Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afewerki today gave what Eritreans call an interview but what’s actually a meandering and rambling close to one hour and a half-long monologue on Ethiopia. It has the familiar setup: two men clearly overwhelmed by a combination of a sense of admiration for him and trepidation sit in front of him, supposedly to ask him questions. He, in his usual sandals, ill-fitting cargo trousers and short-sleeved shirt, sits in front of them ominously and domineeringly.
One of the two men opened the program with greetings punctuated by sudden silences and uncertainties. He then passed the opportunity, or rather the curse, to ask the first question on to his colleague. Reading from a script, his colleague starts off by reminding Isaias of his prescience: he tells him that in January of 2022, he’d said Weyane (Isaias’s derogatory reference to the TPLF) would launch an attack in the winter and that indeed that’s happened. He also tells him that he’d said Weyane’s masters, apparently in reference to the United States, would try to resuscitate the TPLF back into life. He then gets into the heart of the matter and asks him: how did the Pretoria agreement between the TPLF and the Ethiopian regime come about?
Isaias then launches into a 40-minute-long uninterrupted riff. He spoke about everything but Eritrea. He ranted about the TPLF, Ethiopia, the west, especially the United States, imperialism, cold war, colonialism, capitalism, etc. It’s the usual nonsense that African conspiracy theorists tell you at a pub. That the US uses agents to destroy countries it doesn’t like (for example, TPLF to destroy Eritrea); that the war on Tigray was a proxy war between the US and Eritrea, etc.
Naturally, people will be tempted to dismiss his incoherent ramblings, not least because what he says today he has them countless times before. But the things he says with respect to the war on Tigray and the peace agreement between Tigray and Ethiopia are worth dwelling on because it’s clear to see from his demeanour that he’s the one dictating proceedings. So here’s a brief summary of the main points he raised with respect to Tigray and Ethiopia.
On the Pretoria peace agreement
He says that the terms of the deal were drafted up by the United States and that the TPLF delegates had no option but to sign whatever was put in front of them. He’s careful to avoid mentioning the Ethiopian regime but the implication is that he believes the Ethiopian regime didn’t have any other option either. He says that he begrudgingly accepts the deal but makes it clear that his preference would have been to finish off the TPLF. He says the United States intervened to rescue the TPLF, which, he says, was on the verge of being eliminated.
He adds that calls from the Tigray government and the international community for his forces and the Amhara militia to leave western Tigray are in contravention to the terms of the agreement. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly he makes it clear that he thinks his forces shouldn’t be expected to leave Tigray. At one point he says he’s waiting to see if the Tigrayan forces have been totally disarmed and put in rehabilitation camps. So, clearly he believes the total disarmament of the TDF and the rehabilitation of the personnel comes before any talk of the withdrawal of his forces or the return of western Tigray or other territories forcefully annexed to Amhara.
On lessons learned
He says that the main reason the TPLF was finally “crushed” was because of better cooperation and planning between his and Ethiopian forces. Having failed to defeat the TPLF twice, he says, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces took stock of their previous mistakes and developed a better plan. One of the improvements, he adds, is a single line of command for both forces. He says TPLF’s supposed miscalculations — such as going all the way to Debrebirhan — has helped too.
The above “revelations” are perhaps no surprise to anybody. But if anybody had any doubts that Ethiopia and Eritrea had conducted a joint military operation against Tigray, Isaias has now dispelled such doubts.
Isaias is categorical when it comes to who is to blame for the human and material loss due to the war. He says the TPLF alone is responsible for the losses, of which he says there’s hundreds of thousands of lives. He argues Ethiopia and Eritrea were forced into the war by the TPLF. He says that in 2018 he met Tigray president Debretsion briefly at the Tigray-Eritrea border following the so-called peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea and asked him why the TPLF was sabre-rattling for war. The message here is that Ethiopia and Eritrea had no option but to engage a war-hungry force militarily.
The overriding message of the “interview” is that he thinks the war on Tigray was a war between Eritrea and the United States. Unsurprisingly, he thinks Eritrea has emerged triumphant. To him, calls for his forces to leave Tigray are cries of sore losers. He makes it clear time and time again that his forces are on a peace-building mission and that calls for them to leave are counter productive and ultimately anti-peace. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, he makes it clear that neither the TPLF nor the the Ethiopian regime has any say on the war.
What Isaias thinks matters because he’s a particular end game regarding the peace process, such as it is. He’s alluded to that end game when he pooh-poohed calls for his troops to withdraw from Tigray and he said that he’s waiting to see if the TDF is disarmed before he could fully accept the peace deal. This is an extraordinary state of affairs, that a leader of a foreign country has the final call on whether or not the deal is accepted.