The Eritrean factor in the war opposing the Federal government of Ethiopia and the regional government of Tigray has been important, if not decisive. It may determine whether or not peace is achievable in the foreseeable future. While proposed solutions revolve mainly around a process that is conducive to Ethiopia’s internal dialogue and soul searching, which would be supported by western, African and middle eastern actors, a sustainable path to regional peace must involve Asmara. Although current dynamics on the military and political front offer little hope for peace talks, there are compelling humanitarian, political, economic and security considerations for leaders of Eritrea and Tigray to depart from the logic of military annihilation of the enemy and to embrace the need for settling the conflict politically.
It is often argued that Eritrea has no business in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and should disengage from the war. This won’t happen. For one thing, in its current state, the Ethiopian federal army, whose ranks have been depleted of their Tigrayan elements, seems to be in no position to contain the Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF) on its own. Consequently, during this critical phase for its survival, Ethiopia’s Federal government will not undermine its own efforts to rebuild a capable security apparatus by asking the Eritrean forces to retreat.
For another, if countries such as the US can claim that the situation in Ethiopia poses a threat to their interests, then it could be reasonably argued that the same situation poses an extraordinary security threat to Ethiopia’s neighbours in general and Eritrea in particular. Indeed, since the end of the 1998-2000 war, Asmara has had to endure a siege-like situation, with the former TPLF-dominated EPRDF government in Ethiopia teaming up with western powers, particularly the US, to try and isolate the country. Sanctions coupled with economic isolation have pushed thousands of Eritreans out of the country in search of livelihood opportunities. In addition, they have kept the people of Eritrea on the alert ensuring that much-needed political and other reforms are put on hold for as long as the sense of siege persisted. Consequently, Asmara views the TPLF, whose leadership dominated and controlled the EPRDF government, as an enemy that must be removed from the political scene to ensure Eritrea’s security and unhindered economic development in the long term. In this regard, the Eritrean government is eager to have a hostile Tigray region under the control of a friendly Federal government. Therefore, efforts to exclude Eritrea from the solution to the conflict disregard its legitimate concerns and could derail the quest for peace.
Failure to resolve the long-standing disputes between the EPLF/PJDF and TPLF/EPRDF led governments has had political implications; it has prompted the protagonists to seek alliances with unsavoury partners in the pursuit of gaining the upper hand. During much of its period of domination over Ethiopia’s politics, the TPLF, with the help of western powers and their media and human rights organisations, successfully demonized – and continue to – the Eritrean leadership by framing the confrontation as one against a dictator operating from Asmara. Afwerki was accused of destabilising the region by backing Al Shabaab terrorists. Currently, he is portrayed as seeking to take over the region by building an alliance of autocrats. This new framing is, of course, intended for a liberal audience. While it is enticing as some kind of shortcut, this narrative is unlikely to bring about the intended outcome for a number of reasons.
One, the TPLF itself does not believe in liberal democracy. It never attempted to implement its precepts while in power. Which is why, albeit to a lesser extent than the EPLF in Eritrea, it was portrayed as presiding over an authoritarian government. It is for this reason that pandering to the west’s prejudices and seeking sympathy and support have played into their opponents’ hands by giving them the opportunity to clothe their actions in the garb of Pan-Africanism, strengthened by the #NoMore movement.
Two, this framing may further harden positions already taken by members of the UN Security Council, a situation which the Tigrayan leadership, represented by Gen. (Ret) TsadKan Gebretensae, have regretted by pointing at China’s and Russia’s positioning with regard to the conflict. Indeed, the framing “democracies versus autocracies” constitutes a threat to both Russia and China. Consequently, it will not sway them into embracing Tigray’s cause.
Three, by adopting Washington’s regime change rhetoric towards Eritrea, TPLF cadres are signalling that a viable solution to the conflict entails the continuation of the politics of the past two decades, at the centre of which was the isolation of Eritrea. This can only further radicalise Eritrea.
Eritrea itself has not been short of unsavoury allies. In a recent interview, President Isaias Afwerki accused the TPLF of exploiting what he called “Amhara chauvinism” to sow fear amongst Tigrayans and enflame hate. However, this point does not stand scrutiny. For one thing, “Amhara chauvinism”, a euphemism used to describe anti-Tigrayan sentiments, has proved to be a significant rather than isolated phenomenon underpinning the Federal government’s actions; it could be easily argued that it played a major role in the failure to find an alternative path to war. In addition to widespread hate speech targeting Tigrayans as a community on social media, national news outlets, and even by senior government officials, thousands have been rounded up in Addis Ababa and western Tigray and detained in unofficial detention facilities. Many more have been chased from their homes in western Tigray in what appears like ethnic cleansing operations conducted by Amhara regional forces and militias.
Also, while President Afwerki assures that the intention is not to punish Tigrayans for the sins of TPLF leaders, actions on the ground have also contradicted this assertion. Echoing this “chauvinism”, the Federal government has entertained ambiguity between the targets of its “law and order operation” and ordinary Tigrayans in numerous official communications. Clearly, Tigrayans stand accused collectively of aiding and abetting a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, cut from the rest of the world, with telecommunication and banking services suspended, and facing bombardments of key public and industrial infrastructure, Tigray has suffered incalculable damage. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the conflict. while reports of atrocities, including drone strikes on the civilian population, keep emerging. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the people of Tigray are convinced that they are facing enemies who are hell-bent on destroying them, at least in part.
Moreover, President Afwerki is right to point out that western economic sanctions, a form of collective punishment, are intended to drive a wedge between governments and their people in order to bring about regime change. Therefore, one is justified to view the current siege on Tigray as a replica of these cruel methods on people who have made it clear that they will not allow anyone to dictate their political fate. If the intention is not to punish Tigrayans collectively for their political choices, why maintain the siege?
Further, in the context of this “chauvinism,” the current alliance between Eritrea and Amhara regional forces in their resolve to prevent the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) from linking up with Sudan and breaking the siege will undoubtedly reinforce the Tigrayans’ conviction that there is no salvation in surrendering. Yet, one has to give the Tigrayans and their leaders reasons to believe that a peaceful settlement is a safe option.
Breaking the vicious circle
If isolating Eritrea was a major mistake, then the war waged on Tigray is likely to be an even greater one, with far-reaching consequences for the entire region of the horn. Indeed, if Eritreans could not forgive the 1998-2000 war, the UN sanctions and the occupation of Badme, then crushing Tigray’s resistance would only mean that a people starved into submission would wait for the next opportunity to take revenge on whoever they view as their tormentors. This is likely to prolong the current vicious circle. In this regard, “strategic forgiveness ought to be extended to those with whom there’s a relation to history and shared experiences” to preserve the interests of future generations. Eritrea and Tigray have such relations. Therefore, forging friendly and unbreakable ties with leaders freely chosen by Tigrayans themselves, the direct neighbours with whom Eritreans share blood ties and a common history of fighting oppression, surely offers more guarantees for Eritrea’s security – in the long run.
It is important to recall that Tigrayans and Eritreans have much in common. First, their uncompromising stance on self-determination. Although admirable, it has a downside: more than once, brothers and sisters have fought to the death, at times against each other, to preserve this right to govern themselves. Second, both political organisations’ thirst for the liberation of the continent is genuine. While the methods might differ, the two, the PJDF and the TPLF, while leading the EPRDF coalition, have shown that Africa’s political and economic independence is a top priority on their agenda.
Third, Tigray’s and Eritrea’s economies would greatly benefit from economic cooperation rather than the current perpetual confrontation, which has delayed economic development in Eritrea and reversed any gains for Tigray. For both, the war is costly in human and economic terms.
These political organisations also have ideological differences, which should be addressed. For instance, Eritrea’s positioning on the place of ethnicity in politics is more in line with Pan-African ideals, which hold that ethnic politics are a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, it has failed to sell this idea to TPLF leaders, and the war is likely to radicalise the people of Tigray in the belief that there is no viable future for them in the federation if their autonomy is not preserved in the spirit of the current constitution.
Most importantly, Tigray cannot afford to be surrounded by hostile forces on all its borders. Neither should Eritrea risk further involvement of western powers, especially the US which, as the war drags on, is more and more tempted to leverage the suffering of Tigrayans to justify its policy of “humanitarian” intervention, which has always had disastrous outcomes. In this case, US’s strategic objective is to assert dominance over the trade route of the red sea in order to contain China in the eventuality of future conflicts; and Eritrea’s ports, just like Yemen’s, are the prize. There is little doubt that, given an opportunity, the US will praise Ethiopia’s federal government for the smallest concessions it makes while blaming the continuation of the war on Eritrea. Given the human toll of the current conflict, one can only hope that Tigrayan leaders will not yield to the temptation of settling scores with their Eritrean counterparts if a potential – albeit unlikely – western intervention were to tip the balance in their favour.
In his interview mentioned previously, President Afwerki rightly pointed out the numerous miscalculations of TPLF leaders, such as venturing deep into hostile territory in their march to Addis Ababa, or the belief that they could repeat the feats of the Israeli army in the war it fought against several Arab countries. It is equally correct to point out that there were similar miscalculations on the other side, such as the belief that Tigrayans were secretly opposed to the TPLF and would welcome outside forces trying to remove it from Ethiopia’s political landscape. Or the belief that the combined military might of the ENDF, the Eritrean army, and Amhara regional forces would subdue Tigrayan forces in a matter of weeks. Clearly, suggestions that foreign pressure is to blame for the retreat of ENDF from most parts of Tigray are as reductionist as the conclusions that foreign drones alone tipped the balance in favour of the Federal government. Such miscalculations on both sides are grounded in, among other things, the refusal to recognize the legitimate aspirations of the other and the support each political organisation enjoys in its constituency. Only through acknowledgement of each other’s legitimacy and the need to discuss the aspirations of each protagonist will dialogue appear as the only way of resolving disputes once and for all.
The current war is an indictment on the leaders of the horn. One hopes that the miscalculations that led to the war will not be repeated over and over again.