Why Ethiopia and Eritrea May be Heading for Another War

November 26, 2023 Topic: Ethiopia Region: East Africa Tags: EthiopiaEritreaTigrayWarAbiy AhmedIsaias Afwerki

Why Ethiopia and Eritrea May be Heading for Another War

Increased military mobilization and belligerent rhetoric are raising the temperature in the Horn of Africa.


A year ago, Tigrayan and Ethiopian officials met in Pretoria to sign a cessation of hostilities agreement. The Pretoria Accords were supposed to end the Tigray War, which had claimed an estimated 600,000 lives. Since then, the Ethiopian, Western, and African governments have used the Pretoria Accords to promote the notion that Ethiopia’s war is over and that the country is progressing toward post-conflict reconstruction. This was the EU’s rationale for normalizing its relations with Abiy Ahmed’s government and providing a grant package of 600 million Euros. However, contrary to the international community’s optimistic narrative, the reality has been that Ethiopia’s regionalized civil war has only transfigured rather than ended. 

The Pretoria agreement’s primary function has been to change the constellation of the Horn of Africa’s strategic alliances and pave the way for a new war. Alliances have played a central enabling role in the Ethiopian Civil War from the outset. One of Abiy Ahmed’s first tasks when he came to power in 2018 was to make peace with Eritrea and many domestic opposition groups. This was widely celebrated as a bold move towards democracy and regional reconciliation, so much so that it led to Abiy winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, Abiy Ahmed was, in fact, only establishing a regional alliance to consolidate a particular nationalistic and authoritarian model across the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, he allied with Ethiopian and Amhara nationalists. Regionally, Abiy Ahmed allied with Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, culminating in the signing of the Tripartite Agreement in September 2018. A central motivation behind the alliance was their shared opposition to multi-national federalism and ethno-nationalist politics in the region. They saw the growing assertiveness and the institutional recognition that ethno-national groups had attained across the Horn of Africa as a threat to their personal power as well as a recipe for weakening their states.  


The nationalist alliance’s primary purpose was to cooperate in waging war against ethno-nationalist groups across the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia became the main theater for this agenda. Abiy Ahmed first went to war against Oromo nationalists and later waged what was arguably the deadliest war in the twenty-first century against the Tigray region. The Amhara Regional State and Eritrea played a crucial role in the war effort. They provided hundreds of thousands of troops, raised funds, and mobilized their diaspora populations to push back against international pressure. Together, the allies ethnically cleansed a million people, raped tens of thousands of women, and, through tactics like mass starvation, they killed an estimated 600,000 civilians in Tigray alone. The Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists and Eritrea would help Abiy Ahmed consolidate his autocracy, and in return, it was expected that he would legalize Amhara conquest and annexation of Tigrayan territory, eliminate ethno-national groups in Oromia and Tigray, and eventually dismantle Ethiopia’s multi-national-federalism.         

After four years of warfare in Oromia, Benishangul, and Tigray, it, however, had become apparent that Abiy’s effort to eradicate Ethiopia’s ethno-nationalist had failed and brought the Ethiopian economy and security apparatus on the verge of collapse. As a leader, Abiy Ahmed faced a dilemma: either find a modus vivendi with ethno-national forces or oversee the collapse of Ethiopia. He chose to compromise his ideological objectives for the sake of political survival. First, he made a tactical peace with key Oromo opposition groups and released leaders like Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba in January 2022. Later that year, Abiy went on to sign the peace agreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.  

Although the reconciliation between Abiy Ahmed and his Oromo and Tigrayan rivals was merely tactical and has not resulted in a sincere reconciliation. In effect, this involved reneging on all the major promises made to Eritrea and the Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists. Notably, this includes allowing the TPLF to continue as a political party in Ethiopia and conceding a constitutional resolution to the territorial conflict over western Tigray. Given that the disputed territory belongs to Tigray according to the constitution, this led many to believe that West Tigray would be returned to it.     

The Eritrean government and Amhara nationalists had sacrificed tens of thousands of troops, accrued high financial costs, become implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes, and made bitter enemies in different parts of the Horn of Africa—all without attaining any of their political goals.

The Amhara militias rejected the Pretoria agreement, refused to leave Western Tigray, and continued their ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans. The Ethiopian Prime Minister quickly began taking measures to neutralize the new threat to his power. In April, he declared that all the regional special forces had to be disarmed, which sparked a full-scale war between the Ethiopian army and the Amhara militias. The organizational and fighting capacity of the militias have since then improved substantially. They now control large parts of the countryside and several urban centers. The insurgents have assassinated numerous state officials and brought about a general breakdown of law and order.  

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki did not make his opposition to the Pretoria agreement public. Instead, he continued to undermine the peace agreement and Abiy Ahmed’s government by continuing to occupy much of northern Tigray. There his troops have committed massacres, rape, and other human rights violations on a large scale throughout the year. Afwerki has also trained and armed Amhara militias in the past, and the Ethiopian government believes that he continues to do so.      

Abiy Ahmed had until recently not publicly responded to Eritrea’s internal meddling and violations of Ethiopian sovereignty. However, in the past weeks, the Ethiopian government has been agitating the public to restore what the prime minister calls Ethiopia’s “historic and natural right” to a Red Sea outlet. In addition to documentaries and public statements propagating the message that Ethiopia had been deprived of an inalienable right to a sea outlet, a military parade was held in Addis Ababa recently where soldiers were chanting, “The sea is ours, and the ship is ours.” Although Eritrea has not been mentioned by name in these statements, it is implicitly understood that it—and specifically its Assab Port—is the target of the messaging. 

Abiy Ahmed’s irredentist rhetoric is not simply a response to Eritrean President Afwerki’s recent provocations. Instead, it is part of a long-held nostalgia for Abyssinian imperial history. Abiy sees Ethiopia’s imperial past as a model to be emulated in the present. In particular, his rhetoric indicates that he considers it imperative to restore what he sees as Ethiopia’s lost territory, prestige, and status as a unique civilizational state. 

Making territorial claims on other states based on historical rights violates the Organization for African Unity’s cardinal norm of maintaining colonial-era borders. But this has nevertheless been the chief foreign policy agenda of successive Ethiopian governments and political parties, with the exception of the EPRDF, which supported and oversaw Eritrea’s secession in 1993. Abiy Ahmed may, therefore, find much sympathy for his irredentist agenda in Ethiopian society. 

The Tigray Interim Regional Administration has not supported Abiy Ahmed’s irredentist agenda on the Red Sea. But given that Afwerki’s government committed the worst atrocities during the Tigray war and remains committed to annihilating the TPLF, the Tigrayan leadership would certainly like to see Isaias Afwerki overthrown. The Tigrayan authorities (undoubtedly with the backing of the Ethiopian government) recently made public that they were hosting and mobilizing Eritrean opposition groups. 

Despite the rhetoric, several factors may still deter Ethiopia and Eritrea from escalating their conflict to a full-scale war. The Ethiopian army is bogged down in the Amhara region and is still recovering from the war in Tigray. The Eritrean military also lost many troops in the last war and would unlikely want to confront a well-resourced Ethiopian army under the leadership of experienced Tigrayan commanders. 

On the other hand, a tit-for-tat escalation and a strategic culture characterized by deep suspicion may lead one of the parties to conduct a pre-emptive strike that escalates to a full-blown war. Moreover, beyond rhetoric, there are also indications of practical preparations for war. This includes increased shipments of weapons from the UAE and the export of new drones from Turkey to Ethiopia. Increased mobilization of troops on both sides of the border has also been reported. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have also been busy trying to appeal for the support of local leaders from the Afar people who reside on both sides of the common border.   

The last time Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war, the conflict lasted two years and cost an estimated 100,000 lives. The current war can potentially plunge the entire region into a crisis that results in both states collapsing. It would also have repercussions beyond the two countries. A war between Ethiopia and Eritrea would incentivize regional actors from both the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to support their allies. Notably, the UAE has emerged as a strong ally of Ethiopia, while Eritrea has been busy trying to mobilize diplomatic support from Saudi Arabia. It could also destabilize the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait on the Red Sea through which some 6 million barrels of oil pass daily. Despite these worrying trends, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the wider Horn of Africa region are receiving scant attention from the international community.