Badme, a run-off-the-mill dusty village consisting of a few shanties, desolation, a row of shops, hotels, a war cemetery, and harsh aridity is the least candidate for an area that would be hotly contested yet this one-street town is what triggered a 2-year war that left over 70, 000 dead.

The town, lying on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border was at the centre of a 1998-2000 conflict that ended in a bitter stalemate.

Even then to understand Badme’s ironic vitality in the conflict you will have to go back 68 years. Eritrea became part of Ethiopia after World War II following the defeat of Italy. This would be followed by a 1950, UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that declared Eritrea as a federated province of Ethiopia, a miscalculated decision that sparked the Eritrean War of Independence.

The Eritrean war would be fought intermittently over 30 years, concurrently with the Ethiopian internal civil war, until 1991 when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) defeated Ethiopian forces and helped Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to ascend to power in Addis Ababa. Once EPRDF took power in Addis, they called for a ceasefire and backed Eritrea’s quest for independence.

At the height of the war in 1999, Ethiopia had a $770 million war budget and 350,000 troops up from $95 million budget and 60, 000 troops the previous year. Meanwhile, Eritrea conscripted about 300,000 or about 10% of the entire national population into the army and has maintained those high numbers of military personnel to date.

Independent States

In a 1993 referendum Eritreans voted for secession, taking Ethiopia's entire coastline, and became recognized as an independent country in 1994. However, the commission formed by Eritrea’s EPLF and Ethiopia's EPRDF couldn’t agree on demarcations of the international border. Within three years after independence, Eritrea tried to annex a border village surrounded by a series of rocky, dusty plains collectively known as Badme in Ethiopia’s Tigray province, which is the hometown of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. A new, bloody international border war broke out.

Weirdly, what is never acknowledged is that what the world understood as an Ethiopian-Eritrean war, for the most part, tribal clashes between Ethiopia’s Tigrayan community and Eritrea’s Tigrinya speaking people. These two communities dominated the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Peoples' Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ, the two most popular political movements in the respective countries.

At the height of the war in 1999, Ethiopia had a $770 million war budget and 350,000 troops up from $95 million budget and 60, 000 troops the previous year. Meanwhile, Eritrea conscripted about 300,000 or about 10% of the entire national population into the army and has maintained those high numbers of military personnel to date.

The Algiers Agreement

After the fall of Badme back to Ethiopian hands, a high-level negotiation mediated by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and a half-dozen other multilateral organisations culminated in the Algiers Peace Agreement overseen by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In mid-2000, the two nations agreed to set up a new boundary commission and a cessation of militaries hostilities. The treaty was backed by the European Union, the African Union, the United States, and the United Nations.

The commission’s April 2002, report that effectively handed Badme to Eritrea was soundly rejected by Addis Ababa and a tense stalemate ensued that lasted till the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018.

Since the stalemate few multilateral institutions have sought to clarify the Badme situation. The problem with Badme is that no one knows whether that name refers to the village alone or the plains as well, given that they are all collectively known as Badme. That’s why the recent declaration by Ethiopia Prime Minister that he’s willing to end hostilities with Eritrea and respect the commission’s recommendation including handing over Badme to Eritrea is practically problematic.

Still, Abiy’s overtures have little currency in Badme because Ethiopia encouraged settlement in Badme after the war, leading to creation of a few amenities which, surprisingly, haven’t done much to camouflage the remote, hermitic feel and battle scars, emblemized by the mortar and bullet marks on destroyed building all over the town.

The reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision means the 1000 Eritreans who fled the region can return to their lands while the 18,000 Ethiopian Badme residents have to start a long trek across the border into Ethiopia. Ahmed,  a 42-year-old Oromo is a breath of fresh air for a country that’s suffered years of repressive regimes that curtailed media freedom, detained political prisoners, and basically oversaw a surveillance state. His premiership is seen as an olive branch to the Oromo who make up a third of the Ethiopian population but who feel marginalized by the ruling Amhara who make up 20% of Ethiopia’s population.

Oromia region, being one of the nine ethnically based regions that make up Ethiopia’s landmass has seen numerous clashes as the Oromo advanced claims of marginalization and discrimination. Since his ascent, Premier Abiy's feats include:

  • April - becomes Prime Minister after the sudden resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn
  • April - Reshuffled cabinet and replaced the head of the police and internal security
  • May- Freed thousands of political detainees, including opposition leader Andargachew Tsege
  • June - lifted the state of emergency 60 days ahead of the deadline
  • June - Agreed to implement the 2000’s border ruling giving Badme to Eritrea
  •  June - Welcomed Eritrean officials to Addis Ababa for talks
  • July - Declared the end of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea
  • September - Reopened land border with Eritrea

Still, Abiy’s overtures have little currency in Badme because Ethiopia encouraged settlement in Badme after the war, leading to creation of a few amenities which, surprisingly, haven’t done much to camouflage the remote, hermitic feel and battle scars, emblemized by the mortar and bullet marks on destroyed building all over the town.

The problematic Badme therefore joins the widespread poverty, rising debt and a shortage of foreign currency as among the key issues that Abiy has to fix alongside the Oromo grievance in the country.

 Back in Badme town, residents wonder what would happen to the cemetery at the edge of town, where dozens of Ethiopian soldiers are entombed, their coarse graves painted with national colours.

Just like Kenya, Ethiopia went into a misguided infrastructure-led growth in 2010 that precipitated the current foreign exchange crises and external imbalances under the aegis of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). Under this programme, the country raised the electricity generation from 1800 to 4200 with a further 6450MW under construction on the Ethiopia Grand Renaissance dam alone against the national demand of 2000MW.

 Meanwhile, the road networks have nearly tripled from 44 km to 110 km of roads per 1000 square kilometres and the additional 670-km Addis-Djibouti light rail system operationalized in 2015.

There’s only one problem with all these mega-infrastructure projects-they’ve not delivered the massive inflow of foreign direct investment and spurred private investment as anticipated and currently, the Ethiopian economy is staring at a decade-long crisis.

In the meantime, the 2017 IMF report highlighted the fact that Ethiopia had temporarily overtaken Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product. Ethiopia’s annual economic output (i.e. Gross Domestic Product (GDP)) was expected to hit $78 billion in 2017 from $72 billion recorded the previous year. Meanwhile, Kenya-who are in the process of rebasing their GDP-have given their 2018 GDP estimates of their economy at 8.68 trillion.

The two countries, however, have to watch their rear-view mirrors as the dramatic Tanzanian autocrat Pombe Magufuli powers that economy forward. Thus far Tanzania is the only country whose macroeconomic stability is robust enough to guarantee sustained growth in the medium term.

Meanwhile back in Badme town, residents wonder what would happen to the cemetery at the edge of town, where dozens of Ethiopian soldiers are entombed, their coarse graves painted with national colours.

The locals are still in denial as to whether the Eritreans will truly take up this town that they've considered theirs for generations.

'We don't think Eritrea will take Badme,' remains a strong sentiment among the Ethiopian majority in the town. For now, the residents can take momentary relief that in their lifetime they got to witness the promise that the border with Eritrea and road to Asmara will not remain closed forever. The problem is they can't tell which side of the border they are on for now. 

 

 

 

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