How the Tigray war develops is impossible to predict, particularly as there now appear to be two opposing alliances: the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces supported by ethnic militia on the one hand and the Tigrayan and Oromo forces, supported by other ethnic groups.
But if the war swings in favour of the Tigrayan and Oromo alliance the fate of Eritrea is certain to be on the agenda.
Dilemmas for Tigrayans
A song has been circulating on social media apparently showing a group of Tigrayan fighters singing about the fighting on until Asmara is captured.
It’s not clear if this is authentic or officially sanctioned, but it may reflect the views of rank and file Tigray Defence Force.
I won’t hear you! I say No! [repeated]
Hit him while he is in panic!
The daily task [mission] of Tigray has been finished its being said its [next mission?] in the direction of Asmara
The army of Tigray has [inaudible], its heading towards Asmara
The daily mission of Tigray has been finished, its being said its [next mission?] is towards Shewa
The army of Tigray has gotten up, its heading towards Shewa
[Its] the mission [several times]
On the mountains of Tigray, I heard of your feats, I’ve become very proud [repeated]
With one Bren, [you piled] thousands of corpses
With one Dshk, you took down airplanes
On the vastness of the desert, your Kalashnikov ululated [sang]
Your knees jumped towards [inaudible]
It has finished the daily mission of Tigray
It has started [dealing with] the issue of Eritrea
It has destroyed Shewa and mobilized its path [towards another]
Whatever happens, my Special Forces – come to me
Whatever happens, my Army – come to me
Whatever happens, the children of Tigray – come to me
Tell them our army is here!
Tell them the avenger is here!
Tell them the Woyanay [freedom fighter] is here!
Tell them Tigrayans are here!
[If] I [don’t] cross Mereb [river] through Rama
[If] I [don’t] cross Tekeze through Humera
[If] I [don’t] cross [to] Senafe through Zalambessa
And enter Asmara, I’m not [worthy to be called] a Tigrayan
[And] If you say Stop,
I won’t hear you [several times]
Is this policy of the Tigrayan government or the TDF? It’s not clear.
But the question of whether to cross the Mereb and attack Eritrean forces lined along the border is clearly an option.
Men like General Tsadkan Gebretensae advocated the capture of Asmara during the border war on 1998 – 2000.
As the BBC noted:
Gen Tsadkan was intent on advancing towards the Eritrean capital Asmara, but Prime Minister Meles called a halt, saying that Ethiopia’s war aims had been achieved and Eritrea was now humbled.
After the war, the TPLF split rancorously over both the war aims and the party’s political direction. Mr Meles fired Gen Tsadkan as chief of staff.
Now Gen Tsadkan is back with the TDF as part of its central military command. The view that Tigray will never have peace as long as President Isaias Afwerki rules Eritrea must – surely – have been given added momentum by the invasion of Tigray by the Eritrean military in November last year.
The questions for Tigrayans are not just tactical (when to launch such as offensive) but political.
If an invasion of Eritrea is to be mounted, the Tigray government needs to be clear about its aims and objectives. They have to face the key question: work alone, or incorporate Eritreans in their plans?
Dilemmas for Eritreans
Eritreans also have to face this question, since it may soon be upon them.
During the 1998-2000 border war the response from most Eritreans (even those who loathed President Isaias) was to rally behind Eritrea to defend its status as an independent state – something they fought for 30 years to achieve.
Some Eritreans still consider this a non-negotiable position, but this time the equation looks rather different.
- President Isaias has undermined the ideal of Eritrean independence. Isaias did so in 2018 when he proclaimed to MP Abiy during his first visit to Addis after peace was agreed with Ethiopia: “You are our leader!” and announced happily to the crowd: “I’ve given him all responsibility of leadership and power”.
- In his meeting with the leadership of the PFDJ just prior to the war with Tigray in November 2020, Isaias pointed out that Eritrea was unable to defend its own coastline and needed some form of federal status with Ethiopia.
- By attacking Tigray last year, President Isaias invited retaliation. This was underlined by the atrocities committed by Eritrean troops against Tigrayans and Tigrayan women in particular.
- Backing Isaias critically or uncritically has won Eritreans no progress on their vital human rights. The country remains among the worst dictatorships in the world, inflicting some of the most terrible abuses on its people.
- Some Eritreans have already joined the Tigray Defence Forces. They did so as individuals – not as an organised group. Some were refugees who fled from the UNHCR camps in Tigray holding almost 100,000 Eritreans when the war began. Some were members of the Eritrean military, who deserted when their units were defeated, or left the Eritrean forces rather than undertake further murder and sexual abuse of Tigrayans. They are likely to continue fighting alongside their Tigrayan comrades, even if the TDF crosses into Eritrea.
Whether this assessment is correct or not Eritreans would have to decide how to respond if the Tigrayans cross the Mereb.
Everyone knows this and the issue is already being debated in the Eritrean diaspora.
A way forward
How Tigrayans, Eritreans and others in the Horn respond to these issues is of course up to them.
But if (and it is an if) an attack on Eritrea is to take place in the months ahead everyone will have to decide where they stand.
Logic would suggest that this question will be dealt with better if it is debated. Such discussions should not only take place internally, but need to include both Tigrayans and Eritreans.
If the question is decided in Mekelle alone, the anger and hurt in Asmara is likely to be deeper.
This cannot be delayed very long.