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From Pariah to Kingmaker

After months of bloodshed in Tigray, a region of Ethiopia that claims the right to self-determination, the United States is increasing pressure to end hostilities, protect civilians, allow an independent investigation into atrocities and provide humanitarian access to starving populations to enable. In a call to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali on March 2, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated his call for the immediate withdrawal of all Eritrean troops from Tigray operating there as part of the Ethiopian efforts to suppress the uprising. This last point turns out to be a key requirement, as most of the crimes documented by journalists and human rights groups in Tigray were committed by Eritrean armed forces.

These atrocities continue. On March 1, in a rare phone call from the mountains, leading Tigrayan scholar Mulugeta Gebrehiwot described how Eritrean troops had destroyed villages, cut down mango orchards, destroyed irrigation systems, and slaughtered dozens of people from young children to grandparents in the town of Samre and the villages Gijet, Adeba and Tseada Sare in the last few days. "Famine is coming," he said. We should heed Mulugeta's warning: action must be taken now to halt further crimes and a major humanitarian disaster.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki rules a tiny nation of 3.5 million people with a GDP of $ 2 billion as of 2018. But the country's military is huge. The army has a staggering 200,000 people, most of whom are enrolled in compulsory and permanent national service by the time they reach eleventh grade. Eritrea doesn't publish a budget, but an estimated 20 percent of the country's GDP is spent on the military and an undisclosed amount on Afwerki's feared national security and intelligence agencies.

Several recent reports make it clear what Eritrean security and armed forces are capable of. In the past week, atrocities during the war in Tigray were attributed to the Eritrean armed forces in three separate reports. Amnesty International documented a November 2020 massacre in a cathedral in Axum where hundreds of civilians were slaughtered. CNN made and verified reports of a mass murder in a monastery called Maryam Dengelat in which more than 100 people died. And VICE World News matched satellite photos of destroyed villages with eyewitness accounts to describe other atrocities.

And the fighting, burning, and forced famine continue. Last week, satellite imagery showed at least 508 buildings burning in and around the town of Gijet in southern Tigray. This is close to the area where the Tigray Defense Forces destroyed an Ethiopian armored division two weeks earlier. In phone calls from the area, Tigrayans reported that five Eritrean divisions – some 10,000 soldiers with tanks supported by both Ethiopian and Eritrean fighter planes – are converging on the area, which is conducting a so-called "scorched earth" operation.

In July 2018, when Abiy flew to the Eritrean capital Asmara to sign a long overdue peace agreement between the two countries, citizens of both countries hoped that Afwerki would finally start demobilizing his army on this occasion. redirect its national budget to spending on health, education and development; and liberalize its policies. None of that happened. It is now clear that Afwerki viewed the peace deal as a security pact with Ethiopia to overturn the leadership of the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF), which are leading the uprising in Ethiopia – and to inflict such damage on the Tigrayan people that it is could never again challenge land.

Afwerki's hostility towards the TPLF stems from a dispute between himself and the leaders of the TPLF, the then Ethiopian leaders, that led to a border war in 1998, which he lost. The Ethiopian army under the TPLF did not march as far as Asmara and force a regime change, but they might as well have done it.

After the defeat, the Eritreans themselves called for change: first, a group of democracy activists proposed reform, and then 15 of the leading Eritrean politicians – known as the G-15 – followed suit. In the brief "Asmara Spring" of 2001, an independent press flourished and the Eritreans demanded that all the freedoms promised after the country's independence eight years earlier and contained in the 1997 but never adopted new constitution be realized should be.

The G-15 included Afwerki's oldest comrade-in-arms and all of the heroes of the War of Independence, including former foreign and defense ministers and some of the founders of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Afwerki probably felt encircled and responded to calls for reform with qualifications. On September 18-19, 2001, he arrested 11 of the G-15 and literally obliterated them; They have not been seen or heard since then. Eritreans have neither seen nor heard of their cherished constitution and freedoms. Instead, all independent media were shut down, journalists were imprisoned and freedom of religion rewritten. The compulsory national service for all school leavers has been introduced.

To divert attention from his own military adventurism and growing authoritarianism, Afwerki sought to blame Ethiopia – and the TPLF in particular – for his nation's diseases. And he supported any opposition group willing to wage war against Ethiopia, including Somali jihadists. This last move sparked a violent US-led backlash that saw the country sanctioned in 2007 before being repealed in 2018.

With all of this, Afwerki had a legitimate complaint. With the peace agreement between the TPLF-led Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000, an independent border commission was set up, which granted Eritrea a small but symbolic piece of land – the village of Badme. A dispute over Badme had triggered the war, but the Ethiopians repeatedly stopped implementing the decision. Because of this single complaint, Afwerki kept his people in a state of emergency, mobilized against Ethiopia and cultivated a national paranoia that trained Eritreans to believe that both Ethiopia and the whole world had conspired against them.

Young Eritreans fled abroad instead of enduring military service or the hopelessness of living in a police state with a stagnant economy. The country is one of the world's largest generators of refugees in relation to its size. Only a (mostly illegal) tax on diaspora Eritreans and license fees from cobalt, gold and potash mining kept the country alive – until the conflict in nearby Yemen offered a lifeline. The Red Sea coast in Eritrea suddenly became a strategic asset and Afwerki rented the port and air base in Assab to the United Arab Emirates for use as a base. This not only brought in urgently needed money, but also a political opening for the Gulf states.

It is noteworthy that when Afwerki and Abiy signed their peace agreement in 2018, they did not attend the African Union Summit – even though the continental organization was the official administrator of the treaty signed in Algiers under its auspices. Instead, they flew to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and then to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Eritrea became a willing junior partner in the Arab Peninsula's transactional policy, incapacitating the African Union and its carefully crafted peace and security architecture.

More remarkable was Afwerki's rise to kingmaker in the Horn of Africa. He cleverly offered two things to the uncertain rulers of the region. One of them is practical advice on political survival against all odds – especially how to counter the international pressure to democratize. The other is a model of military training that turns students into obedient combat machines.

In this regard, Eritrea is now the senior partner in the Ethiopian war in Tigray. Eritrean troops are also reported to be stationed in al-Fashaga, the disputed border area between Ethiopia and Sudan, tacitly exacerbating the conflict between the two countries. Afwerki is a confidante and supporter of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi, commonly known as Farmaajo. The political crisis in Somalia deepened in February when Farmaajo's term as president expired with no election or agreement with the opposition on how to deal with the interregnum. Farmaajo is determined to hold on to it, and once his forces fired at a crowd of peaceful protesters. Worryingly, Somali special forces trained in Eritrea were flown back to Mogadishu last month.

Afwerki is building with him as leader and Abiy and Farmaajo as junior partners a triangular axis of autocracy in the Horn of Africa.

Afwerki's PR strategy is simple. He says as little as possible. Four months after the war broke out in Tigray, he failed to inform the Eritrean people that half of the country's army is currently conducting operations in Ethiopia. In fact, he made only one public statement: a long speech, disguised as an interview, in which he covered world events, but only said that Eritrea "is fulfilling its responsibilities" in relation to Ethiopia. He said nothing about his war aims, but decades of incessant ruthlessness tell their own story.

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