Isaias Afwerki Led Eritrea’s Freedom Struggle, But Turned His Country Into a Prison Camp

Michela Wrong

Eritrea spent decades fighting for independence against enormous odds. Its people finally achieved their goal in the 1990s, but Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki has since created one of the world’s bleakest dictatorships, prompting countless Eritreans to flee.

Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki established a highly repressive political system that has caused many young people to flee the country. (Mikhail Metzel / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Eritrea’s long struggle for independence finally ended in victory three decades ago. It seemed like a fresh beginning for one of Africa’s smallest countries, after fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds.

However, the Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki soon established a highly repressive political system that caused many young people to flee. Since 2020, Afwerki’s army has been a key protagonist in one of the world’s most destructive wars, fighting alongside Ethiopian government forces in Tigray.

Michela Wrong is a journalist and the author of several books about African politics, including an account of Eritrea’s modern history, I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.

Daniel Finn

How did Eritrea become an Italian colony, and what were the main legacies of Italian colonial rule?

Michela Wrong

The story of Italian colonialism in Eritrea comes in two parts. When the Suez Canal was opened, there was a flurry of interest by European powers in the Red Sea because they thought it would open up markets in the Far East and the Middle East. Italy came quite late to this game, having only been unified as a nation-state itself quite recently. But it was very keen on developing a colony in Africa because it had a high rate of population growth. Its leaders thought that an African colony might be a good place in which to settle poor peasants who were in search of land to cultivate.

In 1869, an Italian priest who was acting on behalf of an Italian shipping company bought the port of Assab, a key Eritrean port, from a local chief. Italy didn’t really do much with Assab at first, but that changed in 1885. British officials were running Egypt and were therefore in control of the port of Massawa, which is an Eritrean port today but was then controlled by Egypt. They invited the Italians in to capture the port.

The Italians seized Massawa and then started sending troops up into the highlands. They were bent on taking the Abyssinian Highlands. The dry, rocky area down at the coast did not interest them — they wanted the fertile interior. They ended up building a settlement in Asmara, having fought against a local Abyssinian warlord called Ras Alula.

Eventually, an Italian politician called Ferdinando Martini became the first civilian governor of Eritrea and started setting up schools, hospitals, and a legal system. But it was a tiny colony that was militarily and strategically irrelevant.

The second phase came after Benito Mussolini took over in Italy as its fascist dictator. He was a nationalist who believed in the purifying quality of war. He launched the Abyssinian campaign in 1936, which had two main objectives. The first was to settle Italian peasants in the fertile interior, and the second was to avenge the battle of Adwa in 1896, when Italian troops had been defeated — the first major defeat of a European army by African troops, and a massive humiliation for Italy.

Mussolini wanted to avenge that humiliation and avenge it he did. He used Eritrea as a jumping-off point, building up his troops before invading Abyssinia, as the country was then known. He deployed chemical warfare as part of the campaign. Italy was soon in control of Abyssinia and the emperor Haile Selassie was forced to flee into exile in Britain.

As he left, he warned the world that fascism was a threat to everyone, not just his own country. At the time, however, European powers like Britain and France were preparing for WWII. They were rearming because they realized that Adolf Hitler and Mussolini were going to be a problem, but they didn’t want to take on Mussolini at that stage of the game.

That inaugurated the second great phase of Italian colonialism, which was very different from the first. There was a lot of investment in Eritrea. Asmara became one of the most beautiful modernist cities in Africa — it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with all the cinemas and other public buildings. Italy’s best Fascist-era architects based themselves there, and it was dubbed “Little Italy.”

But it was also a place where, as fascism became more and more obnoxious, the racial segregation laws that were being enforced in Italy against Jews were also introduced in Eritrea. There had been a lot of mixed marriages between Italians and Eritrean women. Suddenly, it wasn’t possible for those Italians to give their children their surnames.

The two parts of the town were segregated, with poor slums where the Eritreans lived and nice white villas for the Italians. Cinemas were segregated and there were separate queues in shops. Eritreans were not welcome to have a drink in the cafés in the Italian district. If you were walking along the pavement and you met an Italian coming toward you, you were supposed to step off the pavement in respect for your white master.

The Italian colonial experience has left behind a legacy of anger and bitterness there. People get very upset about it, particularly the fact that, during the Italian era, they were only allowed to go to school for four years, so their education was truncated. But the irony is that Eritrea would never have existed as a country if Italy hadn’t colonized it.

Colonialism made this area that was carved out in the Horn of Africa much more connected to trade, and it industrialized at a much faster pace than Abyssinia, which later become Ethiopia. The influx of Europeans — not just Italians but also Greeks and other nationalities — brought technical know-how and skills for manufacturing. It was a much more cosmopolitan and heavily industrialized country as a result.

On the one hand, Eritreans are bitter about Italian colonialism, but they also know that it made them different. There is a sense of Eritrean superiority, and the legacy of Italian colonialism plays a strange role in that.

Daniel Finn

How did Haile Selassie gain control over Eritrea after World War II, when he was restored to power in his own country? What was the nature of his rule over Eritrea?

Michela Wrong

Once World War II broke out, the Allies realized that they needed to get Italian forces out of Africa. That meant they were going to have to seize Eritrea, Italy’s primordial colony. There was a famous battle at Keren in 1941, where British troops took on the Italian Fascists and the Ascari, a mercenary force of Eritrean soldiers who had been trained by the Italians and were famed for their military prowess.

There was a very high death toll, but the British soldiers eventually broke through at Keren and rolled into Asmara. They were left in a caretaker capacity, not only in Asmara but also in Addis Ababa, where they put Haile Selassie back on the throne. The question then became, what to do with Eritrea? The British ran it for a while, but they were not really interested in it. They indulged in some flagrant asset-stripping, removing all the infrastructure that the Italians had put in place.

There was a debate about whether Eritrea should become a trusteeship under Italian rule. People didn’t like that idea because it seemed to be rewarding Italy. Ethiopia wanted Eritrea to become part of the Ethiopian state. The British favored carving the country in two and giving part of it to Sudan.

The population of Eritrea itself was divided. The biggest schism was between the lowlanders in the coastal areas, who tended to be Muslim, and the highlanders, who were Orthodox Christians and had much greater cultural affinities with Christian highlanders in Ethiopia, especially in neighboring Tigray.

Haile Selassie was obsessed with controlling Eritrea because he wanted access to the sea. His predecessors had shared this obsession. They thought that if Ethiopia was landlocked, it would never benefit from trade and interaction with the outside world and would never be able to obtain the modern weapons that European countries were producing. Haile Selassie believed that without a coastline, Ethiopia would be isolated and underdeveloped.

He also regarded Eritrea as an integral part of the Kingdom of Aksum, from which he saw his own state as being descended. Aksum was supposed to have been founded in semi-mythical times by the Queen of Sheba, who had a relationship with King Solomon in Jerusalem.

A party was set up in Eritrea by Christian highlanders called the Unionist Party. The Muslim community was not at all happy about that, and things became quite violent. There was a campaign going on in the countryside with lots of weapons doing the rounds.

Eventually, the UN set up a commission to decide what to do with Eritrea. It decided that Eritrea should be federated with Ethiopia but not under its direct control. It was supposed to be an autonomous unit with its own parliament, the Baito. The British left in 1952, and the Baito took over.

The federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea lasted for just ten years. The parliamentarians who belonged to the Baito were bought off by Ethiopia, which was absolutely determined that Eritrea was going to become part of Ethiopia. In 1962, there was a meeting of the Baito in which they voted themselves out of existence.

A lot of Eritreans still remember this episode and resent the role that the UN played in it. The UN was meant to have signed off on any change to the federal status of Eritrea, yet UN officials completely ignored what happened in 1962. The Eritreans petitioned them, but that book was closed so far as they were concerned.

Very quickly, all the promises that the Ethiopians had made to the parliamentarians of the Baito proved to be empty. They had pledged massive investment, with Ethiopian companies moving to Eritrea and taking on Eritrean staff. They had also promised that the local culture would be respected. Instead, you saw increasingly heavy-handed rule by Haile Selassie.

A lot of things that had been tolerated under the British — trade unions, freedom of the press — were crushed under Ethiopian rule. One of the most unpopular moves was to impose Amharic as the official language. They no longer displayed the Eritrean flag. It was very clear to Eritreans that their local culture was of no interest to the Ethiopians, and they were now going to have to learn Amharic in school.

It was no surprise that the first separatist movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), started up in 1961. It was launched from exile in Cairo by a group of Eritrean students and intellectuals. Many of them were from the Muslim lowlands, because it was the Muslim community that was most dismayed by the union with Ethiopia. They began attacking symbols of Ethiopian authority like police stations.

At the same time, however, Haile Selassie was being bolstered by the Americans. They had discovered a strange characteristic of the plateau in the Eritrean highlands: it receives radio signals from around the world with very little interference. There were spots where you could listen in on the whole world. They set up what they called Kagnew Station, which became a very important listening post for the United States during the Cold War.

Because of Kagnew, the Americans were always very keen to prop up Haile Selassie. They gave him technical assistance and helped fund and train his army because, in return, they would get free access to Kagnew Station so they could listen in on the Soviet Union. Ethiopia became a prime Cold War ally of the United States, while Eritrea was a pawn in that game.

Daniel Finn

What effect did the overthrow of Haile Selassie in the 1970s and the subsequent rise to power of the Derg, the military junta, have on Eritrea?

Michela Wrong

As Ethiopia’s ruler, Haile Selassie had centralized power in his own hands. There was a royal court clustered around him, but he was very much the one who micromanaged everything and knew where all the bodies were buried. Then he developed Alzheimer’s. At the same time, there were issues with various parts of Ethiopia threatening to break off and a lot of unhappiness in his own army — the same army that the United States had been training and building up.

There was one attempted coup that failed and was brutally suppressed. In 1974, however, there was a second coup, which succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie. It was led by a group of idealistic young military officers who called themselves the Derg.

The Derg were left-leaning and Marxist in their thinking. They did away with the royal court and executed a bunch of former generals and ministers. They took over Ethiopia and said that it was necessary to modernize the country because it was stuck in the feudal age.

The Derg had a nationalist agenda — “Ethiopia Above All” was one of their mottos — and they were very keen to suppress dissent in Eritrea. They did what most armies do when they’re facing a guerrilla movement that is popular with local people. They hit back hard, razing villages, wiping out flocks, setting fire to crops, and carrying out massacres of civilians. This resulted in a massive departure of young people from Eritrea.

They fled abroad to start new lives, but also to join up with the liberation movements, the ELF and its rival, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). There was huge recruitment into these two movements, which were doing quite well in their struggle against the army. They had liberated many key towns in Eritrea by 1977, apart from Asmara, Massawa, and Barentu. It looked as if they were about to take control of the country.

At that point, however, the Derg leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, grew tired of Ethiopia’s alliance with the Americans, who he felt were not giving him the weapons he needed to put down the Eritrean secessionists. He turned to Moscow for help. The USSR was actually supporting Somalia, Ethiopia’s rival in the region, but the Soviets decided that if they had to choose, they wanted to have Ethiopia as their key ally in the Horn of Africa.

They ditched Somalia and moved all their advisors to Ethiopia, along with heavy weaponry such as tanks, jet fighters, and artillery. That turned the tide of the war. The Eritrean liberation movements suddenly found themselves on the back foot and staged what they termed a “strategic withdrawal,” surrendering a lot of territory and retreating into a mountain stronghold in an area called Nakfa, where they sat things out for the next decade or so.

The Derg period was extremely brutal for Eritrea. It forged a national character based on dogged self-reliance and resistance to Ethiopian rule. The liberation movements that emerged were all left-leaning, but because the Soviet Union was supporting the Derg, they couldn’t look to Moscow for assistance as so many African separatist movements did. At the beginning, the ELF had relied on some Arab support, but as time went by, they were largely on their own.

They relied on contributions from Eritreans living and working abroad. There were many thousands of people in that position, and they had a well-established tithing system. But they also seized much of the weaponry that the Soviet Union sent to Ethiopia and taught themselves how to use it — how to drive Soviet tanks — and then turned it on the Ethiopian army.

Daniel Finn

The current ruling party in Eritrea is directly descended from that campaign of guerrilla warfare against Ethiopian rule in the 1970s and ’80s. What was the nature of that campaign and the political movement that led it?

Michela Wrong

The Eritrean struggle became a favorite with left-wing intellectuals in the West. You would get members of the British Labour Party heading off to Nafka, the EPLF stronghold, which you had to reach via Sudan. It was a long, difficult trip, but a lot of left-wing activists and journalists did make that journey. They were blown away by what they found, because they came back with the story of a unified, focused, and disciplined left-wing movement fighting against oppressive rule by the Derg.

However, the Eritrean liberation movement had its own internal civil war. The first movement had been the ELF, which was largely Muslim and recruited from the lowlands. There was a breakaway movement within the ELF of Christian highlanders, many of whom were young students. One of them was Isaias Afwerki, the current president of Eritrea.

They disagreed with the ELF on various ideological points, accusing it of being small-minded, regionalist, and unambitious. They broke away to form the EPLF, and there were armed clashes between members of the ELF and its new rival. The EPLF eventually became the dominant liberation movement and chased members of the ELF out of the country into Sudan. By the early 1980s, most of them were outside Eritrea, and the EPLF was the main game in town, with its base in Nakfa.

I’ve spoken to people who went to Nakfa in those years. I’m not of the generation that went out there, although I’ve been to the area subsequently. They tell you that if you visited the EPLF in Nakfa, everything was done in the dark of night because there was constant bombardment by the Ethiopian Air Force. Everyone lived underground. There was an underground hospital, underground laboratories, and underground schools for the children of the fighters.

The fighters were both male and female. About 30 percent were women, who dressed and fought like the men. It was very egalitarian, and it was a highly sophisticated movement. They had their own newspaper and their own film unit, which captured lots of priceless footage. They had theaters and guest rooms for visiting journalists. They had underground offices and sports contests.

They even staged international conferences, all in this mountain stronghold under constant bombardment, which would be attended by left-wing politicians from Europe. One of the people I interviewed for my book was a cook who had taught himself how to cater for these conferences. He told me that, at one stage, he catered for a conference that attracted six thousand delegates.

They were very impassionate about education. They wanted to educate the people of Eritrea and went out to the villages to do it. The education was all rather left-wing and Marxist in its nature. They had barefoot doctors who would visit the villages too.

It was a very committed, impassioned, ideologically driven campaign. It’s a sort of golden era that people still look back on with a certain romantic glow attached to it. There was a sense of Eritrea as being sui generis — a sense of exceptionalism and a philosophy of self-reliance that came through that. However, I think that’s been as much of a curse as a blessing as time has gone by.

Daniel Finn

What role did the EPLF play in the final demise of Mengistu’s regime at the beginning of the 1990s?

Michela Wrong

It was crucial — I don’t think Mengistu would have been toppled had it not been for the EPLF. At a certain point, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was born in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, led by Meles Zenawi. It teamed up with the EPLF. The Tigrayans were as hostile to the Derg and rule from Addis Ababa as the Eritreans were, so the two movements joined forces. The Eritreans were always the more experienced partner in that relationship.

The fact that the Derg was under such fierce attack in both Tigray and Eritrea meant that it had to concentrate much of its army in the north and it was fighting on several fronts. The army was highly demoralized. The war had gone on for much too long and didn’t seem to have much of an ideological content. The Amhara and Oromo groups in central and southern Ethiopia were contesting rule from Addis Ababa as well.

The Cold War was also coming to an end, so Moscow was no longer so keen to be sending huge amounts of expensive military equipment to Ethiopia. Mengistu was constantly asking for more and more deliveries, whereupon his demoralized officers would leave the equipment on the battlefield to be taken by the EPLF, along with thousands of prisoners. It wasn’t really serving any purpose.

In 1988, there was a turning point at the Battle of Afabet, where the Eritreans broke out of their mountain stronghold and gained the upper hand. There was an attempted military coup against Mengistu in the aftermath. He repressed the coup and executed some of his best officers, but there was a sense that the regime was on borrowed time.

There was a massive tank battle in Massawa on the coast — the biggest tank battle since World War II and another high point for the EPLF. Eventually the Ethiopian garrison in Asmara surrendered, and Eritrean fighters rolled in their trucks through the streets of the city, cheered on by the local population. Very soon afterward, the TPLF and the EPLF also sent their tanks into Addis Ababa.

Before that happened, Mengistu had nominally gone to inspect some troops in the south of the country, but he told the pilot to keep going. He fled the country and went into exile in Zimbabwe, where he lives to this day. That was the end of the Derg, because the TPLF took control of Ethiopia at the head of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of like-minded parties in which the TPLF was always dominant.

Looking back on the armed struggle, as it’s known in Eritrea, they had pulled off an amazing victory. A small rebel movement had fought one of the biggest and best-equipped armies in Africa, and it had won. But we have to remember that the victory came at a price.

It’s estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Eritreans lost their lives. One in every fifty Eritrean families lost a relative. If you visit households in Eritrea today, you’ll often see on the mantelpiece a martyr’s certificate, which is a blue certificate that the government gave out to people who lost someone at the front fighting the Ethiopians.

Daniel Finn

What was the relationship between the EPLF and the Tigrayan leaders, such as Meles Zenawi, who dominated Ethiopia’s government after 1991?

Michela Wrong

At the start, it was a very good relationship. Eritrea became independent in 1993, and there was a feeling here in the West at the time that these were two key countries in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea and Ethiopia were both run by movements that had been established by guerrilla forces. Those movements were both left-leaning and very much committed to developing their countries. They were in the game to combat poverty and famine.

Isaias Afwerki and Meles Zenawi were labeled as being part of an “African renaissance” of leaders that also included Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and perhaps even Laurent Kabila in the Congo. They were all seen as progressively minded former rebel leaders who knew what they wanted.

But things didn’t work out as they were meant to, because relations between the TPLF in Addis Ababa and the EPLF in Asmara began to sour. The TPLF immediately granted Eritrea independence. In 1993, after a referendum, it stopped being the northernmost province of Ethiopia and became a country in its own right. There was investment pouring in and the diaspora was coming back to Eritrea.

This was when I started visiting the country. You saw Eritrean businessmen coming back and starting up factories. There were building works everywhere around town and an incredible energy — they were replanting all the trees that had been destroyed during the struggle and trying to repair the war damage. You saw former fighters becoming taxi drivers or setting up little businesses. It felt like a golden age.

But there had always been differences between the TPLF and the EPLF. There had been moments where they had been on very bad terms during the struggle. For example, the TPLF was very bitter about the fact that, at one stage, the Eritreans had closed off access via Sudan — access on which the TPLF relied to get not only military supplies but also famine relief.

There were also ideological differences. One of the first things the TPLF did was to introduce the concept of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. This gave the different parts of the country the right to secede from Ethiopia if that was what they wanted. Isaias Afwerki did not approve of ethnic federalism. He saw it as a form of sectarianism and suspected there was an agenda behind it: maybe the Tigrayans were planning to use it as a way of building up a “Greater Tigray,” which could then become a threat to its northern neighbor, Eritrea.

As well as that, there was a long-standing resentment between the EPLF and the TPLF because the EPLF was the older of the two rebel movements. It tended to adopt a rather patronizing attitude towards the TPLF, which had only seen the light of day in the 1970s. You would hear former Eritrean fighters saying, “We had to teach these people how to fight.”

Yet now the TPLF was running a huge country with a huge army, while Eritrea was just a small, dry, arid land to the north. The TPLF felt that it deserved rather more consideration than that. It resented the patronizing tone with which the Eritreans would address it.

In the late 1990s, some economic issues started to be a problem. Eritrea decided that it wanted to introduce its own currency, the nakfa. Ethiopia didn’t see any need for that. Its government said, “Let’s continue to use the birr,” which was printed in Addis Ababa. Things got to be very bad on that front — so bad that trade between the two countries ground to a halt.

There had been a series of border incidents along the colonially demarcated border. As with all such borders, there were always areas that were ambiguous. It wasn’t clear who ran which part; the maps said one thing, but the administrative record said another. In a little village called Badme, there was an incident in May 1998 with armed men on both sides, and the Eritreans sent in their tanks. Suddenly, the two countries were at war again over their border.

That really took the world by surprise. Everyone thought, “My goodness, how can this be happening?” There were so many similarities between the Tigrayan highlands and the Eritrean highlands where the people spoke Tigrinya. They had the same religion, and many of them were related to one another. They knew each other, they had fought alongside each other during the struggle — what on earth was going on? That was a decisive moment in Eritrean and Ethiopian history.

Daniel Finn

What were the outcomes of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia? How did Isaias Afwerki go on to transform the Eritrean political system into one of the world’s most rigid dictatorships?

Michela Wrong

Eritrea lost the war. It lasted for two years, and by the time it ended with the Algiers agreement in 2000, Ethiopian troops were in possession of alarmingly large swathes of Eritrea. At that point, the two countries were persuaded by the international community to go to arbitration, and a boundary commission was appointed.

The war created a crisis within the regime in Eritrea because there was a feeling that this had been an unnecessary war. People felt that it should have been possible to sort out the issue of where the border lay and all the economic and financial issues through negotiation. They thought that Isaias had been pigheaded and had not wanted to listen. They also thought he had made a series of key military mistakes and that he had refused to listen to his generals, conducting the war strategy himself.

All of this was openly discussed. Eritrea was going through what has been described to me as its equivalent of the Prague Spring. Newspapers were discussing the failings of Isaias. There was a Berlin Manifesto, as it was called, signed by a group of Eritrean intellectuals who said that this experience showed the failings of one-man rule and who called for the implementation of Eritrea’s constitution, which allowed for multiparty democracy.

There was a group of cabinet ministers who went to see Isaias known as the G-15. They called for a meeting to discuss these issues. Instead of listening to them, he had them rounded up and jailed. They have never been seen since.

The fate of the G-15 is the great silence in Eritrean history. These were former comrades who had fought alongside Isaias and were immensely respected in the community. They disappeared into jails. We know that some of them have since died. They’re all aging now — it’s been twenty-two years since they were arrested.

In a stroke, Eritrea became a dictatorship. I think the signs of autocratic tendencies on the part of Isaias were always there if you look back. We know that, during the independence struggle, there were various challenges launched against his leadership of the EPLF, and they were brutally suppressed. People were executed at the war front, which is quite extraordinary when you think that these people were fighting the Ethiopian army at the time.

In 1991, the EPLF took on a new name, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). It was the only party in Eritrea. There was a multiparty constitution that was widely debated, and everyone was waiting for it to be ratified and implemented, but it never was. That was the first moment where people were thinking, “Why isn’t the constitution being implemented?”

Afterward, with the Badme War and the rounding up of the G-15, was effectively the end of Eritrean democracy. Various parts of the Eritrean system that might have stood up to Isaias were silenced one by one. The press was closed down, and so was Asmara University. The Orthodox Church was silenced, and the same thing happened with the Grand Mosque. Parliament became a total shadow of itself, with no serious decisions being taken there.

You ended up with a situation where Isaias and a very small group of aides who had been with him for many, many years were taking all the key decisions in Eritrea. The biggest change instituted after the Badme War was conscription. Up to that point, the men who came back from the armed struggle were being gradually demobilized and given civilian jobs. That all stopped with the war against Ethiopia. Open-ended military service was now decreed as the duty of every citizen, male or female, within certain age limits.

Youngsters in Eritrea were all being told that they would have to go off to the middle of the Sahel and train because the country was on a war footing. Despite the boundary ruling that came out of international arbitration, the border remained un-demarcated. Eritreans were told by the government that they were in a “no war, no peace” situation: “We have to be constantly on the alert, we could be invaded at any time by Ethiopia — you have to do your national duty.”

Most people who look at Eritrea think that this was really Isaias Afwerki’s way of averting an Arab Spring–type uprising. If you keep young people endlessly drilling in the middle of the desert, they’re not going to represent a challenge to your rule. This became a key story in Eritrea because, of course, so many young people didn’t want to do open-ended military service. It meant they couldn’t get married, have children, pursue their education, or set up their own businesses. They started leaving the country in droves.

For fifteen years, we’ve seen a flood of people out of the country. At one stage, a couple of years ago, there were five thousand departures every month, even though it’s illegal to leave Eritrea. The UN has estimated that one-tenth of the country’s population — half a million people — are now living abroad. That’s a terrible indictment of the PFDJ and of the EPLF. The idea that young people would be desperate to leave the country that the EPLF fought so hard to establish is desperately sad.

Eritrea also became very isolated. It was routine to describe it as a pariah state. It began supporting Ethiopian rebel movements that were challenging the regime in Addis Ababa as well as supporting al-Shabab in Somalia. The United States and other Western states slapped sanctions on Eritrea for that. There was increasingly a feeling among Western diplomats and policymakers that Eritrea was a problem. They saw it as a nasty regime that was oppressing its own young people, supporting jihadism in Somalia, making trouble, and proving very difficult to deal with.

In Ethiopia, on the other hand, Meles Zenawi was a very articulate, well-educated prime minister who sat on Tony Blair’s Africa commission. He was seen as a great partner who had lots of projects running with the World Bank and the IMF, winning plaudits around the world for his development work and pro-poor policies. A feeling developed that giant Ethiopia was the player to deal with, while Eritrea was just a difficult pariah state in the north.

I get quite annoyed with that characterization. While there was a huge prickliness about Eritrea during this period, they did have cause for complaint. The boundary commission came up with a ruling about the disputed areas. It found that some of the places that had been fought over during the Badme War did indeed belong to Ethiopia, but Badme itself, where it had all started, actually belonged to Eritrea. On that particular point, the Eritreans were right, but Ethiopia was in occupation of that area.

At that point, the international community, which was guaranteeing the arbitration process, should have said to Ethiopia, “You need to pull out of Badme and demarcate the border.” But even though it was supplying millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia, which gave it enormous leverage, the international community never applied any real pressure on the Ethiopians to do so.

The Eritreans were very much aware of that and felt that Ethiopia was being treated one way while Eritrea was being treated differently because it was small and didn’t seem very important to the West. That built up a sense of grievance. You can draw a straight line between the failure to implement the boundary commission ruling on Badme and what has been happening over the past couple of years in Tigray.

Daniel Finn

How did the thawing of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea in recent years influence the outbreak of war in Tigray? What role did the Eritrean army play in the fighting?

Michela Wrong

One of the turning points was the death of Meles Zenawi, the enlightened, highly intelligent prime minister of Ethiopia in 2012. He died very young, aged 57, of leukemia. It removed a key actor from the game. His successor didn’t hang around very long, and the influence of the TPLF started waning, having always been the dominant player in the EPRDF coalition running Ethiopia.

The TPLF was now on the back foot. It had lost its charismatic leader and had been in power for too long in most people’s judgment. It was increasingly unpopular. Its ideas about ethnic federalism were being challenged and were seen by many as a sham. Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister. He comes from the Oromo community, which had particular issues with the TPLF and the way in which Ethiopia was being run at that stage.

Abi Ahmed was a former intelligence officer. He was a young, charismatic, Pentecostal figure, talking the talk about political reform as well as saying that ethnic federalism hadn’t worked and Ethiopia needed to unite as a nation. He appeared to be doing a lot of very important things.

At that stage, Ethiopia was in a near-permanent state of emergency. There were endless curfews and thousands of people had been rounded up and jailed. Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and exposed the track record of torture that had been practiced in detention centers under the TPLF and the EPRDF. He welcomed home exiled dissidents who were campaigning against the TPLF. He also prosecuted high-ranking TPLF insiders who had become pretty corrupt by that stage.

Most significantly, Abiy reached out to Isaias and said, “Okay, we’re going to deal with this border issue — you can have Badme. It’s ridiculous to have this ‘no war, no peace’ situation — we must cooperate.” There was a very important summit where the two men met in Asmara and Isaias was invited to Addis Ababa. It was the first time in two decades that there had been a summit between these two leaderships, and they reestablished diplomatic relations.

Because of that overture, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, which now looks like a very ironic award, given how much war he has presided over since then. There have certainly been calls for it to be rescinded. After the summit, what remained of the TPLF was increasingly at odds with Abiy. The hard-liners within that movement, who had been sacked, disgraced, and humiliated in public, retired to Tigray in the north.

Abiy started work on centralizing his Prosperity Party. Then there was a spat with the Tigrayan leaders over the staging of elections. Abiy said that they couldn’t stage elections because Ethiopia had been hit by COVID-19. In Tigray, the TPLF went ahead and staged elections without him. That was already a very autonomous gesture.

In November 2020, as relations between the TPLF and the central power in Addis Ababa were getting worse and worse, the TPLF attacked the northern command in Tigray. There were mass arrests and lots of Ethiopian commanders were killed in the attack. The Tigrayans said that Abiy’s government was bolstering the northern command because it was planning to attack them, so they had just carried out a preemptive strike. People in Addis Ababa, on the other hand, saw this as a stab in the back — as if you had invited people to a dinner party and then slaughtered them.

That marked the beginning of the Tigray War, which Abiy has always been reluctant to call a war. He called it a “law enforcement operation” — he’s a bit like Vladimir Putin in that respect. Eritrea’s involvement in that war was pivotal. Abiy was also facing a challenge in the south from the Oromo Liberation Army, so his forces were stretched, but the Eritreans were there to give him a helping hand in Tigray by sending in their troops. Ethiopian troops also went in via Eritrea to attack the TPLF, which found itself the subject of a pincer movement.

A lot of people, myself included, assumed at the start that the TPLF would be defeated very quickly. In fact, they staged an extraordinary military campaign at the beginning. Having lost territory, they regained it. They knew the terrain in their region, and they had a track record of military efficiency, whereas the Ethiopian government was sending in people who didn’t know the terrain, relying on sheer manpower, and seeing a lot of its soldiers killed.

There was a point when it even looked as if the TPLF might start advancing on Addis Abba, and Abiy ended up ordering a mass mobilization. But eventually the tide of the war turned, probably because the Ethiopian army started using drones that it had purchased abroad. They seem to have made all the difference.

One of the most shocking things for people like me who’ve been watching this war from afar is the behavior of the Eritrean army in Tigray. Isaias repeatedly used the phrase “game over” when talking about the TPLF. He gave the impression that he wants to crush the TPLF and totally eradicate it from the landscape. If that involves killing thousands and thousands of Tigrayans, that doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

There have been atrocities on all sides — everyone agrees on that. But you have seen the Eritrean soldiers accused of taking part in massacres and of using gang rape as an instrument of war. They have been accused of engaging in systematic pillaging, looting hospitals, and burning crops so that Tigrayan farmers won’t be able to feed their people. Tigray is a country that is always hungry and in need of famine relief.

This scorched-earth approach was very shocking to someone like me, who knows from history that the EPLF prided itself on the way it treated civilians and prisoners of war. The impression it gives is that these youngsters who spent years drilling in the Sahel were let off the leash. They’ve been brainwashed into hatred of Tigrayans, who are seen as the traditional enemies despite the fact that so many of them are distantly related to Eritreans and they have the same religion and cultural references. They’ve just been let off the leash by their commanders and told, “Do as you will.” That was very depressing and shocking.

We now have a peace deal that was signed in Pretoria last autumn. One of the problems with that deal is that it doesn’t seem to include any reference to Eritrean forces on the ground in Tigray. Until that issue is addressed, we don’t know if the Eritreans are going to be withdrawing or staying put.

It has been a very costly war. We know that people have starved inside Tigray. We don’t know in what numbers because the press hasn’t been given access to that area. The Ethiopian government was using humanitarian aid and food aid as a weapon, cutting off access as a way of bringing that province to its knees. We may never know quite how many people have died in Tigray during the war.

Abiy Ahmed emerges as a victor, but he’s also been morally diminished by what has taken place over the last few years in Tigray. He’s definitely seen his international reputation trashed. Looking at Isaias, you have to say that he has played the long game. He was someone who, from what I understand, always thought that Eritrea should be the dominant, hegemonic player in the Horn of Africa, despite its tiny size. It appears that he has now gotten his way, because Eritrea emerges from this war as a kingmaker — the tail that’s wagging the enormous dog that is Ethiopia.

This tiny little country really seems to be able to make or break power in Ethiopia. Back in the 2000s, at the end of the Badme War, when Eritrea was being treated as a pariah state, I don’t think anyone imagined that it would emerge as such a key player in the Horn of Africa. It is a very good and very sad example of that old proverb “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” That seems to be what Isaias has been doing over the last few years.

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Michela Wrong is a journalist and the author of several books about African politics, including I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation (2004) and Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (2021).

Daniel Finn is the features editor at Jacobin. He is the author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.

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