The brooding, calculating presence of President Isaias hangs over the current peace agreement between the Ethiopian government and Tigray. From as early as 2018 he was the driving force in plotting the war in Tigray, but what is he planning now?
Of course, no-one can be certain, but we can read the signs.
For a start, there are credible reports that the Eritrean forces are still on the offensive in Tigray. The former President of Mekelle University Tweeted just yesterday.
Eritrean forces are on a massive looting, killing & destruction campaign including destroying crop lands & burning piled grasses in many areas throughout Tigray. This is happening after a permanent cessation of hostilities has been signed a week a go at Pretoria
As the respected analyst, Rashid Abdi put it this morning:
Eritrea is not opposed to Pretoria. It helped engineer it. Abiy would not have entered into a pact with Tigray without Afewerki’s consent. We overplay the spoiler role of Eritrea. Asmara is the strategic victor in Tigray. It has eviscerated TPLF, become Ethiopia’s deep state.
What hold does Isaias have over Abiy?
To state the obvious: it is highly unlikely that Tigray would have struggled so hard to resist the repeated offensives it has endured if it only faced Ethiopian troops. But the Tigrayans were fighting the forces of three nations (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia) as well as the militia of several Ethiopian regions.
This was an operation the Abiy and Isaias began planning as early as 2018, after Abiy flew to Asmara and the two nations were reconciled. This was followed by a series of meetings and discussions, culminating in visits by the two leaders to each other’s most important military bases – all before the November 2020 war with Tigray erupted.
So Abiy owes a huge debt to Isaias, but this goes far beyond gratitude.
President Isaias has some key cards up his sleeve. The most important is the number Ethiopian troops currently inside Eritrea. Just before the most recent round of fighting began on 24 August there were reports of large-scale transfers of Ethiopian forces into Eritrea. They went on to fight alongside the Eritreans as they attacked along Tigray’s northern border, and westwards from Shire.
From allies to hostages
The question now is: what will become of the Ethiopian forces inside Eritrea? To see what is likely to develop we need look at the fate of the 5,000 Somali troops that were sent to Eritrea for “training,” only to become caught up in the war in Tigray.
In July this year Somalia’s newly elected president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, visited Asmara. He even went to see his own soldiers.
Despite his best efforts, President Hassan Sheikh was unable to obtain their freedom. They had become hostages – pawns in President Isaias’s long-term game. The Somali leader is due to fly to Eritrea again next week to try to get them released once more.
What will be the fate of the Ethiopians inside Eritrea?
We cannot be certain, but there is one straw in the wind.
It is claimed that some 300 Ethiopian drivers, who were meant to transport the Ethiopian troops home, have been told to leave, but have been forced to abandon their busses inside Eritrea. Some were halted in Tessenei, while transporting Ethiopian troops and injured soldiers back to Gondar.
Does this suggest that the Ethiopian forces will suffer the same fate at the Somalis – trapped as hostages inside Eritrea – to ensure that PM Abiy does what President Isaias wants of him? Only time will tell.