Eritrea continues to be an enigma few outsiders know well. Alan Boswell is joined by author and journalist Martin Plaut, who offers unique insights on the Horn of Africa’s most off-the-radar country and President Isaias’ autocratic state.
Reports of Eritrean involvement in fighting in neighbouring Ethiopia’s regional state of Tigray kept emerging. As fighting continued between forces of Ethiopia’s federal govt and Tigray (see Ethiopia), Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael 4 Dec again accused Asmara of supporting Addis Ababa’s military offensive, saying that “Eritrean soldiers are everywhere”; Eritrean FM Osman Saleh next day denied involvement, denounced “propaganda.” Evidence of Eritrean soldiers’ presence and involvement in hostilities in Tigray, including in state capital Mekelle, also reported by aid workers, UN and EU officials. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi 11 Dec said UN refugee agency had received “an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea”. Eritrean delegation led by Saleh and presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab 8 Dec travelled to Sudan and met with Sovereign Council head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to discuss Ethiopia-Tigray conflict and impact on regional stability. Amid Sudan’s efforts to reclaim territories on border between Sudan’s Al-Qadarif state and Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Eritrea late Dec reportedly moved troops toward its border with Sudan.
Eritrea’s youth exodus has significantly reduced the young nation’s human capital. While this has had advantages for the government – allowing the departure of those most dissatisfied and most likely to press for political change – the growing social and political impact of mass migration at home and abroad demands concerted domestic and international action.
Change is in the air in Eritrea, a highly authoritarian state, but any political transition will require internal political inclusion and channels for external dialogue if it is to preserve stability and improve Eritrean life.
To prevent Eritrea from becoming the Horn of Africa’s next failed state, the international community must engage more with the country.
The Ethiopia-Eritrea impasse carries serious risk of a new war and is a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa, most critically for Somalia. Following Ethiopia’s refusal to accept virtual demarcation of the border by the now disbanded Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC), Asmara unilaterally implemented it and forced out the UN peacekeepers (UNMEE), significantly raising the stakes and shattering the status quo.
The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart; more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis.
The fragile peace maintained by Ethiopia and Eritrea since they signed a comprehensive agreement at Algiers in December 2000 is fraying dangerously. With a costly two-year war now followed by nearly five years of stalemate, patience on both sides of the border has worn thin, and there are worrying signs that the countdown to renewed conflict may have begun.
A 12 June clash between Eritrea and Ethiopia comes as the Horn of Africa’s two most implacable rivals face a crossroads.
Originally published in Slate Afrique