His country may be small and impoverished, but Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has exploited the war to extend his military influence across the region, leveraging himself into a kingmaker role in neighbouring Ethiopia, and expanding his alliances in Somalia and other countries in the Horn.
Mr. Isaias holds such a tight grip on Eritrea that he has not permitted a single election during the 30 years since its independence. His country is often described as “the North Korea of Africa” because of its secrecy, one-man rule, intolerance of dissent and detention of thousands of political prisoners.
Witnesses have told The Globe and Mail that Eritrean troops remain an aggressive presence in Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, attacking and looting civilians in defiance of a November peace agreement that requires all foreign forces to withdraw. Eritrea has also forged links with ethnic Amhara militias – key players in Ethiopia – and with the Somalia government, which sent thousands of its troops to Eritrea for training.
Despite its small population of just five million, compared to Ethiopia’s 120 million, Eritrea wields an outsize influence in the Horn because Mr. Isaias has never hesitated to use his vast military – bolstered by a system of indefinite long-term conscription – to project power outside his borders.
A Tigrayan humanitarian worker told The Globe that he recently witnessed Eritrean soldiers digging trenches outside the town of Adigrat – a sign that they have no intention of leaving. He named 16 towns in Tigray where Eritrean troops are still active. (The Globe is not identifying him because he is at risk of retribution for his comments.)
“Displaced people in Adigrat say there is unprecedented looting and atrocities,” the humanitarian worker said. “Farmers are traumatized, killed and kidnapped by Eritrean soldiers. A 23-year-old woman in Adigrat hospital told me that she was raped by five Eritrean soldiers.”
A report on Dec. 30 by a committee of relief organizations and officials in Tigray said the Eritrean forces and their Amhara allies have killed more than 3,700 civilians since the peace agreement was signed.
In the first year of the Tigray war, the Ethiopian government was unable to defeat the Tigrayan forces, which counter-attacked so fiercely that in 2021 they were able to march toward Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. This left Ethiopia increasingly dependent on Eritrea, especially during a final offensive by their combined armies last August that captured several Tigrayan cities – forcing the Tigrayan leaders to accept a ceasefire and disarmament.
In preparation for the offensive, Eritrea launched a massive conscription campaign and then allowed the Ethiopian National Defense Force, or ENDF, to deploy dozens of army divisions inside its borders as a staging ground – reportedly under Eritrean command. Eritrea used long-range artillery and tank fire to support the attack.
This left Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deeply indebted to Mr. Isaias and seemingly unable to force Eritrea’s troops to leave Ethiopia, even though he has promised this since 2021. Mr. Isaias did not bother to join the peace negotiations between Ethiopian and Tigrayan leaders, and has flaunted his growing power by simply ignoring the recent agreement.
“Isaias has enormous leverage over Abiy,” said Horn of Africa analyst Alex de Waal in a recently published commentary.
“He holds several ENDF divisions hostage in Eritrea, he has agents all over Ethiopia – including, it is reported, in Abiy’s own security detail – as well as allies in Amhara and Afar regions. … No one expects Eritrea to withdraw willingly.”
Mr. Isaias, meanwhile, is also a key power broker in Sudan and Djibouti, where he uses his long-standing connections to militia leaders and rebel groups to fuel sporadic conflicts.
Eritrea’s military adventures have allowed Mr. Isaisas to destabilize his neighbours, preventing any of them from challenging his pre-eminence in Horn, analysts say.
“By interfering in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, Isaias seeks to become the regional hegemon,” the former U.S. special Horn of Africa envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, wrote in an analysis in Foreign Affairs late last month.
Under the latest ceasefire agreements, foreign forces are required to leave Tigray simultaneously with the disarmament of Tigrayan forces. Last week the Tigrayans began handing over their heavy weaponry to the Ethiopian army under the supervision of a peace monitoring team – but most Eritrean troops have remained in Tigray, despite some relocations.
One of the worst-hit places is Irob, a district near the Eritrean border of about 40,000 people, primarily Irob people, an ethnic minority within Tigray. Dozens were killed in a massacre by Eritrean troops in January, 2021. Today more than half of Irob is occupied by Eritrean forces who halt humanitarian aid and block access to markets, according to Irob Anina Civil Society, a Canadian-based Irob organization.
“It’s a total siege,” said Tesfaye Awala, a Canadian from Irob and current chair of the civil society organization.
“There are no essential services of any kind, including clinics or schools. The Eritrean troops regularly raid villages, killing, raping and looting. I feel so sad and devastated. I think the Eritrean regime believes it’s important to erase the Irob identity.”