Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Bitter to the End

By David G. Young

Pompano Beach, Florida, December 29, 2020 --  

Eritrea is helping Ethiopia put down a rebellion in Tigray. That help may wind up tearing the country apart.

Widespread reports of Eritrean troops roaming Ethiopia's northern Tigray province indicate a stunning turn of events that promises to deepen historic enmities in the Horn of Africa and destabilize the whole region.

The Ethiopian government denies that Eritrean troops operate in the war zone -- a zone created last month when Ethiopia's prime minister sent troops to depose a rebellious regional government. But despite a ban on foreign journalists, eyewitness accounts of Eritrean soldiers in Ethiopia have repeatedly come from aid workers, refugees, and UN officials.1 The simplest and most likely explanation of their presence is that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed struck a deal with Eritrea to quietly assist his crackdown in Tigray. Abiy's public denials are likely designed to avoid domestic opposition.

The idea that Abiy, who comes from Ethiopia's largest Oromo ethnic group, might seek common ground with the Eritreans to take down Tigrayan leaders is hardly far fetched. Eritreans have long been rivals to Ethiopia's Tigrayans, and one of Abey's first acts as Prime Minister was to sign a peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This formally ended the 1998 border war and earned Abey the Nobel Peace Prize. Whatever this did to boost his international popularity, it made him no friends in Tigray.

The roots of the rivalry between Tigray and Eritrea date back to the colonial era, when Italy set up shop on the coast imposing Italian culture and government rule. The people of both areas are dominated by speakers of the same Tigrinya language, and Italy's colonial border divided these people in two. After the fascists seized power in Italy, they recruited the Tigrinya-speaking residents of Eritrea to invade and conquer their neighbors across the border. This began a feud that would last at least a century.

The Western Allies ousted the Italians form Ethiopia near the end of World War II, and blocked Eritrean independence in favor of a unified Ethiopia in 1950. The cappuccino-sipping intellectuals in the Eritrean capital of Asmara didn't like that one bit -- they launched an independence struggle a decade later, and Isaias Afwerki rose to become its leader. After the communist takeover of Ethiopia, the Eritrean rebels were joined by other anti-government insurgents, most notably from the neighboring region of Tigray.

When victory over the communists came in 1991, the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front had the most powerful rebel armies, but no love for one another. Eritrea declared its independence while the Tigrayans formed a new government to rule Ethiopia's disparate ethnic groups. Peace between Tigrayan ruled Ethiopia and Eritrea lasted just a few years. Full-scale war broke out in 1998, as the bitter rivals slaughtered each other over a few patches of barren desert where the Italians had vaguely drawn their border a century earlier.

Ethiopia's Tigrayan strongman and onetime rebel leader Meles Zenawi died in 2012, clearing the way for the rise of Abiy Ahmed from the Oromo ethnic group to take control of Ethiopia a few years later. But the Tigrayans made no secret of their resentment of their loss of dominance. They publicly defied central government laws including a postponement of regional elections last year.2 When Abiy Ahmed's government decided to crack down on Tigray, the Tigrayans' old enemy Isaias Afwerki was still ruling Eritrea. It's no surprise that he was more than happy to help wipe out his bitter enemies once and for all.

Eritrean troops may help Abiy Ahmed consolidate his power and eliminate the influence of the Tigrayans in the short-term. But their presence creates huge risks for Ethiopia. Tigrayans are a small minority in Ethiopia, but they are an important one that the government must pacify. At best, Abiy will have a nearly impossible task of winning the heats and minds of the Tigrayan people. At worst, he will face a violent insurgency that could go on for years, and threaten to break Ethiopia apart. Beyond Tigray, many veterans of the 1998-2000 border war (from all of Ethiopia's ethnic groups) will most certainly resent the presence of Eritrean troops. And finally, it is unclear what shady deals, if any, that Abiy has made with Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki rules as one of the most brutal dictators in Africa.

Sadly, a crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray province was probably unavoidable. The once dominant Tigrayans were never going to fade away quietly. But the way it has been handled is a disappointment for those who celebrated Abiy's early accomplishments. The first years of his rule offered hope from the release of political prisoners and the relaxing of press restrictions. Now a civil war has brought a return to press censorship and has seen Ethiopia's jails once again fill with opponents of the government. Whatever this new era means for the rivalry between Eritrea and Tigray, the days of optimism for Ethiopia's future are now gone.

Related Web Columns:

The Unfinished City, January 21, 2020


1. New York Times, Refugees Come Under Fire as Old Foes Fight in Concert in Ethiopia, December 29, 2020

2. France 24, Ethiopia's Tigray Region Defies PM Abiy With 'Illegal' Election, September 9, 2020