Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray war was not a total surprise. Given the vindictive nature of the Eritrean leader and the long animosity the nation had with Tigray, that the Isaias regime would use any opportunity to inflict heavy damage on Tigray was not unexpected. It is rather the extent of its involvement and the barbaric nature of its troops—their utter depravity, brutality and irreverence—that have caught many by surprise.
Initially, the Isaias regime started with 12 divisions, but soon more than tripled its forces to include most of the army. And now, in the second phase of the invasion (dubbed as ‘last and final’), it has mobilized its entire population. With so many of them doing so much damage in such a short time, they have quickly turned Tigray into a disaster area.
Is there a logic to this all-out destruction of people and property?
First, we need to look at the nature of this madness, as displayed in the ongoing war in Tigray, by focusing on the most salient characteristics of the Eritrean troops:
- Massive lootings: A peculiar trademark of the Eritrean troops is the massive lootings of anything they could carry—from food supplies to tractors, from vehicles to livestock, from jewelry to cash, from furniture to kitchenware, from clothes to shoes, etc. The voracious appetite of the materially depraved and morally corrupt soldiers for expensive and cheap items has extremely alarmed the population.
- Massacres: Wherever Eritrean troops pass through or are stationed, invariably reports of civilian killings follow. The most gruesome massacres happen to take place whenever they face stiff resistance or get defeated in a battle. Other morbid affinities include the killings of ‘wives of Woyanes’ and young boys, both driven by atavistic motives to prevent future revenge.
- Wanton destruction: Anything of worth the troops couldn’t carry—factories, businesses, universities, schools, health centers, hotels, mills, irrigations, shops, banks, public and private buildings, etc.—have been destroyed, dismantled and vandalized. Villages, towns and cities have been indiscriminately shelled by artillery.
- Irreverence: The lack of respect for anything traditional is another unique trademark of the troops. They have been destroying historical, cultural and religious sites and looting their artifacts. A string of massacres has been conducted in churches; and, notoriously, an unusually large number of priests have been killed.
- Targeting the elite: The vindictive destruction of higher learning centers and schools, with their learning materials—libraries, laboratories, computers, books, furniture, etc.—vandalized and looted, and the hunting down of educated young men indicates the Isaias regime’s evil intention to degrade the Tigrayan elite.
- Mass rape: Raping of girls and women, even in gangs, has become another common phenomenon in this war. A troubling development on this crime is hostage-taking; women being forced to stay in military camps for days, subject to multiple raping. Forcing family members to have sex with one another, and shooting or raping them if they refuse, is another evil phenomenon the psychotic soldiers indulge with.
- Displacement: A large-scale displacement of peasants through continuous terrorization—killings, burning down of their homesteads and harvests, looting their stored grains, and slaughtering and lootings of their livestock—has been taking place wherever the Eritrean soldiers enter, heavily contributing to the more than 2.5 million IDPs.
- Targeting refugee camps: They have been destroying refugee camps, with killings, forced conscription and abduction of many refugees. Two refugee camps (out of four) have been totally demolished, with about a thousand structures razed to the ground, and with 20,000 refugees still remaining unaccounted for.
The destruction is meant to be total, aiming at all the essential aspects of Tigray: its leadership, its elite, its youth, its peasants, its women, its food supply, its property, its infrastructure, its developmental projects, its education, its health services, its history, its religion, its land, its people, etc.
Yet, the Eritrean troops don’t seem to have any discernible ‘higher’ cause around which they are rallying. If so, what motivates them? Is it simply vindictive revenge or is there a method to their madness? What is the Isaias regime supposed to gain by unleashing this destructive force?
In the Eritrean troops’ savage rampage throughout Tigray, there are goal-oriented patterns to be discerned at different levels—‘pragmatic’ ones for that. In the battle ground, this brutality is used as a war strategy meant to inhibit the reaction of the ‘enemy’. At a societal level, it is used as a wall to keep the troops separate from the population, carrying the ‘sealed-off Eritrea’ with them. In a similar vein, it is used to create a permanent wedge between the Eritrean and Tigrayan masses. The regime also uses this unparalleled violence to create bondage with various actors in this war (its troops, the Eritrean people, the Muslim population, the Amhara forces and Abiy); all of which are deliberately pushed to a point of no return. And, last, it is used as a means of inducing famine at a massive level, with genocide as its final goal.
The overarching guidance Shaebia (a popular name for the EPLF, the ruling party) is using in meeting the above-mentioned multiple goals is, as usual, its vulgar or unprincipled pragmatism. In my 2009 article, Eritrea’s Pragmatic Terrorism, this phenomenon is described as:
“Shaebia’s overarching ‘principle’, one that guides it in whatever it does, has been its vulgar pragmatism. The vulgar twist in its pragmatism is explained by the fact that it is guided by no other higher economic, social, political, ideological or moral principle. The single objective of this pragmatism always remains: ‘Self-preservation of the organization above everything else!’ The means of achieving this objective is: ‘Whatever it takes!’ The only inhibiting question that it asks in pursuing its objective is: ‘Can I get away with it?’…”
The Isaias regime has been using terrorism as its main card in pursuing its domestic, regional and even foreign policies. In this, it has remained consistent since its days as a guerrilla organization. And, surprisingly, this consistency is gained precisely because this terrorism is ‘pragmatic’ (as opposed to ‘ideological’) in its structure.
What is notable about this policy is that Shaebia has honed the art of terrorism as a multifaceted tool by practicing it on its own people first. For more than two decades, the Eritrean masses have been living under the totalitarian grip of Shaebia. One need only look at how the gulag-state—aptly described as the biggest open-prison in the world—works to understand the terror under which the Eritrean masses, especially the youth, have been living.
Once, I described the entire nation as a prison system built in three concentric circles, one embedded into the other: In the outermost circle, we find the whole population trapped within the sealed-off borders of the nation, deprived of all kinds of political and humanitarian rights— economic, association, movement, religious, legal, educational, expression, press, security, freedom, work, privacy, life, etc. In the middle circle, we find the hundreds of thousands of recruits trapped in the National Service, condemned to serve in slave labor camps for years on end and to be ordered back to the trenches any time war breaks out. In the innermost circle, we find tens of thousands of actual prisoners in an archipelago of more than 360 prisons scattered all over the Eritrean landscape (in a nation of about 3.3 million), fully equipped with all kinds of medieval torture mechanisms (‘almaz’, ‘otto’, ‘helicopter’, etc.). In such a layered world of oppression, the misery index of a ‘prisoner’ is measured by how deep in these concentric circles he finds himself.
This gulag machinery works ‘pragmatically’ by upgrading and downgrading its subjects within these concentric circles in an efficient recycling system. Occasionally, the totalitarian machine spits out excesses it cannot accommodate, resulting in the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of mainly young men and women. It has an inbuilt safety valve that detects the danger level just before it implodes, and reacts either by pushing the dangerous elements into the innermost circle or by pushing them out of the entire system. Other than that, the rest live in that layered world of oppression, many without ever finding out how abnormal it is. Thus, it is normal even for higher officials to undergo this recycling process and come back from the innermost circle to still serve in a higher position. A good example is the case of Eyob “Halibay” who has come out of the innermost circle to eventually lead four divisions in Tigray as a Brigadier General. When citizens normalize terror this way, it becomes the only language through which the government communicates with them.
The Isaias regime conducts its regional policy with the same ruthlessness, ‘pragmatically’ adapted to the ever-changing context. Eritrea’s neighbors are very susceptible to terrorism for various reasons. Ethnic, clan, religious, regional, racial and political differences are to be found in the region in abundance. Shaebia sees opportunities in this abundance; there is almost no armed movement in the region that at one time or another has not been trained, armed and supported by it: South Sudan (SPLA), East Sudan (Beja, Rashaida, etc), West Sudan (Darfur), Oromo and Amhara nationalists in Ethiopia, Somalia (Al Shabab), Yemen (Houthi), etc. Whatever the despot wants to achieve in the region is done mainly through terrorism.
But why call it ‘pragmatic’?
Among the terrorism-sponsoring states, what commonly holds true is that they at least share the cause of the terrorist groups they sponsor, be it religious fundamentalism, ethnic solidarity, right wing ideology or communism. That is not the case with Eritrea.
When it supported the Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia, it was not because it shared their religious fanaticism. During those years, it was ruthlessly stamping out any trace of Islamic fundamentalism in Eritrea. When it supported the South Sudanese, it was not because it sympathized with them in their racial grievances against the Arabized Sudan. Shaebia doesn’t have the slightest trace of Pan-Africanism in its blood. When it supported the Darfur cause, it was not because of the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding in that region. After all, there is a reason why Eritrea has been called the North Korea of Africa. Similarly, when it harbored many ethnic or ‘democratic’ elements from Ethiopia, it was not because it shared their ethnic grievances or their so-called concern for democracy. It cared less whom it supported so far as it ended up causing havoc in Ethiopia.
In these cases, terrorism is used to get back at an enemy (the Ethiopian case, especially under EPRDF), to blackmail a state (the Sudanese case), to make money out of it (the Yemeni case), to weaken a perceived enemy (the Tigray case), to stay relevant in the region as the main player (the Somali case), etc. And all of these variable goals are meant to be put into service for one goal only: self-preservation of Shaebia (as an organization) at any cost.
The moment any one of the rebel movements it helps fails to fit in its calculation of the survival game it pursues ruthlessly, Shaebia drops it with no qualms at all. The Sudanese story is a case in point, where it kept switching sides multiple times depending on the goal it wanted to achieve at that particular moment. Or, take the case of the Houthi in Yemen, which at one time it kept arming in its alliance with Iran. As soon as it found states (UAE and Saudi Arabia) that outbid the Iranians, not only did it switch sides, it provided them with a base (Assab) from which the Yemeni people (and the Houthi it used to help) have been bombed through planes and drones ever since.
Thus, it is precisely this lack of a guiding principle that makes terrorism an enduring and ubiquitous phenomenon in whatever Shaebia does. As it drops one ‘cause’ and adopts another, what remains invariable is the tool itself: terrorism. In the hands of the principle-less Shaebia, terrorism has become an extension of its confrontational past.
And among the unprincipled followers of Shaebia, all of this doesn’t cause the slightest bit of dissonance; for them, it is pragmatism at its best.
The UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 for supporting Al Shabab. Those sanctions were lifted in November 2018, soon after the rapprochement between Abiy and Isaias. Yet, even as it has dropped Al Shabab and fully sided with the Somali government, nothing has changed on Eritrea’s side. Shaebia is still using terrorism in its domestic, regional and foreign policies to achieve its goals. The only thing that has changed now is the main target of its terrorism: the people of Tigray.
It is only when we look at the long list of the goals that Shaebia intends to achieve that we notice how thoroughly ‘pragmatic’ this war is being conducted through terror. And almost in every instance we see precedence in Eritrea. Not that what is going on in Tigray is to be compared with that of Eritrea, but that the beginning of this trajectory of violence is to be traced back to Eritrea.
1. War strategy
The Eritrean troops’ brutality happens to be part and parcel of their war strategy: in many instances, it has made it hard for the Woyanes (Tigray forces) to retaliate. Wherever they happen to be, especially at times of battles, the Eritrean troops always hold the population hostage in a way no professional soldiers do. For those who subscribe to vulgar pragmatism, the rules of engagement do not hold. They fire their artillery at villages, towns and cities with relish. And as they enter these areas, in most instances, destruction of properties and indiscriminate house-to-house killings follow. So much so, that the Woyanes, in some instances, had to retreat with little or no fight to spare the population.
And in those instances where the troops have sustained heavy losses, invariably massacres follow. Fifty six in Zalambessa, 50 in Adiawso, another 50 in Miri’ena, 100 in Maiharmaz, 100s in Wukro, 154 in Mariam-Dengelat, 720 in Aksum, 80 to 100 in Endabaguna, 71 in Segla’men … it goes on and on. With the engagement of its army ratcheted up in its ‘final and last’ offensive, these massacres have become almost a daily occurrence. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed so far. In three months, Shaebia has killed more than all those killed by Ethiopian forces in the 30 years war of liberation—it is that efficient!
All of this is a result of a confrontational habit instilled in it in the last 50 years, all the way from its days in mieda (the bush) to independent Eritrea.
Shaebia has been notorious for eating its children. Teclai Aden, once the leader of Shaebia’s security apparatus, claimed that the organization had killed about 3,000 of its own teghadelti (freedom fighters) by 1980. Since then, it had killed thousands more until 1991. And this is besides the forced roundups of tens of thousands of peasants—including women and children—who became the fodder in its war against the Derg. This also doesn’t include those who were deliberately sent in suicide missions at war fronts to die, the most notorious of which was the 1977 massacre of hundreds of Falul insurgents deliberately sent to the Massawa front for liquidation.
We also find precedence to the Tigray massacres in independent Eritrea: 47 teghadelti executed in the 1993 teghadelti rebellion; 1994 Congo massacre of prisoners taken to diamond mining and executed after their work was done (a prelude to the Goda Glass Factory massacre in Tigray); the1994 disabled veterans massacre after they protested their condition, the Kohain militia massacre, prisoners of war soon after independence; the 2004 Adi-Abeyto massacre of 48 Asmara kids after they protested against forced roundups; the 2005 We’a massacre, where 161 youth conscripts were killed trying to escape the detention facility; etc. Sometimes, the massacres had ethnic targets: the 2007 Kunama massacre in Mai-Dima prison and the string of Afar killings in Denkel.
That is to say, terrorism in the shape of killings and massacres have been part and parcel of Shaebia’s ‘coping mechanism’ since the day it was created. What we are witnessing now in Tigray is an extension of that mechanism, accelerated and magnified now to meet the ‘challenge’.
2. The wall in between
This continuous and unparalleled brutality is also meant to erect a formidable wall between the Eritrean troops and the civilian population of Tigray. One of the problems Shaebia faced when it decided to invade Tigray was that it didn’t know what the reaction of its troops would be. Given that the youth have been using any opportunity to escape Eritrea, would they desert the army in their thousands? Given that many Eritreans who had visited Tigray when the border was briefly opened in 2018 were impressed by the progress in Tigray, what would such an influence breed among the invading forces? And if they stay long in Tigray, what would the overall influence of the civilian population be on them?
Shaebia came out with this ingenious solution: by totally destroying Tigray, it made it unappealing to the Eritrean soldiers. If the Tigray of relative peace, freedom and prosperity that appealed to Eritreans disappears, then there would be no option for the Eritrean soldiers but to stick with their own kind. The attack on the refugee camps is just an extension to this strategy, ruling out any possibility of joining the refugees. That is why Shaebia dreads the opening of the border with Sudan by the Woyanes: all the floodgates for the Eritrean soldiers to flee would be opened. All the Woyanes have to do is guarantee them this safe passage for the troops to surrender in large numbers.
Second, this massive brutality is meant to totally isolate the Eritrean troops from the civilian population of Tigray. By making them the most hated and dreaded army, the goal has been to erect the ‘sealed-off Eritrea’ within Tigray.
Notice how both the process (all the brutalities of the war) and its end result (the total destruction of Tigray) are employed in isolating the Eritrean troops from the larger population—vulgar pragmatism at its best.
When hundreds of thousands of young men and women are cordoned off in the Eritrean wilderness for years on end—with the Orwellian experiment to recreate them in the image of teghadalay (guerrilla fighter) as its goal—it has been essential that all the connections they had with the larger society (with family, friends, neighborhood, village, religion, school, work, etc.) be severed. After being subjected to such isolation for years on end, the atomized individual pliable to the totalitarian machine has been created.
The result is, of course, the horror we are witnessing now in Tigray: the reincarnation of the Khmer Rouge in an African setting.
3. A wedge between Eritrea and Tigray
The wall the Eritrean troops are building within Tigray through massive brutality is also meant to have a long-range effect. It is meant to drive a permanent wedge between Eritrea and Tigray, two peoples that share language, history, culture and religion. The very nation ‘Eritrea’ depends on such a wedge to survive. Increasingly, Eritrea has been finding it hard to explain its existence as a nation given its internal contradictions and external similarities. Maintaining that divide has eventually led to the unparalleled violence against the people of Tigray witnessed today.
The Isaias regime is known for using divide-and-rule strategy in Eritrea by exploiting existing fault lines, the biggest of which is a five decked one: Muslim vs Christian, lowland vs highland, Tigrigna language vs others, Tigrigna vs other ethnicities and pastoral vs peasants. The Isaias regime used to send highlanders to conduct roundups in the lowlands and lowlanders to conduct roundups in the highlands, the idea being that they would be merciless to each other’s communities. And now, Isaias is telling the lowlanders that if rapprochement between the two Tigrigna speaking people in Tigray and Eritrea takes place, it will come at their expense. A different version of this story is also told to Eritrean nationalists from the Tigrinya ethnic group who similarly feel that such a rapprochement will come at the expense of the Eritrean project.
This is how Isaias creates bonds with various sections of the population that are otherwise suspicious of him. And, now, that bondage is supposed to be cemented through the blood of the people of Tigray.
4. Vindicating Isaias/Shaebia
Vengeance for the 1998-99 war figures big in the narrative of the Eritrean soldiers on the ground. There is a more coherent reason at government level for encouraging this narrative, with its vindication for whatever has happened in Eritrea since the border war of 1998-99 in mind.
In more than two decades since the war, Eritrea has been a disaster at every level: demographic meltdown, with more than half a million young men and women fleeing the country; economic meltdown, with the population living at semi-starvation level; developmental stagnation, with no progress at all in all fields (except for the mining industry, which is run by foreign companies); institutional breakdown across the board, with an all-out attack on legal, administrative, religious, cultural, educational and familial institutions.
Shaebia is cursed with the reverse Midas touch; everything it touches turns into ashes: the many lives of the Eritrean Airlines, now finally put to rest; the many micro-dams that were eventually abandoned; the Massawa-Asmara railway built through ‘self-reliance’, now abandoned after many close calls; the Massawa-Assab road, perennially under construction; the faultily built Massawa international airport (with the advice of ‘engineer’ Isaias), which has never managed to land a single international plane; the bootcamps (that pass for colleges) built outside cities to replace the University of Asmara; the ghost city of Asmara, with its signature colonial buildings falling apart; etc.
To grasp the level of depravity in the nation, one has to think of the unthinkable: it is the only country in the world that has prohibited building residential houses for fifteen years!
Now, after thoroughly destroying Eritrea at every level, Isaias is saying that had it not been for the 1998-99 border war, this nation could have turned out to be a much better nation than it is now. To the contrary, the border war was the excuse Shaebia needed to turn Eritrea into the Hobbesian world of Sahel (Shaebia’s fortress during the armed struggle).
But the lesson Eritreans are made to draw is just the opposite: that Tigray’s peace and prosperity is inversely related to their peace and prosperity. Following this convoluted logic, it makes sense for the Eritrean army to destroy Tigray as much as they could.
5. Bridges to be burned
Isaias is making sure that the Eritrean people—along with him—are burning all their bridges so that there will be no point of return. He knows that for him and Shaebia the war against Tigray will determine their fate once and for all; victory will mean their continuity, and defeat their end—nothing in between is possible. Isaias wants the very nation of Eritrea to be located on that same binary juncture. The massive humanitarian crimes the Eritrean troops are committing are meant to make it impossible for Eritrea to live with a resurgent Tigray. For a nation that has invaded its neighbor to avenge one man’s humiliation, it makes perfect sense to tie its existential quest with that of its leader.
Isaias is also making sure that his partners-in-crime too burn all their bridges.
Isaias is famous (or infamous) for the loyalty test he gives to his subordinates. It is similar to the initiation for newcomers in the most notorious gang in Los Angeles—or so the legend goes. Veteran gang members will take the initiate through a ride at night time with the headlights off. They ask him to shoot at the first driver who reminds him of that, often by clicking on his lights. One has to admit that this loyalty test, though brutal, is ingenious: if the initiate could surmount his conscience to shoot at the first person who tries to help him, then he is capable of doing anything.
From his days in mieda, Isaias is known for involving his subordinates with the innumerable crimes he has committed. So is it with Abiy. If Abiy accepts and imitates the brutality of the Eritrean troops, then he will have proven his loyalty to the boss. There is no greater bond than that of blood—that of spilling it, that is.
The Amhara elite too have tied their fate to Isaias’; in fact, more so than Abiy. Abiy has a little wiggling room; if the going gets tough, he could always abandon the Amhara wagon and switch back to his Oromo base—at least, he could try. There is no such wiggling room for the Amhara elite; as in Isaias’ case, theirs is a do-or-die mission. That is why the Amhara and Eritrean forces are outdoing each other in the horrendous crimes they are committing against the people of Tigray.
6. Total destruction of Tigray
The most obvious cause for the Eritrean troops’ brutality is the total destruction of Tigray through whatever means necessary, including war, famine and genocide.
The Eritrean troops (with their Amhara counterparts in West and South Tigray) have been at the forefront of this total war. Their systematic destruction and looting of factories, health centers, universities, schools, businesses, banks, hotels and public and private buildings in every town or city they pass through is meant to eventually end in genocide. Besides the services they deny, these acts are meant to produce massive unemployment and the starvation that comes along with it. So is it when they burn and slash through rural Tigray, burning down peasants’ homesteads, crops and harvests, slaughtering and looting livestock and massacring old and young. Already, together with their partners-in-crime, the Eritrean soldiers have managed to displace millions of peasants from their villages, and rendered millions more insecure in food and safety.
It seems that the Isaias regime’s strategy to create a man-made famine through the brutality of the war in order to starve Tigray to death has been, so far, a success.
The war that is waged is asymmetrical by design. Given that this is a trenchless war, breaching the opponent army’s territory is not that difficult in most of Tigray. All the tripartite armies need to do is reach an area even for a brief time to inflict the kinds of damage mentioned above: to burn down a village, to loot its food supply, to kill its livestock, to massacre its peasants, etc. Since the target of these armies is the entire population of Tigray, with genocide as their ultimate goal, the advantage the asymmetrical war provides to them is obvious.
Again, even in this most gruesome genocidal crime, there is a precedence in Eritrea. It is only that the world fails to see it for what it is because it is ‘bloodless’ and has no name. This nameless and bloodless genocide has been happening to an entire generation for the last two decades:
“… the Warsai generation is dying out as a result of three factors: (a) in a mass exodus of epic proportion, hundreds of thousands have left the country for good, never to return; (b) hundreds of thousands more are living in modern day slavery, with the prospects of raising their own families very slim; (c) an entire women Warsai generation, whose male counterparts are either evicted out of the country or sequestered in the wilderness within Eritrea, have little chance of getting married. This is a generation that is literally dying out in front of our eyes. If the Warsai were an ethnic, religious or even regional group, what is happening to them under the hands of Shaebia would have been aptly called genocide, and much would have been made of it. But, sadly, for lack of a name, nobody is noticing the Warsai generation’s extinction.”
The only way to describe this assault is if we coin a new phrase for it: generational genocide. Nowhere in the world has an older generation (the ‘liberators’ or Yikealo –Omnipotent- as they sacrilegiously call themselves) treated its younger generation (Warsai, an Orwellianname—‘Inheritors’—given by their ‘liberators’) with so much cruelty. An entire generation has been evicted out of the country to make room for them. The fact that we do not witness the kind of massacres and brutalities that the people of Tigray are currently subjected to now doesn’t mean that violence hasn’t been used in this generational genocide. As mentioned above, many massacres have taken place among this generation, though not on the scale of what is happening in Tigray. But more importantly, it is the years of the National Service, with all its brutalities—slavery (including sexual slavery for women), regimentation, indoctrination, imprisonment, malnutrition, disease, torture, killings, etc.—with little chance for further education, employment or family-raising in the future. It is this incremental and multi-pronged attack on the individual that makes it look ‘bloodless’, though no less violent.
Now, the whole point is, if Shaebia is willing to commit generational genocide to remain in power indefinitely, the fact that it is willing to commit genocide in Tigray for a similar purpose shouldn’t surprise us.
The resurgence of Tigray is not only feared for its retributive factor. Even if Eritrea manages to fend off for itself after the war, the damage it has inflicted on Tigray is incalculable and hence war reparations impossible to pay back. There is also the issue of war crimes and the leaders that need to be brought to the international court. Shaebia is keenly aware of that, and it believes the only Tigray that won’t take revenge or ask for war reparations or for justice is a dead Tigray. The other option is for Shaebia to commit suicide, making the old Tigrinya adage that reassures debtors by saying, “Either the creditor or the debtor dies first”. Eritrea disintegrates—problem solved.
7. The dismemberment of Tigray
The existential problem of Eritrea can be summed up as a demographic one: a nation that cannot contain its population. Shaebia’s existential dilemma can be put as: whatever it does to contain its population exacerbates the very problem it wants to solve.
If it is to hold the nation under its totalitarian grip, then it is essential that it has total control over its population, in general, and over its young population, in particular. When it comes to the latter, it means total control over their bodies and minds. The National Service was precisely created for that purpose: the entire youth population has been systematically emptied from the cities and towns and cordoned off in mieda (the bush) to serve the nation both as defenders and slave laborers for years on end. The result has been the mass exodus.
Eritrea had a population of 3.2 million in 2011, and 3.3 million in 2021; only a hundred thousand increase in ten years. In those same years, Ethiopia had more than 20 million increase. During the Haile Selassie era Eritrea’s population was growing at a similar rate with the rest of the country; it kept its ratio of 1 to 14 throughout those years. Now, the ratio is 1 to 34. Had it continued with that healthy growth, by now Eritrea would at least have between 7 and 8 million people. The 30 years of liberation war and another 30 years of Shaebia rule have made that impossible. And if we focus on the last 20 years, it is clear that the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of young men and women has made it impossible for Eritrea to have a healthy population growth. And the numbers only don’t tell the whole story, since the population groups that are leaving Eritrea are the ones who are not only the most productive but also the most likely to have had many children. One cannot expect a high fertility rate in the hollowed-out city of Asmara, which looks like a huge geriatric settlement.
Shaebia’s dilemma was put to test when it briefly opened the border with Tigray for a few months just after the “peace agreement” in 2018: tens of thousands stampeded to get out of Eritrea, with tens of thousands more readying themselves to do the same thing. If Shaebia had left it open for the remaining two years of peace, the entire young-adult population would have moved out; and, inevitably, the nation would have collapsed. That is why the whole problem that Eritrea faces can be reduced to a demographic one. And that is why Eritrea went to war against Tigray.
It went to war to maintain the two horns of its dilemma: it wants to keep both its population and the totalitarian grip that holds over it. Even though Abiy is supposed to come to Isaias’ aid in that regard by helping to seal off the nation, Shaebia had a supplementary solution unique to its violent nature: why not steal the people it needs—say, a million of them? That would go a long way to temporarily solve its existential problem.
Of course, Shaebia would make it seem that it is only grabbing land from Tigray—and Ethiopia doesn’t seem to mind—but this comes with a bonus. If we look at the territory that Shaebia is claiming now, there would be between half a million and a million of Tigrayans that would come with those pieces of land. Not bad, eh?
But that could only be had with the disintegration of Tigray; and, hence, the motive for the horrific brutalities unleashed by the Eritrean troops.
As it is with its domestic and regional policies, the Isaias regime conducts its foreign policy too through terrorism. It is only that when dealing with powerful entities like the EU and US, it has to come in its passive form: blackmailing.
The EU, which is the only body that has somewhat reacted to the crisis in a substantive way by withholding 90 million Euros of aid to Ethiopia, has so far remained unresponsive to Eritrea’s involvement. Given that the Eritrean army is the backbone of the invading forces, it remains a puzzle why the EU is unwilling to punish the nation, especially since it is well cognizant of the horrendous crimes the regime has been committing against its own people. To the contrary, it rewarded Eritrean ‘participation’ in peace with 80 million Euros of aid for road construction built with slave labor of conscripts in the National Service.
The EU’s Achilles heel has been the mass migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East, which, with the rise of the far right, has altered the political landscape in Europe. With the peace rapprochement between Abiy and Isaias, the EU has hoped the recalcitrant refugee problem that often reaches its shores might now find a lasting solution. Now that peace has been declared, it thought the indefinite national service that has been the main reason for the mass exodus of the Eritrean youth would come to an end.
The Isaias regime is keenly aware of this and has successfully blackmailed the EU using the terror used against its people as a weapon that it could wield or withhold. It has always given the impression that it could curtail its National Service, something that the EU has fallen for a number of times. It has even provided financial help for the demobilization and rehabilitation of the soldiers that never took place. The war against Tigray shows that the Isaias regime has had no intention whatsoever to demobilize its troops in all the past 20 years. Yet, the EU remains hopeful as ever. And therein lies its hesitation to punish Eritrea. As it waits for a solution that will never arrive, a bigger problem is in the making: a mass exodus from Ethiopia, in general, and Tigray, in particular.
Another tragic hesitation, as lethal as the EU’s, is the US’. In this case, Eritrea is wielding its long coastline along the Red Sea as a passive terrorism weapon against the US. The fact that the Isaias regime could easily provide a base to Turkey, Russia or China figures big in the US’ calculation on how to react against Eritrea; hence, its hesitation.
Well, these are all hesitations that are coming at the huge expense of the people of Tigray. Already Tigray has paid big in this war because of the Isaias regime’s willingness to use its seacoast as a base to a foreign entity—namely, the UAE. Until recently, it has been the involvement of the UAE drones that has determined the course of the war that has devastated Tigray.
That is to say, the Red Sea has become an existential threat to Tigray; something that its leaders have yet to fully grasp.
We have seen above how Shaebia uses terrorism as its pragmatic weapon to accomplish its domestic, regional and foreign policies. And it is the confluence of these three policies that have devastated Tigray.
First, it is because the Isaias regime was unable to solve its demographic problem that it sought the solution outside of itself; namely, Tigray. The destruction of Tigray, and the realignment of Ethiopia that comes with that, is meant to provide the security that Shaebia needs. Second, for a few devastating months Tigray became the center wherein a Middle Eastern power, in its competition with Turkey and Qatar, had to demarcate its territory of influence—the UAE drones were doing just that. Eritrea has effectively harnessed that competition to devastate Tigray. And last, Eritrea’s blackmailing of the EU and US through mass exodus (the migration problem) and the seacoast (the military base problem) respectively have rendered their reactions ineffective, adding to the suffering of the people of Tigray.
Indeed, in this war, Eritrea’s pragmatic terrorism has so far delivered what it was intended to do. Yet, it comes with a prohibitive price. Shaebia is a parasite organization that cannot live outside of its host. In the past three decades, it has thoroughly hollowed out its host (Eritrea)—its population, its economy, its culture, its religions, its education, its history, its institutions, etc.—that it cannot be supported anymore by it. Ever since, Shaebia has been trying to do the impossible to save itself in its last gasp: it has been looking for another host. If Tigray manages to get rid of this parasite, Shaebia has nowhere else to go but to die.
There are two possibilities in the near future: Tigray comes out triumphant as a separate nation or it remains with Ethiopia under a sympathetic government. It is very hard to imagine that Eritrea, let alone Shaebia, making it under these two scenarios. So, the ‘problem’ is this might turn out to be a double suicide: Shaebia might take Eritrea with it all the way to the grave. But that might not be as bad an idea as it sounds: a new reconfiguration might take place, one that prioritizes the people over the land.