The rebellious government of Ethiopia’s Tigray region fired rockets at Asmara, Eritrea on November 14th, apparently aiming for the airport.
Sources suggest that at least two of the rockets hit their target and one of them injured two people.
It used to be easy to get rumours out of Eritrea via email but these days locals must be very circumspect, hence there are several current unknowns which I cannot shed light on.
This article will explain the background to the crisis.
I am not an expert and am relying in part on mainstream media reports. Feel free to comment if you think I’ve got something wrong or if you can add important context.
The group firing the missiles are the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This was the rebel group fighting alongside the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) against the brutal Ethiopian Derg regime in the 1980s. The Derg was an ostensibly Communist government dominated by the Amharic ethnic group. The Tigray themselves are a rival ethnic group living in northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Derg lost its main sponsor and both the EPLF and TPLF achieved sudden victories after a long and apparently hopeless campaign.
The EPLF gained control of the whole of Eritrea, leading to its independence from Ethiopia.
With help from their allies, the TPLF gained control of the whole of Ethiopia. This meant that the small, repressed Tigray minority now ruled over their old Amharic oppressors along with all the other ethnic groups in the country.
At this point, relations between Ethiopia and the newly-independent Eritrea were great. Trade continued to flourish, there were official visits and many people from each country lived and worked across the border.
By 1998, everything had gone to shit.
The reasons are not entirely clear. The Ethiopians were getting antsy about access to Eritrea’s Red Sea ports now that they were a landlocked country. They were also angry that Eritrea instituted its own currency, which undermined Ethiopia’s hilariously named birr.
Eritrea claimed there were Ethiopian military intrusions into its territory. They grew nervous about the intentions of their Tigray cousins. While some Tigray live on the Eritrean side of the border, Tigrinyna are more numerous and influential.
The two groups are closely related and almost indistinguishable to outsiders in terms of their traditional food, clothes and dance. Their languages are very similar.
The majority of both groups belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, with large Muslim minorities.
However, the Tigray long worked as servants in Asmara for the wealthier and better-educated Tigrinya. They were seen as somewhat duller, less straightforward and trustworthy, with ‘secret hearts’ that make the dark and winding path of their motivations hard to follow.
As for what the Tigray think of Tigrinya, I don’t know but it is probably not 100% positive.
For whatever reason, the tiny border town of Badme became a flashpoint in 1998. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have a perfectly reasonable story about how the conflict started, but the story is completely incompatible with the other side’s story and there are no independent sources.
In any case, a border skirmish rapidly escalated into a full-scale war between the erstwhile allies. In only two years, perhaps a hundred thousand people died in horrific trench warfare reminiscent of WWI.
It is important to note that this was not a purely Tigray vs Tigrinya fight. Many other ethnic groups fought on both sides. I guess some Eritrean Tigray must have had to fight on Eritrea’s side but I’ve not heard much about it.
An eventual UN peace deal gave the TPLF-governed Ethiopia some of what it wanted though they were supposed to give back the original source of dispute, the town of Badme.
They never gave it back.
The two sides did not sign a treaty at the conclusion of hostilities. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, used the ongoing technical state of war together with the fact that parts of the country continued to be occupied by Ethiopian forces, as an excuse to implement total control, postpone elections, maintain endless national service for the young and many other nasty things besides. These measures continue to this day.
Things weren’t going much better south of the border. Long begrudged of their ill-treatment at the hand of the once dominant Amahara people, especially their suffering during the 1980s famine, the TPLF decided it was time for the Tigray to get something back. They brutally represssed other ethnic groups and funded their own region in a manner they though befitting the disadvantage they had historically suffered.
It was DIY reparations but taken from all other ethnic groups, not just the Amhara.
The TPLF dominated a multi-ethnic coalition that ruled the country with an iron fist, using torture and murder to stifle any dissent, peaceful or otherwise. There was never any doubt that the tiny Tigray minority, making up just 6% of the country’s population, were fully in charge.
Then Abiy Ahmed was selected as the new Prime Minister. He is part Oroma, part Amahra. Previously the TPLF-dominated government had appointed non-Tigrays to PM and other positions but these were always puppets. Abiy was his own man.
Media controls were liberalized, dissidents were released or allowed to return from abroad, and various other reforms were implemented.
Many TPLF bigwigs were arrested for torture, murder and corruption. The TPLF claimed that Abiy was persecuting Tigray but Abiy claimed only criminals were being targeted. Both could be true.
There have been some reports of reprisal attacks on Tigray by other ethnic groups. Some Tigrinya Eritreans feared traveling to Ethiopia in case they were confused with Tigray.
It should be said that pogroms and ethnic cleansing attacks against various groups by local militias have increased across the country and so far the central government has been unwilling or unable to stop them or to prosecute the attackers.
At first the TPLF was still part of the ruling coalition. Recently Abiy consolidated these ethnic factions into a broad, national party. The TPLF refused to join and its leaders fled to their northern stronghold, Tigray, a region they still control.
The government of Tigray has been showing signs of the new central government. They have resisted federal law enforcement, criticized Abiy and even declared his government illegal. They may be looking to carve out their own territory or to defend against reprisals from other ethnic groups.
I share the Tigriyna view of the Tigray. It’s hard to understand what they’re thinking.
Meanwhile, Abiy has been cosying up to the TPLF’s old enemy, Isaias. They finally signed a peace treaty twenty years after the war ended. However, land that Ethiopia agreed to hand back to Eritrea has still no been handed back two years later. Including Badme. Why? Because it is Tigray land still controlled by the TPLF and they don’t want to give it back.
So Isaias had his excuse to continue totalitarian rule even after the peace agreement.
No doubt Abiy’s overtures to Eritrea caused consternation among the TPLF and elsewhere. Why was Africa’s new, liberal, pro-modernization golden boy being so friendly towards one of Africa’s most notorious dictators?
Deep bitterness remains between the TPLF and Isaias. Each blames the other for the bloody second war and refuses to give an inch over the tiny, sleepy town of Badme. It is strategically unimportant but symbolically it represents the justification or blame for the whole conflict.
These are stubborn, highland people. They hold their grudges long, deep and hard.
Having said that, most Eritrean people have known nothing but war and trouble their whole lives. They’re ready to bury the hatchet.
Their Boss is not.
As for the Tigrayan people, I don’t know how enthusiastic they are about the renewed conflict or how loyal they are to the TPLF.
Things were up in the air following the mysterious peace deal; everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then it dropped.
Abiy postponed elections due to Covid. The TPLF said screw that and went ahead with elections in the Tigray region anyway, which Addis Ababa declared treason.
Abiy claims the TPLF then attacked a federal military base in the Tigrayan capital, Mekele, and carried out a massacre of civilians. The TPLF deny the base attack (or claim it was a preemptive strike, depending on your source) and blame Ethiopian forces for the massacre. Some Tigray refugees in Sudanese camps have told media that an Amharic militia was to blame.
In any case, Ethiopian national forces are moving north into Tigray in order to regain control. The situation is now an all-out war.
The TPLF is well-armed and has fired rockets at both Ethiopian airfields and Asmara Airport in Eritrea.
The TPLF’s beef with Eritrea is that the country is (a) allowing Ethiopian troops to attack Tigray from the Eritrean side of the border, (b) using their own troops to invade in order to support the Ethiopians, (c) shelling border towns in Tigray and/or (d) allowing the Ethiopians or others to use their airfields to launch attacks.
Until recently the UAE was using a different base in Eritrea to launch attacks in Yemen. There is some suggestion they may be involved.
All parties deny these accusations.
However, there are reports of fighting along the border. Also keep in mind that the TPLF is Isaias’ old enemy, still occupying land he desperately wants back. My guess is that Eritrea is helping in some way or another, and that Abiy’s generous peace offer was made in return for their support.
The TPLF was right to be suspicious. It looks like Abiy and Isaias cut a deal.
Please understand that details that could confirm this such as local or Ethiopian troop movements are the kind of thing my sources cannot safely report.
The best outcome would be for Ethiopia to secure a quick victory, regain control over the whole country, and for Abiy to then turn his attention to resolving separate ethnic conflicts in other parts of the country.
However, this will be difficult. The TPLF component of the Ethiopian military was what made it such a force to be reckoned with in the region, especially back when they intervened in Somalia in 2006.
Just as the TPLF and the EPLF (remember them) held out against the Derg for many years, the TPLF might again conduct an indefinite guerilla campaign from the north of their mountainous homeland. Most experts think an outright victory by Ethiopian forces is a long shot.
I’m not sure how an ongoing struggle would benefit the Tigray. Even if they achieved independence, they would rule a microscopic, landlocked state bordered by two hostile nations and one chaotic nation (Sudan). They probably should have satisfied themselves with control over their own region and otherwise cooperated with the new federal government in order to cut their losses.
These highlanders are stubborn.
On the other hand, it is possible that a sizeable proportion of Tigray fighters will defect, leading to deescalation.
For the record, there are Tigray members of the Ethiopian army. Reuters reports that ethnic Tigray soldiers fighting Somali insurgents on the other side of the country have been disarmed. There are also some prominent, loyalist Tigray who will be installed as a transitional government in the region should Abiy’s campaign succeed.
If the war drags on, several other conflicts across Ethiopia might worsen as combatants take advantage of the national army being deployed elsewhere.
It is likely that Oromo separatists will increase their activities, undermining the central government’s unifying efforts on both fronts.
Abiy himself is part Oromo and was made PM by the TPLF in a bid to calm rising separatist passions among his people. However, he has not supported their claim and one Oromo group has already made an attempt on his life.
A long conflict also increases the chances of other countries becoming involved. Sudan and Egypt are currently at Ethiopia’s throat over a new dam that they suspect could disrupt their access to Nile waters. Sudan has a small border with Tigray that could be used to funnel aid to the TPLF if they decide to use the war as a way to pressure Ethiopia on the issue. This would not require official Sudanese sanction: Sudan is in a state of disorder so support from some factions in the country might be enough for aid to get through.
There is also a dispute over territory between Sudan an Ethiopia but this matter is less rancorous than the dam.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia seem to support Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Somalia might try grabbing some long-lost, disputed land or get involved in ethnic Somali-Oromo squabbles while the cat’s away. And then there’s Al-Shabaab and other non-state actors, plus Qatar which is always looking to kick the Saudis in the guts via proxy wars.
The US will take Abiy’s side. Ethiopia is an important regional ally supporting America’s Forever Wars on the continent. The US once backed the national, TPLF-dominated government but has no reason to help the TPLF now that they’re out of power.
Who knows what the neocons will instruct Kamala Harris to do.
As for China, their buddy Dr. Tedros is a high-ranking TPLF official but has probably outlived his usefulness now that China’s lockdown policy has been internationally propagated. They need Ethiopian resources, possibly shipped through Eritrea, more than they need him. That means backing a stable, central government.
Ethiopia has accused Dr Tedros of using his prominent position to drum up diplomatic support and source arms for the TPLF. He has denied this.
I’m not sure what role Djibouti will take, if any, in this dispute.
There is also some chance that the destabilization might cause internal conflict or revolution in Eritrea. The odds are low given that most of the young people who might stir up trouble have already been conscripted and are far from the capital, or have fled the country.
Yet another factor is that if the TPLF managed to win independence for Tigray, they may want to seize Tigray-majority parts of northern Eritrea to form a Greater Tigray. This is just one more reason for Eritrea to side with the central Ethiopian government.
It looks like the odds are against the TPLF, but these are hardened fighters every bit as stubborn and unreasonable as their old Eritrean enemies. They are well armed and have apparently seized Ethiopian weapons from a captured base. They may hold out for some time, or even prevail and win some sort of autonomy, thus undermining Abiy’s authority and emboldening other separatists groups in the country.
The worst outcome would be a long, inconclusive struggle that draws in various outside powers and results in a Libya or Syria-style civil war engulfing the region.
I don’t know a lot about Abiy but my impression is positive given that he did not automatically grant his own, Oromo ethnic group everything they wanted in their local struggles. He seems to be breaking the cycle of tribalism and dragging Ethiopia into the modern world of accountable government, liberalization and a truly national government.
He may succeed.
On the other hand, Africa may win again.
According to the linked article, federal forces have retaken the Tigray capital, Mekelle, though it is not clear the TPLF have made a stand there. They have not surrendered and may already be pursuing a long-term guerrilla strategy.
There are unconfirmed reports of six more rockets being fired at Asmara from Tigray.
There are also disturbing suggestions that Eritrean forces have entered Ethiopia to raid refugee camps near the border. Why would they do that? To retrieve the refugees – Eritreans who’ve fled endless national service and general shitness.
Perhaps Eritrea is taking advantage of the disorder to grab them back as they are always short of people due to everyone running away. It’s one of their biggest problems and it hurts the government deeply.
Perhaps Isaias cut a deal with Abiy to allow him to raid the camps in return for his support in the war.
If so, that’s dark.
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