Eritrea’s final war?

The Eritrean state was born out of a 30-year liberation war. Its current military adventure in Tigray may lead to its collapse.

Eritrea, the tiny Horn of Africa nation is once again in the international spotlight for its atrocious military campaign in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost regional state. Eritrean forces (EDF) are fighting alongside the Ethiopian federal army (ENDF) in the war against the rebellious regional leadership and the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF).

What is Eritrea’s objective in the war? And, how will it impact the one-man rule of President Isaias Afwerki?

To understand current Eritrean policies, one needs to discern the mindset of its autocratic president, the former guerrilla leader of Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who has ruled the totalitarian one-party state with an iron fist since independence.

Africa’s Sparta

Isaias has incessantly demarcated the borders of Africa’s second newest country through bloodshed and sacrifices—as Eritrea has been at war with all its neighbours since its independence in 1993.

In 1995, it clashed with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea and in 1996 with Sudan, before the devastating border war with Ethiopia from 1998-2000. In 2008, Eritrea picked a fight with its tiny southern neighbour Djibouti, also over a strip of contested territory. In all these conflicts, Eritrea was the first to launch military engagement—and tens of thousands of youths have perished on the battlefields to sustain the image of the country as an invincible warrior nation.

Isaias, meanwhile, attributes blame for the endless conflicts brought upon Eritrea to external forces, usually the USA, which he claims harbours an interest to “keep Eritrea hostage through the continuous fomenting and ‘managing’ of crises.”

Eritrea has been called the modern Sparta State, as its martial traditions with never-ending military service and constant war campaigns resemble that of the ancient Greek city-state. Isaias asserts that the Eritrean nation was born through sacrifice and blood, and the new post-independence generations need to suffer and experience shared hardships as endured by their parents, to constantly recreate and manifest an Eritrean nationalist military ethos.

Compulsory military national service for all women and men between the ages of 18 and 55 was imposed soon after independence. It was supposed to be limited to an 18-month period of service, but since the outbreak of the Ethiopian war in 1998, many have been forced to remain on duty. Youth recruited to fight Ethiopia in the late 1990s are now middle-aged. Today, once again, they are engaged in the war in Tigray.

Settling scores

In 1998 Eritrea launched an offensive against Ethiopia, ostensibly over a sliver of territory along the border to Tigray. The war’s root causes, however, were found in differences of ideology, economic policy, and development visions between the two new governments in Asmara and Addis Ababa.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) constituted the senior Ethiopian political and military leadership at that time, as they were the dominant party within the EPRDF government coalition. When attacked, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister and former TPLF guerrilla leader Meles Zenawi ordered full war mobilization in Ethiopia, and the regional leadership in Tigray called back the old guerrilla army to service.

During a two-year period of fighting, over 100,000 combatants were killed, before the Ethiopian army finally managed to crush the Eritrean forces and push them out of Tigray.

The humiliating military defeat of his ‘invincible’ army has been a heavy burden for Isaias to carry ever since. The current full-scale military invasion of Tigray is thus likely driven by the desire for vengeance and to settle old scores, as Isaias apparently has ordered his forces to undertake what may appear to be a genocidal campaign against Tigrayans.

Beyond vengeance against the TPLF, some argue that Isaias also harbours an interest in unmaking the ethnic configuration of the Ethiopian federation, with the aim of realigning Eritrea with Ethiopia—a vision staunchly opposed by TPLF but seems to be backed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Issues on the table include a federal/ confederal arrangement, the merger of the two national armies, an Ethiopian navy base in the Eritrean Red Sea ports, and joint mineral exploration in border areas.

In spite of possible benefits, Eritrean nationalists in exile are afraid Isaias will squander the hard-won independence, for the sake of his own personal ambitions to become the ‘big man’ of the Horn of Africa in an Eritrean-Ethiopian federation.

Isaias’ final war?

Abiy promised that the war campaign against Tigray would be a ‘quick-fix’ law enforcement operation; half a year later, he admits that they are still fighting a “difficult and tiresome” guerrilla war in the region. Without Eritrea’s entrenched involvement in the war, the ENDF would struggle even more.

Isaias has committed most of the country’s military resources to the Tigray war campaign. Tens of thousands of Eritrean troops are currently fighting and dying in Tigray. Debretsion Gebremichael, the ousted regional President of Tigray and the head of TDF, claims that the heavy losses inflicted upon EDF in the past few months is depleting their fighting capacity.

On a satellite link from the field, Debretsion told me: “During the last two months, we have been fighting eight Eritrean divisions at the same time. Still, they did not manage to penetrate our defence.”

He further claimed, “Now, one Eritrean division does not dare to move alone–they have to deploy together in three or four divisions.” As a result, Debretsion asserted, EDF’s capability “is declining” and “their movement is also constrained.”

Ethiopia is blatantly rejecting TDF’s claims of holding the upper hand in the fight. The government spokesperson stated on 3 June that ENDF is currently “finalizing operations” to achieve the law enforcement objective to arrest or eliminate the TPLF ‘junta’. However, the TDF counter-offensive ‘Operation Alula,’ launched on 18 June, has reportedly ‘liberated’ swaths of territories and towns across central and eastern Tigray, and thousands of ENDF soldiers are taken as prisoners of war.

From inside Eritrea, an edgy voice of an Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) opposition activist, who must remain anonymous for their safety, conveyed growing sentiments of despair: “The war has a bad impact on the government. Although the people have been losing faith in the government for a while, this will be the final blow for those who were perhaps not as convinced.”

The source also described an environment of “mistrust and betrayals” prevalent within the Eritrean army. He said, “when President Isaias Afwerki tries to escape from taking responsibility for this, it is obvious that it will devastate his chances of staying in power.”

Isaias cannot afford to lose yet another war in Tigray. Nor can he afford to diminish Eritrea’s military capacity too much, as this will make Eritrea vulnerable for a subsequent TDF offensive or open up for domestic unrest. If he fails in Tigray, it may likely lead to his downfall.

As the war rages, TDF is actively encouraging Eritrean troops and officers to defect and join the Eritrean opposition forces in Tigray, or to flee to a third country. Activists and opposition parties in the diaspora are scenting blood and have again started to argue for the establishment of an Eritrean Government in exile, although this has failed on two previous occasions due to the deep mistrust and divisions among Eritrean communities, a legacy of Isaias’ divide-and-rule strategy and surveillance state.

The former Ethiopian Chief of Staff and senior TPLF military leader, Lieutenant General Tsadkan Gebretensae—who retired after the Eritrean-Ethiopian war in 2001—is back again in the field, commanding TDF forces in the fight against Eritrea.

In a recent interview, he states that the Eritrean forces have two options: “The first one is for them to quickly leave Tigray, go back to their country and prolong their time–if they have any left.” He said that what follows from there would be up to the people of Eritrea.

The second option, said Tsadkan, is “to stay in Tigray and try to finish the war here.” According to him, taking option number two “will quicken [EDF]’s death.”

Recent military developments indicate that Isaias is not betting on one horse alone but is instead crafting contingency plans. The TDF leader Debretsion stated to me that Eritrean forces are building fortifications in northern Tigray, possibly as fallback positions after their withdrawal from southern and central Tigray. Furthermore, Eritrea is building new trenches all along their side of the border, to prepare to fight back against a future potential Tigray offensive.

Pariah, again 

The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 due to its destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa, and for its alleged role in fanning conflicts in Somalia and Djibouti. The TPLF/EPRDF-led Ethiopian government at the time, together with Djibouti, rallied support from all African states in favour of sanctioning Eritrea.

As part of the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace declaration in 2018, however, and after Abiy’s request, the UN lifted the sanctions against Eritrea.

Today, due to the war crimes and atrocities perpetrated in Tigray, the US has imposed unilateral sanctions on the belligerent parties. Discussions on reimposing UN sanctions on Eritrea are also being raised.

Over 90 percent of Tigray’s population is now in need of humanitarian aid, due in large part to the deliberate destruction and looting of food and farm equipment. Still, the Ethiopian government has restricted humanitarian access, and Eritrean and Ethiopian troops on the ground have been accused of blocking the distribution of aid in famine struck areas.

Fears of a famine of biblical proportions, with hundreds of thousands dying, has led the US, UK, and UN to call for a humanitarian cease-fire, in order to meet the growing needs of a starving population. This call has been rejected by the Ethiopian government.

What next, Eritrea?

Thirty years after independence, the Eritrean people are more divided than at any time before. Hundreds of thousands of youths have fled the country in the last two decades, due to factors that include indefinite military service and human rights abuses.

Still, Isaias has ordered his army to continue fighting in neighbouring Tigray and even in Oromia regional state where there are reports of Eritrean troops fighting the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) insurgency. Eritrea’s minuscule population of around 3 million cannot replenish the military attrition rate much longer.

Inside Eritrea, opposition parties are prohibited, civil society is non-existent, and the ancient regime has been thoroughly corrupted. If the ‘strong man’ falls, what will happen to a state without any functioning political institutions beyond the military? No matter the outcome of the Tigray war, the survival of the Eritrea state may be in question.

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This is the viewpoint of the author. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Debretsion Gebremichael and Isaias Afewerki at the opening of the Oumajir-Humera Ethio-Eritrea border; 7 June 2019; Office of the Prime Minister

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About the author

Kjetil Tronvoll

Kjetil is professor of peace and conflict studies and Research Director of International Studies at Bjørknes University College, Oslo. He has been researching and publishing on politics, conflicts, and human rights in Ethiopia and Eritrea since the late 1980s.


  • You are too in love with TPLF, and you are also a foreigner that does not understand some of the deeply hidden dynamics in the Tigrigna speaking community.

    First off, one point you missed-the reason Eritreans lost the war in 2000 is because TPLF called the old dergue officers and pilots back to duty, and because tens of thousands Amhara youths volunteered to fight Eritrea. TPLF would never have been able to defeat Eritrea if they did not have the support of other Ethiopians, particularly the Amhara.

    Eritrea is a multiethnic state with two religions, but if there is anything that unites Eritreans is their deep hatred of the Tigray political class which insists on controlling Eritrea (and Ethiopia). There was no one in Ethiopia more anti Eritrean statehood than the Amhara elite, but the policies of the Tigray elite are so arrogant and alienating, they have managed to make once sworn enemies, the Amhara and Eritreans, into close allies!

    The Tigray elite are truly mad, and their insanity has had catastrophic consequences for the people of Tigray. Their madness stems from a grandiose vision of themselves as the natural rulers of Ethiopia and Eritrea because they believe they true descendants of the once glorious Axumite empire. This grandiosity is destroying Tigray and might compromise Eritrea and Ethiopia as well.

    You are not doing the people of Tigray any favors with your sympathy for TPLF.

  • This author is utterly ignorant as hell. Lol
    His analysis is appalling beyond comprehension. He doesn’t actually done his paid home-work diligently to be able to describe/analyse the real situation on the ground in the horn of Africa. He is delusional. He is one of the highly bribed westerner TPLF agent. He is paid to write propaganda for TPLF daily on twitter and factious articles like this one also every now and then.

    Since independence, Eritrea has never been defeated in a war instigated by the US and EU through their puppet neighbouring countries let alone TPLF Junta who occupies a tiny tiny region in Ethiopia to defeat Eritrea.

    Eritrea is a victim of the imperialist to begin with since its inception for being a self reliant and real independent nation.

    You will never see this author writing unbiased, true and fair article until the bribe he is receiving from TPLF stops.

  • “On a satellite link from the field, Debretsion told me: “During the last two months, we have been fighting eight Eritrean divisions at the same time. Still, they did not manage to penetrate our defence.”

    He further claimed, “Now, one Eritrean division does not dare to move alone–they have to deploy together in three or four divisions.” As a result, Debretsion asserted, EDF’s capability “is declining” and “their movement is also constrained.”

    This is like asking the nazi’s their version of WW2. Does this guy expect an honest/objective answer? If the EDF were in that bad of a shape…why did TDF go exclusively for endf? Why did tdf run for the hills when EDF went back into adigrat? It’s easy for reda to make such claims when it was obvious/public knowledge that EDF had started to pull out weeks ago…leaving endf in control.

    Likewise why is it that tplf apologist always quote “During a two-year period of fighting, over 100,000 combatants were killed, before the Ethiopian army finally managed to crush the Eritrean forces and push them out of Tigray” but never clearly spell out that that means Ethiopia lost 81,000 soldiers since Eritrea actually owned up and admited to 19k casualties? A figure that was backed by Eritrea opposition website Is it because it’s hard to admit Ethiopia “crushed Eritrean forces” when they then have to admit tplf lost nearly 4 times as many soldiers as Eritrea for a war that they had to resolve (and lose in court)?

  • Do people actually believe in this nonsense? Haha…we all know the author’s ties to Woyane but even this level of propaganda is unreal.

  • This is an extremely poor analysis with bias written all over it. At no point during this writing did you happen to mention that the TPLF fired a bunch of missiles into Asmara to internationalize the conflict. At no point did you mention that President Isaias Afewerki tried to meet with Debretsion to end all conflicts when the peace agreement was signed in July of 2018. If you are going to tell a story, please say the whole truth, not just ones that portrays to victimize the TPLF when in fact that they’ve been the ones who have caused conflict with Eritrea, Somalia, and inside of Ethiopia.

  • Thank you for your great and unbiased analysis, Kjetil Tronvoll. I believe the recent development is a game changer and there will be no exit for Eritrian troops and will be burried in Tigray soil very soon, unless they surrender peacefully. Later on, it is up to Eritreans (with geniune support from TDF and Tigray people) to correct their political, economic and social wrongdoings backhome and make efforts to create a good neigbhorhoodship with Tigray and others.

  • The idea of Eritrea belongs to Tigrigna speakers only is a joke of the century! TPLF is just a toolbox and that idea comes from that box!

    If there is one thing that EPLF has done and has done it SO well is educating Eritrean the value of Eritrea! Deep down every Eritrean person knows Ethiopia wants part of RedSea somehow! You can’t stop people from wishing!!

    The struggle have thought every Eritrean to know who the real terrorist( USA, EU and obviously the tools TPLF) are!

    Any Eritrean can live in every part of Eritrea! Can Ethiopians do? No they can’t! They have got a long way to understand how the world works before even trying to take over Eritrea!!

    Here you go that’s your answer to this fictional story you have got!!! Go mind your business snake!!

  • The idea of Eritrea belongs to Tigrigna speakers only is a joke of the century! TPLF is just a toolbox and that idea comes from that box!

    If there is one thing that EPLF has done and has done it SO well is educating Eritrean the value of Eritrea! Deep down every Eritrean person knows Ethiopia wants part of RedSea somehow! You can’t stop people from wishing!!

    The struggle have thought every Eritrean to know who the real terrorist( USA, EU and obviously the tools TPLF) are!

    Eritrean can live in every part of Eritrea! Can Ethiopians do? No they can’t! They have got a long way to understand how the world works before even trying to take over Eritrea!!

    Here you go that’s your answer to this fictional story you have got!!! And she said could this be the last War for Eritrea! Go mind your business snake ?!!

  • Perfect analysis and tells the truth in Eritrea. Isias the craziest man ever exists and there is no any reason for all the wars he starts. Hopefully, this war will take him to his graveyard and we get back our country.

  • As I analyse the equation, “Failure+Excuse=Blame” in my book “Duplicitous MindSets”, I attest the failed place of Eritrea lives to moan blaming the West as you correctly claim.

    What I would add to your analysis, Eritrea is bankrupt of positively engaged oppositions, this fact, does not provide outlook to the few people left behind in the country- for the many died or immigrated if not under the palms of the government.

  • Lol…everyone knows Kjetil Tronvoll is a tplf apologist. This is more of the same nonsense he’s been peddling for the past several years including 2013 when he claimed Eritrea was on the verge of collapse( Ofcourse he was far from being correct as we see now that Eritrea is the one keeping Ethiopia from collapsing. He has no real understanding of Eritrea. Lastly, quoting tplf henchmen like debretsion or Tsadken(the “highly esteemed general” responsible for losing between 3-6 times as many soldiers as Eritrea) as a source for how tdf are faring against endf/edf is absurdly laughable.

    • “Everything is nonsense… no real understanding of Eritrea” sounds too general. What is exactly nonsense? Isn’t it true the two states + militias cannot surpress the resistanse of tdf that started from zero? All “ultimate” offensive operation ends in nowhere. If everything is as you implicate, why Eritreans are still needed in Tigray at all?


      • It’s not that difficult to understand…just like this “analyst” claimed in 2013 that Eritrea was on the verge of collapse…he is just as “knowledgeable” of events now. tdf, during these recent “offensives” targeted endf because they were a joke. That’s why EDF was in tigray in the first place. EDF managed to beat the tdf….but not completely wipe them out…similar to Al shabaab or Taliban or houthis. They left the easy stuff for endf…but the endf proved even more incompetent to manage such a simple matter. Now endf/ethiopia is asking for peace because they lost…not Eritrea. Eritrea is not going to just refuse to leave when PM Abiy has backed down…which would leave Eritrea left on it’s own, internationally, refusing to abide.

    • You are nonsensical in you interpretation of the estimated professor’s profound analysis. Your desire to worship Isaias’ totalitarian system has also denied you any basic common sense. Your support of the genocidal Isaias army’s role in Tigray is an excellent example of how irrational your anti-Tigray mind is.

      • lol…not a single thing you said makes any sense. Likewise, you are free to agree what I said…but clearly you are incapable of pointing out the faults in what I said. Hence, you whine about “anit-tigray” “worship Issaias” nonsense.

  • TDF could mobilize and support Eritrean opposition groups in Tigray and continue the offensive further deep into Eritrea to go after what’s left of Isayas Aforki leadership and his Generals, This offensive could garner a lot of support from Eritrean’s who want to to see Isayas fall and at the same time negotiate with TDF leadership about Isayas’s atrocities in Tigray and future cooperation in economy.

    • Lmao…keep dreaming. If you notice the latest “victory” claims…they have been centered around endf not EDF. The towns tdf supposedly captured were towns mysteriously vacated by endf without so much as a fight. And the pow’s are all endf/ethiopians. The only time edf came into play was when tdf supposedly captured adigrat…but once edf came in from Zal embassa…the tdf scattered. This is not surprising as the story for the past several months is endf has been completely inept while edf did all the heavy lifting be it in tigray or supposedly in Oromia or Sudan border. This is no different, once the edf left endf on their own, they folded like a house of cards.

  • It is an insult and a disservice to Sparta to dub Isaias’ Eritrea a Spartan state. Perhaps a caricature of Sparta if you will. Moreover, the inevitable collapse of Eritrea may have great deal to do with Isaias’ reckless adventure but the bulk of the reason is rooted on the very fact that Eritrea as a state was built on lies and deceit when history was fed on those who were willing to believe something that was never there——Eritrean “Exceptionalism”, for instance. A Fascist undertone that was carried to the fields which became a driving ideologue during the protracted war and came into a full invigorated life during the 1998-2000 war as well. The menacing national ethos is compounded with the recalcitrant and intractable divide between the Highlands and Lowlands which almost everyone seems to overlook when it is the deciding factor that delivers the final collapse of Eritrea in an event Isaias exits the political scene. Perhaps the Brits were right when they suggested for the Highlands to be annexed with Tigray and the Lowlands with Sudan when the fate of Eritrea was in question around the end of WWII. The Brits had a solid sense of history and one ought to have one as well when the fate of Eritrea is in the balance.

    • Though the regime wasn’t/isn’t respecting the will of eritreans, your thoughts are shallow, unhealthy & deceptive. Our ppls had fought for his fate, neither your ethnocentric fixation nor your emama አጦቢያ day dreaming(assab) fantasists could break our will. This current tyrant surely won’t last long, but the fate of Eritreans & eritrea depends only on eritreans no one else will have upper hand.

    • You sound like a first year poli-sci student using as big a word as possible to sound coherent and intelligible. None of what you say has any semblence of reality behind it including your claim that the brits wanted to annex highland Eritrea with tigray because they had an understanding of reality. 1. It was Ethiopia, not tigray. 2. UK only suggested that because it wanted to annex Eritrea with it’s protectorate Sudan.

  • Eritreans can not allow TPLF to survive, as TPLF is an existential threat to Eritrea. Eritreans know that TPLF’s ambition is to take over and rule Eritreans because they see Eritrea rightfully belonging the Tigrigna speaking nation. TPLF is like the lover that stalks the woman he wants to possess, i.e. TPLF are insane.
    As a foreigner, I don’t think you understand the contempt and even disgust Eritreans have for Tigrays.

    One scenario, Eritrea will withdraw from Tigray, hold on to Badme and fortify their borders.

    There are thousands of ethnic Tigrays living in Eritrea for whom things could go really bad.

    • Is that a threat? “There are thousands of ethnic tegaru living in Eritrea for whom things could go really bad”. Really?! could it be worst than what you are doing to the millions tegaru living in Tigray? I think you have already done the worst things a human can think of.

    • ‘You break it, you buy it’. You jumped to a strong trap without careful thought. You already reached point of no return. You start the war, we will finish the war
      Your concern is correct, TPLF will get chance to correct its previous mistakes. We have to get back our historic ownership. What it goes without our saying, it will get back without your say. Look at you; you build a submissive society that obeys what any dictator says. So it will be an easy going

    • Tasfa, what else is an existential threat to Eritrea? If you lack the ability to live peacefully with your neighbours, yes, they will be existential thread to you. I personally saw how Eritreans flocked to Tigray in 2018 (tplf still there), buying every thing they could get, filling their cars with fuel, selling clothes on markets, drinking beer as much as they in bars wanted etc. Tigrayans accepted them well, like brothers, and the regional goverment imposed hardly any limitations, nearly to disadvantage of their own people. And then you came to kill them. Your comment is very revealing. You haters should withdraw from Tigray, fortify Eritrean borders all around, cut all relations and live admiring yourself, being ruled by Isayyas or whoever will follow him.

      • Give it rest….tigrayans also came to Eritrea, albeit, unlike Eritreans, tigrayans were obnoxious. Just look up the many pics of tigrayans in Asmara or Massawa waving their flags there. So cut the bs about how “hospitable you were”. Eritreans were welcoming of tigrayans/ethiopians as well. The difference is Eritrean/Ethiopian government were on board in settling the border dispute…allowing demarcation as per EEBC agreement, pulling back troops…but tplf insisted on maintaining a hostile stance with Eritrea. That being said…let’s see how your tplf fares now as they are surrounded by hostile neighbors.

    • Dear Kjetil Tronvoll,

      Your paper is a military-grade propaganda.
      1) it looks like you have a vested interest in the conflict; your analysis is (as can be forecasted, just do a google search under your name) tplf friendly–to say it mildly.
      2) The sad story is (I have to say unfortunately), neither tplf nor the Ethiopian government are thinking about making, at least a temporary, ceasefire to let essential aid pass through to the people.
      3) regarding the past few days tplf military offensive…. it may have, almost certainly to do with the greed of the united states to push china, geopolitically and investment-wise, from the horn of africa region.
      4) now, your next (logical) paper write up will most likely be: how stupid and illegal the amhara–with all their fighters–in this unfolding conflict are.
      5) very sad, that you use an academic title to push a dirty war foreword–that from your comfortable distance. Afterall you loose absolutely nothing by doing what you do. Very sad.

  • A nice alternative view. I don’t think Tigrayan forces will further march into Eritrea if they expel Eritrean forces from Tigray. Certainly a defeat in Tigray for Isayas means the end of his rule.

  • As always a great analysis. One area I thought the author could have touched a bit would have been Isaias’s game plan with the neighboring countries such as Sudan, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia..etc.

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