Eritrea is one of the most mysterious countries in the world, which is intriguing for many outside observers, for better or for worse. It used to be regarded as a so-called “pariah state” and is still perceived that way to a certain extent among some, but recent years have seen its regional role evolve to the point where it’s arguably the most important player in the Horn of Africa right now. This development is attributable to a combination of its leadership’s vision and fast-moving events in neighboring Ethiopia from which Eritrea gained independence in 1993 after thirty years of separatist struggle. Considering its newfound importance, a general analysis of how this happened is certainly warranted.
For those who aren’t all that familiar with it, Eritrea is a revolutionary socialist-inspired state that was mostly isolated from the rest of the world after its bloody border conflict with Ethiopia from 1998-2000. It’s been previously accused of supporting armed groups across the region, especially in Somalia, including some that others have described as terrorists. The country excels in unconventional warfare considering its three-decade-long experience with it and the fact that this is the only means through which Eritrea can ensure its sovereignty from much larger Ethiopia which it always feared still harbored hegemonic ambitions against it. In fact, the previously mentioned border conflict can in some ways be seen as a “second war of independence”.
It’s neither here nor there who was in the right or wrong since the significance lies in the fact that Eritrea would probably have become a proxy state of Ethiopia had it lost that war. Ethiopia, having incomparably larger economic potential than Eritrea by virtue of its enormous population that’s at least 30x larger than its former province’s, was obviously much more important to the Great Powers than the tiny coastal state. This explains the immense international pressure that Eritrea experienced after that war which resulted in nearly two decades of isolation. During that time, the country has been accused of human rights abuses against its population, including through what some have reported is its de facto policy of indefinite conscription.
President Isaias Afwerki is considered to be a strong leader who exercises centralized control over the country. He’s also the former leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) which allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) during the Ethiopian Civil War and was thus jointly responsible for the rebels’ victory. Just as Afwerki subsequently went on to lead Eritrea after independence, so too did the TPLF essentially lead Ethiopia through the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They eventually had an acrimonious falling out which contributed to their 1998-2000 war. It wasn’t until incumbent Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and dismantled the EPRDF that the two countries finally agreed to peace.
I discussed Prime Minister Abiy’s inadvertently destabilizing reforms in a recent analysis asking, “Is There Still Any Hope Left For The Horn Of Africa?”, which goes much further in depth analyzing everything that’s recently happened there than is within the scope of the present piece. Readers should review it if they’re interested in learning more, but to oversimplify an admittedly complex situation, his visionary reforms prompted intense pushback from the TPLF, which later left the governing coalition, launched a rebellion in their native Tigray Region, was designated a terrorist group, and finally crushed through an ongoing military campaign there that’s also seen the contentious participation of Eritrean troops who’ve been accused of war crimes.
Before expanding further on that latest regional conflict, it’s important to point out that Eritrea previously took part in the GCC’s War on Yemen and even up until recently hosted an Emirati base. It remains unclear exactly why it decided to do this, but most observers agree that it was probably driven by a desire to procure much-needed funds for its struggling economy as well as pioneer a long-overdue breakout from its prolonged period of international isolation. Nevertheless, this development solidified the UAE’s growing influence over the Horn of Africa, which it later leveraged to facilitate the ultimately successful peace talks between Eritrea and Ethiopia that won Prime Minister Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize.
While Eritrea’s military involvement in that war resulted in a comparative reduction of international pressure upon it, that decision also harmed the country’s soft power insofar as it wasn’t to present itself any longer as a revolutionary state that always supports just causes and so on. It also prompted speculation that the opaque country’s economy was even worse than observers thought since it probably wouldn’t have done this if it didn’t desperately need the financial support that it received in exchange. Even so, the oft-repeated predictions among some that Eritrea is always just a step away from collapse have thus far failed to materialize, mostly due to the fact that the state itself still remains very strong (largely aided by the security services of course).
In contrast, neighboring Ethiopia has recently proven itself to be a lot weaker than some might have thought since it’s actually the regional country that’s nowadays on the brink of collapse, not Eritrea. The power reversal between these formerly acrimonious rivals tremendously plays in Eritrea’s favor, which isn’t lost on Ethiopia, hence why it requested Asmara’s military assistance in Tigray. That move was extremely symbolic since it showed that Ethiopia is no longer the regional hegemonic force that it used to be. It was also a deference to Eritrea’s comparative military strength since Ethiopia showed that it isn’t even able to control the situation within its own borders without foreign military support.
President Afwerki must have been pleased with this outcome. His vision has consistently been one of ensuring Eritrea’s security through asymmetrical and unconventional means in order to weaken Ethiopia from the inside-out, ergo its support for violent non-state actors in the region. Lo and behold, it ultimately wasn’t through militant means but political ones that Ethiopia ended up becoming destabilized, and by none other than its own hand through the inadvertent consequences of Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms. Not only that, but President Afwerki’s hated TPLF rivals became outcasts in the same country they once led, were designated as terrorists, and subsequently crushed through an Eritrean military intervention requested by Ethiopia itself.
As it presently stands, the geopolitical tables have certainly turned. It’s Eritrea, not Ethiopia, that’s the rising force in the region. Asmara, however, doesn’t intend to utilize conventional means to assert its influence. Rather, staying true to its his vision, President Afwerki seems to be cleverly manipulating the strategic situation behind the scenes through his intelligence services. His country simply can’t do much else considering how small and economically weak it is so this is the best use of its very limited resources by concentrating on its area of expertise. It’s more important to him at this moment to achieve tangible gains aimed at ensuring Eritrea’s security for years to come than to care all that much about the latest international pressure upon his country.
This explains why Eritrea controversially dispatched its troops to Tigray despite knowing that its previously secret military involvement there would eventually be exposed. The war crimes that it’s now accused of are very serious and have served to redirect international attention back to Eritrea, though of course not the kind that President Afwerki would have preferred. In his strategic calculations, however, the intervention was well worth the soft power cost since it symbolically showed that it’s Eritrea that’s calling the regional shots right now and not Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopia tacitly confirmed that it can’t ensure security within its own borders without Eritrean support, thus showing how indispensable Asmara has become for Addis Ababa. President Afwerki is expected to take maximum advantage of this new power asymmetry to continue expanding Eritrea’s influence.
The Horn of Africa’s stability is intimately tied to Ethiopia’s, which is why Eritrea’s military intervention is of regional significance. Supporters believe that it helped restore stability to Ethiopia and therefore the entire region while critics claim that it further destabilized Africa’s second most populous country. Whichever side of the debate one is on, there’s no denying the game-changing importance of this campaign, for better or for worse. Even though both countries are now coming under intense Western pressure because of it, they still enjoy the support of key non-Western states like Russia and China. They could therefore rely more on the latter group of countries to compensate for the increase in pressure from the former.
To wrap everything up, Eritrea is now the most influential country in the Horn of Africa after its military intervention in Tigray showed the world just how drastically the tables have turned in the region. Ethiopia is struggling to contain newfound separatist threats unleashed as an unintended result of Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms, and it’s ironically doing this with Eritrea’s support for the first time ever despite Asmara being suspected of patronizing such forces in the past. Since the Horn of Africa’s future is tied to Ethiopia’s, and the latter has shown how reliant it is on Eritrea to ensure stability within its own borders, it therefore follows that the Horn of Africa’s future is being disproportionately shaped by Eritrea. President Afwerki has therefore fulfilled his vision of turning Eritrea into the region’s most indispensable country despite its “pariah” status.