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Conflict with TPLF in Tigray Region likely to be prolonged, transform into insurgency, involve neighboring states – Ethiopia Analysis

Executive Summary

The ongoing military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is being framed as a ‘rule of law operation’ to downplay the scale of the operation. However, given the TPLF’s entrenched position and capabilities, the conventional war is likely to devolve into a protracted insurgency.

The government’s alliance with Amhara militias particularly in disputed areas along the Amhara-Tigray border is likely to set a dangerous precedent. Given that land disputes are common across Ethiopia, the perception of tacit approval for these militias may prompt other conflicts over disputed areas.

The federal conflict with the TPLF also threatens to involve Eritrea, whose role thus far has largely been logistical or in self-defense. However, this restraint will likely be tested, particularly if the TPLF conducts further attacks on Eritrean locations or forces.

The conflict will result in a humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees fleeing in Sudan. Sudan remains ill-equipped to deal with the strain on its system, heightening existing insecurity caused by arms proliferation, land disputes, and resource competition.

While the government has stated that the conflict is only against the TPLF and not ethnic Tigrayans, this nuance is likely to be lost as the conflict endures. Increased nationalistic sentiment and anti-TPLF rhetoric heighten the potential for violence against Tigray citizens.

Those operating or residing in Ethiopia over the coming days are advised to avoid all travel to Tigray Region as well as the Tigray-Amhara border region due to the ongoing conflict.


On November 4, following months of simmering tensions, the federal government under PM Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive that he later described as a “war” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which leads the Tigray Regional State government. The immediate trigger for the conflict was an alleged attack by the TPLF on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in the state capital of Mekelle and in other areas. However, tensions had become amplified after the TPLF held state elections on September 9, polls that the federal government called illegal. This appeared to escalate in late October after the federal government diverted program funds away from the state government and, at the same time, the TPLF refused to allow a newly-appointed deputy commander of the Northern Command to take his position.

Relations between PM Abiy and the TPLF have been strained since 2018 when Abiy was designated as the first ethnic Oromo PM in Ethiopia, essentially unseating the TPLF from the center of the government after they had ruled since 1991. Abiy later embarked on a raft of reforms, including the contentious dissolution of the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition on February 4, 2019. Following this, the TPLF refused to join Abiy’s new ruling Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP), as the TPLF which has dominated politics in Ethiopia within the EPRDF, despite only constituting 6 percent of the population, felt increasingly marginalized. This appeared to culminate in the September 9 elections, as the TPLF regards the federal government as “illegitimate” because its constitutional mandate was supposed to end on October 5 after national polls slated for August were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Current Situation

The House of Federation and Council of Ministers declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray Region on November 4 and later approved the establishment of a transitional government. This followed statements by the federal government that the purpose of the operation is to disarm the TPLF and remove its leaders.

Sources citing internal UN documents indicate that the TPLF took control of the ENDF Northern Command headquarters in Mekelle and seized weapons from its armories, which partially verified the TPLF’s claims that the Northern Command defected.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael called for negotiations on November 8, though also stated that Tigray would defend itself until such time that talks take place. PM Abiy and other federal spokespeople have rejected calls for dialogue.

The TPLF repeatedly accused Eritrea of sending troops over the border to attack Tigrayan forces, which Eritrean officials have reportedly denied. Meanwhile, Sudanese officials and aid agencies have reported that over 27,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan, with thousands more expected in the coming days.

On November 13, the TPLF fired rockets toward the cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar in Amhara Region, causing damage to airport complexes in both cities. On November 14, the TPLF fired at least three rockets that struck Asmara, Eritrea. Both attacks were claimed by the TPLF.

As of November 18, the federal military offensive in Tigray Region has reportedly moved through western, northern, and southern Tigray toward Mekelle.

Assessments & Forecast

PM Abiy’s war against TPLF likely to result in protracted insurgency in Tigray Region

PM Abiy Ahmed gave a speech on November 8 framing the military intervention in Tigray Region as a ‘law enforcement operation’ to guarantee peace and stability and to bring the TPLF to justice, as the perpetrators of instability. By labeling the military offensive as a means to re-establish law and order, PM Abiy is likely attempting to downplay the scale of the military activity in Tigray despite not giving any timeline for the operations, along with the political and military difficulty in rooting out the TPLF from the region. This effort is further aided by the communications blackout that remains in place in Tigray and the government’s efforts to consolidate information releases into select federal sources. While PM Abiy and the federal authorities have repeatedly insisted that the ENDF has been successful “on all fronts”, the lack of independent information makes all claims difficult to corroborate.

Such corroboration is needed, as the TPLF commands a regional paramilitary force that is led by the former army generals, while also commanding militias containing war veterans of the conflict against Eritrea in 1998-2008. Furthermore, even a partial defection by the Northern Command could aid the TPLF’s defense against the ENDF offensive. The presence of significant Ethiopian military hardware in Tigray Region, intended for the defense of the country against Eritrea, has given the TPLF significant resources. This was evidenced by the use of rockets against Bahir Dar and Gondar in Amhara Region as a warning to halt the advance in Tigray.

With that said, the ENDF does appear to be moving its advance forward and pushing the front lines increasingly toward Mekelle. FORECAST: In the coming days and weeks, the ENDF is likely to continue its success in moving further into Tigray, reaching the state capital Mekelle, with the TPLF likely withdrawing from the major urban centers and engaging in guerilla tactics against federal forces. This is significant, as the TPLF is well-versed in these tactics, as witnessed by the guerilla war to topple the ‘Derg’ government in 1991. In this sense, while the ENDF may capture major urban centres in Tigray including Mekelle, the rugged terrain of the countryside and the TPLF’s experience in waging an insurgency provide a platform for a protracted and costly war. This insurgency effort is likely to be further aided by the call to all ethnic Tigrayans to defend themselves against the federal government.

Conflict with TPLF risks violence expanding southward, with fragile internal cohesion further likely to be strained

Given the specter of a prolonged insurgency against the TPLF, albeit with the ENDF controlling the major urban centers, the government will need additional troops to secure the countryside. In this context, the government is likely to revert to redeploying troops placed in other restive areas of the country such as the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), and Oromia Region to the Tigray theater. This also appears to include troops recalled from Somalia, which are intended to act as a buffer against al-Shabaab militants along the border. Such actions will likely stretch ENDF capabilities, especially given that many areas of the country continue to witness ethnically driven violence. FORECAST: In this scenario, the absence of ENDF troops in other volatile regions of Ethiopia heightens the potential for attacks by ethnic militias against minorities in various states, which could then be countered by these minorities forming self-defense groups to protect their neighborhoods.

Given these conditions, the government will likely come to rely more heavily on ethnic Amhara militias to preserve the stability in the Tigray Region, especially in the disputed areas in western Tigray. The status of these disputed areas is likely to draw Amhara Region’s interest as well as represent a potential trigger for wider grievance or conflict. Amharas living in areas bordering Tigray Region claim the Welkait Woreda illegally annexed by the TPLF when it assumed power in 1991, for example. This longstanding dispute likely spurred greater Amhara involvement in the federal offensive in Tigray, with Amhara Region troops as well as local Amhara militias operating in coordination with the ENDF in its operations in these territories. These militias will likely use the targeting of Bahir Dar and Gondar to galvanize local citizens and further spur recruitment efforts against the TPLF.

However, the use of Amhara militia in apparent tandem with ENDF operations is likely to set a dangerous precedent. While it is likely that the ENDF now holds the disputed lands such as Wolkait, with other efforts ongoing to push through the Raya Woreda, also claimed by Amhara, the perception of the role of Amhara will heighten the perception of PM Abiy’s acceptance of Amhara nationalism. Such a dynamic is likely in areas such as Oromia Region, where leaders have long accused Abiy of favoring the Amhara over the Oromo. FORECAST: The perception that the federal government has allowed Amhara militias to recapture their disputed territory may embolden other states to use their own militia forces to raid and attempt to retake disputed regions. In Tigray, the TPLF will also likely use the presence of Amhara militias in disputed land to further bolster recruitment efforts against both federal and Amhara forces.

FORECAST: Given that nearly every state in Ethiopia claims land in neighboring states, this type of escalation could lead to pockets of violence across the country. If pressured by the Abiy administration to halt, other state governments may allude to the appearance that the federal government has tacitly accepted the Amhara role in Tigray, which further complicates the efforts to curb violence. Additionally, given that the stated goal of the military offensive is to remove the TPLF and install a provisional Tigray transitional government, the fact that Amhara militias have appeared to capture long sought after land is likely to act as an impediment, as the Amhara government is unlikely to allow a new Tigray government to retake these lands. This will likely raise objections among the ethnic Tigrayans, who will already be inclined to view the transitional government as false or weak and continue to support the TPLF, which has commanded strong support in the state since they came to dominate the national government in 1991 and made Tigray Region the richest and most influential state in Ethiopia.

Role of Eritrea in conflict with Tigray likely to provoke tensions within Ethiopia

Another dynamic in the war against the TPLF is the perceived and actual role of Eritrea during the conflict. The TPLF and Eritrea have been at odds with each other since Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Ethiopia, then led by the TPLF, fought a war with Eritrea from 1998-2000, which is said to have left 100,000 people dead. However, relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa improved considerably after PM Abiy came to power, and signed a peace deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in 2018. However, Tigrayan leaders remained highly skeptical of the peace deal, which included a promise by PM Abiy to honor a 2002 ruling on the demarcation of the border between Eritrea and Tigray, where the town of Badme was rewarded to Eritrea but remained and continues to remain under Ethiopian control.

Eritrean involvement in the conflict thus far has remained muted, with Asmara mainly acting in a defensive capacity in preventing TPLF fighters from fleeing north, as the ENDF advances northward. That said, the TPLF has accused Eritrea of shelling Tigrayan positions along the border, which both Eritrea and Ethiopia have denied. However, the Ethiopian government has made statements noting that ENDF soldiers, who were allegedly wounded in TPLF attacks, crossed the border into Eritrea before regrouping and counter-attacking. This is a sign that Eritrea is at least cooperating with Ethiopia, and is likely tacitly assisting with medical and logistical support on the frontlines. The TPLF rocket attack on Asmara was likely a response to this perceived involvement in the conflict. However, it also remains possible that the TPLF attacked Eritrea as a means to galvanize the Tigryan populace by propagating the narrative of the TPLF defending Tigray Region from both internal and external aggression.

FORECAST: In this context, it is likely that Eritrea will likely remain uninvolved in major combat operations, despite TPLF claims of PM Abiy and President Isaias working together to crush the TPLF. Asmara’s likely pragmatic stance is likely due to the fact that despite the peace deal with Ethiopia, a protracted civil war will weaken Ethiopia and increase its reliance on Eritrea in the process. Furthermore, following the 2018 peace deal, the UN lifted sanctions on Eritrea, which means that President Isaias will likely be wary of openly sending troops into active combat, and risk the reimposition of sanctions. However, given the rocket attack on Asmara, the Eritrean government’s restraint will likely be tested if further such attacks continue. In this scenario, Eritrea’s involvement in the war would further destabilize an already precarious conflict and open up another front in the fighting.

Conflict against Tigray to adversely affect Sudan with increased refugee flows, given porous frontier

Given the TPLF is unlikely to escape northward towards Eritrea, and the conflict will likely metastasize into an insurgency, TPLF elements will likely seek refuge along the border with Sudan. While Sudanese authorities closed the border on November 5, the frontier is approximately 775 km and has long been a hub for smuggling. This partially explains why the ENDF targeted western Tigray at the start of the campaign and seized airports and territory along the border, seeing this as a way to cut off TPLF escape. While these actions will likely make it more relatively difficult for the TPLF, it will be difficult to fully secure the border, particularly in the long term. FORECAST: Thus, the TPLF is likely to utilize the frontier with Sudan to procure weaponry and other supplies for their insurgency campaign against the government. While Ethiopia will likely press Sudan to increase patrolling at the border to prevent smuggling, these efforts may not be sufficient and the border will serve as some form of pressure release for the TPLF.

Furthermore, the conflict in the Tigray Region is poised to be a humanitarian disaster for both Ethiopia and Sudan. The border with Sudan will remain a gateway for fleeing civilians and potentially combatants, with Sudanese and UN authorities saying that they are preparing for approximately 100,000 refugees over the coming weeks. According to UN reports and local Sudanese sources, the majority of the crossings are occurring near Hamdayat in Kassala State, with Luqdi in Gedaref State being another major point of refugee inflows. FORECAST: The displacement will cause immense strain on Sudanese authorities who lack the resources to deal with such a massive inflow of people, in rural areas with lack of infrastructure. Further exacerbating the crisis is the fact that both Kassala and Gedaref states have witnessed intense ethnic conflicts, often over land disputes and resource competition, both internally as well as with Ethiopian farmers across the frontier. Access to land and resources are further likely to be further compromised by the refugee crisis.

PM Abiy likely to consolidate power, persecution of ethnic Tigray likely to intensify

Within days of the launch of the offensive, PM Abiy replaced his army chief and reshuffled his entire security cabinet in what the government termed as a regular change of staff. While initial reports sought to portray the replacement of the army chief as a sign of dissension within the ranks of the national security apparatus, it is notable that most of the individuals were given different responsibilities within the government hierarchy and not demoted, with few exceptions. This is likely a reflection of Abiy staffing key positions with people he regards as trustworthy and capable in handling the Tigray offensive, while also keeping the security hierarchy relatively stable. For example, Temesgen Tiruneh resigned from his post as President of Amhara Region and was appointed as the intelligence chief, likely because he is a known confidant and ally of the PM.

However, PM Abiy’s consolidation within the security establishment, with the appointment of trusted aides runs the risk of the government disregarding any dissenting voices, and concern over the effect of the war on internal cohesion. FORECAST: The government is likely to continue seeking to portray complete support for the ENDF and its operations in Tigray by organizing additional pro-government demonstrations, events, and blood drives, as has been seen across the country. However, these activities are propped up by the fact that the government has arrested some of its most strident critics, especially in the Oromia Region, where opposition politicians such as Jawar Mohammad and Eskinder Nega remain and will continue to remain imprisoned or under house arrest in the coming months. Furthermore, the government’s suppression of the press will allow the administration to portray public support for the Tigray operations, while the internet blackout in Tigray allows the government to project its battlefield successes.

FORECAST: In Addis Ababa, the government and the security agencies will likely continue with the arrests of TPLF leaders and ethnic Tigray linked to the party. Security agencies will also likely periodically publish information about raids conducted wherein the government uncovered large caches of weapons, they alleged were to be used by TPLF elements to cause insecurity in the city. However, at the time of writing, the TPLF has not demonstrated any capability to conduct large-scale attacks in Addis Ababa, the potential for disgruntled TPLF elements or supporters to conduct small-scale incidents such as the throwing or planting of grenades as witnessed on November 11, and November 14.

FORECAST: More broadly, while PM Abiy has stated that the war in Tigray was aimed specifically against the TPLF and not the ethnic Tigray, this nuance is likely to get further ignored over the coming months. Multiple reports have indicated that ethnic Tigray working within the government have been relieved of their positions, while the government has also sought to remove Tigray security officials from positions of power within regional organizations. These assessments are bolstered by the African Union’s sacking of its head of security on November 11, after a memo from the Ethiopian defense ministry questioned the ethnic Tigray officer’s loyalty to Addis Ababa. This perceived sense of persecution by the government is likely to filter through into other areas of the country, leading to a heightened potential for attacks on ethnic Tigray by majority communities. Ultimately, the conflict with the TPLF will likely herald entrenched insecurity within Ethiopia over the coming weeks and months.


Those operating or residing in Ethiopia over the coming days are advised to avoid all travel to Tigray Region as well as the Tigray-Amhara border region due to the ongoing conflict.

Those in Tigray Region are advised to minimize all movement. Consider contingency and evacuation plans when possible.

Travel to Addis Ababa may continue while maintaining heightened vigilance in crowded areas due to the high risks of non-violent personal property crime.

Those operating or residing in Oromia Region’s West Wollega Zone are advised to maintain heightened vigilance over the coming days and be prepared to comply with additional or sudden security measures and checkpoints.

Those operating in Ethiopia and particularly in Addis Ababa are advised to consult with us for support at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434.

Assassinations of army chief of staff, Amhara Region president underscore fragility of political transition – Ethiopia Alert

Please be advised

In a press release from the Office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on June 23, the Ethiopian government confirmed that several high-ranking officials in the Amhara Region government and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) were killed in a series of attacks during the evening of June 22.

The press release described a “coup attempt” in which the President of Amhara Region, Ambachew Mekonnen, along with his advisor, were shot and killed in Bahir Dar. Amhara’s Attorney General was wounded and remains in treatment. The government attributed this attack to General Asaminew Tsige, the head of Amhara’s Peace and Security Bureau.

Several hours after the events in Bahir Dar, the press release notes that the Chief of Staff of the ENDF, General Seare Mekonnen, was shot and killed at his residence in Addis Ababa alongside retired General Gezai Abera. The government claims the perpetrator of this attack was Seare’s bodyguard.

On June 24, General Asaminew was reportedly killed in a shootout with federal forces in Bahir Dar who had been conducting search operations to locate him.

Following the intial events on June 22, the government instituted a nationwide internet blackout. As of the time of writing on June 25, internet services remain shut down.

Government Confirms Assassinations in Ethiopia on June 22

Assessments & Forecast

The assailants identified by the government appear to fall within a hardline faction of Amhara nationalists. In particular, General Asaminew Tsige was formerly jailed for his involvement in the Ginbot 7 rebel group, though was released and given amnesty under PM Abiy’s reform program in 2018. The assailants’ integration into the military and Amhara Region government would have allowed them to gain sensitive information regarding the targeted officials’ whereabouts and vulnerabilities. That both the Amhara president and ENDF chief of staff were killed in the same night suggests this was a pre-planned and coordinated effort. However, given the total internet blackout and lack of further information emerging from the country, the sole source of the culprits’ identities is the Ethiopian government and this remains uncorroborated. Despite Asaminew’s background, that an Amhara security official in his position is being accused of such attacks speaks to the deep fractures within the federal and regional governments that have emerged under the Abiy administration, particularly as the PM has removed much of the former military leadership and appointed a new generation of security officials.

Although the PM’s office has termed Ambachew Mekonnen’s assassination to be a “coup attempt”, it appears that the attacks against both Ambachew and Seare to be part of a destabilization campaign. This is likely a reaction to continued efforts by the Abiy government to pursue reforms and organize elections in 2020, as well as an expression of the deep ethnonationalist tensions that have only increased in recent months. This has included various outbursts of ethnic violence in and around Amhara Region, often over matters of territory and influence. Abiy, the first Oromo leader of Ethiopia, is viewed by some as favoring his own Oromo ethnic group in political and security matters. Amhara hardliners likely view Abiy and his reformist allies of being unwilling to protect Amhara from encroachment by Oromos to the south as well as by Tigrayans to the north, leaving them to take matters into their own hands. Moreover, undermining the stability of Amhara Region as well as the ENDF serves to increase pressure within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition as it navigates the political transition in the country and its constituent ethnic-based parties compete for greater influence and power.

Regardless of whether Amhara nationalists were in fact the conspirators, these events as a whole are indicative of the fragility of the political transition that Ethiopia has been in the process of undergoing since Abiy took power in April 2018. Despite the positive aspects of the reforms implemented, significant challenges of intercommunal violence, distribution of power between federal and regional governments, and a mounting economic crisis have continually increased the tensions and stakes of the political environment. FORECAST: In this context, the reaction of both federal and regional government authorities, as well as other leading political and military figures, to these events will determine whether the instability grows. It is possible that political leaders as well as armed groups, such as Oromo nationalists or Tigrayan separatists, will seek to exploit the moment for their own political gains. This could escalate tensions and create further violence.

FORECAST: Following the shootout with Asaminew, it is likely that the federal military will conduct operations in Amhara Region over the coming weeks in an attempt to locate and arrest any remaining assailants and their accomplices. This could include larger troop deployments to Bahir Dar and its environs, which could be abruptly disruptive in that area. With that said, whether the security operations will be conducted smoothly will likely depend on the cooperation of federal forces and Amhara regional forces, which operate distinctly from one another. Further security operations are likely in Addis Ababa and are likely to result in heightened security measures in the capital, as well as abrupt movements of security forces throughout the city. At the same time, internet disruptions are likely to continue across the country, even intermittently, as the government seeks to disrupt communications between their possible adversaries as well as control the narrative to the public.

FORECAST: Within the government, there will likely be efforts to expose any elements within regional authorities as well as the federal security services who are opposed to PM Abiy and sympathetic to the June 22 perpetrators. This will likely be accompanied by Abiy appointing further allies to key positions, though his ability to do so will be limited within the regional governments and he will thus seek more diplomatic efforts in hopes of stabilizing the federal system. That said, these moves run the risk of continuing to alienate more nationalists elements within the regional states, who could continue to carry out violence or protests as an expression of that. In this context, it is possible that there will be further attacks against high-profile government or military officials in the coming months. As a whole, due to the difficulty of striking the balance needed to bring about calm, the situation is likely to remain tense and precarious over the coming weeks.


Those operating or residing in Addis Ababa or Amhara Region on June 25 and over the coming days are advised to maintain heightened vigilance and be prepared to comply with additional or sudden security measures and checkpoints.

Allot for continued disruptions to communications given the ongoing internet blackout and the likelihood that this will continue.

For further questions or consultation, please contact us at [email protected] or +44 20 3540 0434.

Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal provides momentum to regional reform – Horn of Africa Special Analysis Report

This intelligence report was written by:

Gautham Ashok – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst for East Africa

And reviewed by:

Tzahi Shraga – MAX Security’s Chief Intelligence Officer, ret. LTC from the Israeli intelligence community

Rachel Jacob – MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa Division

Executive Summary

Ethiopia’s unexpected move to implement the peace deal with Eritrea comes amid a series of reforms by new PM Abiy Ahmed that will improve the security of both countries, and the economic benefits of gaining access to Eritrean ports will likely ensure the peace’s durability.

Eritrea will take advantage of the opportunity to emerge from international isolation and re-establish political and economic relations with its neighbors, though the lack of internal reforms for its notoriously closed society is likely to drive domestic unrest and tensions along the border.

Djibouti’s regional position has weakened as its ports lose the near-monopolistic hold on Ethiopian trade and must hold on to its leases to foreign military bases to secure its economy, though these developments may undermine the government and raise the risk of civil unrest.

Somalia benefits from improved relations with Ethiopia and Eritrea in likely halting Eritrea’s support for al-Shabaab, as well as Ethiopia potentially recommitting more troops to Somalia in light of its military withdrawals from the Eritrean border.

As a whole, the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal will improve the stability of the Horn of Africa and increase opportunities for foreign investment and growth across the region.

Current Situation

On June 6, the Ethiopian government unexpectedly announced that it would fully implement the 2000 Algiers Agreement, ending Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, as well as the subsequent 2002 Boundary Commission ruling that awarded contested territories, including the border town of Badme, to Eritrea.

During a joint meeting in Asmara on July 8, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki announced that they agreed to set up embassies in their respective countries and resume flights and direct phone connections. On September 11, the Ethiopian government announced that the armed forces of both Ethiopia and Eritrea would be shifted back from their shared border. Border points were later opened for trade and movement of people for the first time in 20 years.

On July 23, Eritrean President Isaias announced that nationwide compulsory conscription would last only for 18 months, instead of lifetime service, due to “changed dynamics” in the region.

Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement to strengthen political, economic, social, and security ties on September 5 in a meeting in Asmara. They formed a joint committee to further coordinate on these matters.

On September 7, Eritrea and Djibouti agreed to normalize ties more than a decade after a border dispute at Cape Dumeira led to military clashes and the establishment of a peacekeeping operation.


Since taking office in April, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed has taken a series of steps that have transformed the political map and begun to restore public trust in the government. PM Abiy ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners, met with the political opposition and civil society, invited previously exiled opposition groups to return to Ethiopia, and embarked on major institutional reforms, including in economic, security, and justice sectors. The most significant of these was the implementation of peace with Eritrea. The announcement, and quick moves toward reconciliation with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, underscores the shift that Abiy brought to the Ethiopian government and ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Although previous Ethiopian leaders had called for peace with Eritrea, no effort was made toward that end, and animosity between the leading Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean government from Eritrea’s liberation war meant there was little chance of progress. Abiy’s ascension, and that he is an Oromo and lacked much of the political constraints that weighed down previous Ethiopian leaders, likely made it much easier to restart relations with Eritrea.

Security Implications – One of the clearer benefits of revitalizing the 2000 Algiers Agreement is its effect on the security landscape. First and foremost, it reduces the potential for conflict along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, which had flared up periodically, with the most recent exchange of fire in July 2017. Moreover, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have sponsored rebel groups in each other’s countries, with groups such as Patriotic Ginbot 7 and various Amhara militias receiving funding and supplies from Eritrea, including physical bases of support in Eritrean territory.
FORECAST: Although it is likely that there will still be some measure of support by both countries to the others’ rebel groups, as they will continue to seek to limit their neighbors’ power as is seen across eastern Africa, this is likely to be substantially reduced. The reconciliation with Eritrea drastically reduces this threat inside Ethiopia, particularly as it has been coupled with efforts by PM Abiy to reach out to armed opposition groups and reintegrate them into civilian political life.

Political Indications – This was also an astute political maneuver by Abiy, which has largely worked. The new peace deal has widespread support in Ethiopia as well as the international community as a whole, and both of which are crucial to both consolidating his leadership and expanding Ethiopia’s influence. The contested town of Badme along the border saw isolated protests, but major protests that were expected out of Tigray Region, which takes up most of Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, did not manifest. Apart from a series of statements demanding the government take into consideration the views of concerned stakeholders, the lack of public resistance from the TPLF further underscores their gradual sidelining in Ethiopian politics by Abiy and his Oromo party, the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO).

Economic Potential – Economically, the peace deal will give Ethiopia access to the underdeveloped Eritrean market and allow for exports to flow through the Red Sea. Ethiopia has relied on the ports of neighboring countries, especially Djibouti, to transit almost all of its bulky goods and services since the country became landlocked with the loss of Eritrea in 1993. This often incurred high prices, as Djibouti exploited its unique advantage as Ethiopia’s primary route to the sea. That these developments with Eritrea has led to the opening up of Eritrean ports and new plans to construct roads and railways between Ethiopia and the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab underscores the economic motivations for peace.
FORECAST: Using the Eritrean ports would allow Ethiopia more scope to ship its goods, as well as gain bargaining leverage with other ports it uses, particularly in Djibouti as well as more recently in Somaliland. This will expand Ethiopia’s options in drawing foreign investment, which would alleviate the country’s acute foreign exchange crisis. As a whole, these economic and financial interests are likely one of the key indicators that the peace deal with Eritrea will be durable.


Internal Developments – For decades, Eritrea has been a notoriously closed country, with authoritarian rule and little freedom of movement or information. The armed conflict and subsequent “no peace, no war” status quo with Ethiopia only exacerbated the situation in the country, as President Isaias utilized the external threats to consolidate internal control. The peace deal with Ethiopia, and subsequent steps to re-establish contact with their southern neighbor in terms of reopening border, represent positive developments for Eritrea’s intent to open up to the wider international community. However, there remains considerable doubt over whether these developments will translate into real political change within Eritrea.
FORECAST: To this point, reports in October have indicated that high numbers of Eritreans are taking advantage of the new open borders to flee to Ethiopia, with nearly 10,000 crossing in a single month. Although bilateral relations have improved, the movement of people suggests that this has not been met with corresponding domestic reforms within Eritrea. The continued restrictive environment is likely to further drive the exodus of those in search of political and economic opportunity, though this increasing refugee population may put pressure on Ethiopia and cause tensions with Eritrea over the coming months.

President Isaias’s announcement that nationwide compulsory conscription would last only for 18 months instead of lifetime service due to “changed dynamics” in the region was highly unexpected. Isaias has used Ethiopia’s policies toward Eritrea as a means of strengthening his rule, presenting Ethiopia as an existential threat and blaming it for much of his restrictive policies. However, given Ethiopia’s gestures toward peace, Eritrea’s policies against its own people can no longer be fully justified.
FORECAST: However, if and when the conscription time limit is implemented, soldiers who have been freed from conscription will likely to return to farms or seek employment in towns. However, one possible consequence is that, given mass unemployment is chronic problem in Eritrea, the discharging of hundreds of soldiers poses a threat to government stability. This threat is likely to grow, unless the government is able to mitigate it by directing the new civilians toward employment in the new sectors that will grow to accommodate the new Ethiopian investment.

Economic Potential – Given that the Eritrean economy has largely stagnated from 20 years of international isolation and UN sanctions for allegedly supporting militant organizations in Somalia, it is likely that the government finally acceded to using its geographical advantage to reinvigorate the economy. The revitalization of the Assab and Massawa ports will also be crucial to Eritrea’s ambitions of exporting potash, which is being mined in its Southern Red Sea Region and in Ethiopia’s Afar Region. Furthermore, the overall increased trade links to Ethiopia, currently Africa’s fastest growing economy, will serve as a reassurance for investors, as the economic ties will speak to the decreased risks of war. To this point, one important step in the process of bringing in Eritrea from its isolation has been the efforts by other East African countries to lobby the UN to lift economic sanctions. The joint appeal is likely to carry weight as it comes from countries such as Ethiopia and Djibouti, which were regarded as adversaries only months earlier.

Military Opportunities – In addition, it is likely that Eritrea hopes to become a key component of the region’s security architecture given that it is located on the Red Sea near the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a shipping choke-point used by oil tankers and other cargo vessels moving through the Suez Canal. The UAE has already used this geographical advantage to set up a military base in Assab, with additional bases representing another potentially lucrative source of income.
FORECAST: If the Eritrean government does genuinely allow reforms and an improvement of its human rights record, it is possible that other countries could choose to establish military bases in Eritrea, as they have done in Djibouti, which could further boost the economy and consolidate Eritrea’s military and political power in the region.


Economic Ramifications – One major effect of the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement has been on neighboring Djibouti and its economic dependence on providing the landlocked Ethiopia with a port. Djibouti’s relative political stability and investor-friendly atmosphere have made it a regional hub for deep-sea shipping and has enjoyed a near-monopoly on moving goods to and from Ethiopia, with 95 percent of Ethiopian trade flowing through its ports. Profits from Ethiopian trade account for 1.5 billion USD annually and are a key source of government revenue, making the moves to develop Massawa and Assab ports in Eritrea is more or less catastrophic for Djibouti. This additionally comes alongside Ethiopian investment in Berbera Port in Somaliland, further diversifying its trade routes and weakening Djibouti’s position. This likely forced President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s hand in normalizing relations with Eritrea and restoring diplomatic ties. Although the Djibouti Embassy in Somalia had initially expressed surprise at Somalia’s call for UN sanctions on Eritrea to be lifted, Guelleh reversed course within six days to restore relations with Eritrea. This quick turnaround is suggestive of the Guelleh government’s understanding of the peace deal’s momentum and their unwillingness to remain isolated amid the region’s reconciliation.

FORECAST: With the thaw between Ethiopia and Eritrea increasing economic pressure, it is likely that Djibouti will increase its dependence on its other pillar, which is renting out land for foreign military bases. Djibouti has exploited its strategic coastline on the Red Sea to offer its territory for military bases, now hosting six foreign powers, including the US, France, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and China. However, this is also a delicate situation, as Djibouti allegedly upset the US when it allowed the construction of the Chinese base near the US’s facilities at Camp Lemonnier. This highlights the small country’s need to balance the extraction of as much value as possible from retning its land with keeping its client states content. Moreover, the emergence of Eritrea and its possible improving position within the international community could further undercut Djibouti’s position on the Red Sea.

Regional Relationships – An additional complication for Djibouti has been the involvement of Arab Gulf states in brokering peace in the Horn of Africa, with indications that the UAE played a major role in urging Eritrean President Isaias to accept Ethiopia’s overtures. Djibouti has seen its relationship with the UAE deteriorate since February, after the Djiboutian government canceled the contract of a Dubai-based company to operate its main container shipping terminal at Doraleh. The UAE took the matter to international arbitration, which ruled in the Dubai company’s favor, though Djibouti has refused to return the facility, stating that it does not recognize the arbitration court’s jurisdiction. This conflict raises further doubts over Djibouti’s reliability as an investment destination when the country is already at a somewhat precarious moment.

FORECAST: With that said, it is unlikely that Ethiopia will cease using Djibouti’s port facilities altogether as it would not want to be overly reliant upon Eritrea. However, this exposes Djibouti’s somewhat insecure position, as shipping and land lease profits directly supplement the President Guelleh’s tight political control over Djibouti. Moreover, it is also possible that other countries will grow to view Eritrea as a preferable location for their military bases and likewise terminate contracts with Djibouti. Speculation that the government is at risk of losing its key sources of income may undermine Guelleh’s leadership and increase the government’s vulnerability to popular grievances about corruption and repression. Civil unrest is relatively uncommon in Djibouti City at this time, with occasional protests occurring in Tadjourah. Given the already poor socioeconomic conditions in much of the country, this loss in revenue increases the overall risks of popular unrest.


Potential Improvement in Security – The tripartite deal signed by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia in September represents a major breakthrough in relations between the three countries. Somalia and Ethiopia have been historical enemies, while Somalia’s strained relations with Eritrea date back more than a decade. Eritrea reportedly provided funding, weapons, and training to al-Shabaab when it first formed in 2006, as Eritrea had hoped to encourage an anti-Ethiopia government in Somalia. This eventually led to the UN imposing sanctions on Eritrea, with Security Council monitoring indicating that Eritrea did not halt its support for al-Shabaab during the interim years. That Somalia asked for sanctions to be lifted in July underscores the thaw in relations that was further cemented by the signing of the agreement.
FORECAST: More crucially, it is possible that Eritrea’s improved relations with Ethiopia will disincentivize Eritrea from supplying al-Shabaab in opposition to Ethiopia, which could have a positive effect on the Somali government’s struggle to defeat the militant group for control over the southern half of the country.

The implementation of the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea may also result in something of a shift on the ground in Somalia. Ethiopia has thousands of troops deployed in Somalia, both as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as well as part of a separate bilateral defense agreement with the Mogadishu government. In 2016, thousands of Ethiopian soldiers withdrew from central Somalia during a period of intense unrest in Ethiopia and were suspected to be re-deployed to suppress internal unrest at home.
FORECAST: It is possible that with the withdrawal of forces from the Eritrean border that Ethiopia may recommit more of its military to its front lines in Somalia. This could be particularly key given that AMISOM is slated to begin its withdrawal in February 2019, which would leave critical gaps that the Somali military is yet unable to fill. In this context, the movement of troops would allow the Ethiopian government extra security against al-Shabaab, while also influencing further pro-Ethiopia policy in Mogadishu.

Regional, International Relations – Another likely reason for Somalia’s interest in normalizing ties with both Eritrea and Ethiopia is that it can viewed as a way to manage its ongoing tensions with the Arab Gulf states, which has caused a rift within Somalia’s own federal government as well as affected the financial investment it receives. Somalia has had strained relations with the UAE since April and has grown somewhat isolated as the only country in the region that is perceived as aligning with Qatar, a rival of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Eritrea and Ethiopia’s favor toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been clear with the establishment of the Gulf military bases in their countries as well as other economic deals. Ethiopia has already played a mediating role between Somalia and the UAE in recent months, which has resulted in financial benefits as the UAE agreed to give 1 billion USD to Ethiopia to ease its foreign currency shortages, after which Somalia signed an agreement for joint investment with Ethiopia to develop its ports. To this point, an improvement in ties with Ethiopia and Eritrea may ease Somalia’s reconciliation with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which could be financially lucrative and politically beneficial as Mogadishu seeks reconciliation within its government.


Travel to Addis Ababa may continue while maintaining heightened vigilance in crowded areas in high threat of non-violent personal property crime.

Travel to Asmara may continue while adhering to proper administrative procedures and following general security protocols.

Travel to Djibouti City may continue while adhering to standard security precautions regarding the risk of crime and civil unrest.

We continue to advise against all travel to Somalia with the exception of the Puntland and Somaliland regions. Travel within these regions should be restricted to cities and be for essential purposes only, while avoiding travel to outlying areas.

Appendix – Background

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned on February 15, announcing on state television that it would be necessary for reforms. Subsequently, on April 2, Abiy Ahmed was selected to be PM in a vote by the council of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This became the first time in Ethiopia’s history that the ruler is an ethnic Oromo.

The EPRDF was formed in 1988 as a rebel group, and later transformed into a political coalition consisting of four ethno-regional political parties: the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Of these, the TPLF was dominant, with the minority Tigrayans holding an outsize role in the government, military, and economy.

Following a 30-year war of independence, Eritrea voted for its independence in a referendum in 1993, after which Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) leader Isaias Afwerki came to power as the first, and only, president of Eritrea.

In 1998, border clashes between Ethiopian and Eritrean troops over the disputed town of Badme led to a full-scale war in which approximately 70,000 people were killed. A peace agreement was brokered in 2000 to cease hostilities as well as establish a commission to delimit the border.

Thus, in 2002, Ethiopia accepted “in principle” the ruling of the Boundary Commission ruling that the border village of Badme belonged to Eritrea, though nonetheless refused to hand over the disputed territory and withdraw its soldiers.

Subsequently, a policy of “no peace, no war” was adopted by Ethiopia, in which soldiers were permanently stationed at the shared border and in disputed areas, while diplomatic relations were severed. Although there were occasional and brief border skirmishes, this largely held true until 2018.