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Vol 62 No 8

Published 15th April 2021


Eritrea entrenches in Tigray

Issayas’s forces were the spearhead of Addis Ababa’s ousting of the Tigray government. They are there for the long haul

As the fog around the conflict in Tigray slowly begins to lift, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's reliance on the armed forces of his Eritrean counterpart Issayas Afewerki is becoming clearer, according to multiple sources in Ethiopia.

Although the Eritrean army played a crucial initial role in the conflict, Abiy needs it in the longer run because of the demands on the Ethiopian National Defence Force throughout the federation, the sources added (AC Vol 62 No 7, Abiy gives first ground). ENDF troops are slated to occupy positions along the Tigray frontier while Eritrean troops take the more challenging role of policing the cities and the countryside, the sources say. The ENDF's resources are stretched, and its purge of Tigrayans has taken a heavy toll. The army will also be needed to provide security for the general election on 5 June. 

This means Abiy will find the Group of 7 wealthy nations' demand on 2 April for 'swift, unconditional and verifiable' withdrawal of Asmara's forces virtually impossible to meet. A Western diplomat confirmed on 12 April there was no sign of an Eritrean withdrawal. Eritrean forces are dug in throughout Tigray, we hear. Issayas's well-known animus against the ousted Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) motivates him to commit so much military power, but there are also reports that Abiy is paying Asmara. 

On 11 March, according to unconfirmed sources, the town of Hawzen was taken over by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), the name given by the TPLF to its resistance fighters. The Eritrean army then bombarded Hawzen with artillery for 17 hours and retook the town, although sporadic fighting is said to continue, Tigrayan sources said. 

The intensity of combat between the TDF and Tigray's invaders is hard to assess. Sources speak of clashes on both a large and a small scale, and assassinations of Ethiopian and Eritrean commanders, but these are unconfirmed. 

Anecdotal evidence from sources close to the TPLF speak of a burgeoning resistance. And, in an interview on 6 April on Tigray TV, which is controlled by the new pro-government administration in the province, ENDF Major General Kindu Gezu mentioned 'tens of thousands' joining the resistance. 

Abiy himself appeared to concede the strength of Tigrayan resistance in a speech on 3 April. 'The junta which we had eliminated within three weeks,' he said, 'has now turned itself into a guerrilla [army], mingled among the farmers and started moving from place to place. And now, we are not even able to eliminate it within three months.' Abiy also mentioned 'tiresome' resistance, indicating guerrilla-style attacks. 

There are reports the Eritrean army has sent an additional 2,500 troops into Tigray. Eritrean forces are also posted along the disputed Al Fashqa area on the Sudan border (AC Vol 62 No 2, Abiy risks more war). That dispute is especially sensitive because it is close to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and Egypt has pledged to support Sudan against Addis Ababa. 

Abiy signed agreements on 15 March with Issayas under which the latter provides riot police and standard police for the whole of Tigray. Eritreans have the advantage of speaking Tigrinya. Eritrean forces have been patrolling Tigrayan cities in Ethiopian Federal Police uniforms since January, sources say. Abiy and Issayas are said to have agreed to send another 1,000 Eritrean police officers to the region this month. Abiy visited Asmara again on 25 March. 

While the rumours that Abiy and Issayas are considering full integration of their forces are not yet entirely credible, analysts do give more credence to the reports that Eritrea may be training up to 10,000 Ethiopian troops. 

UN concession
A rare concession to international pressure by Abiy was to authorise UN officials to work alongside the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), headed by former Amnesty and Human Rights Watch official Daniel Bekele, in investigating human rights abuses in Tigray. Addis Ababa has said the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights may also probe abuses. 

EHRC presents a difficulty for Abiy. It has already embarrassed Issayas by confirming accounts of massacres by his troops in Aksum in November, but any compromise of its independence will damage Ethiopia's image, already deteriorating under widespread allegations of abuse in Tigray. The Ethiopian investigators in Tigray have been directed to overlook personal accounts of abuses and focus only on tangible evidence, a senior federal source told us. 

Ultimately, Abiy cannot please everybody. This also goes for Ethiopia's internal turmoil, as tensions continue to build between the core elites of the Amhara and Oromia ruling party blocs. They recently traded accusations over brutal intercommunal violence in an Oromo enclave of Amhara region and, reportedly, against Amhara civilians in western Oromia. About 100 people were killed in another ethnic conflict on the border of Afar and Somali provinces. 

Equally, Abiy will be unable to stop the fighting in Tigray ahead of the election (AC Vol 62 No 1, Abiy’s search for legitimacy). Doing so would allow the resurrection of the TPLF, and that could dent the popular image he is cultivating of 'wartime leader'. Abiy will not be willing to take that backwards step. Yet, the competing pressures are such that something has to give.

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