Ethiopia is beating the war drums again. After a lull of more than a decade, the Horn of Africa giant is now threatening to attack its neighbour and foe Eritrea over claims it is working to destabilise the country.
When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his country would no longer take a passive stance towards Eritrea, it marked an escalation in the bitter war of words that has ensued since a devastating border spat ended in 2000.
Addis Ababa should “either work towards changing Eritrea’s policies or its government,” he told local media last month.
“This could be done diplomatically, politically or through other means.”
The two countries have a long history of animosity since a vicious conflict was sparked in 1961 when rebels in Eritrea (then an Ethiopian state) took up arms to win independence.
A rebel group led by Meles and others joined the Eritreans, led by current president Isaias Afewerki, in 1975 and finally ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
Despite fighting tooth-and-nail alongside each other since they were barely out of their teens , the rebels-turned-statesmen have always had an uneasy relationship.
Just seven years after defeating Mengistu, the two famously stubborn men went to war over disputed border territory.
That conflict ended two years later with a U.N.-backed commission awarding the flashpoint town of Badme to Asmara. Ethiopia initially dismissed the ruling, before changing tack and accepting the finding.
Addis Ababa, however, is still calling for talks on its implementation, a stance rejected by Asmara.
Since then, the harsh rhetoric has come thick and fast over a stalemate wedged between two irreconcilable positions. Both sides have amassed large numbers of troops along their border, but there has been no flare up so far.
Ethiopia now accuses Eritrea of working to harm its interests and those of its allies. Apart from the conflict with Addis Ababa, the Red Sea state has also picked a fight with neighbour Djibouti, whose port landlocked Ethiopia relies on for almost all its external trade.
Asmara is also routinely accused of aiding insurgents in Ethiopia.
Some analysts say Asmara’s actions are meant to force the hand of the international community to stand up and notice Ethiopia’s “transgression” over its refusal to hand over the disputed territory, but nobody seems to buy the logic.
The United Nations has even slapped sanctions on the Red Sea state for its alleged support of Islamist insurgents in Somalia, a charge Eritrea vehemently denies.
Until now, Meles has ruled out direct confrontation, saying it was sufficient enough to ramp up security at home and deter “Eritrean government-coordinated terrorist attacks”.
Last month, however, he surprisingly announced that his country’s patience had run out.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Reuters that Eritrea tried to coordinate attacks inside Ethiopia during an African Union summit in February, and that Addis Ababa had asked the West to pressure Asmara into “refraining”.
Some diplomats say the planned attacks were of a sufficient scale to seriously worry Addis Ababa – Africa’s diplomatic hub.
“If they (international community) don’t heed, then we will take all measures necessary to defend ourselves,” Dina said.
Asmara has taken heed of the threats.
“I urge members of the U.N. Security Council to urgently deal with Ethiopia’s reckless threat to use force against Eritrea in a manner that is consistent with the Charter of the United Nations and the practices of the Security Council in similar situations,” Eritrea’s U.N. envoy Araya Desta said in a letter to the current chair of the Security Council.
While diplomats downplay the chances of an Ethiopian attack – Addis Ababa is one of the largest recipients of Western aid — rumours are rife in the capital that authorities are considering taking “strong measures” before the Ethiopian winter kicks in around June.
Some say, though, the posturing is only meant to scare the United Nations into tightening sanctions on Eritrea and to ensure the West continues to freeze the country out of the international community.
Meles’ detractors, however, claim he is trying to divert the attention of his countrymen to avoid North African-style unrest in a country were high living costs and unemployment are taking their toll.
So what do you think: Is another Horn of Africa war on the cards? Or is this just another round of rhetoric between the two foes?