A coastal desert region described by French geographers in 1900 as economically and strategically insignificant has become the flashpoint of a new border row between Eritrea and Djibouti with possibly wider regional implications.
Djibouti says that Eritrean troops began moving into disputed areas on the coast — Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Island — on June 13th, the same day that Qatari peacekeepers completed an abrupt and unannounced withdrawal. A few hundred Qatari troops were stationed at the border between the two countries under the terms of a 2010 provisional deal.
The withdrawal of the Qatari troops came just after Djibouti cut ties with Qatar and announced its alignment with a Saudi Arabian coalition seeking to pressure Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism and radical groups in the Middle East.
Here’s what you need to know about the Eritrean-Djibouti row:
A Qatar-mediated deal between Eritrea and Djibouti in 2010 resolved that the two sides should form a committee chaired by Qatar’s ruler, which would resolve the boundary dispute, while Qatar itself would take responsibility for the boundary area until a final resolution. Since then, however, the committee failed to demarcate the boundary.
Two earlier treaties also deal with the boundary in this area, although their legal standing and relevancy may be called into question in the present situation. One is an Italian-French protocol of 1900, which divided Cape Dumeira into a northern Italian (later Eritrean) zone and a southern French (later Djiboutian) zone.
The status of Doumeira Island, located just off the tip of the cape, was left unresolved by the 1900 protocol. Initially, neither France nor Italy seemed particularly interested in the arid island. The geographic bulletin of the French Société de Géographie for the year 1900 noted that a French expedition had been sent to demarcate the boundary with the Italian colony, but described Cape Dumeira and the nearby island as having little value.
“These arid rocks and deserts are of minimal interest from economic and strategic points of view. The northern part will go to Italy, the southern part to France,” reads the French geographic bulletin.
Yet in the mid-1930s an expansionist Italian government sought to claim all of Ras Doumeira and the Red Sea island. France ceded the territories to Italy in a 1937 treaty, but the treaty was never ratified by France’s national assembly. Eritrea cites the 1937 treaty as bolstering its claim to the area, while Djibouti rejects the validity of the Franco-Italian deal.
Fighting in 2008
War erupted between Eritrean and Djiboutian soldiers on the frontier between the two countries in June 2008, but the violence lasted only a few days. In April 2008, Djibouti accused Asmara of building a military outpost on Djiboutian territory at Ras Doumeira and responded by deploying its own armed forces to the slopes of the disputed coastal mountain area.
The military buildup led to violence as troops in close proximity to each other eventually clashed. According to news reports from the BBC at the time, the violence started on June 10th, 2008 when several Eritrean troops deserted their positions fleeing to the Djiboutian side. Djiboutian forces then came under fire from Eritrean forces demanding the return of the deserters. These reports, however, relied on sources in Djibouti, and Eritrea dismissed them as “anti-Eritrean,” denying that the conflict was sparked over deserters.
A dozen Djiboutian troops died and dozens were wounded in the fighting. Djibouti’s President Guelleh was quoted on June 13th as saying that his country was at war with Eritrea, but the latter’s foreign ministry downplayed the violence, saying Djibouti was trying to drag Eritrea into “squabbles” and that the issue was “concocted.” Violence subsided within days amid international calls for an externally mediated solution.
International alignments in the 2008 conflict
Key outside actors in the Eritrean-Djibouti conflict in 2008 were France and the United States, among others. French forces disclosed that they supported Djibouti’s army with logistics, intelligence, and medical support during the conflict, including carrying out aerial surveillance over the conflict area. France also announced that it would be reinforcing its base in Djibouti.
The US State Department also appeared to take Djibouti’s side, condemning Eritrea’s “military aggression.” Such outside support meant that even though Djibouti’s army was heavily outnumbered by Eritrea’s, Eritrea could not carry out a more aggressive war without risking coming into conflict with France or the United States.
Djiboutian prisoners in Eritrea
A sore point for Djibouti is that Eritrea allegedly has not returned a number of its soldiers captured during the June 2008 conflict. Although Qatar successfully mediated the return of some Djiboutian prisoners, others are unaccounted for.
Two Djiboutian prisoners of war escaped from Eritrea in 2011 and another four were released and returned home to Djibouti with the assistance of a Qatari mediation team in early 2016. Nevertheless, a UN panel on Eritrea reported that 12 other combatants remain unaccounted for by Eritrea, while the Eritrean government acknowledged that one other died in their custody.
“The Government of Eritrea has informed the Monitoring Group that it has no more Djiboutian combatants alive in its custody: if this is indeed the case, it is vital that Eritrea confirm the circumstances of the death of the other combatants, whether on the field of battle or in custody, and, if the latter… the cause of death and place of burial,” reads a report by the UN Monitoring Group dated October 2016. “Not only is this a requirement of the Security Council, but also it is required by international treaty and customary law, by which Eritrea is bound.”
Tense relations between Eritrea and Djibouti stem in part from the latter’s alignment with Ethiopia during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998–2000. During that conflict Ethiopia lost access to the Eritrean port of Massawa; Djibouti stepped in, becoming the main channel for Ethiopia’s exports. Although Djibouti did not join the fighting, it cut diplomatic ties with Eritrea.
Eritrea’s war with Ethiopia, which began with a border clash in the remote Badme region, has made Asmara sensitive to perceived threats and incursions at its borders. Asmara considers a 2002 international boundary commission ruling to have been dishonored. The ruling awarded the disputed Badme area to Eritrea, but Ethiopian troops continue to occupy it to this day. This is a factor in Eritrea’s mistrust of external mediation of boundary disputes with its neighbors.
Terms of the Qatar-brokered agreement
The 2010 deal between Eritrea and Djibouti made Qatar responsible for monitoring disputed border areas while providing a mechanism for the two sides to eventually reach a permanent settlement. It also gave Qatar the lead role in returning prisoners of war and missing persons. Article 6 of the Agreement reads, “The State of Qatar, in its capacity as Mediator in resolving the dispute between the two Parties, shall supervise the monitoring of the borders until such time as the final decision of the [Border] Committee…”
The number of Qatari peacekeepers was not specified. A recent UN report estimated the size of the Qatari force at about 200, while other observers said the force was 400-500 strong.
Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister at the time of the deal, noted that Eritrea had withdrawn from the disputed border areas by 2010 but added, “such withdrawal (is) not to be considered a recognition of any rights until the final resolution of the dispute in accordance with this Agreement.”
Two Qatar-based researchers, Sultan Barakat and Sansom Milton, wrote on the website of Al Jazeera this week that maintaining peacekeepers in the remote border was a “largely thankless endeavour” and blamed the two parties, particularly Eritrea, for failing to reach a permanent peace deal. Barakat and Milton argued that the withdrawal of the Qatari force was not retalation for Djiboutian or Eritrean support for Saudi Arabia during the current Gulf Crisis but rather due to lack of progress in implementing the 2010 deal.
“Despite consistent attempts to turn the ceasefire into a peace agreement, little progress has been made… The two states, particularly Eritrea, have not heeded calls for border demarcation and have gone into denial by refusing to refer to the border conflict as a serious issue. The presence of the Qatari peacekeepers had allowed both parties to grow accustomed to the status quo of a mutually beneficial stalemate.”
Nonetheless, the article on the Qatari news website acknowledged that the withdrawal of the troops was “doubtlessly hastened by the changes in diplomatic relations with Eritrea and Djibouti.”
The article also explains that the withdrawal of the troops may have had more to do with Qatar’s domestic security needs than its foreign relations with either Eritrea or Djibouti: “500 troops represent a significant investment of military manpower for an armed forces of around 12,000 during the most urgent crisis the country has faced in its history.”
Current diplomatic initiatives
The African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat has announced that he is sending a delegation to the Djibouti border to monitor developments.
The United Nations Security Council discussed the situation behind closed doors in mid-June, announcing afterwards that it welcomed the African Union’s intention to deploy a fact-finding mission to the Djibouti border. The Security Council said it would also welcome “the consideration of future confidence-building measures” and will continue to follow the situation closely.
Eritrea, for its part, said in a statement by its information ministry that it has not received any explanation from Qatar on its “hasty” withdrawal, which it said occurred “against the backdrop of a turbulent climate.”
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