Eritrea: Prof. Jon
Abbink on Badme, EEBC and its decision
11 Feb 2005
Only 10 days after
its acceptance of the border decision of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary
Commission (EEBC), Ethiopia launched a multifaceted campaign to renege on it.
To that effect, one of the means it deployed was hiring academic mercenaries to
distort the findings of the EEBC and to make its decision appear controversial
and thereby to undermine it. The British professor C. Clapham and the Dutchman,
Horn of Africa anthropologist, professor Jon Abbink availed themselves to
assume that function. Both of them failed because there is nothing that can and
will shake the EEBC and its decision. Today, almost two years later, the name
Jon Abbink pops up in conjunction with a new book on Eritrea entitled “Eritrean
Beauty” by the Dutch photographer Anne Alders.
Anne Alders invokes prof. J. Abbinks notoriety in order
to lend credibility to her work and writes, “Owing to the contribution of prof.
dr. Jan Abbink this book of photos has obtained an anthropological and cultural
value and significance.
Abbink has been appointed professor to the university of
Amsterdam (V.U.) and the Africa Study Centre of Leiden.
Being an anthropologist Abbink is conducting scientific research relating to the
history of- and the cultures in the "Horn of Africa." Prof. Abbink
has written the accompanying text and has also dedicated a very exploratory
chapter to each individual section of the population”. That prompted us to
share with and remind all interested about that what prof J Abbink wrote on
behalf of Ethiopia regarding Eritrea, Badme, EEBC and its decision:
the Ethiopian-Eritrean Conflict - Back to Square One?
2003 Ethiopia and Eritrea are still awaiting the final determination and
demarcation of their international border over which they fought their massive
war of 1998-2000. According to UN sources, the actual demarcation will begin in
May 2003. It is anticipated with some trepidation by both sides. The fate of
one place in particular is eagerly awaited: Badme, the village where it all
began on 6 May with an armed incident between Eritrean and Ethiopian militia,
followed by a violent incursion on 12 May 1998 by Eritrean troops to avenge the
death of some of their soldiers and of a high-ranking officer. They displaced
the Ethiopian administration and town militia and occupied the place.
is history: one of the most intense and bloody wars that Africa has seen in
recent years, with close to a 100,000 deaths. It ended in a military defeat for
Eritrea in May-June 2000 after a remarkable Ethiopian offensive, a peace
negotiation agreement in December 2000 (the 'Algiers Agreement'), the
installation of a 4200-member UN peacekeeping force (UNMEE) in early 2001, and
the creation of an Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC), appointed and
mandated by both enemies and working under the auspices of the Permanent Court
of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.
gave its 125-page verdict on 13 April 2002 and the two contestants had said
beforehand that this decision would be taken as binding. While both countries
predictably claimed the ruling as a 'victory', the first differences of opinion
were already evident a few days after the EEBC decision came out and have
continued until this day. The flash-point is the location of Badme. This
village - its correct spelling would rather be Badimme - was allegedly the fons
et origo of the conflict: the first battleground and the linchpin of national
integrity. It will be recalled that president Isayas Afeworqi of Eritrea had
said, after the conquest of the place in May 1998, that giving up Badme would
be like saying that the sun would set in the east, and claimed it had always
belonged to Eritrea. For Ethiopia it was a humiliation that a place
administered by Ethiopian since its founding was usurped by Eritrea with force.
became a highly symbolic place, and whoever would be accorded it under the EEBC
decision would carry the day and be perceived as the ultimate victor of the
war. This may be the reason why the EEBC, in a rather childish move, excluded
any reference to the location of Badme in its lengthy report. It is only
mentioned once in passing (on p. 84). On the detailed maps in the Border
Ruling, the Commission even refrained from indicating Badme. Its coordinates
were not given either. This was delaying the truth and therefore a fruitless
gesture. In addition, by neglecting to discuss Badme and the local situation as
perceived by the people living on the spot, the EEBC also dispensed with an
important jurisprudential convention (to which we will come back below).
Meanwhile, the propaganda battle between Ethiopia and Eritrea has gone on, both
claiming Badme and thus being the moral victor of the war.
Badme, and what does it matter?
too much on the whereabouts of Badme in the final border demarcation exercise,
it is easy to lose sight of the real issues of the war, which to most observers
was quite senseless. These were a combination of personal arrogance of two
leaders with highly authoritarian tendencies, abuse of power, and the lack of
clear-cut, statesman-like agreements on the mutual politico-economic relations
of the two new states after 1991, when they came to power with a momentum of
hope and promise.
Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister and the leader of the former insurgent
movement Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF), in power in Addis Ababa since
May 1991 after the defeat of the Mengistu-regime, was long the close ally of
Isayas Afeworqi, who was leader of the guerrilla movement EPLF that took Asmara
in 1991. They had a closely allied political agenda, inspired by Marxist
policies dating from the 1970s Ethiopian student movement. Their movements, the
Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front (EPLF) and the TPLF (later EPRDF or
Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front), also had had close military
cooperation in the field. EPLF had helped found and train the TPLF in the
mid-1970s. Relations between the Eritrean and Ethiopian regimes, however,
turned sour in 1997 when rivalry emerged on regional hegemony, and when
Eritrean president Isayas saw he could no longer dominate Ethiopian policy in
all respects. Tensions rose, economic and political problems escalated, and
Isayas gambled to restore dominance by forcing the Ethiopians on the border
issue, similar to what they did with Yemen in the case of the Hanish Islands.
The border conflict is therefore to be seen as a means used to achieve wider ends:
regional dominance, maintaining privileged economic relations between Eritrea
and Ethiopia, and weakening of the Ethiopian regime, which was then in the
midst of serious political problems and opposition from large sections of the
public. Isayas gambled wrongly, as Meles, under great pressure from his party
and the Tigray home base - hard hit by the invasion - as well as the wider
public, did not de-escalate and had to respond by force. In February 1999,
Eritrean forces were dislodged from Badme in a big Ethiopian offensive that
cost several tens of thousands of lives.
Badme is a
village in the land of the Kunama, the ancient indigenous people in the area.
It took its name from the Badumma plains, a stretch of land used mainly as
pasture by the Kunama and more recently as cultivation area. The village of
Badme was founded in the 1950s under the auspices of the then administrator of
the Tigray province, Ras Seyoum Mengesha, who was killed in the 1960 coup
d'état attempt. As Eritrea was then part of Ethiopia, any border problem did
not arise. Over the years, Eritrean farmers and traders also came to settle in
Badme. They were of the same language group (Tigrinya) as the local people.
confusion has to be cleared up first and may hold the key to the solution. On
most maps there is a place called Yirga, which seems to coincide with the
location of Badme. Yirga's geographic location is 14° 37' 60N latitude - 37°
55' 0E longitude. In a news dispatch of 12 July 1999, an AFP reporter noted
that local people spoke of “Badme” when they meant the village formally named
“Yirga”. In official Ethiopian documents, however, Badme is the name of a place
in the woreda (or district) of Tahtay-Adiabo. In the Ethiopian census report of
1994 there is no mention of a town called Yirga, which confirms the idea that
Badme and Yirga are one and the same. This would answer the question of where
exactly Badme is, because under all projections and treaty lines Yirga, with
the mentioned coordinates, is securely in Ethiopian territory, some 20 km north
of Shiraro town on the road to Eritrea. Also on the first map on the border
area issued by the UN in November 2000 (Map no. 3790, Rev. 4, subsequently
withdrawn) Yirga is located in Ethiopian territory. There is, however, a
word-play going by both Eritrea and Ethiopia on Badme, because it can refer to
the Badme or Badumma plain extending across both countries. So “Badme” in the
wider sense, except for Yirga village, can legitimately be claimed as being in
There are assertions
in various sources that with Global Positioning System (GPS) reckonings Badme
is in Eritrea (see, for instance, Fielding 1999: 93, who did not visit
Ethiopia). This cannot be ascertained as long as the Yirga-Badme confusion is
not sorted out and if the issue is not seen from both sides of the border line.
Certainly, in the report of the Ethiopian nation-wide census of 1994, 'Badme
town' is listed as a location in Tigray (CSA 1998: 10) and was stated to have
892 inhabitants. In various UN documents, Badme is also mentioned as an
Ethiopian place and as a recipient of food aid (11). People of Badme voted in
all Ethiopian elections after 1991. Another indication is that after 1993, the
year of formal Eritrean independence, Eritrean currency (the naqfa) was never
used in Badme.
Eritrean forces entered the Badme area on 12 May 1998, they neither were hailed
as liberators nor did they behave as such. The nature of Eritrean military
action was offensive and turned into occupation, as it did in the contested
Irob country further to the east. Several Badme civilian residents were killed
and abducted, and before retreating in the wake of the Ethiopian offensive of
February 1999, the Eritrean army largely destroyed the town: the church, the
primary schools, the hand pump, the clinics. Local residents stated that there
were efforts to forcibly take their land and give it to Eritreans. All this
would indicate that Eritrea had no administrative or other foothold in Badme,
and was not recognized by local people as legitimately having one.
issue of the feelings of the Badme residents is indeed different from the legal
issue of where the border is or should be on the basis of the colonial
treaties, what seems sure is that the question of actual possession and
peaceful administration (i.e., effectivités, if not uti possedetis facto, or
'Have what you have in fact had') was in Ethiopia's favour.
the area around Badme was sometimes in dispute. In the 1970s, it was the field
of operations of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). This movement now and
then tried to establish administrative structures in the area, e.g. in Badme,
but were resisted by the TPLF, which saw it as part of Tigray. The TPLF was
supported in this by the emerging EPLF, which declared at the time that Badme
did not belong to Eritrea. The TPLF had a field base in the village of Bumbet,
some 10 km.s north of Badme. After the TPLF and EPLF had combined in chasing
out the ELF from the area in 1981, the EPLF gradually took the position that
Badme did belong to Eritrea after all. However, the TPLF and EPLF shelved the
issue of borders until they would form the government.
international efforts since May 1998 at negotiating an end to the war, Eritrea
was always asked to pull back from Badme, in line with the general principle of
international law that border disputes cannot be resolved by resort to force.
That is, before the conflict Badme was not administered by Eritrea.
the “triangle” surrounding it reverted to Ethiopian rule in February 1999 and
have remained under it until today. After the big Ethiopian offensive of May
2000, which went deep into Eritrean territory, many former Ethiopian residents
gradually returned to the village and started rebuilding their houses and
demining their fields.
There are a
number of colonial treaties made between Italy (colonizer of Eritrea since
1890) and Ethiopia dating from the early 20th century: the one-page
Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1900, the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 and the
Treaty of 1908 (which relates to the eastern border). These treaties or
agreements carried annexes with unclear maps sketching the rough outlines of
the border. None of the proposed borders was ever marked on the ground. There
was great ambiguity on the names of places and rivers on the maps, some of them
occurring more than once. Italy also steadily encroached on Ethiopian soil, and
even marked up maps unilaterally. But its invasion of Ethiopia in 1935
automatically made all treaties and unilateral maps null and void. After the
Second World War, Emperor Haile-Selassie confirmed the invalidity of the
previous treaties, and Italy renounced them in 1947 with the Peace Treaty.
Eritrea became a UN Trust territory under Britain in 1942, was federated with
Ethiopia in 1952 and in 1962 incorporated as a province, in a process of
The EEBC now
has resurrected the three old treaties. This was done within the mandate given
to it by the two warring countries, as agreed in their December 2000 Algiers
Agreement. The Commission did not say anything on the question of the status of
these old treaties today. It is important to realize that the border decision
is based on the agreement by Ethiopia and Eritrea to give the authority to
decide to the EEBC and to respect its decision in principle as “final and
binding”. Also, under this mandate, a number of other legal considerations and
norms were declared irrelevant, even though many are in theory valid. This
scenario was understandable in the light of the political sensitivities, but it
did not guarantee that objective justice was done. The EEBC even said that it
"... shall not have the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono" [=
according to what is just and right].
Hence, on at least two accounts the Committee's work was problematic: 1.
it disregarded political considerations and rivalry that governed state policy
in both countries and might prejudice the outcome of a ruling on its own merit;
2. it neglected legal principles such as “self-determination”, or even hearing
the voice, of local populations, and that of effectivités, a point in which
Ethiopia's case on Badme/Yirga is quite strong.
the treaties are taken as the base, the 1902 treaty, an amendment to the
unclear 1900 treaty between Emperor Menilik II and the Italians, seems to be
crucial. There the western border line, from the Mareb to the Setit (or
Takkaze) rivers, is defined as a line going from the Maieteb-Setit junction up
to Mai Ambesa-Mareb confluence. The EEBC had to decide from the treaties and
the submissions by Ethiopia and Eritrea.
War II treaties and documents of both Ethiopia and colonial Eritrea, the name
Badme does not occur, because most of the area in question - the Badumma plains
- was uninhabited and only occasionally used for pasture. Apart from some text
in the Appendices of the Border Ruling (pp. 111-115), the EEBC has not
seriously considered any developments after 1935, when conditions in the area
changed markedly: first of all, the Italian Fascist invasion, which by itself
annulled any agreements between Ethiopia and Italy as regards its colony
Eritrea, later the Ethio-Eritrean federation of 1952-62, the (highly contested
but legal) inclusion of Eritrea in Ethiopia, and the subsequent settlement and
economic activities in the border areas. Omitting to assess the post-1935, and
specifically the post-1941 situation, is a mistake.
Decision and the Western border: where has Badme gone?
EEBC Decision was published, Ethiopia's foreign minister in a press conference
on 13 April 2000 said that Badme was awarded to Ethiopia. This was contested by
Eritrea the next day, and indeed the ruling does not give any concrete evidence
that it was, and neither country specified where Badme was located. What does
the EEBC Decision actually say?
in this ruling is that in the Western Sector it has retained the old straight
border line between the two rivers Mareb and Setit, from the junction Mareb-Mai
Ambesa in the north to the junction Setit-Tomsa in the south (a bit west of the
Eritrean claim line). Although the Tomsa point is contested, this straight line
is found on most extant maps of the Ethio-Eritrean border. However, the three
treaties of 1900, 1902 and 1908 did not prescribe a straight line as the
border: they only indicated it as the provisional line to be decided upon and
demarcated on the ground later, presumably according to local circumstances,
settlement patterns, land use, etc. This never happened. In the meantime the
local people went about their business not heeding any border and local
administration was established.
facts on the ground, in the absence of a concrete border being marked - which
anyhow lost much of its relevance after 1962 when Eritrea was absorbed by
Ethiopia - have eminent relevance to any borderline decision of today. The
EEBC, however, did not think so and just bypassed uti possedetis and
effectivité principles, as well as local ideas of national belonging and (in
the case of the Afar people in the Eastern Sector) self-determination.
submissions, Ethiopia and Eritrea were at variance about the location of the
line between the small rivers Mai Ambesa and Maieteb. There was no disagreement
about the Mai Ambesa-Mareb point, but all the more about the southern point.
Eritrea pretentiously claimed that the 'Maiten' stream, due east, was the Maieteb of the 1902 Treaty (see EEBC
2002: 14). Ethiopia, equally pretentiously, claimed that the 'real' Maiteb was
located far in the west, about 20 km.s east of the town of Umm Hajer. The names
were indeed on the old maps (there are at least three Maitebs or Meetebs), but
both claims were wrong. Looking at the available maps and the confusion on
geographical names, the question of deciding on where the 'real' Maiteb is
located is up to a certain extent arbitrary. There was no compelling logic in
the extant documents for the Commission to follow. This fact made it all the
more important to look at actualities, feelings of belonging of the local
population, effectivités, etc. that evolved in the last 50 years, especially
since the end of Italian occupation in 1941 (the mandate of the EEBC made this
even possible, because the basis for its decisions would not only be the
"pertinent colonial treaties", but also "applicable
international law", cf. EEBC 2002, p. 1). The Commission decided not to do
so. It put the southern border point at the Setit-Tomsa junction, east of the
Maieteb. Remarkably, the Commission incomprehensibly took over the Tomsa point
from the Italians, who had unilaterally claimed it in the 1930s.
Decision argued that Ethiopia had not adduced sufficient evidence on actual
possession of Badme and environs, the final border ruling does not pinpoint
Badme anywhere, neither in the text nor on the map. The new border casts aside
the record of Ethiopian de facto administrative rule and possession of the
territories west of the straight line (indicated on the unofficial map of the
Region of Tigray). However, on the basis of what was said above, Badme village
is not included in the area accorded to Eritrea; only a part of the Badumma
plains and the environs of Badme village.
decision, Eritrea has the advantage of having a questionable border
internationally guaranteed and its precarious national identity reinforced.
Ethiopia, despite having won the war and the battle of prestige, has not gained
an inch of territory nor any right to the free use of Assab port on the Red Sea.
It did not take advantage of the fact that, historically and legally speaking,
the entire relationship with Eritrea, from borders to port use, was up for
negotiation again, due to the unilateral resort to armed force by Eritrea. The
only thing the Ethiopians did was to evict the enemy from its uncontested
territory. That a war became “necessary”, however, was partly the result of the
Ethiopian regime's ambiguous political dealings with the Eritreans and with
giving them too many political and economic advantages after 1993.
contested the EEBC decision on 13 May 2002, but this came too late. It had no
military positions any more to back up its borderline claims, and, in any case,
had made insufficient claims in the negotiations themselves. Regarding this
issue, it is remarkable that no claim whatsoever was submitted to the EEBC for
an outlet to the sea (Assab port). In paragraphs 4.69-4.71 (p. 50) of the
Border Ruling it is shown also that Ethiopia gave up contested areas like
Tsorona and Fort Cadorna without any counter-claim. Even the claim to Badme
came very late, as par. 5.92 of the Border Ruling shows: "The Commission
notes that no evidence of such activities [i.e., long-time presence, effective
administration, etc. in the Badme area] was introduced in the Ethiopian
Memorial (= the submission to the EEBC) The evidence to be examined only
appeared in the Ethiopian Counter-Memorial. It was not added to or developed in
the Ethiopian reply."
that Ethiopian policy on this matter followed the old TPLF ideological line -
or dogma - that Eritrean independence within borders that were already agreed
upon in the 1970s in covert agreements between EPLF and TPLF - is to a large
extent being carried out (cf. the paper by Belai cited in note 12). This is
also testimony to the fact that the underlying political alliance between the
two regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara, despite the insults and the bloodshed,
is still there. However, the irony is that Italy - and Eritrea - never had any
exercise of administration or control in the Badme area and beyond.
A Cold War
in the Horn of Africa?
amazing that such an apparently simple question as to where Badme lies is so
controversial and so hidden in a smokescreen of propaganda and nationalist talk
by the two protagonists. It only shows how deeply this unfortunate conflict has
blighted Ethio-Eritrean relations. It is also amazing how the two regimes were
prepared to let the issues of disagreement blow up into a devastating war with
huge human, economic, and environmental consequences.
background of this is the ingrained politics of secrecy and distrust in the
Horn of Africa, maintained by elite maneuvering. The general context is the
long-standing crisis in African political culture in conditions of poverty,
resource scarcity and zero-sum game power politics. As in many places in
Africa, in the Horn one deals with an often quite callous and cynical
leadership that wants to retain power at any cost. Compromise politics, power
sharing or giving substantial rights to opposition, or even to its citizens, is
seen as a personal defeat by leading elites on both sides. As long as this
political culture of envy and authoritarianism predominates there is little
hope for improvement in terms of democratization, the building of a “lasting
peace”, sustainable economic upsurge and other such fictions.
prediction is this: if Badme/Yirga village is given to Eritrea, whatever the
legal argument made in the highly contestable PCA ruling, there will be
continue to be perennial tension between the two countries, with a danger for
additional violence, though not large-scale war. If it remains with Ethiopia,
it will not lead to a normalization of relations between the two countries.
This tension will not be resolved in the life-span of the current two regimes
and their leadership. At most, there will be a cold peace (or a cold war).
After its rejected appeal to the EEBC of 13 May 2002 (14), Ethiopia prepares
itself to bring the bad news to its population. While Badme is probably
retained, many other areas have to be ceded, notably in the Central Sector. The
EEBC missed a great opportunity to make a face-saving compromise. Giving Badme
to Eritrea would be a quite contestable decision, beyond what the treaties
would allow. It would also slash away the legitimacy of the Ethiopian regime
among its population to act in the national interest. For outside observers it
is striking to see how weak the Ethiopian presentation and arguments to the
EEBC have been on matters related to the national territory, all because of a
parti-pris towards Eritrean independence within borders that were defined in a
off-hand deal between two insurgent movements many years ago. The minor
territorial 'gains' made by Ethiopia in the Central Sector (Zalambesa area)
will not make any impression, because these territories were already under
Ethiopian administration. There are some indications that Ethiopia is
regretting the stance it took. There is maneuvering to influence the actual
demarcation of the border. It will also drag its feet as long as possible in
vacating settlements now declared to be in Eritrea.
Ethiopian-Eritrean politics one notes a lack of understanding of or political
will to exercise reasonableness. There is not only an entrenched personal
enmity between leading elites, but also deep irritation if not hatred between
large sections of the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples, fueled by the appalling
abuse of and cruelty towards ordinary citizens in the war. There also have been
mounting domestic problems in the wake of the war. Some Eritreans are beginning
to wonder - in muted voices - whether this kind of independence, with a highly
authoritarian leadership in a stifling surveillance state, was really worth it.
The Ethiopian people feel betrayed not only by Eritrea, but also by their own
sectarian and undemocratic leadership that has not reaped the benefits of war
after its victory and its shattering of the army of the opponent. Indeed, in
comparative terms, the post-1991 record of both regimes that took over power
from the disastrous Mengistu-regime with such a groundswell of support and
promise has been a deception, and, of course, the inhabitants of Badme/Yirga
want to stay with Ethiopia. It is perhaps symptomatic of the dire state of
African politics - this time supported by the legality of a dubious border
decision - that they have not been listened to. Demarcating the Badme area will
be a tense affair.