What Caused The Eritrean–Ethiopian War?

An old tank in Asmara, Eritrea.
An old tank in Asmara, Eritrea.

The Eritrean – Ethiopian War occurred between May 1998 and June 2000. It was an extremely expensive war, costing each country's economy millions of dollars. Like nearly every war in history, the reasons behind this war are complicated. In this article, we will attempt to delve into some of them.

Background Of The War

Eritrea became part of Ethiopia after World War II following the defeat of Italy in both regions. In 1950, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) declared Eritrea as a federated province of Ethiopia, leading to the outbreak of the Eritrean War of Independence. This war took place before and after the Ethiopian civil war, that is, from 1961 to 1991. In 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) defeated Ethiopian forces within Eritrea and helped the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to take control of Ethiopia. EPRDF, in turn, supported EPLF’s independence agenda and both agreed to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate ways of permanently solving their differences.

In the 1993 referendum, Eritreans voted in favor of Eritrean independence and the following year, the international community recognized Eritrea as a country. However, the commission was not successful due to border disputes, and the relationship between the two parties began to deteriorate. Even after looking at international law and historical maps, the two parties could not agree on an exact borderline. In 1997, Eritrea planned to annex Badme in Tigray Province. Tigray, then, was the origin of many high-ranking members of Ethiopian government including the former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.

The War And Important Battles

Several small armed conflicts in Badme led to the death of several Eritrean officials. On May 6, 1998, Eritrea entered Badme and Ethiopia met them with a prolonged firefight that included local militia. On May 13, Ethiopia declared war and mobilized to fight Eritrea after notifying the UN Security Council as per Article 51 of the UN Charter. Fighting went full force and within a short time, Ethiopia bombed an airport in Asmara and Eritrea retaliated by bombing Mekele airport. Both strikes claimed civilian casualties. As the UN, Organization of African Unity (OAU), the US, and Rwanda advanced peaceful solutions, Ethiopia launched an offensive to recapture Badme on February 22, 1999, and five days later, they drove Eritreans back six miles.

On May 16, Ethiopia attacked Velesa near Asmara leading to two days of heavy fighting with Ethiopia suffering the most casualties. There were small pockets of fights after this until the following year. On May 12, 2000, Ethiopia broke through Eritrean lines and crossed the Mareb River, cutting the main supply route for Eritrea between Barentu and Mendefera. For the next few days, there was heavy fighting and airstrikes leading to the capture of the town of Das before the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on both countries. By May, Eritrea claimed to have retreated from some areas in honor of peace talks whereas Ethiopia occupied the areas, claiming to have conquered them. Propaganda marred this war but reliable sources pointed to Ethiopian victory. On May 25, 2000, Ethiopia declared an end to the war.

Spillover Effect

The fighting had a spill-over effect to Somalia after Eritrea funded Ethiopian rebel group, Oromo Liberation Front, which operated from Somalia. Ethiopia retaliated by funding rebel group opposed to the Somalia Government and renewed relations with Sudan. Sudan supported several rebel groups in Eritrea. After the war, Djibouti accused Eritrea of digging trenches in a disputed region leading to an armed conflict in 2008.


More than 19,000 Eritrean troops died and both sides suffered casualties of more than 70,000 people. These figures remain contested on both sides. Ethiopia deported approximately 77,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origins while Eritrea jailed 7,500 Ethiopians and deported thousands. As Eritrea and Ethiopia depended on each other on trade, therefore, the war ended the relationship resulting to food shortages, unemployment, and poverty among other socio-economic problems on both sides.

International boundary dispute mechanisms awarded some disputed areas to both countries, however, they awarded Badme to Eritrea, a decision that did not go well with Ethiopia. On December 7, 2005, after the return of peace, Eritrea banned UN helicopters flights and ordered peacekeepers from the US, Canada, Europe, and Russia to leave the country. In 2006, both countries boycotted Eritrea–Ethiopia Boundary Commission meeting. Although animosities continued, both countries feared going back to war. The UN’s capacity faced challenges after Eritrea started closing fuel supply routes and ordered the UN Peacekeeping mission out of the country. Both countries continued supporting rebel groups in the other’s territory and further animosity led to the Battle of Tsorona in 2016. To date, Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to accuse each other of several offenses and are quick to support the other country’s enemies, real or perceived.


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