The Tigray war threatens to transform the Horn of Africa

2020-11-12 22:33:59 Written by  Martin Plaut Published in English Articles Read 167 times

Ethiopia, Eritrea and the war in Tigray

Martin Plaut

The conflict in the northern Ethiopian state of Tigray is a little more than a week old, but already the casualties are mounting, with the war threatening the future of the region.

Fighting appears to be particularly severe in the West, with the government https://www.fanabc.com/english/defense-force-captures-humera-airport/" style="box-sizing: inherit; background-color: transparent; color: rgb(34, 170, 221); text-decoration: underline;">claiming to have taken Humera airport. All transport to and from Tigray have been cut and humanitarian agencies are deeply worried about the fate of tens of thousands of refugees, internally displaced people and the poor – all of whom rely on food aid and other supplies.

Some 10,000 refugees have already fled to Sudan – up to 200,000 may follow.

Ethiopian refugees crossing into Sudan WFP

Information from the region is severely curtailed. Internet and telecommunications were severed on 4th November, as the crisis was escalating.

Ethiopian media are under severe government pressure about what they cover, and the editor of the Addis Standard newspaper has been arrested.

One thing appears clear. This is unlikely to be a brief conflict, or produce an easy victory for Prime Minister Abiy. As Reuters reported, the Tigrayans will be no push over. “The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, is battle-hardened from both the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the guerrilla war to topple dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. TPLF forces and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant hardware, experts say.”

Appeals from the international community –  from the UN Secretary General  and, the European Union – have so far gained little traction.

Ethiopia has ruled out dialogue or mediation, setting tough conditions for peace.

Redwan Hussein, spokesman of a newly-established State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia said that peace talks are only possible with Tigray’s local government if military hardware is destroyed, federal officials are released from custody and leaders of the region are arrested.

President Isaias’s war aims 

If there is only limited hard news from Ethiopia there has been silence from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s key ally – Eritrea. The government tolerates no independent journalism of any kind. The Committee to Protect Journalists rates it the most censored nation in the world. Even diplomats are restricted in their movements – requiring special permission to leave the capital, Asmara.

So what can be said for certain?

Firstly, that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki have transformed relations between the two governments. Prime Minister Abiy’s historic visit to Asmara in July 2018 ended nearly two decades of hostility that followed the bitter border war between the two countries (1988 – 2000). Within days President Isaias was visiting Addis Ababa.

Crowds lined the streets during both visits and President Isaias was ecstatic about his welcome. “Words cannot express the joy we are feeling now. History is being made as we speak.” President Isaias reopened his country’s embassy in Ethiopia and on 18 July Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed commercial airline flights for the first time in two decades.

Since then there have been regular bilateral visits by both leaders. In just over two years the two leaders have made nine official visits to each other’s capitals, or gone on joint delegations to other states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Further meetings have been held by senior officials from both countries.

The most recent visits were the most important.

PM Abiy at Sawa military training camp

In July this year Prime Minister Abiy was taken to Eritrea’s main training base at Sawa.

It was the first time a foreign leader was given this honour.

He inspected the troops and saw a parade of Eritrea’s military hardware.

Then in October President Isaias was given a tour of the Head Quarter of the Ethiopian Air Force in Bishoftu.

This is as far as certainty takes us, but it is not the end of information flows.

Eritreans have widespread links throughout the world, with millions having fled into exile since the war of independence was first launched in the 1960’s. The diaspora is strong and they talk to their friends and relatives back home. So what are they saying?

Just prior to the conflict erupting in Tigray that 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 appears to be echoing Prime Minister Abiy’s grandiose dream of re-establishing the old empire-state of Ethiopia. This idea is not as far-fetched as it would appear, despite the fact that Isaias led Eritrea’s 30 year war of independence from Ethiopia.

Eritrea’s current role in the war

There are numerous informal reports that young Eritreans are being rounded up as conscripts. National Service is not voluntary and the conscripts are forced to participate indefinitely.

Eritreans in the diaspora speak of children picked up and transported without warning to remote locations along the Ethiopian border. Members of the Eritrean opposition are deeply worried about the conflict and have issued an appeal for the international community to act now to halt the bloodshed. petition_stop the war in Ethiopia_generic_Nov-08-2020

There have been indications of Eritrean troop movements along the border with Tigray. Eritrean villagers report that some Ethiopian troops from the Northern Command that was taken over by the Tigrayans had crossed the border. Local people are said to be asked to feed them, until the Eritrean military can meet their needs. Ethiopian spokesman, Redwan Hussein, confirmed federal troops had been forced to retreat over the border to Eritrea before regrouping and returning to fight the Tigray forces.

But – until recently – there were no confirmed reports of serious fighting between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces. This led the veteran Horn analyst, Rene Lefort to question in https://twitter.com/rene_renelefort/status/1324604117969444866?s=20" style="box-sizing: inherit; background-color: transparent; color: rgb(34, 170, 221); text-decoration: underline;">a Tweet why this was the case. “A joint operation of the federal and Eritrean forces, simultaneously from North and South, was expected. Apparently, nothing in the North. Why? Has Issayas realized that the shift of the Northern Command has totally upset the balances of forces? Better now to keep a low profile?”

On Tuesday 10th November the leader of Ethiopia’s Tigray region accused Eritrea of sending soldiers over the border and attacking local forces after the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive against the region last week.

In a statement on local TV, Debretsion Gebremichael gave no evidence for what would be a major escalation of the conflict in northern Ethiopia and Reuters was unable to confirm it. “Since yesterday, the army of (Eritrean leader) Isaias (Afwerki) have crossed the country’s boundary and invaded,” he said. “They were attacking via Humera using heavy arms.”

This was denied by Eritrea. “This is an internal conflict. We are not part of the conflict,” Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said by telephone.

One thing appears clear. This is unlikely to be a brief conflict, or produce an easy victory for Prime Minister Abiy. As Reuters reported, the Tigrayans will be no push over. “The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, is battle-hardened from both the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the guerrilla war to topple dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. TPLF forces and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant hardware, experts say.”

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has ruled out dialogue or mediation – instead setting tough conditions for peace.

Redwan Hussein, spokesman of a newly-established State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia said that peace talks are only possible with Tigray’s local government if military hardware is destroyed, federal officials are released from custody and leaders of the region are arrested.

What stand will Sudan take?

The role of Sudan in the Tigray conflict could be critical.

During Tigray’s long war against the authorities in Addis Ababa, that ended in the Tigray People’s Liberation Movement toppling the Ethiopian government in 1991, Sudan offered a secure rear base. Arms, ammunition and food reached the Tigray rebels from Sudan.

What role will the Sudanese play in this conflict?

The country has already begun to receive thousands of refugees. The UN refugee agency has begun to establish new camps to receive them. The director of the UNHCR office in the border city of Khashm al-Qirba, Mohamed Rafiq Nasri, announced the UN’s decision to provide special planes and vehicles to transport Ethiopian refugees from the No. 8 Village, Hamdayit and the border strip directly to a new camp set up in the Um Rakoba area of Gadaref state.

Politically, the Sudanese government is coming under pressure from Eritrea.

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President Isaias sent a delegation to Khartoum on Wednesday.

Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser Yemane Gebreab met President of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, Gen. Abdulfattah al-Burhan, as well as Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok.

As ever, little about what was discussed has been revealed, but the visit – the latest of many – was no accident.

It is likely that Eritrea is attempting to head off access to resources for the Tigrayans through Sudan.

On the other hand it should not be forgotten that Sudan’s traditional relationships are stronger with Egypt than with any other country. Egypt and Ethiopia are locked in a conflict over Ethiopia’s dam on the Blue Nile. Will Cairo attempt to use the current conflict in Tigray to their advantage?

While Tigray may have sufficient troops and heavy weaponry to hold off an Ethiopian assault, the longer term is more difficult for them. Fuel and ammunition will be needed, if Mekelle is going to keep its military supplied. There are few alternative routes, other than Sudan.

The Horn of Africa transformed

When President Isaias visited Addis Ababa in July 2018 to meet with Prime Minister Abiy he made remarks that left most Eritreans speechless. He told Abiy “you are our leader” and announced happily to the crowd: “I’ve given him all responsibility of leadership and power”.

Is the current conflict in Tigray the logical outcome of this vision? Ethiopia is moving to eliminate President Isaias’s sworn enemies in Tigray, but at what cost?

The threat to Ethiopia itself is real and immediate. As senior American experts and former diplomats have warned, the current conflict could lead to “the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history.”

As Kjetil Tronvoll, of Bjørknes University in Norway put it: “The conflict between the federal authorities and TPLF might be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.” “You have the potential of a serious, serious weakening of central authorities in Ethiopia. It is an extremely dire situation and I think it is very hard to see that things will return back to normality as it was before the conflict. The divisions are running too deep for that.”

The collapse of the Ethiopian state could allow Isaias an opportunity to reshape the Horn of Africa.

President Isaias is a survivor – shrewd and ruthless.

Is it possible that, despite his close ties with Abiy, that Isaias is keeping his power dry: watching and waiting to see what progress Ethiopian forces make in their offensive against the Tigrayans?

As the next few weeks unfold, we will have a clearer idea of what Eritrea’s role in this conflict will be.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 November 2020 23:36