Bait and switch diplomacy: Abiy and Isaias’s two-act drama
Abiy and Isaias are producing a deceptive drama to keep Eritrean troops in Tigray.
By Tewodros Tsegaye, 16 April, 2021
(Ethiopia Insight) — The parliamentary session held on 23 March taught us, rather sadly, that Ethiopia no longer has sovereignty and that any foreign power claiming national security concerns can breach our borders to do as it pleases.
During the session, false narratives about the war and the humanitarian crisis in Tigray widely propagated by government officials and media were refuted by the government’s leader, some truths were partially acknowledged, and new narratives introduced. After grudgingly admitting the existence of Eritrean troops in Tigray and that human rights violations had occurred, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed indicated that there had been discussions with the Eritrean government and that they are in the process of arranging to meet again.
Days after this, Ethiopians learned that Abiy had headed to Asmara. On his return, he declared: “the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border.” With this statement, Abiy and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki inaugurated the second part of the two-act play they produced to trick Western diplomats.
Before looking at the second act, however, let’s take a look at the background and the first act of the play.
Background to the play
The war began on 4 November. After three weeks, Abiy told the parliament that it has ended without a single civilian casualty. However, alarming stories that the war has not ended, civilians are being massacred, women are being raped on a massive scale, and millions were facing starvation started to trickle out from under the transport and communication embargo stifling Tigray.
The international community—fearing that continued conflict will threaten the peace and stability of the country, result in catastrophic loss of life, and will lead to an increasing flow of refugees—moved in all forums to push Abiy to cease hostilities, begin peace dialogue, and allow unfettered humanitarian access and independent, international investigations into all reported human rights violations.
Of all things that the international community demanded, the bitterest pill to swallow for Abiy was the call for Eritrean troops to leave Tigray. As we will see below, it has not been lost upon him that Eritrean troops withdrawing from Tigray would drastically change the power balance, likely necessitating negotiations with TPLF and maybe threatening his grip on power.
Similarly, Isaias is uneasy with being asked to remove his troops. It is clear to the elderly dictator, with more than 55 years of experience as a merchant of conflict, that withdrawing from Tigray before completing his campaign of destruction poses a risk to his life and his reign. He understands that his troops leaving Tigray could move the heat of battle from Mekelle to Asmara. Accordingly, he will leave no stone unturned to make sure that this will not happen.
Abiy and Isaias are therefore united in their wish for the Eritrean troops to stay in Tigray. However, Isaias knows that, unlike Eritrea, Ethiopia is not an economic wasteland cut-off from the rest of the world but, instead, a country that is dependent on Western aid and loans, making it very susceptible to international pressures that are likely to drive Abiy out of his embrace. Thus, the two concocted this two-act drama to relieve the pressure that had fallen on Abiy and to allow the Eritrean army to stay in Tigray indefinitely.
This is how the stage was arranged for the first act.
Confidential sources have revealed to me that Abiy, on counsel from Isaias, was informing the international community that Eritrea had refused to withdraw. The same Prime Minister that had outright denied the presence of Eritreans to global leaders, including to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, started talking about Eritrea’s refusal to withdraw in all international meetings and calls.
This excuse was expected to draw attention away from Ethiopia and towards Eritrea. What I have learned from my sources is that this strategy was relayed to Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen by Brigadier General Abraha Kassa, Director of the National Security Office of Eritrea—the same person and entity recently sanctioned by the European Union. The idea behind it, according to the same sources, was that Isaias felt that the possibility of more sanctions and further isolation from the world—something he had grown accustomed to—was worth the gamble if it meant his troops can stay in Tigray.
For Isaias, sanctions are a blessing to keep him in power and not a threat to be feared as they enable him to continue to claim that the world is conspiring against Eritrea and so justify sustaining the conscription system.
Indeed, he has long declared that aid and loans are detrimental. It is said that the reason Isaias massacred, in July 1994, disabled veterans—former comrades of his—is because their demand for remuneration jeopardized national “self-reliance.” Their demand for a livelihood was outweighed by Isaias’s well-publicized dogma of “self-reliance,” which rejects any form of external assistance.
On top of being illegal and immoral, what is hypocritical about his statement on “self-reliance” was that it was made from the supreme comfort of a presidential residence to former comrades condemned to grim impoverishment.
Moreover, and even more hypocritically, although he stigmatized foreign aid and loans to deny helpless people salary, Isaias contravenes international laws to engage in contraband trading and uses family members in Eritrea as hostages to exact taxes from the Eritrean diaspora. He has since used this strategy euphemistically called “self-reliance” to exclude any inter-dependence with the outside world and kept his people under a yoke of impoverished subjugation and ignorance (it is to be noted that the University of Asmara that was up and running at the time of independence has been shut down since). Sanctions, therefore, do not worry him.
Things couldn’t be more different for Abiy. The Ethiopian economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and loans, which means that the country cannot withstand constraints from donors. The Prime Minister himself is someone who had proudly declared in public that one of his best skills was his ability to “beg.”
Hence, Act One of the Abiy-Isaias play: as the world sustained the pressure—the European Union and the US, in particular—with repeated calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces, Abiy responded by claiming that Eritrea had refused to withdraw and that he needed international support to enforce its departure.
Both Abiy and Isaias were confident that this staged play would successfully draw the attention to Isaias, and that the world would not act beyond economic and diplomatic sanctions on Eritrea, returning it to the isolation it had been in for many years before Abiy came to power. This, in addition to the message delivered by President Biden’s envoy, Senator Chris Coons, was likely the reason why Abiy partially admitted the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.
However, it did not take long for them to realize that this was not a winning strategy. A couple of things revealed that the core assumptions that Isaias had relied on may be wrong. The first assumption that the international community will not go beyond sanctions on Eritrea was challenged when the war began being discussed in international forums, including an informal discussion between the US and European countries during the NATO Summit in March. This persistent attention suggested that, though highly unlikely, military intervention was still within the realm of possibility.
The second assumption that all responsibility, and hence consequences, can be divested to Eritrea was debunked by calls that suggested that making Eritrea accountable would not absolve Ethiopia from culpability.
Therefore, just a day after Abiy admitted that Eritrean troops were in Tigray and human rights violations have indeed been committed, he found it necessary to travel to Asmara to confer with Isaias on part two of their play.
The statement made upon his return declaring that “Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border” inaugurated Act Two.
As I will argue, the new act entails keeping Eritrean troops in Tigray in Ethiopian uniforms so that Abiy can turn around and tell the world that they have exited.
To start with, Abiy’s statement itself raises more questions than answers. For instance, the statement includes the rather strange claim that Eritrean troops were “invited” in by rocket attacks from Tigray. If Eritrea was “invited” in because of the actions of another party over which Abiy cannot be expected to have any control, why did he have to lie in his address to the parliament saying that no Eritrean forces were involved?
Also, how is it possible that a force shelling the city of Humera on 9 November was “invited” into the war by rockets launched on 14 November? This seems to make a complete hash of the principle of cause and effect. Even if we were to accept this impossible scenario, there is no principle of domestic or international law that says that rockets launched by rebellious forces from a neighboring country are an invitation for the attacked to breach territorial integrity and massacre civilians.
If Eritrean troops had indeed breached Ethiopian borders and committed atrocities, then they are an invading force that should be forcibly expelled or at least be told that they have to exit with no preconditions. So, how is it justified to say “Eritrea has agreed” when it had no business being there in their first place?
On the other hand, if they had been allowed in with the permission of the Ethiopian government, then there is little doubt that Abiy has exposed himself to the possibility of being brought up on charges of treason, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The playwrights, however, seem to lack the care or the time to address these and other gaps. The truth is that there are many reasons why neither Abiy nor Isaias wants the Eritrean troops to exit at this time.
As he told us during his parliamentary address on 23 March, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have been weakened considerably. This fact was reiterated in diverse ways during his address.
His plea for young people to join the military also indicates this. It bears noting that this call was made to Ethiopian youth to alleviate the shortage of personnel which was presented as the only solution to address the many domestic and international tensions that are besetting the country.
Furthermore, he said the Ethiopian military will need years to be able to ensure the Eritrean government that its borders are secure from TPLF’s threat. What this means is that the Ethiopian military cannot fulfill its mission without the support of Eritrean troops.
Here, we have to ask how it was possible to rebuild the Ethiopian military in a few days—a task Abiy said requires years— and guarantee Eritrea’s security.
Another indication of the Ethiopian military weakening is Abiy’s statement, during the parliamentary address, that the border tensions with Sudan need to be peacefully resolved as, among other things, the Ethiopian military does not have the readiness to conduct another war. This is an irresponsible statement tantamount to signaling to all potential foes that this is the time to attack Ethiopia.
Recent information released by the Eritrean underground opposition group Arbi Harnet claims that Eritrean troops have entered Oromia to fight against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA.) If true, it indicates the Ethiopian military is seriously weakened and is relying on Eritrean support not only in Tigray but also in putting out conflagrations in other parts of the country as well.
In addition, confidential sources indicate that the government is doing its best to raise funds—including through the liquidation of major publicly owned corporations— in order to strengthen its weakened military power, including, if reports are true, by finalizing a deal to purchase military drones from Turkey to regain firepower superiority allegedly obtained from the United Arab Emirates in the first week of the war.
The UN humanitarian agency’s situation report for Ethiopia on 23 March—the same day Abiy admitted Eritrea’s presence—revealed that Eritrean troops were also deployed in the al-Fashaga triangle, the site of border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia. This is yet to be denied by Ethiopia. This indicates that the Ethiopian army is relying on Eritrean support to withstand foreign threats.
Putting all this into consideration, it is clear why Abiy wants Eritrean troops to stay in Tigray and why the claim that they will withdraw will not materialize. Their stay, of course, will bring more harm to Tigrayans. Eritrean troops will continue committing terrible atrocities and may expand the alleged establishment of administrative structures in parts of northern Tigray, where Eritrean telecommunication services are said to have started operating.
Seeing that Abiy is not overly concerned with atrocities continuing or about winning the hearts and minds of Tigrayans as long as Eritrean troops are enabled to stay, it would not be wrong to conclude that his only desire is to use Tigray as a buffer zone to keep the conflict from spreading to the rest of the country and that he has no real desire or expectation to administer Tigray.
Isaias, the man who has spent over half a century in political conspiracy, has his own calculations. As early as July 2018, just at the outset of rapprochement with Abiy, Isaias had declared that a political cleansing was needed in Tigray.
Even though TPLF was a one-time ally of Isaias and had played an important role in the process of Eritrea achieving statehood, it had also stood in the way of Isaias’s grand ambition to meddle in Ethiopia’s and the Horn’s economic and political affairs with impunity. For this reason, Isaias was determined to eradicate the Tigrayan political elite to the extent that Tigrayans no longer have any meaningful political role in the region.
Based on a literal interpretation of the term “political cleansing” and on Isaias’ known track record, including his current actions, it is very clear what he meant. To achieve this end, he wishes to keep Tigray in a state of crisis for as long as possible.
To claim that Isaias has a determination to weaken Tigray’s political elite and wishes to keep the people of Tigray in a crisis may seem far-fetched until we take into consideration the broader context.
First, it is important to note that Isaias and his party are, to an extent, ideologically informed by the practices of fascist Italy in Ethiopia that included massacring the Ethiopian elite and destroying all indigenous writings. Indeed, Isaias has constantly attacked Eritrea’s educated elite and crushed its education system through the enforced conscription system after gaining power.
Similarly, he has deployed the strategy of keeping his own people in perpetual crisis, enabling him to hang on to power. He used the uncertainty of the ‘no peace no war’ conditions that followed the Ethio-Eritrean war to maintain a state of high alert and constant tension for 20 years and to effectively carry out a “political cleansing” of the Eritrean elite.
Eradicating the education system and the educated elite, executing thinking and creative minds, crushing any source of hope and betterment, consigning those who dared to express criticism or reflection to hellish incarceration, and forcing young people to flee in droves have kept him in power thus far. And, since the time his own education came to a halt after being expelled from the pre-engineering program of Haile Selassie University, his 55-year career in politics has been characterized by this type of viciousness and hatred for the educated class. He certainly knows how to destroy his enemies.
Isaias needs the crisis to continue in order for him to deploy this tried and tested method of “political cleansing” in Tigray. Therefore, he is averse to hearing voices asking him to exit when he is just getting started.
If this plan to keep Tigray in perpetual crisis should fail to succeed, Isaias knows that Tigrayans will bring the battlefield closer to him. An irreconcilable enmity has been created, and there is no doubt that Tigrayans will try their utmost to crush him and his regime. Thus, failing is not an option. For this reason, unless something miraculous happens that changes his calculations, there is no way that he will agree to exit Tigray before he has completed his mission and set up conditions that favor him in the long term.
There are three more points that can help complete the picture when it comes to Isaias’s calculations. First, the statement from the Eritrean government that followed Abiy’s claim that Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its troops made no mention of Abiy’s claim. In fact, it claims that one of the things discussed during the meeting between the two leaders was a so-called “disinformation campaign.” This suggests that Eritrea is sticking to its stubborn denial of its presence in Tigray and, by implication, suggests it has not agreed to exit.
Secondly, a statement (since removed) by the Russian Embassy in Ethiopia included a suggestion that it was only some of the Eritrean Army that was leaving Tigray. Thirdly, on the days following the announcement by Abiy, eyewitnesses have reported that fresh troops were being brought into Tigray through Adigrat.
The second act of the two-act play is to convince the world that Eritrean troops have withdrawn when in actuality there is no intention for this to occur. Rather, the strategy of keeping Eritrean troops but removing Eritrean uniforms has been staged as a device to buy time and deceive the world. Whether the world will fall for this is yet to be seen, but the recent statement by the G7 countries and High Representative of the European Union requesting verified withdrawal would suggest that they can’t be easily tricked, as does the damning 15 April assessment of the UN’s chief humanitarian coordinator at the UN Security Council.
Ending the play
For the extrajudicial killing of civilians to end, for the weaponized gang rape of women and children to stop, for the mass displacement to cease, and for a modicum of hope to return to Ethiopia, this play staged by Isaias and Abiy needs to end and the rampaging Eritrean troops have to exit Tigray and wherever else in Ethiopia they may be.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest few recommendations:
First, pressure needs to be exerted on the Ethiopian government to detail the numbers and designations of Eritrean divisions and the actual numbers of soldiers that took part in the war, either publicly or to relevant bodies like the UN. This data can be cross-checked with international satellite and intelligence sources and can be used to approximate the size of the Eritrean army withdrawing from Tigray.
Second, the joint investigation between the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission should be allowed to proceed in full. This will reveal the extent of crimes committed and the damage caused as well as enable perpetrators to come to justice.
Third, once a preliminary baseline of the number of Eritrean divisions and soldiers has been established, the withdrawal of Eritrean troops deployed in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia needs to be monitored. I have tried to seek some examples of how this can be undertaken, but there is no record of another instance whereby a leader invited a foreign troop to massacre his own people. As such, practices established here will likely serve as precedents in the unlikely eventuality that the world is confronted by such anomalous situations in the future.
However, there are complicating factors that may make efforts for a monitored exit difficult which we need to highlight. First, there is information that Eritrean soldiers and army commanders have been put on the payroll of the Ethiopian military and are being paid accordingly. Second, there are rumors that Eritrean soldiers are also being issued Ethiopian identity cards. Both of these are complicating factors, but it is essential to facilitate a framework of monitored exit that takes these and related issues into consideration.
Fourth, there is little doubt that, if left on this treacherous path, Ethiopia is destined to fail. Therefore, the international community and all those who are averse to seeing another failed state need to push for an all-inclusive national dialogue with increased intensity. Ethiopians who have a genuine desire to save Ethiopia from suicide should come together to support the international community to exert the maximum pressure on Abiy to accede to such a dialogue.
This last point is my singular desire, and what motivated me to write this. I wish for the holistic salvation of Ethiopia before it is too late and the darkness takes hold. If we wait until the flames turn into a complete conflagration, no amount of regretful tears or patriotic martyrdom will avert catastrophic disintegration.