Foreign Policy | Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki is fueling bloodshed in Tigray—and offering other regional leaders lessons in authoritarianism.
BY Alex de Waal | March 3, 2021
After months of bloodshed in Tigray, a region of Ethiopia claiming the right of self-determination, the United States is ramping up pressure to end hostilities, protect civilians, facilitate an independent investigation of atrocities, and permit humanitarian access to starving populations. In a call to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali on March 2, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated his call for the immediate withdrawal of all Eritrean troops from Tigray that are operating there as part of the Ethiopian effort to quash the rebellion. This last point is emerging as a central demand, since most of the crimes in Tigray documented by journalists and human rights groups were carried out by Eritrean forces.
These atrocities are ongoing. On March 1, leading Tigrayan scholar Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, in a rare phone call from the mountains, described how Eritrean troops had razed villages, cut down mango orchards, destroyed irrigation systems, and slaughtered dozens of people from young children to grandparents in the town of Samre and the villages of Gijet, Adeba, and Tseada Sare in recent days. “Famine is coming,” he said. We should heed Mulugeta’s warning: Action now is essential to stop further crimes and a vast humanitarian catastrophe.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki rules a tiny nation of 3.5 million people, with a GDP of $2 billion as of 2018. But the country’s military is vast; its army has an astonishing 200,000 people, most of them enrolled in compulsory and indefinite national service on reaching eleventh grade. Eritrea doesn’t publish a budget, but an estimated 20 percent of the country’s GDP is spent on the military as well as an undisclosed sum on Isaias’s much-feared national security and intelligence services.
Several recent reports make clear just what Eritrean security and military forces are capable of. Over the last week, three different reports attributed atrocity crimes in the war in Tigray to Eritrean forces. Amnesty International documented a November 2020 massacre in a cathedral in Axum, where hundreds of civilians were slaughtered. CNN compiled and cross-checked reports of a mass killing at a monastery called Maryam Dengelat, where more than 100 people died. And VICE World News matched satellite photos of destroyed villages with eyewitness accounts to detail other atrocities.
And the fighting, burning, and forced starvations continue. Last week, satellite imagery showed at least 508 buildings burning in and around the town of Gijet in southern Tigray. This is close to the area where Tigray’s defense forces destroyed an Ethiopian armored division two weeks earlier, and in phone calls to me from the area, Tigrayans reported five Eritrean divisions—about 10,000 soldiers with tanks backed by both Ethiopian and Eritrean combat aircraft—converging on the area conducting what they called a “scorched earth” operation.
In July 2018, when Abiy flew to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, to sign a long-overdue peace agreement between the two countries, citizens of both countries hoped the occasion would push Isaias to at last begin to demobilize his army; redirect his national budget to spending on health, education, and development; and liberalize his politics. None of that happened. It’s now clear that Isaias saw the peace deal as a security pact with Ethiopia to eliminate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) leadership, which is leading the uprising in Ethiopia—and inflict such damage on the Tigrayan people that they could never again challenge either country.
Isaias’s animosity to the TPLF dates back to a dispute between him and TPLF leaders, then-Ethiopia’s leaders, which led to a border war in 1998 that he lost. The Ethiopian army under the TPLF didn’t march all the way to Asmara and impose regime change, but it might as well have.
In the wake of defeat, Eritreans themselves clamored for change: First, a group of democracy activists petitioned for reform, and then 15 of the most senior Eritrean politicians—known as the G-15—followed suit. In the brief “Asmara Spring” of 2001, an independent press flourished, and Eritreans demanded that all freedoms promised after the country’s independence eight years earlier—and contained in the new constitution finalized in 1997 but never adopted—should be realized.
The G-15 included Isaias’s oldest comrades-in-arms and all heroes of the war for independence, including former foreign ministers and defense ministers and some of the founders of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Likely feeling encircled, Isaias’s response to demands for reform was to clamp down. On Sept. 18 and 19, 2001, he arrested 11 of the G-15 and consigned them to literal oblivion; they have not been seen or heard from since. Neither have Eritreans seen or heard of their cherished constitution and freedoms. Instead, all independent media were closed, journalists were imprisoned, and religious freedoms were circumscribed. Compulsory national service for all school leavers was introduced.
To divert attention from his own military adventurism and growing authoritarianism, Isaias tried to blame his nation’s ills on Ethiopia—and especially the TPLF. And he supported any opposition group ready to wage war against Ethiopia, including Somali jihadists. That last venture prompted a fierce U.S.-led backlash that included placing the country under sanctions in 2007 before lifting them in 2018.
In all this, Isaias did have one legitimate complaint. The peace deal that ended the 1998-2000 war between TPLF-led Ethiopia and Eritrea set up an independent boundary commission, and that commission awarded a small but symbolic piece of land—the village of Badme—to Eritrea. A dispute over Badme had been the spark for the war, but Ethiopians repeatedly stalled on implementing the decision. On that single grievance, Isaias kept his people in a state of emergency, mobilized against Ethiopia, and cultivated a national paranoia, schooling Eritreans in the view that both Ethiopia and the entire world were conspiring against them.
Young Eritreans fled abroad rather than endure military service or the hopelessness of life in a police state with a stagnating economy. The country is one of the world’s largest generators of refugees proportionate to its size. Only a (mostly illegal) tax on diaspora Eritreans plus royalties from cobalt, gold, and potash mining kept the country afloat—until the conflict in nearby Yemen offered a lifeline. Eritrea’s Red Sea coast suddenly became a strategic asset, and Isaias leased out the port and airbase at Assab to the United Arab Emirates to use as a forward base. That not only brought in much-needed cash but also a political opening to the Gulf states.
It’s notable that when Isaias and Abiy signed their peace deal in 2018, they didn’t attend the African Union summit—even though the continental organization was the official custodian of the treaty, signed under its auspices in Algiers. Instead, they flew to Abu Dhabi, UAE and then to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Eritrea was becoming a willing junior partner in the transactional politics of the Arabian peninsula, sidelining the African Union and its carefully crafted peace and security architecture.
More remarkable has been Isaias’s emergence as kingmaker in the Horn of Africa.
More remarkable has been Isaias’s emergence as kingmaker in the Horn of Africa.
He has been shrewdly offering two things to the region’s insecure rulers. One is practical advice on political survival against the odds—specifically, how to face international pressure to democratize. The other is a model of military training that transforms high school students into obedient fighting machines.
In this regard, Eritrea is now the senior partner in the Ethiopian war in Tigray. Eritrean troops are also reported to be stationed in al-Fashqa, the disputed border area between Ethiopia and Sudan—quietly exacerbating the conflict between those two countries. Isaias is confidante and supporter of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi, commonly known as Farmaajo. In February, political crisis in Somalia intensified as Farmaajo’s presidential term expired without either an election or an agreement with the opposition on how to handle the interregnum. Farmaajo is determined to hang on, and on one occasion, his forces fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. Worryingly, Somali special forces trained in Eritrea were flown back to Mogadishu last month.
Isaias is constructing a three-cornered axis of autocracy in the Horn of Africa with him as its leader and Abiy and Farmaajo as junior partners.
Isaias’s public relations strategy is simple. He says as little as possible. Four months after the war erupted in Tigray, he hasn’t told the Eritrean people that as much as half of the country’s army is currently conducting operations inside Ethiopia. In fact, he has made just one public statement: a long speech disguised as an interview in which he covered world affairs but said only that Eritrea was “fulfilling its responsibilities” with respect to Ethiopia. He has said nothing about his war aims, but decades of unremitting ruthlessness tell their own story.
Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.