Eritrea Goes From Pariah State to Regional Powerbroker

In early May, when Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited Sudan, the official objective of the trip was to strengthen bilateral ties within a regional framework. The visit nevertheless raised eyebrows. It came on the heels of Eritrea’s military participation in Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray region, and also at a time of rising tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and a border dispute involving areas near Tigray, among other issues. Unofficially, local observers have suggested that Eritrea may seek a role in mediating between Ethiopia and Sudan.

Whatever the actual purpose of Isaias’ visit, it highlighted the degree to which, in the past three years, Eritrea has gone from being an international pariah state to an increasingly visible and influential regional powerbroker in the Horn of Africa. Beginning in 2018, with its normalization of diplomatic relations with Ethiopia and Somalia, and more recently with its military assistance to Ethiopia in Tigray, the secretive, dictatorial state has broken out of the isolation it previously faced.

What does Eritrea seek from its newfound position? To understand that, one must begin with a look at the country’s history since it declared its statehood in May 1993, after a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. During that struggle, Isaias’ Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, or EPLF, had made common cause with Meles Zenawi’s fighters from the northern Tigray region, which borders Eritrea, to oust the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. At the ceremony celebrating Eritrea’s independence, Isaias and Meles—who had become the prime minister of Ethiopia—both spoke about a future of collaboration, foregrounding the two countries’ commonalities and their shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.

But the two leaders’ statements of unity belied the many differences between Eritrea and Ethiopia regarding their conceptions of the state and what their future relations should look like. They also ignored an important lesson that Eritrea had learned from a history of betrayal: that it could only trust itself, and that any alliance was only to be entered into from a position of strength.

In Eritrea’s view, it was owed a debt of gratitude from the new Ethiopian government. It believed that Meles’ organization, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, would not have captured Addis Ababa and installed a new regime under its leadership without the support of the EPLF. Thus, while the accession to power of both movements looked like a new political settlement where two sets of elites assumed almost exclusive control over their respective political and economic agendas in collaborative fashion, the tensions in their relationship were never far away.

In the early years of Eritrea’s independence, these tensions were glossed over, and regional cooperation was foregrounded. But Eritrea soon became an assertive, independent actor, challenging—at first indirectly, but then more forcefully—Ethiopia’s historical position of hegemony in the Horn of Africa.

These dynamics reached a climax with the bloody two-year border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that began in 1998. The war left tens of thousands of people dead and ended in an unexpected military defeat for Eritrea. Isaias’ government eventually signed a peace agreement subjecting the border dispute to international arbitration by an independent commission. Eritrea viewed this as a way to legally secure its boundaries as a sovereign state, against any incursions from any of its neighbors—a pillar of Eritrean foreign policy.

But the boundary commission’s final ruling, issued in 2002, was rejected by Ethiopia, and the two sides remained at loggerheads over the issue for nearly two decades thereafter. Though the judgment was supposed to be final and binding, the international community did little to force Addis Ababa to abide by it—a slight that Eritrea would never forget. Attempts at reconciliation with any Ethiopian government led by the TPLF seemed impossible, even after Meles died in 2012. Indeed, it took the ascension to power in Ethiopia of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 to move on and end the stand-off. Soon after taking office, Abiy’s government said it would accept the 2002 boundary commission ruling and sign a peace agreement with Eritrea, for which Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Once again, Eritrea’s fate seems deeply intertwined with that of Ethiopia, only now, Ethiopia has ceased to be the regional hegemon it once was.

This complex background is crucial to understand Eritrea’s current foreign policy. Abiy was a new leader with whom Eritrea shared a key objective: to cut the TPLF down to size and destroy its hold on the politics of Ethiopia and of the Horn of Africa. It was thus a logical step for Abiy to ask Eritrea for support when disagreements with the TPLF leadership led him to order an invasion of Tigray. The true role Eritrea has played in that conflict is hard to determine—reports of Eritrean troops committing most of the atrocities are as hard to verify as are reports that troops on both sides allegedly use each other’s uniforms to mask their identities. What is clear is that both Abiy’s forces and Eritrean troops are united by the objective to break any hold the TPLF may still have on power, both in Tigray and beyond. And both have gone about this business in brutal fashion.

Eritrea remains a secretive, dictatorial state where power rests firmly with Isaias, but to see Eritrea’s latest engagement in the Horn simply as a means for Isaias to hold on to power misses the point. The policies Isaias has pursued in his current engagement across the Horn are the sine qua non for an independent Eritrean foreign policy and state survival: secure alliances that are best suited to guarantee Eritrea’s status as a sovereign actor. Any Eritrean leader who replaces Isais is likely to follow a similar route.

Eritrea has long ago understood that the Horn of Africa is a volatile region where friends and foes change sides easily—and where survival thus hinges on allegiances that shift along with geopolitical developments. As long as an alliance with Ethiopia serves its interests and does not threaten Eritrea’s ability to act as a sovereign actor, close cooperation, as proclaimed or hoped for in 1993, is always possible. But Eritrea will not become a junior partner ever again, and its experience with the key regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, reinforces this course of action. Eritrea suspended its membership in 2007 due to IGAD’s unwillingness to enforce arbitration with Ethiopia on its border dispute, as required under international law. While it unilaterally reactivated its membership in 2011, its attempts to take up its role again have been blocked, mainly by Ethiopia.

It is thus a logical step for Eritrea to seek new alliances. Its foreign policy objectives partly overlap with Ethiopia’s at the moment, but this may not always be the case. This creates the need for new avenues of regional cooperation for Eritrea. It is no surprise, then, that the restoration of Eritrea’s diplomatic relations with Somalia came on the heels of the Eritrean-Ethiopian rapprochement. A key factor in the severed relations between both countries had been Eritrea’s support for the violent extremist group al-Shabab in Somalia, a move triggered not by any shared ideology or purpose, but by al-Shabab’s opposition to Ethiopia. It was an alignment that followed the logic that often dominates alliances in the Horn: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

It remains to be seen if the new trilateral alliance between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia will become a powerful regional force or if it will lead to a restructuring of IGAD, as Eritrea has demanded for some time. For now, it seems that, rather than aiming for peaceful regional integration, the three countries are engaging through personal channels in rather ad hoc fashion. The peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea serves as something of a blueprint here: Its substance is rather opaque, and the relationship seems mainly driven by the rapport of the two leaders, Isaias and Abiy. This does not look promising in the long term for the development of more durable, rules-based relationships in the region.

The same opacity surrounds Isaias’ visit to Sudan in early May, which as mentioned above could be an attempt at mediation between Ethiopia and Sudan. But it may also represent Eritrea’s effort to seek out new allegiances in order to navigate future challenges. After all, the alliance between Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea has yet to be tested. Eritrea’s active role in the conflict in Tigray has been increasingly condemned by the international community, so Isaias’ government may want to prepare for a scenario in which it is forced to shoulder the future fallout of the conflict. Seen from the Eritrean side, another betrayal by the international community lurks here. Indeed, the European Union has so far put sanctions only on Eritrea over the conflict, though the United States has been more even-handed in its sanctions and condemnation—handing them out to all sides involved.

As so often in its history, Eritrea finds itself between a rock and a hard place. To withdraw all its troops from Tigray now may destabilize parts of its own sacrosanct border. To stay engaged will enforce misguided narratives of the conflict in the West, which, at their most extreme, see Isaias as the dark force behind any trouble in the Horn, while failing to recognize how the war in Tigray enforces Abiy’s own hold on power and ensures the survival of Ethiopia’s central government.

Once again, Eritrea’s fate seems deeply intertwined with that of Ethiopia, only now, Ethiopia has ceased to be the regional hegemon it once was. In the long term, a more peaceful future for the Horn of Africa could indeed start from new alliances. But they would have to be built not on personal rapport, but on the rule of law, recognition of common grievances and a commitment to respect each other’s borders.