Ethiopia and Eritrea: A Peace Agreement that may lead to a New War

2020-09-07 21:04:13 Written by  Yaseen Mohmad Abdalla Published in English Articles Read 447 times

It is two years since the Joint Declaration of Friendship and Peace was signed in Asmara, Eritrea on July 9, 2018, and the Peace, Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation agreement, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 16, 2018. However, instead of withdrawing troops, exchanging trade, and allowing free movement of their citizens, Eritrea and Ethiopia are now in a very complicated relationship that may lead to armed conflict. The government of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which rejected the agreement, has now decided to hold the  regional  election in Sep 09 in defiance of the of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia to postpone elections (the NEBE’s decision has been approved by the  parliament ). Ethiopia’s House of Federation on press statement issued on 05/09 considered Tigray regional election unconstitutional. In additional to internal differences with it, Tigray region is accusing the federal government of Ethiopia of preparing to attack it in cooperation with Eritrea.

How has what the world considers a peace agreement caused tensions that may lead to a new war in the two countries’ territories?


War erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 over a border issue and lasted for two years. It caused the loss of about 100,000 lives, and after mediation by the then Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and other international organisations and states, the two countries made peace in 2000. The border issue was referred to the International Boundary Commission, which awarded most of the disputed territory to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia rejected the arbitration decision, and for nearly 18 years the two countries continued to fight each other through proxies.   

Change from inside Ethiopia

In March 2018, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) lost its hold on power when Abiy Ahmed was elected to succeed Haile Mariam Desalegn as chairman of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Abiy Ahmed, who served as an intelligence officer in the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, has a deep knowledge of the conflict between his country and Eritrea, which had its roots in the conflict between the TPLF and Eritrea’s ruling party, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Despite huge internal problems, Ahmed made reconciliation with Eritrea his priority. Days before he became prime minister, he tweeted that he wanted to build ‘bridges of love’ with Eritrea and confirmed it in his inaugural speech to the parliament on April 2. On June 5, the EPRDF executive committee announced its readiness to implement the Boundary Commission decision.

Isaias Afwerki, president of Eritrea, who had previously refused to negotiate with Ethiopia until it withdrew its troops from the disputed territory, responded quickly to Ahmed’s initiative.  He announced in a Martyrs' Day speech on June 20 that he would send a delegation to Ethiopia to assess developments and set a plan for future action. Ahmed made his historic visit to Asmara on July 8.

Quick process on a big decision

Events moved quickly: just a month after the EPRDF’s announcement of its acceptance of the of the Boundary Commission’s decision, Afwerki and Ahmed signed the Joint Declaration of Friendship and Peace in Asmara on July 9. Later, the role of outsiders emerged when Saudi Arabia hosted the signing ceremony of the Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation agreement in Jeddah on September 16 and pledged with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to pay Ethiopia $3 billion. They may also have pledged an amount to Eritrea, but that remains a secret.

A common enemy

Ahmed’s accession to the Ethiopian premiership came after wide-spread demonstrations against government policies and corruption, for which the people held the TPLF responsible. Ahmed, who comes from the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, moved quickly to establish his authority and implement the protesters' demands. He released political prisoners, allowed a free press, reconciled with opposition groups in exile and allowed them to return home. However, the fact that he did not seek the approval of the TPLF, suggested that the reconciliation with Eritrea might have been designed to weaken the TPLF.

Tigray leaders accused Ahmed of preparing war against their region in cooperation with Eritrea. In a TV interview with Ahmed on 27 July in Tigrinya, he denied it saying, ‘The Eritrean government at present is a force for peace, and this is not only known by Ethiopia, but also by the whole world’. However, describing the Eritrean government as a ‘force for peace’ may have been counter-productive, as the Eritrean government is widely thought to have been a cause of wars with almost all its neighbours. When the TPLF and the EPLF were allies in the 1970s and the 1980s, they fought with the Ethiopian government. Now old friends have become enemies, and old enemies have become friends. And if a new war erupted, the EPLF would likely fight alongside the Ethiopian government against its previous ally.   

Potential causes of war

There are several scenarios in which war could occur between them. For example, if after its regional election, the Tigray government takes more provocative steps, the federal government could decide to impose its authority on the region by force. In this case, Eritrea could intervene to assist the federal government under the pretext of regaining the disputed territory.

In a second scenario, war could occur if the Tigray government, driven to protect its backyard under growing pressure from the federal government and Eritrea, decided to attack Eritrea, perhaps using Eritrean opposition troops. In this event, the federal government would come to the aid of its Eritrean ally to prevent Tigray from establishing a sympathetic regime in Eritrea.

In the third scenario, the least likely, Eritrea could feel threatened by Tigrayan activities and attack Tigray to draw the federal government of Ethiopia into the conflict.

Tigray is betting on the weakness of Eritrea after hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers have fled the country in the past 20 years, and opposition to the regime’s policies is growing.  Eritrea sees its alliance with Ethiopia as a guarantee of victory. It may also consider the geopolitical situation of Tigray region as a weakness: Afwerki’s recent efforts to mediate between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt in the dispute over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (EGRD), could have been aimed at preventing the Tigray region from accessing aid from Sudan and Egypt. And Ahmed could justify war against the Tigray government as a mission to guarantee national unity.

The international community has been preoccupied in the last few months with the dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, and has made determined efforts to prevent it from turning into armed conflict. However, I believe that the conflicts between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional government, and between Eritrea and the Tigray have even greater potential for leading to war and require urgent attention from the international community.

Yaseen Mohmad Abdalla

Last modified on Monday, 07 September 2020 23:16