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A Wake-up Call for Eritrea and Ethiopia
A Wake-up Call for Eritrea and Ethiopia
As Ethiopian Troops Exit Tigray, Time to Focus on Relief
As Ethiopian Troops Exit Tigray, Time to Focus on Relief
An Ethiopian soldier mans an observation post on the Eritrean border on 19 November 2005. AFP/Marco Longari
Commentary / Africa

A Wake-up Call for Eritrea and Ethiopia

A 12 June clash between Eritrea and Ethiopia comes as the Horn of Africa’s two most implacable rivals face a crossroads.

As Asmara seeks ways out of its long isolation, and Addis Ababa seeks to maintain and expand its role on the global stage, they and their partners would be wise to turn this new outbreak of violence into an opportunity to seek a compromise settlement to their long-running border dispute. Otherwise the risk remains of sinking into a destructive new round of conflict in which both would lose.

Details are hazy and contested, but the fighting near the border town of Tserona appears to be the most serious conventional military engagement for some time. Despite the impression of a frozen conflict since the 1998-2000 war that killed an estimated 70,000 people, there have been at least eight significant flare-ups since 2011, often involving rebel groups sponsored by one or the other of the two belligerents. Indeed, one theory for the Tserona clash is that it is a response by Addis Ababa to an armed action by the Asmara-linked Ginbot 7 group in southern Ethiopia in May.

Recent shifts in Eritrea and Ethiopia’s international and regional standing, and relative internal vulnerabilities, may offer opportunity to end the two-decades-long estrangement.

Still, Eritrea has not always been at daggers drawn with Ethiopia, from which it won independence in 1991, especially since both post-1991 governments were led by former rebel fronts that had (mostly) fought together during the 1970s and 1980s. Recent shifts in Eritrea and Ethiopia’s international and regional standing, and relative internal vulnerabilities, may offer opportunity to end the two-decades-long estrangement.

The Eritrean-Ethiopian border. Clashes were reported on 12 June 2016 near the border town of Tserona. CRISIS GROUP

Border Impasses

The international community has done very little to push for a resolution of the border issue since 2008, mostly because neither side has appeared to believe it is in their interest to pursue it.

Both sides actions’ have blocked international efforts to end the dispute, despite the Algiers Agreement of 2000 that ended hostilities with both parties’ agreement to binding international arbitration. The Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruled in 2002 awarding gains to and extracting losses from both sides, but, in what proved the biggest obstacle to peace, awarding of the original trigger-point of Badme to Eritrea.

Ethiopia refused to implement the ruling without further consultations. Eritrea refused to talk before action on implementation. Faced with losing diplomatic good will in 2004, Ethiopia offered a “Five Point Plan” for negotiations and normalisation of relations; on justifiable legal grounds, but with less diplomatic finesse, Eritrea refused. In late 2007, after Ethiopia had ceased its cooperation with the EEBC, it declared a virtual demarcation and dissolved itself. In 2008, facing increasingly hostile Eritrean deployments in the Temporary Security Zone patrolled by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), that too wound down operations.

Diplomats put the dispute on the back burner as other imperatives for regional peace and stability demanded attention, including the resolution of the Sudanese civil war, the Darfur conflict, the independence of South Sudan and attempts to reestablish formal government in Somalia. Nevertheless, Ethiopia and Eritrea’s rivalry has played a complicating role in all of these processes, crises and conflicts.

Diplomats put the dispute on the back burner as other imperatives for regional peace and stability demanded attention.

Even worse, Eritrea’s frustration toward what it perceived as the international system’s failure to pressure Ethiopia into implementing the 2002 border ruling led it to take unilateral initiatives to keep its rival on the back foot. This is reported to have included assistance to the Somalia’s Islamist extremist and al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab. Global opinion soon branded Eritrea as a regional spoiler. The international community slapped on sanctions in 2009, included Eritrea in the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea in 2010 and then established a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in 2014; its latest report condemning Eritrea’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” was published a week previous to the Tserona clash.

Asmara’s Wilderness Years

From 2009, Eritrea was regionally and diplomatically isolated by the sanctions regime, its own decision to “suspend” itself from East Africa’s regional peace and security organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and its parallel absence until 2011 from the new African Union, based in the capital of its Ethiopian rival.

Internally, losses in the 1998-2000 war triggered a downward spiral. High-ranking officials who criticised the conduct of the war were incarcerated without trial and systemic internal repression became the norm. The country remained on a war footing and the already shaky economy nose-dived. Mandatory and prolonged national service (beyond the official eighteen months) for those aged between eighteen and 40 became an integral part of the state regulation of daily life.

President Isiais Afewerki, a guerrilla leader once lionised by international opinion, looked increasingly belligerent and autocratic in power, with ill-health doing little to improve his humour in public. A growing number of young people chose to leave in search of economic opportunity, as in the rest of the Horn. In Eritrea’s case, youth were particularly anxious to avoid national service and used well-developed paths for refugees and diaspora forged during the 30-year independence struggle.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, was riding high. It had suffered a post-war political crisis which split the regime’s core Tigrayan People Liberation Front in 2001; disputed elections in 2005 that led to violent protest and repression; a pervasive closure of political space including restrictive legislation on non-governmental organisations. But Addis Ababa also managed to retain international support for its development agenda in support of the poor; its contribution to peacekeeping in the region; and robust action in Somalia that fit with the U.S.-led global “war on terror”.

Latterly, Addis Ababa also delivered impressive economic growth. In Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia had an international star, who, with an experienced diplomatic cadre, made sure national interests chimed with those of the international community. The country sustained this balancing act even after his death in 2012.

Eritrea’s luck turns

In the last few years, the pendulum has swung back in Eritrea’s favour, and – against expectations – the government has used the opportunity to regain status in the Horn that it had so completely lost to Ethiopia. Proof of support to Al-Shabaab has not been forthcoming for several years. While links with other rebel groups continue, they don’t threaten international interests. Most importantly, its dire economic isolation – despite continuing sanctions – has eased.

Revenues have been helped by the large Bisha mine, which began producing gold, silver, copper and zinc in 2011. But even though many hopes for self-reliance were staked on the new business, external factors were more important. The European Union and its member states, anxious to assist the regime in stemming the flow of migrants toward the Mediterranean, have offered renewed development assistance of €200 million in late 2015.

Then the Huthi-takeover of Yemen and the Saudi-led alliance to oust them suddenly made Eritrea’s long and adjacent Red Sea coast extremely strategic. Money that the president had periodically extracted from certain Gulf states was suddenly offered in greater quantities. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lease the port of Assab, mothballed since the border-conflict ended its sole function as Ethiopia’s main entrepot. The leadership will feel vindicated that their strategic patience has paid off, and President Isiais, despite reports of emergency medical interventions abroad, survives as leader.

Ethiopia’s military probably knows that delivering a decisive blow against Eritrea may fatally damage the regime and risk (another) complicated civil war on its doorstep.

Ethiopia – at least compared with when Prime Minister Meles was the regional first among equals – is struggling to maintain the unqualified support of the international community. Though it continues to play a vital role in regional mediation and security – including in South Sudan and Somalia – and its economy is still viewed with admiration, the longstanding criticism of its dirigiste approach to economic development and intolerance for political opposition is increasingly heard.

Prime Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn, who occasionally makes reformist noises and whose background as a non-Orthodox Christian from a small “southern” ethnic group is testament to Meles’s vision of a new Ethiopia, leads more collectively but without the intellectual fizz and decision of his mentor. The ruling party is unusually open about its internal disagreements, corruption is a growing problem, and drought and famine have returned.

Ethnic Oromo protests that began last November and rumbled on for several months were clumsily contained; they were only half-heartedly blamed on Eritrea, an allegation that no one really believed. Ethiopia’s well trained and armed military probably knows that delivering a decisive blow against Eritrea may fatally damage the regime and risk (another) complicated civil war on its doorstep. A policy of robust containment has been pursued instead, but that looks increasingly difficult to sustain.

Tserona’s Wake-up Call

Given the reversals of fortune, and Ethiopia’s regular warnings that it would take action against Eritrea if it perceived a threat, the Tserona incident should not have come as a surprise. That it should have alarmed domestic and international observers alike is recognition that this particular fault line is not dormant and that recent seismic shifts of the plates of regional power make it particularly unstable right now.

Ethiopia, despite slightly changed circumstances, still holds most of the military, economical and political cards. It will take (uncontested) the seat reserved for African states as a non-permanent member of the United Nations security council for 2017-18, meaning sanctions on Eritrea are unlikely to ease.

However the Tserona incident could also be a wake-up call that after a decade on the sidelines, the stalemate of no peace, no war is unsustainable. The regional and international context is shifting on both sides of the equation. Ethiopia’s enduring friends and Eritrea’s renewed acquaintances should once again try to find a new diplomatic track toward resolving the border issue.

Camilla Klein, Horn of Africa research intern, helped research this article.

Female soldiers of Tigray Defence Force (TDF) celebrate while sitting on men's shoulders as people celebrate their return on a street in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 29, 2021. Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP
Statement / Africa

As Ethiopian Troops Exit Tigray, Time to Focus on Relief

Ethiopia’s military withdrew from Tigray’s capital on 28 June, having suffered a string of battlefield reversals. Addis Ababa and Tigrayan leaders should now work on extending immediate aid to a population at risk of famine. They should also pursue political reconciliation in due time. 

The devastating civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region took a stunning turn on 28 June. Eight months after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a federal military intervention to remove Tigray’s governing party from power and quash Tigrayan loyalist forces, federal troops had to abandon almost all the territory they had taken. Thousands of soldiers departed Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital, along with the administrators Addis Ababa had appointed to replace the ousted Tigrayan leadership. The withdrawal marked a major victory for the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) in their insurgency against federal troops and allied Eritrean and Amhara regional forces. Addis Ababa tried to cover the retreat by declaring a ceasefire, which Tigrayan leaders rejected. It is a seismic development in Ethiopia’s worst security crisis in decades. But it does not appear that the troops’ departure will bring swift relief to a population badly in need of aid. Famine is imminent. All sides should place the highest priority on allowing food to reach Tigrayans by facilitating access for humanitarian convoys.

Addis Ababa and Mekelle have been locked in a power struggle since 2018, when Tigray’s leaders began losing most of the federal influence they had long held. After taking office in April of that year, Abiy consolidated his power by fusing Ethiopia’s regional ruling parties into a new Prosperity Party in late 2019 while accelerating efforts to open up the country’s economy and political space. But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s ruling party which had been a dominant force in Ethiopian politics for decades, refused to join in Abiy’s merger, arguing that the new structure undermined the regional autonomy that the 1995 constitution guarantees. In June 2020, federal authorities delayed national elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic, extending all governments’ terms until the vote could be held. Defying Addis Ababa’s decision, Tigray declared the extension unconstitutional and ran its own regional vote that September. Abiy’s government subsequently declared the newly elected TPLF leadership illegitimate, paving the way for military intervention.

Tigray’s government, claiming that troop movements indicated a federal incursion was imminent, struck first on 3 November 2020 by forcibly taking over federal military bases in Tigray and commandeering the armoured vehicles and artillery pieces there. Addis Ababa immediately sent in the rest of its military, backed by Eritrean forces and Amhara paramilitaries and militias from the region south of Tigray. The coalition made rapid gains. On 28 November, it forced the TPLF government from power – and out of Mekelle – amid a near-total blockade on the region. Saying the war was over, the federal government appointed an interim administration and announced its intention to rebuild Tigray.

Abiy’s claims of victory were premature. An overwhelming majority of Tigrayans had backed the TPLF in the controversial regional election. The federal military intervention, which many Tigrayans perceived as an occupation, fuelled a sense of injustice among Tigray’s public and galvanised support for armed resistance. Having lost control of Mekelle, Tigray’s leadership formed strongholds in rural areas instead. As fighting spread, reports of atrocities further inflamed popular sentiment against the intervention. Allegations of Eritrean crimes against civilians proved particularly critical in stiffening Tigrayan resistance. Eritrean soldiers reportedly killed and sexually abused civilians and engaged in widespread looting of private and public property in the region. For months, however, Abiy denied that Eritrean troops were even deployed in Tigray. He finally acknowledged their presence in May, also saying Asmara had agreed to withdraw them.

Buoyed by a swell of popular support, the TDF mounted a highly effective insurgency. The drawdown of a federal drone campaign, which in November and December destroyed much of the military hardware Tigrayans had seized at the war’s outset, helped its efforts, as did ambushes on Ethiopian and Eritrean army convoys. Although they had no apparent external supply line, Tigray’s resistance leaders say they were able to capture weaponry and equipment from federal and Eritrean troops, which allowed them to gradually build up the defence forces’ capability and launch a major counteroffensive. By June’s end, the TDF had taken back control of much of central Tigray, including areas around Mekelle, spurring the federal evacuation. With federal forces on the back foot, thousands of Eritrean troops retreated northward to take up positions along Eritrea’s contested border with Ethiopia (roughly half of which is Tigray’s northern boundary).

The war has come at a staggering cost to Tigray’s population. Fighting erupted around harvest time, worsening already chronic food shortages. Checkpoints set up by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces barring entry to areas under TDF control blocked aid for months. Partly due to international pressure, federal authorities eased some access restrictions in March. Since 1 May, they, the World Food Programme and U.S. agencies have delivered food to over 3.7 million people, well below their target of 5.2 million. In early June, aid agencies said 353,000 people were experiencing “famine conditions”. A multi-partner food security assessment warned in June that if the conflict intensified, hampering humanitarian aid, people in three zones – North-Western, Central and Eastern Tigray – would face famine, and an additional 2.1 million people in Tigray would be living in “emergency conditions”, the step before “famine” level. The UN now estimates that 400,000 face “famine conditions”. Unless aid agencies can reach the most stricken areas rapidly, people will die of hunger and the number of those in dire need will balloon.

The imperative for all sides [in the Tigray conflict] must now be to facilitate access for relief convoys.

The imperative for all sides must now be to facilitate access for relief convoys, ramping up the delivery of food aid to millions of Tigrayans and ensuring that farmers can plough and plant as the rainy season sets in.

For their part, Tigray’s leaders should turn their focus to preventing mass starvation rather than seeking right away to exploit their military gains. The temptation for Tigrayan leaders will likely be to quickly try to regain control of western Tigray, which the neighbouring Amhara region seized in the early weeks of the war on the grounds that the TPLF had unjustly annexed it in the 1990s. Indeed, Tigrayan forces appear to be gearing up for an offensive. They should put such plans on hold, at least to give time for Addis Ababa to ensure the Amhara region gives up administrative control of those areas governed by Tigray prior to the recent conflict and allow for constitutional procedure to adjudicate its territorial claims as part of broader efforts at post-war reconciliation.

Abiy’s government – which claims to have strategically withdrawn from Tigray having achieved its main objectives and alleviated the humanitarian emergency – can do other things to lessen the population’s hardship. First, it should push Asmara to withdraw Eritrean troops from Tigray. Not only could an Eritrean exit accelerate aid delivery, as Eritreans blocked aid to parts of northern Tigray, but a complete pullout could also prevent renewed confrontations between Tigrayan and Eritrean forces. (Ideally, going forward, to defuse a standoff that has lasted two decades, authorities in Addis Ababa and Mekelle should reach agreement to finally carry out a 2002 UN boundary commission’s decision on the international border, whose non-implementation has angered Asmara.)

Secondly, federal authorities should establish a minimum level of cooperation with Tigray’s leaders and ensure the provision of vital services such as telecommunications, electricity and banking, all of which are controlled to some degree at the national level. There are reasons for Addis Ababa to do so beyond the critical humanitarian concerns. If it does not loosen its stranglehold on the region, the TDF might well look to open up a supply corridor to Sudan through Amhara-administered areas. Not only would that mean heavy fighting between Tigrayan and Amhara forces, but it could also lead to confrontation between Sudanese and Ethiopian troops (already at odds over the Nile waters dispute and the al-Fashaga border region) and exacerbate serious tensions between Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

Thus far, the federal government’s signals bode ill. An Ethiopian official told Crisis Group in the days after withdrawal that Addis Ababa wants to seal off Tigray from anything other than humanitarian aid in order to thwart the regional leadership’s ambitions. Retreating federal soldiers looted UN satellite internet equipment and reportedly emptied banks before fleeing Mekelle. Addis Ababa has closed Tigray’s airspace and Ethiopian soldiers and Amhara forces have been blocking World Food Programme trucks from reaching Mekelle. Federal authorities have shown no inclination to fully restore the region’s power supply or telecommunications. On 1 July, a bridge over the Tekeze river collapsed, severing a key route into central Tigray. Diplomats and UN officials say Amhara and federal forces likely sabotaged the bridge, while the government blames the TPLF. The cumulative effect is one of debilitating isolation.

With famine conditions spreading [in Ethiopia's Tigray region], continued international pressure on Abiy’s government is essential.

With famine conditions spreading, continued international pressure on Abiy’s government is essential. Addis Ababa’s crackdown on Tigray has already forced the European Union (EU) and the U.S. into an abrupt policy shift toward their long-time partner. In December, the EU suspended $107 million in budget support for Ethiopia over the obstacles the army had placed in humanitarian workers’ path. In May, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on unnamed actors in Tigray’s war, targeting current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean officials. Looking forward, outside actors should press Abiy’s government to lift the de facto federal embargo on Tigray and facilitate a complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops. As concerns the status of contested territory in western Tigray, they should back an arrangement whereby the TDF agrees not to press its military advantage there, and Amhara returns administration to Mekelle pending resolution of the inter-regional dispute through constitutional procedures. They must also impress on Tigray’s leaders the need to put famine relief over warfare. The U.S., one of Ethiopia’s largest donors, which has been increasingly vocal about the crisis, should lead these efforts.

More broadly, the setback for the federal intervention in Tigray should be cause for a rethink in Addis. More coercion and outright force will not pacify the region. For Tigray, but also for the country more broadly, an approach rooted in reconciliation and accommodation – likely entailing some form of national dialogue – is the only way to stop Ethiopia’s federation fracturing further. Although thus far little suggests Abiy’s government is looking for a fundamental reset, it should kick-start a maximally inclusive effort at reconciliation, both with Tigrayan leaders and elsewhere in the troubled country, particularly Oromia, where another insurgency is gathering strength. For their part, Tigrayans have suffered horrific violence over the past eight months, notably at the hands of Eritrean forces seemingly invited in by the federal government. But ideally, Tigray’s leaders, too, would send mollifying signals rather than fight on and agitate for secession, which would likely entail years of more violence. Should Addis Ababa initiate a comprehensive reconciliation attempt, they should respond positively and participate.

It is not too late to avert famine in Tigray or to prevent Ethiopia from further coming apart.

It is not too late to avert famine in Tigray or to prevent Ethiopia from further coming apart. In June, Abiy oversaw an election that is likely to hand his Prosperity Party a significant majority – and which unfolded relatively peacefully in the areas where it could be held. A refusal to turn toward more conciliatory measures could leave the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s administration a virtual pariah, at least among Western governments whose support is needed to bankroll the reforms Abiy hopes to roll out. The converse approach could save thousands of lives, notably in Tigray, salvage what was once a promising democratic transition and safeguard a country whose stability is pivotal to that of the Horn of Africa.