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How Eritrea fuels the civil war in Ethiopia

Philipp Sandner
October 15, 2022

The country on the horn of Africa has apparently deployed a massive contingent of its own troops to Ethiopia's Tigray. This could torpedo further peace negotiations. International criticism is mounting.

Ethiopian security forces patrol a street
Soldiers everywhere: The Ethiopian army has taken control of the towns of Dessie and Hayk in Amhara stateImage: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance / AA

Germany has joined the ranks of nations taking a stand on the latest developments in Ethiopia. Together with the United States, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, Germany condemned the resumed war in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.

In the statement released by the US State Department, the group of nations called on Ethiopia and the Tigray region to suspend fighting and to return to the negotiating table.

The statement, however, also highlights new developments in the conflict: "We condemn the escalating involvement of Eritrean troops in northern Ethiopia."

This is a reference to Eritrea's active participation in the Ethiopian war against regional forces in Tigray, deploying its own soldiers and tanks on Ethiopian soil.

It was at the end of August that a five-month ceasefire between the Ethiopean government and Tigrayan separatist forces broke down, leading to fresh clashes.

Eritrea as a warring party

There is little doubt in the truthfulness of reports of Eritrean troops getting involved in the conflict, even though Eritrea is notorious for its blackout on information getting out of the isolated country.

"We have detected Eritrean troop movements across the Ethiopian border - and we condemn them," US Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer said a few weeks later after a trip to the region. Evidence of this included pictures  shared by the US satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies.

At the same time, there had just been a renewed attempt at negotiations: On Saturday, the conflicting parties were supposed to meet in South Africa for negotiations mediated by the special representative of the African Union (AU) and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Both the central government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which leads the government in the northern Ethiopian region, had agreed to meet. However, that meeting did not take place in the end.

"The AU issued invitations at very short notice and provided few details," says analyst William Davison of the International Crisis Group.

"Key parties such as the Tigray government and Kenyan envoy Uhuru Kenyatta have asked for clarification on individual points," which due to time constraints could not be given, he added.

Satellite image of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border
Satellite imagery from private company Maxar reportedly shows troop movements on the Eritrean-Ethiopian borderImage: MAXAR/REUTERS

A lack of commitment on both sides

Even in the run-up to the collapsed meeting, there were doubts about its success. Ethiopian analyst Befekadu Hailu told DW that both sides lacked a sense of decisive commitment to negotiations: "They used the war for their political agenda," he said.

Ghanaian security expert Adib Saani meanwhile stressed that "(e)ven umpteenth talks can't bring peace if both warring parties don't show the necessary commitment."

Saani also added that Ethiopia and Tigray must avoid falling under the influence of outside interests: "It looks very much like third parties are playing into the situation."

Map of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to multiple ethnicities and cultures, with the Tigray and Amhara regions showing the greatest interest in seceding

Hostile allies

The growing influence of neighboring Eritrea, which may now have as many as 100,000 troops in Ethiopia,is likely to only further complicate any prospects for renewed negotiations.

It is no secret that the Eritrean government in Asmara does not exactly hold its former Tigrayan allies in the south in the highest regard: The TPLF de facto ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, elected in 2018, initiated a new course, and pushed for reconciliation with Eritrea.

In the 1970s and 80s, the then-liberation movements from Tigray and Eritrea had joined forces against the communist regime in Addis Ababa.

Following the victory of the TPLF, Eritrea finally gained independence in 1993. But years later, border disputes resulted in the former allies declaring war on each other.

Today, Asmara appears to be on the side of the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa in the Tigray conflict, but its interests and intentions likely reach beyond the simple objective of helping Prime Minister Ahmed.

Analyst Davison says that Eritrea is quickly becoming one of several crucial players in the Tigray conflict: "There is no indication that Eritrea will participate in peace negotiations, or that it is interested in an amicable solution," he told DW. 

Tana Forum in Bahir Dar
Solutions to the conflict in Tigray are being sought at the Tana Forum, with participants from around the globe taking partImage: Alemnew Mekonnen/DW

Enough problems already

Meanwhile, the German government is trying to talk some sense into the warring parties. Before her recent trip to Ethiopia, German Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Katja Keul said: "The security of Africa and Europe are inextricably linked. We are facing great challenges."

Keul, who is participating at the Tana Forum security conference in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia from October 14 to 16, added that there were already plenty of other crises affecting the Horn of Africa without any potential escalation of the Tigray conflict.

She stressed that the Russian war against Ukraine is seriously exacerbating the food crisis situation in many African countries, while climate change is also threatening livelihoods across the region. 

"The only possible consequence is (establishing) more cooperation between Europe and Africa," she said.

Edited by Sertan Sanderson