This week on The Horn, Alan Boswell is joined by author and scholar, Harry Verhoeven, to discuss Eritrea’s re-emerging role in the Horn of Africa region after more than a decade of isolation.
Amid ongoing accusations of serious international crimes, authorities reportedly agreed to withdraw troops from Ethiopia’s Tigray regional state. As fighting persisted between troops of Ethiopia’s federal govt and regional state of Tigray (see Ethiopia), UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock 4 March said Eritrean forces are operating throughout Ethiopia’s Tigray and “countless well-corroborated reports suggest their culpability for atrocities”; UN Sec-Gen Guterres and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield same day called on Eritrean troops to leave Tigray. Echoing allegations made by NGO Amnesty International in Feb, NGO Human Rights Watch 5 March accused Eritrean forces of killing hundreds of civilians, mostly men and young boys, in Tigrayan city of Axum in Nov 2020, and called on UN to establish independent inquiry into war crimes and possible crimes against humanity by all parties in Tigray. For first time since conflict started in Nov 2020, Ethiopian PM Ahmed Abiy 23 March acknowledged presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray; 26 March said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw troops. Meanwhile, UN humanitarian office 22 March said Eritrean forces had been deployed alongside Ethiopian troops and ethnic Amhara militias in disputed Al-Fashqa border area between Ethiopia and Sudan. EU 22 March announced sanctions on National Security Office and its leader, Maj Gen Abraha Kassa, “for serious human rights violations in Eritrea, in particular arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances of persons and torture”; authorities immediately denounced “malicious” move. Govt continued to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia: Saudi delegation 28 Feb-2 March visited Eritrea to discuss political, economic and security cooperation.
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.
Eritrea continues to be an enigma few outsiders know well. This week on The Horn, 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.
A 12 June clash between Eritrea and Ethiopia comes as the Horn of Africa’s two most implacable rivals face a crossroads.