The enemies became allies to fight the TPLF, but old grievances and new disputes are threatening to revive the conflict.
In the five tumultuous years from 2018 to 2023, the dynamics between Eritrea and Ethiopia have veered from hostility to cooperation and now—ominously—toward the brink of war.
Their shifting relationship is deeply intertwined with regional politics and power struggles, primarily revolving around Ethiopia’s ambitious quest to regain access to the Red Sea, which it lost in 1991 after Eritrea’s independence. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has consistently blamed, behind closed doors, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for accepting Eritrea’s independence. Abiy has also reportedly blamed Eritrea for derailing the Pretoria peace agreement signed between the TPLF and the federal government that ended Ethiopia’s civil war—in which Eritrea fought on the government’s side against the TPLF—last year.
On Oct. 13, Ethiopian media aired a previously recorded speech by Abiy to the parliament, highlighting the Red Sea’s importance for Ethiopia’s future to either propel it towards greatness or plunge it into oblivion—as well as stating its ambition to establish a naval base. (A naval force has already been formed).
This revelation unsettled neighboring countries such as Djibouti and Somalia, and even the United States, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently urged both countries to refrain from provocation and respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries in the region.
Contemporary Ethiopia had direct Red Sea access only between 1952 and 1991, a period marked by a costly Eritrean Liberation War. After Eritrea gained independence, it reverted to its former borders without formal demarcation. A border conflict in 1998 escalated into a war that lasted until 2000, concluding with the Algiers Agreement, which called for the establishment of a Boundary Commission. Ethiopia accepted the commission’s ruling reluctantly and did not actively implement it, resulting in a tense stand-off that persisted until Abiy’s rise to power in 2018. It is worth noting that from 1998 to 2018, Ethiopia saw significant economic growth without depending on Eritrean ports.
When Abiy visited Eritrea in July 2018, both countries announced an end to the state of war. They agreed to restore diplomatic relations, reopen flights, and facilitate trade by opening their borders. This momentous peace deal led to the reopening of embassies and the resumption of flights between the two countries, initially generating great optimism.
Eritrean military sources suggest the country is now bracing for a potential war as Ethiopia amasses troops near the Eritrean border.
Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 with an emphasis on his role in resolving the border dispute with Eritrea. In hindsight, the Nobel Committee’s recognition primarily rewarded a peace process aimed at ending one conflict while inadvertently laying the groundwork for several others.
The Nobel euphoria was short-lived. After a few months, the border was once again closed, and numerous unresolved issues lingered. The agreements signed by the two leaders were shrouded in secrecy. Subsequently, a devastating joint military campaign was launched against Tigray to finish off a common enemy, the TPLF, in 2020—resulting in a large scale humanitarian crisis.
Eritrean military sources suggest the country is now bracing for a potential war as Ethiopia amasses troops near the Eritrean border in Zalembessa—which is 100 miles from the capital, Asmara—and the Assab front, which includes the Assab port, which is 45 miles from the Ethiopian border and may be difficult for Eritrea to defend. Those areas recently witnessed heightened airplane activity and troop movements. Amid global attention on the U.S. election in 2020, Abiy went to war with the TPLF. There are concerns that he might target Eritrea now amid the world’s focus on Gaza.
Both leaders’ characteristics might set the stage for calamity. Abiy is known for his paradoxical approach of promoting peace while contemplating war. He has always been keen to solve political problems through military means. He sees himself as divinely guided in his quest for Ethiopia’s glory, with the Red Sea and Eritrea playing a pivotal role. Isaias Afwerki is a long-serving, unforgiving dictator with a penchant for proxy warfare. He may boost support to Amhara militias and the Oromo Liberation Army to weaken Abiy. (Eritrea’s president is already backing the Amhara with training and arms, according to internal military sources.)
If war between the two countries ensues, Ethiopia might focus its military actions on the Assab front, a region suitable for air raids and drone strikes and remote from the center of Eritrea. Eritrea could face logistical challenges reinforcing this area, possibly leading it to shift troops from 52 districts it occupies in Tigray. It is estimated that the Eritrean troops at present have placed nine divisions on border areas they occupy in Tigray totaling about 40,000 soldiers.
These divisions are reinforced with mechanized forces, which Eritrea heavily depends on. Eritrea claims it is deployed in areas awarded to it by the boundary commission. It is possible that Eritrea may attack Ethiopia and occupy more territories as a pre-emptive move. Just like in 1998, a small incident or a miscalculation by one of the sides may lead to full-scale war.
An outbreak of war could allow Ethiopia an opportunity to recapture areas under Eritrean occupation or controlled by Amhara militias. Additionally, the residual TPLF forces, about 200,000 of whom have not been disarmed yet, might attempt to regain territories they believe constitutionally belong to them.
Both countries are not prepared for an all-out war due to the heavy losses they suffered during the Tigray conflict. The war may have killed about 600,000 people. More than 1 million people are estimated to remain internally displaced from the Tigray war. Post-conflict recovery in Ethiopia is estimated to cost $20 billion.
The Ethiopian military is spread thinly, dealing with multiple challenges, especially in the Amhara and Oromia regions. The conflict in the Oromia region of Ethiopia has been simmering for five years without much international attention, primarily within Oromia but occasionally impacting adjacent regions like Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella, and Amhara.
The ongoing conflict in the Amhara region of Ethiopia is rooted in long-standing grievances that date back to 1991 when the TPLF took power in Ethiopia. The Amhara community has faced significant violence and displacement, particularly since Abiy came to power, with attacks concentrated in Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz regional state.
The fighting in the Amhara region escalated in April this year when the federal government tried to disarm the Amhara special forces and the Amhara militia that fought by its side during the Tigray war. At the beginning, the Amhara militia known as Fano controlled big cities in the region and broke into several prisons releasing inmates. The federal government reacted harshly using heavy weapons, drones and aerial bombardment.
This led to the arrest to the arrest of hundreds, including national and regional members of parliament, amid suspicions of support for the militants. The militia have left the big towns and now engage the army by ambushing it along roads and in the countryside. There have been heavy casualties on both sides and among the civilian population.
The Amhara view the Oromo as their main rivals for political and economic influence, seeing the current government as Oromo-dominated, despite its oppressive actions in Oromia and general unpopularity among the Oromo people. Since the 1995 constitution, which formalized ethnic federalism, the Amhara have felt marginalized and have been struggling with the loss of their historical dominance in Ethiopia’s politics, economy, and culture.
Eritrea, meanwhile, faces international isolation, with many countries keen to see Isaias gone. But the Eritrean people will not compromise on their independence, and Eritreans opposing the regime may align with the government to defend their country, thereby emboldening Isaias.
Tensions between the two countries were already emerging, even amid their alliance during the Tigray conflict. In June 2021, when Abiy was forced to withdraw his troops from Tigray, Eritrean forces were not notified in advance, which cost them lives and caused friction. Ethiopian military leaders were displeased with the behavior of Eritrean forces, who asserted seniority over Ethiopian commanders. This was evident in the establishment of checkpoints where Ethiopian troops had to seek permission from Eritrean commanders to pass through.
Eritrea disapproved of Abiy’s response to Western pressures, including investigations into war crimes by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. These investigations implicated the warring parties, including Eritrean forces. Eritrean entities, military figures, and security officials were singled for sanctions from both the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile, Ethiopian entities were not subjected to similar sanctions.
The rift between the two countries further deepened following the signing of the peace agreement between the TPLF and the federal government in November 2022, in which neither Eritrea nor the leaders of the Amhara region were represented.
Both Eritrea and the Amhara militias felt betrayed by Abiy after he signed the Pretoria Peace Agreement.
The Amhara situation is pivotal in this interstate conflict. Both Eritrea and the Amhara militias felt betrayed by Abiy after he signed the Pretoria Peace Agreement. They both fought against the TPLF and both were not happy it was not finished off, once and for all. The Amhara militias control what was called western Tigray and thus have direct access to Eritrea. Eritrea might exploit Amhara resources to destabilize Ethiopia, while Ethiopia has to block its border with Eritrea to cut off Eritrean support to the Amhara militia.
The Amhara militias are resolute in holding onto the territories they retook during the Tigray conflict, known as Welkait-Tsegede by the Amhara and western Tigray by the Tigrayans. The potential return of these regions to the TPLF is perceived as a threat, as it could grant the TPLF access to Sudan—a development viewed with concern by Eritrea. This is because Tigray would be able to get direct assistance through Sudan, or even attack Eritrea via Sudan if war breaks out between the two.
On May 1, Abiy issued a public statement regarding the assassination of the head of the Amhara regional branch of his Prosperity Party by Amhara extremists believed to receive support from Eritrea. Abiy sternly warned against what he referred to as “non-Ethiopian forces,” likely alluding to Eritrea, urging them to cease their interference in Ethiopia’s internal matters and to refrain from destabilizing the nation. He advised them to focus on their own affairs, emphasizing that they had plenty of challenges to address.
This statement came on the heels of a reported confrontation Abiy had with a delegation of Eritrean army generals and senior officials who had visited Ethiopia in early April 2023. In that meeting, Abiy demanded they refrain from supporting Amhara forces.
Meanwhile, Abiy is escalating his rhetoric. He was quoted as saying he would not be limited to reclaiming the port of Assab but would retake the entire territory of Eritrea. The military chief of staff of Ethiopia, in an assessment of the conflict within the Amhara region, has purportedly stated that it is necessary to classify Eritrea as an adversary. And the Oromia regional president’s statement that Irreecha, an Oromo festival observed near a water body, will be celebrated next on the banks of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean adds fuel to the fire.
The current trajectory suggests a probable collision course that could have devastating regional implications. The situation is fluid, and careful diplomacy by the African Union and the international community is crucial to prevent a catastrophic outcome. The last thing the Horn of Africa needs is another war.