President Isaias has recently held talks with representatives of both sides in Sudan's 'war of the generals' that erupted in April this year.

He met Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, generally referred to as Hemedti, in Asmara in January 2023. Then, a week ago, he met the Sudanese Democratic Bloc and other political parties allied with General Al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces.


Isaias clearly wants to portray himself as a mediator; a diplomat. But this ignores his long-term ambitions inside Sudan. 

At one level the Eritrean role in Sudan is well known. Eritrean security forces operate across the country and are particularly strong in Khartoum and in Kassala. They are capable of not only spying on the large Eritrean exile community in Sudan, but can seize them and abduct them, if the need arises.

But the Eritrean President's relationship with Sudan goes much deeper than that.

Isaias's early Sudanese links

In his seminal work, Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners, Dan Connell explains how Isaias arrived in Sudan in September 1966 after leaving his university studies in Addis Ababa, to join the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). Haile 'Dure' Wond'ensae (today a political prisoner in Eritrea) came to meet him in the Sudanese town Kassala in December 1966.

Isaias immediately took Haile aside, telling him not to say a word to the ELF leadership about what they wanted to do. "This thing is completely opposed to what we were thinking, and we cannot talk about it here," he said. So the two men went to a local restaurant and started plotting: their aim was a clandestine organisation within the ELF. "And we said, this is a very dangerous endeavor."

From that tiny cell, of just three people (the third was Mussie Tesfamikael, who was killed in 1973) the Eritrean People's Liberation Front was officially founded in 1977. Although Isaias was the real leader, he took control via the Eritrean People's Revolutionary Party, which was the Marxist organisation directing the EPLF. 

During its long years of fighting the Ethiopian government (as well as fighting a civil war with other Eritrean movements, including the ELF) Isaias ensured that it had a rear base from which to operate.

The EPLF had a safe house in Port Sudan and a massive supply depot in Port Sudan, which I visited when I went into the EPLF held areas of Eritrea in the 1980's. Having strong relations with Sudan, and with Sudanese political leaders, has been part of Isaias's strategy for the past fifty years.

Isaias and Sudan's National Democratic Alliance

The National Democratic Alliance was formed in 1989 to oppose the regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir after he seized power in a military coup on June 6, 1989.

It brought together a range of political parties (from the Democratic Unionist Party and the Umma party to the Sudanese Communist Party), ethnic parties like the Beja Congress and the trade unions.

It was formed to lead the popular struggle against the new dictatorship in Sudan and the fundamentalist regime of the National Islamic Front (NIF) that was the power behind the throne on which Omar al-Bashir sat. 

The National Democratic Alliance was to resist, and then openly fight, the Omar al-Bashir government, and the Eritrean role in this struggle was described in detail by Ahmed Hassan in two lengthy articles in African Affairs, which can be found in full hereand here.

Drawing on visits to Eritrea, in the period 1996–2003, Ahmed Hassan explained how President Isaias attempted to become involved in Sudanese affairs and finally tried to overthrow the Sudanese government.

Isaias accused the Sudanese Islamists of backing a Eritrean movement - Islamic Jihad. On 5 December 1994, Eritrea severed diplomatic relations with Sudan and subsequently invited the NDA to move its headquarters into the former Sudanese embassy in Asmara. 

As Ahmed Hassan explains, Omar al-Bashir was "viewed at that time by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the U.S. as a destabilizing factor within the region posing serious threats with its adoption of a political Islamic agenda and the subsequent support to Islamic militants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. That period also marked honeymoon of the relations between the U.S. and the 'new breed’ of African leaders represented by Isaias Afewerki, Meles Zenawi and Yoweri Museveni."

In 1996 this led to a dramatic re-orientation of forces and the formation of the Sudan Alliances forces, which brought in elements of the Sudanese military, under Brigadier Abdel Aziz Khalid, former commander of the air defence force in Khartoum. A new alliances of forces came about including the southern Sudanese movement, the SPLA and the United States. 

Abdel Aziz was able to see the new opportunities for introducing a new qualitative change to the political formula of the NDA. This was a direct result of contacts at three levels, with the Eritrean leadership, with SPLA/M, as well as from hints that were brought to him through the direct contacts of Dr. Taisier M. Ali with John Prendergast related to the potential support of the U.S to armed interventions by Northern Sudanese factions that could lead to the destabilization of the government in Khartoum.

Although the Sudanese military were now involved, according to Ahmed Hassan they had little appetite for an armed revolt against Omar al-Bashir and the Islamists.

“As far as the Northerners are concerned, they don’t have a mentality of rebels”, One Eritrean official was quoted as saying in, in frustration. “For a long time they were against armed struggle, saying that the regime would be overthrown by a popular uprising. Now they have changed, but they don’t know how to take up weapons”. That was definitely the role Eritrea decided to take in the mid-1990s. Teach them to fight and support them in their fight...The setup was complete, the Eritrean regional aspiration of having an allied movement in Khartoum, and the plans of the U.S. to escalate the efforts to destabilize and topple the NIF regime in Khartoum by opening new military fronts in the north, and the personal aspirations and agenda of the SAF leadership, all came together.

It was reported that the Americans came behind this alliance in an attempt to end Omar al-Bashir's grip on the Sudanese state. 

In 1996 the US government decided to send nearly $20 million of military equipment through the 'front-line' states of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda to help the Sudanese opposition overthrow the Khartoum regime. US officials denied that the military aid for the SPLA and the Sudanese Allied Forces (SAF), described as 'non-lethal' -- including radios, uniforms, boots and tents -- was targeted at Sudan. The Pentagon and CIA considered Sudan to be second only to Iran as a staging ground for international terrorism.

The Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir was under a full-scale assault, according to Ahmed Hassan.

[T]he invasion of Sudan was set in motion, with direct involvement of the Ugandan forces in the South, the Ethiopian forces at the Blue Nile and in the South, and the Eritrean forces at the eastern front, in full support to the SPLA, SAF and the smaller NDA armed groups.

The Ethiopian army support for the SPLA and SAF involved cross border military assistance that permitted the SPLA to capture the border town of Kurmuk and Qessan, a town in Sudan’s Blue Nile region just across the border from Ethiopia in a surprise attack on Sunday January, 12 1997.

Simultaneously, SAF and the Tana Brigade of the SPLA, managed to capture the army garrisons at Yakuru, Babsheer and Menza in the northern Blue Nile area. In less than a week, the SPLA/SAF joint forces had advanced to within 30 km of the key eastern town of Damazin, site of the main hydroelectric dam which supplies Khartoum with most of its power. ...

With the increased support of the U.S. and its allies within the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative, the advance of the SPLA and SAF seemed unstoppable. 

The SAF leadership was intoxicated by its success, believing it was near victory. In March 1997 the leadership of SAF was giving the regime in Khartoum a maximum lifespan of 6-12 months before it collapsed as the forces led by General Abdel Aziz Khalid, threatened the city. (Dan Connell, “Sudan: In the Eye of the African Storm,’ Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 15 (1997).)

Reprieve for al-Bashir and Sudan's Islamists

But the overthrow of the al-Bashir regime was not to be. Divisions emerged within the Sudanese opposition and then - in May 1998 - a border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted. 

The delicate alliance of forces that had united Asmara, Addis Ababa, Kampala and Washington fell apart. President Isaias has more pressing concerns as his forces faced repeated Ethiopian offensives.

Out of fears to have to deal with new military front with Sudan while it was involved in the 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopia, the Eritrean authorities immediately gave a clear signal to the NDA forces to slow down their operations. The roles drastically changed, from attacks and advance on the Sudan territories, to a new role of merely providing protection to the Eritrean borders against incursions from the Eritrean Islamic Jihad that was supported by the NIF as well as from any threats that could directly be posed by the Sudan government forces.

Then, on 11 September 2001, al-Qaeda attacked New York and brought down the twin towers, as well as crashing an aircraft into the Pentagon. 

The world spun on its axis. The United States put aside all else and concentrated on eliminating Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, who had lived in Sudan until being expelled in 1996.

The implications for the Sudanese opposition was predictable: the US ended its dispute with Omar al-Bashir and reached out to the Sudanese government that it had been attempting to overthrow.

The collaboration between the CIA and the Sudanese Intelligence apparatus, that started in 2001, was culminated by a CIA decision, later on, to fly the chief of the Sudan Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Sallah Abdallah Gosh, for a secret meeting in Washington aimed at cementing cooperation against terrorism as was brought in the Los Angeles Post, on June 17, 2005. Khartoum had become “an indispensable part of CIA’s counterterrorism strategy.” That turn of events after the 9/11 of course resulted in devastating implications on the NDA in general and on SAF in particular.

The combination of 9/11 and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war had blown apart the movement to overthrow the Sudanese regime. Omar al-Bashir and his Islamist government was safe - at least for the time being. 

President Isaias left fuming 

He had emerged on the wrong side of both conflicts. Isaias was forced to do a U turn. 

In January 2000 Eritrea and Sudan officially restored diplomatic relations. The Sudanese embassy in the Eritrean capital was been handed back to the Khartoum government, having previously been occupied by the Sudanese National Democratic Alliance.

The only element that did not change was Isaias's determination to plot and - when it was in his interest - to intervene in Sudan. As his meetings with Sudanese politicians in recent weeks indicate, it is an ambition that he has not abandoned.