Since the conflict in Tigray started in 2020, Eritrea has become further entangled in Ethiopian politics. Young Eritrean conscripts assigned to the region have been killed, and Eritrean refugees have been displaced. Yohannes Woldemariam argues that the state’s actions under President Isaias Afwerki show a pursuit of regional integration over Eritrean independence, with little regard for its citizens.
Eritrea achieved self-determination after a devastating 30-year war and a referendum that demonstrated overwhelming support for independence. Yet the country’s President, Isaias Afwerki, a homegrown dictator, has hijacked Eritrean aspirations and perpetuated his personal rule through a vicious series of assaults upon real and imagined opponents.
The entire Eritrean youth has been on war footing ever since the 1998-2000 “border war” with Ethiopia, who are put into an indefinite military service and used as unpaid mercenaries for Isaias’ military adventures – in the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen. Since November 2020, Eritrean conscripts as young as 16 have been killed in the Tigray region of Ethiopia for a war that has little to do with them. Meanwhile, Eritrean refugees have been victimised by all sides of the conflict.
Abiy Ahmed has done a personal favour for Isaias, with the conflict helping him to assert himself and prolong his despotic rule. But the same cannot be said for the Eritrean people. Before the war, the country was a pariah, both regionally and internationally. Qatar was once Eritrea’s only significant lifeline, but Isaias has now fostered closer ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia and China, while under sanctions from the United States. At the United Nations General Assembly in March 2022, Eritrea supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, advocating against human rights investigations directed at Russia, distinguishing itself as the only African country to provide the country unequivocal support.
This is set against a backdrop of Abiy in Ethiopia feeling squeezed economically, fearing the potential impacts of the HR 6600 Bill in the US Congress, which would require sanctions on persons deemed to threaten peace and security and violate human rights in the conflict. In contrast, Isaias appears less concerned with HR 6600 because he believes staying the course in the Tigray is worth more than the Bill’s consequences. For one, a resurgence of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) political party in the neighbouring region is seen as an existential threat.
China is worried that Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict will affect its large investments in Ethiopia and has moved to strengthen ties with Isaias. Further, its renewed interest in the Red Sea, for political and economic reasons, can be used by Eritrea as a potential shield. At the same time, Eritrea’s closer ties with China through an embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative also risk a debt trap. Simultaneously, by allowing regional powers like the UAE to use the Eritrean port of Assab for its war effort in Yemen, it situates itself in complex geopolitics.
By antagonising Western countries and the United Nations, Eritrea is relying on a few actors, such as Russia and China, to bring it lucrative rents, particularly from arms and other hidden investments. The result is that in addition to the cost of lives, Isaias’s participation in the Ethiopian civil war is gambling with Eritrean self-determination. Making himself a useful pawn for regional and international actors, which he in turn exploits by switching sides – as in a survival game – is risky business.
It can seem paradoxical, however, that someone like Isaias who fought for Eritrean independence can possibly betray this vision.
Isaias, in fact, has a history of ambivalence about Eritrean sovereignty – second to his grandiose ambitions of using the country’s strategic location to pursue regional hegemony over the Horn of Africa. Meles Zenawi, former Ethiopia Prime Minister, once gave an interview to the CIA agent Paul Henze in which he stated that Isaias had not been as committed to Eritrean independence as the Eritrean people – a view corroborated by Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defence minister and a founding members of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. In a central committee meeting in 1991, Mesfin says he was stunned to hear Isaias floating the idea of joining the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front political coalition that was governing the country. Isaias quickly retreated from the idea, perhaps biding his time for a more opportune moment.
Mixed signals from Isaias about Ethiopia’s use of Eritrea’s ports have rekindled the landlocked country’s expansionist ambitions to become a naval power, which alarms Eritreans concerned with territorial expansion. In Ethiopia, a desire to use the ports is shared across the political spectrum, from Tigrean activists to Ethiopian elites. Immediately before the Tigray war, the Tigrean General Tsadkan Gebetensae stated on record his ambitions of incorporating the Eritrean port of Assab. Likewise, Professor Gelawdios Araia of Lehman College argued for Tigray’s control of parts of the Red Sea, either by collaborating with “progressive Eritreans” or by force. Abiy in Ethiopia has openly stated his desire for a single army for Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Ambassador Dina Mufti, spokesman for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, further said: “If you ask each and every Eritrean today, they don’t like or celebrate the day they separated from Ethiopia and Ethiopians feel the same way.”
The lack of insistence from Isaias on demarcation, and instead the suggestion of promoting regional integration, would only steam ahead if his personal power and influence was seen to grow. To this end, Tigrean resistance is a problem. For over 20 years, Eritreans were told that the impasse between the two countries arose from the TPLF’s refusal to demarcate the border, but when Isaias realised that Abiy Ahmed had turned against the political party, he declared that “borders do not really matter”.
Faced with such a helpless situation, the Eritrean diaspora opposition is in a state of paralysis. Some feel that creating an alliance with the TPLF against Isaias is of strategic necessity. Others do not trust the TPLF to respect Eritrean sovereignty.
With Abiy’s questionable control over the Amhara militia, which is adamant to continue the war against Tigray, even if Abiy pursues a negotiated end, Isaias has developed separate parallel relationships with subnational groups, including the Amhara and the Afar. Isaias is now deeply involved in Ethiopian politics in complex ways and committed to the elimination of the TPLF leaders seen as blocking his ambitions.
Amid these political manoeuverings, Eritreans are among the major losers of the Tigray conflict, more so because the war is not about them. An Eritrean leader who cared about Eritrean lives and sovereignty would have produced a very different situation.
Photo: Debark IDP. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Mulugeta Ayene. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Another clear example of open challenge to Eritrean sovereignty even as Ethiopia is facing potential disintegration was stated by a certain wannabe Amhara named Tamrat Negera Feyissa, who said, “the day Ethiopia decides to dismember Eritrea, Eritrea wouldn’t exist…no power can stop Ethiopia…a war will not be necessary to conquer Eritrea…we can walk in while brushing our teeth…” He thanked Isaias for doing over 50% of the work for Ethiopia by emasculating the population.
It is no coincidence that among the people who have been praising and celebrating Isaias are former Dergue officials like the late Ambassador Kassa Kebede and generals who were involved in the massacre of Eritreans during the war of independence.
His current friends are the Hodamoch like Berhanu Negga, Andargachew Tsige, Neamin Zelleke and the ESAT boys like Messai and Sissay etc.
The imposter Abiy will betray him and throw him under the bus when he sees he is no longer useful for his purposes.
There’re indications that a crack is already developing.
Like with all Hodamoch , I now hear that the ESAT boys are also turning against one another.
It’s also not a coincidence that Ethiopians are burning a human being alive.
They were doing the same in Eritrea and knifing pregnant women.
Could this news be an indication of the crack you’re insinuating?
For over 20 years, the TPLF refused to demarcate the border based on The Hague verdict which it agreed was final and binding a priori.
This singular TPLF action helped Isaias to maintain a tight control over the Eritrean people and to justify indefinite conscription of the youth.
Now, Isaias’s intervention in Tigray has actually helped the TPLF to change the conversation to the point that it is no longer remembered that Eritrea has been a victim of TPLF blackmail.
The depopulation of Eritrea is inexplicable even from point of the government that needs the youth as slave soldiers.
Eritrea has a population of only about five million at most, compared to over 115 million in Ethiopia. The entire Eritrean youth has been on war footing ever since the 1998-2000 “border war.” Tens of thousands of these militarily trained youth have fled to become refugees and victims of several predatory governments and criminal gangs in the neighboring African countries.
Fortress Europe has little heart left for these desperadoes. A significant percentage of those who drown in the Mediterranean have been Eritreans.
The meager resettlement opportunities in Tigray have been stolen by Tigreans posing as Eritrean refugees in the two decades that Eritreans were languishing in various camps in Tigray.
With the onset of the almost two years old war, the condition of Eritrean refugees became most desperate.
The demographic deficit that Eritrea suffers puts it at a stark disadvantage, even when compared to the Tigray region, which has about seven million people.
Meanwhile, Eritrean youth have been performing remarkably in international athletics even when faced by overwhelming odds. Also, Eritreans have proven to be exemplary workers and refugees when given even little opportunity. Truly astounding resilience!
How did Isaias accumulate so much power?
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
A significant number of those who are now critical of Isaias once were his militant supporters or at least compliant!
“Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.”
Tracing the Eritrean dictator’s evolution into absolute dictatorship, the Milgram experiment explains the silence or compliance of EPLF members. There were many silences over the years. In the early 70s, he eliminated his “comrades’ ‘ who joined the armed struggle against the Haile Selassie dictatorship. He labeled them ultra-leftists. They were known as the Menkae group. Those who objected were systematically dealt with. Some like Sebhat Ephrem “corrected” their ways and continued to serve. In the late 70s, another group known as the Yemin (labeled as ultra-rightists) were eliminated. At different stages, he eliminated individuals and groups that he saw as threats to his power. Even earlier, as a newly minted fighter “Tegadalay”, he is reputed to have killed individuals like Abraham Tewolde and others.
He was enabled in this because the fighters saw these actions as probably justified for achieving the ultimate goal: independence from Ethiopia. He himself was probably surprised by how easily he was able to normalize his crimes.
After independence, in 1994 a group of disabled fighters demonstrated against being abandoned and neglected but were mowed down by troops he ordered.
In 1997, a constitution was drafted after extensive participation by the people. It was never implemented. He sparked a war with Ethiopia and cited the special circumstances of the country for not implementing it. The war cost thousands of liv
The most forgotten refugees in the world are Eritreans in Tigray!
Eritreans are too nationalistic, but they don’t actually love themselves. This could be a result of propaganda psychosis, which turned them into mental slaves. Eritrean youth living in Western countries have no loyalty to each other. This means that Eritrea is at the mercy of Ethiopia and can easily be taken over by Tigray.
Some say that was always the plan. I guess we’ll find out in the next couple of years.
Today, May 24th, marks the 31st independence day of Eritrea gained merely for the well-being and enrichment of Isaias and a few of his cronies, and to the detriment of a population that languishes in abject poverty. and incomparable repression.
A bleak reality of numerous never-ending humanitarian disasters and wars. And as of a few days ago, Abiy Ahmed is completely out of the closet. He told his lieutenants and trusted media that the next fight is a fight to occupy the Red Sea in effect reversing Eritrean independence. Ironically, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Prize for supposedly wanting to end the state of war with Eritrea and accepting the Algiers agreement without any preconditions but is now 2022’s 100 most influential man of Time magazine for causing civil war and creating a Rwanda type scenario. It appears the honeymoon with Isaias is over.
Eritrea could have achieved a decent living standard just from its mining income and its 2,234 kilometers coastline in the southern Red Sea, where upwards of 10% of the world’s trade passes through. Ironically, the Eritrean people who were well known for their ingenuity and hard work in Ethiopia have been completely excluded from its resources and endowments after independence. Isaias has created a country where there are no private businesses, markets, schools, cafes, restaurants or any economy.
“Dictators seldom improve with age or time in office. As they grow accustomed to untrammelled power, they forget why restraint is a virtue. As they punish truth-tellers, they hear more lies. After years of tyrannising their own people, they wonder if they can get away with bullying foreigners, too. Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un are not the only despots who menace their neighbours. Eritrea’s Issaias Afwerki is equally malign.
He is the only leader his country has known in three decades of independence. He has turned it into a hot, dusty prison camp. He has fought wars against two neighbours, stirred up trouble in several others and, in 2020, sent troops into Ethiopia’s civil war, where he is seen as the main obstacle to ending that bloody conflict. Restraining him would be a public good.”