The admission by Ethiopia’s prime minister last week that Eritrean troops were fighting in the Tigray conflict, after more than four months of denial despite numerous credible reports about their involvement, indicated international pressure is finally starting to work – but also raised a host of pressing questions.
In January, the European Union suspended budget support for Ethiopia worth $107m until humanitarian agencies were granted access to Ethiopia’s northernmost region. Since February 27, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made several announcements urging the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, who have been accused of atrocities, including the massacre of civilians and systematic rape. Then in mid-March, Joe Biden sent Senator Chris Coons to meet Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to convey the US president’s “grave concerns” about Tigray, while the United Nations and other organisations have warned of possible war crimes.
Days after first acknowledging that Eritrean troops had entered Tigray, Abiy said in a statement on March 26 that Eritrea had agreed to pull its forces out from the border area.
The announcement, which came on the back of improving access to the northern region for media and humanitarian agencies, was welcomed by Ethiopia’s international partners. However, it did not clear up the mystery of why Abiy held out so long and did not instead admit the involvement of Eritrean troops at the start, when he could have offered a degree of justification, some commentators noted.
For when forces aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s then-ruling party, attacked federal army bases in Tigray at the start of November in an attempt to take over the Northern Command of the country’s military – the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) – they, arguably, threatened not only Ethiopia’s stability but also that of Eritrea, whose southern border runs along Tigray’s northern edge. Abiy could have argued Eritrean forces were then asked to assist the ENDF to repulse a security threat to both countries, said William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) senior analyst for Ethiopia.
“Possible reasons for not doing so are that Ethiopia’s government may have wanted to show it didn’t need assistance and could sort out the problem on its own, thereby also formally keeping it a domestic matter so as to reduce unwanted external interference,” Davison said, noting Abiy’s change of strategy is likely a reaction to both mounting international pressure and evidence not only of Eritrean involvement but also atrocities by Eritrean soldiers.
Previous reports of horrors such as the massacre of hundreds of civilians at Axum detailed by Amnesty International are being supported by investigations by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Now, Davison said, the government has promised accountability and expanding investigations – including with UN and African Union partners – into terrible events during the conflict.
“The government has demonstrated the will for investigations to take place to take stock of what has happened in Tigray and enable an accountability mechanism,” said Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s spokeswoman, while noting that the “government’s commitment to holding individuals, groups and entities accountable has been shared several times over the past weeks and prior to the announcement”.
However, the devil is in the detail of the withdrawal’s application, Davison said. No date has been set and Eritrea’s leader Isaias Afwerki, a longtime foe of the TPLF, has not yet reacted to Abiy’s statement.
So far there is “absolutely no evidence” to suggest Eritrean troops will withdraw, rather quite the opposite, said Martin Plaut, a journalist and commentator specialising in the Horn of Africa, pointing to reports of reinforcements being conscripted and sent from Eritrea.
His scepticism is shared by others. “I do not believe Abiy will be keen to follow through his promises,” said Tsedale Lemma, founder and editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard publication. “Abiy is perpetuating another [case of] unverified information until it is backed by independent observers and most importantly, when the people of Tigray say so.”
Even if the withdrawal is implemented fully, Davison noted, that could make it harder for federal forces to achieve a clear victory over remaining TPLF forces that are digging in under the mantle of the Tigray Defence Forces, thereby increasing the likelihood of sustained fighting.
“Tigrayan forces appear substantially stronger than they did in December, they are increasingly entrenched in rural areas and their armed resistance to the federal government appears to be gaining popular support among the Tigrayan population,” Davison said.
On Friday, the ICG warned that Ethiopia risked a lengthy deadlock in Tigray, with the conflict dragging on for months and even years, as the rival sides look to inflict a “knockout blow” that appears unrealistic.
While Abiy’s recent announcements could be interpreted by some as suggesting more willingness by the government to consider other strategies such as negotiation, Davison said there is nothing to indicate Abiy is considering changing his course from seeking total victory, despite his compromise on the likes of media access to Tigray and humanitarian demands.
“It’s not clear international pressure will alter the actual conflict situation and the political dynamics creating it,” Davison said. These dynamics include, he added, the intention of Isaias to “eliminate” the TPLF; the neighbouring Amhara region taking over western Tigray during the war; and the TPLF’s stated objective to return to regional power, something its opponents are dead set against.
Similarly, it is impossible to say whether the withdrawal, if it happens, will have any actual effect on calls for better accountability given the entrenched lack of accountability throughout the entire conflict, which is believed to have killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million.
On Friday, international media published reports suggesting that members of the Ethiopian military carried out a massacre near Mahibere Dego, a mountainous area of central Tigray, shooting unarmed men and pushing dead bodies over a cliff. In late November, Abiy told parliament government forces had not killed a single civilian in Tigray.
“I’m not convinced that just because Eritrean soldiers are starting to depart that Abiy will suddenly push for full accountability for atrocities that have been committed – whether by Eritrean troops, ENDF soldiers, or [allied] ethnic Amhara fighters,” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“In the near-term, the best we can probably hope for is a significant lessening of civilian harm now that one of the main protagonists is starting to depart the field. But this is very different from expecting a full accounting for violations that have occurred in places like Axum. I’d also note that the Ethiopian government’s track record on transparency has been very disappointing.”
As a result of all this, Davison and Tsedale said the international community, including the UN, US and the EU, must keep up pressure on the issue, and the need to monitor and investigate events on the ground.
“They all have the right tools to end this tragedy if they wanted to,” Tsedale said.
That is no easy task, though, given the EU and the US being deeply embroiled in challenges on domestic fronts, while China, which has huge influence in Ethiopia, remains notably mute about Tigray (though at the end of February there was an uncharacteristic mention of the issue at China’s foreign ministry’s regular press briefing in Beijing).
“Eritrean soldiers complicated matters considerably,” Feldstein said. “With their departure, new pathways possibly open for the different sides to begin identifying steps to mitigate ongoing violence and civilian harm.”
And those like Plaut think Tigray is very much on the mind of the US government, as evidenced by recent diplomatic activity, though he says it is not possible to know what might be happening behind the scenes “till they make any progress”. In addition to its economic leverage, Plaut noted the US is a key ally for Ethiopia over issues such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the resulting tensions with Sudan and Egypt.
But this Ethiopian government has made it clear what it thinks of outside interference in Ethiopian matters.
“Ethiopia is firm on its non-intervention stance in matters of domestic issues,” Billene said. “It also affirms a strong commitment to enhancing bilateral and multilateral cooperation with partners that respect its sovereignty.”
Yet while international eyes remain fixed on Tigray, ethnic tensions and attacks are mushrooming around Ethiopia, especially in its Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. And the regional implications of the Tigray conflict continue to fester, with the UN last week reporting that Eritrean forces are operating in the so-called al-Fashaga triangle, which is disputed land between Ethiopia and Sudan.
Hence those like Plaut remain extremely sceptical that Eritrean involvement in Ethiopia is now over, especially with Abiy facing increasing opposition domestically from members of the Oromo ethnic group in addition to his fight with the TPLF, and therefore needs all the support he can muster.
“It’s extremely difficult for Abiy to extricate himself from Isaias,” Plaut said. “They are linked at the hip now.”