President Isaias Afwerki has been a key player in two years of war

Abiy Ahmed Sawa Military Base Eritrea 19 July 2020

Martin Plaut

All along the B30 highway – deep inside Tigray – Eritreans troops are under siege, fighting for their lives. The road links the western city of Shire, the sacred site of Axum and the historic town of Adwa, scene of the famous Ethiopian victory over the Italians in 1896. Today it has become the Highway from Hell, with beleaguered Eritrean and Ethiopian forces under constant attack from Tigrayan ambushes.

Some will wonder why Eritreans are inside Ethiopia at all. On March 21, 2021 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Eritrean troops would be withdrawn. Yet 20 months later the Eritreans are still fighting on Ethiopian soil.

Eritrea’s disputed participation

The Ethiopian government repeatedly denied this when the conflict erupted in November 2020. The UN Secretary General António Gueterres, said that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had assured him that: “there were no Eritrean troops in Tigray, except in territory that Ethiopia had agreed to hand over following a historic peace deal between the two nations in 2018.” The Eritrean government also denied any involvement in the Tigray war.

“This is an internal conflict. We are not part of the conflict,” said Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed.

Others disagree. Reuters reported on Washington’s view on the 8th December 2020. “The United States believes Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia to help Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government battle a rebellious northern force, despite denials from both nations, a U.S. government source and five regional diplomats said.”

The European Union and Britain support this assessment. Speaking at the time, Ethiopia’s Major General Belay Seyoum described the presence of foreign forces on Ethiopian soil as “painful.”

Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean Minister of Defence now living in exile, provided an informed assessment of just how extensive the Eritrean role really was.

“When the reorganized and reinforced Ethiopian troops launched a series of offensives into Tigray from Eritrea along four frontlines, Eritrean support units provided intelligence and logistics, their heavy weapons gave cover to advancing federal troops, and eventually took active part in combat. Reliable sources have confirmed injury and death of a large number of Eritrean soldiers, including senior officers, fighting deep inside Ethiopia.

Through Zalambesa alone, the Eritrean President sent in the 42nd and 49th mechanized divisions and the 11th, 17th, 19th and 27th infantry divisions. On reaching Edaga-Hamus, south of Adigrat and north of Mekelle, these divisions were reinforced with an additional five Eritrean divisions, including the 2nd brigade of the 525th commando division. He also unleashed the 26th, 28th, and 53rd infantry and 46th and 48th mechanized divisions on the Adwa front along with only one division of the Ethiopian federal army. In addition, the TPLF claims that Eritrean technical and combat units also took active part in the Alamata front, southeast of Mekelle.”

Why did Eritrea become involved in Tigray?

To answer this question, one has to go back a long way: to the early days of the Tigrayan liberation movement – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – in the 1970’s. They and the Eritreans were both fighting the Ethiopian regime. At first Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, co-operated successfully. But over time they fell out. They differed over many questions, including the right to independence, ideology and tactics.

Despite these differences the rebel movements joined forces to launch a final offensive against Ethiopian government in 1991, capturing their respective capitals. Eritrea became an independent state, recognised by Ethiopia and the international Community in 1993. Meles became Prime Minister of Ethiopia. But gradually relations between the two men soured. These differences led to the border war of 1998 – 2000, that left some 100,000 dead. Although the war was brought to an end, relations were never fully repaired.

In 2018 the Tigrayans lost power in Ethiopia with the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. President Isaias saw his chance. Prime Minister Abiy (who has no Tigrayan roots) was invited to Asmara, where he was given an ecstatic welcome from Eritrean crowds. President Isaias was just as warmly received in Addis Ababa. A formal a treaty was signed in Saudi Arabia in September 2018, cementing the ties.

There followed a rapid growth in bilateral relations between Isaias and Abiy. The two men were in constant contact: in just over two years they made nine official visits to each other’s capitals, or went on joint delegations to other states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Other meetings have been held by senior officials.

The final meetings took place at their respective military bases. Both leaders took time to see each other’s key military assets well ahead of the Tigray war in November 2020.

  • 18 July 2020: Prime Minister Abiy makes a reciprocal visit to Eritrea. He becomes the first Ethiopian leader to be taken to Eritrea’s main training base at Sawa, inspecting troops and military equipment.
  • 12 October 2020: President Isaias travelled to Ethiopia, during which trip he went to the Bishoftu air-base – home to the Ethiopian air force.

Information smuggled out of Eritrea points to a meeting held on the eve of the November 4th war. President Isaias is said to have brought his closest confidantes together for a critical discussion. According to well-placed sources, 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.

Today Eritrea is being drained of men and women sent to fight in Tigray

Eritreans in the diaspora tell of friends and families terrified into giving up their children to go and fight. Of President Isaias’s notorious security forces going door-to-door to search out the few remaining young men and women who can be taken away for “National Service”. Many will never return.

There are first-hand accounts of men as old as 70 being forced into conscription. Families that resist are put out onto the streets – with anyone coming to their aid facing the same humiliating penalty.

Eritrean hospitals are reportedly overflowing with wounded soldiers who have been ferried back from the front. Some can hardly cope with the dead and dying.

Ethiopian divisions transferred to Eritrean

It now seems clear that while the current fighting is inside Ethiopia, it is Eritrea that is pulling the strings. The Daily Telegraph reported that troops Ethiopian troops had been transferred to Eritrea as the current offensives was erupting on 26 August.

One source at Ethiopian Airlines told The Telegraph that the country’s flagship carrier has been chartering dozens of flights to ferry soldiers and weapons up north to the frontline.

Flight data showed a significant uptick in unscheduled domestic chartered flights last month, which flew in the direction of Lalibela, a key logistics hub for the Ethiopian army near the frontline.

On just one day, September 1st, at least 8 Boeing 737s with a capacity of 180 soldiers and four Canadian made De Havilland Dash 8-400 with a capacity of 90 appeared to set off for Lalibela.

Daily Telegraph

This is very much in line with what Alex de Waal reported on 7 October: “About 30 ENDF divisions relocated from Amhara and Western Tigray into Eritrea last month, placing themselves under Eritrean overall command.”

This is exactly as President Isaias would wish it to be. His is the hand that will guide the region’s reconstruction, if the Tigrayans can be eliminated.

War has been his modus vivendi ever since Eritrean independence in 1993. He has fought all his neighbours – from Sudan to Djibouti – and sent Eritrean troops as far as the Congo.

As Asia Abdulkadir, a Kenyan analyst put it to Bloomberg: “War is the way for Isaias to stay involved in Ethiopia’s politics” and peace is simply not an option as long as the TPLF are still around, she said.