The Origins for the 1998 Badme War By Yonas Araya
The Origins for the 1998 Badme War
The article below will touch on a brief history of Badme and its vicinities; Isaias’s contraband-based economy and the nakfa currency as the origin for the 1998 border war; the Algiers Agreement and ruling; the 2005 ruling of The Hague; the expulsion of Eritreans from Ethiopia; and the hijacked hopes and ambitions of Eritreans.
A Brief History of Badme and Its Vicinities:
The plateau of Baddme, depicted in the topographic maps by Italians as alto piano Badme, is a vast flat land of rich black soil. The Wereda or district of Baddme, founded in the early 1950s, comprises several villages, including the town or village of Badme.
The name Badme or Baddme is driven from the Kunama language, which means black soil or “ዋልኻ” in Tigrigna, which indicates or attests to the fact that the Kunama or Bazen people may have been the original inhabitants of the plateau, although there is no record of exactly when and why they vacated it, but still there exist some Kunama villages, like Shanda Shina and a few others. There are also many sites in the surrounding areas whose names originate from the Kunama language.
The current inhabitants of the plains of Wereda Badme and Shilalo (an undisputed Eritrean territory) migrated in the early 1950s from the highlands of Eritrea, initially from Southern Ansaba, and consequently from other parts of Hamasien, such as from Habela, Liban, Sef’a, but later from many other parts of Awraja Seraye and Akeleguzai.
The settlers or their descendants recount how they found the land virtually uninhabited by humans when they first discovered it but roamed by wild animals like lions, elephants, leopards, and others.
The settlers founded dozens of villages, and built somewhat modern houses like Mereba’e and churches, cleared the land of the wild animals, bushes, and trees, and prepared it for cultivating grains of mostly sorghum and sesame.
They also recount how the land would get extremely dry, especially during the summer season (ሓጋይ), so much so, that settlers who attempted to dig water wells could not reach the water table. During those months, the settlers’ only water source was the Mereb/Gash River, about 4-6 hours away on foot. The settlers recount how many built their houses by fetching water from the Mereb/Gash River. But also, the settlers tell how water sprang up everywhere after introducing the Tabot (a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, in Tewahdo Christians’ belief) to the land.
The news about the discovery of a fertile land ran wild on the highlands of Eritrea, and many more of them ventured for settlement in the “new” land. But Eritreans did not confine their settlements to the plateau of Badme and Shelalo alone. They had also already pushed well inside Tigray, where they had founded several villages like Adi AwAla, Adi Hageray, Adiabo, and others.
Although the Wereda (district) Shelalo, which was also founded in the early 1950s, and which comprises several villages, was under the jurisdiction of the Province of Eritrea under King Haile Selassie, the Wereda of Badme, which also includes several villages, was always administered by the Province of Tigray from Mekele; therefore, Badme and the villages under it paid taxes to Mekele, that is, when Mekele collected taxes. Mekele did not consistently enforce the collection of taxes. The exception is that some villages from the uncontested territory of Eritrea voluntarily chose to be administrated by Mekele, and one of those villages was Dembe Dima.
Moreover, all of King Haile Selassie’s viceroys (እንደራሴ) to the Province of Eritrea, including Andargachew Messai, Leul Ras Asrate Kassa, and Lieut. Gen Debebe Haile Mariam never claimed Badme to be under their jurisdiction, nor did they ever levy over or receive taxes from the inhabitants of Wereda Badme.
By late 1974 and into early 1975, the Eritrean liberation forces grew more popular and influential than they had ever been before, hence attracting thousands of volunteer recruits from all over Eritrea and abroad. Even many Eritrean nationals serving in the Ethiopian army or police forces deserted their posts and joined the Liberation Forces. As a result, Ethiopia was forced to abandon several military bases and precincts from several remote towns – one of those towns happened to be Badme.
By March or April 1975, a few low-level members of ELF, then soon followed by a senior officer, the late veteran fighter Hadish Wolde Giorgis entered Badme. The members of ELF soon set up units that rendered public services to all villages that predominantly inhabited Eritrean nationals, including many villages that were well inside the Ethiopian Province of Tigray, such as Adi Hageray, Adi Aw’ala, Adiabo, and others. The primary intent of the members of ELF was only to look after the welfare of Eritrean nationals; hence never made any claims of any territory.
During those times, only the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) staff, a front founded by the former ruler of Tigray under King Haile Selassie, Le’ul Ras Mengesha Seyoum, made infrequent casual appearances in those areas. Still, those groups did not interfere in how the ELF strived to organize Eritrean nationals scattered in many parts of Tigray and along the Eritrea-Tigray border.
By late 1976, the TPLF replaced the EDU in Western Tigray and soon made a strong argument about the status of Badme as part of Tigray, not because the TPLF had any proof, but because it knew Badme had always been under the jurisdiction of Tigray. Still, the ELF kept its strong presence in the town of Badme, again, not because it had any proof whether it was part of Eritrea, but only for convenience.
The Italians never set boundary marks between Eritrea and Ethiopia. They had been contemplating building a railroad from Akordat, through Himora to extend the colony’s (Eritrea) territory into Tigray and beyond. Although the Mereb River, and even to some extent, the Akran Mountains in Akeleguzai, some parts of Bellessa River, villages such as Ambeset-Gheleba, and the hills of Menoksoito appeared as precise or vague references or landmarks for boundaries, other boundary lines were even murkier. For example, no one could precisely tell whose side of a country Badme or other villages fell. Even when it was sometimes evident, there was no sure way of determining whose side of the boundary line a village’s farming land fell because the farming lands of the villages always overlapped between that of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Besides, the few maps available at that time for the Badme area were maps drawn up by the Italians long before any of the villages had been founded.
To make matters worse, the inhabitants of the villages predominantly inhabited by Eritrean nationals constantly lobbied the ELF to claim their villages as part of Eritrea, even when they knew well enough their villages were in the uncontested territory and well inside Tigray.
Ironically, some intelligence and military personnel of the EPLF, which were embedded in TPLFs’ military, EPLF personnel whom Isaias sent to enlist the TPLF to stir up trouble between the TPLF and ELF, were entirely in agreement with the claims made by TPLF. The Eritrean settlers recounted how the EPLF’s cadres showed no sympathy for their plights.
The decision by Isaias to embed his cadres in TPLF in Western Tigray had nothing to do with caring for Eritrean nationals in the area or helping the TPLF or the Tigrayan people in a constructive way. It was about enlisting the TPLF to help him expel the ELF out of the Eritrean soil and to lay the groundwork for his long-held dream of becoming the undisputed despot in the future of Eritrea. By the way, the TPLF was pretty new and going through multiple learning curves, so, in essence, Isaias undoubtedly exploited its inexperience.
In mid-1981, after suffering defeat, the ELF withdrew from Badme and all corners of Eritrea. Since the EPLF and Isaias never intended to claim Badme as part of Eritrea, logically, the TPLF entered Badme and started administering it.
In short, the town and Wereda Badme were administered by:
- The Province of Tigray under King Haile Selassie, from early the 1950s until mid-1975;
- The ELF, from mid-1975 until mid-1981;
- (Needless to say, this was the only time any Eritrean entity administered Badme since its inception as a Wereda)
- The TPLF, from mid-1981 until mid-1991;
- The region of Tigray under Ethiopia, from mid-1991 until mid-1998.
- (Needless to say, for ten years before, and seven years after the independence of Eritrea, for a total of seventeen years, until Isaias conquered it in May 1998, Badme was under the control and administration of TPLF or Tigray’s government)
- (According to a 2005 ruling by an international commission in The Hague, Eritrea broke international law and triggered the war by invading Ethiopia)
(An excerpt from the ruling by The Hague, December 19, 2005
The Commission holds that Eritrea violated Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations by resorting to armed force to attack and occupy Badme, then under peaceful administration by Ethiopia, as well as other territory in the Tahtay Adiabo and Laelay Adiabo Weredas of Ethiopia, in an attack that began on May 12, 1998, and is liable to compensate Ethiopia, for the damages caused by that violation of international law. 11 17.)
Soon after achieving his goal of expelling the ELF out of Eritrea, Isaias revealed his true nature of use-and-dispose-of practice to the TPLF; therefore, the falling-out between the TPLF and Isaias began. As a result, the TPLF expelled many Eritreans from Tigray, including Badme and its surroundings. Isaias resettled those Eritrean nationals in undisputed lands of Eritrea, in Wereda Shelalo, and other parts of the Gash region.
Again, Isaias had never claimed Badme to be part of Eritrea until deciding, without consulting with any Eritrean, to invade it in May 1998 and ignite the Ethio-Eritrea war, which has claimed tens of thousands of Eritrean lives. In 1998, in one of his blabbering, Isaias admitted that he had not consulted even with his ministers before deciding to invade Ethiopia. Isaias saw no reason to give a heads-up to the tens of thousands of Eritreans who made Ethiopia their home for generations, Eritreans whose world was about to turn upside down by his decision to invade their adoptive country.
Ordinarily, nations do not provoke or go to war against a government where some of their citizens could be taken hostages or until they rescue their citizens. Indeed, they do not go to war against a country where tens of thousands of their nationals live comfortably.
Isaias and His Contraband-Based Economy
In 1991 the EPLF entered Asmara victoriously. Isaias knew how to stay alive and in power but never understood how free nations managed their economies, which is fine because not all leaders are versed in economics or finance; they depend on experts. But since Isaias believed he was an expert on everything, he did not seek the help of experts. As for the few experts he had employed briefly, he fired them right away. He either did not understand their languages, or their ideas did not match his ideas. He mainly wanted to run the nation in the same way he ran the EPLF, as a front, without fiscal and monetary policies and responsibilities.
After independence, and until November 1997, Eritrea adopted the Ethiopian birr as its unofficial currency. During those years, Isaias pegged the Ethiopian birr to the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate of $1 to 7.20 birr. He continued pegging the Ethiopian birr to the US dollar even after the national bank of Ethiopia had raised the exchange rate to more than 9:00 Br for a USD. During those years, Isaias bought US dollars from Eritrean expats visiting their country at a fixed rate of $1 to 7.20 birr in Eritrean banks. At the same time, he deployed hundreds of contraband agents to engage in the black market of Forex on the streets of Asmara and Addis Ababa to purchase US dollars at higher exchange rates than what the banks of Eritrea and Ethiopia were paying.
Also, at the same time, he engaged in illicit commerce, smuggling from Ethiopia exports such as coffee, gold, and sesame, and selling them in foreign markets in exchange for hard currencies, hence depriving Ethiopia of the hard currency it desperately needed and depleting its foreign currency reserves.
But this was not enough for Isaias; he got greedy, so greedy. He thought he came up with a brilliant idea: “why even depend on Ethiopian currency to smuggle commodities from Ethiopia?” “Why not purchase the Ethiopian exports with ‘paperMoney’?” and for that, on November 8, 1997, the Eritrean currency, the nakfa, was born.
The Nakfa Currency – The Last Straw for Ethiopia
When Isaias geared up to carry out his illicit commerce, this time using “paperMoney,” the response from Ethiopia was “absolutely not”; you need to use a floating currency to import Ethiopian exports.
Now, it was not that the Ethiopian government had not become aware of Isaias’s illicit activities. It had been aware for a while; however, in 1991, unlike Isaias, who was received by a cheering gullible crowd, who’d assumed Isaias loved them as much as they loved him, the EPDRF, on the other hand, was not that lucky. But, by 1998, the EPDRF had already drafted, ratified, and implemented a constitution and turned the vast nation of many times the size and population of Eritrea into normalcy; therefore, it was in a position to stand up to Isaias’s bullying.
Besides, Prime Minister Melles Zenawi had no choice. The nation had been blaming him for rendering their country landlocked. He had to stand up to Isaias this time, so his response was justifiable as a matter of principle and fairness.
At that time, some Eritreans felt Ethiopia’s policy about nakfa was wrong and unfair. Let’s see: suppose Eritrea imports ten-billion-nakfa worth of exports from Ethiopia. What would Ethiopia do with the ten billion nakfas? There was nothing ten-billion-nakfa worth commodity that Ethiopia could import from Eritrea. It could not use the nakfa to import petrol or other necessities; it could not sell it in international forex markets. Not only that, but Isaias could also use the nakfa to purchase US dollars in Ethiopia through his contraband agents on Ethiopian streets, which could further deplete the nation’s foreign currency reserves.
Ethiopia’s one word “No” decimated Isaias’s brilliant and only economic policy. He had not had plan B. He blew his top; he had not anticipated that kind of an answer from Ethiopia. He realized he got himself in a pickle, as they say. He also realized that the response from Ethiopia would actually make him look stupid in the eyes of Eritreans. So now, what could he do? He could not un-print the nakfa and start using birr again; he had already announced his new currency to Eritreans and the world.
He was embarrassed as he was furious, so, to vent out his anger, he dispatched his army to invade Badme. Even then, Isaias had not anticipated Ethiopia would respond in the way it did; he probably had not anticipated the invasion of Badme would snowball into a full-fledged war between the two nations. For him, his action was like an angry man venting out his frustration by kicking the chair or his dog.
The nakfa Currency the Real Origin of the Border War
Again, Ethiopia responded with something he had not anticipated – demanded that he withdrew from Badme and notified the UN Security Council. So, what could Isaias do? He is not used to being dissed; he always surrounds himself with “Yes-Men.” Isaias is used to being feared and his needs met all his life, no matter how unreasonable they are. Ethiopia’s decision to notify the UN Security Council of the invasion further infuriated him. Isaias does not believe in rescinding his orders or changing his mind. So, his response to Ethiopia not only was a “No,” but he expanded the invasion farther first into Wereda Adiabo, then into other northern parts of Tigray, through Tsorona, and Zelambassa. When Ethiopia insisted on withdrawal, he arrogantly responded by saying he would not withdraw even if it meant the sun might never rise again. That statement could only be interpreted as he would rather sacrifice as many Eritreans, including those living in Ethiopia, than compromise. Not only that, in one of his other blabbering, he said to Ethiopia, “we are among you,” or “inside of you,” implying that he could direct the Eritreans in Ethiopia to harm it from inside as fifth columnists.
Isaias Saved by the “Bell” (by the Border War)
Well, soon, his luck changed for the better, somehow. Something he probably had not anticipated happened in Eritrea. A political windfall landed right in his lap. As all peoples do when their nations are at war or in crises, all Eritreans rallied around the flag, and Isaias’s popularity skyrocketed. From there on out, it was all downhill for Eritrean families and their children.
Yes, after beginning to run out of excuses for why he had not implemented the constitution, which had been delivered to him a year before, in May 1997, the Badme war and his popularity among Eritreans gave him a perfect opportunity, not even to mention the constitution. His allowing for the drafting of the constitution had not emanated from his desire to form a constitutional government with checks-and-balance but to buy time to consolidate his power. That was also the reason why he made sure the drafting process would take years and not months.
Back to the war, Isaias rebuffed all well-meaning mediators and mediation, including the proposal put forth by the US and Rwanda. He told some diplomats in no uncertain terms that he would march into Addis, destroy the government, and dismantle the nation. The world learned that it could not reason with him from that point on. In a short time, the world learned what a few Eritreans had known about him – that he was one sick bastard who did not give a damn about the values of human lives, including that of his people. He had to be stopped.
But how could Ethiopia defend itself? Isaias’s army was ten times bigger and stronger than Ethiopia’s. Ethiopia needed time to build its army, and it better act fast. The Western nations, too, understood that Ethiopia needed time and money to build a strong military. But they could not supply it with their weapons because the Ethiopian army was trained only in Russian, Belarus, and Ukrainian weapons; therefore, the West decided to finance the purchase of those weapons from those nations. The actions of the West in no way could be construed as favoring the Ethiopian people over Eritreans. The West saw clearly that Ethiopia was the victim and that Isaias was a menace to the region and his people.
By February 1999, Ethiopia had built a strong military when it kicked Isaias out of Badme. But Isaias was still occupying the northern part of Tigray. The world felt that the loss of Badme would coerce him to come to a negotiation table. But it is not in Isaias’s nature to negotiate unless his own life is in danger.
In 1999, Isaias made nine attempts to retake Badme and sacrificed an untold number of Eritreans. But after losing 30,000 Eritrean lives (yes, around 30,000, not 19,000) and causing tens of thousands of others to be crippled for life, and after suffering a humiliating defeat, in the year 2000, Isaias agreed to sit at the table with Ethiopia in Algiers, a setting he had adamantly rebuffed for two years. (ብከበሮ ኣቢኽስ ብምብጢጥ) But only after he feared Ethiopia would march to Asmara. As was told many times, Isaias would do anything to keep himself alive, one day at a time.
The Algiers Agreement:
In Algiers, he agreed to accept all pre-and post-negotiation conditions put forth by Ethiopia, including establishing a 25-km-wide demilitarized zone, on the Eritrean side of the border, along the boundaries of the two nations and the deploying of UN Peacekeeping troops in the demilitarized zone.
Following the Algiers Agreement in 2000, on April 13, 2002, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruled the town of Badme for Eritrea. Since then, Isaias has been working hard to present himself as the winner. But what Eritreans have not been told about the ruling is that the Committee also assigned the majority of the villages that had been under the jurisdiction of Wereda Badme to Ethiopia.
This is the fact: There is a straight boundary line that goes from the Mereb/Gash to the Tekeze River. The town of Badme happened to fall on the Eritrean side of the boundary. In fact, according to Google map, the distance from the center of the town to the boundary line is less than 2 km. Still, almost all of the villages that had been under the Wereda’s jurisdiction, including the town’s farmland, fell on the side of Ethiopia.
In plain terms, by a very generous estimate, Eritrea may have gained an area of 11 square miles from the war, whose negative effect has been reverberating the nation until now. Now get this: According to several studies, the total area of Eritrea is 45,400 square miles, so then the 11 square miles gained by Eritrea is 0.024% of the total area of Eritrea ((11/45,400)*100 =0.024%). By the way, Eritrea may have gained about 11 square miles from the north-eastern portion of the boundary line, but it may have also lost even larger territory on the south-western part of the boundary line by the Tekeze River. But, heck, Isaias will never mention that.
Be that as it may, for the past 20 years, we have not heard anything from Isaias other than the binding Algiers Agreement. Isaias would never admit Ethiopian’s rejection of his nakfa currency as a source for his temper tantrums, hence the war’s origin; that would be political suicide. Plus, why should he tell the truth? By and large, Eritreans have accepted his words at face value. So he has to keep on milking the Algiers Agreement.
Before Col. Abiy came to power, Isaias had never talked about putting demarcation marks along the boundaries of the two nations to avoid future misunderstandings, nor did he mention signing a peace treaty. He could never say or do that. He wanted the boundary lines in other parts of the country to remain the source of future conflicts if Ethiopia withdrew from Badme. Besides, Isaias never wants an actual demarcation with physical demarcation marks. When you attempt to place demarcation marks, you will also need to address the status of the Eritrean and Ethiopian villages that lived in peace for generations, intermarried, and whose farming lands are intertwined. What if the boundary line partitions a village?
The painful fact is, just because The Whiteman arbitrarily marked the boundaries, why should anyone resort to partitioning villages and breaking up families? In fairness, dual citizenship would have to be considered. Therefore, in essence, the nations would need to prioritize the signing of a peace treaty above everything else.
But those steps would punch holes into Isaias’s talking points and his desire to keep milking the issue. Not only that, if physical, visible boundary marks were to be planted along the boundary, visiting Eritreans would wonder why Isaias had to sacrifice 30,000 lives without first consulting with his people and without looking for other venues.
Physical boundary marks would deflate Isaias’s talking points. So, he wants Eritreans to admire Badme from a distance, in the same way Dorothy and her Friends admired the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Because if Eritreans were allowed to learn the truth and see for themselves, with their own eyes, they would realize the Wonderful Wizard of Badme was nothing but a conman.
The other reason why Isaias does not want demarcation marks is that he wanted to give the Amhara nationalists, his allies, a fanciful hope. The Amhara nationalists have never accepted the independence of Eritrea; therefore, they are against any type of demarcation marks between the two nations. They believe an actual demarcation would legitimize the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia.
One Thousand Kilometers Long of a Seashore
Eritreans used to get fired up about their 1000 + km-long seashore and two ports. They used to get emotional even thinking about it.
They had this dream about how they would develop the seashore once their got rid of Ethiopian rule and maybe even put a fish on every family’s dinner table (መኣዲ). So, what happened to that dream, to that excitement? We know what happened; Isaias effortlessly turned that emotion to 0.024%, an area Eritreans had never heard of, while he himself was occupying 99.976% of their land and 100% of their lives. He reduced the whole ambition and hopes of generations of Eritreans to focusing on a piece of land.
One has to admire Isaias, for he made generations of Eritreans, including highly educated ones, forget the whole purpose and spirit of the struggle to free Eritrea from Ethiopia. Instead, he made them channel their energies and thoughts, and emotions to a piece of land. But, hey, you can’t blame Isaias for doing that.
It is a fact that the 1998 war had nothing to do with the piece of land but about the rejection of the nakfa currency by Ethiopia. But for those Eritreans who still choose to take Isaias’s words at face value, and continue to allow themselves to be fooled by Isaias’s lies, let us assume that the war was really about that piece of land, which Isaias had neglected for seventeen years. So, let’s ask:
- Wouldn’t it have been wise for Eritrea to focus on what was already in its hands, like developing the seashore and human resources? Instead of making territorial claims and going to wars with Yemen, Djibouti, and finally with Ethiopia during the first seven years of its independence from Ethiopia?
- Was it crucial that Eritrea make territorial claims during the first seven years of its independence?
- Could the decision to make territorial claims have been left to a constitutionally elected government or even postponed, for 20 years, to give breaks to the families devastated by the 30-year-old war?
- This is not even about the 11 mi2lands gained in Badme. Even if Eritrea were to gain 500 mi2 of land, would it be wise to go to war and pay 30,000 lives, especially during that time of its history?
- Suppose Isaias, in advance, shared with all Eritreans his impending plan to make territorial claims and attack Ethiopia:
- How would the families that lost multiple of their children have responded?
- How would the Eritrean nationals who made Ethiopia their home for generations have responded?
- How would Eritreans who have been rotting in the refugee camps of Sudan since the 1960s have responded?
- How would Eritrean villages at or close to the border have reacted? You know, the villages that have been affected by the war the most.
The War With Ethiopia Was a Necessary Evil?
Until Col. Abiy came to power in Ethiopia, and since 2002, we had heard nothing from Isaias but about the Algiers agreement. As though he is the champion of the rule of law and the defender of justice at home. If he had so much faith in the direction of law and courts’ prudence, why did he resort to violence and spill the blood of tens of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian children? Why didn’t he go to court in the first place? If he and his followers believe in the rule of law and justice system, how come the absence of justice and the rule of law in Eritrea does not bother them?
Moreover, I am sure you’ve heard many Eritreans, supporters of Isaias living comfortably in foreign countries, who try to justify the border war by claiming:
- We would not have gotten Badme back if we had not fought the war.
- Had we not gone to war with Ethiopia, we would not have forced Ethiopia to come to a negotiation table.
- Eritrea did not lose the war; on the contrary, the war guaranteed our territorial integrity and sovereignty.
- How can we talk about the constitution and elections while Ethiopia occupies our territory?
Nevertheless, let’s ask: Was Ethiopia under the EPDRF ever a threat to Eritrean sovereignty? The fact is that Ethiopia won the war hands down militarily, and Ethiopia forced Eritrea to the negotiation table, and not the other way around.
As for those saying, how can we talk about the rule of law while our land was occupied, or until such and such are met, couldn’t they realize they were giving Isaias the incentive to come up with endless excuses to stay in power, as he is still doing? And most importantly, couldn’t they realize they were surrendering their power to manage their nation’s internal affairs to an outside force, or in this case, to what they considered to be their nation’s archenemy?
Ethiopia’s refusal to withdraw wasn’t unprecedented. For example, Israel gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt only after Egypt agreed to sign a peace treaty, and Egypt was no longer a security threat to Israel. However, Israel has refused to leave the Golan Heights because Syria refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and sign a verifiable and lasting peace with Israel. Syria has shown no inclination to sign a peace treaty like Isaias. Isaias had a host of grievances he had wanted to raise in a piecemeal fashion, and had no, and still has no, desire to live in peace with Ethiopia.
To be fair to Isaias, it is not surprising when he wants to continue milking the Badme issue and brandishing the Algiers papers. What’s more puzzling is that some former members of EPLF/PFDJ who have either abandoned or claim to have abandoned Isaias, who, by and large, are victims of Isaias’s use-and-dispose-of practice, never address the illegitimacy of the war. They choose to take Isaias’s word at face value and keep on parroting his talking points. But we also know they had no idea about how the war had started, and they were as surprised as everyone else when the war broke out. If those former members of EPLF/PFDJ cannot grasp the truth, what hope is there for those Eritreans who know Isaias from a distance to see the truth?
But also, the Eritreans who opposed Isaias, especially the organized groups, did not fare well either; they failed to hammer home the message about the illegitimacy of the war.
Some also claim that had someone else, other than Isaias, led the war, Eritrea could have won? But the fact was that Isaias won the battle and still was winning during the two years, but he did not want to quit because he had not been done with displaying his temper tantrums; he was not done venting out his anger. He had no desire to go to court because he knew the war was never about the piece of land but about Ethiopia’s rejection of his new currency. It was all about his deflated ego and hurt feelings.
What was to be gained from the war anyway, because in the end, even when you thought you won the war, you would still need to go to a court? So, what was the point of scarifying lives and resources?
It is also puzzling that until the year 2018, when Col. Abiy came to power, many Eritreans had been genuinely convinced that Isaias would let them raise their children peacefully if only the EPDRF had withdrawn from Badme. Again, Isaias would never have left them to raise their children peacefully. He had a host of grievances put on the back burner to keep on the flames of conflict burning, even if Ethiopia were to withdraw from Badme.
For example, we are approaching the 4th anniversary of Isaias’s meeting with his protégé, Col. Abiy. But, has Isaias signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia? If so, what are they? Why has the nature of the agreement been hidden from both the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples? Why have there never been meeting minutes of the meetings between Isaias and Col. Abiy? Didn’t Isaias close the borders between the two nations unitarily just a few months after the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea started mingling? Does this tell you Isaias will ever want Eritreans to raise their children peacefully? Why hasn’t Ethiopia begun using the port of Assab? If Isaias could not sign a verifiable peace treaty with Col. Abiy, then why would anyone think Isaias would have signed a peace treaty with EPDRF had Ethiopia withdrawn from Badme?
Isaias had never shown Ethiopia a desire for peace. He knows he cannot stay in power without deflecting the attention of Eritreans. Igniting conflicts and keeping Eritreans on edge is his golden goose. Singing a peace treaty is equivalent to him killing his golden goose.
The Expulsion of Eritreans from Ethiopia:
On May 12, 1998, Isaias surprised Ethiopia with a large-scale assault on the town of Badme. Isaias had been building up his military, even after the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia. So, he knew that his military was better equipped and more potent than Ethiopia’s.
Ethiopia also realized it did not have a strong military to withstand Isaias’s assault, let alone evict his army from Badme. It was told that there was nervousness as well as a blame game running around the government circles and the military in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was left with very few options. It did not have an army and could not build a strong army overnight. It notified the UN Security Council and invited nations that were friends of both countries, such as Rwanda, the US, and many western diplomats, to intervene and beg Isaias. All mediators and diplomats, including the US president at the time, former President Clinton, spent hours with Isaias on the phone, beseeching him to restore the status quo ante or return to the previously existing state of affairs concerning the border.
He rejected the Rwanda-US proposal for peace and rebuffed every request from all concerned. He told some diplomats in no uncertain terms that his army would push south to dismantle the government. As Ethiopia, many diplomats, and mediators insisted on withdrawal, he responded arrogantly, saying that he would never withdraw even if it meant that the sun would never rise again.
Moreover, during the first few weeks of the war, Isaias openly bragged about the tens of thousands of Eritreans who made Ethiopia their home for generations, saying “we are among you” or ”inside of you,” implying he could direct them to harm Ethiopia from inside as fifth columnists. At that time, there were also former EPLF soldiers (Tegadelti) and some young Eritreans who had participated in the National Service, although who may not have taken military training, who had moved in with their parents or living in Ethiopia on their own.
Then, Ethiopia did the unthinkable – it decided to use Eritreans who had lived in Ethiopia for generations as bargaining chips to force Isaias to voluntarily withdraw and sit at a negotiation table by threatening to deport them.
Putting aside for a second the immorally of Ethiopia to use Eritreans as bargaining chips, what one needs to focus is, on Isaias’s response to the threat, because any reasonable government, even when its actions were proper and justified, would relent to the enemy’s threat, and say, okay, you got us, for the sake of our people we will do as you say. Many nations actually have caved into threats even when a few of their fellow citizens were held hostages in enemy territory.
But Isaias wasn’t going to be arm-twisted by Ethiopia’s threat to deport all Eritreans, so his response was “send them in” “we will gladly receive them into their home country.” In fact, he dared Ethiopia to deport them, hoping to get some political capital from that.
The Eritreans in Ethiopia, too, could have taken the Ethiopian side to save their necks and demonstrated against Isaias on the streets of Addis. Actually, Ethiopia had asked them precisely to do that, but they said no. They chose to side with their country, even though many of them understood Eritrea was the aggressor and Ethiopia was the victim. They chose to leave the vast wealth they had accumulated through decades of hard work and ingenuity because they wanted to side with their country and its leader.
When they arrived in Eritrea, Isaias received them with pretentious fanfare, but soon, we know what happened to them; many of them passed away within a few months to a few years of their arrival because they could not cope with the harsh reality in Isaias’s Eritrea,
So, the threat of the deportation of tens of thousands of his nationals did not persuade Isaias to come to a negotiation. However, in May of 2000, after two years, after tens of thousands of Eritreans were deported, tens of thousands died or were crippled on the battlefield, Isaias saw the shadow of death was about to descend upon him. So, this time, he didn’t even have to think twice, to say Yes, to agree to sit at the table, something he could have done two years before, if only he had an iota of love for his people. Could there be any doubt then that this man cares more about his own skin than about the lives of millions?
Some Eritreans theorize, and for a good reason, by saying that Isaias deliberately put the lives of Eritreans in Ethiopia in danger, because, by his very nature, Isaias is envious of any successful person. Isaias dropped out of college as a freshman in Ethiopia in 1965. But, then, when visiting Ethiopia after the independence of Eritrea, he saw Eritreans in Ethiopia as the most economically and socially prosperous people, succeeding in many facets of life. So, he was happy to see them deported to Eritrea to finally get them under his control, where he could look down on them.
When he impulsively decided to invade Ethiopia, in the beginning, Isaias might not have understood the consequence of his decisions. Still, there could be no doubt he must have known that his uncompromising and rigid responses would jeopardize the lives and livelihood of tens of thousands of Eritreans who had made Ethiopia their home for generations. So, one has to ask then, what was there in the piece of land in Badme that made it urgent and more important than the lives of tens of thousands of Eritrean nationals in Ethiopia? Why couldn’t the issue of Badme wait another ten or twenty years? Why did Isaias not give Eritreans in Ethiopia a heads up about the impending war? Again, as detailed many times, the war was all about Isaias’s ego.
It Was Morally and Politically Wrong for Ethiopia to Expel Eritreans:
Yes, it was immoral for Ethiopia to attempt to use Eritreans as bargaining chips, but was it the responsibility of Ethiopia or the government of Eritrea to care for Eritrean nationals, wherever they may be? For one thing, Isaias was the one that put the lives of Eritreans in danger.
True, every nation has the right to permit or deny who crosses its borders or live in its territory. Every country also has the right to expel or take action against anyone who threatens its security. But with its indiscriminate expulsion of Eritreans, Ethiopia played into the hands of Isaias because, even as I write this piece, among the hardcore supporters of Isaias are Eritreans who lost their homes in Ethiopia. You’d be hard-pressed to find Eritreans who have been deported from Ethiopia who openly accuses or blames Isaias for putting their lives in danger by invading their adoptive country.
Some excerpts from the statement by The Hague,
The Hague, this 19th day of December 2005
The Commission holds that Eritrea violated Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations by resorting to armed force to attack and occupy Badme, then under peaceful administration by Ethiopia, as well as other territory in the Tahtay Adiabo and Laelay Adiabo Weredas of Ethiopia, in an attack that began on May 12, 1998, and is liable to compensate Ethiopia, for the damages caused by that violation of international law. 11 17.
On May 13, 1998, the Ethiopian Council of Ministers and Parliament passed a resolution that condemned the May 12 invasion and demanded the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopian territory. This resolution was not, as Eritrea has asserted, a declaration of war. In international law, the essence of a declaration of war is an explicit affirmation of the existence of a state of war between belligerents. 12 Nevertheless, the resolution made clear that Ethiopia would not accept Eritrea’s advances as a fait accompli and was determined to act in self-defense until the Eritrean forces withdrew or were compelled to leave the areas they had occupied. Ethiopia so notified the United Nations Security Council, pursuant to Article 51 of the UN Charter. Moreover, the