Recent statements from the Ethiopian government have included threats and accusations, veiled and overt, against Eritrea. This does not necessarily mean an imminent return to war for the two countries — Addis Ababa may be using the rhetoric of an external tormentor to stifle domestic dissent amid instability in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the two countries have remained hostile toward one another since the end of their previous war from 1998-2000, and the possibility thus remains for another armed interstate conflict.
Ethiopian rhetoric against Eritrea has notably increased in recent days. In separate statements March 19, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said at the Ethiopian Defense Command and Staff College that the government would increase military spending to deal with enemy threats, while foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti accused Eritrea of challenging his country’s sovereignty, saying that Ethiopia would take any necessary measures to defend itself.
The two countries have been enemies since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war that ended in 1991. They fought another war from 1998-2000 that killed some 80,000 people, and neither country has relaxed its militarized vigilance toward the other since then. For Eritrea, the threat from Ethiopia is existential; for the minority ethnic Tigray regime in Addis Ababa, the threat comes from Eritrean-supported insurgencies that destabilize the country’s territorial and political integrity. Ethiopia also lost its direct maritime access to the Red Sea when Eritrea gained independence, and recovering this is further motivation for Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian rhetoric does not mean a war between the two countries is imminent or certain, but it cannot be ruled out. With the broader region — including nearby Yemen, Libyaand Egypt — in crisis, the Ethiopian government has been concerned about the possible spread of unrest. Opposition party members from groups including the Oromo People’s Congress and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement have been arrested in recent weeks on allegations of calling for social protests and of supporting the Eritrean-backed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Addis Ababa has long accused Asmara of supporting rebel groups such as the OLF and theOgaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Ethiopia as well as Somali insurgent group AlShabaab. Eritrea’s goal in supporting these proxies is to keep Ethiopian forces sufficiently distracted and unable to concentrate enough force and political attention to confrontAsmara.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) also is distracted by domestic development problems. Ethiopia has a population of roughly 90 million but lacks resources, and while corruption is fairly restrained and elections are held regularly, political space in Ethiopia is confined. Opportunities for political patronage and commercial advancement are reserved for trusted members of the EPRDF elite, and key leadership positions within that elite are set aside for ethnic Tigrayans — including Zenawi, whose government was re-elected in 2010 for another five-year term. Opposition party members have been arrested in recent weeks for talk that social protests against unresponsive governments in North Africa should happen in Ethiopia, and a STRATFOR source has reported that the Ethiopian government could be using the rhetoric of an external tormentor to stifle domestic dissent.
Nevertheless, there are ongoing security incidents in Addis Ababa as well as in rural regions that could be stoked by Eritrean proxy forces. Ethiopia remains significantly involved in Somalia’s political process, as well as in providing covert support to military efforts against Al Shabaab, to keep the Somali theater from coalescing into irredentist threat on Ethiopian territory. The ONLF and OLF remain active in low-level insurgencies in their respective eastern and southern zones of Ethiopia, forcing Ethiopian troops to spread out in ceaseless counterinsurgency campaigns. Ethiopia also accused Eritrea of trying to attack Addis Ababa when it hosted an African Union summit in February.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have moved their struggle to proxies and the political realm since backing down from open war in 2000, but the recent statements coming from Addis Ababaleave open the possibility for another armed conflict. The two governments do not negotiate directly, so threats toward each other are used as signals to their allies and the international community to intervene diplomatically to oversee a reduction in tensions or else yield to the possibility of a new interstate war.