Eritrea is involved in Tigray to boost its stature. Why the strategy could backfire

“If there is to be serious dialogue between Addis Ababa and Mekele, the Tigrayan leadership will demand the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Isaias’ removal from discussions over Ethiopia’s future. Abiy will need to concede this. In such a scenario, Isaias will quickly find himself isolated.”

Source: The Conversation

January 30, 2022 7.32am GMT

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (L) and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at an event in Ethiopia in 2018. Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

The Eritrean military has been involved in the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region since the conflict broke out in November 2020. Eritrea shares a 1,000 km border with Ethiopia, including with Tigray. It sent thousands of soldiers in support of the Ethiopian federal forces in their operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

These actions have both prolonged and worsened the hugely destructive conflict.

Eritrea’s involvement also has wider implications. It represents an attempt by Asmara to reassert itself on the regional stage, following two decades of relative diplomatic isolation.

The large-scale commitment of soldiers – as well as logistical and political support for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – is the result of a remarkable turnaround in relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa. After almost two decades of hostility, Abiy struck a peace deal with Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki in July 2018 . This appeared to usher in a new era of stability and cooperation.

But that’s not what transpired. In the following months, Abiy intensified his programme of political reform in Ethiopia. He consolidated his power at the expense of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The movement had dominated politics in Ethiopia since 1991.

The front was also Eritrea’s bitterest enemy. There had been a troubled history of relations between it and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front dating back to the 1970s. This antagonism culminated in a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.

The outbreak of the war in Tigray served a number of purposes for Isaias. Firstly, it gave him the opportunity to end Eritrea’s long-standing international isolation. It did this by enabling him to exercise influence in a conflict which threatened to completely destabilise the region. This was a deeply worrying prospect to a range of international actors.

Secondly, it reasserted his influence in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.

And lastly it provided an opportunity to seek revenge on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The front’s leadership outwitted and outgunned Eritrea militarily in the 1998-2000 war. It also outmanoeuvred Eritrea diplomatically in the years following the conflict.

Eritrea’s opportunistic policy

The government in Asmara has pursued an opportunistic foreign policy. Its aim has essentially been to gain regional superiority at Ethiopia’s expense.

Eritrea has sought to exercise leverage by getting involved in others’ conflicts. For much of the 2000s and 2010s, for instance, Asmara defied the international consensus on Somalia. This consensus was primarily orchestrated by the government in Ethiopia, at the time led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Reaching the consensus involved the creation of a Transitional Federal Government with broad international support.

Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers, supported in the air by the US, launched offensives against al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group which Eritrea was accused of supporting.

This led to the 2009 imposition of sanctions on Eritrea. There were also interventions in Darfur and eastern Sudan by the Eritrean government.

Eritrea’s regional policy has largely been influenced by Ethiopia, its much more powerful southerly neighbour. But Ethiopia has represented both an obstacle and an opportunity in the pursuit of regional dominance.

In many respects, the single biggest obstacle facing the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front regime in Asmara is a strong, united Ethiopia. A country capable of dominating the region in economic, military and diplomatic terms – and especially one covertly or overtly hostile to Eritrea itself. This was the case under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front regime led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

A weakened and disunited Ethiopia – with at least some political actors who are easy to influence – therefore represents an opportunity for Eritrea’s interests. This is because the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s vision for the country is as regional gatekeeper and pivot – secure in itself, cohesive and militarily potent.

In search of that status, the best scenario is to have Ethiopia unstable enough to allow opportunities for intervention and influence. Asmara would also want to be able to justify prolonged militarisation, which has become the hallmark of independent Eritrean nationhood. But, it wants to avoid Ethiopia’s total collapse.

Asmara’s best-case scenario is a prolonged, unresolved conflict in Ethiopia in which the presence of Eritrean forces and political support are still required by Addis Ababa.

Abiy’s assent to power and the marginalisation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – combined with widespread and growing political protest in the preceding years – presented just such an opportunity.

Risky strategy

But this is a risky strategy.

Isaias has essentially harnessed his cause to that of Abiy. When things were going well against the Tigrayan forces – as in late 2020 and early 2021 – it looked like a justifiable policy, however catastrophic for the civilian population. But it could backfire.

There have been signs that negotiations between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leadership may be possible.

If there is to be serious dialogue between Addis Ababa and Mekele, the Tigrayan leadership will demand the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Isaias’ removal from discussions over Ethiopia’s future. Abiy will need to concede this. In such a scenario, Isaias will quickly find himself isolated. This would take him back to the pariah status he has occupied for most of the last two decades.

Further, in the longer term, an Ethiopia where various parties are reconciled to one another’s legitimacy could once again become a hostile entity on Eritrea’s southern flank.

Involvement in other people’s wars is inherently risky business. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front regime has frequently played with fire. It has done so domestically and regionally. Yet, to date, it has seemingly defied geopolitical gravity.

But the Eritrean army’s disproportionately violent and inhumane intervention in Ethiopia in pursuit of payback against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the regional stature Isaias has long craved could result in the most destructive blowback imaginable: a coalescence of Ethiopian antagonists and domestic opposition that presents an existential threat to the Eritrean government itself.


  1. Eritrea is the most failed state, worse than Somalia. The people of Eritrea has been pacified to an extent they have stopped caring about where they come from. Isaias is a simple and cheap authoritarian with many defects in his mind. His friends call him for a well known sadist in a real term. The future of his regime is nothing but catastrophic. He believes he can live by exploiting others misery and chaos. While others develop their economy and society, he build-up army and crates enemies. The few that is left in Asmara are indoctrinated to hate the Tigrians, USA and Europe. There is a zero future for Eritreans in Eritrea. Who knows, may be the TDF gets forced to go in and take over Asmara.

    1. Unrealistic and fabricated analysis, ofcourse all eritrean believe there is issues need to be fixed in the country, those issues were created by external forces as well as the Tigray manifesto ideology, and thier feeling of inferiority toward Eritrean, this caused 20 years of unstablility on that region, which more affected 🇪🇷 ‘s Economy. After all these issues resolved, there will be a bright future in Eritrea and it will be a model for all peace loving people.

      1. re “those issues were created by external forces as well as the Tigray manifesto ideology”
        that is BS. Afworky started all the war and, Afworky (not TPLF) shut down colleges in Eritrea.

        re “there will be a bright future in Eritrea and it will be a model for all peace loving people.”
        that is the BS that Afworky tricked his way into power with that “Singapore of Africa” BS. There is no “bright future” without an education system, which Afworky destroyed, and enslaves his people.

        History is very clear that Isaias Afworky started that stupid war for the worthless Badame land. Not only he lost is ass in that stupid war of his, but Afworky closed all universities and blamed TPLF. Afworky destroyed Eritrea from then on, while TPLF built Ethiopia into a relatively modern economy, one of the fastest growing in Africa (until Abiy/Amhara came and destroyed it all).

        Apparently, you do not know your history, in that Eritrea effectively has had no education system.for the past 20+ years. All the teachers are slaves for life too, and most likely hate Tigray for (supposedly) causing it to them.

        This is the best the kids can do to try and avoid slavery:
        “Some secondary school students intentionally fail classes to stay in the lower grades. Others drop out, but live in fear of government roundups in which youth without student cards risk being sent directly into military training and service.”

        So, the whole country is primed to blame Tigray for this, likely based on this historic fact:
        “The future for education in Eritrea was not always as bleak. The post-independence government supported free education for all, including at the secondary and post-secondary level. But the bloody two-year border conflict with Ethiopia in 1998 and the stalemate that ensued had a devastating impact on the secondary education system. The government used the “no war, no peace” situation to force a significant percentage of the adult population into open-ended service for the government – both in military and civilian roles.”

        see More detail copied below.

        TPLF should have wiped out Isaias when they had the chance at Asthmera’s doorstep during their prior war.

        (Nairobi) – Eritrea’s use of secondary school to channel students into indefinite government service and its conscription of teachers subjects students and teachers to forced labor and physical abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

        The 84-page report, “‘They Are Making Us into Slaves, Not Educating Us’: How Indefinite Conscription Restricts Young People’s Rights, Access to Education in Eritrea,” documents how the Eritrean government forcibly channels thousands of young people, some still children, each year into military training even before they finish their schooling. Instead of developing a pool of committed, well-trained, career secondary school teachers, the government conscripts teachers, also for indefinite service, giving them no choice about whether, what, or where to teach. These policies have a devastating impact on education and lead many young people to flee the country.

        “Eritrea’s secondary schools are at the heart of its repressive system of control over its population,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now that peace with Ethiopia is restored, reforms on human rights, starting with the rights and freedom of the country’s youth, need to follow.”

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