15 February 2008

Conflicts are contagious. The longer the fight, the wider the spread.

Despite inevitable gripes on both sides of the Ethiopian - Eritrean border, the U.N. supervised lines remained generally calm, or at least did not heat up to a clash point. But with continued Darfur clashes and Somalia infighting, proxy wars are expanding to include Chad, Libya, Sudan (of course), Kenya, Ethiopia (especially the Ogaden region), and Eritrea.

A perceptive recent report by The Financial Times correspondent Harvey Morris pointed out to the possibility that UNMEE, the U.N. force stationed after a two year war which resulted in 70,000 people killed. Underlying the dispute, as Morris rightly indicated, was a mutual distrust between the two regimes about their wider strategies in the Horn of Africa.

In such a volatile neighbourhood, where flashpoints inter-connect with every emerging clash, the fear is that a new war may erupt on Bademe while key members of the Security Council are still being briefed about Darfur.

The regrettable fact is that the U.N. itself will have to take some blame for turning a success story like Eritrea into an unnecessary failure. In brief, the U.N. leadership, from the then Secretary General to the Security Council, did not take the border conflict, nor their own role, as seriously as they should. A peaceful demarcation line arrangement was actually accomplished by Algerian diplomacy led personally by President Bouteflika. UNMEE was initially seen by some in New York as placement opportunities particularly in senior positions. In addition to a Special Representative of the Secretary General, there were posts for two Assistant Secretaries-General, one in Addis Abeba, and another in Asmara. A Force Commander, who brought his family along to a non-family station, was openly accused by other military officers of abusing logistical privileges to look after himself rather than supervise the conflict. Then in addition to a top heavy political presence, another Special Representative post was created mainly to accommodate an outgoing Canadian Foreign Minister. The two countries were so upset that they refused to receive him before receiving a clear explanation. What was the difference between the Special Representative "for" and the other "over" Ethiopia and Eritrea? It turned out that one of them -- the African -- was to stay in the region, while the other, Mr. Oxworthy, was free to roam. The "Horn of Africa" became a parking lot for other envoys, from our former colleague Ahtisaari to a series of former senior Norwegian officials looking for something to do while out of a job at home. While they all made their customary visits and disappeared, officials in that region were taking an increasingly skeptical view of the U.N. "envoy" claim.

Additionally, Mr. Annan's long links with Addis Abeba may have dimmed his image in Asmara. His appointment of Ethiopian friends on the 38th and 37th floors led already nervous Eritreans to suspect that he was plotting against them, when plotting was the last thing on Mr. Annan's mind -- he was just accommodating someone.

Fortunately, there was no breakdown because the area was generally quiet. Recently, however, with expanding proxy conflicts, the risk is serious. What the U.N. needs to do, in addition to competent observation of the operations area, is to act quickly with the two capitals stressing their points of mutual interest, narrowing down their disagreements and possibly arriving at a confidence-building package. Both President Afwerki and Prime Minister Zenawi, formerly long-time allies, may need a constructive U.N. role much more than they care to admit. There is an opportunity that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon must seize. Otherwise, if conflict breaks out anew, one of the victims will be his credibility. You can always blame the governments; but the U.N. is a more convenient scapegoat.