Posts Tagged ‘Makonnen’

Ethiopia

Diplomacy and State Building in Imperial Ethiopia

As one of only two African states that have never been permanently colonized (the other is Liberia), Ethiopia has a long diplomatic tradition. Tewodros II, who reigned in the mid-nineteenth century, was the first modern Ethiopian leader to try to develop a foreign policy that transcended the Horn region (see The Making of Modern Ethiopia, ch. 1). His successor, Yohannis IV, followed a less dynamic course and was greatly troubled by European expansionism in general and penetration by Italy in particular. Menelik II, who succeeded Yohannis in 1889, failed to find a peaceful solution to Italy’s encroachments. He had greater success, however, in the military sphere, defeating the Italian army at Adwa in 1896.

Menelik died in 1913, and it was not until 1930 that another strong emperor, Haile Selassie I, assumed the throne. Haile Selassie quickly demonstrated that he was committed to the creation of a strong, modern, bureaucratic empire that would command unquestioned international respect. As early as 1923, while serving as regent, he negotiated Ethiopia’s admission into the League of Nations. The Italian occupation of Ethiopia between 1936 and 1941 briefly halted his efforts to establish Ethiopia’s position in the world community (see Italian Rule and World War II, ch. 1). However, when he reassumed the throne in 1941, he renewed his efforts to bolster Ethiopia’s international standing.

After World War II, Haile Selassie achieved considerable international success primarily because of his active participation in the UN, his alignment with the West, and his vocal support for the African independence movement. As a UN member, Ethiopia committed troops to the peacekeeping mission in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and to the Congo (present-day Zaire) in 1960. Moreover, Ethiopia’s military and diplomatic relationship with the United States provided it with a superpower ally (see United States, ch. 5). Finally, Haile Selassie took the lead in pressing for a resolution establishing the territorial integrity of the independent states of Africa. Over the years, he developed a reputation as a sage voice of moderation on a continent filled with militant nationalists. It was in this capacity that he offered to host the headquarters of the OAU upon its founding in the early 1960s, once again demonstrating his diplomatic acumen.

Ethiopia

Foreign Policy

The foreign relations of the modern Ethiopian state were driven by the government’s quest to establish this multiethnic polity as a viable nation-state and to maintain its territorial integrity. In many respects, then, the foreign policy pursued by the leaders of postrevolutionary Ethiopia was consistent with the foreign policy of the old imperial regime. The aspect that changed from one era to the next was Ethiopia’s ideological alignment. Whereas the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie had relied heavily on the patronage of the United States, that of President Mengistu Haile Mariam cast its fate with the Soviet Union. Both the pre- and post-1974 governments used economic and military aid from their respective superpower patrons to augment their own meager material resources, thus enhancing the ability of the regime to pursue not only certain foreign policy objectives but also specific domestic policies. Analysis of Ethiopia’s foreign policy, both past and contemporary, suggests that, rather than serving as the pawns of one superpower or another, Ethiopia’s leaders consistently placed their perceptions of what was best for Ethiopia before all else.

Ethiopia

Mass Media

Before and after the 1974 revolution, the government controlled Ethiopia’s mass communications. However, after 1974 the ideological orientation of mass media in Ethiopia underwent a substantial change insofar as they became vehicles for spreading Marxist dogma.

The Ministry of Information and National Guidance published two daily newspapers: the English-language Ethiopian Herald, with a circulation of 6,000, and the Amharic-language Addis Zemen, with a circulation of 37,000. The ministry also printed Hibret, a Tigrinya-language newspaper published in Asmera that had a daily circulation of 4,000. The ministry closely controlled the contents of these publications, and it used their editorial pages to analyze certain events and policies from the perspective of scientific socialism.

There were about a dozen periodicals published in Ethiopia. The WPE issued Serto Ader, an Amharic-language newsletter with a weekly circulation of about 100,000. Two other periodicals were the magazine Yekatit Quarterly and the ideological journal Meskerem (circulation 100,000). Both publications were printed in English as well as in Amharic. Marxist-Leninist in tone, the Yekatit Quarterly reported mainly on the “accomplishments of the revolution.” Meskerem was viewed specifically as an instrument of political education.

Ethiopia

Leftist Groups

Although the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (whose Amharic acronym was MEISON) were crippled during the Red Terror, they were not completely eliminated. In 1989 the EPRP had its main base in Sudan. It claimed to have had its ranks augmented in the late 1980s by 20,000 peasants fleeing villagization in Shewa. The EPRP and MEISON continued to exist as political organizations, but they appeared to have little military significance.

Regime Stability and Peace Negotiations

Commuters line up for a bus at a busy pick-up point in Addis Ababa.
Courtesy United Nations (Ray Witlin)

The WPE regime’s attempt to create conditions for popular acceptance of its legitimacy failed. Testimony to this was the attempted coup that began on May 16, 1989. The coup was the result of months of planning by senior officers, some of whom may have been members of the Free Ethiopia Soldiers’ Movement, an opposition group that involved active-duty military officers and former officers in exile. The coup began shortly after Mengistu left for a state visit to East Germany. Top generals invited colleagues to attend a meeting at the Ministry of National Defense, where they delivered an ultimatum to the defense minister, Major General Haile Giorgis Habte Mariam, to join them or be jailed. Haile Giorgis refused and was shot dead. The shots were heard by two senior officers loyal to Mengistu, who ordered army tanks to encircle the ministry and guard the road to the airport.

Officers commanding units in Eritrea and Tigray also joined in the coup. They initially seized the Asmera radio station and issued a call to the “broad masses” to join in the effort to bring down the “tyrannical and dictatorial regime of Mengistu.” However, Mengistu returned to the country and, with the support of the Presidential Guard and other loyal troops, regained control three days after the coup began.

The plotters’ aim had been to establish a transitional military government. Exiled supporters of the Free Ethiopia Soldiers’ Movement claimed that the coup-makers planned to negotiate a settlement in Eritrea, establish a ruling council, and return the military to their barracks. Senior officers had become desperate for a political settlement of the wars raging in the north. Pamphlets expressing their discontent had been distributed to the military rank and file by junior and middle ranking officers sympathetic to their cause. The new leader reportedly was to have been Major General Seyoum Mekonnen, the former head of military intelligence.

To wipe out his enemies in the military, Mengistu purged the officer corps. At least twelve generals were executed or committed suicide rather than be captured, and 300 to 400 officers suspected of being involved in the coup were arrested. Nearly all generals, division commanders, and political commissars assigned to units stationed in the north reportedly were detained. These individuals were replaced by Mengistu loyalists, many of whom lacked experience as military leaders.

The attempted coup and continuing problems related to war, drought, and famine caused considerable instability in the WPE’s upper levels. Council of State members became increasingly critical of Mengistu’s policies, and some even suggested that he step down. However, Mengistu mustered enough support to retain power. At the same time, by mid1989 the success of opposition forces, the Soviet Union’s refusal to increase military assistance to Ethiopia, and pressure from Moscow had forced Mengistu to seek negotiated settlements to Ethiopia’s various wars. The loss of East German military support because of the democratization movement that occurred later in the year also softened the government’s stance toward negotiations.

On June 5, 1989, the National Shengo, in a special session, endorsed a proposal calling for unconditional peace talks with the EPLF. The EPLF accepted, and the two sides agreed that former United States president Jimmy Carter would mediate the negotiations. The first talks were held at the Carter Presidential Center of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in early September. WPE Central Committee member Ashagre Yigletu headed the Ethiopian delegation, and Al Amin Muhammad Sayyid led the Eritrean team. The two sides agreed on several procedural issues and set the next round of talks for November 1989 in Nairobi, Kenya.

At the second meeting, additional procedural issues were resolved, and former Tanzanian president Julius K. Nyerere was asked to co-chair further talks with former President Carter. The most difficult issue resolved in the eight-day talks was determining who would serve as international observers for the main negotiations. Seven observers were invited–each side had two unrestricted choices, and three others were chosen by mutual consent. The parties also concluded that additional observers could be invited later upon mutual agreement. At the end of the session, six observers had accepted invitations: Kenya, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). A seventh invitation was proposed for the UN, but because Ethiopia, a UN member, refused to endorse the idea, the UN declined to participate. Subsequent meetings in Washington in October 1990 and February 1991, chaired by United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, failed to resolve this issue. Even so, both sides agreed to continue their dialogue, with the next meeting tentatively scheduled for May in London.

The Ethiopian regime also agreed to peace negotiations with the TPLF, to be convened by the Italian government. Preliminary talks began in Rome on November 4, 1989. Ashagre Yigletu led the Ethiopian team, and Central Committee chairman Meles Zenawi headed the TPLF delegation. Because its troops were advancing on the battlefield, the TPLF refrained from making a cease-fire a precondition for participating in the talks. The TPLF called for the establishment of a provisional government made up of representatives from all major nationality groups and political organizations. The main task of this provisional government would be to draft a democratic constitution and prepare for free elections. Before the talks began, the Ethiopian government rejected the idea of a provisional government, claiming that the Ethiopian people had approved the 1987 constitution in a fair referendum and that a popularly elected parliament had put the new government in place.

The first round of talks lasted one week and ended with agreement only on procedural points. Although the TPLF had called for a national united front, it represented only itself at the Rome talks. It suggested, however, that the main item on the agenda should be its peace proposal. The Ethiopian delegation rejected this idea but offered no counterproposal.

The second round of preliminary talks opened in Rome on December 12, 1989. The two sides reached an agreement whereby Italy and Kenya would act as mediators and Nigeria, Sweden, Sudan, and Uganda would act as observers in future peace negotiations. The Italian minister of foreign affairs announced that the third round of preliminary talks would open in Rome on March 20, 1990.

Unfortunately, the Ethiopian delegation terminated these discussions nine days after they began. According to rebel spokesmen, the talks failed because Ethiopia insisted that the TPLF deal only with questions pertaining “to the autonomous region of Tigray” rather than with Ethiopia as a whole. Moreover, Ethiopia refused to accept a joint TPLFEPDM delegation at the main peace talks. The TPLF maintained that the EPDM, its ally in war, also should be its ally in peace. As a result of these differences, the negotiating process between the TPLF and Ethiopia ended.

On the military front, the TPLF pressed its offensive throughout the fall of 1989. By the beginning of 1990, its advances had bogged down, and the Ethiopian army had begun a counteroffensive. By mid-June 1990, however, the TPLF, operating as part of the EPRDF, had taken up positions within 160 kilometers of Addis Ababa. By contrast, the EPLF had reduced its military operations over the same period, perhaps to regroup. In February 1990, however, the EPLF mounted a major drive aimed at capturing the port city of Mitsiwa, the entry point for much of Ethiopia’s food and military supplies. By mid-February the EPLF had overrun the port and severed the traffic that flowed from Mitsiwa via Asmera to the strategic garrison town of Keren. A few months later, however, Mitsiwa resumed operation in accordance with an agreement between the EPLF and government forces. By the end of the year, the EPLF had started conducting military operations in the vicinity of the Dahlak Islands and initiated an offensive toward the port of Aseb.

Ethiopia

Somali Groups

Somali guerrilla activity in the Ogaden and in the Haud area east of Harer flared sporadically after Somalia gained its independence in 1960, but the guerrilla activity remained essentially a police concern until a border war erupted in 1964. When he seized power in Mogadishu in 1969, Siad Barre thwarted attempts at an understanding between Ethiopia and Somalia. He pledged to renew efforts to establish a “Greater Somalia” that would encompass about one-third of Ethiopia’s territory. Encouraged by the breakdown of authority in Addis Ababa after the 1974 overthrow of Haile Selassie, Somalia provided matériel, moral, and organizational support to insurgent movements in the Ogaden and southern Ethiopia.

The Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), which operated in the Ogaden, supported the “Greater Somalia” concept. The Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF) maintained links to the WSLF. Its sphere of operations was in Bale, Sidamo, and Arsi, where it advocated union with Somalia or the creation of an independent state. Somalia equipped both groups with Soviet arms; both also received aid and training from various Arab and communist nations, including Cuba.

After the 1977-78 Ogaden War, the WSLF was routed, and its troops flocked to camps in Somalia (see The Somali, ch. 5). The Somali government subsequently forbade the WSLF to use its territory to launch attacks into Ethiopia. By 1989 the WSLF had ceased to be an effective guerrilla organization within Ethiopia. Siad Barre’s decision to restrict the WSLF led to the formation of a WSLF splinter group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), whose headquarters were in Kuwait. Elements of the ONLF slipped back into the Ogaden in 1988 but failed to generate a significant military capability.

Ethiopia

Afar Groups

The Afar people, numbering about 3 million in Ethiopia, reside in the area bordering Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. Although there were other factions claiming to represent the Afar, the most prominent organization was the Afar Liberation Front (ALF; also called the Afar Sultanate Liberation Front), headed by Ali Mirah. The ALF was dedicated to maintaining the political, cultural, and religious autonomy of the Afar people. Ali Mirah directed his movement’s sporadic activities from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The ALF was one of the few opposition movements to express some interest in Mengistu’s plan for creating autonomous regions, primarily because most Afar inhabited the area that was to become Aseb Autonomous Region.

Ethiopia

Other Movements and Fronts

The EPLF, the TPLF, the EPDM, and the EPRDF were the most militarily significant opposition movements challenging the Mengistu regime in 1991. In addition, several other groups, composed mainly of ethnic Oromo, Afar, and Somali, were also active.

Oromo Groups

The Oromo, representing about 40 percent of the population, occupy areas in south and central Ethiopia that only became part of modern Ethiopia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The people in these areas largely became tenants on their own land as the empire consolidated its rule. Many Oromo resented the alien rule of Amhara and Tigray from the highland core of the empire. Haile Selassie tried to win Oromo loyalty by developing alliances with key Oromo leaders. Although this strategy enabled the emperor to co-opt many Oromo into the imperial system, it failed to end Oromo resistance. Examples of this opposition to Addis Ababa included the Azebo-Raya revolt of 1928-30; the 1936 Oromo Independence Movement; and the establishment in 1965 of the Mecha-Tulema, an Oromo self-help organization.

From 1964 to 1970, a revolt in Bale presented the most serious challenge to the Ethiopian government. During that time, separate Oromo rebel groups in Bale conducted hit-and- run raids against military garrisons and police stations. Until 1969 the Somali government provided military assistance to these rebels as part of its strategy of reestablishing a “Greater Somalia.” In addition, Oromo rebels attempted to coordinate their military activities with the Western Somali Liberation Front. After Mahammad Siad Barre took over the Somali government in 1969, the Oromo rebels lost Somali support and found it impossible to sustain their campaigns in southeastern Ethiopia. In 1970 the rebels agreed to a truce with the Haile Selassie regime.

In 1973 Oromo dissidents formed the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization dedicated to the “total liberation of the entire Oromo nation from Ethiopian colonialism” (see The Oromo, ch. 5). The OLF began an offensive against the Ethiopian government in Harerge in 1974, but sustained activities did not begin until 1976. The OLF subsequently extended its sphere of activity to Welega.

Young, educated Oromo from Arsi initially composed the OLF leadership, but by 1976 the organization claimed a broadbased leadership with a following from all Oromo areas. Beyond national liberation, the OLF’s program called for the establishment of an independent Democratic Republic of Oromia, which would include all of central and southern Ethiopia, excluding the Ogaden and Omo River regions.

In late 1989, the OLF had approximately 200 combatants in Harerge and about 5,000 in Welega. OLF troops were poorly armed and unable to pose a serious threat to the Ethiopian army. In addition, the OLF had been unable to mobilize popular support against the Ethiopian government. This failure resulted from the OLF’s inability to organize an effective antigovernment movement, to convince the majority of Oromo people that separatism was a viable political alternative, or to sustain military operations in the geographically separated areas of Welega, Arsi, and Harerge. In spite of these difficulties, in 1989 the OLF announced several military successes against the Ethiopian armed forces, especially in Asosa, a town on the SudaneseEthiopian border.

On the political side, in February 1988 the OLF convened its first national congress at Begi in newly created Asosa Region. Apart from expressing support for the EPLF and the TPLF, the congress condemned the Mengistu regime and voiced opposition to the government’s villagization and resettlement policies.

Ethiopia

The Tigrayan Movement

Tigrayan opposition to the Ethiopian government started during Emperor Menelik’s reign. In 1896 Menelik, who opposed Italy’s territorial designs on Ethiopia, deployed an 80,000- man army into Tigray without adequate provisions, thereby forcing the soldiers to live off the land. According to Tigrayan nationalists, the Tigray who died protecting their homes against Menelik’s troops outnumbered the defeated Italians who died at the Battle of Adwa that year. Forty years later, when fascist Italy’s forces invaded Ethiopia, the main battlefield was again in Tigray, and once again the inhabitants suffered. In 1943, after the Allied Powers had defeated Italy and Haile Selassie had returned to Ethiopia, Tigrayan peasants revolted against the imperial regime (see Discontent in Tigray, ch. 1). Government forces, supported by British units, suppressed the revolt. The emperor then imposed a harsh peace on Tigray.

The first sign of open resistance to the Mengistu regime in Tigray (where the rebellion became known as the Weyane, the same as the 1943 revolt) occurred in October 1974. At that time, the Derg ordered Ras Mengesha Seyoum–governor general of Tigray, member of the Tigrayan royal family, and grandson-in-law of the emperor–to relinquish his office and surrender to the authorities. Rather than submit, he fled to the bush and organized the Tigray Liberation Organization (TLO). The TLO operated in clandestine political cells and engaged in a program of systematic agitation. During the tumultuous mid-1970s, the TLO established cells in various parts of the country. In early 1975, Mengesha left Tigray and, with other aristocrats, formed the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU). Members of the TLO who remained in Tigray and who came under the influence of the EPLF formed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose goals included the overthrow of the Mengistu regime, the establishment of a “more democratic” government, and the removal of all foreign military bases from Ethiopia (see The Tigray, ch. 5). The TPLF also condemned Mengesha, accepted Marxism-Leninism, and argued for an independent Eritrean-Tigrayan federation. Eventually, the TPLF neutralized the TLO by killing many of its leaders and by jailing and executing others.

At the time, the TPLF shared the field with the more conservative Tigray-based EDU and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). However, the Red Terror had decimated both of these organizations, and by 1978 they had ceased to be a factor. The TPLF was also severely weakened but, with the assistance of the EPLF, developed into an effective fighting force. Its ranks were expanded initially by the absorption of former EPRP members.

Beginning in 1980, the TPLF sought to establish local selfadministration in areas under its control. The basic administrative unit was the people’s council (baito), which was typically introduced in two stages. In the first stage, representatives from mass associations were elected to form the provisional administrative council. The second stage involved the establishment of a full-fledged people’s council. Council members were elected to two-year terms. All members of a number of mass associations who were at least sixteen years of age had the right to vote and to stand for election to a people’s council. People’s councils were responsible for local administrative, economic, and social affairs. By late 1989, however, this structure had not grown much beyond the pilot stage in most of Tigray.

In the 1980s, the TPLF drew almost exclusively from among the Tigrayan population of north-central Ethiopia for its support, although it claimed to be dedicated toward building a united national front representing all groups and nationalities struggling against the Mengistu regime. On May 8, 1984, the TPLF issued a proposal calling for the formation of a united front based on a “minimum program,” whose sole objective was the overthrow of the Mengistu regime. By 1984 the TPLF was active throughout Tigray and in parts of Welo and Gojam. Although its political program continued to have a populist orientation, the dominant ideologues within the organization claimed to be dedicated to constructing the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray. Observers likened this group’s strident rhetoric to that of Albania’s Stalinist ideologues.

On the eve of its thirteenth anniversary in February 1988, the TPLF was engaged in its largest offensive against Ethiopian forces. Over the next year and a half, the TPLF captured all of Tigray, including urban centers such as Aksum, Inda Silase, and Mekele. By May 1989, the Ethiopian army had withdrawn completely from Tigray.

The TPLF’s efforts to develop a united front began to bear fruit just as its major offensive was unfolding. In January 1989, it entered into an alliance with the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), an organization composed mainly of Amhara from Welo, Gonder, and the northern part of Shewa, many of whom had once belonged to the EPRP. The two groups had cooperated in military activities for several years, but they had not had a formal alliance. It was estimated that by the fall of 1989, there were 2.5 million people in EPDM-controlled areas. The EPDM, like the TPLF, supported the right of all nationalities to self-determination and the formation of a democratic state once the Mengestu regime had been overthrown.

The TPLF and EPDM called their alliance the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF’s charter borrowed from the TPLF charter. It called for the establishment of a democratic government, the elimination of the last vestiges of feudalism and imperialism, the formation of a genuine people’s government based on people’s councils, the guarantee of basic human and civil rights, and self-determination for all oppressed nationalities. Subsequently, several other dissident groups, some created specifically by the EPRDF, also joined the alliance.

By the fall of 1989, the EPRDF had moved from its strongholds in Tigray, Welo, and Gonder and threatened parts of northern Shewa. At the time, the force seemed more capable of pushing back the beleaguered Ethiopian troops than of setting up any type of permanent political structures. During a six-week period beginning in August 1989, the EPRDF wounded or captured an estimated 20,000 government soldiers, seized vast stocks of military hardware, and pushed the battle line between the two sides down to northern Shewa. In part, these advances were facilitated by the demoralization of the Ethiopian military following the abortive coup of May 1989 (see Regime Stability and Peace Negotiations, this ch.). Some Ethiopian troops defected to the opposition, significantly improving the military capabilities of the EPRDF.

Ethiopia

Eritrea and the Mengistu Regime

United Nations Commission to Eritrea, 1950. The Commissioner listens to representatives of the Muslim League of Mitsiwa argue for Eritrean independence.
Courtesy United Nations

After the emperor was deposed, the Derg stated its desire to resolve the Eritrean question once and for all. There were those in the Derg’s ranks who pressed for a decisive military solution, while others favored some form of negotiated settlement. Influential Derg nationalists continued to endorse, as had the imperial regime before them, the ideal of a “Greater Ethiopia,” a unitary, multiethnic state. They pressed for a military solution while claiming to support the right of all Ethiopian nationalities to self-determination. This position was first articulated in the PNDR in 1976 and clarified later that year by the Nine Point Statement on Eritrea. Subsequently, the regime made other attempts at dealing, at least rhetorically and symbolically, with the Eritrean problem.

In 1976 Osman Salah Sabbe, an Eritrean who had helped found both the ELM and the ELF, attempted to reconcile the two movements to form a united front. But after this effort failed, Osman formed a third front, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Liberation Front (ELF-PLF). In later years, the Derg sought to exploit the internecine Eritrean disputes.

Disagreements among the various Eritrean factions continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These differences were mainly ideological. At the time, the EPLF and the ELF could best be described in ideological terms as leftistnationalist and the ELF-PLF as moderate nationalist. Although the EPLF and the ELF-PLF consistently called for Eritrea’s independence, the main ELF faction never closed the door to the possibility of an equitable federal union. As subtle as the differences among these groups appeared, they were enough to prevent the formation of a united front against Addis Ababa.

In addition to its highly disciplined combatants, the EPLF benefited from its broad base of popular support and its political organization. The EPLF became a de facto government in areas it controlled. It was a highly structured political and military institution involved not only in training its fighters militarily but also in educating them politically. The EPLF’s basic units for political participation were national unions. The Eritrean national congress was the paramount political organ of the EPLF and was made up of the Central Committee, delegates elected by the national unions, and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA). The congress defined general policy and elected the Central Committee (composed in the late 1980s of seventy-one full members and seven alternates), which in turn elected the general secretary and the Political Bureau’s eight members. The EPLF charter called for national congresses to be held every three years unless circumstances dictated otherwise. Between congressional sessions, the EPLF Central Committee was the highest authority within the front. It met every nine months and was responsible for developing the EPLF political agenda and for overseeing policy implementation. The Political Bureau was the EPLF’s primary executive organ. It met every three months and had broad administrative powers. When the Political Bureau was not in session, the general secretary, aided by a secretariat, possessed wide executive authority.

In March 1987, the EPLF held its second congress in areas of Eritrea that it controlled. The first congress had been held ten years earlier after Eritrean forces had captured almost all of Eritrea. At that time, the euphoric Eritreans expected that their goal of an independent Eritrea was about to be realized. However, they subsequently suffered a series of reversals from which it took the EPLF almost a decade to recover. Like that earlier meeting, the 1987 gathering was also a unity congress. It resulted in resolution of the difference between the EPLF and another splinter group, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Central Command (ELF-CC), at the time the most prominent remaining ELF faction.

Following the EPLF unity congress, the organization stepped up military pressure against the Ethiopian regime. By March 1988, the EPLF had scored some impressive battlefield successes. The EPLF broke out of entrenched positions in the Nakfa area of northern Eritrea and occupied the important garrison town of Afabet. Afabet’s fall forced the Ethiopian army to evacuate the urban centers of Barca, Teseney, Barentu, and Akordat. The government also ordered all foreign relief workers out of Eritrea and Tigray, declared states of emergency in both regions, and redeployed troops from the Ogaden to Eritrea. The highly disciplined Eritrean forces faced much larger and better equipped Ethiopian units, but the Ethiopian troops, many of whom were teenagers, had become war weary and demoralized. By early 1991, the EPLF controlled most of Eritrea except for some urban centers.

The most significant attempt to address the Eritrean issue was embodied in the 1987 constitution, which allowed for the possibility of regional autonomy. At its inaugural session, the National Shengo acted on this provision and endorsed a plan for regional autonomy (see Regional and Local Government, this ch.). Among autonomous regions, the plan accorded Eritrea the greatest degree of autonomy. In particular, the plan assigned Eritrea’s regional government broader powers than those assigned to the other four autonomous regions, especially in the areas of industrial development and education. Under the plan, Eritrea also was distinguished from other autonomous regions in that it was to have three administrative subregions: one in the north, made up of Akordat, Keren, and Sahel awrajas; one in the south-central part of historical Eritrea, consisting of Hamasen, Mitsiwa, Seraye, and Akale Guzay awrajas; and one encompassing the western awraja of Gashe na Setit. By creating Aseb Autonomous Region, the government in Addis Ababa appeared to be attempting to ensure itself a secure path to the Red Sea. Aseb Autonomous Region comprised Aseb awraja of historical Eritrea, along with parts of eastern Welo and Tigray regions.

By 1991, however, administrative reorganization in the north-central part of the country was a reality only on paper. Since 1988 the area had been under a state of emergency. The regime had been unable to establish the necessary party and administrative infrastructure to implement the plan, mostly because of the escalation of opposition in Eritrea and Tigray since the promulgation of the 1987 constitution. The EPLF, for example, rejected the reorganization plan, terming it “old wine in new bottles.” The ELF expressed particular outrage over the creation of Aseb Autonomous Region, viewing it as another WPE attempt to annex a significant part of the historical colony of Eritrea to Ethiopia. The ELF called for the Ethiopian government to agree to immediate negotiations without preconditions with a unified Eritrean delegation.

Even as the EPLF recorded its most significant battlefield success in 1988-89, a rift was developing between that organization and ELF splinter groups. This rift revolved around religion, as the ELF’s conservative, primarily Islamic elements came to distrust the EPLF’s predominantly Christian leadership. The EPLF also espoused a much more explicitly socialist program than did the ELF factions. To encourage further divisions among the Eritreans, the Mengistu regime in late 1988 met with five former ELF members (who claimed to represent 750,000 Eritreans) to accept their proposal for the creation of an autonomous Eritrean region in the predominantly Muslim lowlands. These five men rejected the EPLF’s claim that it represented all Eritreans. Mengistu forwarded the proposal to the National Shengo for consideration, but the regime collapsed before action could be taken.

Ethiopia

The Eritrean Movement

Eritrea and the Imperial Regime

Eritrean separatism had its roots in World War II. In 1941, in the Battle of Keren, the Allies drove Italian forces out of Eritrea, which had been under Italy’s rule since the end of the nineteenth century. Administration of the region was then entrusted to the British military until its fate could be determined by the Allies. Britain, however, sought to divide Eritrea along religious lines, giving the coast and highland areas to Ethiopia and the Muslim-inhabited northern and western lowlands to British-ruled Sudan.

In 1952 the United Nations (UN) tried to satisfy the demand for self-determination by creating an EritreanEthiopian federation. In 1962, however, Haile Selassie unilaterally abolished the federation and imposed imperial rule throughout Eritrea.

Radical opposition to the incorporation of Eritrea into Ethiopia had begun in 1958 with the founding of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), an organization made up mainly of students, intellectuals, and urban wage laborers. The ELM engaged in clandestine political activities intended to cultivate resistance to the centralizing policies of the imperial state. By 1962, however, the ELM had been discovered and destroyed by imperial authorities.

Even as the ELM was being neutralized, a new organization of Eritrean nationalists was forming. In 1960 Eritrean exiles in Cairo founded the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). In contrast to the ELM, from the outset the ELF was bent on waging armed struggle on behalf of Eritrean independence. The ELF was composed mainly of Eritrean Muslims from the rural lowlands on the western edge of the territory. In 1961 the ELF’s political character was vague, but radical Arab states such as Syria and Iraq sympathized with Eritrea as a predominantly Muslim region struggling to escape oppression and imperial domination. These two countries therefore supplied military and financial assistance to the ELF.

The ELF initiated military operations in 1961. These operations intensified in response to the 1962 dissolution of the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation. The ELF claimed that the process by which this act took place violated the Eritrean federal constitution and denied the Eritrean people their right to self-determination. By this time, the movement claimed to be multiethnic, involving individuals from Eritrea’s nine major ethnic groups.

The ELF’s first several years of guerrilla activity in Eritrea were characterized by poor preparation, poor leadership, and poor military performance. By 1967, however, the ELF had gained considerable support among peasants, particularly in Eritrea’s north and west, and around the port city of Mitsiwa. Haile Selassie attempted to calm the growing unrest by visiting Eritrea and assuring its inhabitants that they would be treated as equals under the new arrangements. Although he doled out offices, money, and titles in early 1967 in hopes of co-opting would-be Eritrean opponents, the resistance intensified.

From the beginning, a serious problem confronting the ELF was the development of a base of popular support and a cohesive military wing. The front divided Eritrea into five military regions, giving regional commanders considerable latitude in carrying out the struggle in their respective zones. Perhaps just as debilitating were internal disputes over strategy and tactics. These disagreements eventually led to the ELF’s fragmentation and the founding in 1972 of another group, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The leadership of this multiethnic movement came to be dominated by leftist, Christian intellectuals who spoke Tigrinya, Eritrea’s predominant language. Sporadic armed conflict ensued between the two groups from 1972 to 1974, even as they fought the Ethiopian forces. The various organizations, each waging a separate campaign against the Haile Selassie regime, had become such a serious threat that the emperor declared martial law in Eritrea and deployed half his army to contain the struggle. But the Eritrean insurgents fiercely resisted. In January 1974, the EPLF handed Haile Selassie’s forces a crushing defeat at Asmera, severely affecting the army’s morale and exposing the crown’s ever-weakening position.