Abiy Ahmed Freezing as International Pressure Pushes Removal of Eritrean Troops from Tigray

  • + Eritrean troops will be removed from Ethiopia five months after the conflict in the Tigray region started 
  • + Abiy Ahmed has been accused of siding with the Eritreans to tackle the TPLF militia
  • + Human rights organisations have called on Abiy to remove the Eritrean military following reports of war crimes in Tigray. 
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a press conference in Addis Ababa, in August 2018. Since Abiy's election, conditions for Ethiopia's journalists have improved, but some challenges remain. (AFP/Michael Tewelde)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed / (AFP/Michael Tewelde)

Why is Abiy’s heat level freezing?

Answer: His alliance with Eritrea to attack the TPLF has put him under the international spotlight of international scrutiny. 

The Eritrean-Ethiopian border, particularly in the Tigray region, has long been an area of conflict between the two nations. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the long-standing leading party in Ethiopia’s federal coalition government. Abiy Ahmed’s election brought an end to their rule in an attempt to address political repression, problems with accessibility to resources and worries that an ethnic minority (the Tigrayans) were exercising an outsized amount of political influence (since they only constitute 6% of the Ethiopian population). 

The TPLF already had their own tensions with Abiy after he made peace with Eritrea, the Tigrayan’s long-time enemy. With Abiy Ahmed’s delay to the federal elections and his rise to power meaning a silencing of the Tigrayan people, the TPLF viewed him as dictator and so carried out their own elections. Consequently, the complexity of Ethiopian politics have led to conflicts along the border resurfacing following accusations that the TPLF had attacked an Ethiopian military camp.

On 4th November 2020, Abiy Ahmed declared a “law and order operation” to tackle domestic terrorism but was put into practice in the form of large numbers of deployed troops and aerial bombardments. Essentially, Abiy’s bids to deal with the TPLF started a war in Tigray.

With reported rockets being fired by the TPLF into Asmara, Eritrea, a security response has been provoked by the Eritrean government to enter the Ethiopian territory of Tigray to prevent further attacks. Doing so with Abiy’s accord, accusations have emerged that Abiy is now allying with the Eritrean military in hopes of destabilising the fugitives of the TPLF. The desire to take down the common enemy of Tigray has outweighed previous conflicts between Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

Though a victory for the federal government of Ethiopia has been declared, ongoing conflict in Tigray has led to sixty thousand refugees forced to flee the country, critical destruction of infrastructure and a number of war crimes reported in the area. 

Abiy has repeatedly denied the presence of Eritrean forces along the border, but since a soar in humanitarian organisations noting the abhorrent behaviour of the troops of both nations, Abiy is seen being forced to shift his approach to the conflict, at least publicly. 

What is changing Abiy Ahmed’s heat level?

Answer: with evidence surfacing of the war crimes in Tigray, Abiy is forced to reshape his agenda. 

Abiy’s government has been accused of downplaying the problems in Tigray, exemplified by a complete denial that Eritrean forces were present in the region. Abiy’s prior unwillingness to address who exactly is in Tigray fighting the TPLF, combined with the Ethiopian government mandated blackout of communication in the region, means the full scale of devastation is never likely to be ascertained. This was fitting for Abiy’s ploy to take down the TPLF without backlash from international organisations. 

However, with aid groups and observers allowed access in March, the horrors taking place in Tigray have been brought to light. Refugees and other citizens on the ground have noted the two militaries and ethnic militias are responsible for sexual violence, ethnic-based attacks and large-scale looting. At the same time, Human Rights Watched have accused Eritrean soldiers of carrying out massacres on the people of Tigray. Consequently, both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are being accused of carrying out human rights abuses against the civilian population residing in the bordering area. 

A UN expert on genocide predicts the conflict in Tigray will only escalate if no action is taken. Thus, with the world watching the conflict unfold whilst Abiy stays complacent, international pressure has forced him to take a U-turn with his agenda. Abiy has now not only recognised the presence of Eritrean troops, but also announced efforts to collaborate with Isaias Afwerki to remove them from Tigray. 

What is driving Abiy Ahmed? 

Answer: Abiy is driven by his desire to protect his government, but also his international image. 

On March 26, Abiy Ahmed released a statement via twitter that claimed his military intervention in the Tigray region stemmed from a criminal clique of TPLF troops attacking Ethiopia’s largest weapons depot. His partnering with Eritrean troops can therefore be attributed to an inherent sense of protectionist foreign policy agenda in order to uphold Ethiopia’s security. 

Following pleas from human rights organisations to remove the Eritrean troops from Tigray, the same statement concludes with the bilateral decision with Isaias Afkwerki to replace the Eritrean military with the Ethiopian National Defense Force. He has also denounced the human rights violations of his own military in a statement, noting that each soldier carrying out such crimes should be held accountable. 

The reasoning behind Abiy’s staunch shift in posture and agenda towards the ongoing situation in Tigray is important to be analysed. Known for his Nobel peace prize for the resolution he brought to the decades-long war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, contributing to a peaceful world order is key to Abiy Ahmed’s global leadership. But on the other hand, a deeper analysis indicates that this move was not only for regional peace, but a geopolitical power move: Abiy rose to power by diminishing the power of the TPLF, Eritrea’s enemy. 

By abetting Eritrean troops in Tigray whilst knowing the ongoing conflict between Eritrea and Tigray, Abiy has come under personal scrutiny for directly partaking in the ethnic cleansing that is now being experienced in Tigray. With this ethnic context and history of power politics in mind, Abiy’s behaviour can be attributed to a strong rooted sense of personal political survival. 

His under-handed allyship with the Eritrean military and following, his denial of their presence brings into question what exactly is driving him in resolving the Tigray conflict. It seems Abiy Ahmed will act in order to protect his own party and country, until his global image is under threat. Since his election, Abiy has been a valuable ally to the West, who have praised him for his peace efforts. What comes into question is whether the West will abandon Abiy as an ally in blaming the Tigrayan conflict on him.

Both Ethiopia and the TPLF have significant lobbying power in the US. Thus, when the conflict is over, the international community will turn to look for someone to blame for the atrocities caused. Will Abiy successfully get away with using Eritrea’s pre-existing tensions with Tigray as a scapegoat? What we see now is Ahmed’s attempt to salvage his public image by adhering to humanitarian calls to remove troops from the border.  

Similarly, domestic dissent could take the same shape. Whilst Abiy is occupied by winning in geo-political affairs, a Northern rebel movement could erupt post-conflict as Ethiopians are reminded of their dark past. Abiy and the Prosperity Party’s homogenous idea of unity could become extremely problematic for Ethiopia’s future, with many Ethiopians living outside of Addis Ababa upholding values of the social and political determinism for the varying ethnic groups. Like the international community, Ethiopians will soon be searching for someone to blame for the long-lasting divisions the Tigrayan conflict will cause. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A continuity to the devastations in Tigray could have implications for the rest of Africa. 

The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia is likely to have consequences across the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has provided security for other nations in the region in the form of stabilising Somalia and South Sudan. With constitutional and security problems intensifying in both of Ethiopia’s allies, the region is set to destabilise with Ethiopia distracted by an internal war. Tensions could arise if regions see the security vacuum advantageous. 

If Abiy Ahmed fails to bring peace in Tigray, a major refugee crisis could be at stake. The ethnic cleansing organised by the two allying countries will be amplified. This huge geo-political shift in the cooperation between the two nations has now placed TPLF as the main enemy. 

The ongoing human-rights accusations could diminish not only Ethiopia’s standing on the global stage, but the entirety of African interests. Tensions could arise if regions see the security vacuum as strategically advantageous to rile up a proxy war. 

Elle Osborn

Research and Analysis Intern