In the five tumultuous years from 2018 to 2023, the dynamics between Eritrea and Ethiopia have veered from hostility to cooperation and now—ominously—toward the brink of war.
Their shifting relationship is deeply intertwined with regional politics and power struggles, primarily revolving around Ethiopia’s ambitious quest to regain access to the Red Sea, which it lost in 1991 after Eritrea’s independence. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has consistently blamed, behind closed doors, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for accepting Eritrea’s independence. Abiy has also reportedly blamed Eritrea for derailing the Pretoria peace agreement signed between the TPLF and the federal government that ended Ethiopia’s civil war—in which Eritrea fought on the government’s side against the TPLF—last year.
On Oct. 13, Ethiopian media aired a previously recorded speech by Abiy to the parliament, highlighting the Red Sea’s importance for Ethiopia’s future to either propel it towards greatness or plunge it into oblivion—as well as stating its ambition to establish a naval base. (A naval force has already been formed).
This revelation unsettled neighboring countries such as Djibouti and Somalia, and even the United States, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently urged both countries to refrain from provocation and respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries in the region.
Contemporary Ethiopia had direct Red Sea access only between 1952 and 1991, a period marked by a costly Eritrean Liberation War. After Eritrea gained independence, it reverted to its former borders without formal demarcation. A border conflict in 1998 escalated into a war that lasted until 2000, concluding with the Algiers Agreement, which called for the establishment of a Boundary Commission. Ethiopia accepted the commission’s ruling reluctantly and did not actively implement it, resulting in a tense stand-off that persisted until Abiy’s rise to power in 2018. It is worth noting that from 1998 to 2018, Ethiopia saw significant economic growth without depending on Eritrean ports.
When Abiy visited Eritrea in July 2018, both countries announced an end to the state of war. They agreed to restore diplomatic relations, reopen flights, and facilitate trade by opening their borders. This momentous peace deal led to the reopening of embassies and the resumption of flights between the two countries, initially generating great optimism.
Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 with an emphasis on his role in resolving the border dispute with Eritrea. In hindsight, the Nobel Committee’s recognition primarily rewarded a peace process aimed at ending one conflict while inadvertently laying the groundwork for several others.
The Nobel euphoria was short-lived. After a few months, the border was once again closed, and numerous unresolved issues lingered. The agreements signed by the two leaders were shrouded in secrecy. Subsequently, a devastating joint military campaign was launched against Tigray to finish off a common enemy, the TPLF, in 2020—resulting in a large scale humanitarian crisis.
Eritrean military sources suggest the country is now bracing for a potential war as Ethiopia amasses troops near the Eritrean border in Zalembessa—which is 100 miles from the capital, Asmara—and the Assab front, which includes the Assab port, which is 45 miles from the Ethiopian border and may be difficult for Eritrea to defend. Those areas recently witnessed heightened airplane activity and troop movements. Amid global attention on the U.S. election in 2020, Abiy went to war with the TPLF. There are concerns that he might target Eritrea now amid the world’s focus on Gaza.
Both leaders’ characteristics might set the stage for calamity. Abiy is known for his paradoxical approach of promoting peace while contemplating war. He has always been keen to solve political problems through military means. He sees himself as divinely guided in his quest for Ethiopia’s glory, with the Red Sea and Eritrea playing a pivotal role. Isaias Afwerki is a long-serving, unforgiving dictator with a penchant for proxy warfare. He may boost support to Amhara militias and the Oromo Liberation Army to weaken Abiy. (Eritrea’s president is already backing the Amhara with training and arms, according to internal military sources.)
If war between the two countries ensues, Ethiopia might focus its military actions on the Assab front, a region suitable for air raids and drone strikes and remote from the center of Eritrea. Eritrea could face logistical challenges reinforcing this area, possibly leading it to shift troops from 52 districts it occupies in Tigray. It is estimated that the Eritrean troops at present have placed nine divisions on border areas they occupy in Tigray totaling about 40,000 soldiers.
*Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (left) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed talk during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia, on Nov. 10, 2018. Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images