Ethiopia and Eritrea Have a Common Enemy
Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki are racing toward peace because they both face the same threat: hard-liners in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.
Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, made headlines across the world with his surprise move last month to resolve his country’s two-decade-long fight with Eritrea. The nation of Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia through a referendum in 1993, and the two nations then fought a bloody war that is thought to have left as many as 100,000 people dead from 1998 to 2000. The dusty village of Badme — which has nothing but symbolic value to either side — was awarded to Eritrea in 2002 by an international boundary commission created under a peace agreement between the two sides. But Ethiopia reneged on the deal and has doggedly maintained a nearly 20-year military stalemate to avoid surrendering the town. Abiy’s announcement on June 5 that he was willing to finally give up Badme — without any of the economic preconditions that the previous Ethiopian government had always insisted on — effectively ended the conflict.
The man who should be his bitter rival, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, is also in an uncharacteristically accommodating state of mind. In sending a peace delegation to Addis Ababa, he put an end to his country’s 18-year refusal to conduct any dialogue with Ethiopia while its troops remained on Eritrean soil. Previously unthinkable concessions are being tossed around on both sides. Airplanes will even start flying between Addis Ababa and Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, again.
On July 8, Abiy spent the day in Asmara, where he was warmly embraced by Isaias. The next morning, the two men announced that diplomatic and economic relations would resume. Few details were provided, but Isaias did take the time to allude briefly to the difficulties that Abiy faces at home and the need for a coordinated response: “We can imagine that the decision the prime minister of Ethiopia took was not a simple one. But we can assure you we will face the future together. We will work as one.”
Since the border has already been virtually demarcated, peace should, in principle, require no more than the withdrawal of Ethiopia’s troops. Unfortunately, that’s the part that will be the most difficult — for reasons that have nothing to with Abiy or with Eritrea. Although it might seem shocking to outside observers, there is a very clear reason why both leaders are suddenly so eager to cooperate. They are united by the presence of a still-potent mutual enemy: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Abiy was swept into the prime minister’s office in April on a tidal wave of revolt. Roads had been blocked and stores shuttered as hundreds of thousands protested against the country’s ruling cabal, a small group of former liberation fighters that had been in power since 1991.
The cabal had used its long rule to advance Ethiopia’s economy and had made the nation into a regional powerhouse — but it had also, through corruption, amassed the bulk of Ethiopia’s new wealth and had kept the majority of military power concentrated in the hands of a tiny ethnic minority, the Tigrayans, whose revolutionary apparatus, the TPLF, had freed Ethiopia from the communist Derg committee in 1991.
Though it governed behind the fig leaf of a larger ruling coalition, the TPLF and the tiny ethnic minority it represents have wielded unlimited power in Ethiopia for the past two decades. The party has used its power to obliterate civil society, the press, religious freedoms, and all forms of political opposition.
By early this year, the TPLF’s stranglehold on power had brought Ethiopia to the verge of collapse, as larger ethnic groups, led by the Oromo and Amhara, blocked roads into Addis Ababa in protest. To avert a showdown — which would have taken the form of a catastrophic food and fuel shortage in the capital — the ruling coalition’s government was forced to oust its prime minister, release thousands of political prisoners, and consent to the appointment of Abiy, an Oromo leader, as the new head of state. Abiy has proved more of a firebrand than expected and has been moving quickly to generate a political following and dismantle the TPLF’s grip on power.
Isaias also revealed his worries about the TPLF when he announced his intention to send a peace delegation to Addis Ababa in a June 20 speech: While he had one or two nice words for the changes occurring in Ethiopia, he spoke mainly of “the TPLF’s toxic and malignant legacy,” and his belief that the TPLF “vultures,” stunned by the loss of their power, would now work to “impede positive change” — both in the bilateral relationship and inside Ethiopia.
Isaias and the TPLF fought as close allies during the liberation struggle against the communist Derg, and — like approximately half of all Eritreans — he is ethnically Tigrayan himself. But the violent war, followed by Ethiopia’s long occupation of the Eritrean border, has destroyed all solidarity between the sides. Because of the TPLF’s intransigence, Eritrea has effectively been in a state of emergency since 1998. That state of affairs has helped fuel a migration crisis, as thousands of youth have fled the country for Europe.
The purpose of Isaias’s remarks was to align Eritrea as an ally of the Ethiopian protesters, who had in his view quite rightly pressured the TPLF regime to place Abiy in power. His speech was widely praised — including by the U.S. State Department, which applauded his “courageous leadership” in a breathtaking about-face, seemingly forgetting that it had long considered Isaias a pariah. Eritrea clearly welcomes the prospect of a new ally in the very old war against the TPLF, which has yet to be won.
Abiy has even more reason than Isaias to fear the holdouts in the TPLF. They are the key impediments to political reform in Ethiopia, and since taking office, he has frantically sought to undo their hold on power. He diminished the military’s authority by lifting a repressive state of emergency, repealed laws that allowed the security forces to label dissidents as terrorists and arrest them, and fired a slew of senior security and intelligence officers, most of whom were Tigrayans.
His much-lauded decision to lift the government monopolies on several of Ethiopia’s key industries, including telecommunications and energy, was lauded as a free market advance — but it was also an important swipe at the TPLF’s bank accounts. TPLF leaders have profited from self-dealing by directing these monopolies to award lucrative government contracts to firms that they own or are run by their military cronies.
Abiy is working hard and fast to gain ground against the TPLF before its bickering leaders can organize a coherent response: For the past couple of years, the party has suffered from a leadership vacuum as powerful hard-liners, including Getachew Assefa, Debretsion Gebremichael, Samora Yunis, and Sebhat Nega, have vied for supremacy. These hard-liners have always used the military to crush demands for reform, imprisoning tens of thousands of protesters. But they have recently been kept in check by a rising tide of fear within the Tigrayan population, who feel vulnerable to retaliation at the hands of Ethiopia’s majority clans.
The bad news for Abiy is that his maneuvers will probably have minimal effects. After 27 years of autocratic rule, the TPLF has patronage networks that run deep and are rooted in ethnic demographics. Although Tigrayans represent only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, an analysis of the Ethiopian military several years ago found that 57 of 61 generals in mission-critical positions were ethnically Tigrayan. It is estimated that two-thirds of the broader officer class is, too. The entire ethos of the Ethiopian army is based on the mythology of the Tigrayan liberation fighters who defeated the Derg in 1991 — the same people who still personally hold most key security and intelligence posts.
Abiy has started to thin their ranks, forcing the resignation of notorious generals and officials, including Samora and Getachew, a shadowy, J. Edgar Hoover-like figure who has run Ethiopia’s intelligence services for about 30 years. But yanking the titles away from men like this doesn’t make them disappear. Even if it did, Abiy can’t possibly afford to fire 95 percent of Ethiopia’s generals. To consolidate his power, he needs to fire the worst but co-opt the rest, and that process could take years.
Abiy has already completed the easy part of this task. He has fired many old standard-bearers of the TPLF, including Abay Tsehaye, Tedros Hagos, Getachew Ambaye, Tazer Gebregziabhier, and Girma Birru. But they may continue to foment trouble. After being forced to resign from his powerful post as director of the notorious Information Network Security Agency (INSA), for example, Maj. Gen. Tekleberhan Woldearegay went on the radio and — describing himself in Tigrinya as a representative of the military — appeared to call for a coup, calling the new government “an enemy force,” “a threat to the federalist system,” and “not of the people.”
It is unlikely that Tekleberhan and his ilk could persuade the military to openly revolt. But there is no question that spoilers within the TPLF could use various proxies and members of their old patronage networks (including local officials, businessmen, the feared Agazi special forces, and various armed groups operating in the region) to commit violent acts or to trigger ethnic conflict in different parts of the country. The assassination attempt on Abiy in Meskel Square on June 26 appears to have been just such an incident — the deputy police commissioner has been arrested, alongside 30 other police and government officials.
By now, the hard-liners are surely feeling outnumbered. Some of the Tigrayan people, who are a small group to begin with, have been won over by Abiy, and even some party members speak warmly of his reforms. Geographically, the Tigray region is pinioned between Eritrea and the Ethiopian region of Amhara, which has sponsored a popular armed insurgency, called Ginbot 7, against the government for many years. It’s no coincidence that Abiy has rapidly moved to befriend Ginbot 7, too — removing its designation as a terrorist organization, lifting the death sentence from its leader, and letting its members (including the British citizen Andargachew Tsige) out of jail. Abiy even received Andargachew at his office and posed for smiling photos with him — a move that was both wildly popular in the Amhara region and clearly intended as a warning to the TPLF. Mending fences with Ginbot 7 helps Abiy to shore up his support among Amharas, but it also lengthens his list of potential military allies. Abiy has made overtures to insurgencies in the Oromo and Somali regions of the country, too.
Abiy’s moves — including his overtures to Eritrea and firing of key generals — are intensely provocative to the TPLF, and they may well backfire. Ethiopia’s allies, especially Washington, should be watching the developments there with alarm and should act to ensure that the situation there does not spiral out of control. If TPLF hard-liners use their influence over the military to illegally retake power — either through assassination, ethnic destabilization tactics, or a coup — Ethiopia will face a civil war.
Unfortunately, though, the powerbrokers in Washington and Brussels seem little concerned with events in Ethiopia. The Trump administration is currently focused on everything except Africa. Besides cooing over Abiy’s reforms, the White House and European leaders appear unaware of the life-or-death power struggle that is unfolding. The European Union and the United States should be sending an unmistakable and public message to the TPLF that any seizure of power will not be tolerated — that aid funding, military cooperation, and political backing will disappear if there is a coup attempt or any other form of anti-democratic interference. Such a message would make it emphatically clear to the hard-liners that a graceful exit is their only option.
If history is any guide, however, Washington will prefer to hedge its bets. The massive Ethiopian security apparatus is, after all, a monster of Washington’s own making. Incalculable millions of dollars have been spent increasing the TPLF’s capacity to fight terrorists — ostensibly in Somalia, but the funds are used against Ethiopian “terrorists,” who happen to be pro-democracy activists, too. There’s little doubt that U.S. diplomats would prefer to have a photogenic leader like Abiy as their man in Addis Ababa, but it’s doubtful that the Defense Department — which has blithely overlooked Ethiopia’s long occupation of Eritrea, its invasion of Somalia, and its shocking human rights abuses — will risk alienating its most vital counterterrorism ally in the Horn of Africa. That means supporting Abiy, but also maintaining ties with the TPLF, especially the Agazi special forces that regularly conduct and support U.S. strikes against terrorist targets in Somalia. (The Agazi special forces are composed entirely of elite Tigrayan soldiers, chosen for their absolute loyalty to the TPLF. Washington’s reliance on them in Somalia could therefore put the Pentagon in a delicate position.)
There are some risks for Eritrea, too. Given the TPLF’s dominance of the military chain of command, it’s not entirely clear that Abiy can unilaterally withdraw Ethiopia’s troops from the border. So even if Isaias and Abiy form a full-throated alliance, Eritrea will find itself in the awkward position of announcing a peace with Ethiopia while still defending its border against TPLF aggression — perhaps in the form of an attack from the TPLF’s close ally and proxy Djibouti, which stands to lose a lot of trade and port revenue when the Eritrea-Ethiopia border reopens.
Moreover, any peace that does not permit Eritrea to fully and rapidly demobilize conscripts from its national service program may pose some political problems for Isaias at home. After being on a war footing for 20 years, the Eritrean public is desperate for political normalization, including the demobilization of Eritrea’s huge army — most of which has been forcibly conscripted for years — and they will expect to see some quick changes. But that will be hard if Eritrea still sees the potential for an assault on its border or strife in Ethiopia.
Faced with the threat of a civil war in Ethiopia if the reform effort fails, Eritrea has no choice but to accept that risk and throw everything it has behind Abiy — but the clock is now ticking on reform, and it’s unclear how prepared the Eritrean government is, after all these years of crisis, to pursue it.
Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is long overdue. But it’s important for policymakers to understand that the current rush to peace is a tactical matter. As long as both Abiy and Isaias remain existentially threatened by the TPLF, both will be quick to gloss over their differences. But old economic disagreements and rivalries may well cause problems in the future, when Abiy has stabilized the Ethiopia’s internal power struggles and when Eritrea turns to growing its economy and normalizing its political affairs.
In the short term, there are pitfalls, too. A fast peace with Eritrea will free up many tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops from the border, and the fate of those soldiers is uncertain. They could ignore an order to withdraw from Eritrea’s territory. And if they do withdraw, there is a question of whether they will be demobilized or redeployed, and to where. Peace with Eritrea will create excess military capacity at a time with the loyalty of the Ethiopian chain of command is highly uncertain and when reasonable efforts to reduce the TPLF stranglehold on power may well be interpreted by Tigrayan loyalists as a variation on the de-Baathification process that took place in Iraq after 2003, triggering a revolt.
For now, hard-liners within the TPLF can be held in check by the threat of popular fury. But they also may be desperate enough to act irrationally. In the meantime, a thaw with Eritrea — and the powerful military it has posted in the TPLF’s backyard — helps to even out the balance of power, if only by reminding the TPLF hard-liners of how many enemies they have.