Several developments which have taken place over the last week, all of which are significant.
How they will play out is difficult to say, but consider these:
- The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti made some critical remarks. “By the way if Eritreans were asked they do not like and celebrate the day they left Ethiopia and those abroad says this. There is also the same feeling from the Ethiopian side. Let alone Eritrea, it would be good if we could be one nation our neighbouring countries. The relationship we had with Eritrea, we are one people and one country. This is the result of cold War politics cold.” This statement needs checking, but if it is accurate it would appear to be important. When did an Ethiopian government spokesman last talk about the possibility of Eritrea and Ethiopia being “One people and one country?” The Eritrean diaspora is deeply worried by what this may mean for the independence of Eritrea, for which they fought for 30 years.
- Rashid Abdi, the well regarded Somali commentator, put out this Tweet BREAKING: Credible sources reporting Farmajo plans to head to Addis Ababa where three Horn states – Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea plan to sign a mutual security and defence pact.
- Assena TV reports that a delegation led by General Filipos Woldeyohannes, Eritrean Chief of Staff, is due to visit Addis to discuss issues including the opening of Assab port to Ethiopia.
- A week ago the Bloomberg news agency reported that the UN was warning that Eritrean forces had crossed into the al-Fashaga triangle, which is disputed between Sudan and Ethiopia. #Eritrea‘s forces are present inside the al-Fashqa triangle, which straddles the border between #Ethiopia and #Sudan, the UN says. Armaments including tanks and anti-aircraft batteries have recently been deployed to the border region.
- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said today that there would be severe regional consequences if Egypt’s water supply was impacted by the giant hydropower dam being built by Ethiopia on the Nile. “I’m not threatening anyone here, our dialogue is always reasonable and rational,” Sisi said in a response to a question about any risk to Egypt. “I say once again no one can take a drop from Egypt’s water and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.”
What appears to be about to take place is a meeting in Addis between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia at which important defence and military agreements could be signed.
This may include a deal allowing the Ethiopian navy to resume its activities from Eritrean ports. A defence pact would strengthen Ethiopia in its negotiations with Egypt, which appear to be coming to a head.
Below is the background to these events.
“Eritrean troops to be integrated into Ethiopian army and talks on Federation to commence soon” – report
The following report has been received from inside Eritrea. It is reproduced verbatim, with analysis below.
“1. No plans to pull Eritrean troops from Ethiopia – the press release by the Ethiopian government is propaganda and far from the truth. Eritrean forces will not leave Tigray.
2. What has been agreed is for 12 Division currently in Tigray to be assimilated with Ethiopian Defence Force immediately. This will be followed by the rest of Eritrean forces coming under Ethiopian command.
3. All Eritrean army uniforms in Tigray will change to Ethiopian Defence Force immediately.
4. One of Abiy’s delegates was Dr Abraham, security and spy expert, who will be responsible for the operations of both countries. He will align the necessary technological and satellite infrastructure of both countries.
5. On the Eritrean side, Brigadier General Simon Gebredingel has been assigned to work with Dr Abraham.
6. Current Eritrean Army Generals will be forced into retirement and replaced by Ethiopians.
7. Federation talks are said to start soon.”
Other reports of no withdrawal
This is not the only report suggesting that this is the strategy hammered out during Prime Minister Abiy’s two day visit to Asmara and his talks with President Isaias on 25 and 26th March.
During the visit the Prime Minister tweeted a statement that: “Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border.”
A Tigrayan – Hailu Kebede – posted this message questioning Prime Minister’s statement:
“The genocidal war being undertaken on the people of Tigray will continue in an intensified manner the coming days.1. An Eritrean diplomat stationed in Addis Ababa, in a side talk with an African diplomat regarding the statement that was given yesterday, has been heard saying “its to distract the westerners until we accomplish our main objectives”.2. Information from trusted sources indicates that reparations are underway for Amhara special forces to be brought under ENDF and having been assigned a general is to travel along the border areas between Tigray and Eritrea (to send out a message that Ethiopia is reclaiming its borders) and engage in fighting on that side; Eritrean soldiers, on the other hand, are to fully engage in fighting inside Tigray and Amhara.Our people should realize that complete genocide is waged on it and make the necessary preparations accordingly.”
“You are our leader!”
It is important to remember that when President Isaias made his first visit to Addis Ababa in July 2018 to meet Prime Minister Abiy he made remarks that left most Eritreans speechless.
But how did this come about? How did Eritrea, which fought from 1961 – 1991 for its freedom and independence from Ethiopia, come to consider a federation with its former enemy?
Towards an Ethiopian-Eritrean Federation
On 8–9 July 2018 Prime Minister Abiy visited Asmara to seal the peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
In just over two years President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy made nine official visits to each other’s capitals, or went on joint delegations to other states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Other meetings were held by senior officials from both countries.
Critical meetings took place in the run-up to the outbreak of war in Tigray:
- Prime Minister Abiy made a rare visit to the Eritrea main training base at Sawa in July 2020.
- Somali President Farmajo arrived in Asmara on 4 October.
- President Isaias went to Ethiopia on 14-15 October. This trip included seeing the Ethiopian air-force base at Bishofu.
On 4 November 2020, just three weeks after Isaias’s visit to Bishofu, the Tigray war broke out.
President Isaias gathered his closest confidants to discuss Federation before the Tigray war began
Just prior to the conflict erupting in Tigray President Isaias brought his closest political and military advisers together for an intense discussion on how to proceed.
The president told them that the country had to accept that it has a small and not very viable economy and a lengthy Red Sea coast, which Eritrean cannot patrol on its own.
He is reported to have suggested that some sort of “union” with Ethiopia might be possible, at least in terms of economic co-operation and maritime security.
In so doing Isaias echoed Prime Minister Abiy’s grandiose dream of re-establishing the old empire-state of Ethiopia. Part of this vision involved a potential Ethiopian Navy.
Re-establishing the Ethiopian Navy in Eritrea
In Marcy 2019 France signed an agreement to re-build the Ethiopian navy, as Reuters reported.
“On a four-day visit to the Horn of Africa, President Emmanuel Macron is looking to break from France’s colonial history on the continent and nurture relationships in a region where it has lagged behind in recent years.
Macron wants to leverage a mixture of Paris’ soft power in culture and education and its military know-how to give it a foothold at a time when Ethiopia is opening up.
“This unprecedented defence cooperation agreement provides a framework… and notably opens the way for France to assist in establishing an Ethiopian naval component,” Macron told a news conference alongside Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on state TV: “We built one of the strongest ground and air force in Africa… we should build our naval force capacity in the future.”
In 1955, the Imperial Ethiopian Navy was founded, with its primary base—the Haile Selassie I Naval Base—in the Eritrean port of Massawa. By the early 1960s workshops and other facilities were under construction at Massawa to give it complete naval base capabilities.
The Imperial Ethiopian Navy established four bases: Massawa was the site of the naval headquarters and enlisted training facilities; the naval air station and naval academy were at Asmara; Assab was the site of a naval station, enlisted training facilities, and a repair dock; and there was a naval station and communications station on the Dahlak Islands in the Red Sea near Massawa.
Former Ethiopian diplomat Birhanemeskel Abebe speculated that strategic and geopolitical security concerns could be driving the navy plan.
“Ethiopia’s right to use international waters demands it has a naval base,” he told the BBC’s Newsday programme. The plan, Mr Birhanemeskel said, was to push for the “unification of the Horn of Africa as an economic bloc and the navy is part of that project”.
Economic benefits of Federation
If Tigray can be defeated then President Isaias could reopen the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia once more.
Re-opening the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea did take place after the peace deal was signed in 2018, to the enormous economic benefit of both nations. But it was soon closed again – as it benefitted the President’s sworn enemies, the Tigrayans, and allowed Eritreans to escape much more easily to UN refugee camps in Tigray that was home to nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees.
If Tigray can be defeated then President Isaias could reopen the border once more. At the moment this is far from being achieved.
Federation would also facilitate the development of the Danakali potash deposit – one of the world’s largest.
The trade magazine, Mining. Com provided this analysis of the scheme in January 2019.
“The project location has its pros and cons. On one hand, being so close to the Red Sea coast, makes it one of the world’s most accessible potash deposits, with mineralization beginning at 16 metres, which also makes it the world’s shallowest. Additionally, its proximity to ports will provide easy access to Asian markets.
Colluli is also by the border with Ethiopia, with which Eritrea held one of Africa’s deadliest border wars. In June 2018, the ruling coalition of Ethiopia (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, agreed to fully implement the peace treaty signed with Eritrea in 2000, with peace declared by both parties in July 2018.
Colluli contains at least 1.1 billion tonnes of potash, enough for at least 200 years of production, according to the latest figures published by the company.”
Developing this resource would naturally be of enormous benefit to both Eritrea and Ethiopia. But establishing a new port in the Anfile bay area would be very costly. A federation of the two countries would make this much easier.
It is too soon to be certain that Eritrean forces will remain inside Ethiopia and that Federation is on the cards.
But the evidence above indicates that such developments would be in line with plans laid in the run-up to the Tigray war. There would also be direct benefits for the governments of both Ethiopia and Eritrea.
At the same time, it is worth asking whether the Ethiopian military would wish to see Eritreans integrated into their armed forces, given the atrocities associated with the Eritrean troops. And Federation with Ethiopia would horrify many Eritreans.
The Tigray war could see the transformation of the Horn of Africa.