Eritrea goes bankrupt in Ethiopian civil war to crush old enemy

(Bloomberg) — Eritrea is stepping up its involvement in the civil war in neighboring Ethiopia, hampering efforts to end the fighting that has destabilized the entire Horn of Africa for nearly two years.

The conflict pits Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal troops against forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governs the northern Tigray region. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki backed Abiy from the start of hostilities and recently embarked on a nationwide campaign of forced conscription to bolster his army in an effort to crush the longtime foe TPLF, according to people close to the government. developments, including diplomats, civil rights activists, analysts and relatives of recruits.

The TPLF accuses Eritrea of ​​staging attacks in Tigray since fighting erupted in August, five months after a truce was declared. Last week, the governments of Australia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States condemned “the growing involvement of Eritrean military forces in northern Ethiopia”. .

Eritrea continues to bomb towns and villages in northern Tigray and thousands of new conscripts, including women and the elderly, have been deployed to the front lines, according to Uganda-based rights activists Meron Estefanos , and Asia Abdulkadir, who is based in Kenya.

Read more: Conflict tests Ethiopia’s Nobel Prize-winning leader: QuickTake

African Union-brokered peace talks due to begin in South Africa on October 8 have been delayed indefinitely. One likely reason is that Eritrea is pushing for an outright victory in the conflict, according to Harry Verhoeven, a professor and expert on Eritrea at Columbia University, and three diplomats who spoke under the guise of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. .

Yemane Ghebremeskel, Eritrea’s information minister, and Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s spokesperson, did not respond to emailed questions about Eritrea’s role in Tigray or respond to calls seeking comment.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Isaias, a rebel commander who led his country to independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s and has since chaired a one-party state. As well as ultimately defeating the TPLF, a military conquest would help consolidate his power in the region, open up trade with Ethiopia, and further cement his already close ties with Abiy.

“A peaceful settlement between the TPLF and Abiy is a threat to Isaias,” Abdulkadir said. “I don’t think it’s in his interest for this conflict to end. It’s pure survival for him.

former allies

Animosity between Eritrea and the TPLF, which effectively ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until 2018 when it was sidelined by Abiy, goes back decades. While Isaias and the Tigrayans once fought side by side to overthrow the communist Derg regime in Ethiopia, relations soured after Eritrea gained independence in 1993 and sought to assert its sovereignty.

The two nations then fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 that left tens of thousands dead. This conflict only officially ended in 2018, when Abiy took office as prime minister and signed a peace agreement with Isaias, a detente that won the Ethiopian leader the Nobel Prize.

Eritrea, which has been dubbed the North Korea of ​​Africa, is an international pariah. Isaias’ administration has been criticized by civil rights groups for its practice of jailing politicians, activists and journalists in solitary confinement, and it has been subjected to international sanctions and an embargo on arms.

“Extraordinary Risks”

In recent months, Eritrea has closed all international schools and closed its border with Sudan – a measure aimed at preventing opponents of Isaias from infiltrating the country, according to diplomats who have been briefed on the development. . The president also ordered all those who were previously exempt from military service to undergo further medical tests, they said.

“He’s a man who is deeply comfortable taking extraordinary risks,” Verhoeven said. “One of its great strengths is that it is willing to go where no one else wants to go and endure an extraordinary degree of discomfort: international isolation, sanctions, hostile neighbors on its doorstep, and the wrath of the United States. States and other members of the Security Council.”

Eritrea’s military operations are largely funded with proceeds from operations held by Red Sea Corp., its secretive sovereign wealth fund. Isaias has aided Saudi Arabia in its fight against the Houthis in Yemen and has been implicated by a United Nations panel in supporting the al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabaab, which is trying to overthrow the Somali government. since 2006.

While the United States and other Western governments have urged Eritrea to immediately withdraw from Tigray, Isaias is unlikely to heed their call. Abdulkadir, the Kenya-based activist, said Isaias was loath to take orders from anyone and saw Western powers as fickle and grossly inconsistent in enforcing their policies.

“War is Isaias’ way to stay involved in Ethiopian politics” and peace is simply not an option as long as the TPLF is still there, she said.

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