Isayas Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed Frenemies over Tigray Conflict

  • Afwerki and Ahmed are entering a ‘frenemy’ relationship as their common objectives outweigh their disagreements.
  • Their signing of a peace deal in 2018 has sparked tensions with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
  • This has led to military and strategic cooperation between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Abiy Ahmed with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki on 3 March 2019.
Office of the Prime Minister – Ethiopia

Why are Afwerki and Ahmed frenemies?

Answer: Eritrean President Afwerki and Ethiopian President Ahmed have joined forces to combat the TPLF, despite past tensions between the two nations.

Since the Eritrean War of Independence between 1961 and 1991 from Ethiopia, the nations have had tense relations. Ethnic stigma between both populations and political disagreement has often made relations rigid, if not nonexistent. 

However, in 2018, Afwerki and Ahmed signed a peace agreement which revolved around political, economic, sociocultural, and security cooperation. One of the document’s clauses stated that “the decision on the boundary between the two countries will be implemented”; a reference to a third-party arbitration by the UN in 2002, that had been the main obstacle to peace until Ahmed’s new government in 2018. 

Given that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was not involved nor consulted in the most recent agreement, this territorial reference did go in line with the local government of the Tigray region. More importantly, however, the TPLF had been in power in Ethiopia since 1991 and was cut out from power when Ahmed excluded them from this new coalition. Until that point, the TPLF had blocked any peace attempts over the UN arbitration of 2002.

The response from Tigray to this and Ahmed postponing elections in 2020 due to Covid-19 was the violent capturing of the regional capital Mekelle. The cooperation between Afwerki and Ahmed over the unrest coming from Tigray has led to the isolation of the Tigray through a blockade in Sudan, South Eritrea, and West Ethiopia. This has prevented the region from accessing or importing supplies, all while simultaneously preventing humanitarian aid from getting through the region.

In essence, the main motivation behind Afwerki and Ahmed’s cooperation involves the common objective to combat the TPLF. As a consequence of the 2018 peace deal signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Tigray’s political and physical isolation led to its re-armament and subsequent acts of violence; the region took up arms in order to fight Ethiopian forces. This made Ahmed seek military support and cooperation from Afwerki.

This common objective explains the frenemy relationship between Afwerki and Ahmed. Despite a tense past, the resurgence of violence in the Tigray – fueled by the TPLF’s rearmament – has united both leaders in an attempt to oust the Tigrayan government and overthrow its power.

What is driving Afwerki?

Answer: Afwerki heavily benefits from the suppression of the TPLF through both economic and military gains.

The 2018 peace agreement signed by Afwerki and Ahmed involved economic reforms which aimed to benefit trade between both nations. Meanwhile, President Afwerki has been seeking regional liberalisation in order to drive developmental progress domestically. Improving relations with Ethiopia opens new trading opportunities to Eritrea and can hence benefit Afwerki’s regime economically. 

Nevertheless, the Tigray region stretches throughout the majority of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, consequently limiting the effectiveness of trade. In fact, the 2018 peace agreement has had very low dividends to show any genuine progress. Afwerki’s desire to benefit more economically from Eritrean-Ethiopian relations hence offers an incentive to cooperate with Ethiopian forces in the fight against the TPLF.

Afwerki’s motivations to cooperate with Ahmed on the Tigrayan conflict, however, expand beyond economic reasons. Although the Tigray region is in Ethiopia, Afwerki has denounced the TPLF in the past for allegedly organising and carrying out terrorist attacks in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. Henceforth, Afwerki also benefits from the suppression of the TPLF by improving domestic security. Given that the TPLF was closely allied to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), suppression of the TPLF simultaneously weakens the EPLF and separatism in Eritrea as a whole.

What is driving Ahmed?

Answer: Ahmed requires military support from Eritrea in order to effectively deal with the Tigray conflict and regaining territory is pivotal in gaining access to the Red Sea.

Evidently, Ahmed’s primary goal is to maintain his own government and the security of Ethiopia. From a state level, this requires fighting the TPLF, a separatist militia. Knowing that Eritrea also opposes the TPLF, cooperation advances Ahmed’s interests. The true benefits of military cooperation were made evident when Eritrea’s troop withdrawal in 2021 left Ahmed’s military campaign in a freezing state. The purchase of military drones was the only factor which helped him regain an upper hand. 

However, Ahmed’s motivations for ousting the Tigrayan government are also economically-driven. As aforementioned, the Tigray region is hindering the border access between Eritrea and Ethiopia. This prevents Ethiopia from having direct trade routes to the Red Sea, thus revealing an economic benefit for Ahmed if the Tigrayan government was to be stripped of its power.

Finally, Ahmed’s intervention in the Tigray has also been driven by his desire to improve his domestic reputation before the 2021 Ethiopian elections. The TPLF separatist cause remains an important domestic factor and Ahmed’s dedication to its complete political ousting has gained him popularity. Ahmed was re-elected in 2021 for another 5-year term.

What is Afwerki doing?

Answer: Afwerki is cooperating with Ahmed in order to implement military strategies to weaken the TPLF and suppress regional separatism.

In order to weaken the TPLF and mitigate its military re-empowerment, Afwerki has, in cooperation with Somalia and Ethiopia, attacked and blockaded the city of Humera, the meeting point between Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. In the 1980s, Tigrayan fighters used supply lines going through Sudan in order to receive weapons, food, and other supplies. Blocking this entry point undermines the ability and resilience of the TPLF. 

In fact, the current blockade extends between West Ethiopia, southern Eritrea, and East Sudan – completely isolating the Tigray region geographically and economically. This has caused the region to experience extreme famine. In essence, Afwerki is cooperating with Ahmed and Sudan in order to destabilise the Tigray extensively.

Afwerki has also intervened directly by bombing the Tigray region to further weaken and destabilise the TPLF. One main report discloses the facilitation of war crimes by Eritrea and Ethiopia in the region, such as the coerced expulsion of the Tigrayan people, mass killings, and even the destruction of crops.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: As conflict increases in the Horn of Africa, the potential for genocide and famine is very high.

The United Nations has warned the international community of a potential risk of genocide in the region. With both surrounding states suppressing the Tigray population’s fight for independence in military and economic ways, famine and direct war casualties are posing a serious risk to the lives of innocent Tigrayans. In fact, their mass migration to neighbouring countries – notably Sudan – has led to a regional refugee crisis.
Furthermore, these accounts (along with the aforementioned report on war crimes) have raised controversy and disapproval regarding Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize. Having earned the Prize following the 2018 peace agreement, the legitimacy and credibility of the award have been questioned.