Eritrean politicians calculated that a peaceful Ethiopia poses more of a threat to Asmara than a resuscitated Amhara hegemony with strong irredentist ambition for Asab. Hard-line Amhara politicians are now the only group in Ethiopia that supports the presence of Eritrea’s army in Ethiopia. It is highly likely that if Eritrea is forced out of Ethiopia under the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements, it will eventually commence organizing Amhara fighting forces to fulfill its destabilizing purpose.

Source: Washpost

Eritrea’s Sawa Doctrine vis-à-vis peace in Ethiopia

Asfaw BeyeneBy Asfaw Beyene


The alchemy of Eritrea’s independence brought about some serious vectors into the East African political scene and unveiled challenges that were never expected before independence. The popular assumption of the early 1990s was that the young regime of free Eritrea would stand with Ethiopia’s oppressed nations and nationalities who were and are represented by a plethora of liberation fronts and organizations. Having experienced firsthand the cruel deeds of Imperial Ethiopia that governed the then Province of Eritrea with brute force, many who dreamt of freedom expected that free Eritrea will be a nucleus of democracy, a magnet of free minds – an exemplary nation to posit. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Between 1991 and 1993, Eritrea dictated the political and economic governance of Ethiopia while preparing for elections that cemented its independence. Following its independence in 1993, Eritrea served as a “patron” of Ethiopia’s economy, among other things, becoming the main exporter of Ethiopian coffee. Eritrea’s politicians joined former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in labeling the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) a terrorist organization. The bizarre relationship between Meles and Eritrea fell apart, causing the 1998 murderous war. Eritrea’s policy towards Ethiopia’s oppressed people changed after the war, and the OLF was welcome in Eritrea.

Following the demise of the Derg regime, the mere separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia brought great pleasure to the Eritreans. However, Eritreans never publicly discussed the post-independence mechanics of governance both at the time of separation or after overwhelmingly voting for independence. Yes, they voted then. However, Eritreans never voted since, the primary reason being the perpetual thoughts of war embedded in the psychic of the leaders – a fear that war is always around the corner. Those brave fighters who liberated Eritrea appear to have never been able to liberate themselves from the psychology of war. Can Eritrea separate itself from its past? I will address this below as my first point.

Eritrea’s belated conviction to host and train several of Ethiopia’s opposition groups, despite its own economic shortcomings is worthy of praise – despite some political returns that also benefitted Eritrea. But Eritrea turned against these forces it once supported with vigor, within a small span of time, while also supporting those who fought hard against its own independence. Is there any value in this vacillating politics? Is there a strategy, or a political interest to be guarded by such a contradictory policy?  I will discuss this in short as my second topic.

Can Eritrea separate itself from war psychology?  

Every year, Eritrean youth – boys and girls – who reached tenth grade, are summoned to Sawa, a military camp in Northern Eritrea, for military training.  This early age of conscription suggests that it is more about indoctrination and less about militarization. The latter is important, but indoctrination, before the mind is well-educated, seems more paramount. I call this uniquely designed mandatory military conscription the Sawa Doctrine.

The burden on society of transforming high school students of the entire country into military warriors, its psychological impact on the ambitious minds of teenagers that often seek to improve their lives or simply discover biology, chemistry, etc. as a priority, has driven hundreds of thousands of Eritrea’s precious children across the border fleeing a country that invested so much on their military training. Those who flee often face death in the heat of the Sahara desert, murder at the hands of Libyan smugglers, or drown in capsized boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Adding to the challenge, all citizens under the age of 40 must report every year for weeks to hone their military skills. The gun is in the hands and on the minds of every Eritrean, and one can’t avoid having the impression that the poor nation speaks and breathes war even in times of peace. The natural tide to dislike things one is forced to like has long caught up with Eritrea. It remains to be seen how long the old guards could protect this lost cause.

The militarization of Eritrea exceeds any likely threats to Eritrea, not to mention its own economic capacity. The Sawa doctrine has persisted for decades, molded as a binding culture that the citizen finds hard to refuse.  Many young and old Eritreans have rejected the Sawa-despondency but remain silent because they either refuse to see any other route for the survival of Eritrea or their hands are tied by dependency on the regime. Still, others truly believe that Eritrea’s future is framed around perpetual militarization. The majority of the young, however, have given up and it would not be an exaggeration if one postulates a demoralized state of mind has been internalized among them. They have given up on Eritrean nationalism, the one that Eritrea relied on to free its people more than it did on guns and bullets, often in favor of patronizing bureaucratic correctness.

Here is an example.

In July 2018, I traveled to Massawa from Asmara with a late friend, Author Tesfaye (Gadaa) GegreAb. Checking into our hotel in Massawa, I produced my American passport, and after a short back-and-forth chat in Tigrinya with Tesfaye, the lady at the counter gave me a key for my room. Ironically, Tesfaye, an Eritrean citizen, forgot to take enough documents with him and could not rent a room. The lady admitted she knew him from the media but can’t give him a room without proper paperwork from the Police. So, we left our bags in my room and went to the nearby police station. Three policemen dressed in thobe sat on the floor behind a high desk. After some waiting, Tesfaye was given a paper that allowed him to rent a room in Massawa.  Eritrean nationalism that rallied the youth and catapulted the nation to its independence is now withering by redundant bureaucracy and excessive militarization.

There is a deep-rooted conflict between the new and old generations of Eritreans. As always, the transition could be bloody, unless Eritreans start discussing this inter-generational ideological war, fearlessly and honestly, in the same spirit that once governed their struggle for independence.

To recap, Eritreans who were liberated by the barrel of a gun found it hard to live without the barrel. The gun is ruling their psyche amidst their denial. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is rooted deep but must be abandoned. The Eritrean officials I met are very humble, uncorrupted, and hardworking. But they don’t realize that they are wrong, likely not in a besmirched sense of clinching to power or any other selfish end so prevalent in Ethiopia.

My trip to Afabit in 2018 is worthy of mention. I traveled with an Eritrean notable who on the way decided to visit his colleague. Upon arrival at the house, I was told we are crushing a wedding party. A daughter of a regional high official was being married. About six of us sat around a table and ate from a single, very-large plate. The house was incredibly modest, the people were stunningly friendly even though I don’t speak Tigrinya. An equivalent official in Ethiopia would own a house with a net worth of hundreds of thousands of dollars. As another example, I would like to mention stories I heard from colleagues on how poor desert neighborhoods of the OLF camp supported and protected the soldiers. Eritreans shared water, meager resources, and above all, tolerated and respected the Oromo fighters. This is something that we must always remember.

These social contradictions between Eritrea’s young and old that I introduced above do not mean Eritreans do not care about Eritrea, their homeland. On a trip to Massawa, I saw mountains and beautifully terraced steep gorges as far as the eye can see. In fact, few countries in the world can brag about so much terracing. It is one of the positive outcomes of the Sawa doctrine which employs the youth during the summer.

During my stay in Eritrea, I visited at least three small dams with an Eritrean colleague who resides in the United States. Traveling through the countryside, I observed numerous tiny dams that capture rainwater. I saw water tanks sharing space on the tops of hills with churches; the tanks distributed water for drinking as well as irrigation by gravity. Amazingly, I saw no foreign expert at any of the dam sites; Eritreans were in charge. Upon return to Asmara, I met the chief engineer and gave him my feedback, as the purpose of my trip. No doubt, excellent projects are going on in Eritrea worthy of Western notice and support. Eritrea will likely not be hungry ever again if the nine dam projects are completed and a settled political mind supports the farmer. Eritrea’s biggest enemy, despite all these great projects, remains the generational contradiction that the regime has failed to see.

Eritrea’s freedom is being compromised by the very ideology that is in place to guard Eritrea’s freedom. Unfortunately, surviving Eritrean fighters that sacrificed greatly for freedom, wanting to bring hope to their nation, are becoming the very reason for the diminishing hope of their youth. As the saying goes, “you don’t raise heroes, you raise sons.”  But Eritrea, the free land of the 1990s, failed to raise sons or raised sons that did not approve of the way they were raised. They refused to be the heroes. They left their homeland en masse, and those who remained in the country counted the days when Allah or God will bring change. Eritrea could not raise heroes after independence because the fathers cannot convince their children to accept the Sawa indoctrination, and the children can’t talk to their fathers who epitomize no hope. There is fueling anger between the two. Jails are common and full because the regime failed to acknowledge Eritrea’s emerging needs and views. But I have not heard levels of brutality that are germane to Ethiopia. The resultant anger of the father is nearly dull, and as Publilius Syrus said: “an angry father is most cruel towards himself.” The Eritrean angry regime suffocated its best minds and smothered itself.

Based on the mass migration of Eritrea’s youth, the withdrawn mood observed on many occasions, and the national ambition that predominantly grew in one dimension over the last 30 years, i.e., militarily – luckily without corruption – I conclude that the internal policy of Eritrea has failed. But, as of now, Eritrea may not be engulfed in ethnic conflicts like Ethiopia or Kenya because inter-ethnic relations are not as unforgiving. The next question should then be, what does this have to do with Ethiopia?

Is there value in Eritrea’s vacillating politics?

Failure of the Sawa doctrine also failed Eritrean policy towards its neighbors.  Eritrea lost the status it was afforded as a young free nation that could carry the torch of democracy at least in East Africa. At the outset, it seemed that Eritrea cared about freedom fighters, and paid a heavy diplomatic toll to train regional armed groups. Indeed, Eritrea was the last shelter for the OLF when it was denied shelter by Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia. After Meles and Isaias parted ways, the OLF fighters were safe in Eritrea, and their modest living endured them through tough times. Eritrea’s diplomatic sacrifice for standing with the OLF, its military and economic support, and moral backing to the Oromo people will always be remembered.

However, while supporting the oppressed people of Ethiopia, Eritrea also stood with political organizations and armed groups that stood antagonistic to these freedom fighters. An Oromo scholar once asked the adviser to President Isaias Afwerki, Yemane GebreAb, to explain the genesis of this dual agenda. Yemane didn’t answer the question not because he did not know the answer, but because he did not want to. So, once again, a question comes to mind, why does Eritrea support two antagonistic groups of Ethiopia? One possible reason could be that Eritrea might have believed that these groups may reconcile. I will argue below that Eritrea knew full well that the missions of groups such as the OLF and Ginbot 7 were irreconcilable.

By the early 2000s, Eritrea hosted at least 11 opposition forces of Ethiopia:

  1. Oromo Liberation Movement
  2. Arbenyoch Ginbar
  3. Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement
  4. Gambella People’s Liberation Movement
  5. Sidama Liberation Front (later Sidama National Liberation Front)
  6. Ogaden National Liberation Front
  7. Tigray People’s Democratic Movement
  8. Ginbot 7 Movement
  9. Ginbot 7 Arbenyoch Movement for Freedom and Democracy
  10. Islamic Front for Liberation of Oromia
  11. Oromo People Liberation Organization

The concentration of these movements in a country about the size of Virginia was not a purely solidarity act. Some of these fronts, hosted and trained by Eritrea, have positive working relationships with each other. For example, the Oromo, Sidama, Gambela, and Ogaden fronts often cooperated and worked together. On the other hand, for the OLF, the political aspirations of Ginbot 7 and Arbenyoch Ginbar are worse than that of the Ethiopian regime which the OLF was fighting.

The political views and programs of these blend of organizations never mattered to the Eritrean regime. Any organization that posed a threat to the government of Ethiopia was welcome to Eritrea. In a hindsight, Eritrea did not care much about the true interest of those fronts. Otherwise, why would a country support two organizations who stand antagonistic to each other, and as we also saw it again later, known to be irreconcilable?

Let us consider the remote possibility that Eritrea sees a benefit in supporting two antagonistic parties at the same time, OLF and Ginbot 7. Justification of this argument can be formulated as such: the rise of the OLF would democratize Ethiopia from which Eritrea stands to benefit while strong Ginbot 7 may serve as a check on a strong OLF.  But then, Eritrea dropped its support of OLF when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power while strengthening support for Ginbot 7, a group that clandestinely and at times openly advocates for recapturing Asab, an Eritrean port city, to give landlocked Ethiopia access to the sea. Why does Eritrea’s political stand conflict with Eritrea’s own interest?  There can only be one plausible explanation for this: Eritrea’s primary policy towards Ethiopia is to destabilize the country.  Everything else is secondary or tertiary. This is the only conceivable explanation.

To affirm this assertion, let us revisit Eritrea’s recent military intervention in Ethiopia. Historically, Eritrea fought for independence against the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian regime of Haile Selassie. Ethiopian highlanders remained strongly anti-Eritrean independence which fueled the 1998 Ethio-Eritrean war. Propaganda against Eritrean independence dominated Amhara’s mass media ever since. On the other hand, Oromos overwhelmingly supported the freedom of the Eritrean people. Today, Eritrean soldiers are in Oromia fighting OLA, the army they trained in Eritrea for decades.

In 2018, shortly after the détente with Ethiopia, Eritrea pressured OLF leaders to return to Ethiopia under a poorly conceived agreement. The return of the OLF coagulated democratic and federal forces into one camp. It was a small step towards accomplishing lasting peace in Ethiopia. Even old enemies, the OLF and the TPLF started talking about long-term peace. The only unhappy camp was a demoralized, nostalgic, and defeated camp known as Unionists, who wanted to impose one language, one alphabet, one name, and one culture on all the people of Ethiopia.

The prospect of lasting peace in Ethiopia was also a threat to our old colleagues from Eritrea, and they started sympathizing with their old nemesis (the unionists). Eritrean politicians calculated that a peaceful Ethiopia poses more of a threat to Asmara than a resuscitated Amhara hegemony with strong irredentist ambition for Asab. Hard-line Amhara politicians are now the only group in Ethiopia that supports the presence of Eritrea’s army in Ethiopia. It is highly likely that if Eritrea is forced out of Ethiopia under the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements, it will eventually commence organizing Amhara fighting forces to fulfill its destabilizing purpose.

In a surprising move, the Eritrean Orthodox Church quickly issued a statement supporting the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) against the “Holy Synod of Oromia and nations and nationalities” which was established to address longstanding canonical, linguistic, and cultural questions in Oromia and other areas in the South. There was no call for calm and no desire to mediate peace between the two groups. Instead, the Eritrean church was ill-advised to seize the opportunity and politically capitalize on the emerging conflict. As one of the most formidable socio-political transformations of the century, this emerging conflict within the EOTC could further divide an already fragmented country. Failure of the old synod to heed and answer the demands of its followers, and its rush to condemn and excommunicate those who posed canonical questions, is likely to cement the split. Eritrea’s fuel will only add a tragedy on top of a tragedy. But, clearly, Eritrea’s church propagates Asmara’s policy.

To be clear, Eritrea does not support the rise of Amhara hegemony as one may read on the surface. However, it saw the unity of democratic forces in Ethiopia (i.e., an Oromo, Tigray, and South alliance) as a greater risk to its destabilizing policy. In other words, the Sawa doctrine could not tolerate the possibility of an Ethiopia that is at peace with itself. Eritrea takes stable and democratic Ethiopia as a bad message for the Eritrean regime because it will have a new story for the Sawa generation.

One may wonder what the impact of the withdrawal of Eritrean forces would be on this settled and destabilizing policy of Eritrea. Reports of some Eritrean troops withdrawing from Tigray have excited many who believe the move may be a prelude to peace in Ethiopia, or at least to northern Ethiopia. The excitement is unfortunately doomed because Eritrea’s move is likely tactical. According to some sources, Eritrea’s forces will remain engaged in Ethiopia, particularly against OLA in Oromia. They will also remain as the main guards and security force planners for Abiy. The Eritrean army’s departure from Ethiopia is forced by international pressure, and once given credit for the withdrawal, Eritrea will continue serving the central thesis of Asmara’s policy of destabilizing Ethiopia clandestinely.

To date, Prime Minister Abiy’s main support has come from the Ethiopianist or Unionist camps. President Isaias would have no problem standing with this group as long as they serve the destabilizing purpose, even if Abiy defies the demand of this camp. Simply put, Abiy is a hostage of Eritrean political strategy and the Unionist’s wicked plan. He continues searching for a robust constituency – his weakest link.

In the eventuality that Asmara and Finfinne break up, will Eritrea make a call to OLA?  I see this as an unlikely scenario. OLA is grounded at home, in a better climate, and among its people. There is no calling that would convince Oromo forces of the Qubee generation to risk another dependency on a foreign “friend” once proven untrustworthy. Eritrea’s lesson from its 1993 mistakes and supporting OLA after 1998 was well-received but very short-lived. With this recent experience, to think that OLA will revert to friendship with a force that betrayed the Oromo people twice in a generation would be too far-fetched to contemplate. I believe the days of Asmara’s superficial friendship and betrayal are long gone.

In conclusion, the Eritrean regime’s policy on peace is the weakest link in establishing a cohesive peace plan, a hurdle to creating peace in East Africa simply because Asmara sees any form of stability in Ethiopia as Eritrea’s instability.  Any peace talk that fails to understand this impediment will fail.