Ethiopia’s federal government, in August 2022, resumed its firefight with Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) after a brief period of calm. Within days, Eritrea, which shares a long border with Tigray, intervened militarily, effectively sandwiching the Tigrayans between Ethiopian and Eritrean armies. This article first explores the tactical and strategic considerations that led Eritrea and its president, Isaias Afwerki, to intercede. Tactically, these included the need to consolidate security along Eritrea’s southern borders to prevent Tigrayan incursions. Strategically, Isaias is determined to cement Eritrea’s three decades of independence from Ethiopia by helping its former adversaries in Addis Ababa crush Tigray. Second, and despite the tenuous alliance between Eritrea and Ethiopia’s federal government, the article explains why Tigray’s survival is by no means over, given the regional ambitions and interests of Sudan. Khartoum’s support of the TDF remains ambiguous but nonetheless consequential. Sudan’s primary national interests dictate that it cannot passively watch the nascent Eritrean and Ethiopian cooperation against Tigray. By exploring and analyzing the shifting contours of this highly combustible conflict, the article finds that the diametrically opposed engagement of Ethiopia’s two neighbors, Eritrea and Sudan, have broad and important implications for the future distribution of power in the Horn of Africa.
While the eyes of much of the world are turned toward Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, few analysts and policymakers noticed the summer storm clouds again gathering over Ethiopia. Besides the stalled negotiations, low-intensity clashes and skirmishes between Tigrayan forces and Ethiopian military and paramilitary units had increased exponentially between June and August. The fragile truce that began in late 2021 finally broke down in late August. In a few days, fighting between the Ethiopian federal government and the political and military authorities in the regional state of Tigray, represented politically by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), again resumed. What brought the two sides to blows again in this increasingly protracted civil war?
The conflict had all the traits of intrastate warfare at its outbreak in November 2020. However, it soon became evident how the conflict in Tigray had multiple dimensions. These ranged from intra-communal rivalries involving some of the country’s most populous ethnic components, such as the Oromo group, to the international dimension of the conflict, such as the diplomatic friction between two great powers – China and the United States – over events and belligerents. But it is the regionalization of Ethiopia’s war that will have the greatest consequences on outcomes, because it involves the more or less direct involvement of some of Ethiopia’s neighboring states.
Eritrea, with a lengthy border running along Tigray state, is undoubtedly the most involved. Since the beginning of the conflict, President Isaias Afwerki has supported Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s military initiative against Tigray, sending in elements of his conscript army. Despite Eritrean denials and attempts to mask their intervention, Afwerki reiterated his uneasy alliance with Abiy and Addis Ababa by openly intervening in Tigray when fighting resumed in August.
To Ethiopia and Eritrea’s north and west lies the huge – and potent – state of Sudan. Unlike Eritrea’s policy of putting boots on the ground, Sudan’s military junta in Khartoum has adopted a more ambiguous and indirect position. But they are far from being a solely passive observer of events in Ethiopia. From its deep problems with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile to its contested border region of al-Fashaqa, Sudan is keen to gain the initiative from Ethiopia from the Tigrayan conflict. By exploring and analyzing the shifting contours of this highly combustible conflict, the article finds that the diametrically opposed engagement of Ethiopia’s two neighbors, Eritrea and Sudan, have broad and important implications for the future distribution of power in the Horn of Africa.
A new phase of Tigray conflict
Although it is unclear whether the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) or the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) broke the truce, the first few weeks following the revival of fighting have highlighted the strategic objectives of the TDF and its political allies. These are their desire to break the Ethiopian blockade and to gain bargaining weight in negotiations. In respect to the latter, Tigray has experienced a major humanitarian crisis since early 2021. The blockade imposed by Ethiopia’s authorities on access routes to the regional state, only partially lifted during the truce, has had deleterious effects on the population. There has been a shortage of medicines and basic needs in Tigray for many months. Further, water and electricity supplies have been cut off, telecommunications shut down, and banking services suspended. From Addis Ababa’s perspective, the blockade should have led the Tigrayans to accept Ethiopia’s peace terms. The TDF, however, tried to break the blockade and strengthen its negotiating hand by focusing its military actions on the northern provinces of the Amhara regional state and Western Tigray.
The TDF’s breakthrough into Amhara territory would have political as well as strategic significance. Politically, the Tigrayan authorities wished to demolish one of the two pillars propping up the regime of Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa: the Amhara. As the country’s second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara strongly supported the rise of Prime Minister Abiy and, subsequently, the Ethiopian military campaign against Tigrayan forces. In addition to almost unconditional political support, the Amhara militarily contribute on the ground by deploying the regional army and several paramilitary militias, including the Fano group.
The TDF’s offensive into Amhara territory came at a fragile time for the regional state, which had been going through a period of internal political strife. The months leading up to the summer season were marked by a wave of arrests decreed by the federal government of politicians, activists, and intellectuals, who were reportedly supporters of radical Amhara nationalist groups. These figures, whose involvement in the conflict had been motivated by Amhara irredentism at the expense of Tigray and neighboring Sudan, had come to harshly criticize Abiy’s decision to make a truce with the Tigrayans in 2021. By further reducing Amhara support for Abiy, the TDF hoped to drive a wedge between their main opponents in the civil war. On the other hand, strategically, they initially forced the Amhara militias to leave their positions in Western Tigray and reorganize the defenses of major Amharic regional cities. Resuming full control of the Western Tigray districts, which have been occupied for many months by ENDF contingents, Fano paramilitary militias, and some units of the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), continues to remain Tigray’s primary strategic objective. By taking control, the TPLF would be able to open a direct supply route into the neighboring eastern region of Kassala in Sudan.
The multiple facets of Sudan’s Ethiopia strategy
Sudan has numerous national interests at stake in Ethiopian events, mainly due to its proximity and its numerous political, territorial, and economic disputes. Since the conflict began in 2020, the attitude of the Sudanese transitional government, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has fluctuated between caution and assertiveness. Towards Ethiopia’s internal conflict, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which de facto drives Khartoum’s decision-making, has tried to adopt a strategic posture that combines fear and ambition. The TMC’s strategy, therefore, aims to increase pressure on Addis Ababa on several fronts simultaneously without being drawn into the conflict.
On one side, Sudan has focused on reducing the spillover threat on its soil. The TMC fears that Ethiopia’s instability could spread to some of its own festering domestic hotbeds, such as that in eastern Sudan, and threaten the regime’s survival. On the other side, however, Khartoum has engaged in several initiatives to exploit the weakness experienced by Ethiopia for its benefit. At the core of these are Ethiopia’s GERD, its massive dam on the Blue Nile, and the al-Fashaqa territorial dispute. In al-Fashaqa, Sudan has deployed regular contingents of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in order to resume control over some territory occupied by Ethiopian farmers – mainly ethnic Amhara – and to strengthen Sudanese border defense systems. As a result, low-intensity clashes between the SAF and ENDF as well as Amhara paramilitary groups have been reported for more than a year.
While Khartoum has opted for direct action in al-Fashaqa because it falls entirely within its internationally recognized, legal boundaries, on other fronts, the TMC has chosen to raise the pressure on Addis Ababa through indirect engagement. In the regional Ethiopian state of Benishangul-Gumuz, for example, which hosts the GERD dam and hydropower megaproject, Sudan reportedly had a hand in the wave of instability that washed over the region. Ethiopia, in turn, has accused Sudan of supporting domestic armed groups challenging the federal government’s authority there. For instance, Metekel province, just a few kilometers away from the GERD, has been plagued since 2019 by a little-known conflict between Gumuz anti-government militias – including the Gumuz Liberation Front (GLF) – and the federal government in Addis Ababa. The historical dispute over some of the most fertile land in the region lies at the root of the conflict. While the first inter-ethnic tensions over control of land date back to the 1980s, when Amhara communities from Wollo were resettled into the Benishangul-Gumuz state due to the severe drought, after 1991, the ethnic-based policies implemented by the government of Addis Ababa (the Tigray-dominated EPRDF) exacerbated relations between the indigenous Gumuz and Shinasha peoples and newly arrived Amhara.
While the balance of power has changed with the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the problems remain. Currently, indigenous groups blame Oromo and Amhara farmers for seizing land with the coercion and connivance of federal institutions. Tensions escalated in 2019 and turned into a full-fledged armed insurgency when Gumuz groups organized into several militias. Since then, insurgent groups have been conducting regular strikes against Amhara and Oromo farming communities and public servants. According to Ethiopian authorities, Sudan is providing aid to the Gumuz armed groups to destabilize the state and the GERD dam project, which Sudan fears will lead to a steep drop in Nile water flowing through its territory. For its part, Addis Ababa fears that the Metekel conflict could become a kind of proxy war linked to the GERD issue, one more headache on top of its already nasty conflict with Tigray.
The TMC, while denying any role in Metekel, seems to have increased pressure on Addis Ababa in Tigray, too. Addis Ababa has recently accused Khartoum of interference in support of the Tigray. But these accusations date back to the early days of the conflict when the federal government released frames of a Sudanese cargo plane shot down over Tigrayan territory. According to Ethiopian authorities, a Sudanese Antonov AN-26 supplied TDF troops with ammunition and small arms. Although doubts remain about the authenticity of the statements made by the Ethiopian Air Force, the protection Khartoum provides to more than five hundred Ethiopian soldiers of Tigrayan ethnicity is in no doubt. After serving as a peacekeeping force in the Abyei region disputed by Sudan and South Sudan under the auspices of the United Nations, the Ethiopian contingent chose to remain in Sudanese territory and requested political asylum because they feared persecution upon their return to Ethiopia as Tigrayans. In the weeks that preceded the resumption of fighting, however, the five hundred soldiers were reportedly returned to Tigray to fight against the ENDF thanks, in part, to the SAF’s logistical support.
This episode shows how Sudan is playing an important role in Ethiopia’s conflicts, albeit an indirect and still limited one. Khartoum’s grand strategic interests inform these actions. For Sudan, a weaker Ethiopia means an increase in the relative power of Sudan on both the GERD and al-Fashaqa issues. At the same time, internal friction within the military made Sudanese efforts in Tigray appear inconsistent. The dualism between General al-Burhan and his deputy, the Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemeti), for example, is increasingly heated. In addition to controlling the key financial assets owned by the military, the latter has been on a path to clean up its image internationally for several months. Hemeti’s goal is to create conditions suitable for a most likely electoral clash with al-Burhan in the next ballot. Sudan’s internal divisions thus unduly affect its capabilities and will to intervene more fully in Ethiopia.
Afewerki looks to the region’s future
In direct contrast with Sudan, Eritrea’s role in Ethiopia is clear for everyone to see. A week after the resumption of fighting, Eritrea intervened by launching a large-scale offensive in the Adayabo area along Tigray’s northern border. According to the Tigrayan authorities, Asmara is responsible for the resurgence of fighting.
It was certainly well-placed to do so. During the ceasefire, the EDF had taken the opportunity to reorganize its ranks, strengthen its positions, and increase the number of troops deployed along its southern border and in the town of Humera in Western Tigray. Simultaneously, President Isaias Afewerki sought to create the right political conditions to launch a new military operation. In addition to reassuring his Ethiopian ally of his support, the Eritrean leader has also strengthened Asmara’s relations with some Sudanese tribal leaders, mostly belonging to the Beja clan. Nomadic breeders and farmers, the Beja are against the Juba Peace Agreement protocol signed in 2020 by Khartoum with representatives of several armed groups organized into the Sudan Revolutionary Front rebel alliance. Since then, they have repeatedly protested against the Khartoum transitional government to the extent of blocking connections between Port Sudan and the capital for several days.
President Isaias has officially wanted to present himself as a mediator in the dispute between the Beja and the Khartoum governments. However, the al-Burhan government refused to be involved and also prevented several tribal leaders from traveling to Eritrea. However, behind the warming relations between Asmara and the Bejas was Isaias’s desire to convince clan elders to adopt a hostile attitude toward the Tigrayan population that has long found refuge in their border areas. In other words, Eritrea wanted to isolate the TPLF and Tigrayans both politically and militarily. At the same time, Afewerki wanted to send a message to Khartoum and beyond by showing his political power within the Horn of Africa.
Although the Eritrean president’s effort did not bear the desired fruit, it is nonetheless indicative of how Afewerki tries to exploit neighbors’ weaknesses to his own advantage and to act as a regional political fulcrum. In just a few years, the Eritrean president has succeeded in reconfiguring his relations with Addis Ababa and gaining a position of strength. Indeed, the relationship between Isaias and Abiy appears increasingly asymmetrical in the former’s favor. The change in power relations has also become evident on the battleground. At least twelve divisions of the ENDF have been placed under the direct control of the Eritrean command. Furthermore, the Eritrean leader is trying to capitalize on Sudanese domestic instability as well as the Kenyan political transition to carve out a more prominent role for himself in the Horn of Africa’s future political balances. The Eritrean president’s ambition is driven by the need to consolidate his regime and the belief that he is currently the strong man in the region.
Regardless of the conflict outcome in Tigray, Ethiopia is slipping further and further into a spiral of widespread violence from which it risks emerging fragmented and irreversibly weakened. The decline of Addis Ababa, the missed hegemon of the Horn of Africa, means new and important room for maneuver for other regional players. Sudan and Eritrea seek to benefit from the Tigray conflict to consolidate their power domestically and gain more regional influence. The tragedy would be if Eritrea and Sudan’s machinations at Ethiopia’s expense were to lead to a region-wide conflict and ever-wider cycle of violence, devastation, and despair.