Eritrea is well known for the 30 year war of independence it fought against Ethiopia that ended in 1991. It is also remembered for the tragic two-year border war of 1998 – 2000 which it again fought with Ethiopia, and the war with Tigray, from 2020-2022. But these are only the tip of the iceberg.
For a young country (only formally independent in 1993) Eritrea has been involved in an extraordinary number of conflicts. Here I will focus on some of the lesser know, before outlining those that are better understood.
Eritrea’s forgotten wars
What is notable about the war in Sudan and the war in Congo is that both were undertaken in alliance with the newly installed Ethiopian government.
It is often overlooked that after the fall of Asmara and Addis Ababa in 1991 to the rebel movements of Eritrea and Ethiopia was that they worked closely together, with the Tigrayans having a wider alliance with Oromo and Amhara groups. Relations between newly independent Eritrea and the new government in Ethiopia were initially good.
The Eritreans and Tigrayans had fought alongside each other to oust the Mengistu regime. The alliance held in the first few years after 1991. Indeed, an Eritrean battalion remained in Addis Ababa until at least 1995, guaranteeing the security of the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
1. The war in Sudan. This conflict is admirably summarised in the Royal African Society’s publication, African Arguments. Two articles by Ahmed Hassan, which can be found here and here, show how Eritrea and Ethiopia worked with Sudanese opposition movements to try to outs the Sudanese government. As Ahmed Hassan argues, it was an alliance Eritrea and Ethiopia forged with the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF) that did the fighting. They were backed by Ugandan troops and American money, in the form of CIA subventions.
The allies were attempting to outs the National Islamic Front (NIF) that had come to power in Khartoum in June 1989. Eritrea broke relations with Sudan in December 1994, and Sudanese rebels of the SPLA/M moved to Asmara officially in 1995 and were based in the building that had served as the Sudanese Embassy just few months previously. Tension between Eritrea and Sudan stemmed primarily from traded accusations that both Sudan and Eritrea were supporting opposition groups of the other country, and Islamist expansionism in Khartoum.
As Ahmed Hassan argues: “Most importantly, Sudan was viewed at that time by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the U.S. as a destabilizing factor within the region posing serious threats with its adoption of a political Islamic agenda and the subsequent support to Islamic militants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. That period also marked honeymoon of the relations between the U.S. and the ‘new breed’ of African leaders represented by Isseyas Afewerki, Meles Zenawi and Yoweri Museveni.” Hence the American support.
The war came close to succeeding – at one time threatening Khartoum’s power supply from the Nile. But in the end the Sudanese opposition fragmented. Internal conflicts and a lack of success on the battlefield led to deep divisions. As Ahmed Hassan suggests: “By early 1998, SAF reached its limit as an effective movement due to the limited capacity and narrow agenda of its leadership. Serious internal conflicts between the military and the civilian components of the movement started to surface.”
Then – out of the blue (apparently) – the May 1998 border war erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both nations moved to mend fences with the Khartoum government and their support for Sudanese rebel movements melted away. For Eritrea the war with Sudan was over: the border war with Ethiopia had just begun.
2. The war in Congo. Again, this was a joint Eritrean-Ethiopian operation, although it was Eritrea that did most of the fighting. It is a strange story, with many twists and turns.
This conflict had its origins in 1994 and the Rwandan genocide. When the Hutu genocidaires established bases in the Congo to try to fight their way back into Rwanda, the newly installed Rwandan government of Paul Kagame decided to act. They looked around for a Congolese player whom they might use and came across Laurent Kabila. Until then Kabila had been a small-time hotel owner who dabbled in Congolese politics, and had once met the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
The Rwandans and Kabila’s Congolese set out to overthrow the Mobutu government on the other side of the continent. This is how the BBC described these events: “In October 1996, Kabila’s ‘Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire’ launched an offensive against the Zairean Government. With the help of ethnic Tutsis and the Rwandan army, Kabila’s alliance took control of over half the country – larger in size than western Europe – within seven months. Laurent Kabila declared himself President of the Democratic Republic of Congo on 17 May 1997.”
What is seldom reported is that Eritrean forces – a battalion strong – accompanied the Rwandans and Kabila’s rebel army. Ugandan and Burundian forces were also involved. This alliance mirrored the alliance in Sudan.
The Washington Post wrote that: “There is strong but largely circumstantial evidence of Eritrean and Ethiopian involvement, diplomats say. Eritreans are believed to have helped train the rebels, and the Ethiopians are thought to be providing small arms.”
The journalist Patrick French observed: “Rwanda’s designs on eastern Congo were further helped by the Clinton administration’s interest in promoting a group of men it called the New African Leaders, including the heads of state of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. As Clinton officials saw it, these New Leaders were sympathetic and businesslike, drawn together by such desirable goals as overthrowing Mobutu, by antagonism toward the Islamist government of Sudan, which shares a border with northeast Congo, and by talk of rethinking Africa’s hitherto sacrosanct borders, as a means of creating more viable states.”
The Eritrean forces fought valiantly and many paid with their lives, arriving in Kinshasa exhausted and ill. They had to be evacuated home. But they also had been of considerable economic benefit to Eritrea. Where they took control of areas of the Congo they set about extracting what benefits they could from its rich mineral reserves. There are stories of gold and other minerals being shipped out, to help boost the Eritrean economy.
Laurent Kabila owed his presidency – at least in part – to the Eritrean-Ethiopian mission, which explains why he attempted to intervene in June 1998 to halt the border war that broke out between his two former allies.
Eritrea’s better known conflicts
- Conflict with Yemen over the Hanish islands. This was brief – lasting from 15–17 December 1995, with Eritrean small boats capturing the island of Greater Hanish. Eritrea eventually agreed to have the conflict settled by arbitration, during which it lost most of the disputed territory, yet abided by the ruling.
- Support for al-Shabaab in Somalia. This followed the re-location of Somalia’s Islamic Courts to Eritrea in 2007 after the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia. Eritrea subsequently sent advisers and military equipment to the Islamist group, al-Shabaab, which arose out of the Islamic Courts. As the UN Monitors put it in their 2011 report to the Security Council: “Asmara’s continuing relationship with Al-Shabaab, for example, appears designed to legitimize and embolden the group rather than to curb its extremist orientation or encourage its participation in a political process. Moreover, Eritrean involvement in Somalia reflects a broader pattern of intelligence and special operations activity, including training, financial and logistical support to armed opposition groups in Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Sudan and possibly Uganda in violation of Security Council resolution 1907 (2009).” Eritrea’s operations in Somalia continued for several years, but now appears to have ended.
- Border clashes with Djibouti. This has spluttered on and off since 2008, leaving the two countries entrenched along their mutual border. In June 2017 Qatar pulled its peacekeeping troops out of the area, leading to fresh tension – which the African Union is attempting to resolve.
- Civil war in Yemen. Eritrea has become involved in the Yemeni civil war that has pitted Houthi rebels against government forces supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. President Isaias has allowed the Saudis and UAE to establish bases in Eritrea, at the port of Assab.
- Eritrea’s 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia. This was not Eritrea’s doing, but the result of growing animosity between Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki. It was sparked off by clashes around the town of Badme and led to the deaths of 100,000 – although that is probably an underestimation. The Algiers agreement ended the war and the Hague based Boundary Commission ruling should have ended the border dispute, however, Ethiopia refused to accept the outcome, after Badme was awarded to Eritrea. The result was a cold-peace, with forces deployed along the border, until the Ethiopians under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a formal deal in Saudi Arabia with President Isaias, ending the conflict.
- The 2020-2022 Tigray war. This war, which is estimated to have cost in excess of 600,000 lives, was the result of a tripartite agreement signed in 2018 between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. It was only ended in November 2022 when agreements were struck in Pretoria and Nairobi. President Isaias declared victory on 31 December, saying “My pride has no bounds…Victory is on our side as we have chosen justice and freedom.”