It’s hard to see the looming threat of war with Ethiopia as you walk Eritrea’s tree-lined boulevards or enter its Italian-style cafes.
But beneath the Eritrean capital’s tranquil surface, many Eritreans say they are worried about a repeat of the 1998 to 2000 border war that killed about 70 000 people.
”It’s so dangerous now. They say the troops are so close at some points it’s like this,” says a middle-aged Eritrean, holding his index fingers a few centimetres apart.
”And worse, all the world has sided with Ethiopia,” said the man, who asked not to be named.
Eritreans and Ethiopians have lived with five years of heightened tensions, harsh rhetoric and the threat of war after an independent border commission’s ruling on their countries’ shared frontier failed to resolve the explosive issue.
Ethiopia initially rejected the final and binding decision, and now says it unconditionally accepts it, but wants more talks. Eritrea rejects new discussions.
Last November, the commission gave the two sides one year to agree on the border and said if that did not occur, it would dissolve itself and send the Horn of Africa nations signed maps on December 1 designating the border based on colonial treaties.
Both sides have rejected that solution.
Analysts say it is unlikely much will change on the border, even if the commission closes as expected on Friday — except psychologically. The tensions of the past five years are unlikely to diminish.
”It’s highly possible that the end of the [commission] will be a non-event and will leave the situation in a vacuum,” said Francois Grignon, Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group.
”The deterioration of the situation, related to the coming vacuum in the peace process, could lead indeed to confrontation, but the signs we’re getting over the last two weeks are toward a continuation of the stand-off rather than escalation,” he said.
Indeed, little has changed in the language from either side in the run-up to the commission deadline.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Tuesday said Ethiopia had no plans of fighting another war, but would make sure Eritrea ”never, ever dreamed” of conflict if Asmara unilaterally launched one.
Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu reacted to the comments on Wednesday, reiterating longstanding allegations Ethiopia is planning to invade. ”This is just what’s been said on TV screens, but we know what’s happening on the ground and behind closed doors,” he said.
In the last month, security experts estimate both nations have moved at least 100 000 troops each with heavy weapons to the 1 000km border.
In early November, worried over escalating tensions, the United States and the United Nations urged both Ethiopia and Eritrea to step back.
The fate of a 1 700-strong UN peacekeeping mission charged with monitoring the border — whose mandate expires at the end of January — remains in question.
The mission’s mandate says it expires upon completion of demarcation.
But analysts say the UN — plagued by memories of failed missions in Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s — will likely try to stay on.
”The UN will look at the security situation and if that is unstable and the threat of war is seen as real, they will not move out,” said Jon Abbink, professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands.
”They will even renew the mandate. If they move out immediately then you have another stepped-up level of threat in the region,” he said. — Reuters