Amongst all the lies disseminated as facts since the start of the war in Northern Ethiopia, the most unforgettable for anyone who has been closely following the matter is the denial of Ethiopia’s government officials over the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray region. It started with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) himself, when the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, challenged him if Eritrean troops were fighting in Tigray.
Abiy vehemently denied their presence.
Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), including Dina Mufti, spokesperson of the MoFA, echoed the same, saying the government has not requested a third party to be involved in what was called, “A law enforcement operation.”
But as pressure on the government intensified and the truth came out, the PM himself released a statement, telling his citizens that Eritrean troops would leave the country immediately.
A year after he made that remark, Eritrean troops are yet to withdraw, having a presence in areas that was under the administration of West Tigray before the war broke out and fell under the administration of the Amhara region, whose officials consider it an ancestral land of the Amharas that was forcefully annexed by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF).
Though the prime objective of Eritrea does not seem to be helping the Amharas assume control over the area, they fear leaving towns like Wolkayit and Humera will enable the TPLF get access to the sea and compromise the safety of their country.
Though this is the reality on the ground, the federal government has turned a blind eye to the matter, ignoring calls by some who called Eritrea’s presence in Ethiopia’s territory being no different from violating the territorial sovereignty of the country.
While a series of attempts made by international organizations and western countries to persuade Eritrea withdraw from the territory of Ethiopia bore no fruit, it appears things are reaching a melting point once again, almost six month after a relatively peaceful period between the federal government and forces loyal to the TPLF.
Last week, there were reports indicating a war has already broken out between Eritrean troops and the TPLF. Citing internal UN documents, Reuters reported that Eritrean forces shelled a town in northern Ethiopia, Shiraro. While the Eritrean government chose to remain silent on the issue, the move comes on top of a stern warning issued by the Eritrean government, blaming the TPLF for attempting to occupy its territory and threatening to launch military offensive if necessary.
Coinciding with the annual independence celebration of Eritrea, the recent fighting is not a surprise as war drums were beaten weeks before the conflict broke out.
Opposition figures like Goitom Tsegaye, deputy chairperson of Arena Tigray, an opposition party active in Tigray, have already expressed their fears that war is inevitable unless all warring parties stop flexing their muscle for another round of fighting and reach a negotiated settlement.
For him, the latest fighting is an outcome of “the unhealthy relations between leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea.” “It is a friendship built up on personal relations of Abiy and Issays. If things go wrong between the two, war is inevitable,” said Goitom.
It is not the first time that observers have shared such a concern.
The rapprochement between the two countries made their citizens happy and left international observers hopeful, but “the informal nature of their relation” brought forth more questions than answers.
Details of agreements made between the leaders of the two countries remain tacit. Busy with the war against the TPLF, their common enemy and is believed to be their only joint objective considering the big policy differences between Asmara and Addis, the two are yet to demarcate boundary, which is one of the immediate causes of the war in 1998 between Ethiopia and Eritrea. While their last agreement, including the 2018 deal in Saudi Arabia, was not tabled before the Parliament, their diplomatic relation is yet to be institutionalized.
“We don’t know the deals happened behind closed doors, making it difficult to comprehend where the relationship between the two countries is heading,” said Zenur Abdulwahab, senior official of Freedom and Equality Party.
For a person close to the matter, it is obvious that the relation between Addis and Asmara is not as strong as it was. This, in particular, was evident after Abiy begun to exert efforts to end the war through negotiations.
“Abiy wants the war to end, while his Eritrean counterparts want to fight until the TPLF is destroyed,” said an official working at the MoFA.
Fithawek Yewondwossen, a geopolitical analyst, agrees. “It seems like Eritrea does not like the negotiation efforts made by the federal government, while Ethiopian officials are caught in a catch-22 situation, whereby they need Eritrea to make peace with Sudan, while they also want to normalize relations with the West, including the US.”
Lately the situation also indicates the willingness of the federal government to sit for negotiations with the leaders of the TPLF, though no concrete steps have been made thus far. Last week, Olusegun Obasanjo, special envoy to the Horn of Africa at the AU, paid a visit to Mekelle and then met Abiy while he was visiting development projects in Bale, Oromia Region.
It is not the first time when international agencies tried to end the conflict in the north through a negotiated settlement. Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan, and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, previously tried to mediate between the warring parties, even though they achieved little in bringing a lasting peace.
The National Dialogue Commission was also hoped it will play a big role to achieve peace, though its formation process made many question whether it would succeed or not, in addition to the official statement made by its Chairperson, who made it clear that the establishment of the Commission had little to do with the negotiation to end the conflict between the TPLF and the federal government.
Goitom, however, believes the Commission’s first job should be to mediate between all warring parties involved in the conflict.
“Though I doubt it would succeed, considering the way it was established and its commissioners selected, I believe it can play a big role if it begins negotiating with all fighting groups because that is the most concerning issue for the country and its people,” said Goitom.
Zenur agrees. “All parties, not only the federal government and the TPLF, must participate if negotiation starts. And the public must be given sufficient information on the progress of the negotiation,” said Zenur, adding, “That should start with normalizing relations with Eritrea, which should withdraw from every inch of Ethiopia’s territory.”