Eritrea’s government should not be allowed to harm peace in Ethiopia

President Isaias Afwerki’s determination to continue his feud with the TPLF is jeopardising stability in Ethiopia and the wider region.

Eritrean President
President Afwerki believes in Tigray his troops helped the Ethiopian government defeat not only a rebellious regional administration but a plot to alter the world order to the detriment of Eritrean and African sovereignty, writes Hagos [File: Feisal Omar/Reuters]

Long-simmering political tensions between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional state, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), erupted into a military conflict on November 3, 2020. Neighbouring Eritrea entered the war early on, sending troops to Tigray to help the federal government.

Exactly two years later, on November 3, 2022, the Ethiopian government and the TPLF agreed to a “permanent cessation of hostilities”, effectively ending the civil war which by then had already claimed thousands of lives, displaced millions and brought many others to the brink of starvation.

The Eritrean government, however, refused to withdraw its forces, who stand accused of various human rights violations, from Tigray and continued its provocations against the TPLF. Tigray residents accused the Eritrean soldiers of continuing to loot, arrest, and kill civilians long after the ceasefire. The Eritrean government has also been accused of providing financial and military aid as well as logistic support to armed groups from Amhara regional states that remain in Tigray and are also alleged to be involved in unlawful and violent activities in other parts of Ethiopia.

Now, nearly six months after the agreement on cessation of hostilities, Eritrean forces are still in Tigray and there are growing concerns that the actions of the government in Asmara may derail Ethiopia’s crucial peace process and push the country, and with it the wider region, into renewed conflict.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki says he is determined to continue his country’s decades-old conflict with the TPLF, which was in control of Ethiopia during Eritrea’s 30-year independence war against the country.

He, however, does not appear to be pursuing a prolonged conflict with the leadership of the regional state solely to settle historical grievances.

In an interview published by the Eritrean Ministry of Information in February, Afwerki accused the TPLF of being mercenaries working to maintain Western hegemony in the Horn of Africa. The Tigray war, he claimed “was not really a TPLF agenda; but essentially the agenda of Washington”. It was a result of the TPLF’s willingness to serve as a foot soldier in Washington’s quest to facilitate a return to the “unipolar world order”, he argued.

He pointed to the invasion of Ukraine as an example of the US-led struggle to maintain a unipolar world, and claimed the US uses “proxies, such as the TPLF clique and others, to create chaos everywhere”.

All in all, it is obvious that Afwerki believes in Tigray his troops helped the Ethiopian government defeat not only a rebellious regional administration but a plot to alter the world order to the detriment of Eritrean and African sovereignty.

This suggests Afwerki will continue to agitate for further conflict with the TPLF even if the group adheres to all the conditions of the agreement for the cessation of hostilities and agrees to respect the authority of the Ethiopian federal government.

This attitude, which casts TPLF as an American proxy inherently hostile to regional powers, could prove harmful not only for the people of Tigray but all Ethiopians, Eritreans and Africans for several reasons.

First and foremost, the Eritrean government’s insistence on keeping its troops in Tigray and supporting Amhara groups could undermine the efforts of the international community to build a sustainable peace architecture in Tigray and trigger a new conflict in Ethiopia.

Given the myriad accusations of human rights violations and war crimes directed at Eritrean soldiers, their continued presence in Ethiopia could lay the ground for more atrocities and make it impossible for Tigrayans to build their lives back.

Furthermore, the Eritrean government’s continued involvement in Ethiopian conflicts could negatively affect the wellbeing of the many Eritrean refugees currently residing in Ethiopia.

Before the recent conflict, about 100,000 Eritrean refugees lived in camps in Tigray. For a long time, they were safe in Ethiopia. But when the war erupted, these refugees and other Eritrean civilians in the regional state found themselves being targeted by all warring parties, including Eritrean forces. They have been subjected to siege tactics, deprived of any kind of aid for long periods of time, and fallen victim to targeted attacks. Reportedly, some were also forcibly returned to Eritrea in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. The Eritrean government’s refusal to leave Tigray and allow Ethiopians to resolve the conflict between themselves means that remaining Eritrean refugees in the regional state are still under threat.

The Eritrean government’s continued involvement in the Tigray conflict could also have grave consequences well beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Ethiopia is a key player in the Horn of Africa, and its stability is crucial to maintaining peace and security in the region. The continued involvement of the Eritrean government in Ethiopian conflicts, and President Afwerki’s efforts to provoke the TPLF, could exacerbate tensions and contribute to instability in the region.

To avoid this grim scenario, the international community should closely monitor the situation in Tigray and take the necessary steps to ensure Afwerki’s government is not given further opportunities to destabilise Ethiopia. This includes pressuring the Eritrean government in every way possible to pull its troops out of Ethiopia, holding it accountable for the atrocities it is alleged to have committed in Tigray, and encouraging the Ethiopian federal government to take a firm stance against Eritrea’s involvement in its domestic affairs.

In addition, the Ethiopian authorities and the TPLF should be encouraged to build on the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and expand its scope to include other Ethiopian rebel groups, such as the Oromo Liberation Army, to provide sustainable and inclusive solutions to current security, social, political and economic challenges in Ethiopia.

After two years of civil war, the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement put Ethiopia on the path towards sustainable peace and long-term stability. The global community should do everything in its power to stop the Eritrean government from undoing this achievement.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.