Impoverished Eritreans suffer in Ethiopian stand-off

Genet Kidane has been separated from her farm by a field of landmines since her nation’s 1998-to-2000 war with Ethiopia. Efforts to remove mines stopped after Ethiopia refused to accept a 2002 ruling on where the boundary should fall.

And then there is military service, which keeps thousands of Eritreans ready to fight instead of contributing to the economy.

“My husband, who used to help cultivate food for the family, has been in the national service all these years because there is no peace,” Genet, a 24-year-old mother of two, said outside a once-white tent that has turned brown with dust.

Eritrea, struggling to rebuild after decades of conflict, is sinking deeper into poverty as the border dispute that sparked the war remains unresolved. Meager resources are being diverted from development to security, and investors are wary.

Hundreds of families share the Genet household’s predicament, living in tented camps dozens of kilometres from their farms.

Eritrea fought a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia that was followed by the 1998-to-2000 border war five years after separation.
The border war claimed tens of thousands of lives and cost both impoverished countries an estimated $1-million a day.

Attempts to resolve the border dispute have repeatedly stalled.

The international border commission that ruled on the border in 2002 resumed work for the first time in three years last week, meeting with legal experts from the two countries to discuss preparations to physically mark the border. The five-member commission was set up under the 2000 peace deal in which both countries agreed in advance that its ruling will be binding and final.

“The fact that we have no peace and no war means that we have to be on the alert. You have to spend money to primarily ensure national security and this is, of course, a significant economic burden to the government,” said Abraham Kidane, senior adviser in the ministry of national development.

The United States Department of State says Eritrea expanded its armed forces to close to 300 000 troops, almost 10% of its population at the time of the war, and has been slow to demobilise since because of its deep mistrust of Ethiopia.

Uncertainty over whether the crisis will be resolved peacefully has scared away investors, Kidane said.

Eritrea’s “exports have collapsed, mainly owing to the border conflict with Ethiopia and border tensions with Sudan,” according to the US State Department. “However, large and persistent transfers from Eritreans living abroad have cushioned the impact.”

Economic losses are also high in neighbouring Ethiopia, said Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, head of the Umited Nations peacekeeping mission that has, since the 2000 peace treaty, monitored a 25km-wide temporary security zone that largely runs on Eritrea’s side of the 1 000km border with Ethiopia.

“We have been here for five years. This is five years of lost opportunities—economically, politically, socially and otherwise,” Legwaila said.

“The economic benefits of normalcy across the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea must be incalculable ... because these two countries are not trading with each other”, and Eritrea’s southern Assab port that used to serve eastern Ethiopia is now silent, instead of earning money for Eritrea, he said.

The Eritrean economy, which grew by 7,1% in the year before the border war erupted, now suffers from soaring consumer prices, sluggish growth and a hefty trade deficit.

The economy shrank by 13,1% in 2000 and grew by a mere 0,8% last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Consumer prices rose by 19,9% in 2000 and expanded by 12,1% last year, according to the IMF.

Eritreans are also paying a political price. Tension with Ethiopia has been used as justification for delaying the implementation of a constitution, ratified in 1997, that guaranteed freedoms.

“We want multi-party politics and elections as provided under the new constitution, but we know this has to wait until the border crisis is resolved,” said Yohannes Afwerki, a 52-year old factory worker. “We need to stay united now and should not start fighting [politically] among ourselves because that would only benefit Ethiopia.”—Sapa-AP

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