Adimera: Exploring the History Behind the Recent Peace Deal and its Impact on the Lives of Those Affected by the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Conflict

Feature Image: Joint Peace Declaration Between Eritrea & Ethiopia 2018 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By McKenna Christmas

“The first half of the song’s name refers to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa; the second half to the capital of Eritrea, Asmera,”  Yabi Degefu, a first year from Ethiopia and a member of the Yale Eritrea and Ethiopian Student Association, explains to me. “In Ethiopia, a wedding has two celebrations. The lyrics of the song are saying we can be wed in Addis Ababa and then we can have the second celebration in Asmera. It says decades of war are in the past. At least now, we can be together.”
On October 11 2019, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award honored his work in procuring the 2018 peace deal, which proclaimed that Ethiopia would adhere to the peace treaty signed in 2000 with Eritrea. The deal instituted an open border as well as other reforms, such as air travel and nonrestrictive telecommunication between the two countries.  These progressive policies were met with much celebration, including the release of songs like “Adimera”. But what caused this conflict? And how have people in both countries been impacted by a border dispute that lasted three decades?

Joint Peace Declaration Between Eritrea & Ethiopia 2018 (Photo: Wikimedia commons).

In his response to pinpointing the origins of the conflict, Christopher Clapham, a renowned political scientist, past professor of Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University, and recently retired editor of The Journal of Modern African Studies, who is now based at the Centre of African Studies at Cambridge University, explained that the border dispute can be traced back to Italian colonial efforts:

“The border was never properly demarcated on the ground, during the relatively short period [1890-1936] for which it was the international frontier between two states. This was entirely because the Italian government did not want to demarcate it, despite Ethiopian requests to do so.”

Eritrean–Ethiopian War Map 1998 (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Yabi also addressed this past history of colonial occupation in our interview. Her school curriculum reflected the influence of war and continued tense relations. “I was not taught about Eritrea in school, except in relation to the Battle of Adwa,” she said. The Battle of Adwa which took place in the late 1800s was a historical Ethiopian victory that asserted independence from encroaching Italian forces. The land designated to the Italians in the war’s treaty became the colony of Eritrea.

Following the Italian colonization of Eritrea, borders grew more contested when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1936 forming its “Italian East Africa.” Clapham reasoned that the original unwillingness of the Italians to demarcate the border after the Battle of Adwa is “best explained by continuing Italian ambitions to conquer Ethiopia (as happened in 1935-1936), and incorporate it into a single territory joining Italian Somalia and Eritrea.”  The Allied victory of World War II meant that Italian colonial powers came crashing down, and Ethiopia, under British supervision, occupied Eritrea. In 1952, after much international debate, the UN federated Eritrea to Ethiopia, and in an attempt to appease both sides, oversaw the formation of the Ethiopian–Eritrean Federation. However in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea. This began the violent struggle for Eritrean independence.

Despite the shifting borders, the two countries developed distinct national identities. This is largely attributed to separate movements under an oppressive Ethiopian government known as the Derg, an entity that held power from 1974 to 1987. Two movements the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF)  were allied against the Derg, but had significant differences from one another. As emphasized by Clapham, “The ‘struggle’ gave a sense of sacredness to the territories for which they had fought and died, and made compromise much more difficult.”

Throughout this time period, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had been fighting for independence and in 1991 it captured the Eritrean capital, Asmera, and established a provisional government. Independence was formally established following an internationally monitored referendum in 1993. However, tensions soon arose as a result of the Ethiopian occupation of Badme, but because of Ethiopia’s bigger presence on the world stage, there was limited international pushback. This aspect of favoritism motivated Eritrean forces to retaliate.

Roda Kesete, an Eritrean student from Emory University who immigrated to the U.S. in 2004 with her mother because of the unrest, expressed, “Eritrea felt that because Ethiopia was more influential on the world stage, it has more support from a lot of the countries involved. […] And so there was a sense that it wasn’t a fair enforcement of the ruling, and as a result the Eritrean government decided to take action.”

This action was the 1998 invasion of Badme, which prompted the 2005 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. It ruled that Eritrea had violated international law by taking violent actions against Ethiopian troops. When answering my question of why Eritrea would take such risky action, Clapham also addressed this feeling of Ethiopia being favored, he responded, “Again, this goes back to the Eritrean struggle for independence, in which ‘international law’ consistently took the Ethiopian side […] Having won their own bitter struggle for independence, as they saw it against the full might of a hostile international system, the Eritreans had little if any respect for ‘international law’.”

In 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Algiers Agreement. The agreement, facilitated by the Organization of African Unity, called for the creation of a boundary commission, a claims commission, and for the withdrawal to positions held prior to the 1998 war. However, Ethiopia refused to acknowledge the peace treaty and the boundary commission’s ruling, which designated the territory of Badme to Eritrea. Eritrea would not renegotiate. Professor Lea Brilmayer is a Howard Holtzmann Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, who served as lead counsel in Eritrea’s arbitration efforts. She advised the State of Eritrea in the negotiations leading up to the signing of the December 2000 Algiers Peace Treaty, representing Eritrea as both a liaison to the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) and at the Ethiopia-Eritrea Claims Commission. She commented,

“I think that in many respects, the government did the right thing in resisting Ethiopia’s attempt to alter the decision of the boundary condition […] what Ethiopia wanted was to negotiate with Eritrea, over what parts of the Boundary Commission line would become final and to make some swaps or trades.”  Professor Brilmayer emphasized  that such discussion would have been a disaster.  “ Once a country says, ‘well, this is supposed to be ours, but we’ll negotiate over it.’ Then, nothing is sacrosanct.” She followed this bold statement by citing that the ramifications of such negotiations would have devastating effects “Even if you reach an agreement, there is no way of making it stick. Because if they can disregard the treaty that they signed, creating the boundary commission, then they can disregard any other treaty that they make subsequently […] And the choice that you’re making is a choice between certainty and stability versus chaos.”

Working on the negotiation, Professor Brilmayer could attest to witnessing this bias first-hand, “Of course, Ethiopia was favored. There’s no doubt about it. And none of the Westerners that I talked to about the situation made any bones about it. The American ambassador, for example, just said ‘Look, Ethiopia is our ally and it’s a powerful country. We’re not going to side with Eritrea.’ I think it is undeniable. Why would it be the case that for 15 years, the United States would quietly back Ethiopia? […] The boundary commission unanimously thought and the Secretary General of the United Nations consistently thought that there was absolutely no doubt that Eritrea was entitled to the land and that Ethiopia was legally obligated to comply. Why were they allowed to occupy that land […] Ethiopia had a much more favorable presence on the world stage.”

Eritrea and Ethiopia’s dispute over Badme has been coined “two bald men fighting over a comb” due to the western perception that Badme is neither agriculturally feasible nor thought to possess any sort of utility. However, Brilmayer offered a poignant insight into the value of the land to the Eritrean people. “That was Eritrean territory… Any country values its territory […] It wasn’t simply that Ethiopia was occupying Badme, it was their aggressive behavior in the area around Badme and in a place called Bada.”  In fact, at the time Ethiopia’s troops were focused on expanding control in three main areas the Badme area, Bada, and Tserona. These actions warranted Eritrean concern, as put by Brilmayer, “If you don’t take a stand against aggression it’s going to become progressively worse.”

The bitter war and the losses on both sides, as well as the prolonged period of stagnation beg the question: Why now? What is different? Through the conducted interviews, it was clear that both sides had benefits to gain from such a deal, which were finally being realized by the progressive actions of the new Ethiopian administration.

“I think a lot of what you saw in that peace treaty were just conversations that should have been had a long time ago, that were finally being had because there was fresh blood […] this new prime minister that Ethiopia elected, was very progressive, and he was very open to the idea of peace. And I think you saw the Eritrean president respond well to that, and so they were able to reach some sort of agreement.” Roda commented.
Why would the prime minister want this agenda? The answer seems to be a combination of his character and potential benefits to the nation. Yabi sees promise in the new minister. “I genuinely believe he’s a good person. As any leader should be, he’s there to help Ethiopia grow and that means having peace with every other country not just the neighboring countries. You can’t have growth with a negative mindset.”

Eritrea, Tsorona frontline. Ethiopian/Eritrean war. Mussie 22 years, a young soldier from Asmara. February 25, 2006 (Photo: Heldur Netocny / PHOENIX).

Clapham also acknowledged the current administration’s influence, along with the trade incentives for both nations, stating that, “On the one hand, it can be seen as an entirely rational move, which in exchange for giving up a trivial strip of land would give Ethiopia access to Eritrean ports, remove an ongoing source of insecurity, and enable Ethiopia to build a relationship with Eritrea that would be to Ethiopia’s advantage. On the other, it can be seen as a move to isolate and contain the major source of potential opposition in Ethiopia, which came from the TPLF which had been ousted from its previously dominant role in the central government. For Eritrea, it offered the chance to escape from isolation, and especially from UN-approved sanctions.”

Brilmayer elaborated on the benefits of such a deal from the Eritrean perspective,

“They (Eritrea) would like to be on good terms with Ethiopia. Ethiopia is their single largest boundary. It’s an area that they have huge cultural connections to.”  In addition to cultural benefits, the deal would bring economic advantages. Currently, the majority of Eritrea’s imports are agricultural goods, such as wheat flour and sorghum this is largely attributed to the food insecurity caused by Eritrea’s dependency on rainfed agriculture. Contrarily, Ethiopia is a prominent producer of both manufactured goods and farm products due to their more reliable access to water. A lenient border policy would allow for greater efficiency and potential new source of agricultural imports. Most notably, is the potential revenue from Ethiopia’s usage of Eritrean ports. Taxes, fees, salaries paid to dock workers, and other expenses would greatly benefit the economy. Brilmayer addressed this unparalleled potential, “It’s a very important economic asset and something that can really only be sold to Ethiopia. It’s a function of the geographic layout.”

Despite the mutual benefits, Eritrea announced soon after the initial deal that it had restricted the terms solely to air travel which is more easily monitored.  Clapham commented this action was most likely in response to “one immediate result of the opening of the border was a flow (though not really a flood) of Eritreans into Ethiopia”. Indeed, Roda also commented on the potential events if complete open borders were made possible, “Eritrea has an entire lost generation of people who have left Eritrea and are not coming back […] honestly the government that we are under and the regime that we are under if people had the opportunity to leave I don’t know if they would want to come back.”

The motivation for the departure of Eritreans is often associated with the country’s poor economic status and mandatory military service. An obligation that perhaps has created internal borders between generations of Eritreans.  As Brilmayer explains “the older people remember the independence war and they are motivated by a kind of gratitude towards the existing state that tempers their desire to criticize.

An Eritrean man casts a line into the Red Sea. April 1993. Massawa, Eritrea (Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant)

There’s no doubt that Eritrea is much better off economically than it was when it was part of Ethiopia, or during the first few years of independence. But younger people don’t focus on that, because they are understandably focused on what’s available to them. And to hear that things are better than they used to be…does not satisfy them.”  Eritrea maintains its system of military service as a response to potential outside threats, despite the peace deal, Brilmayer cautiously points out that  “any country that has serious military threats would not last very long, if they just planned for current conditions. That’s particularly true if you’re a small country, because Eritrea has about one-twentieth the population of Ethiopia.” In addition to a greater populace, Ethiopia also outdoes Eritrea in terms of economic wealth and armament. These factors encourage a drafting system, the problem is that Eritrea’s mandatory military service does not have a fixed end date. “Young people want to go to school, they want to get a job, they want to start a family. This (compulsory military service) means that they have to put off what they want to do in their lives and that’s really unfortunate and a big cost for the individuals,” Brilmayer states. Indeed, the length of mandatory service and the desperate measures taken to avoid it have raised concern with the United Nations Human Rights Council to the level of warranting a Special Rapporteur designated specifically to the country .

Another postulation was that open borders could facilitate the spread of political ideas resulting in the

Long term Eritrean refugees returning from Sudan (Photo: UN Photo).

alteration of Eritrea’s strict one-party system. However, Roda pointed out that with recent emigration out of the country, an ideological shift away from a one-party system may not be possible due to the fact that: “ Eritrea has experienced such brain drain within the last decade. In a lot of ways, people who are capable of initiating a political shift have left.”

Despite the restrictive setbacks, the border deal itself is seen as an opportunity to learn from each other. Reflecting on the reactions she observed when news of the peace deal broke, Yabi described  “People were calling random numbers out of sheer happiness because the signals were no longer blocked.” The possibility of forming ties offers a chance for the exploration of shared history and heritage. “Growing up, I knew more about Kenya than Eritrea even though it is much closer and we are from the same people. The conflict was affecting us many years later in terms of our school curriculum, so this will finally allow us to learn about each other.”  Another aspect, is the opportunity for reconciliation for those with familial ties. Yabi gave a personal example, “One of my neighbor’s family was from Eritrea. She had never heard the sound of her grandmother’s voice. Now, she has the opportunity to learn more about herself and her family.  I have even heard of kids in Ethiopia separated from their parents in Eritrea.”

Roda echoes this sentiment: “I think for the significant majority of people, we can acknowledge that our cultures and our histories are very similar […] Our similarities far outweigh our differences in a way that it doesn’t really make sense for us to be completely hostile to our neighbors. And I think a lot of people understand that the fights that were happening, most of them are fights from the previous generation, the current generation has no real problems amongst each other […] more than anything, it’s a matter of politics. It’s a chess game between the two leaders that happen to be in control at any point. ”

When asked about common misconceptions she observes, Yabi was quick to respond similarly,“I would say one of the biggest misconceptions is the idea that Ethiopia and Eritrea fully hate each other and that they’re complete opposites. Many families are divided because of the border. The fact that the governments have tension between them doesn’t mean the individuals do […] The majority of people want peace.” She pauses for thought “No one is benefiting from war; no one wants to hear about more people dying. A small piece of land is insignificant when compared to the value of a person’s life.”


McKenna Christmas is a first-year in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be contacted at