China is so vast, stated the communist leader, that when the sun is setting in its western borders day was already breaking in its Pacific Coast. Likewise some guerrilla groups of all stripes in the continent of Africa had been lucky and were spared from a similar fate of the Tamil Tigers, for they were able to easily jump nationafl borders in their vicinity, and in most instances with impunity. Like the pastoralists and small traders of Africa, who never bothered about the superficial boundaries drawn by former European powers, the guerrilla groups have also been behaving the same, and rampaging all over the national territories of African countries.
It reminds me of the novel Ice Cream War, written about the small part of the First World War waged between Germany and Great Britain in Africa. The German general, defeated at the hands of the British around southern Kenya, was chased all the way to one of the Rhodesians then, until his final surrender.
This essay is mainly an attempt to describe and not dissect the history of the armed protagonists in our still turbulent region. It is hoped to provoke a far accurate and balanced picture of the conflict by other writers.
In the Eritrean case, the Sudan has remained a good example. Its huge land mass, and its largely tolerant populace has attracted multitude of refugees from almost most of the countries adjacent to it. Likewise rebel groups either in embryonic stage or in rapid flight due to some military pressure were often observed sneaking in to rest and lick their wounds. The motley of guerrilla groups who later morphed into the EPLF, when chased by their parent organization, crossed at one time into the eastern part of the Sudan behind the Karora area. They were to repeat this tactic again in the early 80s, when they were outflanked by one of the Derg’s military campaigns popularly called by them as selahta werar. Fortunes reversed for the parent Eritrean organization Jebha in the early 80s, and to escape the onslaught of its formidable enemy EPLF, it decided to trek into the Sudanese territory for good.
According to some reliable sources close to 18,000 of its armed fighters were soon disarmed and disbanded by the Sudanese authorities.
What made this repeating phenomenon finally tragic and comic is, when a sizable section of the Derg’s army itself followed a similar flight to the Sudan in the early 90s. This bizarre pilgrimage to the Kasela region has been undertaken by hapless refugees, guerrillas under stress, and finally the Derg regime, when denied the route through Tigray to the interior of the country.
The Search for Dien Bien Phu
A young writer at awate.com recently lamented the celebration of EPLF’s military victory at Massawa codenamed Operation Fenkil, which he thinks is at the expense of the other military victory obtained at Afabet. Gehezae Hagos Berhe appears to embrace the largely erroneous comparison with the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu, that decisively ended the First Indo China War. When the French Colonial army was routed by the Viet Minh resistance in this battle, an armistice followed a few days later, and subsequently the French presence ended. On the other hand, the military defeat of the Nadew command, though a severe blow to the morale of the Derg army, was not decisive at all. Although its troop size was decreased and had lost substantial armor to the EPLF, none of them were the cause for the major debacle of the military regime. It persevered to fight very tenaciously for almost three years, and would likely have sustained the war for the unforeseeable period had it not lost the key for the hinterland of the country, that is Tigray.
The peasants in the arid highlands of Eritrea, habitually build their hidmos on the top of the hills or slopes for access to arable land is very limited. The hidmos: cool in summer and warm in winter have now rapidly been disappearing. The hot tin roofed houses are now the norm, and have now changed the rural landscape. The sloppy terrain of their dwelling place has not been without its many advantages. The rear walls of their hidmos are conveniently used following the contour of the slope, and spare the peasants extra labor and building materials needed to build it.
After the fall of Massawa to the EPLF, Ghindae Gimbar remained the main theater of war for a long time. Commanding the heights, the Ethiopian army, though demoralized, was well dug in with adequate tanks and artillery. The Derg was ready for a long war. It had even built a dirt road to the famous Bizen Monastery perched on tip of the escarpment for its artillery. The extremely steep nature of mountains, the prevalence of malaria, and the fact that the region is sparsely populated , and the bombs raining from above took a heavy toll on the EPLF fighters. According to the EPLF authorities the casualties and death inflicted on them were unusually heavy, and not comparable to other fronts. Thousands are believed to have died there, and the gloomy scenario that ensued was probably as thick as the fog of the seasonal eastern escarpment. The abortive attempt to capture Keren a year ago was still in their bitter memory. Yet the fog was soon to clear for them.
The Weyane army in Tigray was rapidly getting in strength. Unlike the EPLF, which mainly depended on trench warfare since its retreat to the Sahel, the TPLF’s mobile type of warfare was creating havoc to the Derg‘s army, and gradually made Tigray out of reach. It appears, that the EPLF took the initiative to take advantage of the pact made recently to counter the Derg’s similar cessation of hostilities with the Siad Barre regime. Prior to “mending” of the relationship with the TPLF, the EPLF was rumored to be secretly approaching an increasing number of Derg military officers. The recent article at the Ethiopian Review website by Dawit Woldegiorgis is a good evidence.
Desperate to get out its dire predicament, the EPLF marched south to Akeleguzai, and positioned itself with its back to the entirely Derg-free Tigray. It was a major gamble for it had exposed the north and the western part of Eritrea with minimal strength of its fighters. Like the peasants architects of the highlands mentioned before, it exploited the military advantage obtained by the TPLF. With nothing to worry it on its back, it gradually started attacking the small towns on the Asmera-Zalambessa road. It had also access to another critical advantage this time.
Unlike the Ghindae Gimbar, which was sparse and inhabited by largely pastoralist communities, the south was still dense enough. The inhabitants may not share the EPLF’s assessment, for their children had been incessantly either volunteered or been drafted before. The voracious appetite of the EPLF machinery does not harbor any such sentiment, and corralled many of them to its army and militia units. With the exception of the battle for Segeneity, and particularly Dekemhare, the Derg army was abandoned by its militias. The Derg crumbled, and retreated to Asmera mostly in proper formation.
The Derg army was not surrounded by the EPLF as some of the credulous assert. In comparison to its military position in late 70s, it was even in a far favorable position than in the Kebessa of the end of the 70s. Asmera and its distant villages remained out of the reach of the EPLF with only the occasional inaccurate artillery shells killing mainly hapless civilians for its spotters were not close enough. When Mengistu fled in a sly to Zimbabwe, the army knew the end has arrived, but were not short of any contingency plan for an escape route.
Isaias’ big maw has never been short of outrageous and boastful statements for some time. During his latest outburst on his conflict with the Weyane, he envisioned a scenario whereby the Ethiopian army would execute “a retreat forwards“, that is, towards the enemy position. His gullible supporters relished his “prescient” mind, and were lavishing praise on him. Incredulous as it may appear, this type of military maneuver was undertaken before, by none other than the Derg.
During the final hour of the Derg, a few senior army commanders reportedly flew in a helicopter to Saudi Arabia. The large majority of the military command and foot soldiers however chose to execute another daring plan. They knew retreat to the interior of the country through even the narrow corridor of the Mereb area was out of question, for Tigray has transformed itself into a cordon. There were rumors of an abortive attempt made to retreat to Adwa through the same area, verity of which remains uncertain. Despite the formidable looking appearance of the EPLF, the intelligence units of the Derg had identified the crack in its armor. The Derg knew that EPLF’s new military offensive with its back to Tigray had left a door wide open for the Derg to conduct a retreat. It was well aware that the flimsy presence of the EPLF units will not jeopardize any of its plan in a serious way, when the attempt to break out, and head towards the Sudan is launched.
In Asmera, some people were expecting the apocalypse and the doomsayers were not few. They could not fathom the behavior of the huge army in their midst, and had no clue about its plans, nor did many people outside the country, who were eagerly watching the outcome. Fearing the worst things to happen, they had largely kept themselves to their rooms, and dropping the erratic venture for the scarce food supply. Some households allegedly subsisted on handful amounts of peanuts for days, which had a harmful effect on their health.
Their worst fear did not materialize, for the army in Asmera in concert with those from Ghinbar Ghindae estimated to be tens of thousands, had departed on the Asmera-Keren road towards Barentu. Some of the few who dared to leave their rooms outside were so clueless about the outcome of the war, they allegedly confused the identity of the combatants. The people in the lowlands of Eritrea are accustomed to the sudden flush floods of the likes of Anseba river and others from the Kebessa, but they could not fathom the sight of this huge army meandering down with its unknown intentions. An old friend, who was briefly stuck in the Akordat area and looking for an exit out of the country, witnessed this incident.
Another army contingent from the Seraye region had also made a similar sally towards the same town. What appeared a relatively a safe march so far for Derg resulted in a heavy clash with some units of the EPLF rushing to intercept them around Barentu. Bloodied but not entirely crippled thousands of them slogged the road located not far from the famous Mt. Adal, and the old hideout of Idris Awate. The anomaly observed here is that an enemy under “siege” has pierced through a dejen, and an old degen for of the resistance struggle for that matter. This understandably left the classic “people’s war” theory, faithfully embraced by many of the left in Eritrea, in tatters.
Soon after the erroneously named “Badme war” erupted, a brief note hostile to Eritrea’s independence and the Tigrian political ascendancy in Ethiopia was posted at Dehai website. The writer noted that “had it not been” for the role of the Weyane, the Eritrean nationalists would still have remained counting their struggle years with pride. The person who posted it or another said that the guy, allegedly a former EPRP militant, should be taken seriously. The discussion fizzled out soon. I thought then that statement though remarkable, but not exceptional to any person, who is decently rational.
At the Amba of Makdella the famous mortar named Sevastopol of Tewodros II still lies there. Makdella evokes for many Ethiopians the defeat of the delusional Ethiopian emperor and his final years. Its inaccessible location does not attract nowadays even a small percentage of tourists that visit Adwa. What brought down his tottering regime were possibly many factors that are attributed to countries contemporary called failed states. The crucial factor according to Ethiopian historians is the safe passage, intelligence and food provision made available to the Napier Expedition by his rival in Tigray, the future Emperor Yohannes IV.
Bahru Zewde notes that it took the British Expedition the same number of days to traverse the Tigray plateau from Zulla to Maqdella, what it took Tewodros to move from Debre Tabor to his infamous amba. Though the distance from Debre Tabor is far shorter. The easy victory achieved then state some of the experts misled first Egypt, and later Italy into major military setbacks and total defeats.
This “cardinal mistake” of the expansionist empires then appears to have been repeated by none other than what many both our fellow and foreign writers consider the “invincible” EPLF. The causeway, that ketan connects one of the Islands in Massawa with the main mainland. Three tanks that were either destroyed or captured have been placed on a marble pedestal to commemorate the heroism of members of the mechanized units and others who stormed the Ethiopian defenses through the narrow causeway. When the Derg lost this important sea port, Mengistu compared it to being choked at the neck. It is rare to see then both the Derg and the EPLF concurring on the importance of fall of Massawa. The weight and importance given to it however was in my opinion wrong.
The recent pen rattling between the two formidable writers Yosief Ghbrehiwet and Saleh Younis from the opposite ends of the “ghedli romanticism” issue had, I presume, left many of their reader’s hearts beating faster. I therefore beg Saleh Younis to withdraw his warning that it may be his last article for this kind of debate. Yosief went over the balance sheet of the EPLF with a sort of a magnifying glass in “(I) Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth the Sacrifice“, and found it to be very weak footed. Although, he indicated the support of the TPLF in EPLF’s checkered history, the decisive factor of why the struggle did not abort was not answered.
Saleh’s biting rebuttal in “ De-Romanticizing Ghedli: Serving a Toxic Brew To The Young And The Disillusioned”, was for Yosief not to harp and limit himself to only blaming the “revolution”, but to give credit to the EPLF for sustaining the incessant and powerful assaults from the strongest army in black Africa, and lastly prevailing. In my opinion, this time Saleh failed in pointing out the potent weapon for why the EPLF prevailed, despite its many adverse conditions. Ones you finish reading both of their articles on this subject, you feel stranded. A friend put it nicely to me during a recent chat, “How then did the armed struggle not only persist and defeat the Derg?”, and you desperately look for the ramp.
Yet the riddle for the final military victory of the EPLF was still missing from their debates, and I was intrigued. Does one have to be an expert on war like the famous Clausewitz to identify the eminent causes for the downfall of the Derg? Far from it the reasons could be simply hubris, bias, and the dearth of critical information, while the war lasted.
Understandably, the EPLF and its nationalist historians have chosen to ascribe the victory laurels only for themselves, while grudgingly giving minimal credit to the Weyane insurgency. Their inflated militaristic culture has the propensity of excluding all other actors. Their claim was abetted by among some writers such as Dan Connell, whose book on the armed struggle was unambiguously and romantically titled Against All Odds. Michela Wrong, another author on Eritrea, committed an entire chapter on the battle of Keren during the early part of the Second World War and its influence on the fighting theater in North Africa. Strangely she did not have much to say about the rebellion in Tigray and its impact on the military and political fate of Eritrea. True, she criticized Basil Davidson’s comparison of the battle for Afabet with Dien Bien Phu as being exaggerated, but she was also wrong when she described the EPLF’s final last phase of the war as contradictory to the “logic of war”. She was a “believer” after all!
Conversely, the attitude of the Weyane on the input they made to the war’s effort was not helpful either. It appears that, to deflect the hostile attack from their opposition on the independence issue, they have been playing down their contribution. It was only after the conflict of the “Badme” war, and the virulent propaganda that accompanied it, that the public got trickles of it. Nonetheless, I tend to argue that the Weyane would likely choose to remain understating their contribution for reasons of political expediency. In spite of this confounding situation, I believe the simple reason for the end of the Derg was the buffer zone that materialized after the Weyane’s total victory in Tigray.
The Draw Bridge was Up
Imagine the Tigray at the beginning of 90s as a sturdy fortress with its two draw bridges facing north and south raised up and tightly shut. The fortress was surely not a republic with good governance to go with it. After all, the Tigray public had witnessed the systematic attack, and final defeat of different political groups such as the EPRP, the EDU, and the TLF and at the hands of the TPLF. The fortress had its own fissures, but the political strategy of the Derg until in the 80s had been to first defeat the Eritrean Fronts at any cost. This policy provided the TPLF a long breathing space.
Since the mid 70s the Derg was not only unstable within itself, but had to cope with all kind of armed uprisings. The Ogaden was in a strife in the south east, EPRP was waging sabotage and assassinations in Addis and other towns, the EDU and the TPLF were also gathering strength in the immediate north. Threatened, the Derg described its option this way: how do you deal with one enemy with a machine gun shooting from a distance, and another close to you with a pistol.
It did not procrastinate, it mercilessly hunted the EPRP, its militants and their sympathizers in the urban areas, and destroyed them. Once it secured its position in the cities, it galvanized the public through effective nationalist propaganda against Somalia’s invasion, which arrived in support of the Somali insurgents in the Ogaden, and achieved its purpose. With its morale boosted by its success in the Ogaden, the Derg headed north, and rolled towards Eritrea.
The EDU around Humera was selectively attacked and put in disarray, while the skirmishes with the TPLF was mostly conducted around the strategic roads, and towns vital for the offensive in Eritrea. In brief, for the Derg the TPLF was, according to the famous Mao phrase touted by leftists all over the world, a butchila; that Is, the running dog of the EPLF “secessionists.” Following several major land offensives from the Tigray and a flanking attack from Massawa, the Derg achieved a military supremacy; both Eritrean fronts finding themsleves battered headed west and north.
The Derg military policy remained enforced to defeat the EPLF that slinked and entrenched itself in the Sahel mountains. For almost the entire decade of the 80s, while the Derg was slugging it out the EPLF, the butchila in Tigray was growing fierce and strong as a bull dog. It expanded its theater of operations further south to Wello and Begemdir with the help of other Ethiopian armed groups. Alarmed by deteriorating situation in Tigray, the Derg changed its tactics. But its belated military offensives in Tigray were smashed time and again. The decision to send the most senior strongman after Mengistu to the Tigray region achieved nothing too. To make matters worse for the Derg, the joint military activity reached after a cold war version type of the fronts gathered momentum.
The embittered senior generals of the Derg evacuated Tigray in haste to mainly Bahir Dar, which soon lead to a serious coup attempt against Mengistu. In the mean time, in Tigray, the dewta phenomenon occurred. During the lull, depending on how one sees it, the TPLF leadership was either confused or reorganizing. In the aftermath of this to appease the public the Derg understated the loss of Tigray by describing it as a region with nothing to show for itself except a few wefchos, that is flour mills. You would suspect the official who uttered this is a chief executive of a multi-national corporation commenting on the market potential there.
The Draw Bridge on the south was lowered
Famine, although not of the magnitude of the 1984 type, visited the northern region of Ethiopia again. This time humanitarian agencies had learned the lesson from the last one and were ready to intervene before any disaster appears. The Derg was diplomatically on the defensive and did not put a serious obstacle to the food convoys once a free corridor from the Dessie to the north was implemented.
The Weyane on their part did a better job in the public relations contest.
This hiatus in military confrontation helped the Weyane and their allied guerrilla groups to penetrate areas south, which had been out of their reach for a long time. The peasants of the Wello and the Menz, tired of the war and chaffing from the tax and grain quotas of the Derg, were if not enthusiastic but neutral to the incursions of the largely Tigrean fighters, clambering their steep hillsides with their supplies on the ever present caravan of donkeys. A testimony to the role of the donkeys in the Weyane guerrilla war has been placed in the Monument of The Martyrs built in a prominent location at Mekele.
Debre Birhan and other localities located a little close to Addis Abeba were soon threatened. The foot work was already prepared, and when the EPLF mechanized units joined them in the second campaign, which soon led to the Derg army loosing the initiative after losing many battles such as Tikil Dingay. Their joint campaign was tremendously helped by the large populace, who was getting indifferent and cynical towards the never ending military offensives of the Derg. The almost hostile reception they got once they entered the capital city is another thing.
Cut and Paste
The halcyon that briefly followed the routing of the Derg was welcomed enthusiastically particularly by the public in Eritrea, and to a lesser extent by the people in Tigray, who had been carrying the brunt of the fighting for decades.
The behavior of the armies of both insurgent groups, once they secured their victory, was very remarkable. The EPLF exhibited all the characteristics of an occupation force, and was ungrateful to the public that almost received them with a religious like procession accorded mostly to religious saints. It reminds me of a story on one of our websites I read about a peasant volunteering to wash a tegadalay feet. The TPLF led army on the other hand knew the limitations of its political reach outside its traditional base of Tigray, and exhibited less manners of a victor. It was also “deferential” to their ally the EPLF, and let them wear the lion’s mantle. Unfortunately this did not last long.
Tiny Eritrea could not contain the grandiose ambition of Isaias and his front. He considered the leaders that border his nation as puppets, and their resources a booty for his insatiable para-statals to exploit. This policy soon led to friction and conflict with some, and particularly his former allies in Ethiopia. Intoxicated with power, he dared the Weyane to come and fight him, and warned the people of Tigray that their land would bear the brunt of the fighting.
Isaias had always considered the TPLF as lakeba, or his butchila as Mengistu always described them. The battles however occurred mostly in Eritrea, with a buffer zone enforced on it at the end. I never had any respect for Alex Glass of the BBC, who reported from Eritrea then. His only insightful comment was, when he characterized the decisive blow of the Weyane around the steep hills of Aba Simon around May 2000 as “the victory won on the back of donkeys”.
Isaias’ blind supporters in the Diaspora had been lapping up all his brags, and his dismissive attitudes towards any sort of political compromise. Their slavish behavior and hysteria reached an extreme proportion. In one instance, one of their zealots wished that there was some means of “cutting and pasting” Tigray somewhere. If this fantasy wish was possible, and was available for Mengistu at the zenith of his days, the political geography we know now will surely have not happened.
But more importantly, if the rebellion in Tigray was somewhere in Ethiopia and not straddling the Eritrea proper, a defeat scenario or another political configuration couldn’t have been counted out. What did in the Ethiopian army under the Derg was primarily the loss of the bridgehead of Tigray, and not many of the setbacks in battles in Eritrea. Notwithstanding its sizable air force, and naval power to what is neighbors possessed in those years, Ethiopia was strictly a land based army.
The other worst scenario could have been for the conflict to continue and for the insurgents to proudly continue counting their fighting years as what the unsympathetic Ethiopian once said. Military experts traditionally use the term “fogs of war” when unsure of the unknown factors that may occur in a war. I tend to argue there was no “fog of war” in the war that led to the debacle of the Derg. The stark fact seems to me uncontested.
The major catalyst for the switching of places and the major maneuvers witnessed was the force majeure that occurred in Tigray. During the height of the war, the fact that the Derg headed to the north and west part of Eritrea, and the EPLF to the south resulted due to a major reason. Tigray simply turned itself into a hedgehog like creature.
After my long description, I advise readers to recall the Pakistan- Bangladesh conflict in the early 70s. Would Bangladesh have achieved its independence so easily and soon, had the huge sub continent of India not been in between it and its old mother nation?