Nazia Azim

The war in Ethiopia and Eritrea’s involvement

Posted on Posted in Africa, Analyses, Strategy & Defence

By Nazia Azim*, Analyst KEDISA






The conflict in Ethiopia between the Ethiopian government of Abyi Ahmed, who was elected as the Prime Minister of the country in 2018 with international support to bring peace and harmony between the ethnic groups of the country, and the Ethiopian Insurgent Movement or Tigray’s People Liberation Front (TPLF), started in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abyi decided not to hold the general election as the constitution planned it due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Tigray State Council, considering this illegal, held the local elections and solidified the win of the TPLF. Abyi seeing this act as illegal and against the government, sent the army to the region to suppress the TPLF and also, at the same time, hindered the supply of food and other humanitarian aid to the region. After that movement, the TPLF announced that every action from the federal government’s side would be considered a ‘declaration of war.’

In November, Abyi ordered the Ethiopian National Defense Force troops to begin a military operation called the Mekelle Offensive in Tigray. The offensive increased when the Tigray Defense Force (Tigrayan troops) responded to the military actions. However, the conflict in Ethiopia is not just a civil war. A previous enemy of Ethiopia, Eritrea has sent troops to support the federal government, which just in 2019 normalized its relationships.

With its involvement in Ethiopia’s civil war, Eritrea tried to regain its regional position and influence in the Horn of Africa. However, after the end of the agreement between the TPLF and Ethiopia’s federal government, Eritrea must find diplomatic and peaceful ways to regain its position. As a part that supported the federal government indeed will have a strong influence in the government under the control of Abyi.

However, it is still being determined if the peace agreement will last for a long time because, until now, there are troops in the Tigray region, Ethiopian or Eritrean. The government of Abyi will not let the TPLF gain its previous power in the parliament due to fear about its political future.

Before Abyi was elected as the country’s Prime Minister, he had pledged reforms that would evolve the situation inside and outside the country. The same year he was elected, he lifted the state of emergency that the previous governance had imposed and released several political prisoners.

Causes of the war

In 2019 the peace-building agreement with the Eritrean dictator gave Prime Minister and his counterpart a Nobel Peace Prize. Since its independence, Eritrea has been characterized as the ‘North Korea of Africa’ and is isolated by the rest of the region. (Berhe, 2008). In the peace agreement, Abiy and Afwerki omitted the Tigray. That fact was seen as a conspiracy from Abyi to eliminate TPLF from its position in the country’s parliament and its position in the country’s military and political life.

Abyi, as the Prime Minister of an African state, failed to recognize the country’s multi-ethnicity. The result was soon to lose control of the militia, the army, and the police. Day by day, his power over the constitutional organs became lesser and lesser. At the beginning of 2020, most people started to protest against him, shouting “Abyi must go” for several months. However, Abyi concentrated all the power in his hands.

In order to not lose his position, he put his allies into governmental positions and did allow the militia and the police to suppress those who were against him brutally. He charged Tigrayans with corruption and purged them from the government, security services, and state-owned corporations. In December 2019, he disbanded the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He merged several ethnically based regional parties into a single party named the Prosperity Party, from which the TPLF was excluded. He suppressed opposition by imprisoning the leader and shutting down the internet. Officially Abyi’s term had to end in 2020; however, due to the pandemic of Covid-19 he claimed that the situation was too risky for the people’s health to hold the election, so he postponed them for 12 months. The administration in the Tigray region considered that unconstitutional and decided to hold the elections as planned. According to that, Mr. Abiy Ahmed Ally formally declared war on the Tigray National Regional State (TNRS), excusing his action as a “law enforcement operation” to “protect the constitution and restore the rule of law.” The war between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has gone through both intense fighting periods and short-term ceasefires.

Eritrea’s Involvement

Officially Eritrea and Ethiopia had hostile relationships, and from 1998-2000 there was a war between the two states. Eritrea is considered by many as the North Korea of Africa and is isolated due to its government. Nevertheless, in 2019, the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia was normalized, and Abyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decision to normalize the relationship with his former enemy.

As it is internationally known, the Eritrean troops were involved in the Ethiopian civil war with the Tigrayan region almost from its beginning. Eritrea shares a long-distance border with the Tigrayan region, and with the pretext of not leaving, the fighting to spread into Eritrea sent its troops to help the federal government of Ethiopia to suppress TPLF. It is also worth mentioning that most of Eritrea’s population consists of Tigrayans, and the fear of Eritrean’s government has some realistic basis.

As Ethiopia shares borders with Eritrea and especially with the Tigray region, Eritrea found a good reason to lift its isolation status and show the Africa Horn that it is still capable of solving problems in the region and getting away from its isolation. In these circumstances, the Eritrean troops invaded Tigray. They launched a full-scale offensive along the Eritrea-Ethiopia (Tigray region) borders, with the excuse to not let the fighting sprawl into the Eritrea ground as a massive percent of the Eritrean population are Tigrayans ethnics. However, since 2021 both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian ground. Eritrea decided to involve in this fighting, as the Ethiopian Ambassador to France claimed when the TPLF’s invasion broke the truce into the Asmara region.

According to the TPLF’s spokesperson Eritrea did not only deploy its troops but the Asmara armed forces trained by the Eritrean army. In fact, with this situation going on, the region of Tigray is like a surrounding area, and this is happening at the same time when the government of Ethiopia has agreed to hold peace talks with the TPLF.

For now, after the peace deal agreed upon in November 2022 between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government, as the Eritrean forces are leaving the towns and the region in general, the TPLF agreed to disarm and to re-establish the authority of the federal government. The federal government must reopen access to the war-torn region that urgently needs food and humanitarian aid.

However, the crucial issue that the agreement did not clarify is what would become the Eritrean fighters who fought alongside the federal government troops and were accused by the United States and human rights groups of war crimes.

The involvement of Eritrea in Ethiopia’s internal affairs can be considered a try by Asmara to reassert itself in the Horn of Africa region, following almost three decades of political and economic isolation from the regional stage and the international community due to its type of government. It is also a personal attempt of Isaias Afwerki to establish for himself a legacy that contributed to the termination of a regional war that may spread to other countries in the region. Moreover, Asmara can reassert its influence in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. Lastly, Eritrea’s troops’ involvement in Ethiopia’s conflict can be considered revenge against the TPLF. The Front played a crucial role in the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998-2000 and also defeated Eritrea diplomatically in the years following the conflict.

However, the big issue in this involvement is that Eritrean troops for almost one year denied its presence in the Tigray region and only in 2021 confirmed their support for the federal government of Ethiopia.

With its involvement in this conflict, Eritrea is trying to disunite Ethiopia’s political powers. Ethiopia under TPLF led by the People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front regime was a solid political, economic, and social country, now Eritrea has the power to intervene in a weakened and disunited Ethiopia with some political actors who are easy to be influenced by external factors and therefore represents an opportunity for Eritrea’s interests.

The vision of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front is to make the country a strong and regional gatekeeper with military potential. Therefore, to achieve this vision, for now, is to have an unstable and disunited Ethiopia to allow opportunities for intervention and influence. In that way, Asmara would be able to justify its prolonged and evolution militarization in the area, which will help the independence of Eritrean nationhood.


Eritrea’s best-case scenario was a prolonged, unresolved conflict in Ethiopia in which the presence of Eritrean troops and political support would be necessary.However, after signing a peace agreement in Pretoria on 2 November 2022 and after ten days, a follow-up agreement in Nairobi set these opportunities at risk for Eritrea.

The agreement is signed by the Government Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Inside the agreement, there is no reference to the future of the presence of the Eritrean troops- even those who fought beside the federal government or fought for the TPLF. However, many witnesses have said that they saw Eritrean troops withdraw from the region, and nobody can know whether that is true.


*This analysis was written by the author during her postgraduate studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow (Poland) for the academic year 2022-2023.




  1. African Union: Agreement for Lasting Peace through a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities between the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Download-the-signed-agreement-here.pdf (
  2. Gavin, M., (2021). The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region: What to know. Council on Foreign Affairs.pdf (
  3. Global Conflict Tracker. War in Ethiopia.War in Ethiopia | Global Conflict Tracker (