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USA – How to Support Both Sides of a War Without Winning

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I am not sure if the USA knows this. If they do, then it is good. If they do not, I would not exactly be surprised. According to the French African historian Gérard Prunier (1), the USA did not know, that Ethiopia had annexed Djibouti. An intern knew, but the US intelligence did not. This was the case despite the fact that Djibouti harbours the only American military base on the African continent, Camp Lemonnier. It is important to know who is in control of the land where you have your only military base located…or one should think.

Whether the USA knows or does not know this, I find this is an interesting case, that also helps to illuminate how hard it is to be engaged in African affairs, and how complex the situation is on the ground that can lead to tragicomical situations, like this one.

So what is it that I want to talk about?

It is the current situation, where the USA supports both Eritrea and Ethiopia, who are again engaged in numerous proxy wars between each other. As a direct consequence hereof, the USA is engaged in a war between two countries while supporting both countries, countries that continue to destabilise the entire Horn of Africa.

And at the moment, none of the parties in this war is winning.

So how come the USA ended up supporting both sides of a war simultaneously. It sounds odd. And it is. Let me explain.

Before I go any further, this post will be divided into four subsections. If you want to skip the prelude and move directly to the climax, then jump to the section “How the USA Ended Up Supporting Both Ethiopia and Eritrea”.

  1. Reasons for the Proxy Wars Between Eritrea and Ethiopia
  2. Proxy Wars – the Battlegrounds
  3. How the USA Ended Up Supporting Both Ethiopia and Eritrea
  4. Conclusion

Reasons for the Proxy Wars Between Eritrea and Ethiopia

During the era of Colonialism, Ethiopia maintained independence (however, briefly occupied by Italy from 1936 to 1941). Eritrea, on the other hand, was entirely colonised by Italy. This prevented Ethiopia from gaining access to the sea, making it a landlocked country. After the World War II ended and Italy had lost the war, the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I, convinced the newly founded UN to support a federation consisting of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The UN supported this under UN 390-A(V), and the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation came into being on Sept. 15, 1952.

This resolution clearly stated that Eritrea must keep its autonomy. Selassie I decided to overlook that fact. A document is just words put together on a piece of paper. In a matter of fewer than ten years, the only national language became Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. On Nov. 15, 1962, Ethiopia officially annexed Eritrea, thereby, annulling the UN-resolution of 1952. It also paved the way for Ethiopia to gain full access to the sea. That started the liberation war of Eritreans who wanted independence from a new colonial power, Ethiopia. The civil war lasted from 1961-1991, and the civilian casualties were huge. Some sources believe up to 600,000 people lost their lives due to the conflict. Not to forget the circa 1 million deaths because of the droughts.

Selassie I was overthrown in 1974, where the leader of the Derg, Mengistu Haile Mariam, came into power supported by the USSR. The new power structures formed a rebellion from Eritrea AND now also within Ethiopia. The Ethiopian coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) joined hands with The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front led by Isaias Afwerki in ousting the Soviet-backed regime of Ethiopia led by Haile Mariam (2).

In 1991, Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country in exile in Zimbabwe (where he still lives today) and replaced with Meles Zenawi Asres, the rebel leader of the Ethiopian coalition EPRDF. A referendum, supported by Ethiopia, was held asking Eritreans if they wanted independence or not. The vast majority voted in favour of independence, and it was granted. The first time in history since colonialism, that two African countries drew their own borders. History was truly made. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea could officially celebrate independence.

Then the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia grew sour. The Ethiopian prime Minister, Meles Zenawi Asres, came under heavy fire from within a powerful fraction of the coalition, Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who saw it as a weak move to lose the access to the sea without any guarantee that the new regime of Eritrea would offer Ethiopia favourable access to the sea.

In 1997, Eritrea introduced their own currency, Nakfa, and Ethiopia saw that as a betrayal. They have sacrificed so much for Eritrea and the president Isaias Afwerki, and now Eritrea was drifting away from Ethiopia. Ethiopia refused to accept the new currency, and people could no longer trade with each other freely using the same currency. The people were predominantly Tigrayans, who shared several cultural, linguistic and religious markers, and the borders created had been nullified, first during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, then briefly under British control, and from 1961-1991, when it was under the control of Ethiopia. Suddenly borders began to matter

The situation escalated and in 1998, and an open war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia on whether Badme located in the province of Tigray belonged to Eritrea or Ethiopia. In 1998, the Eritrean military took control over Badme. Who was to blame for the war is debatable. Some blame Eritrea, while others, like aforementioned Prunier, blame the Tigrean regional government in Mek’ele. They had for a longer period of time provoked Eritrea repeatedly. In this point of view, the conflict was more a Tigrayan ethnic conflict than an interstate one.

Meles came under mounting pressure to meet force with force, and war was declared between Eritrea and Ethiopia on May 6, 1998, and early morning about 5.30 am on May 12, it began when the Eritrean armed forces captured Badme and the areas nearby, hence took Ethiopia by surprise.

The war lasted 2 years, 2 weeks, and 5 days, and ended May 25, 2000. About 300,000 people, predominantly civilians, were killed and even more suffered. Ethiopia and Eritrea were and still are among the poorest countries in Africa. The money that was earmarked the people were spent on the military budget instead. That ended in humanitarian crises and an upsurge of internally displaced persons (IDP).

The war ended, when the parties agreed to sign the Algier Agreement, where the independent Ethiopian-Eritrean Boundary Commission (EEBC) was formed. The Commission would look into the border dispute, and both countries promised to accept the final decision. In 2004, EEBC ruled that Badme belonged to Eritrea, and Ethiopia strongly refused to accept the decision.

To this day, Ethiopian soldiers continue to occupy this territory officially recognised belonging to Eritrea.

The escalating of the conflict and the relationship further complicated Ethiopia’s access to the sea. In the south, Somalia has ceased to exist as a state, and Ethiopia also has border disputes with Somalia so it would be practically impossible to gain access to the Sea through Somalia.

Djibouti, formerly known as French Somaliland, was the only country left that could grant Ethiopia easy access to the sea. Ethiopia couldn’t annexe Djibouti as they had done with Eritrea. It would anger the French and again, the US military base was also located in this small country. Instead, the president of Djibouti, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (IOG), was made into a vassal king. He depends on Ethiopia for virtually everything like water and electricity. Furthermore, IOG is weak due to old age and bad health. The support of Ethiopia gave him a stable ally when in power, and someone to guarantee his safekeeping the day he is no longer in power. IOG also originated from Dire Dawa, the second largest city in Ethiopia, why he might be more open toward Ethiopia. Current rumours even have it, that Ethiopia wants to merge Ethiopia and Djibouti into one country.

As we speak, Eritrea feels surrounded by Ethiopia, where Ethiopia have soldiers on Eritrean soil and has annexed Eritrea’s neighbour Djibouti, which also serves to strengthen Ethiopia as a regional power. On the other hand, Ethiopia never felt Eritrea appreciated the sacrifices it made when the two countries broke up, and it came to open war.

Today, both countries have signed the Algier Agreement, promising each other not to resolve to war. To pretend this status quo, both Eritrea and Ethiopia are engaged in proxy wars, where they support groups and/or parties that are hostile to one another. My enemy’s enemy is my friend strategy. This continues to destabilise the entire Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia is the main cause for the destabilisation due to its size and might.

Proxy Wars – the Battlegrounds

South Sudan

The South Sudan conflict is far more complex than most of us dare to recognise, where several African countries have regional stakes at play. It is further complicated by Eritrea and Ethiopia’s hostile relationship where the animosity almost seems to grow day by day.

The two largest parties in the South Sudan conflict are:
1) Riek Machar, leader of the opposition and chairman of the party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-opposition (SPLM-IO), and former vice-president of South Sudan.

2) Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of South Sudan, and leader of the government party the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Kiir is backed by the African Union (AU) and Uganda.

It was for a long period of time rumoured, that Sudan and Eritrea would cooperate in arming the rebel groups under control by Machar. Eritrea rejected the offer, which annoyed the rebels. In the meantime, the relationship between Juba and Ethiopia became increasingly complicated as Juba saw Ethiopia as a partial unsupporting part in the conflict. Basically, as an agent for American interests, while Ethiopia argued it operated as an independent and impartial agent. At the same time, the relations between Juba and Eritrea became friendlier. It is also complicated that the AU agreed to deploy troops to South Sudan in 2016, an offer rejected by Kiir. Months before, Ethiopia had ordered its soldiers to cross the Ethiopia-South Sudan border.

It intensifies the already cold air between Eritrea and Ethiopia, that further affects the relationship between Ethiopia and Kiir. The rivalry halts progress in a region, where too many lives have already been lost, and it further complicates a future peace process.


In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fled the Somali capital Mogadishu after the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in collaboration with the Ethiopian armed forces overthrew the ICU. Eritrea then aided the ICU, where they offered shelter for the members in its capital Asmara. Members of the ICU later became the backbone for al-Shabaab. Eritrea continued its possible arming and training of the members of al-Shabaab according to the UN. The UN lamented Eritrea in 2009, where the Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea through Resolution 1907, that included an arms embargo (in 2015, the sanctions were prolonged. However, in 2015, the UN did not find any direct link between Eritrea and a support for al-Shabaab. It should be further noted, the UN was not allowed entrance to Eritrea to verify or reject the claim of the aforementioned alleged support to al-Shabaab).


Ethiopia is a federation consisting of several ethnic groups and regions. The Tigrey minority controls the one-party state that continues to use brute force when people become too vocal in their discontent with the regime in Addis Ababa. One of the vocal groups is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) wanting independence. They operate in the southern part of Ethiopia bordering Somalia. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Eritrea offers support to this group. The same for the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) operating in the Oromo Region fighting for autonomy, but not independence.

Both the ONLF and OLF established a presence in Eritrea during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 and received training as well as logistical and military support. Eritrea continues to host the leaders of both insurgent movements and leaders of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, and the ONLF and OLF also had a presence in Mogadishu in 2006 (p. 30).

It shall be noted, that this does not mean, that neither the OLF nor the ONLF shall be seen as Eritrean puppets. This situation on the ground is abysmal for several minority groups because of the Ethiopian brute force, the continuing human rights violation perpetrated by the Ethiopian government, and the persistent marginalisation.

Eritrea “just” complicates the situation. Ethiopia’s actions laid the foundation for the vocal demonstrations against the government in Addis Ababa. Not Eritrea. Eritrea just used it to its advantage.

To sum up, the Eritrean-Ethiopian relation is freezing, and nothing appears that the relationship between these two countries has begun to thaw. Eritrea aids various groups hostile to Ethiopia, while Ethiopia keeps its armed forces on international, recognised Eritrean soil. It destabilises the entire region from Somalia to the civil war in South Sudan.

Ethiopia is using the UN to impose sanctions on Eritrea like the arms embargo. However just the sanctions might be, it is a source of conflict. And Ethiopia has taken control over Djibouti, practically surrounded Eritrea. In doing so, Eritrea feels threatened on its existence, which is a cause why the country’s dictator, that Isaias Afwerki is, has de facto imposed infinite conscription (sawa) for its populations in order to protect himself and the regime. In doing so, Eritrea has been dubbed the African North Korea, a named it also earned as it keeps isolating itself from the global community, e.g. prohibiting the UN any entrance. An exodus of people have fled the country in the past years, fleeing from hunger, an elaborate intelligence service equating that of former KGB, and slavering in forced labour camps.

At the same hand, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in October 2016, that will last six months in order to crack down protests of people believed to belong to OLF. Severe human rights violations are reported. The Ethiopian regime has survived on a climate of fear and violence, and it is still the case today, especially in the Oromo and Somali Region.

The rivalry between Ethiopia and Eritrea does not cause a direct war, but the people in the entire region feel the dire consequences. Currently, both Ethiopia and Eritrea are affected by drought, a situation negatively affected by the large sum of money spent on the military.

What role the USA plays will be illuminated in the following part. Sorry for keeping it so long. I just believe, it is important to know the background first before moving ahead.

How the USA Ended Up Supporting Both Ethiopia and Eritrea

The USA Supports Ethiopia

This is very straight forward. Ethiopia is a stable state in an unstable region. Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries include Somalia and South Sudan, who either can be characterised as failed states or something extremely close, the American camp is in neighbouring Djibouti, and Ethiopia has been the darling of Western donors for decades. The aid-projects serve Western donors to showcase their humanitarian superiority. If Ethiopia as a development project fails, the donors would have to explain to the world and its taxpayers why billions and billions of dollars were poorly spent, and their believed superiority would collapse. An unacceptable loss of prestige. Consequently, donors have an interest in promoting a rosy picture of Ethiopia. Furthermore, ever since Al-Shabaab came into existence, Ethiopia has been a close ally of the USA and is the single largest donor. In 2011, the UK was the second largest giver of aid to Ethiopia, USD 261.8 million. The USA gave three times as much or estimated USD 608.3 million. This is to illustrate, how much money the USA allocates to Ethiopian compared to other countries.

Source – USAID: how aid from the US has increased dramatically since the introduction of the War on Terror. A policy continued during the presidency of Obama.

The problem is that in despite billions of dollars allocated to Ethiopia from the US alone, Ethiopia continues to be among the poorest countries, and the human rights violations never been dealt with properly. Yes, the situation has improved on the ground. The infrastructure has improved (even the roads in the rural areas remain largely unpaved), the literacy rate is improving, and so on and so forth. But as several sources reiterate, there is no effective monitoring system in place to ensure the money is spent as promised to ensure that foreign aid is not used by Ethiopia to finance its military used to destabilise the region and the country itself.

In 2013, the think tank the Oakland Institute published this report arguing:

However, they [donors] have failed to take decisive action to prevent policies that deny the basic human rights of some of the poorest and most marginalized people of Ethiopia (p. 1)

In 2016, the Human Rights Watch said:

There are no indications that donors have strengthened the monitoring and accountability provisions needed to ensure that their development aid does not contribute to or exacerbate human rights problems in Ethiopia.

Aid giving by the USA can be and is very likely used by the Ethiopian government to finance its military, which again is a part of the rivalry with Eritrea. Eritrea played a vital role in the formation of al-Shabaab by its willingness to harbour the members of the former ICU.

The USA Supports Eritrea

This support is less straight forward. The relationship between Eritrea and the USA is cold. Since 2005, USAID has not been allowed to operate on Eritrean soil, and neither has any aid agency. In 2008, Eritrea further agonised the USA and Ethiopia by clashing with soldiers from Djibouti.

To fully understand the situation in how the USA ended supporting Eritrea, we have to cross the Red Sea and look toward Yemen. In 1995, Yemen and Eritrea had a dispute over the Harnish Islands, where Eritrea won the brief war. A known strategy of Eritrea. Hit hard and fast, so when entering the negotiation table, you can negotiate from a strong position rather than from a weak one. However, in 1998, Eritrea was forced to hand over most of the islands to Yemen after decision made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

Saudi Arabia is engaged in Yemen, in a war overshadowed by the tragedy in Syria, and Eritrea has suddenly entered the war in Yemen too. Eritrea has allowed the Saudi-led coalition to use Eritrea when launching air strikes against Yemen.

In 2015, the UN Security Council said:

The Group received credible and persuasive testimony from multiple sources and independent reports indicating that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have established a military presence in Eritrea as part of the military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and may be offering Eritrea compensation for allowing its territory and possibly its troops to be used as part of the Arab coalition-led war effort. (p. 11)

This is a clear violation of the arms embargo issued in 2009, as I mentioned earlier.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pay Eritrea money for their support. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the USA, which the USA reciprocates through military and financial aid to the Saudi Kingdom. The Kingdom then supports Eritrea.

Suddenly, the USA sees some of its support forwarded to the Eritrean regime, where the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of violating the arms embargo placed upon Eritrea. Meaning the US military aid to Saudi Arabia also benefits Eritrea.


Eritrea and Ethiopia are involved in a regional rivalry destabilising the entire region due to border disputes and the feeling of betrayal. The USA supports Ethiopia and its fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia, and indirectly Ethiopia’s violent crackdown on domestic protesters through US passivity.

On the same hand, the USA supports Saudi Arabia that supports Eritrea. Thereby, the USA is indirectly supporting Eritrea as well. Eritrea has historically supported and offered shelter to al-Shabaab and other groups hostile to the current Ethiopia government in Addis Ababa, that the US pays Ethiopia to fight.

In the end, the USA ends up supporting both sides in a regional rivalry. Impressively enough, even the USA supports both sides, it is still losing, since none of the participants is willing to back down.

It is the circle of life…oh no, it is the circle of war, which more than anything proves that African leaders are not Western puppets. They have their own agenda, and they know how to play the game in order to gain access to resources from wealthy donors.

The result is prolonged conflicts, where the real victims are the civilians, the ones always carrying the heaviest burden, and the ones that are always forgotten.

For more information, I can warmly recommend Martin Plaut, journalist for the Guardian

1) April  10, 2015, lecture, personal notes, Copenhagen, Denmark
2) Haile Mariam is convicted of genocide

Parting words
This is not only a critique of the USA. The EU is worse. Under the Khartoum Process, the EU allocates money to both Eritrea and Ethiopia to prevent refugees coming to the EU. Meaning, the EU pays money to Eritrea and Ethiopia to prevent refugees coming to the shores of Europe, while the same states create refugees due to the ongoing rivalry and destabilisation of the region. The EU is also cooperating with the Sudanese government led by al-Bashir wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. The goal is the same. To prevent refugees from entering the EU.

The strategy of the EU appears to be that no problem is so big that it cannot be solved by donating (more) money. Eventually, the idea seems to be that the problems will go away. That is not how the world works, which the EU will discover, also eventually. For more info on the EU –  click here


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