Tracing the emergence of Eritrea as the Horn’s biggest strategic power

Isaias Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (left) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon the latter's arrival for a bilateral meeting at Asmara International Airport in Asmara on March 25, 2021.

What you need to know:

  • One of Africa’s most centralised states, Eritrea has not held any elections since independence.
  • Elections have been postponed indefinitely since the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has in recent years emerged as the most influential strategic actor in the Horn. Since 2018, the Horn’s second smallest state after Djibouti has been the giant spider weaving the web of geopolitics in the region, with an inordinately huge geo-strategic influence, especially over Ethiopia and Somalia. 

After independence in 1993, Eritrea started off with strong democratic aspirations. This was clear from a speech titled ‘Democracy in Africa: an African view’ that President Isaias Afwerki, the country’s sole ruler since independence, delivered at the Walton Park Conference in West Sussex, England, on September 8, 1997. Afwerki extolled democracy and the rule of law as essential pillars of a modern society.

Today, experts concur that Eritrea is Africa’s “most fiercely authoritarian state”. It is training the armies of allies, intervening in wars and supporting the agenda of dismantling federalism and centralising power through intense militarism. 

One of Africa’s most centralised states, Eritrea has not held any elections since independence. Elections have been postponed indefinitely since the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia. Its national assembly last met in 2002. President Afwerki, a consummate and ruthless strategist, holds both the executive and legislative powers. His ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the only legal political party.

Prior to June 2018, Eritrea was a regional pariah state at war with all its neighbours. From December 15 to December 17, 1995, it fought a three-day war with Yemen over the island of Greater Hanish. In 1998, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that most of the archipelago was in Yemen.

Between May 1998 and June 2000, it fought with Ethiopia over the barren border territory around Badme, which resulted in a 20-year stalemate and proxy wars. In December 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions after it emerged Asmara was supporting al-Shabaab militants in Somalia as part of its proxy war with Ethiopia. In June 2008, Eritrean forces penetrated Djibouti, sparking a brief border conflict with its neighbour.

A historic peace pact with Ethiopia in July 2018 changed the fortunes of Eritrea’s diplomacy. On June 5, 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed to fully implement a peace treaty signed with Eritrea in 2000 and the two sealed a new one in July. This ended two decades of a “frozen war” with Ethiopia. Many expected Eritrea to reap the peace dividends and open up its closed political system and resume polls, but that was not to be . 

Eritrea’s post-2018 strategy in the Horn is weaved around a Tripartite Alliance with Ethiopia and Somalia, known the New Horn Cooperation, which was unveiled in 2019. The alliance was to be based on a ‘Cushitic consciousness’ that aspired to unite Somali and Oromo as two Cushitic communities.

Afwerki strategically positioned the new alliance as an alternative to the exiting security architecture in the Horn based on the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (Igad). 

Longevity of allied regimes 

Eritrea has also been pursuing an agenda of centralisation to secure the survival and longevity of allied regimes. However, the emergence of a rival regional security architecture as a new alternative centre of power has thrown the region into turmoil.

A contrived delay of scheduled elections and term extension plunged Somalia into its worst constitutional crisis, pushed the country to the brink of civil war, emboldened al-Shabaab terrorists and undermined counter-terrorism efforts.

Similarly, in Ethiopia, postponement of elections and extension of the regime’s stay in office shattered democratic transition and triggered the deadly conflict in Tigray.

The Horn of Africa Cooperation has now turned into a military alliance. Reports indicate that since 2019, Eritrea has clandestinely trained between 3,000 and 7,000 special troops in support of Afwerki’s ally, President Farmaajo.  The issue of training Somali recruits in Eritrea initially featured in talks during Farmaajo’s visit to Asmara in September 2018. 

Eritrea has defended the project as its way of returning the favour for Somalia’s support during its liberation struggle. In January 2021, Mogadishu’s information minister Osman Abukar Dubbe admitted Asmara has been training Somali troops.

While similar training of Somali soldiers abroad, including in Turkey, Uganda and Djibouti have been coordinated by the Ministry of Defence, the Eritrean operation was under Somalia’s National Intelligence Agency (Nisa).

Somalia’s Federal member states expressed fear that the troops trained by Eritrea were Farmaajo’s personal force that could be used in election-related conflicts in Somalia.

Stoking this fear, Farmaajo has been pushing for Eritrean soldiers to replace the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) in Jubaland. Villa Somalia was also courting Eritrea and Turkey to replace the African peacekeepers under Amisom, when they finally withdraw in 2021.

Eritrea has also intervened militarily in Ethiopia in support of its ally, Prime Minister Abiy. In hindsight, the 2018 peace pact between Afwerki and Abiy could in reality have been an Ethiopia-Eritrea military pact against a common enemy – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).  This came as a dispute over the postponement of elections in Ethiopia slated for August 9, 2020 continued.

Social media reports suggested Eritrea-trained Somali soldiers were fighting alongside Eritrean forces in Tigray, with Somalia dismissing the reports as “unfounded rumours”. For the sake of democracy and stability in the Horn, Eritrea should withdrawal its troops from Ethiopia.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute. This article draws from a policy Brief: ‘Resurgent Autocratic Populism and the Crisis of Electoral Politics in the Horn of Africa’ (July 2021) by the Institute’s Horn Centre for Security Analysis.

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