Eritrea’s Position in the Changing Geopolitical Dynamics of the Horn

The Horn of Africa region has undergone significant changes in recent years, leading to a shift in Eritrea’s position.

Over the past five years, a transformative geopolitical shift has taken place in the Horn of Africa region, driven by three major events.

Firstly, the TPLF regime in Ethiopia was brought down. Secondly, the fall of the Bashar regime in Sudan. And finally, the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States played a significant role in shaping the new geopolitical reality.

These three regional and global events allow Eritrea to exert and expand its geopolitical influence in the region.

Upon the coming of Abiy Ahmed to the premiership, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement, which put an end to the longstanding no war no peace situation between the two countries.

This peace agreement was followed by a strong alliance between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki.

When the Ethiopian government faced a military challenge from the TPLF, Isaias intervened and crushed the TPLF military apparatus. Consequently, the TPLF was forced to capitulate.

The war between the Ethiopian government and TPLF ended with the Pretoria agreement. Subsequently, the TPLF no longer exists as a significant political entity.

The agreement will have far-reaching impacts regarding the geopolitical dynamics of the region.

This has to do with the internal political dynamics in Ethiopia, the domestic issues of Eritrea, and the relationship between the two countries.

The Pretoria Agreement has unleashed new geopolitical realities in the region. It has opened a new chapter in the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The end of the TPLF threat will now shape the course of the relationship between Ethiopian domestic actors, the Oromos and Amharas, and between Isaias and Abiy.

The TPLF previously served as a unifying factor between the Amharas and Oromos, leading Abiy to establish ties with Isaias.

The TPLF had served as a pretext to introduce and maintain the de facto state of emergency rule and the socioeconomic hardships.

In light of the Pretoria Agreement, new realities are being emerging and will shape the geopolitical dynamics of the Horn of Africa for the years to come.

When Abiy came to power in 2018, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki believed that Abiy would abolish the ethnic-based federal system and transform Ethiopia into a unitary assimilationist state.

At the time, Isaias assuredly said that Ethiopia would undergo a ‘political laundry’ in which the ‘TPLF legacy’ of the ethnic-based federal system and institutions would be washed away.

The hostilities between the TPLF and Isaias stemmed from the former’s policy of an ethnic-based federal system. Isaias pressured the TPLF leadership before the border war to abandon the idea of a language-based federation and the right to self-determination up to separation which is stipulated in the existing Ethiopian constitution.

The ethnic-based federal system and institutions are an existential threat to the Eritrean nation-building scheme, according to Isaias.

Isaias has demanded that Ethiopia should launch a nation-building program to forgo the ‘toxic TPLF legacy’ which is a multi-national federal system. He always asserted that ethnic nationalism and national self-determination agendas should be crushed and Ethiopia should be transformed into a centralized unified state.

The other Isaias’ agenda upon the coming of Abiy was establishing a regional geopolitical bloc that is free from outside, particularly Western, influence.

An alliance was launched among Isaias, Abiy, and Farmajo of Somalia. Eritrea agreed to train Somali soldiers. Asmara was to help Abiy neutralize TPLF threats and demanded Ethiopia support a unified Somalia and abandon its de facto recognition of Somaliland. Isaias is against Somaliland’s de facto declaration of independence and any separatist tendency in the region.

Eritrea has been pursuing a new regional agenda centered on anti-imperialism and nation-building. Isaias aims to create a new regional bloc that promotes political cooperation among countries in the Horn of Africa.

Isaias’ plan for the region was aborted due to the hesitation of Ethiopia, the departure of Farmajo, and the war in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government failed to eliminate the legacy of the TPLF, such as the multinational federal system and Article 39 of the FDRE constitution. Additionally, Abiy neglected Isaias’ views.

Due to the TPLF threats, Isaias was more important than the West for Abiy. Now, Abiy doesn’t crucially need Isaias anymore.

The Ethiopian government desperately wants to improve its relations with the West. Western financial support is badly needed for Abiy to survive the looming economic crisis.

Abiy already abandoned Isaias to mend its relationship with the United States. The US has repeatedly advised the Ethiopian government to distance itself from Asmara.

The alliance between President Isaias and PM Abiy had diverging intentions. PM Abiy saw the rapprochement as a means to neutralize threats from the TPLF and consolidate power. Isaias viewed it as an opportunity to end the multi-national federal system and the institutions and expand his influence in the region.

Isaias’ top priority with regard to Ethiopia is achieving the abolition of the federal system and dismantling the constitution by any means necessary.

The alliance costed Ethiopia its relationship with the West, resulting in a devastating effect on Ethiopia’s aid-dependent economy in the long-run.

The importance of Isaias for the Ethiopian government is only related to military threats from the TPLF.

Isaias wants the Ethiopian government to sever its relations with the West, particularly the US.

Isaias has told the Eritrean people that the country’s state of emergency rule, forced conscription, and socio-economic hardships are due to the hostilities from the TPLF regime, which monopolized federal power from 1991 to 2018.

The capitulation of the TPLF has been perceived by the Eritrean people as a new era of peace and economic development.

Isaias relies on an external enemy, specifically the TPLF, to remain in power by manipulating the perception of external threats. Without this perceived threat, his grip on power would weaken. His policies, including brutal social engineering, have caused destruction and discontent within Eritrea.

With no TPLF anymore, Isaias now finds himself in a trap. He has no means and capability to legitimize his rule and convince the people and the army.

The Eritrean economy has reached a dead end. Isaias lacks any economic agenda.

If he had any agenda, it would require billions of dollars to jumpstart the economy. It has been closed for decades and opening up the economy demands billions of dollars beforehand. If he could open it, the regime would be crushed due to sweeping inflation.

The trustworthiness of the regime is very low and no country would lend it a significant amount of money. A few years ago, the Qatar National Bank accused Isaias’ regime in the US of failing to pay 300 million dollars of debt.

The diplomatic and financial pressures from the West, brought about in part by the war with the TPLF, have caused dire economic and security crises in Ethiopia.

In an effort to address this crisis, Abiy seeks financial and diplomatic assistance from the US, Europe, and multilateral financial institutions. Doing so Abiy had to distance himself from Isaias.

Upon taking office, Abiy came up with a liberal economic agenda dubbed Homegrown Economic Reform. It aimed at liberalizing the Ethiopian economy and privatizing state-owned enterprises.

The US and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF initially pledged billions to support the economic plan.

The promised billions of dollars have remained suspended due to the Nile crisis and the war with the TPLF in which Eritrea was highly involved. The Ethiopian government is desperately trying to obtain the approval of the West and secure the badly needed financial provision.

A staggering amount of debt, massive unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation have crippled the Ethiopian economy and threatened the government.

The UN demanded the complete withdrawal of the Eritrean army from the Tigray region as a precondition for lifting the sanctions placed against Ethiopia. 

This means that Abiy will have to abandon his alliance with Isaias to strengthen his strategic relations with the US.

The Ethiopian government has successfully dealt with the armed group that once threatened its stability. Now, the priority for the government is to establish a stronger relationship with the United States and the West to gain financial support.

The alliance between Abiy and Isaias was a tactical move for the former. Ethiopia and Eritrea don’t have any economic relationship.

Ethiopia wants to use Eritrean ports for outlets due to the high payment via the Djibouti port. It asked the Eritrean regime to allow it to use the Assab port but Eritrea refused.

It has been five years since Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement, but there have been no meaningful trade relations between the two countries.

The Eritrean regime has no economic development agenda. In a recent interview with state media Eri TV, Isaias confirmed that he has no new economic development plans.

Now, Isaias has to invent a new enemy to sustain its grip on power. He needs external animosity to sustain the state of emergency rule.

Abiy’s abandonment of Isaias in favor of his relationship with the US could push Isaias to initiate hostilities against Abiy’s government.

The recent engagement between Eritrea and Kenya should be saw from this angle.

Kenya and Eritrea have had no economic relations and the engagement between the countries could not be anything other than political cooperation.

Ethiopia and Kenya are competitors in the region. They compete to be the best darling of the West in the region.

The deteriorating relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a good opportunity for Kenya to increase its regional influence and undermine Ethiopia.

Kenya needs to get Eritrea back in IGAD to exert its influence vis-à-vis Ethiopia. Isaias doesn’t have a real intention of joining IGAD. he wants IGAD to be replaced by another organization Western influence that excludes ‘pro-Western’ Kenya and Uganda.

The real intention of joining IGAD seems to use Kenya to siege the Ethiopian government.

Isaias needs Kenya’s support to put pressure on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

If conflict emerged between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Isaias could use Kenya to transfer support to armed groups in southern Ethiopia that are hostile to Abiy.

Eritrea has a considerable influence in Somalia. Isaias has given military training and equipped thousands of Somali soldiers. Stability in Somalia is in Kenya’s interest. Thus, Kenya needs Eritrean support in stabilizing Somalia.

Eritrea’s strategic importance has also made it a critical player in the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been fighting the Houthi rebels. UAE has used Eritrea’s port of Assab in its military campaign in Yemen.

Isaias has maintained a good relationship with the UAE. Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot afford to lose Eritrea and its Red Sea coast to Iran.

The Eritrea-Sudan relationship remains more or less the same since the end of the Bashar regime in 2019. Eritrea has a considerable influence over Sudan.


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