Uncertainty in the Horn as a wary Eritrea seeks new alliances

4 mins read

President Isaias Afwerki’s recent statements suggest he is concerned about Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s deal with the TPLF.

Eritrea’s reclusive leader, Isaias Afewerki, held a rare press conference on 9 February while on a diplomatic visit in Nairobi, Kenya. He also conducted a lengthy four-part interview on Eri-TV, an Eritrean state-owned media outlet. 

Isaias’ answers in both offered a glimpse into his thinking on a number of important dynamics, notably Asmara’s reception of Ethiopia’s peace agreement, the mandated withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers from Tigray, accountability for atrocities committed during the war, and Eritrea’s role in shifting regional dynamics.

He commented on the recent settlement between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Eritrean government has officially recognized and commended the peace deal signed in Pretoria, South Africa, that ended Ethiopia’s civil war.

The agreement implies that, owing to the diplomatic pressure and promises of financial support from the West, Abiy’s government has agreed to reach a political settlement with the TPLF and share power. 

Pretoria Plot

Some commentators have portrayed Isaias as the biggest winner after Ethiopia’s war given how much it weakened the TPLF, Tigray, and Ethiopia more broadly. 

Although publicly stating that the joint Ethiopian and Eritrean military operation has eliminated the TPLF as a threat, the settlement has caused concern among some in Eritrea that an alliance is forming that could be hostile towards Isaias’ regime.

In his interview, Isaias hinted at his displeasure with the arrangement, portraying it as a ploy by the West to save his mortal enemy, the TPLF.

Such anti-imperialist rhetoric is arguably a convenient way for him to externalize blame for Eritrea’s woes, and postpone answering internal demands for democracy and good governance.

Now that the TPLF is, by his own admission, no longer a significant threat, he needs another, more potent, enemy against whom Eritreans must stand guard: the West. 

Troop Withdrawal

When speaking with Eri-TV, Isaias also emphasized the integration of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) during the third round of fighting.

While the Ethiopian government denied that Eritrean troops were in Tigray for the first five months of the war, evidence suggests they entered the war in its early days.

Since then, the only question has been the extent to which the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies were integrated and operating together, and whether the leverage Isaias gained over Ethiopia’s prime minister will cause Eritrea to play a spoiler role.    

It’s notable that Isaias claimed Eritrean forces were invited by the Ethiopian government and sidestepped questions in Nairobi over whether his troops will remain in Tigray. 

Under the Pretoria agreement, the withdrawal of the Eritrean army was expected to occur in tandem with the Tigray forces giving up their heavy weapons. The latter has taken place and there have been reports of Eritrean troops withdrawing from parts in Tigray, but there is also evidence of their continued presence. 


On Eri-TV, Isaias also spoke about the need to punish those responsible for atrocities committed in Tigray. He repeatedly asserted that the destruction caused by the TPLF must be addressed and those responsible for atrocities should face justice. 

When confronted by journalists in Nairobi about claims of widespread atrocities committed by Eritrean troops in Tigray, the autocratic president called such reports, “a fantasy of those who want to derail any peace process [from] achieving its goal.” 

As such, it appears that Isaias’ emphasis on the need for accountability is intended to add fuel to anti-TPLF sentiments already brewing amongst the Tigrayan public and to shift focus away from his own government’s dismal human rights record.

Eritrean troops have been implicated in some of the most horrendous and widespread abuses during Ethiopia’s civil war. 

Although the guns have mostly been silenced, reports of atrocities by Eritrean forces against Tigrayans have not stopped, including sexual violence and executions.

Human rights organizations have ramped up their calls for accountability in the face of the Ethiopian government’s attempts to stifle a UN investigation.

Shifting Dynamics

During his interview, Isaias also discussed other military details that attest to Ethio-Eritrean solidarity, seemingly in order to do away with speculation that he and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are growing more distant.

Despite such assurances, it appears the Pretoria Agreement has paved the way for a new political settlement in Ethiopia. 

Eritrea has been openly supporting Amhara nationalists and their irredentism, including the violent and unconstitutional annexation of Western Tigray, and a political settlement that favors the TPLF could be detrimental to this agenda. 

Pretoria appears to be causing a shift in alliances among supporters of Abiy’s government. This is part of a larger trend of pro-unionist parties and media outlets, including Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) and ESAT TV, distancing themselves from Abiy’s administration. 

The relationship between Amhara nationalists and the Abiy regime has been frayed since his May 2022 crackdown on Fano militants and journalists in Amhara, and the state violence against civilians amid the recent rift in Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church.  

Abiy’s apparent support for the move by separatist Oromia bishops against the Holy Synod, allegedly dominated by Amhara archbishops with chauvinistic views, can be interpreted as an attempt to neutralize the threat of extremist Amhara nationalism and, by extension, blunt Eritrea’s influence.

Given the alliance between Eritrean and Amhara elites, some analysts have interpreted the growing hostility towards Pretoria among pro-unionist parties and media outlets as reflecting Eritrea’s true feelings.

New Friends

To mitigate internal and external pressures, the Isaias regime has been seeking to forge new regional and global alliances.

Isaias’ visit to Kenya and meeting with its newly-elected president, William Ruto, suggests that Eritrea is actively seeking new alliances to retain its importance in the Horn of Africa, especially now that its alliance with Ethiopia is no longer a given.

Eritrea president Isaias Afwerki and Kenyan president William Ruto; Nairobi; 9 February 2023

If the political settlement in Ethiopia results in the TPLF gaining a foothold in the federal government, it could lead to a shift in the regional power dynamics, with Ethiopia and Eritrea potentially becoming rivals.

In addition, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, travelled to Eritrea in late January for bilateral discussions. The talks reportedly centered around the potential for increased Russian investment in Eritrea, as well as security cooperation.

Isaias is also seeking investments from Saudi Arabia and travelled to Riyadh on 28 February to meet with top Saudi officials.

It remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be, but Isaias clearly recognizes the need to adapt to the changing political landscape in the region.

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