Eritrean army members on paradeBy Derese G Kassa (PhD)*

There they go again! Two countries that register top on global poverty indices and have intractable regime crises at both ends, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are now engulfed in another border clash. Each side alleges that it is the other who started the conflict. Each one claims that they have done a major counteroffensive where they killed more than 200 enemy combatants in a space of a week. Each declare that the other party moved into its territory, supports and arms opposition fighters, and blames the international community for  the status quo (no- war-no- peace condition) between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The manner that both the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes spar and spin the nature of the conflict is very predictable. Even more striking is how similar their spin strategies and talking points have been for more than a decade, since the last Ethio-Eritrean War (1999-2001). The fact that the senior leadership of both Eritrea and Ethiopia hail from the North, speak the same language (Tigrinya) and in some cases have blood and family ties makes this “international” conflict confounding. The most common refrain from distant observers and analysts is “Why do these two regimes who have more in common and their survival at stake engage in mutually assured self-distraction?”

Here is an argument: It is quite difficult to understand the behavior of these regimes if one gets distracted by this shiny object called the border dispute. Unless we explore the historic relation and the geo-political rivalry of these two regimes in the Horn of Africa, we fall into the trap of legalistic dispute about the border. In fact, the Ethio-Eritrean war was not about the border in the first place. Post- Algiers, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)-People Front for Democratic and Justice (PFDJ) saga is also not just about the border dispute. Rather, it is about exerting political and economic influence across two sovereign spaces i.e. Eritrea and Ethiopia. It was a conflict whose underpinning rationale has to do with “spheres of influence”. It is a contest between TPLF and EPLF to emerge as a regional big power in the Horn of Africa.

Truth be told, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) has been more invested in this business of being a regional hegemonic power even before the days of Eritrean independence. The TPLF is a late comer to the game given its sudden realization that it is now in charge of the biggest and most influential country in East Africa whose military, economic and political clout would not allow it to stay as a junior player in the Horn. In short, Ethiopia helped the TPLF size itself up. A caveat is important here. This is not to repeat Addis Ababa’s litany about Eritrea’s expansionist ambitions. It is rather to argue that the EPLF had to masterfully play its hands in the politics of Ethiopia to secure its decisive political victory i.e. Eritrean independence. Doing so, required exerting political and military influence, midwifing and employing strategic alliances between Ethiopian opposition groups, and in some instances, undermining entities that it considered were anti-Eritrean. Let us expand on this notion.

The EPLF was not known for military prowess or spectacle. Up until the Ethiopian revolution it maintained low level latency. The ranks of its membership swollen following those consequential mistakes of the Derg. But it was nearly annihilated had it not been for the last minute rescue it secured from the TPLF. It even brokered a cease fire deal with the Derg generals who attempted a coup de etat in 1989.  To its credit however, the EPLF has been a political genius. Right from the outset, it placed more weight on political and strategic alignments than sheer fighting. It knew how Eritrean independence can be achieved. Such an eventuality demands a weak and divided Ethiopian establishment and an incumbent in Addis that agrees to Eritrean independence unconditionally! Consider EPLF’s early negotiations with the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) leadership like Berhane Meskel Reda. The Eritrean question was the shibboleth over which the EPRP found itself sparring from the get go. In TPLF it found zealots that supported not just Eritrean independence but even went to the extent of defining their political question as ‘colonial’ as well. In a sense the TPLF was more ‘Eritrean’ than the ‘Eritreans’ themselves; so much so that Afewerki and company convinced them to ‘downsize’ their ‘question’ into that of ‘national oppression’.

While the EPLF never saw itself as an ethno-nationalist organization and loathed its logic; it was clear eyed about the ‘instrumental value’ of keeping the Ethiopian polity divided and weak. How else would one describe its role of striking a deal between the TPLF and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) following the Derg’s demise? Who was the architect of the Senafe Conference? How else would one explain the disproportional representation of the OLF in the Transitional Government compared to all others that were invited? How about attempts to reconcile OLF and TPLF leaders up until the break out of the border crisis? From years of its armed struggle to its crowning days of Eritrean ‘liberation’, the EPLF aspired to play the Big Brother role when it comes to playing one opposition group inside Ethiopia versus the other.

But it pushed the envelope so hard. Navigating Ethiopia’s political landscape through proxies hit the rock bottom. The EPLF’s  policy of turning Eritrea into an industrial and commercial powerhouse ala Singapore means ‘using’ or abusing Ethiopia’s natural and financial resources unbridled. It means banking on the Ethiopian hinterland as a rural backwater and a supply line for Eritrea’s industrialization. This became evident when Eritrea wanted to mint a new currency “Nakfa” and trade it in par with Birr. The proposal was rejected by Ethiopianists inside the TPLF according to the ruling party veteran,  now defector Gebru Asrat’s recent book. The EPLF threatened to raise custom and clearance tariffs on Ethiopian bulk both at Assab and Massawa ports. Ethiopia resorted to exploring Djibouti as a new outlet.

The currency notes in Ethiopia changed; and all the Birr circulating in Eritrean hands became redundant. And all of this aggravated President Afewerki who started a border skirmish that soon snow balled to a full scale war (1998-2000). In short, the genius art of balancing, referring and pitting one political force against the other secured the much awaited “Nastinet” (‘liberation’). But it fell short of providing the economic security and development Eritrean nationalism preached to its followers. The patron forgot that once in every while the vassal gets the better off him and outsmart him. You can’t have your cake and eat it at the same time. Audaciously EPLF did try, and it failed miserably.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn/ Reuters
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn/ Reuters

The 1998 Ethio-Eritrean war, therefore, broke the spell that bound the two old time allies of the Horn i.e. the EPLF and the TPLF. The border war started with Eritrean aggression (every UN and International Report on the conflict states that unequivocally) and was concluded three years later with a major counteroffensive of the Ethiopian Defense Forces. Following defeat, in 2000, both parties signed the Algiers Peace Accord. Following Algiers, the Ethio-Eritrean Border Commission ruled the demarcation and delineation of the border between the two countries. Interestingly enough, the Ethiopia and Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) ruled that the flashpoint of the conflict, the town of Badme and its environs, is part of Eritrea. The Ethiopian government found itself in a difficult position where it won the battle but lost the diplomatic war.

Meanwhile, Eritrea allowed a buffer zone deep into its territory and also agreed to allow the deployment of a United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) force. The war froze; so did the relation between Addis and Asmara. But the jockeying for political domination between them continued in full force even since. 

The former allies became bitter enemies that foment opposition against one another. The Eritrean regime opened its doors for dissident groups such as the OLF and the Ethiopian Patriotic Front and later Gibot 7.  Ethiopian authorities in Addis begun to assist Eritrean ethnically based opposition movements, i.e. the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) and the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK). A year later (1999), TPLF orchestrated the creation of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF) comprising a total of ten opposition groups. AENF transformed itself into the Eritrean National Alliance (ENA) in 2002 and renamed itself the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) in 2005. The evolution of EDA has TPLF’s fingerprints all over the place. In a separate development, following Isayas Afewerki’s crackdown on 15 senior leaders of EPLF, another Eritrean opposition group was launched by a veteran Mesfin Hagos i.e. Eritrean Democratic Party.

Compared to Afewerki’s camp, TPLF has managed to harvest a lot more opposition groups from Eritrea. Only the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) boasts around 13 different member organizations and parties. This balkanization and endless fissure of the Eritrean opposition groups is indicative of how weak and vassal they are when it comes gaining traction both within and outside Eritrea. Here is why. The albatross around the neck of those that coalesced around the EDA is Ethiopia. No Eritrean worth of his salt believes that Ethiopia supports an Eritrean movement in earnest. Rather Ethiopian Nationalism (against which Eritrean Nationalism was born and framed) is considered as the nemesis of everything Eritrean- not just Afewerki’s regime. People would rather wait the natural death of Isayias, the father of the Eritrean Nation, than picking up arms against him aided by Ethiopia. Hence, those who allied with TPLF are seen with scorn and suspicion by the majority of the Eritrean elite.

But Eritrea’s blues are more systemic than just feeble opposition. Since its very perception, the soul of Eritrean nationalism was contested between the elite of the Muslim lowlanders and the Coptic Christian highlanders. The Eritrean Liberation Front hailed from the south eastern plains of the Danakil with a lot of support from Arab nations that financed its coming of age. The highlanders were late comers. The EPLF came to the scene following : the dissolution of the Eritrean Federation by Emperor Haile Sellasie; the terrible handling of the Eritrean question by Derg including the tragic killing of General Aman Andom; and subsequent pogroms and slash-and-burn tactics of the Ethiopian Army.  Needless to mention the coming of age of Isayias’s generation at the height of anti-colonial and anti-western struggles in much of the ‘Third World” and during the Cold War era.

Religion is rearing its head on Eritrean landscape once again. Unlike Ethiopia, Eritrea has the following Islamic parties today. They are: the Eritrean National Salvation Front (Arabic: Islah), the Eritrean Islamic Party for Justice and Development, the Eritrean People’s Congress and the Eritrean Islamic Congress. Most of these organizations still get tremendous amount of support from designated financiers in the Middle East and some openly preach the idea of creating an Islamic state in Eritrea. And for the first time in 60 years, The Eritrean Lowlanders’ League (ELL) was founded in 2014 with an explicit objective to challenge the Tigrinya- dominated highlander government of Afewerki and replace it with the Tigre western lowlanders. This raised eyebrows among students of Eritrean politics. It was a fateful Eritrean Lowlanders League (ELL) then headed by Major Ali Radai that adamantly opposed Eritrea’s union with Ethiopia back in the 1950s. In short, Eritrea risks not just regime change but state collapse following any eventuality around Afewerki. The state could be torn asunder reminiscing anyone of the Bevin-Spforza proposal. 

Eritrea President Isaias Afeworki
Eritrea President Isaias Afeworki

The third factor bedeviling the Eritrean political landscape is the National Question. The EPLF/now PFDJ framed Eritrean Nationalism as an anti-colonial struggle but never minced its words when it comes to what “Eritrea” means. Eritrea is an indivisible nation; one political community with diverse cultural groups that suffered under the brunt of Ethiopian colonialism evenly. While it fought for their ‘emancipation’ from the colonizer; it never endorsed their “right to self-determination up to and including secession”.   Neither did it see any good in the idea of an Ethno-Federal experiment in Eritrea where such groups like the Saho, the Kunama or the Beni Amer would have autonomous regions with significant political powers. The EPLF saw this as a recipe for disaster i.e. national dismemberment. It had this fundamental difference on the ‘national question’ with the TPLF. One should not therefore be surprised that Afewerki expressed his dismay when the late Meles Zenawi showed him his Ethno-Federal design. To its credit, EPLF never liked it because it read ‘divide and rule’ when TPLF was preaching ‘Ethnic Federalism”. Even more, it never wanted to open the Pandora Box for ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ inside Eritrea.

Fast forward, one of TPLF’s ominous strategies is to create, fund and to some extent equip ‘ethnically organized’ parties in Eritrea. It first started with the Afar (RSADO) and the Kunama (DMLEK).  The latest addition to these ethnic blocs is the National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Eritrean Saho (2009).  In short, balkanizing the establishment in Eritrea is a serious undertaking of Woyane. It has taken its cues from home and is experimenting with them from outside.   Subsidiary to the ‘ethnic question’ is the problem of   ‘regionalism’ (‘awrajawinet’ in Eritrean parlance). The elite from the Eritrean highlands also have cleavages. A lot of political transaction takes place even among highlanders who identify themselves as from “Hamasien”, “Seraiye” and “Akale Guzay.”

In short, Eritrea is beset with fundamental political challenges from within and without that challenge not just the Afewerki’s regime (in the short run) but also the very state itself (in the long run).  These include: the Ethiopian menace from next door, the revalorization and politicization of religion, and the injection of ‘ethnically’ organized political entities that demand their share of the political pie.  Let the reader note that we did not this far discuss the state of the economy in Eritrea, the militarization of Eritrean society, and the mass exodus of young people fleeing repression. Also Eritrea’s designation as state sponsor of terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab stung. This resulted Eritrea’s isolation as a pariah state within and outside Africa. Reading Eritrea, and watching the footing of Afewerki’s regime, we cannot but ask two fundamental questions. “Can a weak, isolated and brittle Eritrea afford to harbor, support and arm Ethiopian opposition forces in earnest?” And if so, “Can Eritrea afford to survive and hold its own from the response it is going to get from Addis Ababa?”

Post-war Ethiopia also is also freighted with crisis. The nation went through its first bout of crisis following the 2005 national election where leaders of opposition parties, human right activists, and journalists were jailed in mass. Furthermore, Ethiopia passed stringent laws that curbed basic freedoms like the freedom of association and expression. In August 2012 came another watershed moment when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died. Post-Meles Ethiopia is now witnessing unprecedented, protracted but continuous protests by Ethiopian Muslims against the incarceration of their leaders who are detained and charged by the government for allegedly inciting violence and having “terrorist links”. Since April 2014, Oromo University students throughout the country also began to protest in large numbers against the new Addis Ababa Master Plan’s expansion to adjacent provinces of the Oromiyaa region. The protests were held in big towns like Jimma, Nekemte, and Ambo. Police forces fired live ammunition against protestors and killed more than 8 students in the town of Ambo only. Hundreds of Oromo students were and still are detained. It is also widely reported that the middle and low level ranking members of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), a member of the EPRDF, have protested against the excessive use of force and detention of Oromo students. In November 2015, a second wave of Oromo protests erupted throughout Oromiyaa. This second wave started because the Federal government begun to look into ways of implementing the annexation of various adjacent provinces of Oromiyaa into Addis Ababa.

The plan became infamous for a number of reasons. First, the expansion plan means rural land would be grabbed from Oromo peasants to build new houses and industries at the outskirts of Addis. While a new urban class settles in these areas building mansions, the argument goes; peasants are becoming landless and penniless tenants. Second, most of the Oromo elite now argue that the Federal government has no constitutional authority to annex these provinces from Oromiyaa which is a sovereign entity. They therefore view the infamous Addis Ababa expansion masterplan as a breach of federalism and the Ethiopian constitution.

Even more, the federal government used sheer violence to crackdown on these peaceful protests and more than 180 people are now reported as dead. The violence has further intensified the protest and escalated the crisis. It has now been going on for four consecutive months and still continues unabated. On another front, the Ethiopian government arrested five bloggers and three journalists on the 25th and 26th of April 2014. They were put in solitary confinement for more than 60 days without trial. Afterwards, human rights activists and organizations began a global campaign for the release of these bloggers and exerted tremendous pressure. The bloggers were finally released by the government of Ethiopia on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia in July 2015. But the crackdown on independent media and journalists has continued unabated since then.

Addis Ababa points its fingers on Asmara when it comes to aiding and abetting various armed insurgent groups like Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The Eritrean regime was also implicated in supporting the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab against whom African Union forces are fighting inside Somalia. Eritrea, the argument goes, is also the culprit when it comes to aiding and agitating  various disgruntled social groups inside Ethiopia to destabilize the regime.

The veracity of these claims and allegations aside, one would ask: “How long would the Addis Ababa regime tolerate Eritrea’s role in supporting and arming various groups which it claims is a source of permanent instability inside Ethiopia?” Or in other words, “Would Ethiopia stick to its containment and diplomatic coercion strategy when it comes to Eritrea? Or change course?”  Such a decisive shift in Ethiopia’s strategy towards Afewerki’s regime means the “Cold Peace” between Ethiopia and Eritrea would be no more. The recent flare up of the border conflict is a harbinger of broader strategic shifts, on both the Eritrean and Ethiopian sides, than municipal worries about Badme. Get your eyes off the shiny object- it is a distraction.

*Derese G. Kassa (PhD) is an urban sociologist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at IONA college in NY and also founder of Wazema Radio. He is a vocal commentator on Ethiopian affairs.