Ethiopia-Eritrea: The Cry of the Imburi


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René WadlowThe 12 June 2016 exchange of artillery fire along the heavily militarized frontier between Ethiopia and Eritrea could be just one of the periodic skirmishes between the two States. However, it could be the first signs of a flare up of violence.  There have been calls from the United Nations and African Union officials for “restraint” but as yet no steps for real conflict resolution.

The Imburi are spirits that are said to inhabit the forests of Gabon in Equatorial Africa and who cry out for those who can hear them at times of impending violence or danger.  The artillery exchange with several hundred killed may be a cry of the Imburi and the need for more creative attention to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict − all the more so that the armed conflicts in Yemen and Somalia have implications for both Eritrea and Ethiopia.

There was a long and often violent run up to the 1993 independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Eritrea was never a “colony” of Ethiopia but rather a loosely integrated Provence within a very decentralized state-system of Ethiopia.  Thus the frontiers of Eritrea had never been set by history.  Rather the 1993 independence agreement set some frontiers, but these were not marked on the ground and were contested by some in both States.

The frontier issue plus, no doubt, resentments from the long years of independence struggles, led to a brief but violent war between 1998 and 2000, leaving an estimated 70,000 dead and many wounded.  The war led to a strong militarization of Eritrea n society with long, compulsory military service and a permanent war-footing for the society.  These militarized conditions of life with little socio-economic development and little possibility of freedom of speech or association have led many Eritreans, especially the young, trying to leave the country for Europe.

Ethiopia has had a powerful and politically important army since the end of the Second World War.  The army was the one national institution in a decentralized State where many of the provinces were based on different ethnic groups.  The Ethiopian army remains strong and has been often used by the African Union in its peacekeeping efforts.

The frontier issue between the two countries was taken for arbitration to the World Court, but the Court’s findings have not been put into practice.  The lands contested are of no particular economic or social importance. They are contested just because each State attaches disproportionate importance to a frontier. Intelligent leadership on both sides could make of the frontier lands a bridge rather than a wall, but intelligent leadership has been in short supply. As the African Union headquarters is in Ethiopia, the AU secretariat has been inactive on the Ethiopia-Eritrea issue for fear of displeasing Ethiopia.

The political and economic situation in the Horn of Africa is ever more complex. Domestic and external drivers of conflict are increasingly intermeshed. The problem of the State-collapse in Somalia and the war in Yemen make matters ever more complicated. The prolonged failure of the inter-State institutions − the United Nations, the African Union, and the European Union − to deal creatively with the Ethiopia-Eritrea divides may open a door for creative non-governmental Track II efforts. One must hope that the cries of the Imburi are heard.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jun 2016.

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3 Responses to “Ethiopia-Eritrea: The Cry of the Imburi”

  1. Tas says:

    How relevant and appropriate is the Imburi metaphor here? It is not even explained more than two lines? Do you want the spirits to cry in this conflict borders too? Well there are no forests here at least deep and dense jungles, there are not! And the only active spirits in this region are of ancient Christian religion. Only that the leaders could not get off their high horses!

  2. Rais Neza Boneza says:

    Totally fail and inapropriate this article. I don’t see any dot connections with the Imburi, can’t see the contribution on the Ethiopian-Erithrean problematic here. Very Paternalistic, intelligent Leadership???? The mindset never change here.
    sometime it is better to keep quite when it comme to African issues. Give more voice to the concerned?

  3. Tadesse Lekala says:

    Disugsting, inappropriate and condescending article. Why don’t you try to understand the issues at hand?