نضال الشعب الإريتري من أين أين: تقييم الجبهة الثعبية لتحرير شعب ، تقراي ١٩٨٥. الجزء الاول وفيه تفاصيل عن علاقاتهم وحربهم ضد جبهة التحرير الارترية. الجزء الثاني سيتناول علاقتهم مع الجبهة الشعبية
The ELF, EPLF in Eritrea and the TPLF in Tigray were all fiercely competing for space and influence in their own areas and the areas controlled by the neighbouring organizations in the 1970s. TLF was eliminated by TPLF and EPRP and EDU had also smaller presence. By 1978, this competition was taking place while Ethiopia initiated a wide campaign to regain the liberated areas. This is an assessment (ቃልሲ ህዝቢ ኤርትራ ካበይ ናበይ /ግምገማ) written by the TPLF in 1985. Highlights translated from Tigrinya and any errors in translation, my responsibility. Part I covers in detail the relations of TPLF to the ELF. Part II will follow which will cover in detail relations with EPLF:
The struggle of the Eritrean people from where to where: An assessment
TPLF publication, 1985
The Weyane and its relations to the Eritrean people
Part I: The justness of the Eritrean question
1. The Weyane and its relations to the struggle of the Eritrean people
- Analysis of the Eritrean question:
C. Political Economy
2. The stand of Ethiopians on the Eritrean question
A. The importance of having a just stand
B. Factors that hinder Ethiopians from taking a just stand
C. Different stands taken by Ethiopians
Part II: The relations of Weyane to the struggle of the Eritrean people
1. The principled basis of our relations
2. Our relations to the ELF
A. The principled stand to our relations
B. The process by which our relations worsened
C. The military conflict with the ELF and the way it was handled
D. The situation that was created after the military conflict
3. Our relations to the EPLF
A. The principled basis of our relations
B. Differences and how it was handled
C. Evaluation of our current relations
Part III: What the Weyane has got to do in Eritrea
1. Brief analysis of the current situation in Eritrea
2. What is the fundamental solution
A. The establishment of a democratic organization and a workers’ party
B. The problems that may arise in the establishment of such a force
C. What has to be done to establish such a force
A brief summary:
- On the justness of the Eritrean cause, it is stated, “The question of the Eritrean people, when looked at from a historical, legal and political economy aspects, is no different from any other African or otherwise just national liberation struggle.”
- Ethiopia is not a country that has a 3000 years shared history, different parts of what is Ethiopia today can have their own history of 3000 years or more than that. Ethiopia with a centralized government is about 100 years old. It started with the rule of Menelik.
On TPLF principled basis of the relations with the Eritrean people; it is stated, “The basis for our relationship is not based on getting support from armed force in our neighbourhood, it is not also based on the close language and cultural relations. It is rather based on the our stand about the justness of the Eritrean struggle, on our standthat the Eritrean question is a colonial question. Like all other relations our stand towards the Eritrean question gradually became more clear and more solid through time, we also believed that taking a just stand on the Eritrean question is not only for the sake of the Eritrean people but it is also for the sake of the struggle of the Ethiopian people. The TPLF worked on its members also to have a right stand. Our stand is based on our own convictions and was not meant to please, any one. We will also pursue our correct convictions in the future. In the last 10 years we have made great strides in terms of our cooperation with Eritrean political organizations. As much as Eritrean organizations’ support to the Tigrian peoples’ struggle was crucial so was Weyane support to the struggle of the Eritrean people crucial, too. We do not regard our support to the Eritrean cause as a great contribution, but what we regard as great contribution is to make the Ethiopian people in general and the Tigrean people, in particular to believe in the just cause of the Eritrean people. “
On the relations with the ELF
“ When the TPLF was formed, the ELF was one of the Eritrean national organizations and thus had relations with it and its principled stand was based on Weyane’s recognition of the just cause of the Eritrean people. Even before the beginning of Weyane’s armed struggle, we tried to have relations with it because we were convinced that both ELF and EPLF represented Eritrean people aspirations. When we started armed struggle, we also put efforts to have good relations with the ELF; and though the ELF did not formally declare that they were against relations with us, the relations were not to the level we aspired for. It was during this period the unity process between TPLF and TLF (Tigray Liberation Front) did not go, as planned. The leaders of the TLF were found to have killed others and so they were arrested by TPLF. Those who had separated from TLF either dispersed or joined the TPLF. TLF had close relations to ELF and ELF considered TLF as their own and some security members of the ELF were involved in the killings, ELF interpreted the actions taken by TPLF leadership in a distorted way. In addition to that because the TPLF had some limited cooperation with EPLF, the ELF considered TPLF as extension of EPLF in Tigray.
The measures taken by the TPLF regarding some of the leadership of the TLF was considered by the ELF as a step taken to weaken the ELF presence in Tigray. Based on this the ELF started to threaten the newly formed TPLF. The TPLF recognised an important issue from the stand of the ELF. Their support to Tigriyan organizations was not based on a principled stand based on mutual respect, but was an attempt to create their influence in Tigray. TPLF understood that they will evaluate the struggle in Tigray from the point of view, whether it was a supporter of ELF or EPLF. But TPLF, realizing that sour relations with the ELF is not going to serve both peoples struggle, tried its best to improve relations with the ELF. From this understanding, the TPLF leadership sent a delegation to the ELF to explain what happened with the TLF. The ELF leadership was not convinced, so the ELF was allowed to send a committee, including central committee member to the TPLF to investigate the issue. The ELF delegation was allowed to meet in private with the jailed TLF leadership. The ELF delegation also met individually with those members of the TPL who decided to join the TPLF. After this investigation, the ELF leadership was forced to accept the decision of the TPLF, and realised that they had no excuse to attack the TPLF. After this incident, though the TPLF worked hard to normalize the relations with the ELF, but its efforts di not bear fruit.
Though it did not include material cooperation, but both organizations signed the first joint communique in October 1976 (1969 E.C.) This joint communique reflected the parental attitude of the ELF. The ELF through a history that it has created, it used to administer almost the whole area of upper Adiabo in Tigray. Though we knew this was not correct, we accepted it believing that it could be resolved gradually at a later stage. The ELF asked to organize militias and and mass organizations in areas in Tigray. We agreed that they can do that in areas where Eritreans residing there were a majority. After this agreement the Central Committee of the TPLF prepared a study on the nature of the relations with the ELF. Previously after the 2nd congress of the ELF, where a political program was adopted there was a conviction that the ELF was a democratic organization. To deepen this, a deeper study was conducted on the ELF. On that study it was made clear that the influence of feudalist elements within the ELF was big and that the ELF did not take any stand to weaken feudalism in Eritrea.
It became clear in the study that the ELF compromised class struggle and has increased the influence of feudalists and as the result of this; it was coordinating with feudal lords and their organizations in Tigray. It was concluded that as the ELF lacked an anti-feudalist stand and action, it can not be a true democratic organization, but a nationalist one. But as a mere nationalist organization, it was decided to have close relations to the ELF. The TPLF also concluded later that the ELF was not anti-imperialist, too and that was a correct stand since then. If a correct analysis on the ELF was done earlier, it would have been clear much earlier that it was not anti-feudalist. This analysis that the ELF was not anti-feudalist and was not anti-imperialist was kept at the level of the Central Committee of the TPLF; it was noted that if the ELF knew our stand it could attack us militarily. We agreed to have this analysis regarding the ELF, but did not make it public or drive a propaganda against it. This was a wrong decision. In relations with organizations it is important to make your differences clear but work together on issues of mutual interest. But such a policy was not there at that time.
By the end of 1977 (1969 E.C.) when EDU (Ethiopian Democratic Union) conducted operations in Humera, the TPLF knew that it had the support of the ELF. This action of the ELF consolidated its position that the ELF was not anti-feudal. When the EDU conducted operations against the TPLF and had upper hand in the lowlands of western Tigray, TPLF knew this was because of full support of the ELF, including informing EDU about the movements of the TPLF. This consolidated the view of the TPLF that if the ELF could find an organization in Tigray that served its interests, it would not hesitate to eliminate the TPLF. But despite all this the TPLF decided to continue to have relations with it as a nationalist organization until it resorts to military action against it. By the end of 1977, and beginning of 1978, when some elements in TPLF left the organization after the line they pursued was exposed; the ELF embraced such elements and tried its best to extract secrets of the TPLF from them. It became clear the ELF tried to form an organization in Tigray from those elements.
The TPLF concluded that the ELF is following a weak relationship with TPLF until such time it creates its own puppet organization in Tigray. It was further noted that if the ELF succeeded in creating a puppet Tigriyan organization, it will not hesitate to take military measures against the TPLF. By 1977, the ELF realized that it was unable to form an organization of those who left the TPLF. EDU was also eliminated from the field and took refuge in the Sudan. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (Ihaba) was also eliminated from Tigray and took refuge in Eritrea. The ELF then started to improve its relations with TPLF and during the period the Dergue conducted a wide offensive and the ELF and TPLF coordinated to face that offensive. This continued until the beginnings of 1978 (1971 E.C.)
Though there were was no very good relations, but one cannot state that their cooperation did not play any part to strengthen the struggle of both people. Both coordinated in different battles, particularly during the Dergue campaign of 1978. Fighters of both ELF and TPLF they have fallen together fighting a common enemy. Though looking at it at from the wide cooperation they would have had, it is regarded minimal. But that even that limited cooperation had a big impact.
One issue of importance in the relationship was the possibility of passing through each others’ controlled territory. TPLF had the right to pass through ELF controlled territories and though there were difficulties, this had greatly helped the TPLF to establish foreign relations. The ELF also had the right to pass through TPLF controlled territories. Not only that but it had also the right to organize militias and mass organizations and even to administer some areas. If the ELF leadership was genuine to exploit this in a proper manner, it could have given the Eritrea’s peoples struggle great boast. There was a lot of propaganda at that time. ELF leaders used to state that it was the ELF who armed the TPLF and helped it to develop. It was told that TPLF was only a recipient of ELF support. This was not correct. For the record, the only help that TPLF got from ELF was 124 automatic and semi-automatic weapons. TPLF gave the ELF small vehicles, bulldozer that helps in making roads and other items. The most important thing to be stated in this regard, it is not the material support or material loans that define a relationship. Any material support is meant to help an organization to struggle. The result is that it is not only helping the recipient organization, it is also meant to support the supporting organization, too. This is not meant to say we gave more material aid to the ELF than they gave us. If it were possible, we would have even given more; as that would have helped both peoples’ struggle, and we are not sorry for the help we gave. It is not meant to undermine the help we got from the ELF. We just want to make it clear that the claim that the ELF was always the giver and TPLF always was recipient was false.
How things got worse
One of the main reasons was the political view of the ELF leadership. By compromising class struggle, it intention was make the future Eritrea, a country of the oppressing classes. The land reform that TPLF conducted adjacent to Eritrea may have been seen by the ELF as a bad example. The basic reason for the ELF leadership to be suspicious and doubtful about the ELF was their class struggle compromise. It was for this reason they tried from the beginning to create a Tigriyan organization that shares their views. In addition to that the ‘Big ELF’ mentality (Jebha Abbay) could not think of equal relations to a newly formed TPLF. Though the TPLF showed patience in its relations with the ELF, but it was not ready to be a messenger of ELF or any other organization. Maintaining a fully independent line, was not something that could be accepted by the ELF.
By mid of 1977, when the TPLF was steadily gaining ground and the ELF was going downhill, the ELF leadership’s fear of having a Tigriyan organization that does not work under their instructions, increased. So they increased their efforts to get rid of TPLF before it got strong. Another factor that worsened the relations with the ELF was the internal contradictions within ELF and EPLF. Having good relations with one of the Eritrean organizations was seen as targeting the other. When the relations between TPLF and EPLF improved after 1977, this increased the suspicions that ELF had about TPLF.
Due to all those factors, the relations between TPLF and ELF deteriorated sharply as of 1978. TPLF was forbidden to pass through ELF controlled territory. At the end of 1978, ELF and EPRP signed a secret pact to eliminate the ELF. The relations of TPLF and EPRP had reached almost a confrontational level. The elimination of EPRP from Tigray, it wanted to control the strategic areas of western Tigray and it was ready to ally with the ‘devil’ to reach its goals. The ELF was also keen that the strategic areas of western Tigray to be under a friendly organization. There was no common political platform between the EPRP and ELF. The ELF saw the Soviet Union as a revolutionary force and that its stand regardin Eritrea only was not correct. It saw the Soviet Union support to the Derge as contribution against anti-imperialism. EPRP had the stand that the Derge and its supporter the USSR were enemies of the Ethiopian people; but to the ELF both the Derge and the USS Soviet Union were progressive forces, in principle. Thus their only common enemy was the TPLF.
The TPLF had reached through its own sources that both ELF and EPRP were planning to attack the TPLF. The EPRP with the support of the ELF were conducting provocative measures. They were sending spies to assess the ground. The preventive measure to be taken by the TPLF was to force the EPRP away from the area so that they did not get adjacent to the ELF controlled area. EPRP was operating in the Welgait area. Therefore it had the chance to have direct links to the ELF. It was clear that if there was a joint operation from Welgait and Gash, there was danger that the TPLF could lose the strategic western areas of Tigray. Therefore the choice for the TPLF was to eliminate the EPRP from Wolgait and cut its access to the ELF and as a result the ELF would lose the chance of forming an organization that could be the alternative to TPLF. Due to those reason the TPLF conducted operation in the beginning of 1980 to clear Wolgait from EPRP. The ELF and EPRP both realized this move was against their plans and thus both began to coordinate their efforts. The ELF began a show of force in the vicinity of Sheraro and we were forced to decrease the units that were attacking EPRP. The ELF then started targeting the TPLF. When we attacked EPRP, the ELF attacked our units on December 1979.
The armed conflict with ELF and how it was handled:
The first TPLF target of the ELF was to carry a sudden attack on our base in Adwa Awraja, along Belesa river (in the border with Eritrea). Because we never expected the ELF to attack us openly and as the attack was sudden we sustained damage. When this happened the TPLF did not retaliate but opted to resolve it peacefully. We expressed our objection to the leadership of the ELF and informed the other organizations, but informed our units to stay on alert. But the ELF pursued its aggression. It is fair to resolve differences peacefully but can not tolerate the force that comes to eliminate you. The ELF and EPRP attacked our forces near Welgait. We continued a wide campaign to stop this aggression from the ELF. We involved Eritreans who live in the area to stop it. We also conducted the forces we considered ELF could listen to, Meetings were conducted between both leadership. Both organizations agreed to keep their forces within their borders. The agreement was signed in Kassala. But the ELF could not abide by the agreement. Both ELF and EPRP forces tried to control Shiraro. TPLF ambushed them at Gemhalo, about 10 kms from Shiraro and they were forced to retreat. We followed them and they sustained heavy casualties. Even after tha,t we tried our best to resolve the differences peacefully as matter of principle and not due fear from ELF attacks.
As our main bases were close to the Eritrean border, it meant that most of our forces were to guard against ELF attacks. We had two options, either to have most of our units on guard at the border, compromising our struggle or to cross the border and teach the ELF a lesson that will make opt for a peaceful option. We took the second option and while we were preparing for that, the relations between the ELF and EPLF got worse. The ELF withdrew its forces from the positions they held in the Sahel and thus we were forced to cover those positions for the sake of the Eritrean and Tigrean peoples struggle. It was also during this time the ELF was negotiating with the Derg and the Soviet Union. We began to doubt it were genuine on its struggle for independence. EPLF and ELF went into war. The EPLF used to state that their contradiction with the ELF cannot be resolved peacefully. It was inevitable that the EPLF will go to war with the ELF and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
We had our own reasons to go to war with ELF. But there were many questions to be answered, shall we coordinate our efforts with EPLF and cross the border to attack the ELF? Shall we limit our selves to fight it in Tigray. If we cross the border and attack the ELF, will it be considered interference in the internal affairs in Eritrea? Our stand was clear, even if we coordinate with the EPLF to attack ELF, it was not meant to interfere in the internal affairs. We were almost at war with ELF for about a year and we were doing it to protect ourselves. Whether we coordinate with EPLF or not , there would be no difference in the nature of war. Our war with ELF was not meant to support EPLF, but a just war to protect our existence. We opted to coordinate our efforts with EPLF so that the ELF leadership could come to its senses soon and choose a peaceful path. In the beginning of 1980, we started joint military operations against ELF.
While the war was going on, we tried to our best to stop the war and resolve the pending issues but the ELF did not head. The ELF forces entered the Sudan.
The main reason for the defeat of the ELF was not the joint attack of the EPLF and TPLF, though it had an influence. The ELF was defeated because of a long internal conflict within it that has been simmering for a long time. When the ELF entered the Sudan, the largest part of its army and itsweapons were intact. What the ELF lost during the joint attack was less its losses during its attempt to liberate Barentu. The joint attack has no doubt contributed to sharpen the internal difference. Irrespective of what happened, it is the ELF leadership and not TPLF that takes responsibility. It was the ELF leadership that forced us to go to war with it. We have tried our best to resolve the differences peacefully. Our relations with the ELF were much better than those with the EPLF. We evaluated both organizations as nationalist organizations, though it was also clear that the ELF had a tendency to compromise with the enemy (Derge) than the EPLF. We could have a better relation with one rather than the other based on how they approached us, but we never had any reason to fight one of them together with the other.
As indicated we had differences with the ELF. The ELF regarded the lowlands of Adiabo in Tigray as part of Eritrea. But TPLF did not go to war with ELF due to border differences. The border issue is important to the TPLF from one aspect only; so that it knows the areas in which its activities will be focussed on. Outside that TPLF acknowledges that it neither has the aim or the capacity to defend Tigray’s borders. It aim is to assert the right of the people of Tigray for self-determination. It is only the people of Tigray who will decide if Tigray will form an independent government or will live with the rest the Ethiopian people. So the people of Tigrary will decide the borders of Tigray when they get the right to self-determination. If the people of Tigray decide to join the rest of Ethiopa, then it is that democratic government which will decide the borders. If the Tigray people opt for secession then it is the democratic Tigriyan government which will decide the borders.
This does not mean there cannot be agreements on borders during the struggle period. This may be useful for both Eritrean and Tigriyan organizations. But this must not be based on hear and say but on principled basis. As Eritrea was a colony this has to be based on treaties signed between Menelik and the Italians. But there could be problems in terms of implementation as those borders were drawn on maps but not demarcated on land. There could be areas where the belong to one country on the map, but may be administered by the other country. Those issues can be resolved through understanding. Any way TPLF accepts that Eritrean and Ethiopian organizations can agree on temporary borders if there was need for that. This also has to based on historical understandings. Even if they could not finalize this, it is not an issue.
The organizations cannot finalize borders any way. Until the people decide on their own way, the organizations can agree on general working agreements. We had many misunderstandings with ELF leadership regarding border issues. Due to its expansionist policies, the ELF used to organize militias, form mass organizations even in undisputed Tigriyan territories, but we treated that with patience. It later wither from those indisputable territories and so the border issue could have not been a cause for dispute.
The ELF also used to propagate that it war with TPLF was because TPLF abused Eritreans, but this is also a false claim. The ELF from the beginning used to abuse and mistreat Tigriyans who lived in Eritrea. Any organization that claims it is fighting for a just cause and for the masses could do such things. So you would not expect it to care about Eritreans in Tigray from a human rights perspective. Most Eritreans used to live in western Tigray and those can be classified into two groups. There are those who are settled and own land and there are those pastoralists who move with their cattle. TPLF looks into those in two ways: Those are originally from Eritrea, physically and mentally. They not only care about Eritrean people struggle, but they have to participate in it. Their stay in Tigray should not deter them from participating.
The TPLF looks at them from two aspects.
First of all, they are physically and mentally Eritreans. They are not only interested in the struggle of the Eritrean people, but they want to participate in it. Their stay in Tigray shall not hinder them from that participation. Even though TPLF has the duty to inform them about the Eritrean people struggle; any Eritrean organization can organize them through different means. The TPLF can not only allow them to be part of the peoples’ militia of Eritrean organization, but can arm them for that purpose. Secondly, because there are residents of Tigray, they have duties and obligations like the people of Tigray. Therefore if the TPLF carries land reform in Tigray, then the Eritreans there will be subject to this land reform. If the feudal lords in the affected areas got irritated by the measures, the Eritrean landlords will also get irritated. This protects the rights of both Tigriyan and Eritrean masses’ rights. When we take those measures, the ELF leadership will shout that Eritreans in Tigray are mistreated. Why? Because the ELF leadership does not look equally towards the down trodden masses of Eritrea and Tigray. According to the ELF this is applicable not only to Tigriyans in Eritrea, but also to Eritreans in Tigray. ELF believes that Eritreans everywhere have to handled better than Tigriyans. The ELF does not believe in class struggle. According to it all its country men are Eritreans. If land is taken from an Eritrean feudal lord and distributed to poor farmers in Tigray or Eritrea, it shouts land has been taken from Eritreans. We in TPLF can not discriminate between a feudal lord from Tigray or Eritrea.”
The situation that resulted after the military conflict with the ELF
After the ELF forces entered the Sudan, it disintegrated into three parts. Our primary duty then was to study if the three splinter groups were national organizations or not and to asses if the want to resolve issues with TPLF peacefully or not, and this takes time. The TPLF is willing to cooperate with in any Eritrean national organization. Even though we went into military conflict but we are ready to cooperate with all ELF national organizations. There is a side who will be held responsible for the blood shed. The ELF leadership will be held responsible for this one day. Even if there are ELF groups that are not national, there will be no reason that we enter with them into armed conflicts. It is the duty of the Eritrean people to decide which ones are national and which ones are not. It is not our duty. As far as we are concerned we are not willing to cooperate with a non-national organization. Even though we can not cooperate with such organizations, we can still live peacefully with it, until it does not threaten our existence. If the splinter groups of the ELF would like to live in peace with us, we will not only do the same but we will even cooperate with the national ones. We have had discussions with them to be able to study them. The results will be seen in the future.”
Part II will deal with their assessment of the EPLF
The book can be downloaded from the link below:
The book can be downloaded from the link below:
For a more objective neutral assessment of the relations of TPLF to both ELF may be assessed here: This looks into the historical relationship between the Tigriyan speaking people in both Eritrea and Tigray:
Divided Histories, Opportunistic Alliances: Background Notes on the Ethiopian-Eritrean War by Richard M. Trivelli, Africa Spectrum, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1998), pp. 257-289
Another freely accessible article that sheds light on those relations is:
OLD PROBLEMS IN NEW CONFLICTS: SOME OBSERVATIONS ON ERITREA AND ITS RELATIONS WITH TIGRAY, FROM LIBERATION STRUGGLE TO INTER-STATE WAR by Richard Reid