Ethiopia and Eritrea:The Waiting Game

What Is the Game?

Ethiopia’s policy towards Eritrea, despite some periodic allegiance for regime change that comes with minimal or even nominal support for Eritrean opposition groups and equally periodic muscle flexing of its army along the border, can be summed up as having been that of containing Eritrea. In fact, the minimalist and reciprocal nature of these countermeasures against Eritrean intransigence tells us that they have been designed to buttress the containment strategy rather than to usher regime change in Asmara.

The rationale behind the containment policy has been that a no-peace-no-war situation, however long it lasts, will in the final end do more lethal damage to Eritrea than to Ethiopia. Ethiopia, with a larg-er population base and a larger economy, was supposed to weather out the regional crisis better than tiny and impoverished Eritrea. This is similar to Reagan’s policy towards the Soviet Union: Reagan ratcheted up the arms race to a point that the Soviet economy could no more handle it, eventually resulting into total collapse–or so would the Reaganites argue. And as in the case of Soviet Union, the end game of such a policy is, intended or not, the eventual collapse of the Eritrean nation-state. And in that regard, this policy has been delivering par excellence, with Eritrea now driven to a demographic meltdown at the center, with serious geopolitical ramifications for the region. To reiterate the A regime change policy would secure the nation while destroying the regime, the containment policy would do just the opposite: it would unravel the nation-state by sustaining the regime.main point, while a regime change policy would secure the nation while destroying the regime, the contain-ment policy would do just the opposite: it would unravel the nation state by sustaining the regime. Paradoxical as it may seem, the latter policy actually outsources the task of destroying the nation to the re-gime itself. What is not foreseen is that, with the disintegration of the nation, what would reign supreme in this part of the region would be total anarchy that would do irreparable damage not only to Eritrea but also to Ethiopia.

If so, it is critical to look in detail what the consequences of the con-tainment policy, or rather of the “waiting game” that is being played    out between the Eritrean regime and the Ethiopian government for the last 18 years, would be. Let’s focus on the waiting game phenomenon since it, besides entailing the containment poli-cy, happens to describe what has been going on the Eritrean side too in those containment years.

If two entities are playing a waiting game, it is because each one thinks it is to its advantage to outwait the other. We have briefly seen why the Ethiopian government believes this game advantages it, but the evolving events on the ground don’t seem to concur with this optimistic assessment.

Flaws in the Game

The problem with Ethiopia’s containment policy is that, in its enact-ment, it consistently fails to take account of the very nature of the waiting game itself, leading us to believe that there might not have been a coherent or consistent strategy behind it. There are three main flaws in the game as played out by Ethiopia that makes us believe so. First, an essential part of the strategy of a waiting game is that one has to act decisively when the enemy’s weakest moment arrives; in absence of such a move, the waiting would lack any rationality be-hind it. In fact, such moments did come and go, but Ethiopia failed to capitalize on them. One such notable moment took place just after the border war in 2000 when, strangely enough, a buffer zone was demanded by the strong party (Ethiopia) to protect it from the weak party (Eritrea). Not surprisingly, this succeeded in doing just the op-posite: the buffer zone protected the Isaias regime during its most
A regime change policy would secure the nation while destroying the regime, the containment policy would do just the opposite: it would unravel the nation-state by sustaining the regime.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: The Waiting Gamevulnerable years just after the war!.

Second, The longer the waiting game, the more likelihood that outside regional variables over which Ethiopia has little control would work against it.the longer the waiting game, the greater is the likelihood that unintended consequences would crop up at unexpected moments. And the waiting has been long enough–so far, 18 years, and still counting–to warrant such a concern. One such disas-trous consequence has been the mass exo-dus of Eritreans that has been going on re-lentlessly in those years of waiting. Yet, the Ethiopian authorities don’t seem to grasp the magnitude of the problem and what it would eventually mean to the stability of the region.

And third, similarly, the longer the waiting game, the more likelihood that outside regional variables over which Ethiopia has little control would work against it. In fact, with hostile or anarchic forces in the East (Somalia), West (South Sudan) and North (Eritrea) having come to converge, it is the gradual encirclement of Ethiopia that is in the making. Given the history of the region, there is no reason for Ethio-pian authorities to be caught off surprise this time around.

While the waiting game seems to have disadvantaged the Ethiopian government in many ways, we cannot say so with certainty in the Eri-trean government’s case. And this is because the nature of the re-gime, one that has successfully out-waited Haile Selassie’s, Men-ghistu’s and Meles’ governments, is conducive to this kind of game; that is, even as it has been aiming for pyrrhic victories all along.

In the Nature of the Regime

 There are two main characteristics of the Isaias Afewerki’s regime (or rather, of Shaebia* or the EPLF – the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) that favors it in this waiting game. We have seen above that, entailed in the waiting game strategy, one bypasses the enemy’s weak-est moments to its peril. Isaias is very much known for his ruthless-ness and scorched earth approach against his enemies at their mo-ments of vulnerability; Menkae, Yemin, Jebha, Teghadelti’s adma in 1993 (a revolt of the liberation fighters in Asmara), the blotched Forto coup d’état, and the G-15 uprising are among the many movements that perished in the very attempt to outwait the Isaias group. And more relevant to this topic, Isaias instigated the border war precisely be-cause he thought it was the EPRDF’s (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Dem-ocratic Front) weakest moment. He felt that if he waited a bit longer, the EPRDF would consolidate its power in the hinterland and would not be easily beatable thereafter. Of course, he mis-calculated,( would be great to reflect other perspectives of the miscalculation here, many "ultra Ethiopian nationalists" still believe Isaias rather miscalculated  the psychy of many Ethiopians who by then were still not yet wounded by ethnic rhetorics (and associated fruits thereoff) and were voluntarily willing to die for any piece of land they were told is Ethiopia's regardless of which ethnic group resides on it, even if they knew EPRDF actively preached that the evil of past Ethiopian "Tsere hizb" regiemes emanated from their pursuit of "ye Gizat andinet"...a kind of weird coincidence) but his logic remains con-sistent with what he has been doing be-fore and with what he intends to do now. Encouraged by regional forces, the Isaias regime’s attempt to foster unrest along ethnic and religious lines in Ethiopia is an attempt to midwife that moment of vulnerability. But this is not the regime’s only or even biggest asset in this game.This was a time the regime felt so vulnerable that it was even entertaining the unthinkable: to go back to the bush (Sahel) to continue the “liberation war.

 Counterintuitive as it may seem, the Isaias regime’s greatest ad-vantage over its adversaries is that it doesn’t give a damn what hap-pens to its own people throughout the duration of the waiting game; that is, so far as its survival is secured during that standoff period. It might even facilitate its own people’s demise if it finds it essential to that waiting strategy that prioritizes its survival over anything. It is in this way then that it can “afford” to outwait its enemies, with the desperate hope to outlast each and every one of them. Thus, the regime’s inability to distinguish a real victory from a pyrrhic one per-versely counts as an “advantage” in this game.

Given that the Isaias regime doesn’t feel the pain of its people (for all its “winnings” invariably come at the expense of the masses), it is un-derstandable that it is willing to outwait any other government that has any decent concern over its own people’s welfare. If so, what is puzzling would be Ethiopia’s role in this waiting game. To closely look at this puzzling phenomenon, let’s examine the three flaws men-tioned above, starting with the failure of Ethiopia to capitalize on the most vulnerable moment of the Isaias regime.

The Irony of the TSZ Agreement

 The Isaias regime’s greatest moment of weakness took place right it after its defeat on the Badme (the first flashpoint during the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000) front in 2000. First, the pressure from the Ethiopian army was huge, given that it was still sitting on a large section of Eritrea. This was a time the regime felt so vulnerable that it was even entertaining the unthinkable: to go back to the bush (Sahel) to continue the “liberation war”. And, second, many of the teghadelti (the liberation fighters) were in a sour mood and began to openly question the wisdom of both the political and military maneu-verings of their leadership, and seemed almost ready to sacrifice Isaias if it would save them from total defeat. It is within this climate of high discontent that the G-15 (high-ranking former members of the ruling party, the PFDJ–People’s Front for Democracy and Jus-tice–that came to oppose Isaias soon after the border war) uprising took place. Yet, it was at this very moment that the Ethiopian gov-ernment took a puzzling step: it demanded that a 25 km wide Tem-porary Security Zone (TSZ) all along the borderline on the Eritrean side, policed by the UN blue helmets, be established for a peace pro-cess to start in earnest.

There is no doubt that, initially, the Ethiopian government intended to use the Badme defeat as a means of bringing regime change in As-mara. But for this to take place, a viable context was needed wherein the Isaias regime would be put under constant pressure from outside. With the TSZ cease-fire agreement, it was precisely that context that was abruptly denied to the Meles government. Once the UN blue helmets were squarely put between the two warring fac-tions in the TSZ, there was no way the Ethiopi-an government could put the military pressure necessary to bring the Isaias regime down. And this military pressure needn’t be an active one, only the threat thereof. Had the Ethiopian government demanded a cease-fire agreement without the TSZ in between; or, better, had it kept holding on to a foothold inside Eritrea a little bit longer, there is no doubt that the pressure from outside and inside would have culmi-nated in the unraveling of the Isaias regime. Given the huge relief that the TSZ agreement brought to the Isaias regime, it is astounding how Ethiopia not only came to accept it but also to propose in the Nowhere in the world has an older generation treated its younger generation with so much cruelty.first place.

Thus, unwittingly, the Ethiopian government came to Isaias’ help at the nick of time by finalizing the TSZ cease-fire agreement at the time it did. Now the despot of Asmara would be able to entirely fo-cus on the internal dissent without looking back over his shoulders, wondering what the Ethiopian army might do at the border. This is a classical case where the pressure was lifted a little bit too early to make any difference at all. The buffer zone provided Isaias with am-ple time to do two things essential for his political survival: First, not only did he ruthlessly stamp out the G-15 uprising, he also left no stones unturned to make sure nothing of the like would ever happen again. The grip of his totalitarian rule was soon to be felt everywhere in the country, with no single population group being spared. And, second, he was able to restructure the army in a way that favored his political survival; not only as a potent weapon against Ethiopia (at least for a few more years to come, before the mass exodus started in earnest), but also as a loyal army answerable to him only. It was only when he undertook these two indispensable tasks essential to the safety of his regime so thoroughly that he felt emboldened enough to do away with the TSZ unilaterally in 2008.

With the establishment of the TSZ buffer zone, the Ethiopian gov-ernment lost its agency as a potent force for regime change in Asma-ra for a long time to come. This then is a good example of how a great window of opportunity was lost at the very start of this waiting game. What could have been gained at the very beginning was to be sought in vain for the following 18 years, with all the uncertainty that such a long wait is apt to produce.

Unintended Consequence: Generational Genocide 

 When it comes to what the containment policy is meant to achieve on the Ethiopian side, there are at least three groups to consider. There are those who simply want to focus on the economy, and hap-pen to be indifferent to what goes on in Eritrea. For this group, the no-war-no-peace situation in general and the TSZ buffer zone in par-ticular, is a way of bracketing the Eritrean problem; thus enabling Ethiopia to primarily focus on its economic progress. Then there are those who genuinely want to see a regime change in Asmara, but want it to come solely from “within”, for reasons that have to do with internal dynamics or external pressure, or both. In this case, ex-cept for the familiar rhetoric of solidarity, there is little that Ethiopia would be willing to do to help the Eritrean opposition. And last, there are those who are expectantly waiting for the collapse of the Eritrean nation-state, with the intention of picking up the pieces after the disintegration. The most vociferous of this group is the one that advocates for the “return of Assab”. But in all of these instances, the tactic employed remains the same: how to contain Eritrea. Yet, not one of these groups is able to foresee the unintended consequences that would crop up during the indefinite waiting game nurtured by their respective goals, the worst of which has been the mass exodus of Eritreans from their homeland.

But how is the Eritrean mass exodus supposed to disadvantage Ethi-opia? After all, given that most of the hundreds of thousands refu-gees happen to be young men who either deserted the army or avoid-ed conscription, it seems that the hollowing out of the Eritrean army is working to a great military advantage for Ethiopia. But looking at the problem this narrowly misses the bigger picture that disad-vantages the region; what looks advantageous at a tactical level hap-pens to be a net loss at a strategic level. To grasp the magnitude of this strategic loss, one needs first to look at the extent of this mass exodus.

Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, provided the following figure in 2013: that more than 300,000 refugees [as registered with the UNHCR] have left Eritrea in the last decade. Dan Connell came with more alarming num-bers: given that the refugees regis-tered with the UNHCR made up only a portion of all those that have left the country by then, he put the figure around one million. But even if we take a conservative estimate and cut the number of the unregistered into half of that, the total would be around 650,000. And since it was in the three years to follow that the flood-gates really opened wide, we have to add a hundred thousand or With all kinds of fundamentalists and Arabists expectantly waiting by the sideline, the anarchy that will follow will make the Somali one a picnic by comparison.more that have left the nation since 2013. So it seems that, in 2016, we are coming closer to the million estimate given above.

And yet, the numbers above, alarming as they are, do not tell the whole story. The overwhelming majority of these refugees hap-pen to be young men in their 20s, 30s and, to a lesser extent, 40s – that is, a population group at its highest fertility age. One that supplements this grim picture in its demographic ramifications is the fact that hundreds of thou-sands of young women, whose male counterparts are either evicted out of the country or kept in the wilderness within Eritrea, are left stranded in villages, towns and cit-ies across Eritrea, with little prospect for marriage. To grasp the de-mographic ramifications of this double jeopardy to the country, one need only entertain its counterfactual: if the hundreds of thousands of adult men that have left the land for good were left alone in peace to raise their families in Eritrea, by now there would have been hun-dreds of thousands of children born to them. If so, we are looking way beyond the million estimate mentioned above that have been irretrievably lost to the nation within the years of this waiting game.

Now, to the grim demographic picture depicted above, let’s add the fact that the overwhelming majority of this loss is coming from one ethnic group – the Tigrigna speaking group – to see the magnitude of this devastation. So far, the highlands of Eritrea (Kebessa) have lost almost half of their population to mass exodus – all in Zemene Shaebia. And since the demographic makeup of those left behind consists mainly of single women, an aging population group and an ever dwindling youth, the prospects of regeneration in this area is getting slimmer by the day.

And last, what makes the Kebessa exodus irreversible is that almost all the refugees that originate from this area are headed towards the West. Unlike those who remain put in Ethiopia (ex: the Afars) or in Sudan (ex: the Tigre) or in Saudi Arabia, the probability that they will return to Eritrea after the fall of the Isaias regime is almost nil.Sadly, if there is a group in Ethiopia that wishes the unraveling of Eritrea as a country, it shouldn’t be surprised if its wish finds full support in the workings of the Isaias regime.Nowhere in the world has an older generation treated its younger generation with so much cruelty. The only way to describe the cruel-ty. The only way to describe the cruel fate of this young generation under the hands of their Big Brothers is if we coin a new phrase for it: generational genocide. An entire generation has been evicted out of the country or cordoned off in the wilderness and denied to raise families to make “Lebensraum” (living space) for the “liberators”. The colonial aspect of this genocide is rather revealing: it is because the liberators consider their subjects expendable – in the colonial sense of it – that they are willing to go this far just to remain potent in the waiting game.

For a tiny nation like Eritrea, with a population of about 4 million, the mass exodus amounts to a demographic collapse in the making. And for Kebessa, whose entire youth population is still on the move, it is nothing short of a holocaust. And if this center that holds the nation together caves in, the whole nation will collapse. With all kinds of fundamentalists and Arabists expectantly waiting by the sideline, the anarchy that will follow will make the Somali one a picnic by com-parison.

Even though the mass exodus is no doubt the worst event that took place during the waiting game, in its turn, it has caused other unex-pected negative factors of considerable impact. As the indefinite na-tional service and the legendary incompetence of Shaebia took their heavy toll in driving the nation into economic meltdown, the remit-tance economy further sustained by the new refugees and a mining industry made profitable by slave workers (from the national service) provided the regime with two lifelines to stay afloat. Second, the era of regime change, as made popular during the Arab Spring, has now given way to “democracy fatigue” in the Western world. This change of heart is partly brought about by the ongoing refugee crisis in Eu-rope. Now, Ethiopia would find it harder to sell the need for a re-gime change in Asmara. And, third, with the huge refugee influx into Europe, the refugee crisis has now suddenly turned “golden” for the Isaias regime. As in the case of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of

The mass exodus has been the safety valve that Shaebia needs badly to let go of the excess pressure from within, right before it implodes.

Turkey, Isaias has successfully blackmailed the EU to provide him with 200 million Euros to stem the flow of refugees; all under the pretext of “poverty reduction and socio-economic development”. Of course, Isaias will never keep his promise; that is, he will not end the indefinite national service, which happens to be the main cause for the mass exodus.

The above mentioned factors that are extending the lifespan of the Isaias regime should not be in any way taken as advantageous to the nation; for the longer the lifeline of the former, the worse will be the hollowing out of the latter – that is, the nation will be thoroughly emptied out of its most productive and reproductive population group by the time that lifespan comes to an end.

Convergence in Goals

Sadly, if there is a group in Ethiopia that wishes the unraveling of Er-itrea as a country, it shouldn’t be surprised if its wish finds full sup-port in the workings of the Isaias regime.

In decades of its existence, Shaebia has morphed into a “self-sufficient,” insulated organism that has so far refused to meld into the general population. This has created a discordant parallel exist-ence of a nation within a nation, where Shaebia has to fiercely compete against the Eritrean nation for its survival. True, this could only be achieved through an eventual suicide, for the moment Shaebia completely beats the nation in this survival game is the moment of its final death, given that it par-asitically lives off the latter. And this is ex-actly what we have been witnessing in the last 18 years, where the nation has been thoroughly hollowed out economically, politically, culturally and demographically to make “living space” for Shaebia’s survival. The mass exodus is that hollow-ing out process in demographic terms.

The Isaias regime is caught up in a dilemma: If it stops the indefinite national service, then it would have to find “living space” to hun-dreds of thousands of demobilized youth within a totalitarian con-text. Besides there being little chance for employment, a huge num-ber of idled youth concentrated in the cities would be a recipe for dis- Eritrea is of use to Egypt so far as it functions as a destabilizing factor in its proxy war against Ethiopia.

aster. And if, to avoid this time bomb, the regime decides to go on with the indefinite national service, with mass exodus as its net result, then it faces demographic meltdown. But there is a silver lining in taking the latter course, for even the indefinite national service itself (let alone the cities) might implode if the disgruntled youth are not driven out of Eritrea. Even as the ongoing lethal hemorrhage will eventually end up destroying the nation itself, in the meantime it is essential for Shaebia to periodically relieve itself of “excess youth” if it is to “out-survive” the nation. Thus, the mass exodus has been the safety valve that Shaebia needs badly to let go of the excess pressure from within, right before it implodes. Moreover, the remittance that comes from this population group, in turn, becomes an additional incentive to expedite the exodus. This then is how the Isaias regime, in a fierce survival race with the nation, has been stretching its lifespan beyond necessity – “beyond necessity” because, if not halt-ed, it will eventually lead to a double suicide, that of Shaebia and the nation.

If the above makes sense, it is easy to see where the convergence lies in this sinister goal. On the Ethiopian side, a certain group might see ad-vantages in the demographic hollowing out of Eritrea for, first, this directly translates into the hollowing out of the army; and, second, it might eventually result in the unraveling of the nation-state itself. On the Eritrean side too, all that the regime sees are advantages: first, it helps it avoid implosion from within; and, second, it profits from the remittances sent home by the same population group it has been evicting; both of which happen to be instrumental in stretching its lifespan in the seat of power. It is immaterial whether the end result – the inevitable anarchy that comes with disintegration– is intended or not. In the eyes of Shaebia, it matters little what happens to Eritrea after its death. And, in the eyes of the former group, such anarchy would provide it with a good excuse to pick up the pieces. Little does the latter group know, preoccupied as it is with its internal variables, how antagonistic outside forces would be able to pick up those very piec-es for themselves.At a security level, any encirclement of Ethiopia directly translates into encirclement of Eritrea

Unforeseen Outside Variables

Among the external problems that beset the region and negatively affect Ethiopia are the Somali quagmire in the east, the South Suda-nese problem in the west and the Nile problem with Egypt up north. An Eri-trean nemesis could offer itself as a Trojan horse to any or all of the adver-saries in these fronts. The only ques-tion that Isaias asks himself in regard to all these is: how do I destabilize Ethio-pia? Given that Eritrea’s excursions into the Afar and Tigray regions aren’t paying off, his entire effort has been how to get access to much larger population groups. One reason why he was focusing on Somalia is the possibility of doing just that. Had he not been hobbled by the UN sanctions, destabilizing the eastern part of Ethiopia, where he thought he could play both ethnic and religious cards, would have attracted much of his attention and resources.

Stable countries work, for most, in their best interests. A stable So-malia, even under Islamists, would have to think twice before becom-ing a staging ground for destabilizing forces against Kenya or Ethio-pia, for fear of retaliation; that is, for fear of being destabilized itself. That is why nations like Egypt and Eritrea would rather have a desta-bilized Somalia with no control of its borders than a stabilized one in any form.

Another similar destabilization that has come to fruition during the waiting game is that of South Sudan. The despot of Asmara was des-pairing when a stable South Sudan began to gravitate towards Ethio-pia. The regime has been doing its utmost to keep South Sudan de-stabilized since an Eritrean-Sudanese-Egyptian alliance (that may or may not converge in tactics, but surely does so in the final goal). One of the results of this destabilization has been a greater Egyptian influ-ence in that area, with the South Sudanese government still hesitating to sign the Nile agreement of the upper Nile basin countries and one or the other of the warring factions entertaining Egyptian help – be it military or diplomatic – at one time or another.

But here is the crux of the matter: the same logic also holds true in regard to Eritrea. Egypt would loathe seeing a stable, peaceful, nor-Geopolitical intentions usually come after the fact, with the temptation of an age-old goal made doable by mere proximity.

malized Eritrea. Such an Eritrea would act in its own interest and hence cooperate with Ethiopia in all relevant aspects - economy, de-fense, the Nile policy, the border problem, the port issue, etc. Thus, Eritrea is of use to Egypt so far as it functions as a destabilizing fac-tor in its proxy war against Ethiopia. That is to say, the stability of Eritrea is the last thing Egypt has in mind, for it is impossible for Er-itrea to stabilize itself in the process of destabilizing Ethiopia. It has either to remain in its current form as a nation on a permanent war-footing or as an unraveled nation like Somalia with no control over its borders. Of course, the despot of Asmara prefers the former, without realizing that it would eventually lead to the latter.

A good example of how a destabilized nation works against its own self-interest is Eritrea’s stand in the Nile controversy. Despite the fact that Eritrea’s interest squarely lies with the African nations of the upper Nile ba-sin, given that the tributary Tekeze/Setit River runs for a long stretch be-tween Eritrea and Ethiopia (before it joins the Atbara River in the Sudan), Isaias has to side himself with Egypt’s mission on permanently destabilizing Ethiopia if he is to remain relevant in the waiting game. The same holds true of the other Arab card that he has been effectively using: the Red Sea card.

There is this age old dream of the Arab world to turn the Red Sea into a wholly Arab one. That dream, they believe, came closer to be-ing realized with the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Since then they have been looking at ways and means of solidifying that gain. The animosity that has emerged between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the last 18 years has been welcomed by them as a means of permanently prying off Eritrea from the Ethiopian body. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are especially immersed in this task now. Their latest foray to Assab consolidates that gain. Again, we can see how Eritrea is working against its self-interest, since its ports would be maximally profitable only if they are used by Ethiopia. And at a security level, any encircle-ment of Ethiopia directly translates into encirclement of Eritrea.The Isaias regime doesn’t care about the kind of punishments its army receives from the Ethiopian army so far as it doesn’t lose the “war” for its “survival at any cost” at the strategic level.

The paradox is that Ethiopia too has been instrumental in bringing about this convergence of hostile forces at its doorstop simply by adopting the waiting game as its preferential policy against Eritrea. Given its tremendous advantage over a much weaker nation - in terms of resources, population, military, etc - Ethiopia could have felt that it would always remain in full control over the situation. It failed to foresee that the longer the waiting game, the more likely that ‘historical enemies’ would exploit the crisis to “encircle” it.

At this point, someone might point out the redeeming role Djibouti has been playing in negating this encirclement phenomenon. But to point at this small aperture in the sea, in thousands of kilometers long of coastline along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, as an indis-pensable gate to the outside world says a lot about the strategic dis-advantage Ethiopia faces. While Ethiopia sees a safe entrance in Dji-bouti, enemies see a chokepoint amenable to their chokehold. While Ethiopia sees an indispensable open gate, enemies see a gate that could bee easily shut. The recent Saudi and Qatari encroachment in Assab is as close as an enemy could get to stretch its arms to reach that chokepoint. This might not be the intention now, but geopoliti-cal intentions usually come after the fact, with the temptation of an age-old goal made doable by mere proximity.


The containment policy can no more be maintained without subvert-ing Ethiopia’s indispensable role as a stabilizing force in the region. The urgency of the matter on both Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s sides calls for a radical change in strategy that prioritizes regime change over containment.


The problem with the outside world (and that includes Ethiopia) is that it wants to hold the Isaias regime’s behavior towards its own people separate from its behavior towards neighboring nations. But such a distinction is untenable, for what motivates the regime to spread destabilization throughout the region is its internal crisis. This is a totalitarian system that would crumble the moment it normalizes relationships with its neighbors. It can only thrive in an abnormal emergency status. It requires an enemy that never leaves the scene for it to keep its entire youth population away from urban areas, cor-doned off in the wilderness or evicted in refugee camps in neighboring countries. The moment this young generation is allowed to return to the cities is the moment the regime dreads most. So the primary reason why this regime is unwilling to normalize its relation with neighboring states (and with Ethiopia, in particular) is because this would further lead to the normalization in its people’s lives that comes with the inevitable demobilization. Thus, unwittingly, the con-tainment policy helps to create this abnormal world that sustains the Isaias regime, in the midterm; and by further facilitating the emptying of the land, it helps in ushering total anarchy, in the longer term.

Many Ethiopians assume that the war the Isaias regime is waging on its own people will have no consequences to Ethiopia. The above analysis tells us that this is not the case. The fates of Eritrea and Ethiopia are intertwined in ways that neither Eritreans nor Ethiopi-ans seem to fathom: politically, culturally, strategically, economically and, above all, existentially. Moreover, Ethiopia’s role in ushering re-gime change in Eritrea is made indispensable not only because the stakes for not doing so are high for both countries, but also because Ethiopia happens to be the only entity that could do it – with or without the help of others.

Addendum: Crimes against Humanity,Shipwrecks and Border Clash 


Soon after I submitted this article, three major events that highlight its main theme have taken place: (a) on June 8, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea determined that the Eritrean regime has committed crimes against humanity; (b) towards the end of May, hundreds of Eritreans perished in Med-iterranean shipwrecks (survivors esti-mate the loss to be around 800); and (c) on June 12, a clash between Eritrean and Ethiopian troops took place along the border. Below, I will try to connect the dots among these seemingly disparate events to provide an over-arching picture that is missing in the details – one that echoes the theme of the article.

The UN Commission’s report mentions a litany of crimes – enslave-ment, torture, rape, imprisonment, execution, forced disappearances,Ethiopia needs a genuine partner in ending this crisis, and it will never find that in the Isaias regime.etc. – that justified the label of “crimes against humanity”. Yet, these crimes, however common, pervasive and gruesome they are, would lack a categorical grip by which to collectively describe them if they are simply left at enumeration level; and, in the process, the nature of the main cause that motivates them would be either downplayed or by-passed.

In this article, I have provided a col-lective name for the atrocities that have been committed by the Asmara regime against its own people for the last 18 years or so: “generational genocide”. The crimes men-tioned by the UN report happen to be just some of the details of how this genocide keeps unfolding on the ground. The UN refrains from calling it genocide because it doesn’t fit to the kind of genocides that it has been dealing with in the past. For instance, if this was a case of one ethnic group doing it to another ethnic group (like in Rwanda), it would have clearly met the UN’s definition of“ geno-cide”. The enslavement of hundreds of thousands for years and the draconian means with which they were dealt with during that time and the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands this has in turn caused with all its dire consequences (the emptying of the land, the making of a demographic disaster, the wasting away of hundreds of thousands lives in refugee camps, the tragedies in the deserts and seas, the harrowing atrocities in the Sinai, etc.) would have definitely counted as genocide. To reiterate the point: if this victimized young generation were an ethnic, religious or even regional group, what is happening to it under the hands of Shaebia would have been aptly called genocide, and much would have been made of it. But, sadly, for lack of a name, nobody is taking notice that a whole generation is being driven to extinction.

What has been lost in this semantic confusion is, among others, the real motive of the regime. It is in its quest to out-survive any entity, including its own subjects, that the Shaebia regime is committing this genocide. People find this very hard to believe because the idea of one generation (the so-called “liberators”) committing genocide against it younger generation (the so-called Warsai generation) is un-thinkable to them. But this organization happens to be a modern dayThis organization happens to be a modern day version of the Khmer Rouge, and doing the unthinkable comes easy to it.version of the Khmer Rouge, and doing the unthinkable comes easy to it.

The second event makes this genocide as tangible as it could possi-bly get. In trying to escape a nation full of brutality and devoid of hope, about 800 Eritreans (almost all of them from Kebessa Eritrea) drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. And this happens to be just a one time event among the thousands more lost in other shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea and under the hands of Arab Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula. As usual, not a shed of tears was to be expected from the “liberators”, who in the same month were conducting elaborate North Korea-like festivities for days on end to commem-orate their “25 years of independence” – again, befitting to the mentality of “liberators” (the Khmer Rouge of Africa) capable of doing the unthinkable.

The third event is the most recent one: the border clash between Ethiopian and Eritrean troops along the Tserona front. In this re-gard too, we could lose the bigger picture if we simply focus on the details of that event only. According to Ethiopia, as in many other similar clashes, this happens to be a “proportionate response” meant to punish the Asmara regime’s occasional excursions into Ethiopian territory. But this misses the bigger picture, for the Isaias regime doesn’t care about the kind of punishments its army receives from the Ethiopian army so far as it doesn’t lose the “war” for its “survival at any cost” at the strategic level. Let me explain.

For a regime that is willing to shed off hundreds of thousands of adults (most of whom were army conscripts) simply to remain afloat, it would mean nothing to lose hundreds or even thousands of soldiers more in border clashes so far as it keeps winning in its survival strategy through those very clashes. In this latest case, the Eritrean government’s strategy is crystal clear: it instigated the bor-der clash in order to show the world, in general, and EU, in particu-lar, that the indefinite national service cannot be terminated because of “Ethiopia’s ever present aggression”. This has to be looked at within recent developments in the region, with the EU increasingly looking for “constructive engagement” with the regime. The recent 200 million euro aid by the EU was meant to be an incentive for the regime to do its best to stop the mass migration. But the EU officials will soon come to realize that short of terminating the indefinite national service, other measures would remain woefully deficient. The fear is that now, with the damning UN report out in the open, that “realization” might come sooner, with the EU officials finding it hard to pretend otherwise.

Of course, Isaias wants the money (and the normalization of his re-gime that comes with it), but he is not foolish enough to stop the in-definite service, not because he is afraid of Ethiopia but of the young men that would otherwise end up in Asmara in their tens of thou-sands after demobilization and render his totalitarian grip on the land untenable. So for him, this clash is designed to convince the West that this route is not available to him through reasons that he hopes they would find acceptable.

If the above seems plausible, why would Isaias give a damn if the Er-itrean army gets occasionally a rap on the head? A loss at the tactical level is acceptable to him so far as that very loss translates into gain at a strategic level. And that is exactly what he did by instigating this most recent border clash. If so, it is Ethiopia’s “proportionate re-sponse” that doesn’t make sense, for it ends up empowering the Isaias regime. That doesn’t mean the Ethiopia should stop respond-ing. To the contrary, Ethiopia should retaliate with a response big enough – that is, proportionate enough – to be a blow at strategic level (and not simply at a tactical level); and for that, nothing less than regime change in Eritrea through whatever means necessary would do.

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