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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:



Badme and the Ethiopian-Eritrean Conflict - Back to Square One?


By Professor Jon Abbink

February 2003


In early 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.


What ensued 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.


The EEBC 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.


Badme thus 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.


Where is Badme, and what does it matter?


In focusing 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.


Meles 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.


One big 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 either country.


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.


Fighting around Badme


When 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.


While the 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.


Before 1991 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.


In the 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.


Badme and 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.


History and treaties


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 questionable legality.


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.


Anyway, if 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.


In pre-World 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.


The EEBC Decision and the Western border: where has Badme gone?


After the 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?


Remarkable 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.


Thus, the 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.


In their 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.


While the 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.


Under the 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.


Ethiopia 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."


It seems 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?


It is 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.


The 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.


The 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.


Observing 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.




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