Eritrean-Ethiopian War

In 1996, Eritrea and Ethiopia were considered to be “Africa’s new hope” because of the exemplary relationship the two countries fostered after thirty years of devastating conflict in Eritrea’s quest for independence. In May, 1998, however, the two countries were locked in a vicious war that claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides. As the twentieth century ended, the two countries were involved in irreconcilable military, economic, and diplomatic conflicts.

Summary of Event

On May 13, 1998, Ethiopia declared war against its former province Eritrea. Ethiopia’s declaration of war seemed disproportionate to the small territorial claim that ignited the crisis. Potentially explosive border disputes that had been boiling bellow the surface climaxed into open warfare on May 6, 1998, when Eritrea captured the border village of Badme, which had been under Ethiopian administrative rule. Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000)[Eritrean Ethiopian War]
[kw]Eritrean-Ethiopian War (May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000)
[kw]Ethiopian War, Eritrean- (May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000)
[kw]War, Eritrean-Ethiopian (May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000)
Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000)[Eritrean Ethiopian War]
[g]Africa;May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000: Eritrean-Ethiopian War[10000]
[g]Eritrea;May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000: Eritrean-Ethiopian War[10000]
[g]Ethiopia;May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000: Eritrean-Ethiopian War[10000]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 6, 1998-Dec. 12, 2000: Eritrean-Ethiopian War[10000]
Afewerki, Isaias
Zenawi, Meles
Bouteflika, Abdelaziz
Sahnoun, Mohamed
Mesfin, Seyoum
Woldetensae, Haile

Between November, 1997, and the outbreak of hostilities in May, 1998, a hastily created Eritrea-Ethiopia Joint Border Commission (EEJC) met three times to try to resolve border disagreements. This seemed unnecessary because Eritrea’s borders had been clearly demarcated since the 1940’s. As early as 1945, the first British military administrator of Eritrea, Stephen H. Longrigg, Longrigg, Stephen H. noted that Eritrea’s “borders with Sudan and Ethiopia were in detail delimited.” The EEJC failed to recognize this and allowed a small skirmish at Badme escalate to an open war.

According to the Eritrean version of events, hostilities began in the summer of 1997, when Ethiopian troops penetrated Eritrean territory in hot pursuit of Ethiopian insurgents and occupied the Eritrean village of Adi Murug. Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki expressed his “grave concern” to Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, urging him to reverse the incursion and for both to work for common border demarcation. Zanawi agreed that border demarcation was critical. However, he stated that Ethiopian border guards in Adi Murug and Badme were in Ethiopian territories. Subsequent border clashes at the western front, according to Eritrea, were caused when Ethiopian forces tried to disarm Eritrean border guards. Gunfire was exchanged, causing Eritrean casualties that included a high-ranking military officer. Eritrea responded by occupying Badme.

According to Ethiopia, the root cause of the war was Eritrea’s occupation of territories, such as Badme, previously administered by Ethiopia. Resisted by border guards, Eritrean troops opened fire, killing Ethiopian militia members. Ethiopian forces returned fire, inflicting casualties on Eritrean troops. On May 6, 1998, Eritrea sent troop reinforcements and occupied Badme and its environs. Zenawi sent several letters between May 6 and May 13, 1998, in an attempt to persuade Eritrea to withdraw from the territories it occupied. When Eritrea refused, the Ethiopian parliament declared war.

The war alarmed international observers because of the scant economic and strategic values of the contested territory. The United Nations, the United States, and the European Union called for an immediate cease-fire. U.S. president Bill Clinton dispatched the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Susan E. Rice, Rice, Susan E. to the region to explore diplomatic solutions. On June 3, 1998, the United States and Rwanda presented the U.S.-Rwanda Peace Plan U.S.-Rwanda Peace Plan (1998)[U.S. Rwanda Peace Plan] to the warring countries. Ethiopia accepted the plan on June 4, but Eritrea rejected it because the plan recommended unconditional withdrawal from territories Eritrea occupied after May 13.

A day after it accepted the U.S.-Rwanda Peace Plan, Ethiopia launched air raids on Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Ethiopia also took a series of economic measures designed to weaken Eritrea’s ability to fight. The new measures included mass deportation of more than seventy thousand Eritreans, confiscation of Eritreans’ property in Ethiopia, and revocation of Ethiopian citizenship, and subsequent expulsion to Eritrea, of Ethiopians with Eritrean ancestry. Ethiopia also imposed complete air and land blockades of Eritrea. Throughout the first phase of the war, Ethiopia followed a strategy of accepting peace proposals while escalating the conflict. Eritrea’s strategy was to try to de-escalate the conflict, conserve its limited human resources, and defend its sovereignty from destruction by Ethiopia’s seemingly limitless fighting forces.

On June 5, 1998, the Ethiopian air force conducted air raids on Asmara. The Asmara International Airport was hit, resulting in civilian casualties. The same day, Eritrea retaliated and attacked Mekele, the provincial capital of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, inflicting civilian casualties. A week later, on June 12, Eritrea attacked the Ethiopian airbase Adi Grat. Two days later, both countries accepted a U.S.-brokered moratorium on air attacks.

On June 18, a high-level delegation representing the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU) arrived in the region to build on the U.S.-Rwanda Peace Plan and to emphasize OAU’s serious concern over the crisis. On July 12, 1999, the delegation presented the Modalities for Implementation of the OAU Framework Agreement. Another document, the Technical Arrangement for the Implementation of the OAU Framework Agreement, designed to firm up the proposals as binding and unamendable, was presented to the two countries on August 5, 1998.

Throughout the first phase of the war, Ethiopia seemed flexible and eager to settle the dispute. At the same time, it boosted its offensive and defensive positions. As the year ended, the two countries engaged in periodic skirmishes while the international community attempted to prevent escalation.

On January 1, 1999, the United States issued a travel warning for Eritrea, sensing impending Ethiopian attack. On February 2, the U.N. envoy to Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mohamed Sahnoun, visited the capitals of the two countries. His visit had little impact on Ethiopia’s hardening position.

On February 5, 1999, Ethiopia breached the air-strike agreement mediated by the United States and started massive air and land campaigns on all fronts that continued until February 28. Eritrean western defensive lines, previously steadfast and unyielding, crumbled under the continuous Ethiopian assault. Eritrea abandoned its western defense lines, including the village of Badme where the crisis had begun. Eritrea then sued for a cease-fire and accepted the U.S.-Rwanda Peace Plan and the OAU framework agreement and technical arrangements. Ethiopia refused the cease-fire, claiming that the OAU agreement and accompanying proposals needed further modification in view of the new military situation.

In August, 1999, Algeria assumed the rotating OAU leadership. Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika made the Ethiopian-Eritrean crisis OAU’s priority. He appointed former Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia Ouyahia, Ahmed as envoy to explore ways of ending the war. Ethiopia, emboldened by its military gains, refused to negotiate in hopes of extracting further concessions from Eritrea. It launched massive air and ground attacks on the eastern border and on the central front. Ethiopia’s objective changed from pushing Eritrea out of lands previously administered by Ethiopia to “degrading” Eritrea’s armed forces. On April 29, 2000, indirect talks mediated by Algeria, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations began in Algiers, Algeria. Eritrean foreign minister Haile Woldetensae and Ethiopian foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin headed their respective delegations. Meanwhile, Zenawi stated, “We will fight and negotiate.”

In May, Ethiopia continued its massive assault on all fronts. Ethiopia added new conditions, informing Bouteflika of its desire to see redeployment of Eritrean forces to no closer than 25 kilometers of the countries’ common border. On May 23, Eritrea’s defensive positions were overrun on all fronts. Two days later, Eritrea accepted all of Ethiopia’s terms and completed its withdrawal to the buffer zone 25 kilometers away from the two countries’ recognized common border.

On June 1, 2000, Ethiopia accepted the cease-fire. On June 18, 2000, the two countries signed the OAU plan for the secession of hostilities. On June 30, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1312, establishing the United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which authorized the deployment of peacekeeping forces to the buffer zone. On December 12, 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed the comprehensive peace agreement, effectively ending the two-year war.


Even though the border crisis was triggered by Eritrea’s occupation of Badme, the small Eritrean village under Ethiopian administration, the two countries’ animosity morphed into economic and social conflicts. This made the border crisis difficult to address because the conflict needed the diplomatic, political, and economic maturity that was so scarce in both countries. The event was also significant because it symbolized the political and geographic restructuring indicative of postcolonial Africa in the late twentieth century. Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000)[Eritrean Ethiopian War]

Further Reading

  • Iyob, Ruth. The Eritrean Struggle for Independence: Domination, Resistance, Nationalism, 1941-1993. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Highlights Eritrea’s formative events as a new sovereign state.
  • Kidane Mengisteab, and Ogbazghi Youhannes. Anatomy of an African Tragedy: Political Economic and Foreign Policy Crisis in Post-independence Eritrea. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 2005. Critical analysis of Eritrea’s domestic and diplomatic failures.
  • Longrigg, Stephen H. A Short History of Eritrea. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. Details Eritrea’s political history after the end of Italian colonialism in 1941, and the end of British occupation in 1952.
  • Negash, Tekeste, and Kjetil Tronvoll. Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. Brief description of the 1998 war; argues hidden motives yet to be uncovered were the causes of the war.
  • Pool, David. From Guerrillas to Government: The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. Detailed account of how the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front transformed from a liberation organization to a totalitarian regime.

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