Winners and losers in Ethiopia's war: Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan

TOPSHOT-ETHIOPIA-ERITREA-TIGRAY-CONFLICT-UNREST
7 min read
25 January, 2022
Analysis: Emerging signs of a reconciliation process in Ethiopia's conflict could re-engineer regional relations amid competition for geopolitical hegemony.

After 15 months of a bloody conflict between the central government of Ethiopia and the Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF), there are signs that a reconciliation process is emerging in the country.

In a letter to Ethiopians on 6 January, on the occasion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that “it’s a given that Ethiopia will benefit from reconciliation.”

This was accompanied by the release of political leaders who were imprisoned in Ethiopia, including Sebhat Nega, the spiritual father of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Meanwhile, in early January, the Ethiopian Supreme Court decided to drop some of the charges against the current leader of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael, who had sent a letter some weeks earlier to the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, proposing a set of initiatives, including a ceasefire, to be followed by negotiations.

This potential reconciliation could have regional repercussions due to the pivotal role that Ethiopia plays in the Horn of Africa and its overlapping interests with several countries, especially Eritrea, Egypt, and Sudan.

"The main goal of Eritrean involvement in the Ethiopian war was not only the liberation of occupied lands but also the elimination of the TPLF and its removal from the political scene completely"

Eritrea, the worried neighbour

Eritrea is the first party to be affected by any development with its neighbour due to the deep alliance that was formed in recent years between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed.

Therefore, the signs of reconciliation coming from Addis Ababa found a direct echo in Asmara. On 8 January, Afwerki held a lengthy interview with local television, where he addressed the situation in Ethiopia.

It is noteworthy that the interview came only two days after the Ethiopian prime minister had called for reconciliation. The Eritrean president stressed that, "Flaunting negotiations as a tactical agenda will not serve the interest of regional peace and stability”.

However, Jamal Hummed, the editor-in-chief of Adoulis, an Eritrean website based in Australia, told The New Arab that "the Eritrean president will work to obstruct this reconciliation at any cost.”

“This Eritrean position on the prospects of Ethiopian reconciliation is attributed to the hostility between Afwerki and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) following the violent border war (1998-2000) between the two countries,” Hummed said.

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“Eritrea suffered a major military defeat, which led to the front's control over Eritrean territories and its refusal to return them, despite the recognition by the International Court [of Justice] of the legitimacy of the Eritrean claims over these territories.”

Therefore, according to Hummad, “The main goal of Eritrean involvement in the Ethiopian war was not only the liberation of occupied lands but also the elimination of the TPLF and its removal from the political scene completely, which could not be achieved if reconciliation takes place.”

The fact that the TPLF was a common enemy for both Ahmed and Afwerki led to the formation of a strategic alliance between them that would be weakened if internal reconciliation is achieved in Ethiopia.

Asmara also has concerns that sponsors of the reconciliation could put pressure on Addis Ababa to dismantle its alliance with Eritrea, which will cast a heavy shadow on the country’s geopolitical situation.

Since its forces were accused of committing atrocities against civilians during their participation in the Ethiopian conflict, which Asmara continues to deny, the Eritrean regime is worried that its forces would be “scapegoated” in the framework of any possible settlement.

Tank belonging to Tigray forces. [Getty]
Any possible Ethiopian reconciliation would not only mark a new era within Ethiopia, but it could also re-engineer relations within the Horn of Africa and the Nile basin. [Getty]

Egypt, a big loser

Egypt is watching the developments in Ethiopia with concern due to its ongoing conflict with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and geopolitical hegemony in the Nile Valley.

From an Egyptian perspective, the continuation of the Ethiopian war might delay the negative repercussions of the dam, and, along with international pressure, the conflict might force the Ethiopian government to return to the negotiating table with a less intransigent attitude.

But so far, the chances of reaching a compromise are vanishing, especially given the statements from Ethiopia’s prime minister before and during the war, with Addis Ababa recently announcing the completion of the preparations needed to generate electricity from the dam. Ethiopia has also announced the beginning of preparations for the third filling of the dam.

Deepening animosity between the two parties will further complicate relations, with Ethiopian officials having also accused Egypt of supporting destabilisation in the country.

"Egypt is watching the developments in Ethiopia with concern due to its ongoing conflict with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and geopolitical hegemony in the Nile Valley"

In addition, indications of a possible Ethiopian openness to Khartoum do not bode well for Cairo, which relies on Sudan to strengthen its position in the tripartite negotiations over the dam, and whose relations with Khartoum witnessed a remarkable development in parallel with the deterioration of Ethiopian-Sudanese relations in the past year.

After the recent significant development in Ankara and Addis Ababa relations, Turkey will be one of the winners from the potential Ethiopian reconciliation, which will intensify the competition between Ankara and Cairo in the east of Africa.

In this context, Egypt is likely to continue its strategy of strengthening its ties with the Nile Basin countries, especially the "Ethiopian Ring Countries", and Kenya and Rwanda, whose roles have recently become more important with Ethiopia's retreat and its preoccupation with its internal conflict.

On the other hand, the negative impact of reconciliation on Eritrean-Ethiopian relations could reflect positively on ties between Cairo and Asmara, after a weakening in the relationship between the two parties following the signing of the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace agreements in 2018.

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Sudan, a winner and a loser

In contrast to Eritrea and Egypt, Sudan appears to be at a midpoint between loss and gain.

Stability in Ethiopia will guarantee Khartoum a cessation of the flow of refugees and human smuggling from conflict zones in Ethiopia. According to the balance of power in the Horn of Africa, any deterioration in the Eritrean-Ethiopian relationship is offset by a development in the relations of Addis Ababa and Khartoum.

Additionally, the return of the Tigrayans to Ethiopian political life will bring with it an old ally of Khartoum. At the same time, reconciliation will weaken the relationship between Ethiopia’s Ahmed and his Amhara allies, who are the most important objectors to indicators of Ethiopian reconciliation, and the most hostile party towards Sudan in Ethiopia.

This may translate positively on the Ethiopian prime minister’s relationship with Khartoum, following a recently noted change in the Ethiopian discourse towards Sudan.

"The attitudes of Ethiopian political parties towards Sudan will be divided between two camps: the first will call for calm and for neutralising Sudan, while the second will take the hard line"

Dina Mufti, the Ethiopian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, recently called Sudan to celebrate the upcoming start of generating electricity from the Renaissance Dam, which was preceded by a meeting between local officials from the two countries in Benishangul state in Ethiopia, after a period of estrangement.

"The attitudes of Ethiopian political parties towards Sudan will be divided between two camps: the first will call for calm and for neutralising Sudan, while the second will take the hard line and will not hesitate to escalate to the point of armed confrontation with Khartoum, as they see Sudan conspiring against Ethiopia to serve Egypt," Sudanese researcher in African affairs, Abbas Mohamed Salih, told The New Arab.

"Sudan is grappling with its internal crises, therefore those conflicting circles in Khartoum are not well aware of the reality of developments in Ethiopia or their negative repercussions on the interests of Sudan, which will find itself facing these repercussions during the coming stages,” the researcher added.

Last Year, Sudanese-Ethiopian relations witnessed some dramatic developments, reaching the point of threatening war, as a result of the border dispute over the Fashaga area and the failure of the dam negotiations.

Any possible Ethiopian reconciliation would not only mark a new era within Ethiopia, but it could also re-engineer relations within the Horn of Africa and the Nile basin.

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in the African Affairs

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli