An escalating war of words is taking place between Eritrea and Ethiopia, as the two countries face-off over a flaring border dispute that historically claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.
Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s former Foreign Minister and one of the leaders of the Popular Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF), denounced Eritrea’s President’s interference in his country's internal affairs. In a fiery speech on February 16, he proclaimed, “How can Isaias Afwerki find solutions to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa after failing in Eritrea and making half of its people refugees?", before comparing him to "Hitler and Mussolini."
On February 12, prior to Mesfin’s attack on Afewerki, Tsegai Berhai, a prominent TPLF leader, "If Isaias interferes in Ethiopian internal affairs, we will cut off his hands."
Badme’s war of words
Bila Gilan, Ethiopian journalist at Addis Standard spoke to TRT World, describing the statements as “a direct response to an interview Isaias had on Eritrean TV, and moreover is a natural response by the TPLF given the hostility between the two parties,"
In a February 7 interview with the National Satellite Channel, the Eritrean President accused the ruling party in Tigray of stalling and delaying completion of the peace process by refusing to hand over the town of Badme to Eritrea. He added that the situation in the town is now far worse, while critiquing the TPLF’s distribution of the region’s territories to supporters.
Badme is a border town imbued with significant symbolism. It was the focus of a fierce war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998-2000, killing more than 100,000 people, until a special court approved the demarcation of borders between the two countries and granted the town’s rights to Eritrea.
Addis Ababa agreed to implement the provisions of the Algiers Agreement in a peace agreement reached in 2018 between the two parties. Meanwhile, the ruling party of the Tigray province bordering Eritrea, still holds "reservations," demanding that they be taken into consideration before handing the town over to the Eritrean side.
Amid celebrations overshadowed by visible militarization and absent federal officials, Dr. Debreción Gabriemekil, TPLF’s President and Vice-President of the Tigray Region attacked the Welfare Party recently formed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed in a speech marking the 45th anniversary of the founding of his party, threatening the region’s secession from Ethiopia.
Debrecion’s rallying cry throughout his speech in the capital of Tigray province, was for Eritreans "and even the army" to come to his country.
"We will not close the borders with Eritrea, and the Eritrean people should not be in camps, but between brothers in cities," he said.
In his broadcast interview, Isaias Afwerki attacked what he described as "an escalation of creating ‘refugee camps’”, with the express aim of "depleting Eritrean power" in addition to "creating opposition based on ethnic and clan affiliation."
Gilan believes there is no militarization or even popular support for an Eritrean armed opposition by the Tigray leadership, according to an interview with TRT World.
“Ethiopia under the rule of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi supported armed organizations hostile to the Eritrean regime, but with the death of Mehlis in 2012, and the arrival of his successor Hili Myriam Dessalines to power, Ethiopian support for the aforementioned organizations diminished, and the peace agreement of 2018 between Eritrea and Ethiopia was eliminated in the country."
But based on his study of recent developments, Eritrean politician Abdo Sharif says there are indicators that this escalation is linked to the vision and readiness of Tigray leaders for the next stage: a current link between them and a group of Eritrean opposition leaders splitting from the Asmara regime in Maqli, wit arrangements being made to form an opposition body. He describes it as an alternative to the Eritrean regime, in the event matters move towards Tigray’s fragmentation.
Analysis also seems to indicate that one of the motives behind the dispute over the mentioned refugee camps is Asmara's fear that the formed group would take advantage of soldiers fleeing the country and build-up an armed wing. Such a militarized group may pose a threat to the regime, given its communication channels with elements of the Eritrean army and security forces by virtue of their prior political and organizational ties.
There are four refugee camps in the Tigray region bordering Eritrea. It’s inhabitants fled from Eritrea due to deteriorating political and economic conditions, as well as rampant ultranationalism. According to international figures, more than 86,500 refugees were registered in these camps at the end of 2019, with over 70,000 new refugees entering Ethiopia at the end of the same year, most being youth.
The ruling People's Front in Tigray is subject to a great deal of pressure, since it fled the authority that held it in an iron grip for more than a quarter of a century where it was scapegoated for every misdeed. The general sentiment feeling there is one of mounting risk and a danger of political marginalization, as it stands between Addis Ababa and Asmara.
According to Mohamed Saleh, a researcher specializing in Horn of Africa affairs, “Tigray people and symbols feel targeted both locally and regionally, as Afwerki seeks revenge from the TPLF rooted in a desire to destroy them.” In his interview with TRT World, he adds that the roots of this tension are rooted in the legacy of post-Mengistu Haile era of regional politics, the emergence of the current Abi Ahmed regime, and the attempt to sweep the legacy of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (a coalition dominated by TPLF). The complexity of the problems only exacerbate tensions.
Mohamed Saleh continues, in response to this, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray is fighting on several fronts simultaneously. It is trying to thwart the repercussions of attempts by the current Ethiopian rapprochement with the Afwerki regime, counter strong escalations of resistance to the Abi Ahmed regime, mobilize federalists on the basis of respect for law and constitution, and finally strengthening the Tigray’s home front by providing them with a broad umbrella.
For Saleh, the issue is that the complex challenges posed may require some degree of force. There are “possibilities these parties can fall into dangerous and devastating conflict,” he says.
This bodes ill for the two countries, given that the bloody border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia (1998-2000) constituted a dramatic turning point in the relationship between the two ruling fronts in Asmara and Addis. This was preceded by a strategic alliance between revolutionary rulers spanning nearly a quarter of a century, as they triumphed together over Darqwiyya rule (1974-1991) in Ethiopia, followed by raging hostility as each side sought to undermine the rule of the other for 20 years.
On this basis, the intertwined internal and external complexities spanning the the ambiguous relations between Asmara, Addis Ababa and Maqali are prone to a highly charged, dangerous outcome.
With all possibilities on the table, not excluding escalation, the three capitals are anxiously anticipating elections in August 2020, which could constitute the most dangerous elections in Ethiopia’s modern history.