The Fano—which committed atrocities, particularly in western Tigray, and has displaced tens of thousands of Tigrayans—sees the agreement as a positive step but is disappointed that the agreement upheld the current Ethiopian Constitution, which it considers against Amhara interests. Eritrea has been training the Fano, and Eritrea’s president could use the group to sabotage the peace process from within.
The Eritrean president has his own interests in Tigray, and they could undermine Ethiopia’s truce with the TPLF.
By Mohamed Kheir Omer, a researcher and writer based in Oslo, Norway. He is a former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front.
In what was widely regarded as a diplomatic breakthrough, the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reached a surprising cessation of hostilities. The truce was signed in South Africa earlier this month after intensive talks amid pressure from the African Union and the United States.
If implemented, the deal will expedite humanitarian aid and the restoration of services in the Tigray region. The TPLF will fully disarm within 30 days of the deal. The federal government will deploy the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) as well as federal security and law enforcement agencies in Tigray, and the ENDF will be deployed along international borders—which includes Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea.
The prospect of silencing the guns in Tigray is commendable. But many articles in the deal will be difficult to implement or may take months or even years to carry out. That is largely because one of the main actors, Eritrea, was neither represented nor mentioned by name in the agreement, although some indirect references were made to it.
At the signing ceremony, the TPLF’s chief negotiator, Getachew Reda, stated, “I know there are spoilers from nearby, from inside our ranks and from the neighborhood, and we also know they will … stop at nothing to sabotage our peace-making efforts.”
Indeed, ever since the start of the war in November 2020, Eritrea’s reclusive regime has played a crucial role. The border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 was more a war between Eritrea’s regime and the TPLF rather than between the two countries. Although Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sees an armed TPLF as a threat to his rule, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki harbors a personal grudge against the organization. The animosity toward the TPLF is the only common denominator that holds them together.
Eritrea may regard the disarmament of the TPLF as a positive development—but even so, it has not yet accomplished its mission, which is destroying the TPLF once and for all by capturing or killing its leaders, causing massive displacement, and degrading its infrastructure and military capabilities so Tigray cannot be a threat to Eritrea for at least the next 50 years or more. If Isaias continues to pursue his ultimate goal, the truce could easily fall apart.
Neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea mentions the participation of the Eritrean Army openly. Eritrea is tight-lipped on all of its military operations; only one Facebook page believed to be run by Eritrean intelligence has been providing updates on the war. During the war, it was predicting the fall of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, at any time. In its latest posts, it describes the peace deal as “terms of surrender” and says Ethiopia was pressured by the United States to sign the deal to save the TPLF.
There is also very little information on the size of the Eritrean Army and extent of its deployment in Tigray, but an estimate this year puts its size in the range of 150,000 to 200,000 soldiers. Sources close to the TPLF estimate that half of that force is in Tigray. But the military situation remains fluid, and there could be troop repositioning following the deal. Meanwhile, special regional forces and militias from Ethiopia’s Amhara region still occupy western and southern Tigray.
The international community and peace mediators have also underestimated Eritrea’s role in the war. Calling on Eritrea to withdraw its forces will not deliver the desired results. Sanctions have had little impact on the regime in recent years; indeed, Eritrea’s regime has survived United Nations and U.S. sanctions through a network of clandestine operations on illicit trade across Africa, Europe, and the Persian Gulf.
Don’t Blame Amharas for Ethiopia’s War
Peace efforts must address the group’s legitimate fears rather than casting them as the main obstacle to reconciliation.
One of the articles in the agreement indicates that “permanent cessation” of all forms of hostilities includes “subversion or use of proxies to destabilize the other party or collusion with any external force hostile to either party.” This may mean that Ethiopia cannot continue cooperating with Eritrea in undermining the TPLF.
Abiy doesn’t have complete control over battlefield developments, as Eritrea’s generals operate outside the Ethiopian command structure and appear to be spearheading the war effort in the north.
It will be difficult for Abiy to honor this part of the deal, as he doesn’t control the presence or conduct of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia. Even small acts of sabotage could derail the peace process. Abiy doesn’t have complete control over battlefield developments, as Eritrea’s generals operate outside the Ethiopian command structure and appear to be spearheading the war effort in the north.
Asmara’s generals have been leading the fight on the northern front. They have also made Eritrean territory a launching pad for Ethiopia’s army and a logistics and command center, mobilizing its population and military. Current and former generals confirm this fact.
Having lost much of its operational capabilities and command structure—and many of its military assets—after the TPLF’s takeover of Northern Command headquarters in November 2020, the Ethiopian army was not in a position to enter Mekelle without Eritrean support. Still, the ENDF has not yet completely reconstituted to be capable of carrying out the most recent round of fighting without Eritrea’s active participation.
Since Aug. 24, when the new round of hostilities began, Eritrea’s regime has carried out continuous and indiscriminate ground bombardments assisted by Ethiopian aerial and drone attacks on towns and villages, causing large-scale casualties and displacing Tigrayans. Those attacks continued 72 hours after the deal. Eritrea’s army is deep in Tigray. The Eritrean military, accused of committing grave atrocities, has invested a lot in this war and, according to Tigrayan sources, has suffered heavy losses. Eritrea’s army will not pull back willingly.
Eritrea’s president views this conflict as a zero-sum game. His aim is to finish off the TPLF once and for all. Therefore, Eritrea’s regime has taken unprecedented measures to mobilize its remaining population. Eyewitnesses in Eritrea confirm that families whose sons or daughters did not report to duty were evicted from their homes. Some underage civilians and some older adults, all with little training, were forced to join the army.
Abiy was jubilant after the peace agreement, stating it achieved all that Ethiopia wanted. Various reports indicate both Abiy and Isaias aimed to enter Mekelle before the negotiations were completed and declare the war had ended. But stiff resistance from the Tigray Defense Forces hindered them from achieving their goals.
The problem for Ethiopia’s government is that Abiy’s truce with the TPLF could be seen by Isaias as a threat to Eritrea’s interests.
Isaias is a survival strategist, and feeling threatened could make him more aggressive in destabilizing Ethiopia—hosting and supporting proxy forces opposed to the regime in Ethiopia, as he has done in the past 30 years. Isaias has repeatedly shown he is not afraid to act brazenly when backed into a corner. Indeed, the United Nations has previously sanctioned Eritrea for its destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa—from Somalia to Sudan and South Sudan.
Isaias already hosts a Tigrayan armed group opposed to the TPLF. He could also support the Oromo Liberation Army and an insurgent group in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is situated. He could realign with Egypt and Sudan against Ethiopia when it comes to the controversial dam—which Cairo and Khartoum see as an existential threat to their water supplies—as he has historically reshuffled friends and foes as necessary. Russia may even reward Eritrea for its support in the United Nations regarding the war in Ukraine with weapons and military training to help the regime withstand Western threats.
Eritrea currently hosts a Tigrayan armed insurgency group, known as Demhit, that is opposed to the TPLF. It also considers the Amhara nationalists, particularly the so-called Fano armed wing, as its allies. According to the Amhara Association of America and a parliamentarian from the National Movement of Amhara, the agreement failed to recognize the disputed areas with Tigray as Amhara territory.
If this or any other peace agreement in the Horn of Africa is to succeed in the long term, the threat Isaias poses to peace and stability in the region must be addressed first.
The Fano—which committed atrocities, particularly in western Tigray, and has displaced tens of thousands of Tigrayans—sees the agreement as a positive step but is disappointed that the agreement upheld the current Ethiopian Constitution, which it considers against Amhara interests. Eritrea has been training the Fano, and Eritrea’s president could use the group to sabotage the peace process from within. He has emphasized several times that he is opposed to the federal arrangement in Ethiopia, as he would prefer a centralized Ethiopia that is friendly to his regime.
The TPLF has undermined Eritrea’s president for a long time and has paid an enormous price for it. But this war has significantly weakened not only the Ethiopian army and the TPLF but Eritrea’s army too. Ironically, Isaias may have to depend on Abiy and the Ethiopian military—his sometimes ally but more often rival—to protect his regime in the future if the deal with the TPLF fails.
If this or any other peace agreement in the Horn of Africa is to succeed in the long term, the threat Isaias poses to peace and stability in the region must be addressed first. Much more robust and aggressive deterrence polices, such as personally sanctioning Isaias and his closest accomplices, are needed. Such polices should also sanction any groups or individuals, including Abiy and his allies, who aim to sabotage this nascent peace agreement, which has the potential to transform the region.
All parties interested in seeing this peace agreement succeed must be cognizant of the spoiler role Isaias has played in the past in the Horn of Africa—and the risk that he could do it again.
Mohamed Kheir Omer is a researcher and writer based in Oslo, Norway. He is a former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front. Twitter: @mkheirom