News Analysis

Uncertainty in the Horn as a wary Eritrea seeks new alliances

Presidents Isaias Afwerki and William Ruto in Asmara, 9 December 2022

President Isaias Afwerki’s recent statements suggest he is concerned about Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s deal with the TPLF.

Eritrea’s reclusive leader, Isaias Afewerki, held a rare press conference on 9 February while on a diplomatic visit in Nairobi, Kenya. He also conducted a lengthy four-part interview on Eri-TV, an Eritrean state-owned media outlet. 

Isaias’ answers in both offered a glimpse into his thinking on a number of important dynamics, notably Asmara’s reception of Ethiopia’s peace agreement, the mandated withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers from Tigray, accountability for atrocities committed during the war, and Eritrea’s role in shifting regional dynamics.

He commented on the recent settlement between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Eritrean government has officially recognized and commended the peace deal signed in Pretoria, South Africa, that ended Ethiopia’s civil war.

The agreement implies that, owing to the diplomatic pressure and promises of financial support from the West, Abiy’s government has agreed to reach a political settlement with the TPLF and share power. 

Pretoria Plot

Some commentators have portrayed Isaias as the biggest winner after Ethiopia’s war given how much it weakened the TPLF, Tigray, and Ethiopia more broadly. 

Although publicly stating that the joint Ethiopian and Eritrean military operation has eliminated the TPLF as a threat, the settlement has caused concern among some in Eritrea that an alliance is forming that could be hostile towards Isaias’ regime.

In his interview, Isaias hinted at his displeasure with the arrangement, portraying it as a ploy by the West to save his mortal enemy, the TPLF.

Such anti-imperialist rhetoric is arguably a convenient way for him to externalize blame for Eritrea’s woes, and postpone answering internal demands for democracy and good governance.1 Eritrea has been ruled by President Isaias for three decades since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993. During this time, the country has been mired in political turmoil, with no constitution or independent press, and no elections held since its independence. President Isaias’ People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has effectively silenced dissent and suppressed human rights. Especially since the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war. Isaias has justified this by maintaining a perception of a looming external threat, particularly from the TPLF, which governed Ethiopia until 2018, and the West.

Now that the TPLF is, by his own admission, no longer a significant threat, he needs another, more potent, enemy against whom Eritreans must stand guard: the West. 

Troop Withdrawal

When speaking with Eri-TV, Isaias also emphasized the integration of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) during the third round of fighting.

While the Ethiopian government denied that Eritrean troops were in Tigray for the first five months of the war, evidence suggests they entered the war in its early days.

Since then, the only question has been the extent to which the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies were integrated and operating together, and whether the leverage Isaias gained over Ethiopia’s prime minister will cause Eritrea to play a spoiler role.    

It’s notable that Isaias claimed Eritrean forces were invited by the Ethiopian government and sidestepped questions in Nairobi over whether his troops will remain in Tigray. 

Under the Pretoria agreement, the withdrawal of the Eritrean army was expected to occur in tandem with the Tigray forces giving up their heavy weapons. The latter has taken place and there have been reports of Eritrean troops withdrawing from parts in Tigray, but there is also evidence of their continued presence. 


On Eri-TV, Isaias also spoke about the need to punish those responsible for atrocities committed in Tigray. He repeatedly asserted that the destruction caused by the TPLF must be addressed and those responsible for atrocities should face justice. 

When confronted by journalists in Nairobi about claims of widespread atrocities committed by Eritrean troops in Tigray, the autocratic president called such reports, “a fantasy of those who want to derail any peace process [from] achieving its goal.” 

As such, it appears that Isaias’ emphasis on the need for accountability is intended to add fuel to anti-TPLF sentiments already brewing amongst the Tigrayan public and to shift focus away from his own government’s dismal human rights record.

Eritrean troops have been implicated in some of the most horrendous and widespread abuses during Ethiopia’s civil war. 

Although the guns have mostly been silenced, reports of atrocities by Eritrean forces against Tigrayans have not stopped, including sexual violence and executions.2A 30 December report by a committee of Tigray’s authorities, UN officials, NGOs, and Tigrayan civil society documented 3,708 Tigrayan civilians killed by Eritrean and Amhara forces after the peace deal was signed. According to the Washington Post, on the eve of the Pretoria agreement, Eritrean troops went door-to-door killing at least 300 Tigrayan civilians in retaliation for losses on the battlefield.

Human rights organizations have ramped up their calls for accountability in the face of the Ethiopian government’s attempts to stifle a UN investigation.

Shifting Dynamics

During his interview, Isaias also discussed other military details that attest to Ethio-Eritrean solidarity, seemingly in order to do away with speculation that he and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are growing more distant.

Despite such assurances, it appears the Pretoria Agreement has paved the way for a new political settlement in Ethiopia. 

Eritrea has been openly supporting Amhara nationalists and their irredentism, including the violent and unconstitutional annexation of Western Tigray, and a political settlement that favors the TPLF could be detrimental to this agenda. 

Pretoria appears to be causing a shift in alliances among supporters of Abiy’s government. This is part of a larger trend of pro-unionist parties and media outlets, including Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) and ESAT TV, distancing themselves from Abiy’s administration. 

The relationship between Amhara nationalists and the Abiy regime has been frayed since his May 2022 crackdown on Fano militants and journalists in Amhara, and the state violence against civilians amid the recent rift in Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church.  

Abiy’s apparent support for the move by separatist Oromia bishops against the Holy Synod, allegedly dominated by Amhara archbishops with chauvinistic views, can be interpreted as an attempt to neutralize the threat of extremist Amhara nationalism and, by extension, blunt Eritrea’s influence.

Given the alliance between Eritrean and Amhara elites, some analysts have interpreted the growing hostility towards Pretoria among pro-unionist parties and media outlets as reflecting Eritrea’s true feelings.

New Friends

To mitigate internal and external pressures, the Isaias regime has been seeking to forge new regional and global alliances.3 Eritrea’s economy has been struggling, with the government’s dependence on a single commodity (gold) and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the country’s already dire economic situation.

Isaias’ visit to Kenya and meeting with its newly-elected president, William Ruto, suggests that Eritrea is actively seeking new alliances to retain its importance in the Horn of Africa, especially now that its alliance with Ethiopia is no longer a given.

Eritrea president Isaias Afwerki and Kenyan president William Ruto in Nairobi, 9 February 2023

Eritrea president Isaias Afwerki and Kenyan president William Ruto; Nairobi; 9 February 2023

If the political settlement in Ethiopia results in the TPLF gaining a foothold in the federal government, it could lead to a shift in the regional power dynamics, with Ethiopia and Eritrea potentially becoming rivals.

In addition, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, travelled to Eritrea in late January for bilateral discussions. The talks reportedly centered around the potential for increased Russian investment in Eritrea, as well as security cooperation.

Isaias is also seeking investments from Saudi Arabia and travelled to Riyadh on 28 February to meet with top Saudi officials.

It remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be, but Isaias clearly recognizes the need to adapt to the changing political landscape in the region.

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Ethiopia Insight


  • Anyone who committed crime against humanity by any standard should take accountable. But to say so, this narrative is one sided story and inclined to appease TPLF. If any atrocities committed by any parties should be investigated including the crimes committed by TPLF against the Amhara, against the Oromo, against the Ogaden, against the rest of Ethiopian people and against the Eritrean people in the 1998 war. Where were you when Eritrean civilians who lived in Ethiopia in there entire life was imprisoned, raped, their property confiscated and mass deportation?? Where were you when woman were raped in Barentu, where were you when people were murdered in Barentu???

    Do you think the Abiy government services with out Eritrea support taking the pressure that he has within Ethiopian people. The support he had when he comes in power by the people of Ethiopia is declined like a roller coaster. No one seems happy with in Ethiopia about his leadership. Birr is plompted against dollar, civil unrest is at its highest peak in Oromia and Shene is terrorising people etc. if he created animosity against the Issayas regime allowancing him self with TPLF, I don’t think he will service long.

    • There is a. International Court of j
      Justice settlement related to the war. You can access the claims (by both sides) and rulings online.

      But war mongers like Isaias benefit by promoting misinformation about the war.

  • A stable and orderly Kenya in East Africa has attained the stature as the center of regional diplomacy for the Horn of Africa, to help pull the Horn out the horror story the region has descended into. Isaias may have gone to Nairobi looking for some diplomatic visibility to rehabilitate his image as someone steeped in revenge and warfare. But denying atrocities committed by his troops as fantasy did not improve that image.

  • Davey McCrackett!
    You don’t need to. TPLF and PP have already worked it out between themselves. The two leaderships need each other to survive now.

  • An article written by a pro-TPLF and pro-radical ethno-nationalist writer. There is nothing insightful about this article. It is the usual propaganda narratives of narrow-minded ethnic politicians. It does not address the root cause of the problem; it just rant its anger and evil wishes on Eritrea and Amhara. It is spreading the same hateful narrative that led the country into war from the very beginning. No discussion about Welqait massacre that TPLF has been committing for more than 40 years in Welqait and many areas in the country. The name western Tigray is given after TPLF annexed the area into Tigray as a new regional government. No solution problem regarding the problem of the country as a whole just wishing bad to the assumed enemies of the writers.

    • That’s because “welkait massacre” is a story promoted by US based Amhara Derg apologists ESAT. I read an “academic” article about it. The evidence was a 2016 documentary on ESAT. Can’t believe that passed peer review even tbough it is “social sciences”.

  • Well written. A diagnosis of what is giving Isaias a migraine headache for the last 25 years. He didn’t destroy Tigray or TPLF. His headache can be cured by continues war but by stepping down from power and letting Eritreans breathe fresh air of liberty and Democracy.

  • TPLF is a cancer on Ethiopian & Eritrean body politics & well being. It needs to be excised as a party to preserve peace, stability in the region.

  • The peace agreement signed at Pretoria among the two parties were originally inclined to Ethiopia and compromised on the right and benefits of Tigrai. Moreover, it blacks transparency starting from.calling the Eritrea forces and Amhara by its name. Furthermore, there was no clear cut deadline and schedule shared about the withdrawal of these firces, access to land transport, formal business operations and other social services..still around 1.5 million civilians are remain as IDP being their home is occupied by the above forces. The issue of justice is already left to those who manufactured the whole process of atrocities and lead3the action.

    • Hand over leaders of Amhara Regional State, Eritrea and Ethiopian Federal Government and we’ll hand over TPLF executive committee members. You want generals, too? Haha.

      • We’re not in 2020.
        The fundamentals have shifted fundamentally.
        You can still direct your “requests” to the federal government and Eritrea, as well as Amhara regional government. You will not direct this question at Ethiopians. Ethiopians, let me introduce you, are the people that have fought hard to have their voices herd during TPLFs rule, and still continue to fight for democratic process to this day.

        The people you want to talk to are, PP officials, Eritrean officials and so on. Your fight should have been with them in the first place, but when you came into Amhara and Afar regions as well as when you turned and stabbed ENDF in the back, that whole framework changed.

        The Ethiopian people, however, do demand ever past and current criminals from Tigray, seeing how you have elected and supported TPLF for the past 30 years. Seeing how you’ve made blood enemies with us.

        For the record. as Tigrays that saw the direction TPLF was taking from the start and fought along their other brothers and sisters are double victims in this mess, we will ensure they get justice they suffered the same 30 years.

        See. We are already here. Try to adjust to reality and suggest solution. Or don’t. Just understand that everything in what you’ve been commenting is outdated as well as unhelpful. FYI.

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