Is Ethiopian political future at the mercy of Eritrea?

Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia 29 years ago after it fought a long and bloody war of independence for three decades. The war which ended with a victory over the military junta of Mengistu Hailemariam not only paved the way for Eritrea’s independence, it also significantly shaped the political landscape of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) along with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and other ethnic-based rebel groups restructured the country into a multinational federal system ending a more than a century-old unitary government system of modern Ethiopia.

However, Eritrea’s independence didn’t end the problem it had with Ethiopia. The two countries fought another bloody border war which led to the death of an estimated hundred thousand troops and displacement of even more people from both sides. Since then, both countries remained in a no-war, no-peace situation for almost two decades but engaged in a proxy war by hosting and supporting different rebel groups against each other.

The new peace agreement

In 2018, Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed announced Ethiopia’s unconditional acceptance of the Algiers Peace Agreement signed in 2000. Eritrea, which turned down countless number of similar calls by the TPLF-led government, accepted Abiy’s overtures. Within a few months, the leaders of the two countries signed a “peace agreement” which officially put to rest one of the most devastating war in the world.

However, the peace agreement signed fell short of of many expectations. Isayas Afwerki’s grudge against the his old foe, the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF), remained the same. His first visit to Ethiopia in 2018 was accompanied by his “game over” rhetoric, suggesting TPLF’s influence in Ethiopian politics came to an end. He visited many parts of Ethiopia, but not Tigray. The land borders between the two countries were closed just weeks after they were opened dashing the hope that people’s of the two countries will engage in border trade.

Eritrea’s interference in Ethiopian political affairs

In 2015, he told Messay Mekonnen and Fasil Yenealem of ESAT that he did not like the ethnic-federalism in Ethiopia and accused TPLF for doing otherwise. Lencho Leta also confirmed to OMN that Isayas wanted a unitary Ethiopia but TPLF and his then party, OLF, refused to follow his advise. In February of this year, Yemane Gebre-Meskel, the Minster of the Eritrean Ministry of Information, suggested the “eradication” the ethnic-based federal system.

Eritrean leaders’ statements about Ethiopian politics has received different reactions in Ethiopia. Some, especially the Amharas heaped praises on them as the idea resonate with with their political beliefs. Some of them even went as far as considering Isaias as “a true friend of Ethiopia.” They called on President Isayas to help Ethiopia in eradicating TPLF. Sisay Agena of ESAT openly suggested Eritrean intervention to punish TPLF claiming the latter is the enemy of both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Isayas visited Amhara region in 2018 before Tigray. Amhara is the fist and the only region in Ethiopia whose leaders paired official visit to Asmara representing their region. The leaders of the region even suggested its regional soccer team play “a friendly game” with Eritrean national soccer team. This was understood by many as Isayas Afewerki’s attempt to wedge a division between the Amhara and Tigray regions.

Many pro-multinational federation forces described statements by Eritrean officials as uncalled for interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. TPLF officials characterized it as a “blatant interference” and demanded Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed to condemn and seek explanation from Eritrean officials.

Like Tigray politicians, Oromo activists and politicians were not happy about statements coming from Eritrea. In February, 48 Oromo scholars wrote an open letter warning Isayas Afewerki stay away from Ethiopian politics. Jawar Mohamed, gave a stinging response to what he conceived as Eritrea’s interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. said “For the sake of maintaining and further strengthening the peace effort between our two countries. Eritrean officials should refrain from meddling with Ethiopia’s internal debates. It is unwelcome and unhelpful.”

TPLF: Abiy Ahmed’s and Isayas Afewerki’s “common enemy”

Eritrea has a longtime national interest in Ethiopia. Its leaders understand that without amicable relation with its big neighbor, their country’s security and economy will always be at risk. From the no-war, no-peace situation that existed between the two countries for two decades, they learned that their dream to become “Africa’s Singapore” was aborted.

Eritrea consider TPLF and its ethnic-based political ideology as obstacle to any Eritrea’s long lasting deal with Ethiopia. So, they have decided to “eradicate” it by hook or crook.

Similarly Abiy Ahmed sees TPLF as a major threat not only to his power but also to what many believe his “vision of creating a unitary” political system in Ethiopia.

So, no wonder Abiy and Isayas visit each other’s country frequently even at a time when world leaders stopped traveling abroad due the COVID-19 pandemic. Also no surprise that Abiy Ahmed becomes the first foreign leader to visit Sawa, a secretive military training center in Eritrea.

Fear of a looming war

TPLF, the ruling party of the state of Tigray, has announced its plan to hold local election defying the decision by the country’s parliament to indefinitely postpone it owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. This leaves the government of Abiy with two bad options: let it go, or use force to stop it.

For Abiy allowing TPLF to conduct election will make him appear politically a weak leader. On the other hand, using a force will risk an all out war with one of the strongest federal states in the country at a time he’s struggling to contain protests in Oromia and Addis Ababa following the assassination of artist Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo superstar.

However, Abiy may be pushed to use power by the Amharas who have border issues with Tigray. He may also urged by the right-wing political parties such as the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice and the National Movement of Amhara who blame TPLF for “imposing” ethnic federalism, which they consider the “mother of all problems.”

TPLF officials say Tigray is encircled by three “enemies” referring to Eritrea, Amhara region, and the federal government which they believe is influenced by the right-wing unitary forces.

For better or worse, Eritrea has influenced Ethiopian politics for more than half a century. The 1961-1991 war against the Ethiopian government not only led to its independence, it also paved the way for EPRDF to change the Ethiopian political landscape. The 1998-2000 border war with the TPLF-led Ethiopia left an irreparable rift between EPLF and TPLF. Will it go for a third war, this time against a state within Ethiopia? If so, what impact will it have?

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