Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray war: did Asmara reap the dividends it had hoped for?
By Ermias Teka
Eritrean military involvement in the Tigray war is perhaps the singular external influence that has profoundly altered the course, and the essence, of the conflict. Although Eritrea has now withdrawn its forces from most areas of Tigray it still has a heavy presence in western Tigray and has reportedly involved its forces in the ongoing fighting in Amhara and Oromia regions. Eritrean intelligence is also said to be knee-deep in Ethiopia’s internal politics.
However, beyond its military adventures, which its supporters consider a success, Eritrea’s meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs has inadvertently set in motion forces that will threaten Afwerki’s government but could have unforeseen consequences for the future of Eritrea.
To many who had been closely following political developments in the Horn, Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray war didn’t come as a surprise. When it became increasingly evident that an armed conflict between Addis and Mekelle was inevitable, almost everyone on both sides were aware that Eritrea would, sooner or later, become involved in the confrontation. But few, at least in the Tigrayan camp, expected the magnitude and impact of Eritrea’s involvement. Tigrayan sources say as many as three-fourths of the entire Eritrean military were deployed against Tigray during certain episodes of the conflict.
Tigrayan military leaders have conceded that Eritrean involvement, in conjunction with the alleged use of UAE owned drones, was the main factor that caused Tigrayans resistance to initially collapse and ensured the rapid advance of the Ethiopian military into Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. The Tigray Special Forces were already spread thin because of the simultaneous attacks from the South and West when the war began. The overwhelming number of Eritrean forces that poured into Tigray on not fewer than half a dozen fronts made it nearly impossible for the Tigrayans to maintain their defensive lines. Regardless of the ethical and civic implications of giving the green light to an avowedly hostile force to ravage one’s own people, Abiy’s gamble appeared to have paid off.
But if the Eritrean army’s involvement was pivotal in achieving a swift victory in the first stage of the conflict, its subsequent brutal campaign against the host population was even more decisive in prolonging the civil war and plunging the country into the chaos that it currently finds itself in.
The deep roots of Eritrea’s animosity
A few weeks after the start of the war, shocking accounts of Eritrean troops committing gruesome massacres, gang rape, wholesale looting of public and private property in various areas of Tigray started to emerge. Several credible reports indicated that these atrocities and looting were not the outcomes of spontaneous actions of unruly Eritrean units acting on their own accord. Rather, there was a method in the madness.
Numerous reports showed Eritrean army units, with the tacit consent of Ethiopian authorities, transporting looted industrial machinery and equipment, vehicles, and even household items back to Eritrea. The public and private wealth which couldn’t be transported were allegedly burnt, despoiled, or destroyed.
Some have tried to explain this excessive brutality, looting and vandalism by the Eritrean forces as revenge for the humiliating defeat of the 1998 Ethio-Eritrean border war and the ensuing economic disaster for Eritrea. Eritrean state-sponsored propaganda depicted the Ethiopian-led economic siege as the sole cause of every ill Eritreans have suffered during the past few decades. Hatred for TPLF, and by extension all Tigrayans, had been steadily growing among the Eritrean public.
However, Asmara had deeper motives beyond long-awaited vengeance in carrying out the scorched earth policy on Tigray.
Eritreans’ desire for independence had at its roots a yearning for the golden era under Italian rule in the 1920s and 1930s, when Eritrea had witnessed a blossoming economy and high standard of living that was among the most elevated in Africa. This harmless longing for fondly remembered good times of the past was, however, inherently intertwined with Italy’s vision of Eritrea – as an industrial center that would harness the resources of Ethiopia. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), as the most potent expression of that yearning, had these colonial designs inculcated in its DNA.
Andargachew Tsigie, the former founder of Arbegnoch Front and CEO of ESAT media, and Sibhat Nega, among others, have claimed that Isaias Afwerki was initially reluctant to take Eritrea down the path of independence. Recent rumors also claim that Afwerki aims to form an economic union with Ethiopia. These intriguing and apparently paradoxical reports fit neatly with the economic vision that Afwerki’s EPLF had for Eritrea. Although Eritrea’s political independence was adamantly sought by its liberators, they never wavered in their aim of fishing for economic success in Ethiopia’s resource-rich pond.
Soon after capturing Addis Ababa in 1991, the EPRDF, in which the TPLF played a disproportionate role, engaged in the rapid establishment of industries in Ethiopia. This, of course, was perceived by Asmara as a threat to their vision of Eritrea as “Africa’s Singapore.” Tigray’s industries, in particular, were seen by Afwerki and weapons aimed at Eritrea. Further restrictions where imposed on Eritrean companies, preventing them from carrying out legitimate and illicit businesses in Ethiopia. This was seen as the final straw in the gradual strangulation of the Eritrean economy, and ultimately led to the Ethio-Eritrean war. Eritrea’s post-war economic decline, and the subsequent suffering of the Eritrean people, was entirely attributed to TPLF and Tigray. Hence Eritrea’s zeal to destroy Tigray’s economy.
Moreover, Asmara’s one-party system of governance was threatened by the confident plurality of Ethiopian democracy. Eritrea has devoted its energy, for the past three decades, to an aggressive homogenization process at the expense of Eritrea’s constituent ethnic groups. The bustling ethnonationalism promoted by Tigray, devolved power to Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, rather than denying their existence and rights. This was seen as a grave threat to Eritrea’s young nation building process. It was feared that if Tigray was to achieve even marginal success with such divergent political foundation, Eritrea’s Tigrinya people would be enticed to look longingly across the border. Consequently, the ascent of Abiy Ahmed, who preached a unitarian doctrine to that promoted by Isaias, and the ensuing tension with Mekelle, was an ideal opportunity for Afwerki to act. He was able to carry out what he called a ‘political laundry’ – the complete wiping out of the multinational federation that had been constructed in his southern neighbor. This project was to start with cleansing Tigray – which was considered as the organizing force behind “ethnic federalism.”
Crushing Tigrayan nationalism
PFDJ’s discomfort at the presence of large number of Eritrean refugees in Tigray also makes more sense when examined from this perspective. The refugees were, in the eyes of PFDJ purists, consuming ‘heretical’ ideas which might challenge the Eritrean government’s doctrine of Eritreanism. Moreover, the sizable Eritrean refugee population was enjoying the hospitality of the then remarkably welcoming Tigrayan administration and people. This obviously contradicted the PFDJ’s portrayal of Tigray as the eternal enemy of Eritrea and its efforts to inculcate anti-Tigrayan sentiments in its population. From the perspective of Asmara, the refugee camps were turning out to be a sort of an antithesis to Sawa – the Eritrean national training centre in which conscripts are indoctrinated. Consequently, even before the war began, the Ethiopian government, presumably swayed by Asmara, decided to relocate Eritrean refugee centers to areas outside Tigray. However, the Tigray war broke out before this plan could be put into effect. After the retreat of Tigrayan forces, the Eritrean army executed Asmara’s design by completely destroying Hintsats and Shimelba refugee camps and forcibly repatriating a sizable proportion of the refugees who had made it their home.
Eritrea’s aim, with the tacit approval and collaboration of Addis, was to destroy the political and economic potential of Tigray so thoroughly that Tigrayan ethnonationalism would ever be able to resurrect itself. In that regard, it was partially successful. Indeed, Tigray’s economy has been so thoroughly dismantled that it would, barring a miracle, likely remain in tatters for decades. Similarly, the ongoing closure of Tigrayan owned business in Addis and the rest of Ethiopia, which is said to be spearheaded by Eritrean intelligence, also aims, among other things, to bring the Tigrayan community to its knees.
The political implication of Eritrea’s aggressive incursion into Tigray, on the other hand, was a different story. Before Abiy’s ascent to power, Tigray was facing an existential political crisis: the Tigrayan public was more polarized than ever. Many were publicly expressing their frustration at the corruption and widespread maladministration of the TPLF led regional administration. Ambivalence towards the Tigrayan leadership was so pervasive that Abiy’s rise to power was initially greeted with open arms in Tigray, as it was in every other part of Ethiopia.
However, as the blatant of the Abiy administration for anti-Tigrayan sentiments became increasingly plain in the rest of the country, Tigrayan communities slowly started to gather round the scapegoated TPLF. As the growing ferocity of anti—Tigrayan distaste for the TPLF became increasingly apparent, Tigrayans’ support for TPLF grew precisely because it was Tigrayan. Tigrayan nationalism became the main beneficiary of this ill-judged dialectic.
Immediately before the war broke out, Tigrayan nationalism was sill in its infancy, but the sheer ruthlessness of the Ethio-Eritrean forces drove the Tigrayan public into the arms of the TPLF. The Tigrayan government emerged as an important player in relations in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea’s attempt to crush Tigray’s ethnonationalism had unwittingly resurrecting it as a serious force, and a vigorous one at that.
An indignant and demanding ethnonationalism is now at the forefront of Tigrayan politics. In the past the TPLF had been a calming influence when it comes to relations with neighboring societies. Now it is facing increased pressure to reflect a strong position on Tigrayan nationalism. Previously known for prioritizing a class-based political analysis, the TPLF now appears to have been bullied towards shelving its leftist ideals, at least momentarily, and is timidly joining the nationalist fervor.
Irredentist sentiments which previously had minimal support have become increasingly mainstream. Tigrayans wanting to leadership roles are now having to back the re-establishment of stronger socio-economic bonds, and if possible a political unity, with the neighboring Tigrinya people. This trend is becoming increasingly vocal.
Aggressive ethnonationalism has become so strong in since the outbreak of war last November that Tigrayan politics has marginalized parties advocating pan-Ethiopian sentiments like Arena Tigray and the Tigray Congress Party. Both appear to have completely lost their support base both among local and diaspora Tigrayan communities. Exiled and alienated by the communities they allege to represent, and clinging desperately on the Ethiopian government’s support for their survival, their sole hope of revival seems, ironically, tied to Tigray’s defeat and subjugation.
All in all, despite its deeply destructive outcomes, Tigray has arguably become more united than ever before. That is in a large part due to the counterintuitive decision by Asmara and co. to solve its conflict of interest with Mekelle by attempting to wipe Tigray off the map.
The impact of Eritrea’s involvement in the war
Conversely, Eritrean involvement in the Tigray war also had adverse consequences on the Ethio-Eritrean public. Eritrea has become the Achilles’ heel if Addis’ narrative of patriotic Ethiopianism, which had been adeptly used to advocate for military action on Tigray. To the surprise of many, however, even after Eritrea’s military involvement became undeniable, the reaction of the Ethiopian public was muted.
Ethiopianists were dismissive about its implications, sometimes going to absurd lengths to justify the Eritrean presence and complicity in Eritrean ongoing atrocities. While its remaining unscathed over such a divisive issue may in and of itself be considered a success, Ethiopians’ unconditional support for the Eritrean involvement in the war has resulted in Tigrayans’ near-universal rejection of Ethiopia. As the result, the people-to-people relation between Tigray and the midland appears to have been seriously compromised and the permanent severing of sociopolitical relations between the two communities can no longer be discounted.
Eritrea’s military intervention in the Tigray war has also caused a major fracture in its internal politics. Apart from reinforcing the old divide between Metahit (lowlands) and Kebessa (highland) communities, it has added an additional layer to Eritrea’s already polarized political climate by delineating a new fault line across the pro and anti PFDJ movements. As the gruesome atrocities, looting, and vandalism perpetrated by the Eritrean army in Tigray became exposed by the international media and human rights organisations, sizable communities of Eritreans became vocal supporters of the Tigrayan cause.
At the same time an equally determined group of their fellow countrymen became among the fiercest supporters of the Eritrean involvement, regularly appearing in ‘pro-Ethiopian’ rallies. For patriotic Eritreans, seeing supposedly hardline advocates of Eritrea’s independence in the same crowd as Ethiopian extremists with unrelinquished dreams of annexing Eritrea, was controversial to the say the least. But as is evident in social media exchanges, not a few were scandalized by the shameless endorsements of blatantly inhuman crimes that were carried out by the Ethio-Eritrean forces.
Moreover, movements calling for a return to ethnic roots, emerging predominantly from the Akele Guzai and Seraye highland communities of Eritrea, seem to be gaining momentum in the aftermath of the conflict. These movements seek to achieve not only cultural renaissance of Bher Tigrinya but also shift Eritrea’s political and economic center back to their pre-colonial roots. Not surprisingly, such inclinations coincide with, and are pulling them closer towards, a more constructive relation with Mekelle – a possibility that intimidates Asmara.
For now, a large proportion of the Christian highlander society remains too traumatized by the real and perceived repercussions of the 1998 war for such movements to make an immediate impact. Conversely, small but vocal subsection of Tigrayans, antagonized by the ongoing war crimes committed by the Eritrean army, are spreading a hostile anti-Eritrean attitude which will likely act like stand in the way of a rapprochement between the two Tigrinya speaking communities on either side of the Mereb.
Nevertheless, it can thus be surmised that PFDJ’s nation-building model is threatened by these widening divides which, in turn, are stirring a legitimate debate over whether post-Afwerki Eritrea can survive, and do so in one piece.
One thing seems certain though. Addis’ hostility towards Tigray and Addis’ reliance on the Amhara region in the war will have long-lasting consequences. They make good future Amhara-Tigray relation a near impossibility. It is thus becoming increasingly likely that Tigray, if it succeeds in maintaining its autonomy, will tend to look northwards than the southwards to establish its future economic and political ties.
However, for any future collaboration between the peoples of Tigray and Eritrea to even be conceivable, the respective leading parties – the PFDJ and the TPLF – must make way for a new leadership and a party unburdened by past guilt. The veteran parties simply carry too heavy an emotional baggage, are too invested in long determined courses and are too intrusive in their approaches, for natural inter-communal healing and partnerships to emerge while they are still in charge.
In the case of Tigray, a process seems to have started that is likely to bring about such outcomes. Influential people are already demanding that the current TPLF leadership relinquish exclusive ownership of commonly celebrated heritages like the armed struggle. Indeed, considering that almost all the Tigrayan parties define their identity through the armed struggle, just as the TPLF does, their argument that no party has sole “ownership” of this heritage is at least understandable. Similarly, opposition parties are asserting equal entitlement to the outcome of the ongoing struggle against Ethiopia and its allies. Coupled with the eventual blowback for its role in Tigray’s meltdown at the start of the war, the TPLF is likely to face its most stern challenge yet in the aftermath of the conflict. However, the TPLF still retains the sympathy of the rural majority making the possibility for Tigray to move to a post TPLF political horizon a difficult prospect.
Eritrea’s role in Addis and beyond
For now, Eritrea has consolidated its already tight grip on Ethiopia’s economy and politics. Insiders claim that Eritrean intelligence is running the show in Addis. Abiy’s government, for its part, appears content with this as long as Eritrea keeps playing a big role in subduing the various rebellions that are erupting across the country.
The PFDJ’s precondition for such overwhelming military support appears to have been Ethiopia’s willingness to allow Eritrean intelligence to exert a disproportionate influence over Addis. Having formerly dismantled the Tigrayan heavy Information Network Security Agency (INSA) in his drive to consolidate power, Abiy is likely to find Eritrean takeover of this sector convenient, at least for the moment. Afworki is very wary of the radical Ethiopianists among Abiy’s entourage who are biding their time. Some would dearly love to annex Eritrea and would not have consented to such blanket support without having his intelligence network keeping a close watch over developments in Arat Kilo, the quarter of Addis in which many Eritreans live.
The happy marriage is paying enormous economic and political dividends for Asmara. The heavy involvement of Eritrea’s intelligence is said to be evident in such diverse areas as immigration, closing and appropriation of Tigrayan owned businesses, black market money exchanges and the extrajudicial arrest and execution of Tigrayans in Addis and other parts of Ethiopia.
Be that as it may, Eritrea’s future remains worryingly ambiguous. Will post Afwerki Eritrea survive in one piece? Will it retain its autocratic policies or be forced to loosen the political space? Will it look to mend ties with Tigray or seek to strengthen its alliances further south? How will the mutually antagonistic opposition groups influence the sociopolitical terrain?
In summary, though Eritrean military adventure into Tigray appeared to have reaped the desired outcomes a few months into the war, the rapid revival of the newly rebranded Tigray Defense Forces has shown that even its military objectives are less successful than previously imagined. Moreover, the Eritrean army is said to have sustained heavy losses including the elimination of its most experienced units and senior leaders. For now, though, cautious withdrawal of EDF to more defensible territories before sustaining more compromising losses means that Asmara can take time to breathe and reorganize. Nonetheless, the recent rumored deployment of several Eritrean divisions to save Gondar shows that Afewerki won’t be content with watching from a distance as things play out. He obviously recognizes that the capitulation of the Amhara region would have grave consequences for his own government’s future as it will only embolden TDF to look northward.
However, regardless of how the conflict unfolds, barring complete annihilation of Tigrayan armed forces, Asmara has ended up provoking a more resilient enemy than it started out with, which will not hesitate to use all means at its disposal to uproot Afwerki’s government. The future of the neighboring communities, however, can only be harmonious if their respective elites show the necessary commitment to transcend party allegiance and inflammatory rhetoric and delve into their shared ancient traditions to resolve divisive issues and pervasive antagonisms.