What are the war aims of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in Tigray?

By Martin Plaut

The Tigray war has turned into an all-out conflict, pitting Tigrayan forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation front (TPLF) against Ethiopian federal troops, the Eritrean army, Amhara militia and – as revealed this week – Somali soldiers.

Despite what would seem to be overwhelming odds against them, the Tigrayans appear to be holding their own in large areas of the region.

Map by Ethiopia Maps

Both Eritrea and Somalia routinely deny any involvement in the war, but the evidence of their presence is strong. 

On 8 December, Reuters reported that “a U.S. government source and five regional diplomats” told them the US believes Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia. The EU and UK support this assessment.

A senior Ethiopian general confirmed that Eritrean troops were in Tigray. Major General Belay Seyoum, head of the Northern Command, described the presence of foreign forces on Ethiopian soil as “painful”.

The Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somali alliance

The alliance has its origins in the ending of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Much of the groundwork  for this rapprochement was done by the United States, with Donald Yamamoto playing a critical role behind the scenes, although Washington could hardly have envisaged where this would lead.

On 8–9 July 2018 Prime Minister Abiy visited Asmara to seal the peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In the same month the ice between Eritrea and Somalia was broken, with a three day visit by Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to Asmara. It was the first visit by a Somali president to Eritrea since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The two nations have not had diplomatic ties in nearly 15 years.

Abdinur Mohamed, a spokesman for the Somali president, said on Twitter that the country “is ready to write a new chapter of its relations with Eritrea.” Economic and security concerns are at the top of the agenda, as well as “regional issues of interest to both countries,” Eritrea’s information ministry said.

There were further bilateral visits in August 2018 and April 2019. This culminated in a summit between the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia on 27 January 2020 held in Asmara.

Presidents Farmajo and Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy agreed to a Joint Plan of Action for 2020 and beyond.

The communique committed the three leaders to consolidate “peace, stability, and security as well as promoting economic and social development. They also agreed to bolster their joint efforts to foster effective regional cooperation.”

There was no press conference at which the details of the agreement might be explained. The public was left in the dark about what the leaders were planning.

Further 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.

Within three weeks, on 4 November 2020, the Tigray war erupted. Is it credible that the war was not discussed, and a strategy agreed between the three leaders at these meetings?

War aims

The first priority of the alliance is to remove the Tigrayan administration from Tigray. President Isaias has long loathed the TPLF. This goes back to the 1970’s and 80’s when the Eritreans and Tigrayans fell out over ideology, tactics and strategy.

Prime Minister Abiy also wants to rid himself of the vestiges of power of the previous Ethiopian government, which the TPLF controlled. He is attempting to reverse their policy of “ethnic federalism.”

Beyond this, outlines of a plan were revealed when information was leaked about a meeting held by President Isaias just prior to the outbreak of the war.

According to reports citing well-placed sources, President Isaias brought together his closest confidantes on the eve of the Tigray war. He said that Eritrea had to accept that it had a small economy and a lengthy Red Sea coast that it cannot patrol on its own. He suggested forming some sort of “union” with Ethiopia, at least in terms of economic co-operation and maritime security.

If accurate, President Isaias appeared to have echoed Abiy’s grandiose dream of re-establishing the old empire-state of Ethiopia. This includes suggestions that the Ethiopian navy could be reconstructed – a proposal supported by France. This would require the use of Eritrean ports which were once home to the Imperial Ethiopian Navy.

The idea of some form of union may not be as far-fetched as it would appear, despite the fact Isaias previously led Eritrea’s decades-long war to gain independence from Ethiopia.

It should not be forgotten that when President Isaias made his first visit to Addis Ababa in July 2018 he made what many Eritreans regarded as an extraordinary offer: for a joint administration of both countries.

“This is a historic day for all of us,” President Isaias Afwerki said. “Anyone who thinks the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia are separated is considered as naïve from now on.”  In a speech, Abiy said the countries had agreed to develop together and that Isaias had offered to help “lead this great nation.” He added that “we have finally found our sister nation after many years of hiding.”

This vision – of co-suzerainty – or a revised form of federation, appears to be behind the current conflict.

Regional blocs

In September 2020 Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia held their third trilateral meeting. They proposed to form a new regional bloc, which has been referred to as the “Horn of Africa Cooperation”.

The flaw in this proposal was commented on at the time. “Creating an economic and political bloc may seem a solution to bring peace and boost trade. But it risks sparking distrust from other East African countries, and with the other regional body, IGAD,” the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which Eritrea has long distrusted.

The Horn of Africa Cooperation could be linked to the wider ambition of the Saudis to extend their influence in the Horn of Africa. The “Council of the Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden” was launched in January 2020. This new Arab-African alliance has eight members: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Jordan and Yemen.

Conclusion

These plans depend on succeeding to crush the Tigrayans. At the moment this appears a distant prospect, despite Prime Minister Abiy’s assertion in November that it was little more than a “law enforcement”  operation that would soon be over.

If the war goes badly, and Eritrea, Somalia and the rest of Ethiopia become sucked into the conflict, it could become a quagmire that threatens the future of Ethiopia itself.  This was the warning from senior African experts at the US Institute of Peace.

“As members of the bipartisan senior study group on peace and security in the Red Sea arena, we are watching with grave concern the situation in Ethiopia. While many of the facts remain unclear, the risks of escalation are certain: Intrastate or interstate conflict would be catastrophic for Ethiopia’s people and for the region and would pose a direct threat to international peace and security. The acceleration of polarization amid violent conflict would also mark the death knell for the country’s nascent reform effort that began two years ago and the promise of a democratic transition that it heralded.

As we cautioned in the study group’s Final Report and Recommendations released on October 29, the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history. Ethiopia is five times the size of pre-war Syria by population, and its breakdown would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen. As Ethiopia is currently the leading Troop Contributing Country to the United Nations and the African Union peacekeeping missions in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, its collapse would also significantly impact the efforts by both to mitigate and resolve others conflicts in the Horn of Africa.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/in-somalia-mothers-fear-sons-were-sent-to-ethiopia-conflict-soldiers-somalia-ethiopia-children-mothers-b1791116.html

Report: “Hundreds of Somali troops used as cannon-fodder in Ethiopia’s Tigray War”

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_Eritrea%E2%80%93Ethiopia_summit

[3] https://www.dw.com/en/somali-president-begins-three-day-visit-in-eritrea-as-diplomatic-relations-thaw/a-44865801

[4] https://eritreahub.org/timeline-how-the-president-isaias-prime-minister-abiy-relationship-developed

[5] https://africa.cgtn.com/2020/01/27/somalia-ethiopia-and-eritrea-pledge-joint-anti-terror-war/

[6] https://villasomalia.gov.so/en/heads-of-state-and-government-meeting-between-eritrea-ethiopia-and-somalia-joint-communique/

[7] https://eritreahub.org/is-isaias-looking-for-a-final-confrontation-with-his-tigrayan-enemies

[8] https://www.radioshabelle.com/somali-president-begins-two-day-working-visit-to-eritrea/

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pi4y1aBlUcs

[10] https://shabait.com/2020/10/15/president-isaias-returns-home-concluding-working-visit-to-ethiopia/

[11] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-france-idUSKBN1QT2W3

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_Navy

[13] https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-eritrea-ethiopia-visit-peace-deal-20180714-story.html

[14] https://www.theafricareport.com/40994/horn-of-africa-cooperation-mixed-responses-to-new-regional-bloc/

[15] https://eritreahub.org/saudi-arabia-announces-establishment-of-red-sea-gulf-of-aden-council

[16] https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=d698be2f-4444-4843-aecb-3ed070974cef

12 comments

  1. Fantastic analysis. I find most of the predictions to be quite realistic. I have information that there are preparations at 4 Killo in Addis for some type of the start for probably a union between Eritrea and Ethiopia. They will start with some types of dramas around the port of Assab. I would not be much surprised if the two Dictators come out with the drama soon.

    If Isaias is planning to lead through proxy the big horn of Africa, what are his plans for Tigray. Does he really believe he can cleans the whole ethnicity from Earth?

  2. Mr Farda, INSA agent , and all of you take part in this campaign as fullfledged cyber miltias since Colonel Abiy came to power.We have the honor to inform you that Amhara mass media and ESAT jointly issued your honorary doctrate as of Today and you must send 250 Dollars for shipping your degree .

    We acknowledge the fact that many of you were working hard for a long time , probably as of 1997 .All your efforts will pay you off and face the music sooner or later.

    tenchachachu amhara elites congarulations for your success in dismantling tigray with an extensive support from Somalia, UAE and Eritrean leader, your uncle from Gonder.

    Many of eritreans were happy to celebrate epiphany with you . Did you show them where many of your forefathers killed kids and women for Devil to drink their blood? You are born with magic and your people choose to doo any social activities after consulting debteras and local magicians . Amhara region is dominated by superstition.

    Your churches are overcroweded by men and women who come to talk to debteras and magicians who disguised themselves as nuns, monks and hermits while they recite book of satan and satanic version of little dog-eared books. Most of them arrive in remote churches to get their destiny foretold and win victory over people living next door.

    jealousy , hate , savagery and superstiton and lies are the identity of amhara elites for years to come .People will identify you with those traits who you are and to whom you belong as a tribal memeber due to your barbaric act not we . A disgraced land and country as of 2021!!

  3. #abiy and #isias have a clear agenda ( an unjust one at that ) against #tigrepeople. What the heck is Farmajo’s agenda? Since when did the #somalipeople and #tigrepeople became enemies? Somalians as a general, are thankful for #tigrepeople as they are the ones who removed the yoke of imperial-colonialism from the shoulders of their brothern #somali-ethiopians. Doesn’t he understand that the #amhara puppet #abiy is moving earth and sky to return his kin #somali-ethiopians to their prior INFRIORITY-STATUS.

    The esteemed #somali-culture respects the pay-back of good deeds done unto them before. #somalipeople are brothers to #tigrepeople. That is unarguable historical fact!

    I didn’t follow much about #farmajo. I though he was doing good job about the problem at his quarter – the creation of Somali state. Now I see for what he is really – one more autocrat in East Africa. His actions do no represent the #somalipeople and in particular he is NUMBER ONE ENEMY of the millions of the #somali-ethiopians whose extential human right – equality – he is opposing. What an unimaginable authorocity! What did the innocent #somali-ethiopians do to him?

    #farmajo will not get away with this. Top officials in his so called gov’t are already questioning this never expected act of treason. Read this
    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/in-somalia-mothers-fear-sons-were-sent-to-ethiopia-conflict-soldiers-somalia-ethiopia-children-mothers-b1791116.html

  4. Believe me these street boys do not think with their minds. If they did not have some education they would end up as murderers, killers, robbers and rappers.

    When they plan, it is always about what they want and feel instantaneously. They have no power of seeing other people, the country, the neighbors, the culture, the religion and even their family that may be affected. The three countries are unfortunate to have such leaders, but we can also blame on the educated idiots that support them for the same type of personal satisfaction. These people will keep Africa dark and darker for many years to come.

    Imagine, when the Amhara Elites say Ethiopia has been in the dark for the last 27 years based on their personal feelings and far from facts. It is difficult to understand the logics, when they say the TPLF was ethnic, what do they really mean. I know that the TPLF introduced a federal system that is based on ethnicism but the Southern group is made of many. How is the present situation better in regards to bigotry based on ethnicity. The way the Amara elites think is fascinating and would be a subject for research. Projecting their own characters to deionize others is extra ordinary. They accuse the Tigrians for being bigots and racists. Common Amharas in the country always admire tigrians for being hospitable and friendly, but those in diaspora see the Tigrians with their own eye glasses. The fact is, they are working against their own interests by destroying their own Abyssinian brothers. This is exactly what Abiy wants. There is no way I can make these idiots in Diaspora to understand they are selling the legacy of Abesynia to foreign powers like Isaias and Abiy.

    1. Hurrah! An intelligent true colleague pin-pointing the true nature of the autocrats exercising their autocracy at best in East-Africa. You said all – they are not thinking with their minds at all. I definitely agree. Well done Estere!

      As predicted/professed by many knowledgeable thinkers , 2021 is a year of equality and justice all over the world. This has been proved correct so far by the win of Joe Biden regardless of the unimaginable obstacles put in his path!

      Had the East African autocrats (#abiy, #farmajo and #isais ) been thinking with their minds, at this equality and justice time, they would never have congurated to think of returning the hundred’s of years marginalized people of Ethiopia to their past colonization period: This is the pillar of the war on-going in #tigre. #abiy and #isias have their own reasons – #tigre is the obstacle to their interests. The one I am wondering about is the Somali one – #farmajo. Since when did the Somalis and Tigreans became enemies? He doesn’t remember that #tigrepeople are the ones who lifted the yoke of colonialism from the shoulders of his brothern #somali-ethiopians.No wonder as he is not thinking with his mind – as you attested!

      The world sees clearly what is going behind the blockade-curtain and are already taking steps to stop it!

      1. Continuation of Estre reply

        About those people whom need prove to the positive contribution of #tplf led collusion let the following few simple proves suffice them.

        • All the marginalized peoples of Ethiopia got their first glimpse of equality for over two hundred years.

        • Economy grew more than the magical Asian one. Look up the world bank report.

        • For federal unit growth go and visit Jigjiga – the capital city of #somali-ethiopians

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