Meles Zenawi's war threat against Eritrea

By Eskinder Nega / March 25, 2011
 "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al
Much to the amusement of Addis’ increasingly politically astute public, peace-dove-on-Eritrea Meles Zenawi has abruptly vanished from the public arena. In place of this familiar persona has come the new war-drumming-on-Eritrea Meles Zenawi.

Speaking to journalists at his last press conference, Meles accused, for the umpteenth time, the Eritrean government of attempts to sabotage the latest AU Summit in Addis.

“Agents of Shabiya (the Eritrean government) were seized with explosives intended for disrupting the AU Summit,” said Meles. And while he would have normally stopped here and moved on, visibly relishing the dependable competence of his security services, he opted to beat the war drum. “We will work towards changing Eritrea's policies or its government. This could be done diplomatically, politically or through other means." He clearly implied war.

But only a few days earlier he had categorically told an Eritrean opposition radio station that his government “would work in a military capacity” to oust the Eritrean government.

Consistently accused of being no more than EPRDF stooges by the Eritrean government, Eritrean opposition groups based in Addis were embarrassed almost beyond redemption. They immediately struck back with a public reprimand: it is for Eritreans to change their regime, they countered.

But whatever the political cost to the Eritrean opposition, Meles has clung firmly to an overt policy of regime change. "We will not sit idle and watch while Eritrea challenges our sovereignty," the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Dina Mufti told Reuters subsequently. “We will take all measures necessary to defend ourselves."

Depending on the source, the total number of Ethiopia’s armed forces is anywhere between 200,000 and 250,000. Experts, no less the mighty CIA, are less sure about Eritrea. Figures vary wildly between 150,000 and 300,000.

There is less controversy about the number of tanks, though, which are crucial in modern warfare: between 300 and 500 for Ethiopia versus 100 to 200 for Eritrea. A limitation, so say analysts, which seriously hampers Eritrea’s offensive capability. Both sides, however, rely on the old Soviet T-55 models. Ethiopia has more of the T-60s version, but not enough to really make a difference.

But the most serious discrepancy lies in airpower. Here is where, by the reckoning of most experts, the most crucial battles were fought in the border war of the late '90s. They forecast the same for a future war.

And surprise of all surprises, the advantage lies fantastically with Eritrea.

Ethiopia’s contemporary Air Force, according to figures available on the Internet (which could be outdated, but is unlikely in this case), is a ghost of what it used to be in the Derg years, when it was second only to that of South Africa’s. In active service are only 55 fighter and attack jets: 21 MIG-21s, 12 MIG-23s, 4 SU-25s, and 18 SU-27s. The ancient MIG-21s and MIG-23s have been upgraded by the Israelis in the late '90s, but are mostly dismissed as inadequate by experts. The Air Force will have to rely almost exclusively on its 22 SU-25s and SU-27s if war is ever to break out with Eritrea.

By contrast, Eritrea’s Air Force has 100 advanced fighter and attack jets: 55 MIG-29s; 17 SU-25s; and 28 SU-27s. Blaming the loss of the border war on Ethiopia’s then overwhelming air superiority, the Eritreans have gone overboard to close the gap. No nation the size of Eritrea, save Israel, boasts such colossal airpower.

In other words, there hangs a somewhat precarious parity on the ground, along with vivid Eritrean air superiority.

Where Ethiopia has clear advantage and Eritrea lacks notably is in potential. Ethiopia is not only overpoweringly larger, both in terms of population and resources, but the tiny Eritrean economy has endured debilitating structural failures for a decade. The Eritreans are in no position to engage in an expensive war. But no less, given the clear discrepancy in air power, which needs time to correct, neither is Ethiopia in a strategic position to pursue an offensive war any time soon, too.

This explains the current stalemate.

Meles knows all this. Look no further than the paltry defense budgets of the past half decade.

He has seen no reason to arm. He is no doubt aware, too, that the Eritrean economy is finally on the mend as of this year. Buoyed by windfalls from a booming mining sector, the Eritrean treasury is now awash with new crisp US Dollars. And with Isayas’ resolve to assert control over Badame not only as undiminished as ever, but also a clear national priority for him, the stalemate is in danger of being reversed.

But not any time soon. Both sides need time to prepare for what they have promised to be a final showdown. And they need to do it quietly.

So, then, why would Meles suddenly stir this uneasy status-quo? A premature war would most probably hurt him more than it would Isayas.

Moreover, both Meles and the international community are highly apprehensive about what could come after Isayas. The odds are that Isayas remains Eritrea’s best shot for stability. The danger of political Islam overshadowing secularism in Eritrea has grown dramatically with the increasing radicalization of Middle Eastern politics. Only the strong hand of Isayas and the fall of Turabi in the Sudan have kept militants at bay. But they haven’t given up, and crucially, are less fractious than secularists, who will be hard pressed to come up with a rallying figure in the absence of Isayas. Eritrea’s future is at best complicated.

Thus Meles is in no position to deliver on his threat.

What has compelled Meles to draw the Eritrean card is the growing pressure for political reform. This is his way of deflecting attention from his internal problems. He is desperate to steal the thunder from the North African protests, and, given local history, nothing competes with the potential imbedded in the Eritrean issue.

But whatever his shortcoming, Meles is probably too smart to plunge the nation into war to stave off change. It has been tried before elsewhere, and in most cases has hastened rather than delayed change. He would be foolhardy to repeat the mistake.

He is most probably bluffing.

Finally, a note to Eritrea's ruling party: while an attempt to bomb an AU Summit is no reason to start a war, Meles’ accusation could not be dismissed outright either.

Beware: Ethiopians are more united than they are usually given credit for. Don’t provoke them.

The end.

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: