There are two, competing, views of Isaias Afwerki.
The first – put forward by his regime – is of a victorious leader who took his people from the chains of Ethiopian imperialism to the freedom of independence.
This embraces the view that Isaias himself projects of his role as a liberation leader and tough, resilient fighter, who learned his skills during his time in Mao’s China.
The alternative view, while acknowledging Isaias’s skills as an organiser who founded (with others) the EPLF, question his role as a military leader.
They point out that while he took the political leadership, it was his military colleagues, like Mesfin Hagos, who led the actual fighting.
They won critical battles – for example at Battle of Afabet in March 1988, described by the historian, Basil Davidson as the most significant victory for any liberation movement since the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu.
It was – by any comparison – an extraordinary victory. Some 15,000 Eritreans took on over 20,000 Ethiopians, armed and advised by the Soviet Union. The EPLF won, apparently losing 125 fighters while killing 18,000 of the enemy who were trapped in a valley by a well-planned ambush.
This, and other victories, led to the ecstatic entry into Asmara by victorious Eritrean forces in 1991.
The EPLF fighters appeared invincible – and certainly thought they had no equal in the Horn.
Defeat in the 1998 – 2000 border war
This attitude laid the ground for the catastrophe of the 1998 – 2000 border war with Ethiopia.
It should not be forgotten that this war appeared at one time to be going in Eritrea’s favour, as it inflicted appalling casualties on its Ethiopian foes.
The May 2000 Ethiopian offensive and the fall of Barentu
In May 2000 Ethiopia launched an attack which broke Eritrea’s resistance. This account is provided by Fiona Lortan of the Pretoria Institute of Security Studies. Her report of the final days of the border war is reproduced at length to remind readers of the scale of the defeat.
“Ethiopia’s May-June 2000 offensive was executed in three phases. On 12 May 2000, two days before Ethiopian elections, Ethiopia launched an attack on the western front across the Mereb-Setit River. Once again Eritrea’s defences were found wanting, and Ethiopian forces penetrated deep into Eritrean territory. Given the fact that Ethiopia had already taken the western front at Badme in February 1999, most military observers had expected that any new attack would most likely be concentrated on the central front. This is where Eritrean forces were concentrated. The surprise element was the stroke of genius in Ethiopia’s military strategy, and partly reflected the important role played by former Dergue officers who had been recalled into the army to help co-ordinate strategy.
“Ethiopia realised that it could not dislodge Eritrean forces in a frontal trench war, and that its previous failed attempts of March 1999 would merely be repeated. Thus, Ethiopia’s strategy was to attack through western Eritrea, where Eritrean defences were weak, and then to threaten the Zalembessa front from the rear.
“On 18 May 2000, within a week of launching its offensive, Ethiopian troops broke through Eritrean defences on the western front, pushing beyond the borders into Eritrea and sending Eritrea’s army into further disarray with a two-pronged attack. By capturing the garrison town of Barentu, Ethiopian troops cut off Eritrea’s supply lines to its troops on the western front and effectively captured the entire south-west corner of Eritrea.
“Eritrea, realising it could no longer hold on to the western front with its supply lines cut, abandoned Barentu in what the Eritrean government termed a ‘strategic retreat’. This was an age-old tactic of the Eritrean army, which had allowed it to remain intact throughout 30 years of struggle against the Ethiopian government — ‘stay alive to fight another day’. The situation this time, however, was very different from a liberation war.
“Having taken the western front, the Ethiopian forces then turned their attention to the central front, moving along the route from Barentu toward Mendefera in a manoeuvre that threatened to trap the Eritrean forces in a pincer movement. Having made this move, Ethiopia threatened Zalembessa from the front, in another pincer movement, forcing Eritrea to withdraw from this most symbolic town.
“Even here, surprise was an important element in Ethiopia’s strategy. Ethiopia attacked on the western flank of the central front, which Eritrea had discounted because of the tough terrain — the ridge rises to 2 854 metres above sea level. For the first time in the war, Ethiopia was able to translate its offensive position into superior mobility, and Eritrea’s static defence was unable to cope.
“Eritrea withdrew from Zalembessa on 24 May 2000, 13 days after Ethiopia launched its offensive. The following day, Isaias issued an all-fronts order to withdraw from the disputed territories. But, despite this withdrawal, Ethiopia refused to stop. Instead, it attacked further into Eritrea on the central front, as well as on the eastern, Bure/Assab front, leading to claims by Eritrea that the border dispute had never been the real issue, but that Ethiopia’s real agenda was to recolonise Eritrea or, at the very least, to capture Assab.
“On 29 May, Isaias issued an all-fronts order to Eritrean forces to withdraw 30 kilometres. This amounted to a capitulation to Ethiopian demands that Eritrea withdraw from all disputed territory before any cease-fire agreement could be considered. Ethiopia announced its withdrawal from western Eritrea on 30 May, claiming it had achieved its military aims of expelling Eritrean forces from the disputed territory. But, this did not herald the immediate end of the fighting, and Eritrea’s claims that Ethiopia’s purported ‘withdrawal’ was, in fact, a response to Eritrea’s regrouping of its forces appeared to be confirmed over the next few days, as heavy fighting occurred at Senafe, on the central front well inside Eritrean territory, and on the eastern front at Bure.
“Despite the regrouping of Eritrea’s forces and a seeming return to military stalemate, Ethiopia clearly had the upper hand politically and diplomatically. Ethiopia’s initial demand in the peace negotiations, that Eritrea withdraw its forces from disputed territories as a precondition to cease-fire and final acceptance of the Framework Agreement, had been achieved through military means which meant that Ethiopia would have to increase its demands in the final peace agreement.
“On 1 June, Ethiopia said it wanted ‘international guarantees’ before it would withdraw from Eritrean soil. Eritrea, meanwhile, scoffed at Ethiopian claims that the war was over, saying a cease-fire was impossible until all Ethiopian forces had withdrawn from its territory. Ethiopia held all the cards, however, and Eritrea, desperate to secure peace, found its bargaining position severely weakened. It could not afford to continue fighting, as this could threaten its armed forces and ultimately its very existence.”
Invincible no longer
Whatever Eritreans thought about the defeat, it was clear that they were no longer invincible. It was a hard lesson, which cost many, many lives.
In the wake of the war there were intense debates inside the ruling party – by this time renamed the PFDJ.
These were led by the G15, which included key party members, who had been by Isaias’s side throughout most of the war of liberation. They included people like Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo, Haile Woldetensae, Mesfin Hagos, Aster Fissehatsion and Haile Menherious.
Matters came to a head when they released an open letter to PFDJ members in May 2001, accusing President Isaias of stifling debate and not living up to the promises of freedom and democracy that the EPLF had made to the Eritrean people.
This is the public view. But there is another story which goes something like this.
The G15 also challenged Isaias for his role in conducting the war. They accused him of interfering in the work of his top military commanders and of taking direct control of the fighting – something he avoided doing during the war of liberation.
Some go further: saying that it was only when the liberation commanders came out of retirement and re-asserted their role in the fighting that the rout of Eritrean forces was halted and a semblance of order restored.
It is hard to find an accurate assessment of exactly what took place ahead of the May 2000 reversal, but there are some indications.
Undermining Eritrea’s military capability
This did not happen rapidly but slowly, as President Isaias constantly intervened to manipulate a military that he came to distrust.
Ambassador Andebrhan Welde Giorgis gives this explanation of the defeat in the border war in his book: “Eritrea at a crossroad – a narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope” (2014)
“The overall military balance, in terms of the size of the armed forces as well as surveillance, intelligence, and logistics capability, favoured Ethiopia. Further, several egregious factors undercut the once legendary prowess and combat effectiveness of the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), the proud heir of the Eritrean Peoples’s Liberation Army. These included: inability to professionalise the EDF and modernise its command and control structures, assets, and logistics; rapid turnover of ministers of defence and chiefs-of-staff; decommissioning many capable junior commanders and to remove ‘rebellious’ officers; and dismantling the once illustrious liberation military intelligence apparatus (Enda 72).” page 526
In other words, President Isaias interfered in the role of the military, removing the capable and the challenging ministers and officers, while failing to invest in its ability to change and respond.
Andebrhan then gives concrete examples: “…four different ministers of defence and four different chiefs-of-staff during the short interlude of peace between the liberation of Eritrea and the border war with Ethiopia. In addition, the ministry of defence had to function in makeshift headquarters that moved from one rural location to another. Beyond the destabilising effect of the lack of permanent military headquarters and the frequent reshuffling of ministers and chiefs-of-staff, incessant presidential interference dented the EDF’s unity of command and reduced the minister of defence and the chief-of-staff into mere figureheads without effective power or influence.” [Emphasis added]
The old guard steps forward
It was at this critical juncture, after the fall of Barentu in May 2000, with Eritrean forces being routed on the battlefield, that the old guard – the former commanders who had been sidelined by Isaias – stepped forward.
This is best chronicled by Dan Connell in his book: “Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners.” (2005)
In a lengthy interview with Connell, Haile Woldensae ‘Dure’ explained what happened on 12 May, as the scale of the Barentu defeat became apparent.
Haile explained how members of the Eritrean public and administrators had been warning that Eritrean lines had been probed and reconnoitered by Ethiopian intelligence teams, but nothing had been done to counter this. When the Eritrean lines were broken, the troops and the public were “not only surprised but felt that we had been betrayed by the government. And when the retreat from Barentu came, everybody panicked…Almost everybody was saying: ‘Oh, this president should resign. That was a public statement. And even many cares would say this.” (page 116).
At this critical juncture the old-time leadership, many of whom had been sidelined or told to stay at home, voluntarily came to the key command post from which General Sebhat was commanding the war. Isaias was there too. Among those who arrived at the command post were Sebhat Ephrem, Petros Solomon, Ogbe Abraha and Behrane Gebrezghier.
Haile takes up the story. “So when Isaias told them we are retreating from Barentu, they told him: ‘Okay, now we have to sit down and discuss and look at all the different options we have because now it has become very dangerous.'” But Isaias refused – instead retreating to his office. “I don’t want to bother my head with brainstorming,” Haile recalls Isaias as saying. (page 117).
Allegations of Treason
Connell sums up the situation like this: “amid the chaos, the issue of Isaias stepping down arose as one among many military and political options, but [Haile] insists that there was never a group position that could be interpreted as an effort to bring this about. For their part, the president’s supporters argue that these officials not only pushed the idea but that they passed an offer to remove Isaias to Ethiopian officials through American and Italian intermediaries, making this a full-fledged coup plot.”
Connell continues: “The unsubstantiated charge is the basis for insinuations that Isaias’s critics are ‘traitors’. Unfortunately, the details of what transpired during these terrible days are known only to those who were there – many of whom are now in prison. Absent a trial or a public inquiry, it is impossible to know the truth, as is the case with so much of what currently roils the Eritrean community.” (page 10).
With the help of the veteran commanders the Eritrean military regrouped and fought on. The Ethiopian advance, which at one time had threatened Asmara, was halted on the orders of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (not a decision that was universally popular in Ethiopia.)
It was only on 8 August 2000, two months after a ceasefire came into force, that the issues came before the Eritrean ruling party. They were first discussed by the PFDJ Central Committee and then the National Assembly in September. These debates saw his disillusioned former colleagues attempting to hold Isaias to account for the mistakes he had made by his direct interventions in the military strategy.
For a year there was an intense internal battle inside the PFDJ. In May 2001 the president’s critics – by this time called the Group of 15 or G15 – published an open letter to PFDJ members, accusing Isaias of stifling debate, democracy and damaging the country.
Isaias and his supporters fought back. They accused the critics of treason: of going to the Americans and Italians at the height of the crisis following the Ethiopian breakthrough at Barentu, and offering to topple Isaias as the price for peace. These allegations were made by Alamin Mohammed Said, in an interview in August 2001.
“During that decisive moment when the Eritrean people and their armed forces were putting up heroic struggle in the defence of national unity and sovereignty, these individuals took a defeatist stand. Right after the Eritrean withdrawal from Barentu, these individuals argued that we could not stop the TPLF offensive. Besides, they claimed that the ouster from office of President Isaias, they advocated the resignation of the President. The group went further argued that in case the TPLF succeeded to take control of the country, they would commit atrocities on the people, and hence we should appeal to the United Nations or the USA to assume control over the State of Eritrea.” (page 201 – 202)
In a response on 11 August 2001, the president’s critics (by now the Group of 15 or G15) categorically rejected the allegations. “Not a single individual from the 15 accused said anything like the above. If there is anyone who has evidence that states otherwise, we call on them to present their evidence.”
But it was all too late. President Isaias had mobilised his forces and in dawn raids on the homes of the G15, on 18/19 September 2001, the government arrested 11 of the original group of 15.
Some, like Haile Menkerios and Mesfin Hagos, were out of the country at the time and escaped arrest. They have continued to keep the torch of Eritrean freedom alight. The rest have rotted in Eritrea’s prisons. Never charged, never brought before a court.
The current war in Tigray
The war in Tigray, which erupted in November 2000, is one of many wars which Isaias has waged against his neighbours.
He has – since independence in 1991 – fought with Djibouti, Yemen and Ethiopia, while sending forces into the Democratic Republic of Congo (another disaster) and backing rebel movements in Somalia and Sudan.
War and instability are President Isaias’s modus operandi.
But the war in Tigray is not going well. Despite repeated round-ups of new recruits, which has deprived families across Eritrea of their youth (and some not-so-young) the Eritrean public have been kept in the dark.
No-one outside of Eritrea is under any illusion of the scale and the depth of the Eritrean involvement. The USA, UN, UK and the European Union have all publicly stated that Eritrea troops are inside Tigray and that they have participated in many terrible atrocities. This is confirmed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
President Joe Biden has sent a close ally, Senator Coons to Addis Ababa. He was welcomed on his arrival today [Sunday] by Ambassador Gebeyehu Ganga, American Affairs D/G of at Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mr. Feyzel, Chief of Protocol.
The arrival of Senator Coons underlines what a priority this is for President Biden. As the White House put it: U.S. President Joe Biden is deeply concerned and highly engaged on the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The president is deeply concerned and highly engaged on this issue,” Psaki said.
The outline of what President Biden is looking for were spelled out by the his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.
“A cessation of hostilities, the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces, and an end to the Ethiopian government’s deployment of Amhara regional forces in Tigray are essential first steps,” Blinken said in a statement. “There needs to be accountability for all those responsible for human rights abuses and atrocities, whether they be in the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces, Eritrea Defense Forces, or Amhara regional forces.”
At the crossroads
The war in Tigray is at a crossroads. Either Eritrean forces will leave Ethiopia or they will not.
The Ethiopian military are already unhappy about their presence on Ethiopian soil. So is the government appointed administration in Tigray. And the Tigrayan elected government and their armed forces are – of course – fighting hard to defeat the Eritreans on the battlefield.
The question is whether the combined pressures from the US and other international partners, together with the situation on the battlefield, will be sufficient to allow Senator Coons to achieve a breakthrough. This would – almost certainly – involve the African Union which has already been attempting to mediate in the Tigray conflict.
Any settlement might leave certain areas (such as Badme and parts of Irob) in Eritrean hands, since these were awarded to Eritrea after the 1998 – 2000 border war by the Boundary Commission. If this is the price of a settlement then there would also be areas of Eritrea that would also have to change hands, since the Boundary Commission awarded them to Ethiopia.
But there is another possibility.
It is that Prime Minister Abiy is so beholden to President Isaias that he cannot (or will not) agree to the American conditions for a settlement. Ethiopia may insist that Eritrean forces should remain inside its sovereign territory, even if this is not stated publicly.
If this happens then the opportunity for peace that Senator Coons offers will have been squandered. The outlook will be grim indeed and predicting the future is next to impossible.
The Ethiopian army (already unhappy about the Eritrean presence) might openly challenge Prime Minister Abiy’s orders. Fighting could erupt between Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. The unity of Ethiopia itself might be undermined and the empire created by Menelik II in the nineteenth century could dissolve.
The other possibility is that Prime Minister Abiy agrees to the American terms and orders President Isaias to withdraw from Tigray. President Isaias will have to decide whether or not to accept this decision. It is hard to see how he could resist.
If Isaias is forced to withdraw then he will have led his nation into yet another defeat.
Thousands of Eritrean lives will have been squandered. Eritrea’s good name has been permanently besmirched by the atrocities they have committed in Axum and so many other towns and villages.
Will President Isaias survive such a reversal? There are already calls for his removal.