How Isaias Afwerki’s gamble in Ethiopia is endangering Eritrean sovereignty

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Since the conflict in Tigray started in 2020, Eritrea has become further entangled in Ethiopian politics. Young Eritrean conscripts assigned to the region have been killed, and Eritrean refugees have been displaced. Yohannes Woldemariam argues that the state’s actions under President Isaias Afwerki show a pursuit of regional integration over Eritrean independence, with little regard for its citizens.

Eritrea achieved self-determination after a devastating 30-year war and a referendum that demonstrated overwhelming support for independence. Yet the country’s President, Isaias Afwerki, a homegrown dictator, has hijacked Eritrean aspirations and perpetuated his personal rule through a vicious series of assaults upon real and imagined opponents.

The entire Eritrean youth has been on war footing ever since the 1998-2000 “border war” with Ethiopia, who are put into an indefinite military service and used as unpaid mercenaries for Isaias’ military adventures – in the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen. Since November 2020, Eritrean conscripts as young as 16 have been killed in the Tigray region of Ethiopia for a war that has little to do with them. Meanwhile, Eritrean refugees have been victimised by all sides of the conflict.

Abiy Ahmed has done a personal favour for Isaias, with the conflict helping him to assert himself and prolong his despotic rule. But the same cannot be said for the Eritrean people. Before the war, the country was a pariah, both regionally and internationally. Qatar was once Eritrea’s only significant lifeline, but Isaias has now fostered closer ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia and China, while under sanctions from the United States. At the United Nations General Assembly in March 2022, Eritrea supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, advocating against human rights investigations directed at Russia, distinguishing itself as the only African country to provide the country unequivocal support.

This is set against a backdrop of Abiy in Ethiopia feeling squeezed economically, fearing the potential impacts of the HR 6600 Bill in the US Congress, which would require sanctions on persons deemed to threaten peace and security and violate human rights in the conflict. In contrast, Isaias appears less concerned with HR 6600 because he believes staying the course in the Tigray is worth more than the Bill’s consequences. For one, a resurgence of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) political party in the neighbouring region is seen as an existential threat.

China is worried that Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict will affect its large investments in Ethiopia and has moved to strengthen ties with Isaias. Further, its renewed interest in the Red Sea, for political and economic reasons, can be used by Eritrea as a potential shield. At the same time, Eritrea’s closer ties with China through an embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative also risk a debt trap. Simultaneously, by allowing regional powers like the UAE to use the Eritrean port of Assab for its war effort in Yemen, it situates itself in complex geopolitics.

By antagonising Western countries and the United Nations, Eritrea is relying on a few actors, such as Russia and China, to bring it lucrative rents, particularly from arms and other hidden investments. The result is that in addition to the cost of lives, Isaias’s participation in the Ethiopian civil war is gambling with Eritrean self-determination. Making himself a useful pawn for regional and international actors, which he in turn exploits by switching sides – as in a survival game – is risky business.

It can seem paradoxical, however, that someone like Isaias who fought for Eritrean independence can possibly betray this vision.

Isaias, in fact, has a history of ambivalence about Eritrean sovereignty – second to his grandiose ambitions of using the country’s strategic location to pursue regional hegemony over the Horn of Africa. Meles Zenawi, former Ethiopia Prime Minister, once gave an interview to the CIA agent Paul Henze in which he stated that Isaias had not been as committed to Eritrean independence as the Eritrean people – a view corroborated by Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean defence minister and a founding members of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. In a central committee meeting in 1991, Mesfin says he was stunned to hear Isaias floating the idea of joining the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front political coalition that was governing the country. Isaias quickly retreated from the idea, perhaps biding his time for a more opportune moment.

Mixed signals from Isaias about Ethiopia’s use of Eritrea’s ports have rekindled the landlocked country’s expansionist ambitions to become a naval power, which alarms Eritreans concerned with territorial expansion. In Ethiopia, a desire to use the ports is shared across the political spectrum, from Tigrean activists to Ethiopian elites. Immediately before the Tigray war, the Tigrean General Tsadkan Gebetensae stated on record his ambitions of incorporating the Eritrean port of Assab. Likewise, Professor Gelawdios Araia of Lehman College argued for Tigray’s control of parts of the Red Sea, either by collaborating with “progressive Eritreans” or by force. Abiy in Ethiopia has openly stated his desire for a single army for Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Ambassador Dina Mufti, spokesman for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, further said: “If you ask each and every Eritrean today, they don’t like or celebrate the day they separated from Ethiopia and Ethiopians feel the same way.”

The lack of insistence from Isaias on demarcation, and instead the suggestion of promoting regional integration, would only steam ahead if his personal power and influence was seen to grow. To this end, Tigrean resistance is a problem. For over 20 years, Eritreans were told that the impasse between the two countries arose from the TPLF’s refusal to demarcate the border, but when Isaias realised that Abiy Ahmed had turned against the political party, he declared that “borders do not really matter”.

Faced with such a helpless situation, the Eritrean diaspora opposition is in a state of paralysis. Some feel that creating an alliance with the TPLF against Isaias is of strategic necessity. Others do not trust the TPLF to respect Eritrean sovereignty.

With Abiy’s questionable control over the Amhara militia, which is adamant to continue the war against Tigray, even if Abiy pursues a negotiated end, Isaias has developed separate parallel relationships with subnational groups, including the Amhara and the Afar. Isaias is now deeply involved in Ethiopian politics in complex ways and committed to the elimination of the TPLF leaders seen as blocking his ambitions.

Amid these political manoeuverings, Eritreans are among the major losers of the Tigray conflict, more so because the war is not about them. An Eritrean leader who cared about Eritrean lives and sovereignty would have produced a very different situation.

Yohannes Woldemariam is an Ethiopia expert who has been commenting and researching on the Horn of Africa for many years. You can email him here.

This article appeared first at the excellent LSE Blogs website. Click here to check it out there.

One thought on “How Isaias Afwerki’s gamble in Ethiopia is endangering Eritrean sovereignty

  1. Addendum:
    How did Isaias accumulate so much power?

    Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
    A significant number of those who are now critical of Isaias once were his militant supporters or at least compliant!

    “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.”

    Tracing the Eritrean dictator’s evolution into absolute dictatorship, the Milgram experiment explains the silence or compliance of EPLF members. There were many silences over the years. In the early 70s, he eliminated his “comrades’ ‘ who joined the armed struggle against the Haile Selassie dictatorship. He labeled them ultra-leftists. They were known as the Menkae group. Those who objected were systematically dealt with. Some like Sebhat Ephrem “corrected” their ways and continued to serve. In the late 70s, another group known as the Yemin (labeled as ultra-rightists) were eliminated. At different stages, he eliminated individuals and groups that he saw as threats to his power. Even earlier, as a newly minted fighter “Tegadalay”, he is reputed to have killed individuals like Abraham Tewolde and others.

    He was enabled in this because the fighters saw these actions as probably justified for achieving the ultimate goal: independence from Ethiopia. He himself was probably surprised by how easily he was able to normalize his crimes.

    After independence, in 1994 a group of disabled fighters demonstrated against being abandoned and neglected but were mowed down by troops he ordered.

    In 1997, a constitution was drafted after extensive participation by the people. It was never implemented. He sparked a war with Ethiopia and cited the special circumstances of the country for not implementing it. The war cost thousands of lives and the twenty years standoff with Ethiopia is the single most important reason for the mass exodus of Eritreans for which the country has become well known internationally.

    In 2001, he banned the private media and arrested the journalists as well as his comrades, who were among the founding members of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). They have been languishing in dungeons and many are assumed dead from torture and neglect.

    Any Eritrean suspected of harboring dissenting views will never be heard from again.

    There is no trial for political prisoners in the country. They simply disappear. It is a vicious dictatorship. It is a one-man rule and an evil one at that. Isaias has perpetuated his personal rule by an increasingly vicious series of assaults upon real and imagined opponents. Sadly, he has been aided and abetted in his hold on political power by some intellectual sycophants who are so mesmerized by his former leadership of a guerrilla independence movement that they are unwilling to lay a glove on him.

    Oddly, some of his defenders include people he imprisoned and tortured.

    One of his loyal henchmen and a partner in crime was a man known as Naizghi Kiflu. He died while being treated in London, his family was denied permission to bury his body in Eritrea. While the family begged the dictator for burial rights in Eritrea, the body remained in a freezer in London eventually forcing the family to bury him in London. A man who dedicated his life to fighting for Eritrean liberation after completing his education in the Soviet Union and who subsequently degenerated to become a loyal servant of Isaias for years was denied a resting place in the country of his birth for slighting the dictator. No one can feel safe around him for he can turn on anyone at any time. Even octogenarians and nonagenarians have been his victims. He has taken the entire nation hostage. He has become the world’s most notorious bully. The defining feature of Eritrea under the tyrannical rule of Isaias is the extraordinarily high level of state-sponsored violence.

    The stifling atmosphere in Eritrea has created a nation trapped in fear. Downplaying Isaias’s repression, Eritreans used to say that independence will take care of matters and that the focus should be the main enemy the Derg and prior to the Derg, Haile Selassie.

    No people ever recognize their dictator in advance, the Eritreans idolized and constructed the cult of Isaias during the struggle for liberation, by the time a critical mass of Eritreans realized the mistake, the monster or Frankenstein was all powerful and devouring his victims while always representing himself as having the best interests of the downtrodden. Ironically, it is the children of the downtrodden that he sacrifices as cannon fodder in his wars with Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and interventions in the DRC, Sudan, now in Tigray and everywhere in Ethiopia.

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