Ethiopia and Eritrea: The long war in the views of EU representative Rino Serri

from Government of Italy
Published on 28 Jun 2000

Eritrean troops near a tank. Rino Serri believes that both countries embarked on a race to rearm after the outbreak of war, not before.

Either Collaboration or Conflict

This is the destiny of these two countries which have to reckon with each other.

Here, the European Union's envoy for this conflict analyzes causes and possible solutions

by Roberto Rotondo and Gianni Cardinale

"Because of their history, their culture, their ethnicity and their geographical positions, Ethiopia and Eritrea either have to collaborate or wage war. They cannot ignore each other. They cannot tolerate each other or live in peace unless they are friends. Rino Serri, Italian Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the European Union's representative for the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict has no doubt that peace between these two countries is also vital for the stability of other nations in the region, primarily Somalia.

Serri is an expert in Horn of Africa affairs. Here in May, one of the bloodiest conflicts of recent times left tens of thousands dead. Some estimate the toll as high as 100,000 military and civilians. In recent years, Serri has been traveling back and forth between Addis Abeba and Asmara and to other African capitals in a bid to keep war at bay. Failing that, he is now trying to bring the conflict to an end and has been appointed to represent the European Union Presidency in the area.

30DAYS asked Serri to outline the reasons for this war and the prospects for peace. We met the Under Secretary at the Italian Foreign Ministry on the eve of his departure for Algiers where he was to make one of his numerous attempts to end the war.

Serri, a 67-year-old North Italian from Emilia, served in Parliament and then the Senate between 1979 and 1996, first for the Italian Communist Party and then Rifondazione comunista. He left this party in support of the Dini Government in 1995 [Lamberto Dini, current Foreign Minister]. Serri has been Foreign Under Secretary since 1996 under the Prodi [Romano Prodi, current President of the European Commission] and D'Alema Governments [Democratic Leftist Massimo D'Alema]. Italy's present prime minister, Giuliano Amato, confirmed Serri as Under Secretary.

Q. What issues are at the roots of this conflict which many observers believe to be senseless?

A. Frankly, I am not impressed by the descriptions of this war as 'senseless' or 'stupid' as some have said. Is there ever an intelligent war? I fear that this suggests a certain arrogance on our part, we who waged more or less 'senseless' wars 60 or 70 years ago. Indeed, we have engaged in some quite recently. I can see at least two reasons for the clash between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Firstly, Eritrea became independent in 1993, having been tied previously to Ethiopia for a long time. Before that it was an Italian colony and before that a kingdom. The turning point came in 1991 when, in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abeba and after years of armed struggle, the movement countering Menghistu Hailé Mariam in which both the current leaderships of Eritrea and Ethiopia were active came to power. Two years later, Eritrea became independent from Addis Abeba and in a unique way in that it came about by means of a totally peaceful process, by referendum, which Ethiopia also accepted. The trouble was that the rules of independence had not been gone into: the borders were not defined, economic relations had not been examined, the currency was still the Ethiopian currency and, as far as the ports were concerned, there were only verbal agreements. So the co-existence of the two countries did not stand the test, one reason being perhaps that a percentage in Ethiopia did not want Eritrean independence and deliberately left the border question open keeping the area in a state of permanent tension.

Q. That's the first reason. What do you see as the second?

A. The second reason I see as having even more bearing. Between the two leaderships which emerged victorious from the war against Menghistu, Ethiopia under Zenawi and Eritrea under Afeworki, a tug-of-war inevitably ensued for power over the whole area. These two men had been militants together. They had direct personal contact. But their groups had grown up over many years of guerrilla war, of struggle and they are both very proud. It is my conviction that more effort could have been made to try to prevent this war, that both leaderships - I'm not blaming one or the other - went a step too far and the situation got out of hand. But it cannot be said that this is a senseless war. I say this because I continue to believe the conflict is resolvable. And I am convinced of something else - these two countries because of their history, because of their culture, their ethnicity and their geographical position either have to collaborate or wage war. Whatever happens, they cannot ignore each other, cannot tolerate each other and live in peace unless they are friends. Take the question of the ports. There is a great deal of talk about it but it is not the real cause of the war. The port of Assab in Eritrea is worthless without Ethiopia. For, between this port and the rest of Eritrea there is only desert where nothing grows. The road from Assab leads to Ethiopia. So the port is only of any value if the Ethiopians can use it as well. This is why in the negotiations in Algiers or immediately afterwards there has to be a new perspective of collaboration, not just armed truce.

Q. But can these issues be addressed with the current Ethiopian and Eritrean leaderships?

A. That is a question that raises a series of complex issues. The international community's prime concern must be to devise a just policy and concrete ways to apply it. Then it is up to the leaderships of these countries to prove their worth, their capacity to look ahead, to set down solid bases for the future and to take our proposals on board.

Q. But the May war has left scars that will not heal in the short term ...

A. That's my greatest concern, that there has been a breakdown which will not be easy to repair. We've had Eritreans expelled from Ethiopia, thousands of families from both sides mourning relatives killed in the war and other profound grievances. That is why I say it's important to bring a rapid end to the conflict because there is the additional danger of territorial fragmentation. The Eritreans have been accused of deploying two ethnic groups, the Amhara and the Oromo, against the Tigri people represented by the leadership in Ethiopia today. In their turn, the Ethiopians are being accused of deploying the Afar ethnic group against Eritreans. Frankly, I doubt that this is the design of either one of the sides although they might have been tempted in this direction in the past two years of conflict. They have sometimes tried to play this particular card but I do not believe it was by any strategic choice on the part of either leadership. They do both know, however, what ethnic fragmentation means for a country and they know how destabilizing this can be. They know it would be suicide, that it would rebound on them as leaders and so I doubt whether either side is interested in splitting their countries into ethnic enclaves.

Q. As far as the "black hole" of Somalia is concerned, incidentally, there is no more talk of it. Is that because the Somali problem has been solved?

A. The international community pays no attention to Somalia and, at the European Union level, there is a sort of resigned waiting game. But I have no doubt that we need to launch the widest possible peace process in the Horn of Africa, a process that would take account of all the problems - from Somalia to the Sudan crisis, especially the trouble in southern Sudan. Today there is tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea but before that, there had been tension between Eritrea and Sudan and between Uganda and Sudan. The problem of Somalia can only be solved within a wider peace process. Optimistically speaking, if we managed to find a solution to the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, we could reverse the trend in the whole of the Horn of Africa and end the Sudanese crisis because there are new possibilities today. Then we could resolve the Somali crisis.

Q. Did the international community do all it could to prevent the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea or did it let events get out of hand?

A. It is generally said that the international community does not do enough but this time there wasn't much else it could do. Take the issue of arms which is very much to the fore in the press. I can say in all truth that the two countries armed after the war began, not before. Moreover, the European Union issued its arms embargo some time ago. Remember that this war began in 1998 but the United Nations, having underestimated it, issued its embargo only a few days ago.

Q. Rather late ...

A. Gravely late and food for thought on the situation. Another element for reflection is that the international community today only intervenes in certain areas of the world - Kosovo, Iraq or Bosnia - and deploys existing instruments, such as NATO and the US. In Africa, there are no such structures and the UN is powerless to act. This problem must be solved. We must set up one or more action structures in Africa such as to prevent, or halt, or solve conflicts.

Q. You mentioned the United States which has the lion's share of the action in the Horn of Africa ...

A. I can say with certainty that the US had no interest at all in provoking war between these two States because America had put great store by the leaderships in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is what they have told me on several occasions. US action in the area was limited because they have always given priority to the need to address the danger of Islamic fundamentalism especially in the Sudan under Hassan al-Turabi. We also saw the danger but not to the same degree and, more than that, we tackled it differently. We sought to highlight fundamentalism's inherent contradictions and to stimulate dialogue within its own context. But what probably happened with the US was that somebody in the Administration thought we needed a 'Maginot Line' to hold fundamentalism back and this meant that they underestimated tension which was of a different kind but just as urgent. Perhaps from this point of view the Americans should also reflect.

Q. How big an issue is it that Russia (or China) is not involved in the attempts at conflict-solving in Africa even though it had a certain influence?

A. Frankly I don't know how influential they are but it is important that these countries be mobilized in the effort for Africa. During this conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea I have thought on occasions that China should be involved more and, at one point, Russia as well if for no other reason than that it would have helped block certain supplies of arms that were coming from the East. We will have to start addressing problems not just from a western perspective but one that takes in the so-called Third World countries, China, East Europe, Russia, India, Brazil. We will have to extend the number concerned with global problem-solving and stop thinking that our point of view is the only one there is.

Q. To what degree do the United States and the West in general have a grasp on the problems of these countries such as to prevent even worse disasters?

A. We have lost something of our capacity to read the processes in Africa with the result that, in our relations with this continent, we risk oscillating between a type of more or less veiled racism (you know the type - 'as long as they kill each other ... they're incapable of living in peace ...') and the 'must help' ethic. We find it difficult to see them as political actors proper with whom to discuss on an equal footing. We should see them as States with leaderships and real governments. We might not agree with them but we must reckon with them just the same.

Q. Is there a common denominator in the Horn of Africa crisis and all the other conflicts in Africa at this particularly turbulent time? In Zimbabwe or Sierra Leone, for example?

A. There are two basic points to make here. These crises are all also the consequence of the economic and financial globalization process. The poorer countries are pushed further out onto the fringes if they are not helped in some way to join the process. And if they are not, they become even poorer. Africa has borne the brunt of these neo-liberal policies that can't see beyond the macro-economy. These countries were on the road to development but, in their effort to balance their budgets and reduce their deficits they cut back on health spending - already low - on schools, and they generated social disasters which gradually become economic disasters. It is not by chance that even the World Bank is starting to review its policy. The second point is the debt burden of developing countries and, of these, the debt of the poorer countries, the so-called Least Developed Countries (LLDCs), or most of sub-Saharan Africa. There is a great deal of talk about this but how many countries to date have had their debts reduced or cancelled?

Q. The bloodiest wars in Africa, however, are not in the poorest zones but in countries with a wealth of raw materials ...

A. Not true. There are diamonds, of course, in Sierra Leone. Angola has diamonds and oil but what did Burundi have? Nothing. And what is there in Ethiopia and Eritrea? They are two poor countries with no resources, neither mines nor oil. You hear people saying all the time things like: 'They're so poor. They're dying of hunger and yet they make war'. But it is this very poverty that makes them wage war. When you have no hope, one solution might be to gain an upper hand, to dominate and so not be obliged to share your one little piece of bread.