The war in Tigray is tearing at the seams that bind the current structures holding the nations of the Horn of Africa together.

When the Eritreans joined in the invasion of Tigray, supported by Somali troops, at the start of this war in November this year this was the inevitable outcome. Sudan is now caught up in the war, while all the nations of the region look on with concern.

As the US Institute for Peace warned last year:

“While many of the facts remain unclear, the risks of escalation are certain: Intrastate or interstate conflict would be catastrophic for Ethiopia’s people and for the region and would pose a direct threat to international peace and security. The acceleration of polarization amid violent conflict would also mark the death knell for the country’s nascent reform effort that began two years ago and the promise of a democratic transition that it heralded.

As we cautioned in the study group’s Final Report and Recommendations released on October 29, the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history. Ethiopia is five times the size of pre-war Syria by population, and its breakdown would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen. As Ethiopia is currently the leading Troop Contributing Country to the United Nations and the African Union peacekeeping missions in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, its collapse would also significantly impact the efforts by both to mitigate and resolve others conflicts in the Horn of Africa.”

Even if an Ethiopian state collapse is avoided, it is clear that a new dispensation for Ethiopia is required, which could involve a new relationship with neighbouring states – and Eritrea in particular.

The Tigrayan perspective

Whether Tigray should remain part of Ethiopia or become an independent state has been a question hotly debated since the TPLF was launched in the 1970’s. It is – not surprisingly – once again on the agenda. The atrocities inflicted on Tigrayans, and particularly on Tigrayan woman, has given this extra impetus.

How might an independent Tigray relate to the remainder of Ethiopia? Would it be viable? What would its borders look like? All these questions – and more – are issues that need to be resolved before a final decision is taken, hopefully in agreement with other Ethiopians.

It is a question for the people of Tigray and the people of the region to decide upon.

The Eritrean perspective

It should not be forgotten that President Isaias convened a meeting of his senior advisers and commanders just before the war began.

As Eritrea Hub reported at the time:

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.

The war, which has involved the enforced conscription of tens of thousands of young Eritreans and cost so many lives, has not produced the unity President Isaias was looking for. But it may yet see a new relationship between Eritreans and the people of the region.

Key criteria for regional transformation

If the map of the Horn is to be withdrawn – and it seems likely – then there are some key criteria that should apply:

  • First – this is an issue for the people of the Horn of Africa. Outside interests should be resisted. Advice can be welcome, but these questions must not be decided by western, Chinese or Russian influence or Arab cash.
  • Second – the outcome will be shaped by the current conflict but it should not be the result of a solution imposed by the victor; whoever that is.
  • Third – solutions need to take into account tradition, history and economic realities. The views and needs of minorities need to be protected.

Points to consider

While the shape of a settlement should be arrived at by negotiations by the people of the region, there are some lessons that can be learned from the past and from abroad.

  • Conflict and war is not inevitable. Bitter wounds can be healed. One only has to consider the tragic losses inflicted on the French and Germans by what amounted to three world wars that they fought against each other. From the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 through the First and Second World Wars the youth of both countries slaughtered each other in their millions. Yet today they live together in peace and harmony, with borders crossed as if they hardly exist.
  • Nations and nationalities are never finally resolved. One only needs look at the United Kingdom. The British have been attempting to forge a final settlement of the government of these islands since at least 1800 – if not before. Yet the future is far from settled. Ireland gained independence in 1922, creating Ireland and Northern Ireland. Yet the North may – in the not too distant future – leave the UK and join Ireland, if this is agreed in a referendum. Scotland is pushing for independence and this too may come about, if the Scots vote for it in a referendum. There are movements for self-government or independence in Wales, Cornwall and Yorkshire. Some want all of England to have far more devolved administrations. None of this is settled, but these disputes are being resolved by peaceful negotiation and referenda. Not by war.
  • Nation states and forms of government are important, but not invariably critical. Traditions, religions, social and community links can be just as important. Consider a few of these. Eritreans have visited sacred sites in Tigray down the centuries; irrespective of who ruled in Asmara or Addis Ababa. Somali and Afar traders have crossed vast spaces carrying goods down the years. Sometimes they were called traders, sometimes businessmen, sometimes smugglers. Think of the khat trade, which crosses frontiers irrespective of laws, governments or regulations. Farmers follow their flocks, wherever they lead, in search of fresh pastures. These are vital parts of the life of the Horn of Africa and will continue, whatever is settled in conferences, on battlefields or signed into agreements.