Eritrea on alert
for big power bias in border issue
ASMARA, Jan 2, 2005 (Reuters) - In few countries does the
Cold War cast a longer shadow than in Eritrea, deprived of nationhood by
superpower rivalry at the dawn of independent Africa.
The country, which sits across the Red Sea from oil giant
Saudi Arabia, is haunted by its 1950s and 60s role as host of the large U.S.
listening post at Asmara's Kagnew Station.
The spy base's forest of antennae intercepted radio,
telephone and telegraph traffic around Africa and the Middle East, and also
relayed Pentagon communications to U.S. nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean
and U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Such was its importance that Washington, worried an emergent
Eritrea would come under Soviet influence, arranged for it to be yoked in a
federation to U.S. client Ethiopia in 1952.
Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea in 1962, triggering a
guerrilla struggle that ended in Eritrean independence in 1991.
Today Africa's youngest state is determined never again to
be pushed around by the big power politics that cost it the estimated 70,000
Eritrean lives lost in the war of independence.
WAR ON TERRORISM
Yet that is exactly the prospect Eritrea says it confronts
in a simmering border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia that was at the heart
of a war the two countries fought in 1998-2000.
This time some officials suspect it is the war on terrorism
that risks tilting Western concerns in favour of Ethiopia, which has delayed
honouring the terms of a 2000 peace treaty.
Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous nation,
is traditionally seen as the main power in the volatile Horn of Africa and a
regional linchpin of Washington's war on terror.
The perceived bias rankles in Asmara, stirring bad memories.
"People should not favour bigger Ethiopia over smaller
Eritrea. Considerations of big power politics should not affect the maintenance
of international law," said Yemane Ghebremeskel, an advisor to President
"When the majority of African countries were granted
independence Eritrea was linked to Ethiopia against the express wishes of the
people because of larger interests.
"The international community did nothing. We tell them
(other nations) we cannot be wrong twice. History cannot repeat itself. This
time around we have gone through the legalities and processes of diplomacy and
those issues have to be respected."
Officials in Eritrea suspect concerns of realpolitik lie
behind the West's reluctance to punish Ethiopia for its delay in complying with
an international settlement of the border row.
"There is always a difference between pronouncements on
the rule of international law and real politics, and there are elements of this
dichotomy in this case," Ghebremeskel said.
International donors have yet to use their considerable
leverage with the aid-dependent country of almost 70 million to persuade it to
honour the settlement, Eritrea says.
Ethiopia gets about $2 billion in aid annually including debt
relief, food, budget support and development assistance.
"Eritrea is a small country and its interest lies in a
peaceful neighbourhood," Ghebremeskel said.
"The problem comes when others bully us, when they try
to infringe our rights because they feel they are bigger or stronger. That
cannot be acceptable."
African countries worry that tensions between the two
nations could trigger a new conflict, destabilising a volatile region that has
been used a base by al Qaeda in the past and that continues to suffer drought
Eritrea insists that Ethiopia accept in full the 2002 ruling
by an independent boundary commission set up under the peace treaty to settle
the dispute. Eritrea has long accepted the border ruling, which said the prized
town of Badme lay in Eritrea, not in Ethiopia which currently holds it.
Ethiopia initially rejected the decision but in November
said it finally accepted the ruling in principle.
Ethiopia's surprise announcement added, however, that Addis
Ababa wanted dialogue with Asmara on how to implement the ruling in the
estimated 15 percent of the border that is contentious.
The statement has been widely interpreted as a call for
negotiations over the border's most contentious areas.
Major powers are unanimous in saying reopening negotiations
would go against promises both countries made to be bound by the ruling. The
European Union has echoed Eritrea's call for Ethiopia to respect the border
ruling in full.
Yet aid donors have yet to back their concern with pressure
on Ethiopia to honour its obligations, Eritrea says.
Asmara expected that donors would link their help to
Ethiopia to progress in peace, as they are required to do as guarantors of the
2000 peace accords, Ghebremeskel said.
"We've called for almost one year now for this kind of
linkage. For one reason or another most of the major donors have not taken any
meaningful decision that would have persuaded Ethiopia to abide by its
international obligations," he said.
"So in reality Ethiopia does not have any incentive to
respect its treaty obligation ... A situation of no war, no peace cannot be
sustainable for an indefinite period of time." William Maclean