Ethiopia and Eritrea have entered an uncomfortable alliance

In November last year, Eritrean forces entered the northern Ethiopian town of Hitsats. According to local reports, they proceeded to pillage and occupy a neighbouring refugee camp and murder dozens of residents. Such scenes, while harrowing, are not uncommon in the contested borderlands that separate the two countries. 

Eritrea had once been part of the Ethiopian empire, but was annexed as a colony of Italy from 1869 to 1941. The two countries entered a federation at the end of the Second World War, with Eritrea retaining a degree of autonomy. That autonomy ended in 1961, when Emperor Haile Selassie responded to threats of secession by dissolving the federation and fully incorporating Eritrea as a province of Ethiopia.

A thirty year struggle for independence followed, during which 60,000 Eritrean civilians died. The country finally gained its independence in 1991 (made official in 1993) when the communist People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was defeated and eventually overthrown in both Eritrea and in Addis Ababa.

Tensions between the newly divorced neighbours quickly boiled over, and by 1998 they were at war. Writing in 2000, professor of political science at the University of Richmond Sandra Joireman explained: “The borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea had never been clearly marked. Following arguments and skirmishes, Eritrea invaded the area it viewed as its own. Trench warfare – and the deaths of many soldiers and civilians – has continued since then.”

Conflict lasted for two years, resulting in an estimated 100,000 casualties. Millions more were displaced, and both countries entered periods of significant economic hardship. Territory was conceded on both sides in a peace agreement signed in Algiers in 2000. An official border, demarcated by an independent Ethiopian-Eritrean Boundary Commission, was rejected by subsequent Ethiopian governments. 

A “frozen conflict” persisted until 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office with the promise that his government would accept the 2002 border ruling and seek rapprochement with Eritrea. Thawing relations sparked a wave of fresh hope for much needed stability and prosperity in the Horn of Africa. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Ethiopia’s landlocked economy was buoyed by the potential for access to Eritrea’s seaports. Meanwhile, it was expected that Eritrea would finally enter the international community. The country has been under the totalitarian rule of Isaias Afwerki and his party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), since it gained independence. His authoritarian rule has seen the country branded “Africa’s North Korea”, and it has been similarly isolated from the rest of the world. Indeed, concerns that Afwerki’s government was funding Somali extremist group al-Shabaab led the UN Security Council to impose travel and arms restrictions on Asmara in 2009. These were only lifted in 2018, largely thanks to the pleas of Abiy, raising hopes for much needed stability and economic growth.

Peace hasn’t had the desired impact. When asked whether the compromise had led Eritrean authorities to relax their harsh control over the country, senior advisor at the United States Institute for Peace Michael Phelan said: “In short, no. The renewal of neighbourly relations, including Abiy’s express acceptance of the UN-brokered 2000 peace agreement delimiting the contentious border, hasn’t loosened Eritrea’s most restrictive policies.”

His colleague, director of Africa Programs Susan Stignant added: “Eritrea has reverted to extreme caution around anything that might erode President Isaias Afwerki’s complete control. While Ethiopia has continued to encourage institutionalizing new trade and travel opportunities with Eritrea, Abiy faces internal politics that have become far more contentious, hampering any further quick advances.”

Contentious internal politics erupted into war in November 2020, when rebel forces in Ehtiopia’s northern Tigray region clashed with government troops. The rebels are loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front which ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until it was ousted from power in 2018. Thousands have died during the conflict and millions have been displaced. 

An Ethiopian refugee camp in eastern Sudan.

The slaughter at Hitsats last year differs from most of the violence that has historically occurred along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border in that the Eritrean forces were there at the behest of the Ethiopian government.  The Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) have supported the Ethiopian-led coalition against the Tigrayan rebels throughout the conflict. Its troops have been accused of numerous human rights abuses during their involvement.   

These war crimes have often been perpetrated against refugees of Eritrean origin. Ethiopia was home to around 150,000 Eritrean refugees before the Tigray conflict erupted, many of whom had fled poverty and Afwerki’s harsh rule. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 7,643 out of 20,000 refugees known to have been living in camps at Hitsats and Shimelba in November remain missing. One HRW report claimed that Eritrean forces had killed residents in “every house” during an attack on November 19th 2020. 

Western powers have expressed opposition to Eritrean involvement in Tigray. In August, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that he was “concerned” that Eritrean forces had re-entered Ethiopia after beginning to withdraw in April. An internal memorandum between EU diplomats commented on the fact that Abiy had visited Asmara in August without having his office officially announce it. 

Abiy is clearly willing to pull out all the stops in his bid to crush the Tigray rebellion. However, his government would do well to remember that Eritrea remains a totalitarian state. Decisions made in Asmara and the actions taken by its military are geared towards perpetuating the harsh rule of Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ. The EDF’s war crimes are testament to how far the isolated regime remains from entering the international community. The uneasy alliances being made by Abiy in his bid to crush the rebellion will have far reaching consequences, both for the future of his northern border and for the long quest for stability in the Horn of Africa. 

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