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Op-Ed: Ethiopia-Eritrea tensions and likely scenarios

Horn Of Africa Research Unit, Emirati Policy Center (EPC)

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (right), Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki (left) (Photo: EPC)

Key Takeaways:

  • Ethiopia’s approach to relations with Eritrea is based on two principles: First, Asmara’s significant political influence in Ethiopia needs to be curbed. Second, Eritrea is the most fitting neighbor to fulfill Addis Ababa’s geopolitical maritime ambitions.
  • The Eritrean regime believes that Addis Ababa acts like a hegemon, trying to isolate Eritrea politically. 
  • Asmara deals cautiously and vigilantly with the sudden shift in its neighbor’s politics about wanting a seaport in Eritrea, considering it a direct threat amounting to a declaration of war.
  • There are three potential scenarios for the future of Ethiopia-Eritrea relations: Sliding into war, soft containment, or stalemate.
  • The Ethiopian prime minister’s changed tone might mean his government is re-assessing its options and ruling out military action to spare the region another conflict.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea relations started worsening after the peace agreement between Addis Ababa and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2022. Addis Ababa and Asmara have very different positions on how the war they both waged against the TPLF ended and the role of Washington and the West in the peace arrangements. Eritrea has been accused of trying to torpedo these arrangements because it refused to withdraw all its forces from Tigray. Asmara’s influence in Ethiopia has been growing, and its presumed support of Amhara rebels who rejected the federal government’s plans to dissolve and disarm their forces to integrate and unify Ethiopian armies caused tensions.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s campaign to secure access to a seaport announced on October 13, 2023, has further fueled tensions. Ahmed’s plan has brought the two countries to the edge of a military confrontation with consequences for the Ethiopian and Eritrean people and the regional and international actors and stakeholders, especially with more signs that the two sides are preparing for such a confrontation.

This paper highlights the main reasons behind the gradual split between the two previous allies, Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and how the two countries are inching toward war. The paper also explores likely scenarios for future Ethiopia-Eritrea relations.

Reasons Behind the Abiy-Afwerk Alliance Collapse

The main reasons why the Ahmad-Afwerki alliance collapsed and tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea arose can be summarized as follows:

Outcomes of War and Peace with Tigray

The Pretoria peace agreement in November 2022 that ended almost two years of destructive war in northern Ethiopia led to dramatic changes in the alliance’s map. Abiy Ahmed’s government, Eritrea, and the Amhara nationalists shared the same goals and fears, bringing them to an alliance and a war against their common enemy, the TPLF. The TPLF has been an obstacle to the ambitions of the three forces, especially to the Addis Ababa-Asmara rapprochement and to Ahmed’s project to change the country’s ruling system from ethnic federalism to centralism.

Initially, Ahmed’s project aligned with the Eritrean regime’s outlook and served the nationalist Amhara, boosting its chances to rule the country again. However, disagreements surfaced later on the degree and type of change. Afwerki and the Amhara wanted to change the federal system radically, as it was viewed as the source of Ethiopia’s troubles. Eritrea and the Amhara considered Ahmed’s efforts as an adjustment by the regime to weaken the federal dimension to serve his long-term dual objectives: the domination of his ruling party and his Oromo ethnicity.

This alliance was a “marriage of convenience.” Although it succeeded in removing and weakening the TPLF, it also brought to the fore the contradictions in Ethiopia’s internal politics, serving further to add to historical grievances and hostilities and sowing anxiety and mistrust among former allies (particularly between Addis Ababa, the Eritrean regime, and the Amharic Fano militia). When hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF ended, the Ahmed-Amhara-Afwerki alliance crumbled. The Amhara and Afwerki view the peace agreement as a “stab in the back,” which failed to address their concerns. They saw this as the cause behind a shift in Ahmed’s alliances that made him close to the TPLF, still a significant threat to them.

Asmara, in particular, prefers to subjugate the Tigray region by force, eradicating the TPLF and destroying its capabilities. This is why Eritrea was dissatisfied with the agreement. It tried to undermine it and show Addis Ababa as untrustworthy and submissive to Washington. In an interview in February 2023, Eritrean President Afwerki was shockingly clear in the agreement’s criticism, describing it as engineered by Washington to help the TPLF avoid a military defeat, giving it another chance to rule the country. Afwerki claimed that “Washington’s clique” had brought a “document ready to sign,” and the role of negotiators was merely to implement American orders.

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The different positions and calculations of the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes about how the conflict was settled caused a dispute. This dispute included the failure to provide Eritrea with enough security guarantees to convince it to withdraw all of its forces from Tigray and maybe compensate for the cost it incurred because of the war. There was a likely disagreement on other thorny issues, such as the possibility of keeping the two peace agreements and the growing Eritrean influence inside Ethiopia.

Border Disputes: A Growing Headache for Addis Ababa

Eritrea exploited the war in the northern parts of its neighboring country to achieve two strategic objectives:

First, cement its influence inside Ethiopia by weakening its historical rivals (Tigray) and strengthening its alliances with their ethnic competitors, especially the Amhara.

Second, regain and impose a de facto situation in areas where a UN-supported commission to demarcate the borders between the two countries. Moreover, the Ethiopian army helped its Amhara allies to take control of Welkait and Raya and their surroundings disputed by Amhara, west and south Tigray. This choked off the TPLF, closing its western outlets with Sudan.

Addis Ababa ignored the behavior of its allies because it needed their military capabilities. However, the Asmara-Amhara alliance, especially after tensions built up in Amhara since April 2023, became a cause of concern for Ahmed’s government, thwarting plans to strengthen centralism and impose centralist sovereignty all over the country, especially its efforts to dissolve regional forces and militias to stop problems they caused with the center and solve border disputes among ethnic regions.

The Amhara-Tigray border dispute is another polarizing issue. It places a significant responsibility on Addis Ababa to fulfill its commitments related to a critical article in the Pretoria Peace Agreement, calling for restoring the constitutional order disrupted due to the Tigray conflict. The Ethiopian government’s centralist policies inflame the armed rebellion of the Amhara nationalists, who refuse to withdraw from areas under their control to pave the way for peace, including resettling hundreds of thousands of displaced people ahead of a referendum to determine the fate of these areas.

Ethiopia’s Campaign to Secure Sea Port Access

Ethiopia’s maritime ambition became clear with leaks from a July 20, 2023, meeting between the Ethiopian prime minister and businessmen in Addis Ababa. During the meeting, Ahmed said all options, including using force to secure a seaport for his country, were on the table. This worsened the already tense Ethiopian-Eritrean relations, further turning friendship into hostility. Ahmed’s speech before the Ethiopian parliament on October 13, 2023, started a “frank” debate among Ethiopians about an outlet to the Red Sea agenda. 

The prime minister said this had become a “life or death” matter. Later, Ahmed tried to assure neighboring countries of Ethiopia’s good intentions and dispel regional concerns. On more than one occasion, he reiterated that his country would not pursue its interests “through force” but instead through a “win-win approach for both sides.” However, the Ethiopia-Eritrea relationship continues to deteriorate alarmingly.

Reports said both armies went on high alert, and their presence beefed up along the borders, especially close to northern Djibouti. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa is trying to increase Western pressure on the Eritrean regime under the pretext that Asmara undermines the implementation of the peace agreement, continues to occupy parts of Tigray, and arms the Amharic Fano militia.

Complications of Geopolitical Harmony

Regional and international factors drive Ethiopia and Eritrea further apart. Washington and the West are trying to punish the regime in Asmara and isolate it regionally and internationally because it participates in the war against Tigray and its support for the Russian-Chinese axis, among other things.

Since the start of 2023, the Eritrean president has engaged in significant diplomatic activities, including visits to Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Russia, and South Africa. These visits were part of the concerted Eritrean efforts to adjust to the emerging realities, especially considering developments in Ethiopia. The Eritrean president sensed the potential unraveling of his alliance with Ahmed, particularly after the latter signed a peace agreement with Tigray and improved relations with the United States.

Going by the past, Asmara’s improving ties with certain regional powers have usually meant some distancing from these powers’ rivals. For instance, Afwerki’s outreach to Kenya, shown in his visit on February 8 and the announcement of Eritrea’s return to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), implied tacit support for Nairobi’s regional leadership ambitions at Ethiopia’s potential expense. Similarly, Eritrea’s rapprochement with Cairo and Khartoum, particularly after the Sudanese civil war erupted, suggested opposing interests at the regional level.

Asmara’s frustration with the IGAD approach, shaped by power dynamics within the organization, including its handling of the Sudanese crisis, is evident. Afwerki’s reservations extend to anything that might contribute to Ethiopia reclaiming historical hegemony and imposing conditions on Eritrea, particularly concerning border issues and Ethiopia’s aspirations for a seaport through Eritrean waters.

Approaches Intensifying Tensions

Two key considerations drive Addis Ababa’s strategy in managing its evolving relationship with its neighbor: Firstly, Eritrea’s influence on Ethiopian internal dynamics pushes Addis Ababa to curtail Eritrea’s role and influence in the region. This aims to neutralize Asmara’s potential support for Ethiopian opponents, mitigate various sources of tension, and protect the fragile peace process within Ethiopia. Secondly, Ethiopia perceives Eritrea as a strategically located neighbor that can contribute to its maritime ambitions and, simultaneously, as the most resistant and independent actor against those ambitions.

The Ethiopian prime minister hinted that “the popular sentiment that led to Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993 no longer exists now,” a statement interpreted by observers as a violation of Eritrean sovereignty. According to a significant segment of Ethiopian elites, including Ahmed and Amhara nationalists, this assertion is legally questionable, contending that not all Ethiopians endorsed Eritrea’s independence during drafting the Federal Constitution in 1995.

Ahmed suggests that granting Eritrea independence without securing a port was a historical mistake by the former ruling coalition dominated by the Tigray front (1991-2018). He argues that legal ambiguities exist, allowing negotiations on specific points, such as maritime access or even a return to the pre-war situation (1993-1998), during which Ethiopia used the Assab Port without paying as a form of acknowledgment for recognizing its neighbor’s independence.

While the Ahmed government invokes historical, demographic, and economic justifications for its maritime ambitions, asserting its right to Eritrean coasts, islands, and territorial waters, its current preferences center around securing a lucrative deal. This deal involves offering Asmara a stake in the shares of the Renaissance Dam or Ethiopian telecommunications and aviation companies. In return, Ethiopia seeks Asmara’s acceptance of providing permanent and reliable access to the Red Sea.

On the other hand, the Eritrean regime holds a complex vision of the ruling elites in Addis Ababa and the dynamics of the Ethiopian political landscape. It perceives Ethiopia as playing the hegemon and contributing to Eritrea’s isolation. Afwerki rejects regional marginalization and resents, for example, being excluded from peace arrangements in northern Ethiopia, given his decisive contribution to the federal government’s victory in the country.

In contrast to Djibouti and Somalia, Asmara is approaching this sudden shift in its neighbor’s position with caution and vigilance. The Eritrean regime sees it as a direct threat and a potential for war. It worries that the speech is primarily directed at Eritrea increased due to various suspicious Ethiopian actions. The Ethiopian army’s show of force on the 116th anniversary of its establishment on October 26, the Ethiopian government’s strengthening of security and defense cooperation with Djibouti (a defense agreement signed on November 20), and the renewal of a similar agreement with Somalia on December 6 (concluded initially in 2014), reinforce this view. 

Eritrea has taken concrete steps to prepare for a potential Ethiopian invasion of its territory, particularly in areas adjacent to Djibouti. These measures include intensifying military meetings with tribal leaders, particularly the Afar community, internal military mobilization on both sides of the border, and external diplomatic efforts led by President Afwerki and Foreign Minister Osman Saleh. These diplomatic engagements, particularly with Cairo and Riyadh, reflect growing concern over the assertive Ethiopian ambition to access the Red Sea.

Following the historic reconciliation between the two countries in mid-2018, Afwerki initially preferred a robust centralized system in Addis Ababa led by an allied elite. The approach aimed to establish an Ethiopia-Eritrea confederation, realizing the dream of regional superiority and influence. Alternatively, the goal was to address existing problems, fortify the alliance, and enhance cooperation by implementing previous agreements and reaching new political, security, and economic agreements.

However, this ambition has recently waned. Asmara is now more concerned with securing amicable relations with its neighbor without risking a loss of influence or resorting to force. It hopes that Addis Ababa’s leaders will not choose to threaten its sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

There is a particular concern about the potential mobilization of aggressive ethnic groups, including the Amhara, Oromo, and especially the Tigrayans and Afar, who share geographic, ethnic, social, cultural, and linguistic ties with their counterparts in Eritrea. They fear that these two ethnic groups, who make up the population’s majority, could be used to divide Eritrea in pursuit of Ethiopia’s maritime and geopolitical ambitions.

Possible Scenarios

Considering the factors above, three potential scenarios emerge for the future of Ethiopia-Eritrea relations:

Scenario 1 – Sliding into War: The likelihood of escalation into war could increase under one or more of the following conditions:

  • The Ethiopian government achieves significant success on internal security, political, and economic fronts. These successes may include national reconciliation, containing tensions and rebellions in the Amhara and Oromo regions, improved living conditions, and rallying Ethiopian people against Eritrea.
  • The formation of new alliances or the formalization of existing undeclared alliances, infusing them with pan-Ethiopian meanings such as the ones between the Oromo and Tigray ethnic groups or cooperation between the Ahmed government and the Tigray Front against the Asmara-Amhara alliance. This cooperation can be officially recognized, mainly if the goal is to forcibly remove Eritrean forces and Amharic militias from the Tigray region.
  • Miscalculations by one or both sides that push the already tense situation along the border, such as provocations or limited attacks, into an open war.
  • Escalation of tensions, hostile rhetoric, and mobilization, exacerbating mistrust and the continued rigidity of the two parties’ positions with opposing views on outstanding issues.
  • Contribution of some international and regional powers to inflaming the situation by supporting and encouraging the two sides to impose their conditions on each other.

Scenario 2: Soft Containment: For the realization of this scenario, one or some of the following conditions need to be met:

  • Some friends of the two countries and those concerned with security and stability in the region start mediating to reduce tensions and push forward normalizing relations between the two sides.
  • Both sides exercise great restraint and actively seize opportunities for calm and rapprochement. For instance, the two countries’ leaders meet on the sidelines of upcoming conferences and summits instead of avoiding each other, as has been the case in the past few months.
  • The two countries and the Horn of Africa region experience transformations that create new regional synergy and integration. Common threats and risks emerge, compelling the two sides to overcome them.
  • A change in the ruling elites in the two countries, especially in Asmara, occurs. These new elites become increasingly aware of the need to overcome historical grievances and initiate a new chapter of good neighborly relations. This transformative approach involves aligning common goals and interests with collective approaches for mutual benefit.

Scenario 3 Continued Stalemate: In this scenario, the following are expected:

  • The current situation persists due to the two parties’ deep caution, particularly their fear of an unaffordable confrontation. Persistent mistrust hinders the possibility of rapprochement.
  • Addis Ababa may choose to cause trouble for the Eritrean government by co-opting and supporting the Afar tribes, especially those opposed to the Eritrean regime. This involves encouraging them to rebel and disengage from Asmara. This strategy aims to divert the Eritrean regime’s attention and resources to internal affairs or potentially push Asmara to seek assistance from Addis Ababa in exchange for concessions on outstanding issues such as borders and ports.
  • Eritrea might partially withdraw its forces from the Tigray region while retaining control over key areas like Badme, Airup, and some border areas in the region’s north. Using its expertise and tools of influence, Asmara could increase its sway on Ethiopia, creating additional security and geopolitical challenges for Addis Ababa. This includes ensuring that Addis Ababa’s rhetoric on the Red Sea does not alienate the Amhara region and weaken or dismantle the Eritrean-Amharic alliance.

Conclusions 

The Ahmed government’s pursuit of sea access for Ethiopia, potentially at the expense of Eritrean sovereignty, appears to have multiple objectives. It may reflect a strategy to mobilize the Ethiopian public and foster internal cohesion. The move could also weaken the Amhara-Asmara alliance, discouraging Asmara from interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, particularly its presumed support for Amharic Fano rebel militias. Securing sea access may contribute positively to the peace agreement by facilitating the withdrawal of all Eritrean forces from the Tigray region.

The Ethiopian prime minister’s changed tone toward Eritrea suggests a reassessment of options, with the military force option likely ruled out to prevent another violent conflict in the region. The third scenario appears very probable in the foreseeable future, although the other two scenarios, especially scenario one, remain more likely.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in Emirates Policy Center’s website on 27 December 2023.

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