Did Eritrean pilots defect to Ethiopia?

Reports have come through of two Eritrean pilots defecting to the regime’s arch-rival, Ethiopia. But can any truth be discerned when propaganda from both sides is so pervasive? Martin Plaut investigates.

On Thursday 27 October the Associated Press reported that two Eritrean pilots defected with their fighter jets to neighbouring Ethiopia. It was – said AP – a “dramatic exit from one of the world’s most closed-off states.” The two pilots were named as Afeworki Fisehaye and Mebrahtu Tesfamariam and described as being very experienced members of the Eritrean air force.

The problem with the story was the source: the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization. This Ethiopian based opposition group is one of several attempting to overthrow the Eritrean government. Previous reports from the same organisation have proved to be less than reliable. The Eritrean authorities denied that the defections had taken place, but their denials lack credibility since they too have previously stated that stories were false when they later proved to be true.

The report was taken seriously enough by Voice of America to report it, quoting a lecturer in the northern Ethiopian city of Mekelle as describing Ethiopian jets flying very low and conducting unusual turns over the city on Wednesday morning.

But two elements of the story did not ring true.

Firstly, the pilots have not been shown on Ethiopian television. Ethiopia and Eritrea have been at daggers drawn since the 1998–2000 border war left the neighbours in a permanent state of armed confrontation. Each side has been keen to crow about the troubles of the other. Defecting pilots would have been a propaganda coup that Addis Ababa would not have missed.

Secondly, although pilots have fled from Eritrea with their aircraft in the past they have usually flown across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. This route is now almost certainly unavailable, since Eritrea is allied with the Saudis in the ongoing war in Yemen. Eritrean defectors would probably have been arrested and deported back to Asmara and certain execution. But attempting to cross into Ethiopia would have been extremely risky. Without permission the planes would have been intercepted and attacked by the Ethiopian air force.

So what can we conclude from this story?

It underlines just how troubled relations are between the two countries and how fragile the peace is along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border. Tens of thousands of troops remain dug in along it and there have been frequent clashes since the full-scale conflict came to an end with a peace agreement in Algiers.

Both nations routinely blame internal unrest on the machinations of their neighbour. When Ethiopia declared a state of emergency earlier this month following protests by Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, Addis Ababa accused Eritrea of stoking the troubles. Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s information minister, said: “There are countries which are directly involved in arming, financing and training these elements.” Getachew named Eritrea as being a source of backing for what he called “armed gangs”.

Such is the level of distrust and hostility between the two countries that it is impossible to rule out almost any eventuality. Both countries train and arm opposition groups, while plotting and scheming about how best to overthrow each other’s governments.

The “defection” of the Eritrean pilots needs to be seen in this light. It may have taken place, or it may be a piece of Ethiopian deception. Only time will tell which it is. It is part of the ongoing overt and covert conflict between two Horn of Africa nations that remain locked into a state of “no-war, no-peace”.


Martin Plaut, the BBC World Service’s former Africa Editor, has published extensively on African affairs. An adviser to the Foreign Office and the US State Department, he is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea, published in October 2016 by Hurst. He tweets at @martinplaut

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