions and rivalry with the ELF-RC. In this regard, there was a marked difference of approach between the two Eritrean organizations.

Ladies and gentlemen, basing on the longest and,  in many instances, costly and painful experience available I dare say there were two divergent political cultures at play on the arena. One  took narrow organizational considerations and gains as  the basis on which policies of international relations were made1 the other, while not dismissing organizational interests altogether, took the interest of the nation and the revolution as a whole and the aspirations of the struggling peoples as the overriding and central objective around which matters of relations and solidarity should revolve. The EPLF represented the former.

The roots of the current conflict lie in the unprincipled and thus unstable ground on which the EPLF-EPRDF alliance stood from the outset. As the experience amply showed, that ground kept shaking all along the way. J.n the seventies, in what at the time looked. Like their honey-moo both organizations were freshly wedded, and claimed they had established what at the  time  came to be traded as ‘strategic alliance’ . The ELF-RC as well as Ethiopian forces that  differed with the TPLF were taken  as the principal  common enemies in addition  to the regime  in  Addis  Ababa.  In a sharp u-turn, the alliance was down-graded to what the TPLF at the rime termed as “tactical  alliance’, meaning an alliance for immediate or short-term and specific goals. Moreover the TPLF took up characterizing all Eritrean political forces as  non  democratic,  barely  national (with  vacillating national positions) . According to TPLF  officially  endorsed  assessment  at the  time,  democratic forces as defined by the TPLF were non-existent on the Eritrean arena. In the late eighties, Eritrean groups fanned under the sponsorship of  the  same  TPLF  were  baptised  as  the  sole  democratic groups in the Eritrean Revolution.  This was  followed  by  its  feverish  campaign  among  the  Tegrean and Eritrean peoples aimed, to use their language, at ‘unveiling ‘ the true nature of the EPLF and its position relating to many issues of political,  military, political and also ideological nature.

The TPLF and later the EPRDF, while maintaining its working relations with the EPLF, had in the past complained about the arrogance of EPLF leadership and their tendency to dictate policies and impose themselves on their movement. It could be useful to note at this juncture, the fact that this basically Tigrean nationality movement at one point in time switched to a pan-Ethiopian programme and turned southwards seeking alliances with other split groups and many nationality movements largely of its own making. With time, the TPLF grew stronger and gained more and more self-confidence and so became less and less dependent on the EPLF. As a result, it became more vocal in its criticism of its partner, the EPLF.

The elements of difference and friction that kept breeding within the alliance inevitably set in motion a chain of actions and reactions from both sides. Given their nature, both were totally in. capable of analyzing their problems objectively nor of tackling them in time. And so distrust and bitterness kept building up and many a time brought them to the verge of confrontation. The external factor played a key role in those instances. The West in general and the US in particular was alarmed at the prospect of a premature fighting between ‘brothers’ before the main job was done, the downfall of the regime in Addis Ababa. This could explain why possible earlier conflicts could be diffused  before they spin out of control.

Ladies and Gentlemen, things did not end here; differences in other areas as well kept surfacing. The future status of Eritrea (including possible reunification) in the event of a military victory was one point in case. The relationship of both with the other political forces operating in Eritrea and Ethiopia, the conduct of the war against the ELF-RC and the Menghistu regime, ideological issues that emerged following the TPLF Congress in the mid eighties. All these issues have compounded dangerously to  create a very tense relation which grew more and more difficult to maintain.

Ladies and gentlemen, with both political forces jointly victorious  and in power , we should acknowledge the fact that efforts were made to boost their alliance and. make it work. Victory itself had its positive influence. The USA in particular had been looking to the ruling EPLF and EPRDF as promising factors of stability in the region and as reliable  political allies that would safeguard US vital strategic interests. With that in view the US+Israel in particular have been investing much in both ruling parties in terms of political and material support. As political allies, many of the human rights violations committed by the ton and the anti-democratic stance adopted by the rulers of Eritrea in particular went unheeded, to say the least.

As was noted earlier, however, the two sides were in-irreversibly oriented into a collision course. Since 1991 alone cases of contradictions piled up and heated friction took its toll on the relations of the ruling parties, whose alliance started to fall apart. To give part of the long list of sensitive issues and events that loaded the atmosphere preceding the flare-up of the current conflict, the continued and brutal expulsion of Ethiopians and particularly those of Tigrean origin from Eritrea sine 1991, the conflict on trade and commerce between the two sides, the Eritrean ports all d the question of their use by Ethiopia.,  the currency and exchange problem  the maltreatment  of each other’s nationals at the  border  areas., rivalry  and  differences  on dealing  with  problems  in the  region,    all  this contributed to ignite a conflict and  escalate  the war  which  no  sane Eritrean  or  Ethiopian  would want. This is not by any means to say that those issues are by nature not responsive  to solution and had necessarily and inevitably led to the war; no, not at all.

Underlying all the rest,  are two crucial and fundamental elements that are conspicuously nursing; the democratic role of the people in all this and the sense of responsibility and maturity in the nature of the leaders of both countries. It has been in the nature and tendency’ of the EPLF as well as their partners in Ethiopia to solve differences and contradictions regardless of their nature, through violence which is basically a primitive instrument and would never be justified except in extreme cases of self-defence. The leaders, therefore, did not possess the statesmanship  and  civilised approach to solve and diffuse such a volatile situation. And what is worse, they  have  fatally disabled popular role so much that the voice of the people is missing and could not be there to make up for the weaknesses of the leaderships. In matters of peace and war, which are related to the future of the two nations have thus fallen into the wrong hands to the exclusion and detriment of both peoples.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is nothing wrong with Eritrea, emerging as a. Sovereign state after a century long colonial plunder, to seek clarification of its  borders .  The  ELF-RC  stands unequivocally for Eritrean sovereignty on all of its national territory  as  defined  by  its international( colonial)  borders.

The EPLF, though, happens to be the very organization that handed sovereignty to the ‘contested areas’ over to the Ethiopian TPLF as a price of their alliance against the ELF-RC, which controlled and administered those areas in the sixties and seventies. This act of historical treason and sale-out of Eritrean soil by the EPLF renders it unfit to help in the settlement of the dispute. In fact the EPLF is the of Eritrean national groups that should speak about the border issue. However,  this does not in any way change the fact that the border issue is an old and standing issue crying for a speedy  solution.

The question is how? The ELF-RC position is clear on this issue. The original text of the Executive Committee Statement that clarifies our organization’s position on the border issue suffices for the purpose; it reads as follows:


ELF-RC Executive Committee Statement On The  Ethiopia-Eritrean Conflict

23 May 1998

The conflict that has broken out in May 1998 between the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces around Bademe and Shiraro areas has profoundly shocked the peoples of both countries. The sudden flare-up of fighting is the consequence of shady ways and practices., secret deals and deeds, which the EPLF and TPLF had been maintained in their relations, both during the years of the armed struggle and after their assumption of power. The suffering the people and their political organization had to endure at the hands of such unholy alliance is inestimable. Ironically, it was also at the cost of the very same areas, it is now claiming to defend that the EPLF sought an alliance with the TPLF in its conspiracy to oust the ELF-RC from the .Eritrean arena in the early 80’s.

Far from being an isolated border dispute, the conflict between the two governments has far-reaching implications. It has brought the peoples of the two countries on the brink of ominous danger. Unless a speedy solution is found, the situation could lead into an all-out war having catastrophic  consequences.

The Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples should not be deceived by the call of war in which they have  no  interest.  Instead, they  are called  on  to redouble  their  efforts to carry  on  the  struggle  for peace democracy, human rights and progress in their’ respective countries. The use of arms cannot bring  lasting  solution to  border  conflicts,  neither  has its application  ever  served  any  purpose  other than  causing more death, destruction  and instability. We, therefore, call on the two countries to put pressure on  their rulers so they resort to reason and seek peaceful means of resolving  the conflict. Moreover,  the governments  of both  countries  should  understand  that  they  are responsible  for  the safety  and  protection  of nationals  living within  each  other’s national  borders.  They  should ensure that no harm  is done to them and desist from taking any measures that may disrupt their normal  life.

Our opinion  on the solution  of the Ethiopian-Eritrean  conflict  could  be summarized  in the following:

  1. Establish the fact that border disputes could and should be settled through peaceful and legal means and not by military. The use of violence should be rejected and condemned.
  2. Both countries should  withdraw  their  troops from the contested  areas,  and until  such time solution is found, those areas should be administered according to an arrangement agreed upon by both sides;
  1. Both sides should agree to come before an international Court  of Justice and present charts and other relevant evidences supporting their claims to the disputed areas,  agreeing at the same time to abide by its verdict.
  1. Both countries should agree to allow nationals living along the border areas to move freely across the borders as they did in the past and allow them to look after their livestock in peace .
  1. Both parties should desist from taking measures or carrying out inflammatory propaganda  that may lead to the worsening of the situation and provoke war .

In concluding, we reaffirm that ·we shall carry on the struggle until the two brotherly peoples will have healed their wounds to live in peace, democracy and progress based on good-neighbourliness and mutual respect,