Worldwide, there are approximately 100 boundary disputes between countries. Vast areas of land, sea and maritime coasts push countries into quarrel for territorial claims or possessions. Some areas are even claimed by more than two countries. There can be wide divergence between de facto boundaries, whether by right or not, and de jure, rightfully, boundaries. Most countries reinforce sovereignty claims for different reasons: Colonial inherited conflicts, the exploitation of minerals, agricultural usage, geopolitical attractions such as access to waters, and other significant benefits.

Few countries exercised arm conflicts, but soon sought legal resolution. Countries solve their territorial claims bilaterally, or at the international hearings, or through other means of mediations. For example: Germany and Denmark successfully resolved an age-old boarder dispute (1815 – 2001) of 68 kilometres. Russia and the United States of America agreed on fishing claims in the central Bering Sea, and Botswana was rewarded the disputed islands with Namibia.

For clarity, here are some of the on-going disputes which may impress us with their experiences: Russia and Japan have had their modern border dispute since 1945 over the Kurile Islands. They are four small islands along 1200 km. of coast line under Russian administration that have been without a conclusive peace treaty between Japan and Russia. Norway and Russia negotiate on the delimitation of maritime boundaries. China and Japan dispute concerning the Senkaku Islands. India and Pakistan still dispute over Kashmir. Afghanistan - Pakistan on their boarder. The Spanish and Moroccan claims over Ceuta and Melilla. Bolivia – Chile – Peru dispute in the Atacama Desert. Mexico and USA dispute in their boarder lands. Canada disputes with USA and Denmark over maritime boundaries. Cambodia – Laos, Cambodia – Vietnam claim in Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia. Iraq and Turkey dispute in the Northern of Kurdistan region. Bahrain and Qatar dispute over maritime delimitation. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan dispute in the Caspian. Spanish with Britain dispute in Gibraltar for territorial waters. Ireland and Britain dispute over their border. Bulgaria and Greece dispute over their boarder lands. It is possible that some of these disputes may have been currently resolved.

More importantly, almost all of the disputing countries have warm or modest diplomatic relations between one another, because they examine that the benefit of diplomacy out-weigh the dispute. Skilled politicians might consider war, only when it seems that self defence is universally accepted and morally right.

Since May 1998 the so called border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been difficult to mediate because of the controversial nature of the conflicts between the two governments.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, had an interview with, a London based news letter, on May 03, 2009, in Addis Abeba. He said that “the EPRDF has been in power for this long both a reflection of its strength and the weakness of the opposition”. Meles stressed the need for more leadership reforms than policy. At the same time, with regard to the questions on the border issue and further relations with Eritrea, Mr. Meles emphasized that “the boundary was a symptom of an underlying sickness and you do not cure a sickness by treating its symptoms only. Therefore, Ethiopia is in need of dialogue, but Eritrea is not engaging us in dialogue. That is the same approach that they are following in Djibouti and elsewhere. So I think that that needs to change and it can only change from inside. But as soon as it does change, then I am sure that the window will be opened. But, if we must have what we have now, we can live with it, more or less indefinitely”, Meles added.

One of the main concerns in Ethiopia is the politics of ethnicity which can be a divisive policy. The fear is that would marginalize some ethnicities and discourage national unity. It could be difficult to maintain the unity during government transition, or socio-economic crises. Those may require corrections and phase out gradually.

In principle, I wish to see Ethiopia in peace and unity. I respect the courage of those patriots who are dreaming of accommodating Ethiopian unity. A growing confidence among all nationalities is valuable for a solid unity in Ethiopia. In this regard, handling Tigray has to be one of the main requirements. Although the upcoming election may carry some thing of its own fashion, learning from the elections of 2005 can be a good ground to attain popular goals. Elections should not focus on a grabbing of power, but on broad-minded national unity and popular interests.

When we are observing that some positive achievements in economy and democratic practices have been made by the EPRDF government or it is dealing with common national agendas, let us applaud to its contributions and build confidence among each other. Although there are several reasons to criticize the EPRDF government, we may not have to think that anything would help by doing provocative propagandas against our political rivals. Working together on various national issues can develop common responsibility.

More importantly, the opportunity scheduled for May 2010 national elections in Ethiopia would have to open the doors for a proper Ethiopian integration and prospective Ethio-Eritrean reciprocity.

President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea gave an extensive interview to the in May 2009, in Asmara. He said that “the border conflict which was insanity to me was never ever an issue”.

“There was no border threat at all” Isaias added.

Despite the fact that Isaias Afeworki has been known as a manipulative leader in the Eritrean politics, he meaningfully told the Ethiopian Review Reporters that “Eritrea without cooperation with Ethiopia is a vacuum”, and “the sky is the limit for Ethiopia and Eritrea integration,” Mr. Isaias said.

Such bold statements are good lessons to those who live in a fairy tale about Eritrea. Of course, under favourable administrative conditions, Eritrea within the limit of her own resources could have done better than she has to date. There have also been sensitive cultural and regional polarities in Eritrea. Undesirable sentiments can hinder progress in different aspects of life. However, Eritreans need to develop genuine understanding in sharing our common concerns. The Eritrean people need the rule of law, development in economy and education.

Although what Isaias said, and the style of his behaviour matters, the truth is that a close cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a bottom line for peace and progress in the region. There is a growing trend towards this effect.

Since the last two years, both Isaias Afeworki and Meles Zenawi had confessed on several occasions that the border issue was a pretext for their disagreements on other policies. More reliably, the sense of those interviews of Mr. Meles and Mr. Isaias tell that the boundary issue is a symptom and not the main problem between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments. As such, it is not a matter of whether you win or lose at Badme; it is a matter of what you are going to do when you win? Thereof, promoting the border issue by any force as the main obstacle for stability is a wasting of time and political gimmick.

The two leaders have been reluctant to deal with the issues between themselves. Each one of the two governments has adopted emotional, reckless policies against the interest of both peoples. Those have caused the loss of inalienable ties between the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea. As such, the border issue is a bankrupt pretext which has been blocking bilateral cooperation and further possibilities for socio-economic integration. The governments have been accusing each other for their failure to bring cooperation between these two sisterly nations. Such circumstances are particularly contributing to Eritrea being in limbo and whispering. As people, understanding popular interests without being intimidated is essential.

Actually, the political games between the two leaderships currently seem in tremendous crises. All those frustrations could yet push into a further war. However, the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea would have to courageously do their best to mitigate possible casualties and facilitate such situations for their common progress and stability.

The primary needs are to revise and reconcile our common values no matter who has been at fault. Of course it has to be done carefully. The differences between our peoples are reconcilable in their nature as far as we are capable of applying the opportunities in a wise manner.

The first step needs to be an exit strategy from the apparent hostilities between these two governments. A general negotiation for a diplomatic relationship has to be inspired in any way. Subsequently, it will be required that an examination of the fundamental points of social and economic reciprocity between Ethiopia and Eritrea be undertaken. It is essential to start with mutual respect and realities.

Reasons for reciprocity:

Eritrea may use the opportunity of her most focal point of interest with Ethiopia in regard to the Red Sea. Cooperation with Ethiopia can motivate Eritrean socio-economic development. Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen do not need Eritrean port services, because all of them have their own access to the sea. In that regard, Eritrea has few options to use her maritime resources, unless she closely cooperates with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, after her withdrawal from Massawa and Assab, has established major routes through Djibouti. Although Ethiopia may pay high operational costs, she has been maintaining her commercial routes better than imagined. In this regard, Eritrea and Djibouti are likely to be transformed into rivals over the same Ethiopian interests. Therefore, competition between these two outlets is going to be in favour of the Ethiopian choice for commercial access. Thus the geo-strategic influence that Eritrea could have benefitted over the Ethiopian interest along the Red Sea has turned against her by showing that Ethiopia is more economically influential over Eritrea.

However, the Eritrean Red Sea is not only for commercial access, but has a massive attraction for naval capacity in the region. It is obvious that Ethiopia needs guaranteed access to the Red Sea for ports and related services. Many Ethiopians say that the port of Assab has to be acquired by Ethiopia, which cannot be a bilateral solution. In general, that cannot yield an overall strategic shield over Ethiopian sovereignty in respect to the surrounding geopolitics. Hence, Eritrea and Ethiopia can develop together in several ways.

In my speculation, Ethiopia will seek to negotiate on various services to build a solid confidence with Eritrea. Therefore, Eritrea may need to revise the outcome of her geographical location on domestic and international economies (geo-economics) notably with respect to the Red Sea. Those initiatives and other interests can bring basic reciprocal obligations and may grow into harmonious relations. First, let Ethiopia and Eritrea simply trade each other.

This is not only about the point of economic reciprocity between Ethiopia and Eritrea; more importantly, it should be an example of reconciliation of our values for national and regional security. Such interrelations may also avoid proxy conflicts from within and from other directions. Those can bring a form of stabilized progress in the Horn of Africa. As such, it is good for Eritrea and good for Ethiopia!

Mishandling of these vital issues, I think, would cause threats of conflicts in different directions at any time. As such, parts of the Afar regions, both in Eritrea and Ethiopia have the possibility of becoming areas of major conflicts concerning the Ethiopian needs of access to the Red Sea. There would also be growing pressure from Ethiopia over its Tigray region in regard to the unfavorable circumstances between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Consequently, Eritrea, on top of her deteriorated social and economic situation could badly suffer for various loads that may be exerted from Ethiopia. On the other hand, Ethiopia may retard her economic growth and face social instability. Other forces mainly from abroad may take advantage of our inconvenient situations and engage us in proxy conflicts. We cannot ignore unfortunate possibilities. We do not have to take improper advantage of each other, nor do we need to get our peoples into such instabilities. Let us consider historical ties, border attachments, as well as other sentiments are psychological influences. Let us wisely plan for a win-win solution.

As far as common negotiations are imperative for progress and stability, any Eritrean government has to look at what can benefit the Eritrean people and approach Ethiopia with better policies. Any government in Ethiopia may be required to address the strategic interest with Eritrea and sincerely approach any government in Eritrea. Both may draft proposals of prerequisites that will verify common interests and respect public opinions. Establishment of agreements may be needed before it is too late for economic and geopolitical reasons.

The Ethio-Eritrean public roles are demanding:

The involvement of the Ethiopian and Eritrean public into discussions will enable us to review our common interests and push any governments in office for their implementation. Collectively, we have to raise our minds to build full confidence between the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. I am an Eritrean by birth, and my writing is intended to contribute a glimmer of hope towards a bilateral understanding on our reciprocal values.

As far as good wishes are concerned, educating our peoples is definitely important for a common knowledge. Although policy makers may have to do deep analysis on various issues, public discussions ought to be carried out at any opportunity for mutual understanding over important concepts. Thus, people may dialogue on common points such as: What are the diverse attitudes of many Ethiopians and Eritreans concerning mutual interests? Where do the opportunities and threats lie? What policies need to be revised in order to approach major concerns? What are the certain valuable points of reciprocity that may be imperative to bind both parties? Many issues will need to be addressed by both parties in amicable ways. Hence, we may need to control our emotions to deal with realities.

If we are to be in a peaceful place, then both peoples must be courageous to agree and devise a road map for strategic principles. Peace is not about the present situation, it is more about the future generations. Let us open the doors!


The Settlement of Boundary Disputes in International Law, by Dr. A.O. Cukwurah, 1967

International Dispute Settlement 3rd edition, by J.G. Merrills, 1998 for more publications