Gulf Crisis: What’s the Problem on Eritrea’s Border With Djibouti?

Djibouti soldier
A Djiboutian soldier stands behind a heavy machine gun in an undisclosed location along the border with Eritrea, June 15, 2008. The two countries have been locked in a border dispute for decades, and Qatari peacekeepers are no longer mediating the crisis. Omar Hassan/Reuters

The diplomatic crisis, which has pitted Qatar against Saudi Arabia and its allies, is threatening to revive a bloody border dispute in a historically troublesome corner of Africa.

The frontier separating Eritrea and Djibouti—countries that have both sided with Riyadh and others in ostracizing Qatar—has become a flashpoint in recent days after Qatari peacekeepers pulled out without any notice last week.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have accused Qatar of funding and supporting Islamist groups—including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS)—and of supporting Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main enemy in the region. Several African and Arab states have followed suit, though some—such as Somalia—have refused to take sides in the standoff.

Here’s why the Gulf crisis could destabilize the Horn of Africa.

Where are Eritrea and Djibouti?

Two tiny countries with little international weight, Eritrea and Djibouti are viewed very differently in the West. Eritrea is seen as a pariah state, with no free media; the U.N. has accused its government of committing crimes against humanity against its people. Djibouti, however, is a strategic ally and the site of the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Both countries lie close to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, an important international shipping channel.

What’s the problem?

The conflict between the two countries centers on a remote area, Ras Doumeira, the status of which has been a matter of dispute for decades. Tensions first flared up in 1996, when the two countries almost went to war after a Djiboutian official claimed that Eritrea had shelled Ras Doumeira; the matter de-escalated after Eritrea withdrew troops from the area, according to a 2008 paper by the Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank.

Read more: “Eritrea is a mutant copy of North Korea:” a reporter speaks on the land of no journalists

But 12 years later, the two sides did descend into fighting, albeit briefly. Djibouti accused Eritrea of digging trenches at Ras Doumeira and of stationing troops in its territory. The conflict erupted in June 2008: According to Djibouti, it was triggered when several Eritrean soldiers deserted into Djiboutian territory and failed to return. The number of dead on both sides was unclear, but the U.S. blamed Eritrea for starting the conflict, accusing it of “military aggression.” France also backed Djibouti in the conflict, providing medical, logistical and intelligence support.”

The fighting died down after several days, but tensions rumbled on. The U.N. Security Council said in 2009 that Eritrea had failed to withdraw its troops from the disputed area. And in 2010, Qatar entered the fray, offering to mediate a peaceful solution to the conflict, which was accepted by both sides.

What’s happened now?

Since the 2010 mediation, 450 Qatari forces have been stationed along the border to provide a buffer zone between the two countries. But that changed last week, when the Gulf state abruptly pulled its troops from the border zone with no explanation. Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf said that Qatar had “decided to withdraw” from the mediation and that his country had informed the international community.

In a statement Saturday, Eritrea’s information ministry said that it had “not to date obtained any information on the withdrawal” from Qatar. But the Eritrean government noted that the “hasty decision” had been taken “against the backdrop of a turbulent climate,” a nod to the diplomatic standoff in the Gulf.

How have Eritrea and Djibouti reacted?

Djibouti says that Eritrea has swooped in to occupy Ras Doumeira following the Qatari pullout. Djibouti’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Mohammed Idriss Farah, told the AP that Eritrean forces had “moved in right after the peacekeepers left” and occupied the mountainous region. Djibouti lodged a complaint with the African Union (AU) and the United Nations received correspondence from both sides.

Eritrea has not publicly reacted to Djibouti’s claims, but previously said it wanted to resolve the dispute peacefully. “We don’t want to take any of Djibouti’s land,” Araya Desta, Eritrea’s top diplomat to the African Union, told the AP Wednesday. “The last time we had some skirmishes. It was unnecessary.”

What happens next?

The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, appealed for “calm and restraint” in the dispute, in a statement issued Saturday. The AU said it had deployed a fact-finding mission to the border and was ready to promote the normalization of relations between the two countries.