With the war in Tigray apparently winding down, few expect the Eritrean leader to remain quiet for very long.

As the Economist’s Africa Correspondent, Thomas Gardner observed:

At the heart of the region’s recent travails, though, lies Eritrea. In 2020 its veteran dictator, Issaias Afwerki, threw his vast conscript army into Ethiopia’s civil war to aid Abiy in his battle against Tigrayan insurgents. He will not pull them back voluntarily. Issaias considers the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which runs the Tigray region along Eritrea’s southern border, as an existential threat (the Tigrayans regard him with similar hostility). He may try to spoil the peace deal that Abiy has struck with them… Sudan’s leaders fear that if Eritrean forces prevail in Tigray, Issaias may turn his sights on eastern Sudan. Eritrea has a history of supporting Sudanese rebels.

Economist, 18 November 2022

But this time President Isaias may not have his eyes on the Beja people, whom he has backed in the past, to the annoyance of Khartoum.

The Eritrean president may have wider ambitions: linking up with Sudan’s richest man – the warlord General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo.

The two men have previously ties. In January 2021 Hemeti made an official visit to Asmara. As usual, little was revealed about the trip, but one interesting remark was made at the airport as Hemeti left.

Sudan’s acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, Omar Gamareldin, said the two men had “discussed bilateral relations, including the Ethiopian civil war in the Tigray region bordering both Sudan and Eritrea and the influx of refugees to Sudan who arrived as a result of “the conflict in neighbouring sister Ethiopia”.

With the Tigray war apparently close to resolution, has the time arrived for Hemeti and Isaias to begin working on the Eritrean refugee question?

Hemeti and Isaias – brothers in arms

Isaias has had a long history of intervening in neighbouring states and establishing relations with unsavoury regimes, from the Ayatollah’s Iran to Gaddafi’s Libya.

The Eritrean president also forged strong ties with the UAE, which underwrote the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal, and established a base in the Eritrean port of Assab, from which to conduct its war in Yemen.

Hemeti has similar relations with the UAE, which he established after emerging in Darfur as a leader of the notorious Janjaweed.

As Alex de Waal pointed out, Hemeti has come a long way since then. In November 2017 Hemeti and his fighters took over Sudan’s largest gold mine. He is today among the richest men in Sudan. “Through gold and officially sanctioned mercenary activity, Hemeti came to control Sudan’s largest “political budget” – money that can be spent on private security, or any activity, without needing to give an account,” says de Waal.

Hemeti developed close relations with the UAE.

Dubai is the destination for almost all of Sudan’s gold, official or smuggled. But Hemeti’s contacts with the UAE soon became more than just commercial.

In 2015, the Sudanese government agreed to send a battalion of regular forces to serve with the Saudi-Emirati coalition forces in Yemen – its commander was Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, now chair of the ruling Transitional Military Council.

But a few months later, the UAE struck a parallel deal with Hemeti to send a much larger force of RSF fighters, for combat in south Yemen and along the Tahama plain – which includes the port city of Hudaydah, the scene of fierce fighting last year.

Hemeti also provided units to help guard the Saudi Arabian border with Yemen.

BBC Sudan crisis: The ruthless mercenaries who run the country for gold

Since then, according to the New York Times, Hemeti has linked up with another force: the Russian Wagner Group, run by a close ally of President Putin. The paper describes Hemeti has the Wagner Group’s “main military ally in Sudan.”

The report continues: “Two senior Western officials said that Wagner organized General Hamdan’s February visit to Moscow, where he arrived on the eve of the war in Ukraine. Although the trip was ostensibly to discuss an economic aid package, they said, General Hamdan arrived with gold bullion on his plane, and asked Russian officials for help in acquiring armed drones.”

Eritrea’s vulnerable refugee population in Sudan

According to the UN Refugee Agency there are some 128,000 Eritrean refugees living in camps in Eastern Sudan, between Kassala and Gadaref. Others live in Khartoum and towns and villages across Sudan.

They are frequently targeted by the authorities, mostly to extract money from them. But now they could face a far greater threat.

President Isaias long resented the presence of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, some 100,000 of whom were housed in camps run by the United Nations. When the Tigray war erupted Eritrean forces attacked the camps.

Early in the conflict, Eritrean troops entered Ethiopia and destroyed Ethiopia’s northern Eritrean refugee camps of Hitsats and Shimelba. Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees were forced to flee further into the Tigrayan warzone.

The Conversation: Nowhere to run: the plight of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia

Some Eritreans were forced to join the Eritrean army, others kidnapped and returned to Eritrea, from which they had fled.

Might Isaias now be planning to link up with Hemeti to deal with the Eritreans living in Sudan? It has long been speculated that the relationship between the two men might threaten the refugees.

It is even possible that Eritrean youngsters, many of whom have had military training, might be enlisted by Hemeti who could use them for his own ends. The Sudanese government has just signed a deal between the military and the civilians that is meant to see the soldiers return to the barracks. But there is plenty of scepticism that it will work.

“Trust is broken. The military could do this again,” internationally acclaimed Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka told the BBC as he prepared to head out to protest.

“The biggest problem is that the leaders of the coup – al-Burhan, his deputy Hemeti – stay in power. People have been killed, injured, detained [for protesting] and they are going ahead without accountability.”

BBC Sudan army unveil new deal to return civilian rule

There is evidence of a rift between al-Burhan and Hemeti. The Eritreans be enlisted to play a part in a future power struggle. It is just the kind of situation that President Isaias is adept at exploiting.

Sudan is lawless at the best of times and eastern Sudan has long been the haunt of smugglers and rebels. Such a scheme cannot be ruled out.