The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in signing a peace treaty with Eritrea after an estrangement that lasted over 20 years. He achieved a success that no other administration was able to reach within a short period of assuming power. In this paper, we recall the historical events for two entities that were one country and explore their wars of independence, as well as investigate their border issues that created multiple complications for their people who are entwined racially and culturally. Consequently, it also led to bloody wars that have charted the struggles in the whole of the Horn of Africa for a long time.
Some attributed the success in signing the peace agreement with the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to the internal arrangements in Ethiopia secured by the Prime Minister Abi Ahmed since he assumed power. However, the analysis of the historical context for the power struggles in the Abyssinian Plateau suggests another explanation which is more compatible with the history of the conflict. One of which is the end of the Tigray rule in Ethiopia as the main reason for why the Eritrean side accepted the agreement. This is backed by a study conducted by Sally Healy and Martin Plaut, who theorized that the hostility between the two countries will not end unless one of their rules culminate, and that is what truly happened in the end.
In 1895, Eritrea was established with its current borders, which was the year when the Italian military lost the battle of “Adwa” in the Tigray region in North of Ethiopia. The Emperor Menilek II, the founder of modern Ethiopia, was the one who defeated the Italians and drew the borders of the Eritrean state. The borders extend along the Ethiopian border from west to southeast, while it also extends along the Red Sea coast from north to south.
Comparably to what colonialist powers tend to do in their regions, the Italians divided the inhabitants of the Abyssinian Plateau in a way that did not match the social structure of the region. Unlike the rest of the African region, the Abyssinian Plateau has an established heritage and social feature that is shaped by the environment. Mainly the area is surrounded by high mountain table tops, which provided a sense of protection to the people who for centuries had many fears from the Islamic religious side.
The British administration which managed Eritrea between 1942 till 1952 created a proposition of annexing the plateau areas to Ethiopia. Then giving Sudan the Muslim areas known as the mountain depressions, attributing it to the religious and tribal connection with the Muslims of Sudan. However, this was not accepted by the Muslim national bloc, nor did it appeal to the Christian elite residents of the plateau at that time. Especially as many of those same people had fought alongside the Ethiopian resistance against the Italian occupiers in the years between 1937 and 1942.
Another reason why these elites refrained from supporting their annexation to Ethiopia was their unwillingness to be under the patronage of the Amhara who applied their power across Ethiopia. At the same time, in the case that the Aksum region remained with the Tigray, then it would have been different. This conclusion is supported by Al-Ras Tessema Asmerom (which is a title given to the one most powerful in the region or area) who was part of the independence movement and one of the notable inhabitants of the Plateau from Tigray. He indicated that they must reach a compromise that does not separate the Tigray region of Ethiopia from the Eritrean Plateau. Especially, that the Tigray people living on both sides of the border are perpetually interconnected.
The Liberation Front of Eritrea and Tigray: Alliance and Conflict
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was founded in 1975, a year after the fall of the Emperor Haile Selassie. They were also created in lieu of Eritrea’s struggle that ended with an estrangement between the inhabitants of the plateau of Eritrea and Ethiopia. These changes in Ethiopia have given birth to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1976, which became the establisher of the state given their social composition and their goal to protect their interests.
Then in 1977, Mengistu Haile Mariam rose to power in Ethiopia and within months he was able to establish a Marxist regime. Afterwards, he convinced Korea, Soviet Union, and East Germany to ally with him in his war against the Eritrean and the Ogaden fronts in the Somalia area. This resulted in the necessity of an alliance between the Eritrean People Liberation Front and Tigray People’s Liberation Front to combat the Marxist Mengistu project.
Consequently, the leaders of the Liberation Front started realizing the importance of transferring the level of cooperation with the Tigray Liberation Front from merely exchanging information or benefiting from each other’s expertise towards military and political coordination. This then amounted to uniting visions and positions, and reaching a deeper understanding of the depth of their relationship on a social, cultural, and religious level especially between the Tigray nationals on both sides of the border. They also recognized that these arrangements were merely supported by the western bloc as part of the Cold War globally.
Afterwards, the United States and Western Alliance was prompted to adopt the alliance between the two fronts in Ethiopia and Eritrea to be the spearhead in the conflict with the new socialist regime in the Horn of Africa. They had several reasons in doing so, such as:
- The alliance had to have a right wing aspect as part of their declared revolutionary discourse. This is the strongest way to appeal to the Christian people who carry many fears from their Muslim partners in the region.
- There was strong association with other revolutionary forces, such as the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Popular Liberation Forces, led by Othman Saleh Sbei. The majority were Muslims, influenced by the Arab and leftist nationalists views.
- Even though Somalia joined the war against Mengistu, America and their allies did not trust Siad Barre, who showed a propensity towards the Soviet Union-led socialist camp. At the same time, Barre also attempted to give signals to the Western camp of his readiness to deal with their plans to confront the new Ethiopian regime, which has been facing the problem from the Somali Ogaden region getting joined with Ethiopia.
In the end for the West, the Tigray alliance became the main pillar in their war of confronting Mengistu and the Ethiopian regime. However, this alliance was not strong. It was filled with suspicious and fears on both sides, and very much dependent on the course of the struggle with Addis Ababa. In the beginning of the 1980s, the balance of power tilted towards the Eritrean camp for several reasons; firstly, their relations were strengthening with the Arab world in particular with the Iraqi and Syrian Baathist regimes, apace with the Arab Gulf states who were aligned with the United States. Secondly, they have deepened their capabilities in facing the Ethiopians since the mid-1960s.
Nonetheless, the tilt in power reinforced the Eritrean Tigray nationals’ feelings of strength over their Ethiopian Tigray counterparts. This matter inhibited the coordination between them in order to understand the fundamental changes that were happening with the Ethiopian new regime. In the forefront, they were unaware in the decline in popularity of the ruling Amhara, who have embraced Eritrean People’s front.
Then in the mid-1980s, Ethiopia was hit by a drought and famine, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Tigray Front accused the Eritrean People’s Front of blocking roads and corridors leading to Sudan in front of those fleeing the famine, which caused the death of thousands of Tigray’s people. This led to a dispute between them. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s, the two allies decided to work together again, especially when they realized that the socialist system began to disintegrate, and that the Mengistu regime was about to collapse.
In May 1991, the Mengistu regime fell, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front led the alliance of the People’s Democratic Front of Ethiopia towards power. At the same time, the whole of Eritrea was under the power of the Eritrean People’s Front forces. The course of things went towards a consensus, and both sides agreed to put their differences aside until they complete their internal arrangements. They also sought out international support, which was granted to both sides by the United States in the London meeting, and the arrangements were discussed in terms of the post Mengistu stage in Ethiopia.
Afterwards in 1993, a referendum was held in Eritrea with the support of Ethiopia, which was a condition from the international community to accept independence. In the same year, the two countries signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement, where they settled on keeping status quo, and this met the approval of the west especially the United States. At the time, Bill Clinton praised the performance of the two president as role models in Africa.
Soon after, the war erupted between the two countries due to a border dispute that was demarcated by the commercial areas. All efforts to stop the war reached a dead end. The mediation parties agreed that the conflict has other reasons, and that the dispute over the cities of Badme and Zalambsa is only an attempt to hide the true causes of the conflict. The real reasons can be summarized as follows:
- The Ethiopian government felt that Eritrea is becoming an economic opponent that did not account for good neighborliness in supporting their self-determination. Further, Asmara resorted to replace the Ethiopian national “birr” currency with their own national currency, which created instability for Ethiopia.
- Asmara accused Ethiopia of seeking a sea access by fabricating a war in order to cut the city of Assab.
- A rooted conviction by the Ethiopian that the Eritrean President wants a war with the neighbors to avoid activating the constitution that determines his terms of presidency. Moreover, that he requires a constant conflict to maintain his presidency and to use an exclusionary approach to all his former comrades. The Ethiopian side maintained this idea until the signing of the peace agreement, which was based on the statements coming from the former Eritrean Foreign Minister Haile Woldetensae. 
However, the bloody conflict and the fears of the Isaias Afwerki regime pushed Eritrea into new alliances. It abandoned its hostility towards the Islamic Front regime in Sudan, and a new era of cooperation began until it reached full cooperation by 2006. It was concluded by Eritrea adopting the agreements of the Beja Conference, which led to a fragile settlement in Eastern Sudan. Conversely, this became the basis of a strong relationship with Qatar who was a longtime ally of the Islamic regime in Sudan.
Despite the exaggerated festivity of the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace agreement and opening the borders between the two countries, there was an underlying message being passed by the two sides to the Ethiopian deep state. One of which the issue of the Tigray nationalists who served in the military and security institutions, and had the sense that they did not achieve any gains. They perceived this peace treaty as ostracizing to them, and that their old ally Isaias Afwerki has sold them out when he allied with the new regime in Adidas Ababa led by Abi Ahmed.
The doubts and fears of the Tigray nationals were strengthened when the Eritrean President visited the Tigray region, and he arrived through the border crossing witnessing a conflict between the Amhara and Tigray. However, their joy of the visit was not complete as the dictatorship in Asmara decided to close down four borders with the neighboring countries in less than two months after the peace agreements. This included the border crossing with the Afraa region which services large number of nationals on both sides of the border.
In contrast, the new regime in Ethiopia started a process of fair distribution of wealth and power among the major nationalities. At the same time, the Tigray lost many of their power positions they held for decades, which exacerbated the feelings of injustice. This then led many of the leader and elites of the Tigray to withdraw back to their regions, moreover, reports indicate that they withdrew large parts of the weapons from the Ethiopian military institution. This also coincided with the ruling coalition parties directing their spears towards the policies of the Tigray, which they labeled as a foundation of an exclusionary regime that favored their national minority (6% of the population). Then came the Peace signing with Eritrea which undermined them fully and brought back tensions to a border that witnessed over two years of bloodshed.
Thus, the Al-Tigray region returned to be a source of tension and settling accounts with the two reconciliatory states, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Not only that, but it is not implausible that if the disputes with the elite of this minority are not resolved, then the border region remains to be an area of instability that threatens the peace process between the two countries and the Horn of Africa.
The Ethiopian opposition returned from Eritrea with the approval of the government, which was embraced during the conflict period. This included the return of the armed opposition, with hopes of merging them with elements in the Ethiopian armed forces later. However, this had a direct negative impact, since a group from the Oromo Liberation Front defected and refused to surrender their weapons. They are now leading an armed movement from the Oromo region.
The political implications internally in Ethiopia meant an increase in activism as there was an increase in opposition political parties and political activists. At the same time, Ethiopia is facing its adversities instead of delaying the confrontation. They moved towards unifying the ruling coalition parties under the umbrella of one party. This may contribute to rationalizing a political discourse and to take it out of the line of ethnic alignments in favor of a large national party. As the election campaign may play to prepare the political stage for a deep dialogue on the concept of identity and citizenship. Nevertheless, all this may not be enough to spare the country the dangers of slipping into chaos.
As for the Eritrean government, they preferred to continue to deny the existence of a political movement other than that led by the ruling party. In light of this position, it was similar to the peace treaty signed by the Ethiopian government during the Mengistu era and the Somali President Siad Barri in 1985. It was a time when Ethiopian abandoned the support of the national Somali movement and the Somali Salvation Front. This then forced the two movements to move their operation to inside of Somalia, and became part of the problem that resulted a civil war. Conversely, now there is a chance of the Somali scenario repeating itself especially with the disappearance of the Ethiopian incubator, as was the case for the Somali movement. The Eritrean movement will change towards working on the inside, which would increase the aggravation of the current situation.
In light of the situation and the changes the two countries are undergoing, here are the following scenarios:
- The failure of Abi Ahmed in narrowing the growing gap between the Tigray and his central government, which is pushing this influential nationality to support to adopt the Tigray national project in Eritrea.
- If Sudan enters into a process of federally dividing the areas, then it would raise the status of the Tigray tribes (who are one of the components of the Baja tribes). For many years the Sudanese Tigray were the pincers between the Northern Nile people and the hegemony of the Christian plateau people. This may involve the collapse of what is left of the ruling Tigray people in Asmara in favor of a true federal state that is capable in understanding Abi Ahmed’s ambition in shaping Ethiopia’s future.
- A quiet change in Eritrea would result in an official rapprochement with the Ethiopian government to achieve urgent economic gains through opening the Assab port for the maritime shipping for Ethiopia. This would result in a lessor role for the Tigray (the former deep state in Addis Ababa), which would reflect negatively on the internal situation in Eritrea. Especially if one takes into account that the majority of the opposition of the Issaiss Efwerki regime are from the Tigray. It is not then farfetched for the Tigray to find other alliances on both sides of the border again, as what has happened in previous historical times.
Translated from Arabic by the center
 Ethiopia and Eritrea: Allergic to Persuasion by Sally Healy and Martin Plaut, published by Chatham House Africa Programme on January 2007
Accessed on 27 November 2019.
 Book by Dan Connell “Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners”