Eritrea in the Tigray war: What we know and why it might backfire
The war against the TPLF will not be quick or easy, and it already looks to be going badly for Eritrea’s president.
There is little doubt now that Eritrean forces are participating in the war in Tigray. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has denied it and Eritrea’s foreign minister has insisted “we are not part of the conflict”. But other disagree.
On 8 December, Reuters reported that “a U.S. government source and five regional diplomats” told them the US believes Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia. The EU and UK support this assessment. And in the last few days, a top-ranking Ethiopian general confirmed that Eritrean troops have been in Tigray. Major General Belay Seyoum, head of the Northern Command, described the presence of foreign forces on Ethiopian soil as “painful”.
Mesfin Hagos, a former Eritrean Minister of Defence living in exile, has claimed that Eritrean troops provided intelligence and cover from heavy weapons to advancing Ethiopian troops and later took active part in combat.
How did Eritrea become involved in Tigray?
To answer this question, one must go back to the 1970s when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) fought alongside against the Derg regime. Despite their differences, the two rebel groups’ leaders – Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afwerki – joined forces, launching a final offensive in 1991 when they captured Addis Ababa and Asmara.
Meles became Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Isaias took control in Eritrea, which became an independent state. Gradually, however, relations between the two men soured, leading to the 1998-2000 border war that left some 100,000 people dead. That conflict ended, but relations between the TPLF-led government and Isaias were never repaired.
In 2018, the TPLF essentially lost power in Ethiopia. It had been the senior party in government, but amid widespread protests, the ruling coalition selected a new prime minister. Abiy Ahmed was quick to break with his predecessors’ stance on Eritrea and President Isaias was quick to take advantage. The Eritrean president invited Abiy to Asmara where the new PM received an ecstatic welcome from Eritrean crowds. Abiy returned the favour and Isaias was just as warmly greeted in Addis. In September 2018, the two leaders signed a formal treaty in Saudi Arabia, cementing their ties.
There followed a rapid growth in bilateral relations. Abiy and Isaias were in constant contact. In just over two years, they made nine official visits to each other’s capitals or went on joint delegations to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Their final meetings took place at their respective military bases. On 18 July 2020, Abiy visited Eritrea’s main military training base at Sawa where he inspected troops and military equipment. On 12 October 2020, Isaias visited Ethiopia’s Bishoftu air base, home to the nation’s air force.
According to reports citing well-placed sources, President Isaias brought together his closest confidantes on the eve of the Tigray war. He allegedly said that Eritrea had to accept that it has a small economy and a lengthy Red Sea coast that it cannot patrol on its own. He is reported to have suggested some sort of “union” with Ethiopia, at least in terms of economic co-operation and maritime security.
If this is true, he appears to have echoed Abiy’s grandiose dream of re-establishing the old empire-state of Ethiopia. This idea may not be as far-fetched as it would appear, despite the fact Isaias previously led Eritrea’s decades-long war to gain independence from Ethiopia.
The outbreak of the war
On 4 November 2020, the Tigray war began. By this point, Tigrayans had already been warning that Ethiopian and Eritrea forces were planning to attack. Events since suggest their fears were founded.
There have been numerous reports from the Eritrean diaspora of young Eritreans being rounded up as conscripts to support the war effort. In Eritrea, national service is compulsory and indefinite. There have been claims of people being picked up and transported without warning to remote locations along the Ethiopian border.
Eritrea has also hosted retreating Ethiopian forces. Redwan Hussein, spokesperson for Ethiopia’s newly-established State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray Conflict confirmed that federal troops were forced back across the border to regroup. There have been additional reports of Ethiopian forces being flown into Asmara overnight to conceal their presence.
On 10 November, TPLF president Debretsion Gebremichael went on local television accusing Eritrea of sending soldiers into Tigray. “Since yesterday, the army of Isaias have crossed the country’s boundary and invaded,” he said. “They were attacking via Humera using heavy arms.” This would suggest that while Eritreans attacked from the north, Ethiopian federal forces and Amhara militia attacked from the south and east in a co-ordinated offensive.
From “police operation” to guerrilla war
On 9 November, Abiy claimed that the conflict in Tigray was a law and order operation that would “wrap up soon”. “Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply,” he said.
Yet as the war has developed, evidence points in the opposite direction. Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, fell with hardly a fight but only because Tigrayan fighters withdrew in order to resort to tactics they adopted decades ago. The TPLF has always believed in war of manoeuvre rather than positional war – taking to the hills and mountains and attacking in the rear.
The Tigray war is unlikely to be a brief conflict or produce an easy victory for Abiy and Isaias. As a Reuters report explains, the TPLF “is battle-hardened from both the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the guerrilla war to topple dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. TPLF forces and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant hardware, experts say.”
For Eritrea, the war already appears to be going badly. Having allegedly looted religious sites, homes and factories, Eritrean forces are reportedly bogged down and vulnerable to ambushes. According to the Europe External Programme for Africa on 2 January, “multiple sources state that Eritrean soldiers are blocked in attempts to leave Tigray. Heavy fighting between Ethiopia National Defence Forces (ENDF) and Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) is taking place near the major roads out to Eritrea. This has stopped the Eritrean transfer of looted goods out of the region.”
The Tigray conflict was meant to rid President Isaias of his Tigrayan enemies. The problem for both the him and Abiy is that this conflict might drag on for months, if not years. The war could end up destabilising either, or both, governments.
Through out his adulthood as a civilian and military man, Abiy Ahmed has been determined to becoming the embodiment of Achab, the 7th king of Israel. In all his speeches and measures he takes in his wild dream of becoming the 7th king, he has revealed his brutal, deceptive, bloody, manipulating personality. He has rejected all domestic and international calls to resolve his political differences through dialogue, He has refused independent investigation into alleged war crimes. He refused humanitarian access to Tigray. He denied the people of Tigray the basic necessity of human needs for survival. He has intensified his campaign in Tigray of extermination by starvation.
“As a Reuters report explains, the TPLF “is battle-hardened from both the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the guerrilla war to topple dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. TPLF forces and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant hardware, experts say.””
Is this a joke? Someone should explain to these so called experts that it was the EPLF, the precursor of the Eritrean Defense Forces was the one that not only trained the TPLF, but practically feed, clothed and equiped them. It was also the EPLF mechanized division/troops and artillery that led the charge in 1988 that led to Tigray being free of derg troops. Furthermore, it was those same EPLF divisions that also led the charge to Addis resulting in the toppling of the Derg regime, and the EPRDF/TPLF assuming power. What’s more, whatever experience the TPLF supposedly gained in the 1998 border war, Eritrea was on the other side. Eritrea lost 19,000 lives whereas the so called “battle-hardened” TPLF lef Ethiopian army lost anywhere from 60-125,000 lives. To this very day the tplf refused to publicly acknowledge the true extent of those loses. But yet these clowns want to tell us that it is the TPLF that is the more capable force, while Eritrea’s is made out to look like a bunch of marauding incompetent incapable disorganized force. Not only does tha fly in the face of actual historical reality, but also the reality of this current war: the complete capitulation of the tplf in an unprecedented 2 weeks.
@WEDINAKFA – You are a clown who worship the black Hitler Isaias Afeworki. Your idol and his cohorts will face international criminal court for their war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray. Insulting the honorable independent journalist and human rights advocate Martin Plaut for his excellent work in exposing the black Hitler Afeworki and his disciple con man dictator Abiy will not change the truth on the ground.
Mr. Plaut, i rarely respond to your fantastical & wayward analysis as a so called expert on the area, however, sometimes you need to be prodded to the truth. Firstly, the ‘battle hardened TPLF’ of the 80’s and 90’s does not exist, as they were ” hardened” then, because they were fighting a brutal military regime, severe drought, and an generally an atrocious period in Ethiopia’s history. Today, the case does not hold true, the ‘ battle hardened TPLF have become obscenely wealthy individuals riddled with health problems, immersed in corruption, and worse ..delusionally thinking they are above the law. Today, all those leaders you claim to be battle hardened are under arrest, and the rest that refused have been dispatched to meet thier maker. The TPLF is no more. Unfortunately, you can peddle your deviant views on the World, but you surely are aware you are held with contempt by mainstream Ethiopia and Ethiopians in general and your “analysis” but a hollow echo chamber in Ethiopia. You sir, i believe are not welcome to the country you ado much about, eh!..and a welcomed step taken.
Mr. Martin Plaut, you are an exemplary journalist and scholar, you put all the facts on the ground, do not be surprised if you see blind criticism from the chauvinist so called “Ethiopians.” The only and prime reason the chauvinists are supporting the insane PM of Ethiopia is that he is waging war against their enemy the Tigrean people. Ethiopians are aware that our country is heading down spiral in all aspects, but they are still supporting the PM because he is destroying Tigray. TPLF has been on the driver seat when the country was changing for the better for 27 years, but what they get in return was deposing from the federal and regional power. Now Abiy Ahimed is trying to destroy Tigray and its people.
I pity people who still breath with Isaias’s and Abiy’s lungs, they stink!!! They are still blinded to see the truth that their sun is downing!!! The pit they have dug for Tigrai seems to bury them.
Hence they backlash anyone one bringing out the realities. Whatever they say now shows more their true colour of their inhumanity!!!
This article seems to be classic Martin Plaut— blurting out a figment of one’s imagination. A day after his article on African Arguments was posted, TPLF mafia Godfather Aboy Sibhat Nega, ex-President of Tigray Abay Woldu, Dr. Abraham Tekeste and several key Major Generals & Colonels were apprehended.
Martin Plaut cannot even muster what is left of his decadent reputation to state the simplest historical fact— who fired the first bullet, Ethiopia or TPLF?
Not surprising that Martin Plaut is making the same mistake as the TPLF— wallow in irrational escalation of bad judgments (instead of cutting one’s losses early to prevent things from going bad to worse).
Imagine if TPLF listened to Eritrea and handed back Badme 20 years ago; or agreed to post-election loss power-sharing scheme 15 years ago? or listened to Oromo & Amhara demands 3 years back; or heeded Abiy’s demands 2 years back; or laid low after they were kicked out to Tigray; or worked with, instead of against, Northern Command; or laid down arms after hagereselam was surrounded? Waaaay too many irrational moves; and irrational people attract and/or are surrounded by irrational people– Martin being one of the few endangered species of pro-TPLF propagandist “groupie”.
Martin Plaut’s hate of the Eritrean leadership should not have blinded his judgment to adapt a repugnant, pro-TPLF, scorched-earth policy. The greatest “blessing in disguise”, despite Plaut’s illogical pipe-dream assessment, has been that Eritreans are more united and its leaders stronger than ever– thanks to him by his likes’ divisive agenda.
The Amhara elites are short sighted because they could not shade the backward feudal thinking that they are the masters of Ethiopia. They were taught by their parents and grand parents not to let other Ethiopians be it the Tigrayans, who were main rival, or the Oromos, etc. They used all means possible to suppress the rest of the people of Ethiopia. That took the country backward with all available natural resources because the did not educate the population. That also affected negatively their ethnic Amhara people who were left to practice primitive farming. This lead students and justice seekers movement for equitable system, this was a very hard pill to swallow for the Amhara elites. So, the built superiority complex. They think they are still the masters of Ethiopia even at the expense of all other Ethiopians. Ethiopian positive development does not satisfy them. They like to be winner take all. The may perish during this game they chose. They are well organized around the Orthodox Religion in addition to politics. The people of Ethiopia saw the test of democracy through shared power (Collective governance) and they do not go back to dictatorship. People learn except the Amhara elites who are hiding their heads in the sand. They are out of touch with reality. They use outdated methods of silencing opposing opinion by harassment, defamation by fabricating false stories, debasing religion to collect finance and supporters. We can go on but there also books that expose them. In the end the truth prevails that all humans are equal.
Martin, as always, deliberately omits a major event that is relevant to the conflict and focuses on vilifying his number one enemy “Eritrea”. Can we ask Martin why Ethiopian soldiers who have been fighting Eritrea for the last 20 years have retreated to Eritrea in disarray?
TPLF felt it can eliminate the Northern Ethiopian command, take its heavy weaponry and march on to Addis to rule Ethiopia again. Using rockets that can strike the capital city of Asmara, TPLF felt Eritrea will not dare to support Ethiopia or make a move. It backfired. Eritrea has every right to enter the TPLF controlled ERTIREAN land and assert control. In the process, supporting Ethiopian army to eliminate TPLF is a no brainer.
Martin’s writeup is like reporting on the Iraqi war without telling that Saddam invaded Kuwait first. But we can expect no better, Martin has been at the service of the TPLF for the last 20 years, TPLF is now eliminated and with that goes whatever compensation he was receiving for spreading lies disguised as “expert”. Martin, it must feel painful to see Eritrea shine while its enemies are gone hiding and being dragged out of their fox holes.
Give it up, game is over!
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