How Far Will the Ethiopian-Eritrean Alliance Go?

Former foes have found a common enemy in the TPLF. Will it lead beyond battlefield cooperation?

This week’s highlights: The newfound friendship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is rooted in a common enemy, 

How Did East Africa’s Sworn Enemies Become Allies?

In a conflict marked by obfuscation, the reported withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been met with skepticism by many diplomats and experts.

For months, Ethiopia’s government denied the presence of Eritrean soldiers until mounting witness testimony and international pressure prompted an admission that they were on Ethiopian soil, followed by an announcement about their departure. But the very presence of Eritrean fighters has raised disconcerting questions about the relationship between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

A common enemy. Isaias and Abiy have found a common enemy in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopia from the early 1990s until 2018. The TPLF was instrumental in Eritrea’s defeat in the 1998-2000 border war, and leaders in Asmara have not forgotten.

In the Tigray conflict, Isaias saw an opportunity to exact revenge, while Abiy saw an ally against the remnants of Ethiopia’s old TPLF regime as it sought to reassert itself as a regional separatist movement.

As Bronwyn Bruton predicted in 2018 in FP: “As long as both Abiy and Isaias remain existentially threatened by the TPLF, both will be quick to gloss over their differences.”

Rumors of rebadging. Eritrean soldiers reportedly crossed the Ethiopian border soon after the start of the conflict last November, yet even as a senior army official admitted that “a foreign army that is unwanted entered” Ethiopian territory, Abiy continued to deny Eritrean involvement.

It was only after a visit from a U.S. delegation and amid mounting allegations of human rights abuses that Abiy conceded. His language on the conflict has also changed from triumphalist declarations of victory late last year to an admission this week that Ethiopia’s federal army faced a guerrilla force that was proving “difficult and tiresome.”

The abrupt shift makes the assertion that Eritrean troops are leaving difficult to accept at face value. A Belgium-based nongovernmental organization, the Europe External Program with Africa, published a report alleging that the lack of transparency around the withdrawal agreement—after Abiy flew to Asmara to meet with Isaias personally—could lead to an integration of Ethiopian and Eritrean fighters. The concerns point to an understanding of Abiy’s military reliance on Eritrean fighters and ethnic Amhara militia groups against a well-organized TPLF.

While at the war’s outset the federal government said TPLF officials in Tigray had been manufacturing Eritrean uniforms to try to create the impression of foreign involvement, now Tigrayans say the plan is for Eritrean soldiers to wear Ethiopian fatigues, said William Davison, the senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“Those cynical about the sincerity of Abiy’s commitment to Eritrean withdrawal say that this will merely be a rebadging exercise,” Davison told FP. “The suspected merging of the two armies on the ground perhaps leads people to this notion of formal military integration, but we are a long way from that actually occurring.”

Fears of reunification. The cooperation between the two leaders has further raised fears that their ultimate plan is to create a federation between the two countries, which formally split when Eritrea became independent in 1993 and then fought a bloody border war from 1998-2000.

In this scenario, landlocked Ethiopia would once again have access to the sea, and Abiy could resurrect the Ethiopian Navy to become a force along the Red Sea coast. This scenario would also see Eritrea rebuild its struggling economy, but it’s unclear what role Isaias would take on in a reunited federal state, or if their collaboration is viable beyond a shared hatred of the TPLF.

Comments from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti on the need to “institutionalize” the relationship only fanned the fears. “There is a good chance that the relationship can be broader and stronger. There are things that they have that we do not, and vice versa. By the way, if you ask Eritreans … they do not celebrate the day that they separated from Ethiopia. … The same sentiment prevails on the Ethiopian side,” he said during a weekly press conference on March 30. He later walked back his comments, saying Ethiopia was committed to Eritrean sovereignty.

What’s more, despite international condemnation of human rights violations allegedly committed by Eritrean troops in Tigray, Ethiopia has defended its new ally. “While the world seems to misunderstand, wittingly or otherwise, #Ethiopia’s efforts to enforce law and order in #Tigray, we appreciate those, like the people & government of #Eritrea, who understand our context,” Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry tweeted on April 5, as Eritrean troops had reportedly “started to evacuate” from the region.

While analysts like Davison say reunification is “a leap,” it forces an examination of the foundation of the two leaders’ relationship. Since the start of the conflict, Abiy’s 2019 Nobel Peace Prize—awarded for making peace with Eritrea—has increasingly been viewed as a grave misstep by many observers.

Abiy’s vision. “He projected very effectively, this image of a transformative figure that is a man of the people who is committed to lifting Ethiopia up,” U.K.-based Ethiopian academic Awol Allo, who has written about his reasons for nominating Abiy for the Nobel at the time, told FP. Now, Awol sees a more menacing “Make Ethiopia Great Again” vision emerging.

“The country needs an urgent dialogue on identity and the future of the federal state, but the process should be supported internationally to ensure that it is not micromanaged by the government,” he argued.

A forever war? All sides are gearing up for what could turn into a protracted battle. After suffering losses, TPLF forces have regrouped in rural Tigray where, as the International Crisis Group reported, they are being sustained by a supportive population. The atrocities committed against the Tigrayan population has also spurred recruitment for the TPLF.

Getachew Reda, a member of the TPLF Executive Committee, told Al Jazeera this week that the party could not rule out the possibility of seeking Tigrayans independence: “Statehood is about the aspirations of the people, and if the people of Tigray aspire to become an independent state, there is nothing, nothing whatsoever that could stand in the way of that aspiration.”

Getachew, once a proponent of the country’s federalist system who is now in hiding, said the idea of a united Ethiopia “rising out of the ashes” is “more romantic than realistic.”

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