Eritrea: Is Isaias looking for a final confrontation with his Tigrayan enemies?
There is a pattern to Eritrean diplomacy
Sometimes months pass and little happens. President Isaias sits by his dam, contemplating and scheming. At others there is a blizzard of activity.
We seem to be in in one of the latter patterns.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy in his latest visit to Eritrea inspected the graduation-parade rehearsals at Sawa for the 33rd Round of the National Service conscripts.
Sawa is the center for military training for Eritrea’s National Service and is normally closed to outside visitors.
It came at the end of a two-day visit that concluded with the usual bland and uninformative statement.
“In their extensive discussion, President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed reviewed the progress achieved and obstacles encountered in the past two years in the implementation of the historic Declaration of Peace and Friendship agreement signed between the two countries in July 2018.
The two sides agreed to further bolster the prevailing, all-rounded, cooperation between the two countries. They also agreed to work together to enhance regional cooperation in the Horn of Africa firmly aware that this is pivotal for nurturing robust ties anchored on mutual complementarity.”
It has been remarked upon that unlike previous trips, this one was handled entirely by the Eritreans.
- In the past Prime Minister Abiy announced publicly, via press releases and twitter, that his trips to Eritrea were taking place and allowed the Ethiopian media to accompany him.
- No such announcement was made by the Prime Minister’s office prior to this trip.
- All information about the visit was released by Eritrean Minister of Information.
No sooner than this trip was over than a high-level delegation arrived in Sudan. It was led by Eritrean Chief of Staff, General Filipos Weldeyohanes, and including Eritrea’s National Security Director, Abraha Kasa, and the Commander of the Eritrean Navy, Admiral Humed “Karikare.”
So what’s under way?
These visits come after President Isaias spent two days earlier this month in Cairo, meeting President al-Sisi.
Al-Monitor helpfully pointed out that it was President Isaias’s fifth visit to Egypt since Sisi came to power in 2014. Isaias had previously visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on May 2, and Khartoum, Sudan, on June 25.
Al-Monitor, which is based in Washington and generally well informed, went on to suggest that the main issue under discussion was Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam in the Nile, which is keeping Egyptians up at night worried that their water supplies will be interrupted.
Quoting an unnamed diplomat, Al-Monitor said:
“Cairo is open to all regional and international initiatives designed to resolve the dispute over the GERD. Egypt and Eritrea have common interests that are not limited to bilateral files. There is ongoing coordination in handling the regional dossiers in the Red Sea region on the one hand, and the relations with Ethiopia on the other.”
‘Speaking to Al-Monitor on the role Eritrea can play in the conflict between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the GERD, Hamdy Abdel Rahman Hassan, a professor of political sciences at Cairo University, said, “Under the rule of Afwerki, Eritrea [became] a key actor in the power equation in the Horn of Africa given its important geostrategic position. President Afwerki is able to act at the foreign level and exploit the [disputes] to his own interests.”
‘Abdel Rahman Hassan added, “Eritrea’s president already announced his position on the GERD in 2016. He believes that the dam exceeds the development needs of Ethiopia. There are multiple signs indicating that the Eritrean position is in favor of Egypt, particularly after the tripartite negotiations [on the dam] have come to a crossroad.”’
A threat to peace?
In another article, Al-Monitor looked back an earlier report they published.
‘“For Egypt, the matter of the Nile is a matter of life and death,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in September 2019, adding, “I don’t think anybody would agree that Ethiopian development should come at the expense of the lives of Egyptians.”
Those are the stakes, as Egypt, sees it, if Ethiopia ignores Cairo’s appeals to hold off on filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) before an agreement is reached on how the Nile’s waters should be shared among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
After the collapse of the latest round of talks, brokered by South Africa and mediated by the African Union, the diplomatic thread is running out, and while armed conflict seems a remote possibility, it can’t be dismissed, either.
After the collapse of the talks, Shoukry said, “Any serious harm caused by the Renaissance Dam to the water security of Egypt and Egyptians is a red line, and Egypt and its apparatuses cannot stand idly by without responding to the damage caused.”’
The suggestion that President Isaias might use his diplomatic skills to bring Egypt and Ethiopia together where President Trump, the UN Security Council and the African Union have failed may seem faintly absurd. But President Isaias is well placed as a friend of both governments, and in this world nothing should be ruled out.
A common enemy: Tigray
If there is one issue that unites Isaias and Abiy it is Tigray’s TPLF. about which they are both almost pathologically obsessive making little or no effort to hold any serious discussions or dialogue.
The TPLF, which is concerned over the future of federalism in Ethiopia in the face of the Prime Minister’s drive to centralise the Ethiopian state, is a thorn in Abiy’s side. Isaias has long regarded the Tigrayans as his predominant enemies.
Prime Minister Abiy postponed Ethiopian elections, saying that Covid-19 made it impossible to hold them in August 2020. The decision was rejected by some Ethiopians, including the Tigrayans, who described it as illegal. TPLF threatened to hold their own elections in the Tigray region in August and has now elected an election commissioner.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister fears that the Tigrayans are moving towards a de-facto independent state. The Tigrayans have repeatedly acted to prevent Ethiopian military equipment including heavy artillery and weapons to be moved from the border with Eritrea.
This was reported more than a year ago.
“Tigray region residents in northern Ethiopia have blocked military trucks withdrawing from the border with Eritrea. Angry youth in the region questioned the movement of troops saying they need clarity about regional security once the military leaves.
They blocked the military trucks from leaving Shire and Zalambessa areas where they had been stationed. It is the second time they have prevented the armoured military vehicles from leaving the border areas.
Ethiopia announced last month, it had started withdrawing its troops from disputed territories along the border with Eritrea as part of the peace deal signed in July between the two countries.”
The suggestion that President Isaias was looking for a final knock-out blow against the TPLF is not new. It was made by an Ethiopian analyst earlier this year.
As Naty Berhane Yifru put it: “Should such tit-for-tat between TPLF and Isaias continue, we may be in for another devastating cycle of conflict, or even possibly the disintegration of Ethiopia. Nobel Peace Prize or not, Abiy’s inability to correctly choose between protecting a region of his own country or cuddling a newfound foreign friend, known the world over for his cruelty against his own people, may cost him dearly.”
These are high stakes indeed. There is no proof that another conflict across the Mereb river is looming, but if there was to be a war between Eritrea and Tigray, any government in Addis Ababa would want to ensure that Sudan would remain neutral. It was the use of Sudan as a rear base that allowed the TPLF to conduct its highly effective war against the forces of the Ethiopian Dergue. May this explain President Isaias’s decision to send such a high-level military delegation to Khartoum?
All this comes as Prime Minister Abiy wrestles with forces that are resisting his attempts to present himself in the traditional Ethiopian role: as a strong-man, who centralises the state authority. Hence his arrest of at least 5,000 of his opponents. Some are Oromo and some Amhara.
This is a struggle Abiy cannot afford to lose.
In the circumstances, is it fanciful to suggest Isaias and Abiy might be working together to rid themselves of a common enemy, the TPLF, with the support of both Sudan and Egypt? Was the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s visit to Sawa a pre-cursor for such an offensive, with Sudan agreeing to stand aside and not allow the Tigrayans to use their territory as a rear-base? (Tigray has a border with Sudan).
The price for Abiy might include an agreement with Egypt and Sudan over the filling and operation of GERD, where there are other options still in play – the African Union is due to hold another meeting to discuss the impasse.
A lot of uncertainty, with a rapidly developing situation, but enough to concern anyone who believes in the necessity for continued peace in the region.