Ethiopia: Eritrean and Tigrayan Insurgencies

Posted: February 21, 2008 in History
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et01_08a.jpgEritrean and Tigrayan Insurgencies

Famine scene at Korem, in Wido.
Courtesy United Nations Children’s Fund (Bert Demmers)

After 1974, insurgencies appeared in various parts of the country, the most important of which were centered in Eritrea and Tigray (see Political Dynamics, ch. 4; External and Internal Opponents, ch. 5). The Eritrean problem, inherited from Haile Selassie’s regime, was a matter of extensive debate within the Derg. It was a dispute over policy toward Eritrea that resulted in the death of the PMAC’s first leader, General Aman, an Eritrean, on November 23, 1974, so-called “Bloody Saturday.” Hereafter, the Derg decided to impose a military settlement on the Eritean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Attempts to invade rebel-held Eritrea failed repeatedly, and by mid-1978 the insurgent groups controlled most of the countryside but not major towns such as Keren, Mitsiwa, Aseb, and a few other places. Despite large commitments of arms and training from communist countries, the Derg failed to suppress the Eritrean rebellion.

By the end of 1976, insurgencies existed in all of the country’s fourteen administrative regions (the provinces were officially changed to regions in 1974 after the revolution). In addition to the Eritrean secessionists, rebels were highly active in Tigray, where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), formed in 1975, was demanding social justice and self-determination for all Ethiopians. In the southern regions of Bale, Sidamo, and Arsi, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF), active since 1975, had gained control of parts of the countryside, and the WSLF was active in the Ogaden. Under Ali Mirah’s leadership, the Afar Liberation Front (ALF) began armed operations in March 1975, and in 1976 it coordinated some actions with the EPLF and the TPLF.

Despite an influx of military aid from the Soviet Union and its allies after 1977, the government’s counterinsurgency effort in Eritrea progressed haltingly. After initial government successes in retaking territory around the major towns and cities and along some of the principal roads in 1978 and 1979, the conflict ebbed and flowed on an almost yearly basis. Annual campaigns by the Ethiopian armed forces to dislodge the EPLF from positions around the northern town of Nakfa failed repeatedly and proved costly to the government. Eritrean and Tigrayan insurgents began to cooperate, the EPLF providing training and equipment that helped build the TPLF into a full-fledged fighting force. Between 1982 and 1985, the EPLF and the Derg held a series of talks to resolve the Eritrean conflict, but to no avail. By the end of 1987, dissident organizations in Eritrea and Tigray controlled at least 90 percent of both regions.

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