For far too long, the Horn of Africa has been rocked by various wars and conflicts instigated by land and ethnic disputes, religious expansion, quest for economic gain, political issues and more. These wars and conflicts led to massacres, mass displacements, refugee crisis, destruction of economies and infrastructure, the rise and fall of oppressive regimes and political instability. In addition, recurring famine and scramble of several countries for access to a strategic region with a maritime chokepoint has raised the Horn of Africa high in the list of most conflict-ridden and turbulent regions of the world.

The dark socio-political and poor economic conditions in countries of the Horn may have started with the fall of the Axumite Kingdom, around the 8th century. The once great kingdom declined when its trade routes were cut off from the rest of the world due to local and foreign conflicts while the isolation had heavily impacted its economy and foreign connections. From then on, the population of this region had to endure invasions, decreased crop yield, drought, overgrazing, conquest, contending princes and lords, colonization and post colonization civil wars. Unfortunately, some of the aforementioned issues in one form or another still remain to this day and they are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the question becomes to what extent and how the most significant state-based and interstate-based conflicts can be brought down in number and severity so that the region will soon make significant progress for the better. This article will focus on Eritrea and Ethiopia, their encounters, the causes and perils of instability and the most promising solution for the future.

In 1991, Eritrea gained its right for self-determination after winning a 30-year war against Ethiopia. In 1998, due to reckless policies and excessive ambition for regional power, President Isaias Afworki of Eritrea ignited a costly war with Ethiopia which went on for two years. To understand the nature and causes of the 1998 war, it may be better to look at the situation from the perspectives of both governments and the grand scheme of things. Thereby, we can learn that this war was not about the border but a quest for becoming a regional power which is rocking the Horn of Africa still to this day.  

As has been stated previously, Isaias is driven by power ambitions, so much so that he has been ruling Eritrea for almost 30 years with an iron fist, instigated military confrontations with all of Eritrea’s neighboring countries, continues to aggressively compete in the regional power politics and along the way illegally intervenes in the internal affairs of other countries. For example, one can see that Isaias is dead set on using Ethiopia as his principal gateway for consolidating regional power. Based on his narratives and actions one can also say that he believes as much in the coercion of Ethiopian governments as cultivating hate between and among the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1998, his dangerous tactics for retaining political and economic upper hand in the region by coercing Ethiopia into supposedly unfair trade agreement has turned fatal. Till 2018, the two countries remained trapped in a tug of war about the April 13, 2002 UN decision on their borders, maintained a standoff with occasional skirmishes and fought a proxy war in Somalia. Since 2018 however, Isaias seems to have befriended the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abey Ahmed, heretofore, has been done for the sole purpose of deflecting the presumed irresolvable Ethio-Eritrean border conflict, taking the fight inside Ethiopia and turning Ethiopians savagely on each other.

Looking at past political developments of the region from the perspective of former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the late PM Meles Zenawi, the 1998 Ethio-Eritrean war was also not about the border. On one hand, Meles and his administration didn’t want to bow down to the trade related demands of short-tempered Isaias and his intimidations. On the other hand, many Ethiopians who had refused to accept Eritrean independence and those who resented the loss of access to the sea pressured their government to go to war with Eritrea in full force. It’s needless to say that the relationship between Isaias and Meles had gone through a bit of a rough patch when both of them were leading their respective gorilla war fighters in the 1980s which may have also contributed to the continued mistrust between the leaders and the intense fighting.

With regard to Eritrean and Ethiopian military encounters, former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who assumed power after the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 can be considered as a leader who ruled Ethiopia during least eventful years. For the most part, he only made sure he sticks to a script he inherited from his predecessor and continued the Ethiopian no war – no peace policy on Eritrea until he was replaced by the current Prime Minister, Abey Ahmed, in 2018. For Abey, maintaining the status quo was not in his plan from the get-go. Evidently, Isaias and Abey are focus on their narrow interests and short-term wins. They proved to be even more so, as reflected in their decision to reroute the Ethio-Eritrean border standoff and take the confrontation inside Ethiopia for a face off with the former powerhouse of Ethiopian politics, the TPLF (Tigrian People’s Liberation Front) or the current government of Ethiopian Tigrai province. The TPLF, which had held a dominant government position in Ethiopia from 1991 until Abey took power in 2018, is now entrenched in its home base the Tigrai province while rebuilding its provincial military to defend itself from the unholy Isaias-Abey alliance. On the other end, Isaias sees no future for himself nor for his regime without the complete annihilation of TPLF from its roots. In contrast, like victims of Stockholm Syndrome, Abey seems to believe in teaming up with his former enemy Isaias to quell any threat from within Ethiopia including from that of TPLF. The dangerous and unholy alliance of these two megalomaniac leaders is only increasing the risk of a manmade disaster and a long-lasting instability of the Horn of Africa. 

Thus far, Isaias’s dangerous games and tactics may be playing to his advantage and their effects may be inconspicuous. In the near future however, the world may get awakened with Eritrea and Ethiopia locked once again in a chaotic conflict with the peoples of both countries suffering horrendously and causing a tragedy of epic proportions. The growing tension between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Eritrean regime on one side and the government of Ethiopian Tigrai province on the other side should be indisputable warning signal for a high probability of a great tragedy that’s about to occur.

With some political progress in Sudan and Somalia, recent power shift in Ethiopia and the expected 2021 elections in Djibouti, Eritrea is the only remaining country in the Horn with a dictator, an instigator of regional instability and one who aggressively intervenes in the internal affairs of neighboring countries. As such, altering the political, societal and economic trends and the deplorable conditions of countries in the Horn of Africa will require bringing swift political change in Eritrea. Looking at the problem set from the perspective of regional benefits, removing a heavy weight that’s holding the region back by bringing political change within Eritrea will likely have a direct and immediate impact in diffusing political tensions, revitalizing economies, rebuilding democratic institutions, increasing investments, reducing refugee and IDP crisis within and across countries of the Horn and beyond. This is all possible because removing the factors that cause a fragile socio-political environment is directly related with increase in trade between countries, more stability, building interstate partnerships and structures and growing regional economies. Bearing in mind the current political realities of the Horn leaves no doubt Eritrea is the last key on the ring for the Horn of Africa as a whole to turn its direction, undergo a transformation, become a strategic partner of nations and once again turn out to be an entry point for the emerging African market, just as it used to be during the Axumite period.  

Dr. Tomas Solomon

Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy (ERIPS) 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of ERIPS, or any other entity.