Eritrea is intensifying its involvement in neighboring Ethiopia’s civil war, hampering efforts to end fighting that’s destabilized the entire Horn of Africa for almost two years.
The conflict has pitted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal troops against forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which rules the northern Tigray region. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki backed Abiy from the onset of the hostilities and recently embarked on a nationwide, forced conscription campaign to shore up his army with a view to crushing the TPLF, a long-standing foe, according to people familiar with the developments, including diplomats, civil-rights activists, analysts and recruits’ relatives.
The TPLF accuses Eritrea of staging attacks in Tigray since fighting flared in August, five months after a truce was declared. Last week, the governments of Australia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and US condemned “the escalating involvement of Eritrean military forces in northern Ethiopia.”
Eritrea continues to shell towns and villages across northern Tigray and thousands of the new conscripts, including women and the elderly, have been deployed to the battle front-lines, according to rights activists Meron Estefanos, who is based in Uganda, and Asia Abdulkadir, who is based in Kenya.
Peace talks brokered by the African Union that were scheduled to begin in South Africa on Oct. 8 have been delayed indefinitely. One likely reason is that Eritrea is pushing for an outright victory in the conflict, according to Harry Verhoeven, a professor and Eritrea expert at Columbia University, and three diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
Yemane Ghebremeskel, Eritrea’s information minister, and Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s spokeswoman, didn’t respond to emailed questions on Eritrea’s role in Tigray or answer calls seeking comment.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Isaias, a rebel commander who led his nation to independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s and has presided over a one-party state ever since. Besides finally vanquishing the TPLF, a military conquest would help consolidate his power in the region, open up trade with Ethiopia and further cement his already close ties with Abiy.
“A peaceful settlement between the TPLF and Abiy is a threat to Isaias,” Abdulkadir said. “I don’t think it’s in his interests for this conflict to end. This is pure survival for him.”
Animosity between Eritrea and the TPLF, which effectively ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until 2018 when it was sidelined by Abiy, dates back decades. While Isaias and the Tigrayans once fought side by side to overthrow Ethiopia’s communist Derg regime, relations soured after Eritrea gained independence in 1993 and sought to assert its sovereignty.
The two nations then fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 that claimed tens of thousands of lives. That conflict didn’t officially end until 2018, when Abiy took over as prime minister and signed a peace accord with Isaias — a detente that earned the Ethiopian leader the Nobel Prize.
Eritrea, which has been dubbed the North Korea of Africa, is an international pariah. Isaias’s administration has been criticized by civil rights groups for its practice of jailing politicians, activists and journalists in solitary confinement, and it has been subjected to international sanctions and an arms embargo.
In recent months, Eritrea has shut all international schools and closed its border with Sudan — a move aimed at preventing Isaias’s opponents from infiltrating the country, according to the diplomats who’ve been briefed on the development. The president has also ordered all those who were previously exempted from military service to undergo new medical testing, they said.
“This is a man who is profoundly comfortable with taking extraordinary risks,” Verhoeven said. “One of his great strengths is that he is willing to go where nobody else is willing to go and put up with an extraordinary degree of discomfort: international isolation, sanctions, hostile neighbors on his doorstep and anger from the US and other members in the Security Council.”
Eritrea’s military operations are largely funded using the proceeds of business owned by the Red Sea Corp., it’s secretive sovereign fund. Isaias has aided Saudi Arabia in its the fight against the Houthis in Yemen, and been implicated by a group of United Nations experts in lending its support to al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabaab, which has been trying to topple Somalia’s government since 2006.
While the US and other Western governments have urged Eritrea to immediately withdraw from Tigray, Isaias is unlikely to heed their call. Abdulkadir, the Kenya-based activist, said Isaias is loath to take orders from anyone and considers Western powers fickle and grossly inconsistent in the application of their policies.
“War is the way for Isaias to stay involved in Ethiopia’s politics” and peace is simply not an option as long as the TPLF are still around, she said.