This question is pertinently raised by the long-time observer of the Horn, Rene Lefort.
So what is taking place?
In line with its normal practice, the Eritrean government is saying nothing at all – at least officially.
A pro-government website Tesfanews, urges Eritreans to be patient, while stoking up anti-Tigrayan sentiment.
Tesfanews attacked the Tigrayan leadership, accusing them of being against the peace agreement reached between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018.
“Unfortunately, almost from the outset, certain elements in the region sought to scuttle the positive developments ushering in the possibility of lasting regional peace, stability, and security. These elements, emanating mainly from the ranks of the TPLF, which was the central core and the most powerful force within the previous ruling coalition government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF], have opposed the winds of peace and progressive change.”
A dearth of information
Interpreting the situation is not easy.
Eritrea jailed all independent journalists in 2001. It does not allow foreign reporters from international organisations like Reuters, the Associated Press, AFP and the BBC to be permanently stationed in Asmara.
As a result, information from Eritrea is imperfect, to say the least.
But news does leak out – despite the best efforts of the regime to prevent it. So here is what is being said, but cannot be confirmed.
President Isaias mulls over his options
President Isaias is reported to have held a meeting with his closest confidants. These included army commanders and senior party leaders over the past few days in Embatkala.
Osman Saleh Mohammed, Yemane Gebreab (the president’s chief adviser) Yemane Gebremeskel (Minister of Information), Alamin Mohammed Seid (Secretary of the PFDJ – the ruling party), Brigadier Abraha Kasa (Director of National Security) and Colonel Simon Gebredingl (the Head of the Department of Internal Security) were at the meeting.
The president told them that the country had to accept that it has a small and not very viable economy and a lengthy Red Sea coast, which Eritrean cannot patrol on its own.
Hence it is imperative to think of some sort of “union” with Ethiopia, at least in terms of economic co-operation and and maritime security. This is perhaps a prelude to some form of “unity” with Ethiopia.
In so doing Isaias appears to be echoing Prime Minister Abiy’s grandiose dream of re-establishing the old empire-state of Ethiopia. This idea is not as far fetched as it would appear, despite the fact that Isaias led Eritrea’s 30 year war of independence from Ethiopia.
When President Isaias visited Addis Ababa in July 2018 to meet with Prime Minister Abiy he made remarks that left most Eritreans speechless. He told Abiy “you are our leader” and announced happily to the crowd: “I’ve given him all responsibility of leadership and power”.
Is the current conflict in Tigray the logical outcome of this vision? Might Abiy now be moving to eliminate Isaias’s sworn enemies in the belief that this will allow Ethiopia to redraw the Horn of Africa?
One element of this could be regaining control of the Eritrean port of Assab.
An Ethiopian naval base
It should not be forgotten that France promised to upgrade the Ethiopian navy in March 2019. But Ethiopia has no port at which to base a navy – so why not return to one of its old homes at Assab?
The Imperial Ethiopian Navy was founded in 1955 when Eritrea was under Ethiopian control.
The navy established four bases: Massawa was the site of the naval headquarters and enlisted training facilities; the naval air station and naval academy were at Asmara; Assab was the site of a naval station, enlisted training facilities, and a repair dock; and there was a naval station and communications station on the Dahlak Islands in the Red Sea near Massawa.
A smart, new, Ethiopian navy operating out of Assab would help Eritrea control its Red Sea coast, as well as guarding the vast potash mine planned for the region.
To be really effective the mine would exploit deposits that stretch into Ethiopia and might require the construction of a new port on the Eritrean coast at Anfile Bay.
This is what Dankali – the company planning the project says about the mine.
“Colluli is located in the Danakil Depression region of Eritrea and is approximately 230km by road south-east of the port of Massawa, which is Eritrea’s key import/export facility. The Danakil Depression is an emerging potash province, which commences in Eritrea and extends south across the border into Ethiopia.”
Mobilising Eritrean troops
While this has been taking place there are numerous reports that young Eritreans are being rounded up as conscripts.
National Service is not voluntary and the conscripts are forced to participate indefinitely – a form of slavery.
There have been some indications of Eritrean troop movements along the border with Tigray, but – at least at present – no reports of fighting between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces.
Instead, some Ethiopian soldiers who were with the Federal Army’s Northern Command are said to have fled northwards into Eritrea when the Tigrayans took over the base in Mekelle.