“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea appear close to descending into farce.
Officially next to nothing takes place; there are occasional visits by President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy, to each other’s capitals, at the end of which bland statements are made, which give the public no real idea of what took place. No progress appears to have been made in implementing the 2018 peace agreement, and in the absence of certainty there is a blizzard of unofficial misinformation and rumours, mostly circulated on social media. But the rumour mill also appears to be fuelled deliberately by both governments, leaving journalists unable to sort out the facts from the lies.
Those who follow this blog will have seen the post on 26th of April: “Tension and Rumours rife in Eritrea”. After warning that there was no certainty, it said: “There has been endless speculation about the health of President Isaias Afwerki, with reports that he is in Saudi Arabia for treatment, that he has had a stroke and even that he is dead. There is simply no clarity.”
A few days later (29 April) this blog reported that President Isaias had been seen in Asmara and that he was clearly alive. Since then the president has visited Addis Ababa for talks with Prime Minister Abiy, which produced yet another uninformative press release on Isaias’s return on May 5th. “During his stay in Ethiopia President Isaias held extensive discussion with Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed on bilateral cooperation and regional developments of interest to the two countries.”
Since nature abhors a vacuum, I have decided to publish some of the current rumours, so that they can be seen for what they are.
A story circulating in Addis Ababa includes suggestions that Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias were themselves responsible for the myth that President Isaias had died. The two leaders are rumoured to have devised a strategy and found a person who could strike a deal with the Tigrayan leadership of the TPLF to assassinate President Isaias. The TPLF contacted the person and paid him a first instalment of $10 million. President Isaias, playing along with the story, pretended he had been shot and went to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Abiy made a brief trip to Asmara, apparently to attend President Isaias’s funeral. The TPLF heard about all this, was convinced, and paid the assassin a final sum of $10 million. Some versions of this story throw an element of Egyptian collusion with the Tigrayans (possibly an attempt to prevent Ethiopia’s Nile dam (GERD) from going ahead.) Other versions include General Philipos, Eritrea’s Chief of Army Staff making a low profile visit to Addis Ababa to cooperate on a matter of “mutual concern” with the Ethiopian government.
Many people have heard some or all of this story; there is absolutely no corroboration for any of it.
So, what do we know?
Firstly, it is news to no-one that President Isaias has loathed the Tigrayan leadership and the TPLF for years; this goes back to the 1980’s and the period of Eritrea’s war of liberation from Ethiopia, and was intensified by the humiliation of his military failure in the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian war.
Secondly, Prime Minister Abiy has broken with the Tigrayans and is doing all he can to make life difficult for them.
As Rene Lefort pointed out today, the Ethiopian leader laid out four options for the way ahead in Ethiopia on 27 April. He then appeared to “consult” with the opposition leaders on 29 and 30 April. “He told his social media followers the meeting was “fruitful”, but on the occasion he also attacked the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). To the first, as an organization whose former militant wing is still engaged in an armed struggle in Wellega, he said: ‘You cannot stand on the peaceful and legal struggle and armed activity’. For the second: ‘practice democracy on your turf. You cannot repress in Tigray and demand a free and open forum in the Federal government’. Furthermore, he condemned those political forces allegedly working with enemies of Ethiopia. He called them ‘banda’, the label for Ethiopians who collaborated with Italian invaders after 1935,” said Lefort.
This is about as abusive as it is possible to be: equating the Tigrayans with traitors like Haile Selassie Gugsa, a leading Tigrayan noble who went over to the Italian side during the invasion of his country in 1935.
What can one conclude?
That Tigray finds itself hemmed in by enemies, with the Eritrean government to the North and the Ethiopian government to the South.
The Tigrayan leadership has plenty of experience and has prevented the Ethiopian army from withdrawing some of its heavy weaponry from Tigray, so that they can defend themselves. But this is situation is not good; it is certainly not a recipe for regional stability, nor for stability in Ethiopia where Abiy is facing a constitutional crisis over the indefinite postponement of the elections that were due in August.
Rene Lefort concludes his latest piece: “I recently wrote “Abiy seems to have deprioritized the transition’s success in favour of becoming the next in a long line of Ethiopian ‘Big Man’ rulers”. This is confirmed by recent events. The ruling system the Nobel laureate yearns for becomes clearer and clearer.” It is certainly one that would meet with President Isaias’ approval.