Former enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting on the same side in Tigray war

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Ethiopia’s Tigray: New frontier for regional interests

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2021 18:26, updated on Thursday, 25 November 2021 18:13
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed arrive for an inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 16 July 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The first reason that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 was that he had initiated successful peace talks with the East African country’s existential rival, Eritrea. The benefits of the peace process had been immediately obvious to the region and the international community.

This is part 1 of a 5-part series

In addition to thawing relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea – two neighbours with a history of annexation, colonisation and decades of conflict – the rapprochement also had the potential to extensively restructure the regional geopolitical structure.

However, by the time Abiy received the medal and diploma at the Oslo City Hall in Norway that December, the peace process was already running into some practical challenges. At the heart of the ‘no-war no-peace’ relations between the two neighbours is the disputed border region of Badme, which remains unresolved, and land border crossings, which had been opened earlier that year to some fanfare and was closed again.

Hopes and prizes

The Nobel Committee hoped, its chairwoman Berit Reiss-Anderson said, that the international prize would “spur the parties to further the implementation of the [peace] treaties”.

Eleven months later, Ethiopia’s federal government sent forces to dislodge the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from power in Tigray, which borders Eritrea. Almost immediately after the Tigray conflict began in November 2020, the TPLF claimed that Eritrean forces were involved as well, locking the region in a north-south attack coordinated between Addis Ababa and Asmara.

Before Eritrea’s presence within Tigray was confirmed by multiple governments and sources, and eventually by Abiy in early 2021, additional reports claimed that there were also Somali troops embedded within the Eritrean military forces in Tigray.

Thorny Horn

In their years of conflict, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have fostered, trained and armed each other’s rivals. Their conflict has also extended to Somalia over the years, playing out in many ways. Among the flurry of peace processes that characterised the second half of 2018, there was a tripartite alliance among Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, which was forged during meetings in 2019 and 2020.

At the time, the focus was mainly on Abiy, who had launched extensive economic and political reforms in his first few months in power and was engaging in the Herculean task of reforming the Ethiopian state. While he won the Nobel Peace Prize, among other accolades in those first years, another big winner of the thawing of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and its aftermath, was Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki.

Powerful self-interests

Analysts have speculated that the meetings between the leaders of the three countries, which were held several times from September 2018 until just a month to the start of the Tigray conflict in November 2020, were always about going to war in Tigray. Each leader was driven by his own self interest, unique in each context, but primarily about political survival.

  • In addition to the publicity and international stature as a reformer and consummate diplomat, and looming elections, Abiy was also recruiting much-needed assistance in his pending conflict with the TPLF.
  • In Mogadishu, President Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ Abdullahi Mohamed was bolstering his power and relationships with critical regional allies, as he devised a workaround on what was long expected to be Somalia’s first universal suffrage vote in decades.

For Afwerki though, the benefits of getting Eritrea back in the geopolitical game were manifold.

  • First, the United Nations removed sanctions against Asmara and lifted a nine-year-old arms embargo on the Horn of Africa country in November 2020. The fact that Ethiopia finally agreed to hand over the disputed border town of Badme, more important for political purposes than anything else, affirmed Afwerki’s grudge against Ethiopia, and specifically the TPLF, which was in power over much of Eritrea’s time as an independent country, which also coincides with the bulk of Afwerki’s reign so far.
  • From the onset, Eritreans and some skeptical regional watchers warned that Afwerki had won the geopolitical lottery, with his partners needing him more than he needed them.
  • Even more importantly, Afwerki did not have to change his political stance at home or even explain himself. He had also found a war for his military. “Afwerki hasn’t budged an inch, even the slightest,” Selam Kidane, an Eritrean human rights activist, warned in 2019.
  • The change of guard in Addis Ababa in 2018 removed the TPLF from power, but not in Tigray, which borders Eritrea. Thus, essentially, Afwerki’s primary enemies were still around.

Now, Eritrea is a major player in the biggest regional conflict in the Horn of Africa. Its involvement in Tigray, where it has not only helped Ethiopian federal forces fight the TPLF, but also taken detours to attack Eritrean refugees who sought shelter in Tigray, moves the conflict from an internal Ethiopian one to a regional one.

Speaking the same language

Asmara and Addis Ababa are now joined at the hip, fighting not just for a common goal in Tigray, but also a global campaign against reactions to the Tigray war.

Both sides now use the same language when referring to the TPLF, which lost control of much of Tigray in the first few months of the war before bouncing back when Eritrean forces began withdrawing from the region. In statements responding to an executive order signed by US President Joe Biden, which authorised sanctions to force the sides to negotiate, both Eritrea and Ethiopia broadly responded using the same language.

While the entire world has turned its eyes onto Ethiopia and the government for all the wrong reasons, it has failed to openly and sternly reprimand the terrorist group in the same manner it has been chastising my government,” Abiy’s office said in a statement.

“It looks like the Biden administration is ready to repeat the mistakes of previous US administrations that stood on the wrong side of history in a number of countries (apartheid in South Africa, Angola…etc),” the National Council of Eritrean Americans-East, a close affiliate of Eritrea’s only political party, said in a statement shared by Eritrea’s information ministry in mid-September. The same statement characterised Eritrea as a “stabilising force in the region”. It repeatedly referred to the TPLF as a “terrorist group” and the conflict as linked to the “unprecedented damage” caused by the TPLF during its time in power.

From pariah to powerful

In the span of just two years, Afwerki has moved from being a regional pariah to shoring his position to a point where his moves could decide Ethiopia’s future. His growing stature has not only helped upend the delicate political system in Ethiopia, but it is also part of ongoing intrigues in Villa Somalia.

The unsolved Mogadishu murder of Ikran Tahlil – a 25-year-old spy – in June is said to be linked to information she had on thousands of soldiers who were recruited from Somalia under the guise of civilian work in Qatar, before they were flown to Asmara for military training. The controversy around Tahlil’s death has worsened the already icy relations between Farmaajo and Somalia’s prime minister Mohammed Roble, as they pull from different ends. It has also cost the head of the county’s intelligence body, Fahad Yasin, his job, and diverted attention from the postponed electoral process.

In mid-August, Abiy made a trip to Asmara that was unusual for its lack of publicity. Previous trips and meetings have been officially announced, with both sides sending out statements on bilateral discussions. The silence around the most recent trip may be because Ethiopia’s federal state is in need of Afwerki’s intervention again, as the TPLF’s resurgence has restored its control over Tigray and expanded the conflict’s theatre into neighbouring Ethiopian regions.

Around the same time, observers warned of potential plans by Eritrea to reenter the conflict to ease pressure on Ethiopia’s federal forces and Amhara’s regional militia. A leaked European Union diplomatic cable also suggested that the TPLF may have plans to go on the offensive with Eritrea, which could further escalate the conflict.

Bottom line

These events may be proof that diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea thawed so well that shortly after appointing ambassadors, reopening embassies and re-establishing ties, they are now fighting a war on the same side. How the Tigray war pans out is still impossible to predict, but Eritrea and Afwerki will be central to any efforts to end the conflict, whose effects on the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa will last long after it ends.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

What Somalia stands to gain from Ethiopia’s ongoing Tigray war

After assuming office in early 2018, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on radical reforms that have since led to political realignment in his country, spilling over into the horn region. The charismatic and energetic Abiy was only 42 when he took over in 2018 and immediately reached out to long-time rivals Somalia and Eritrea, thereby forging a tripartite alliance that seems to be shaping into a new regional order. But has the Tigray war helped or held-back Somalia’s ambitions with Ethiopia? We find out in this second part of our series.

Ethiopia – Tigray: What does Egypt stand to gain or lose from the one-year war?

As Ethiopian officials continue to claim that foreign forces have fought alongside Tigray fighters in recent battles in the Amhara region, questions arise about how Egypt could benefit from the ongoing conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. There is also the question of if the Egyptian state has been supporting dissenting forces.

Ethiopia: Can Sudan use Tigray refugees as a bargaining chip?

A year after the Tigray war erupted in northern Ethiopia, there’s growing fear that not only will the union of rebel forces enter the capital Addis Ababa, but the spillover effect risks weakening an already fragile region. But could the chaos within Ethiopia’s borders play into the advantage of Sudan, especially since its coup d’état has once again further destablised the country?

Ethiopia – Turkey: Ankara’s ongoing economic and military support

For the last two decades, the relationship between Turkey and Ethiopia has been based on economic interest. With Ethiopia’s goal of attracting foreign investment far from its former reality of an economy based on foreign aid, Ankara’s investments to Ethiopia have increased to $2.5bn.