efore the glaring lights and watching eyes of his nation, Eritrean ruler Isaias Afewerki sat tense and glowering. The interview, aired on February 2023 by EriTv, was a rare opportunity for his people to glean insights into his customary stony silence.
His brow furrowed into a deep scowl and eyes glinting fiercely, Isaias harshly criticized Ethiopia’s Pretoria peace deal, in the interview with Eritrea TV. “The paper was prepared,” he claimed, “and given to them by Washington.”
Eritrea’s reclusive leader, Isaias, was displeased with the peace accord between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), feeling it sidelined his ambitions in the region.
However, beyond Isaias’s political posturing, a real question lingers: How sustainable is this fragile accord?
Brokered by international mediators, the agreement brought an end to two years of brutal conflict in Tigray and neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. But distrust runs deep and Isaias seems determined to undermine its progress.
“The TPLF was losing the battle,” Isaias claimed, dismissing the deal as a Washington’s ploy “to save their ally.”
The accord propagated the seeds of distrust as decades of discord cast long shadows that one unsigned deal could not erase. Eritrean troops rushing into Tigray provoked fresh grievances; reports of atrocities stirred resentment and stoked nationalist fervor on both sides.
Isaias’s conspiracy theories play well with Eritreans, reinforcing the country’s isolation. But for anguished Ethiopians, such saber-rattling does little to build needed reconciliation.
“The Eritrean troops, following orders from their dictator, committed atrocities against Tigrayans,” said a veteran Ethiopian ex-diplomat. “Isaias, not satisfied with his cruel actions, seems unhappy with the peace deal in Ethiopia’s north.”
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea clasped hands in Saudi Arabia in 2018, crowds celebrated across both nations. World leaders praised the long-awaited peace deal between the old adversaries.
But the deal left a diplomatically blind spot, sealing Tigray’s fate.
For Tigrayans, the accord seemed hollow. While its details remained secret, the public knew included implementing the Algiers accord – ceding disputed land to Eritrea.
Eritrea quickly accepted Abiy’s overtures, aiming not at regaining lost land, but seeking revenge on its old foes [TPLF] who now stood isolated.
Eritrea blamed the TPLF for its UN isolation. And when conflict erupted between Tigrayan forces and Ethiopia’s army in 2020, Eritrean troops surged across the border – seeking retribution, not resolution.
“The horrors of war brought up on us by Isaias are beyond imagination. Even at this moment his troops are killing Tigrayans in their own land,” said Kindeya Gebrehiwot, senior leader of the TPLF and high-level official of the recently formed Tigray Interim Administration (TIA).
Reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Eritrean forces in Tigray have been mounting since the conflict began in November 2020. According to Human Rights Watch, Eritrean forces have been accused of carrying out mass killings of civilians, rape and sexual violence against women and girls, and destroying hospitals, factories and infrastructure.
Forced displacement of civilians has also been reported, with an estimated two million people displaced from their homes. In December 2021, a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detailed a “litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity” committed by Eritrean forces in Tigray, including the killing of hundreds of civilians and widespread sexual violence.
Both the Eritrean and the Ethiopian governments denied the allegations, but a UN commission of inquiry is expected to issue a report with its findings in coming months.
Observers say the atrocities witnessed in the Tigray war are the outcome of decades of mistrust that the 2019 rapprochement failed to address.
“The agreement signed then was just a deal between two strongmen, never institutionalized,” said Alem, an Eritrean political analyst based in Addis. “The war could have been averted had Tigrayans been included in the peace agreement.”
Reports indicate Abiy did not disclose his rapprochement plans with Eritrea to the TPLF, his coalition party the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), or many comrades. He faced little resistance as headlines overshadowed doubts about the deal – which was verbal, with minimal details in the signed agreement in Saudi Arabia.
Alem argues onboarding Tigrayan stakeholders could have transformed Ethio-Eritrea’s deal from a personal pact between leaders into an institutionalized peace process.
“The current tensions stem from decades of mistrust that one agreement could not resolve,” he says. “A more inclusive approach tackling the root causes of grievances could have averted this horrific war.”
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia remains unclear. Some argue the bond is as strong as it was during their war, while others claim the “honeymoon period” is over now that they no longer have a common enemy.
Alem says, “From the start, it was obvious the two leaders had little in common except a shared enemy. Abiy wants liberal reforms with limited political dissent and a privatized economy, while Isaias is a brutal dictator who wants to control everything from politics to the economy.”
Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia years ago. Diplomats long advised the administrations to normalize relations, but they failed to do so – leading to the 1998 war that killed over 100,000 people.
Prime Minister Abiy also failed to formalize relations with Eritrea, resulting in another deadly war killing over 600,000 in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Another political commentator, Eritrean born living in exile in the US, said, “It was more a marriage of convenience from the start that naturally started to fade with the end of the Tigray war. Neither side seems to have the appetite or capacity for further engagement or collaboration, nor the mood to start another conflict now.”
Though some speculate Isaias might cooperate with disgruntled Amhara rebels now controlling western Tigray, the political analyst said, “These predictions are out of bounds. Tigray is mired in crisis and will take time to recover. Isaias feels collaborating with Amhara is costly now and he wants to maintain his role.”
Muluwork Kidanemariam, former head of the Tigray Electoral Commission turned political observer, disagrees. Muluwork believes Issaias is likely to use the boundary dispute between Tigray and Amhara region as a pretext to continue his attack against the Tigray administration.
He warned, “While the federal government should protect borders from external threats like Eritrea, Eritrea’s view of Tigray nationalism as a threat to its rule could quickly spin the situation out of control, even potentially sparking another bloody war.”
Alem agrees, adding to Muluwork’s remarks: “The Addis Ababa-Asmara détente seems fragile. Long-simmering tensions between Tigray and Eritrea could quickly boil over, dragging Ethiopia into a wider conflict.”