On the night of 14-15 November, the firing of rockets into Eritrean territory by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces gave a clear sign of the consequences that the conflict between the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF would have on regional balances. At that moment, a red line was crossed, and the scenario of a regional spillover of the crisis actually materialised. Eritrea found a reason to legitimise a possible intervention against the Tigrayan forces.
In December, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied the presence of Eritrean military divisions in Tigray when asked by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. However, it was eventually confirmed by US diplomatic sources in the region, according to whom Eritrean forces had entered Ethiopia through the border towns of Zalambessa, Rama and Badme. Later in January, a senior Ethiopian army officer, General Belay Seyoum, talking to local populations in Mekele, reportedly referred to the presence of ‘alien’, uninvited foreign troops in Tigray, clearly alluding to Eritrean soldiers.
The dangerous relations established between Asmara and Addis Ababa after the outbreak of armed hostilities in 1998, due to the border dispute in the Badme area – and even deeper reasons closely linked to Ethiopia's strategic ambitions over the Red Sea – until the 2018 peace agreements, have largely reflected the deep-seated hostilities between Tigrayan élites in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The TPLF and the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) were close allies during the last phase of the war against the DERG, but they turned into bitter enemies once in power in Asmara and Addis Ababa. The easing of relations between the two states was largely facilitated by the rise of Abiy Ahmed Ali and a certain discontinuity at the top of federal institutions in Ethiopia. However, according to some observers, secret talks were already on track well before the demise of former Prime Minister Dessalegn Hailemariam, with the Oromo component of the ruling coalition at the forefront of this rapprochement.
In 2018, two years after the outbreak of a wave of protests in several regions of the country, the rise of Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo to hold the office of prime minister in Ethiopia, inaugurated a new political phase in Addis Ababa. The momentum given by Abiy's new leadership laid the foundations for the launch of a process of normalisation of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. The Jeddah agreements signed in Saudi Arabia in September 2018 bore witness to this. Regional actors from the Arabian Peninsula played an important role in this rapprochement, but the peace deal was largely the result of Abiy's political initiative and good personal relations with the Eritrean head of state, Isaias Afewerki. The hostilities between the regime in Asmara and the TPLF have continued to influence regional balances: the closure of the Eritrean borders with Ethiopia, following the provisional opening decided after the peace agreements, was likely motivated by the persistence of structural factors of latent conflict between Asmara and the ruling elites in Tigray.
Ethiopia and Eritrea share the aim of suppressing TPLF resistance. Tigrayan elites harshly opposed Prime Minister Abiy's national project. The decision to dissolve the ruling coalition – the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), made up of parties representing the main ethnic constituencies in Ethiopia – and to establish a unified trans-ethnic national party, the Prosperity Party, was rejected by the TPLF authorities. In part, this choice was motivated by the fear of a gradual re-centralisation of power in the hands of the federal government and the most demographically relevant ethnic groups (Oromo, Amhara), while the Tigrayan elites would have been politically marginalised. Another reason lay in the internal rules of the new party: while the EPRDF was a coalition of regional parties with – at least formally – their own hierarchies and internal dynamics, the PP is under direct control of the head office in Addis Ababa, which can appoint or dismiss regional central committee members at its own will. The danger for the TPLF old guard was to be replaced with new appointees loyal to the prime minister. Contesting the legal basis and political method behind Abiy's decision, the TPLF left the government coalition and refused to join the PP. What followed was a gradual escalation of tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, culminating in the TPLF’s decision to hold local elections – won with 98.5% of the vote – despite the veto of the federal government, which had postponed a national vote because of the Covid-19 emergency.
Addis Ababa accused the TPLF authorities of breaking the law and unduly controlling regional institutions, while the Tigrayan authorities denounced the government's unlawful exercise of power against an expired electoral mandate. The defection of officers from the northern command of the Ethiopian National Army in favour of armed forces loyal to the TPLF, the seizure of military material and equipment and the alleged attack on a federal garrison finally triggered the government's decision to launch a military operation in Tigray.
PM Abiy's order to "disarm the criminal junta, restore legitimate administration in the region and bring the fugitives to justice" thus responded to an essential need for the Ethiopian federal government: to stifle the TPLF's power ambitionsand stem any possible secessionist instances in Tigray. A political gamble that risks favouring new centrifugal forces and convergence by ethnic-based power groups hostile to the idea of a stronger federal government, or feeding new reasons for ethno-communal conflicts. The involvement of the Amhara security forces in the military operations in Tigray represents, in this regard, a testing ground for the resilience of inter-communal relations in the country. The defacto establishment of an Amhara military administration over the contested borderlands of western Tigray might fuel additional violence in nearby regions such as Benishangul, where inter-ethnic conflicts have provoked the death or displacement of thousands. The Amhara regional leadership is already calling for a new military operation aimed at the protection of civilians in the Metekel zone. Concerns for the safety of local inhabitants overlap with political considerations, since Metekel is claimed as an integral part of Bahr Dahr’s sphere of sovereignty. Tensions could also spread towards the capital. One should not forget that the convergence of interests between the Amhara establishment and Abiy Ahmed’s close entourage seems to be based on tactical reasons, rather than on a common strategic vision of Ethiopia’s political future. Frictions between the Amhara and Oromo components of the ruling party revolve around the distribution of power within the federal administration. A section of the Amhara élite is concerned about the growing influence of their counterparts within state institutions: the demise of Chief of Staff Adem Mohammed – an Amhara – and his replacement with the Oromo Berhanu Jula contributed to these feelings.
Isaias’ regime, on the other hand, has a strong interest in seeing the political-military power of the TPLF reduced. The establishment of a regional government aligned with the federal government and freed from the control of the TPLF elites would pave the way for a full and effective normalisation of political and economic relations between Asmara and Addis, with positive implications for both. The erasure of Tigray’s industrial structure might also re-activate the economic hierarchy that historically governed the relationship between Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in the twentieth century. In the first weeks after the opening the frontier in 2018, Asmara was flooded with industrial goods from nearby Tigray, raising doubts about the sustainability of a free-trade arrangement with its neighbour. Should the conflict come to an end, Asmara might re-stablish itself as a commercial entrepot and processing hub for raw agricultural materials produced in the nearby southern regions. Moreover, the presence in Tigray of almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees, who fled the Isaias’ regime and settled in camps across the border with Ethiopia, constitutes a further reason of interest for Asmara: according to reports cited by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, a significant number of them were killed or abducted by Eritrean armed forces, others forcibly returned to Eritrea. In this regard, the involvement in Tigray has allowed Eritrea, which over the years has seen a massive flow of migrants fleeing the regime’s repression and its mandatory national service, to regulate internal issues.
What is clear, therefore, is that the Tigray crisis is not (only) an Ethiopian affair.
The occupation of Mekelle by Ethiopian security forces has given a turn to the conflict. However, the guerrilla warfare led by the TPLF forces threatens to wear Addis down. The humanitarian consequences of the conflict, compounded by access restrictions imposed on international agencies and NGOs, and a downgrading of the country's development forecasts could deal a severe blow to Ethiopia's future prospects.
Abiy Ahmed's gamble carries enormous political risks, for his leadership and for the stability of the region.