BY TESFA-ALEM TEKLE
Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, who is visiting Kenya, on Thursday categorically denied having roles in the two-year conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
The 77-year-old was on an official two-day trip to Nairobi for the first time since December 2018, touring Kenya to cement what officials said was bilateral relations but the matter was also about his role in the Ethiopia’s conflict.
But Afwerki was visiting Kenya with a background of Eritrea’s alleged atrocities in Tigray region.
President Afwerki sent his troops to Ethiopia to fight alongside the Ethiopian military, Amhara and allied regional militias.
Eritrean troops have committed heinous crimes including mass killing and gang-raping to women and girls in Tigray.
A UN investigation in September 2022 confirmed the reports of widespread mass rape and sexual violence including the use of sexual slavery by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.
Often, soldiers and militias subjected Tigrayan women and girls, including pregnant women and young girls, to rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation, and other forms of sesexual torture.
According to nine doctors in Ethiopia and one in a Sudanese refugee camp interviewed by CNN, sexual violence in the Tigray War constituted rape as a weapon of war.
The women treated by the doctors stated that the ENDF, EDF, and Amhara soldiers who raped them described Tigrayans as having no history and culture, that the intent was to “ethnically cleanse Tigray”, to “Amharise” them or remove their Tigrayan identity and “bloodline.”
One of the doctors, Tedros Tefera, stated, “Practically this has been a genocide.”
In March 2021, The Daily Telegraph argued that testimonies supported the rape as a weapon of war interpretation, stating that “Survivors, doctors, aid workers and experts speaking to the Telegraph all pointed to rape being systematically used as a weapon of war by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.”
Reasons for the rape that were stated to the victims included the aim of “cleansing Tigrayan blood.”
These reports of targeted, mass sexual violence against Tigrayans were corroborated by an April 2022 joint Human Rights Watch–Amnesty International report on the Western Zone, describing similar occurrences.
Despite all these documented crimes, the Eritrean President has however denied his forces committed such atrocities in Tigray.
He instead accused those questioning Eritrea’s atrocities as engaging in a “fantasy of those who want to derail a peace process.”
“Don’t take Eritrea as a pretext of problems in Ethiopia or the whole region,” Afwerki told a joint media briefing, suggesting it was up to Ethiopia to see how the peace deal is implemented.
“This is a fantasy of those who own a factory of fabricating information… these lies and fabrications are keeping your mindsets in the wrong direction.”
During today’s press conference in Nairobi, Afwerki was caught trying to bat away from serious questions including on the number of his troops killed in Tigray conflict.
He also declined to answer a question on his country’s succession plan.
Since November, a peace deal between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government appears to be held.
That agreement mandated the complete withdrawal of all Eritrean and non-ENDF forces from Tigray after Tigray forces surrender their heavy weaponry.
However, sources from western Tigray today confirmed to The East African Daily that some Eritrean soldiers still remain in the region.
Last month, witnesses and an Ethiopian official reported that Eritrean soldiers were leaving Shire and two other major towns, but many ended up staying behind.
“You talk of withdrawal or no withdrawal, we say this is nonsense…let’s assume that the peace process in Ethiopia is going on without any obstacles,” the Eritrean leader said.
He further went into saying that “What happened in Pretoria and Nairobi (mediation venues) was a continuation of the aspirations and wishes of the people in Ethiopia and everywhere else in the region. And Eritrea has no plan of getting involved in this matter without the permission of the front, (the Ethiopian government)”
The continued presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, despite a November cease-fire deal, thus remains as a major obstacle to the effective implementation of the peace pact and to eventually securing a lasting peace to the Ethiopian conflict.
Last week, a senior U.S. official said that Eritrean troops have not yet withdrawn from Ethiopia unlike Ethiopian authorities claim that they have already left.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, said Eritrean forces only moved back to the border but still remain in Ethiopia.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield made the remarks at a news conference during a visit to the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
“With respect to Eritreans, we understand they have moved back to the border and they have been asked to leave,” she told reporters.
The United States, along with the European Union, have been putting immense pressure on Eritrea to exit its troops however Asmara has only gave deaf ears.
RETURN TO IGAD
Isaias Afwerki is historically known as an architect of destabilizing factor to peace and security of the East African region.
Yet, Afwerki, at the press conference today however showed intent to re-join the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in what he said was in a bid to rebuild the Horn of Africa.
But said his country also known as the North Korea of Africa will rejoin IGAD only if the regional bloc is ‘ready to adjust to modern times’
He said “there is no question about it” on re-joining Igad but did say “we will have to create an institution that is functional and result-oriented.”
Eritrea, technically still a member of Igad, had been boycotting its activities to protest, initially, bias towards Ethiopia and accusing it as a tool for the West to malign Asmara.
VISA FREE DEAL
President Afwerki arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday for a two-day official visit, accompanied by his Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Advisor Yemane Ghebreab.
Immediately after his meeting with Kenyan President William Ruto, they announced a visa-free passage for citizens of their countries, as part of the intention to boost travel between them.
“We have agreed to abolish the requirement of visas permanently, effective today. In this regard we have instructed our ministries of Interior to work on the modalities for the ratification of this directive,” announced President Ruto, after which Afwerki endorsed the declaration as a joint statement.
IS THIS A REWARD?
The Eritrean President made the trip to Kenya on the invitation of President William Ruto with whom they were expected to discuss bilateral issues in Nairobi.
The Kenyan president, William Ruto who has tasked his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta to lead peace process in Ethiopia, at the joint press conference today said that “all governments in the region had been satisfied with the implementation of the peace process in Ethiopia”
His remarks are immediately attracting critics by ethnic Tigrayan activists like Mr. Solomon Tekeste who question if countries like Kenya are awarding the Eritrean President for his “ill roles” in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict.
“President Ruto’s remarks saying all regional countries were satisfied with the peace deal implementation is unfortunate. First of all President Ruto can’t collectively speak on behalf of all regional countries and second of all, why would the Kenyan president be satisfied while Eritrean troops still are present in Tigray refusing complete exit” Solomon told The East African Daily.
“As a Tigrayan, it was devastating to see Kenya allowing Isaias Afewerki to downplay the war crimes and alleged genocide committed by Eritrean troops against civilians in Tigray”
“Not only Rutto and the AU are helping Afewerki to get away with war crimes but sadly they are rewarding him by Advocating Eritrea to rejoin IGAD” he said further calling on IGAD to refrain from considering Eritrea to rejoin the regional bloc.
“If we truly want the region to heal, African leaders need to push for justice and hold the perpetrators accountable” he added.
AU POST-CONFLICT SILENCE
Eritrean troops, violating a variety of International laws, crossed into a sovereign country and killed, raped, and massacred hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan civilians.
“Holding them accountable must have been the first thing Rutto and the AU should have advocated. Justice should have been the priority” Solomon said further questioning why the African Union was so quiet in updating if there is an effective implementation to the peace agreement it prides itself of mediating to end one of a bloodiest civil war in recent history.
He further urged the African Union monitoring and verification team tasked to oversee the peace agreement implementation to make sure and unveil the exit of all foreign forces from Tigray and Ethiopia.
(The East African Daily)