Eritrea’s role in resumption of Tigray’s war

By Hagos Gebreamlak
Posted on Monday, 12 September 2022 13:31

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki receives a key from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki receives a key from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The Tigray war that broke out on 3 November 2020 after weeks of a standoff between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has once again resumed following a brief truce. The TPLF has accused the Eritrean government of sending its soldiers into the fight.

The engagement of the Eritrean forces on the ground is only an incursion on TPLF military establishments. There is no large-scale fighting on the ground yet. Cross-border artillery firing, and movements of soldiers have been observed around the northwestern areas of Tigray bordering Eritrea.

Isaias Afwerki’s policy is that the TPLF should not advance into neighbouring regions or into the strategic Western Tigray areas. Doing so would allow the TPLF to have access to the strategic Port Sudan.

The Eritrean army has also been giving intensive military training to the Amhara regional armed forces (special police force).

Eritrea’s role in the conflict since 2020

At the start of the fighting in 2020, the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces managed to drive out the TPLF from Mekelle and into the remote mountainous areas of Tigray within a few weeks.

However, as the TPLF resorted to hit-and-run tactics, the fighting ensued. Without informing the Eritrean forces, the Ethiopian government later withdrew its forces from Mekelle and other areas of Tigray.

After the TPLF retook control of Mekelle, its armed forces advanced southeastward into the Afar and Amhara regional states, narrowly overlapping along the Mekelle-Addis Ababa roadway that stretches toward the Ethiopian capital.

Eritrea has been the number one player in containing the military expansion of the TPLF into the rest of Ethiopia, particularly the Amhara and Afar regions.

When the TPLF forces were narrowly overstretched along the paved road to Addis Ababa, Eritrean forces advanced from Assab to cut the logistics supply line of the TPLF via Mille causing TPLF troops to hastily retreat from hundreds of kilometres away within a few days.

The TPLF has thus been blocked from having access to Sudan via the Western Tigray areas primarily by Eritrean forces.

The cessation of hostilities unilaterally declared by the ENDF and TPLF at the end of March in 2021 was halted after the TPLF announced that the other party had launched attacks against its armed forces.

The war resumed on 24 August 2022 after the federal government and the TPLF accused one another of violating the cessation of hostilities.

Proximity to Tigray

Given that Tigray is only 100 kilometres away from Asmara and 1000km away from Addis Ababa, Eritrea is directly affected by the situation in Tigray culturally, politico-economically, and in terms of security.

The people of Tigray and the overwhelming majority of Tigrinya people in Eritrea are of the same nation living in two countries. Tigrinya nationalism has been growing at a lightning speed among the Tigrinya youth of Eritrea in the diaspora and in Tigray.  The Eritrean government has also been expressing its concern over the growing Tigrinya nationalism that has dominated the political landscape within the Eritrean diaspora.

Tigrayan nationalism has also been flourishing in Tigray and even challenging the TPLF, which advocates for multinationalism, and the unity of Ethiopia. There are four major political parties in Tigray: The TPLF, Tigray Independence Party (TIP), Salsay Weyane Tigray (SaWeT), and National Congress of Greater Tigray (Baytona). The latter three parties are nationalist and demand an independent Tigray.

According to first-hand observations and interviews with Tigrayans, the overwhelming majority of the people want an independent Tigray. The three parties are now criticising the TPLF and demand for the establishment of a transitional government or council.

The only organised force advocating for a united Ethiopia, at least in principle, in Tigray is the TPLF. The nationalism and the popular separatist movement in Tigray remain imminent threats to the TPLF regime and to Isaias’ nation-building project in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

If the TPLF was not in place to choke the nationalism in Tigray, which is a few kilometres away from Asmara, it could potentially be a hotbed for the Eritrean Tigrinya nationalism within the diaspora.

The importance of Eritrea to the Ethiopian government is related to security threats from the TPLF. The existence of the TPLF threat gives Isaias leverage over his Ethiopian counterpart.

For Isaias, the importance of the TPLF is a question of survival. Without a perceived common threat – the TPLF – his power could weaken as he could not carry on his mandatory military service without the existence of a constant enemy.

In fact, when the war with the TPLF began in November 2020, the regime promised army officers that the war would be the end of the two-decades-long forced conscription, according to anonymous sources from inside the army.

However, when the troops and the army leaders entered Tigray, they realised two things: The TPLF didn’t have that much power and the threat from the TPLF had been intentionally exaggerated by the president to sustain his power, and there will be no end to the de facto state-of-emergency that forced the army officers to be endlessly conscripted until Isaias is in power, add our army sources.

Protracted war

As the war protracted, the power of Abiy and his Oromia Prosperity Party has been weakened. In return, he has been forced to concede more power and resources to Amhara and other regional entities to ensure consensus and unity against the TPLF.

Abiy is challenged by the diverging demands of three fronts: TPLF, Isaias, and the Amharas.

Abiy could encounter three enemies – Isaias, TPLF, and the Amharas – if he gives the TPLF the contested territories.

Isaias wants Abiy not to make peace with the TPLF. That means not accepting their demands and to launch a unitary nation-building scheme in Ethiopia.

The TPLF continues to demand that Abiy hand over the Western Tigray territories and cut ties with Isaias, but both the Amharas and Isaias fiercely oppose the handing over of the Western Tigray territories to the TPLF. The Amhara region also has a claim to the disputed Western Tigray territories and this is the only unifying factor among the Amhara politicians and figures.

If he gives the territories to the TPLF, he would lose support from Isaias and the Amhara allies who can forge a united front with the Eritrean president against Abiy.

In short, Abiy could encounter three enemies – Isaias, TPLF, and the Amharas – if he gives the TPLF the contested territories.

AU, Western involvement

Understandably, the African Union has been asking Eritrea to take part in the peace talks, but Eritrea has not yet accepted the request, and Isaias would likely keep away from any deal with the TPLF.

This alone hinders any peace agreement between Abiy and the TPLF.

The TPLF is now in a desperate position: It recently realised that the West doesn’t have much interest and leverage to pressure Abiy to end the war.

Since the declaration of the cessation of hostilities, and particularly since the Russia-Ukraine war, Abiy’s relationship with the West has been improving.

Now the fundamental demand of the West regarding the war is that Abiy let humanitarian aid enter Tigray and that the TPLF not advance into other territories.

The West had been somewhat satisfied with the fact that aid was entering Tigray.

The TPLF and the Ethiopian government accused one another of violating the ceasefire, but the Ethiopian government is benefiting from the continuation of the status quo and gains nothing.

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