To the Eritrean Government


The Negotiating Concept

Herui T. Bairu


Herui T. Bairu

Respect for the borders existing at independence (as stated in Resolution AHG/Res 16 (1) adopted by the OAU Summit in Cairo in 1964) on the basis of pertinent colonial treaties, and applicable international law, is a primary principle. To this end, making use of the technical means to demarcate the boundaries and, in case of controversy, resorting to the appropriate mechanism of arbitration that reaffirms their acceptance of the OAU Framework Agreement and the Modalities for its implementation, has been endorsed by the 35thordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of Government, held in Algiers, Algeria from 12 to 14 June 1999.

The above paragraph represents the core of the latest Algiers proposals to resolve the Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict. In order to safeguard the national inheritance of the Eritrean people, the Eritrean government needs to take the following issues into consideration:

  1. Why was the resolution of the OAU Cairo Summit of 1964 selected to spearhead the negotiating process, and in what way does it differ from the OAU Addis Summit of 1963? Eritrean negotiators should have insisted, and still need to insist now, that both summits dealt with colonial boundaries as the basis of African nation/statehood. The OAU Addis Summit of 1963 was the result of the lowest common denominator of the multiple agendas of the leaders of, the then decolonized, African states. The Emperor’s hidden agenda at that time was:
  • To provide the mantle of legality to the forcible annexation of Eritrea, by the stipulation, “respect of territorial integrity and non-interference”
  • To use the OAU regional organization as an intervening structure between Eritrea and the UN, and
  • To pre-empt future secessionist demands in Ethiopia (by the Tigrayan and the Oromo, etc., ethnic nations)
  1. What does the provision: “borders existing at the time of independence” mean?

A serious examination of the documents of the Cairo Summit of 1964 would show that the Heads of African States were disturbed by the events of the Congo. Katanga, a much-coveted mineral-rich region in the Congo, threatened to declare itself an independent state under the leadership of Tshombe. This unexpected phenomenon propelled the heads of state present in Cairo to stipulate the proviso, “borders existing at the time of independence,” in order to forestall secessions. The quoted item was an affirmation of the principle that colonial borders become national borders at independence, and a negation of the formation of new national borders by the act of secession.

  1. What relevance does the 1964 stipulation have on the Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict? None whatsoever! It must be noted that the OAU does not have the legal authority to change colonial boundaries: it is juridically bound to affirm them. To interpret the stipulation “borders existing at the time of independence” to mean changing colonial boundaries (as the Ethiopian government is arguing presently, and which has been accepted by the Eritrean government), is to abandon the principles embodied in the Charters of the OAU and the UN. What the OAU can do is merely to confirm that the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty, etc., are derivatives of the central concept of the inviolability of the colonial boundary. After all, the Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict has not been caused by the demand of the disputed areas to secede from Eritrea (like Tshombe’s Katanga). The Cairo Summit of 1964 notwithstanding, the conflict has been caused by the issue of territorial paternity.
  2. We have already seen that the Summit of Cairo has no relevance to the Ethiopian argument. Let us now examine the question of whether, the Ethiopian administration of the disputed territories at the time of Eritrean independence, constitutes a right to sovereignty? Eritrea was decolonised by the UN (albeit in a deformed fashion) in 1952; the United Nations organization is a living witness of what constitutes the colonial boundaries of Eritrea. The Federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia was based on the colonial boundary that resulted from the treaty between emperor Menelik and Italy, and became, subsequently, the basis of the revised constitution of 1955.

It is interesting to draw the parallel that after Italy conquered Ethiopia it made Tigray a province of Eritrea. A new map was published in 1997, which included the disputed areas, on the assumption that Ethiopia administered these territories at the time of Eritrean independence. Needless to say, none of these have any bearing to the concept of international boundary.

The Ethiopian argument is tenuous for the following reasons:

  • Ethiopia did not inform the OAU and the UN about the boundary changes it made; the international community became aware of this discrepancy only after the conflict broke out.
  • Neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea have the right to change international boundaries.
  • The documents of the Eritrean Revolution prove, without an iota of doubt, (as attested by its programs, documents deposited with the OAU, the UN, and other international organizations) that the basis of the Eritrean struggle for independence was: Italian colonial treaties with all its neighbours. It should be remembered that Italy signed colonial boundaries with Great Britain regarding the Sudan, and France regarding Djibouti. One wonders what would have happened if all Eritrea’s neighbours demanded their pounds of flesh.
  • The referendum held under the auspices of the UN (the original decolonize of Eritrea) was based on the questions of: “Yes, for independence of Eritrea (created by Italian colonialism) or No, to unity of Eritrea with Ethiopia. The referendum of 1993 did not deal with disputed areas because the question did not arise; the UN simply departed from its firsthand knowledge that the Italian colonial boundary was the basis of the entire exercise.
  1. Care must be taken so that the Eritrean government does not fall into the trap of the formulation: “applicable international law.” This stipulation is intended to link the Eritrean/Ethiopian border conflict to non-African cases (read: cases that are uniquely pertinent to European nation-state building). The cases that are relevant to Eritrea are limited to the Scramble of Africa, and the colonial boundaries that sprung thereof.
  2. The stipulation, “in case of controversy, the relevant appropriate mechanisms of arbitration” is another trap that must be definitely avoided. The Yemen experience is bitter enough!

Herui T. Bairu


HERUI TEDLA BAIRU: a political scientist, is one of the founders, organizers, and theoreticians of the Ethiopian Students Movement (ESM) in the early 1960’s. He was the Vice President of the Eritrean Liberation Front and the head of its Political Bureau for the period 1971-75. Later, he, became the General Secretary of the Eritrean Democratic Movement (1977-90). After independence Herui served as a member of the Eritrean parliament. He later became Secretary General of the Eritrean Alliance, consisting of sixteen organizations, for the period 2002-2005. He is presently the chairman of the influential Eritrean Congress Party.

Disclaimer: The author of this article is a member of the Board of Directors of the Forum for National Dialogue, but the views and opinions expressed in this article are his only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Forum for National Dialogue. FND does not espouse any official policy or position on any issues. Members of the Board are free to express any opinion they hold.

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