Eritrean Revolution

Jeremy Harding

When the Emperor Haile Selassie was removed from the palace in Addis Ababa 13 years ago, the Ethiopian revolutionaries chose to drive him away in a Volkswagen. It was in some sense an eye for an eye – a humiliation of the man whose lavish style at court, maintained while thousands of peasants died in the famine of the early Seventies, had shamed the country. It was also a gesture of studied indifference. Henceforth it was of no concern what clothes the Emperor might or might not be wearing. The new regime would be pursuing a tough Marxist agenda in which the King of Kings had no place beside the agricultural collective, the village assembly and the literacy campaign.

There was much, if not everything, to hope for from the overthrow of Haile Selassie. ‘It would, of course, be unrealistic to expect that the poverty of centuries could be eradicated in a few years,’ writes Keith Griffin in World Hunger and the World Economy, ‘but it would be reasonable to hope that a decade after the revolution some progress would have been made in increasing the appallingly low standard of living of the mass of the population. Alas, it was not to be.’[*] In part this was due to the persistence of armed national and ethnic movements within Ethiopia, to which the new government responded with drastic military expenditure. The Provisional Military Administrative Committee – often referred to by the Amharic word dergue, meaning ‘committee’ – hammered away at the bulwarks of the ancien regime. It abolished the land tenancy system which had long been a source of peasant exploitation and embarked on a campaign that soon reduced illiteracy by about 20 per cent. However, where the national movements were concerned, the PMAC, itself a Christian Amharic élite like the regime it superseded, stuck to the old imperial line.

Along the northern marches of the empire, between the Sudanese frontier and the Red Sea coast, the revolutionaries were confronted by one of Selassie’s most intractable problems. The Emperor had annexed Eritrea outright in 1962. It was an act of force which failed to lay the problem to rest. Whatever Eritrea’s status in relation to the dim and sometimes fabulous past of pre-19th-century Abyssinia, its inhabitants were arguing that it was a modern African nation by the end of the Second World War. They saw no valid Ethiopian claim over the territory. The Shoan emperor Menelik, whose conquests unified much of present-day Ethiopia, did not include the Eritrean highlands in the territorial claims he submitted to the European powers in 1891. More important, Eritrea had become an Italian colony in 1890. When the Italians sought to enlarge their African acquisitions by moving inland from Eritrea, they were roundly defeated by Menelik at Adowa in 1896. In the subsequent Italian-Abyssinian treaty, Menelik was unable to lay any claim to Eritrea. It remained under Italian jurisdiction until 1941, when the defeat of Mussolini’s armies in East Africa led to a transfer of power to the British. The Eritreans maintain that the period of Italian and British rule gave a distinct identity to the territory which shook it free of any claims derived from pre-colonial Abyssinian history.

In 1952, Ethiopia and Eritrea were federated under the auspices of the United Nations. The Eritreans were not consulted. The United States, which had found a formidable ally in Haile Selassie, was not going to brook an independent state on the Red Sea coast whose allegiances were unpredictable. Selassie, for his part, had every interest in securing a hold on Eritrea, which offered landlocked Ethiopia access to the sea. Federation was hardly likely to be popular with the Eritreans, however. Amharic domination, which became increasingly marked, was a bitter pill to swallow. In 1961, a year before annexation, a number of Eritreans pledged themselves to armed struggle for independence. The ensuing conflict has turned out to be the longest in post-colonial Africa.

When the PMAC came to power, an intermittent but full-scale war was under way in Eritrea. It was being waged between a mass of ill-trained Ethiopian conscripts with few incentives to fight and a tenacious independence movement whose guerrilla army marched very largely on its politics. In the Horn, that was a dependable diet at least, but it was corrosive too: while the infant PMAC was busy installing itself in Addis Ababa, the Eritreans were caught up in a savage internecine conflict. In the meantime, other armed national movements were gathering momentum. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged at the head of the revolution in February 1977. In the same year, with neighbouring Somalia directly involved in the Ogaden alongside the Western Somali Liberation Front, the Soviet Union and its allies rallied to Ethiopia. A massive airlift brought Cuban troops from Angola to the Ogaden at the end of the year. By mid-1978 arms and equipment were pouring in from the Soviet Union; the PMAC had mastered the situation in the Ogaden and could now afford to turn its attention to Eritrea.

Despite more pressing concerns elsewhere, the north-eastern front posed serious problems for the PMAC from the moment it took power. A disastrous Ethiopian campaign in the spring of 1976 was followed by an Eritrean offensive at the end of the year. The Eritreans went on to take all the key towns in the territory except for Assab in the south and Asmara, the territorial capital, which came under siege. At the height of their success, the guerrillas held two-thirds of Massawa, the Red Sea port, but could not take the long pier which joined the remainder of the town to its vital docking facility. The pier and the facility remained invincible. In December 1977, the guerrillas were camped down at Massawa, with complete control of the road to Asmara, when the first shells from Soviet vessels deployed along the coast began to fall on their positions.

The situation for the PMAC in Eritrea was still very tense in 1978, despite the arrival of Soviet hardware and probably of Warsaw Pact military advisers – in any case, they were there in force the following year. But the tide had begun to turn. By the end of 1979 the Eritreans had been dislodged from most of their key positions in the south and south-east. The PMAC ground to a halt at Nacfa, a highland town in the Sahel district, which they were unable to recapture. Since then the situation has seen few significant changes. Today Nacfa is a ghost town. Its ruins lie in orderly rows; they are a shorthand for what it must have looked like in its heyday – a thriving little market town with a busy main square. Near the remains of the square, two magnificent deciduous trees with a bright flower the colour of lilac are still standing. The Eritreans call them palassandro trees. Perhaps they are indigenous. Or perhaps, like the vocabulary of the industrial revolution which still litters the local languages – macchina, frena, telefono – they were introduced by the Italians.

Since 1979, Nacfa has been protected by a forward defence line of mountain trenches extended by the Eritreans to some four hundred kilometres in length. The protection is nominal. Were there any significant targets left in the town, they would still be vulnerable to Ethiopian artillery fire and air attack. Now and again the Ethiopians lob a shell into the small vegetable garden just below the town, but for the time being that is the extent of their interest. For the Eritreans Nacfa is chiefly a transit area for fighters moving to and from the trenches. It is also the term they use to delimit the extent of the Ethiopian forward positions.

Around Nacfa the war has achieved a grim stability. Two or three miles to the south-east a stretch of flat land dotted with charred tree trunks separates the town from the front line. It ends abruptly in a steep escarpment; an hour or more of hard climbing leads to the Eritrean trenches. These, in turn, are separated from Ethiopian positions by 250 metres of shallow ground bearing ample traces of earlier trench-to-trench assaults. Some fifteen metres from a curve on the winding Eritrean front beyond Nacfa, the shrivelled hand of an Ethiopian conscript, its fingernails perfectly preserved, gropes at the sky from a forearm of white bone obscured at the elbow by khaki rags and tall, thin grass. This, and other evidence of fighting at close quarters, is dispassionately surveyed by columns of young fighters, dressed in tattered clothing and packing the standard Kalashnikov. Mid-morning and sunset bring the routine sound of Ethiopian shelling. The smell of fried bread and peppers wafts through the narrow warren of trenches. At the front line, at least, the war has become a way of life. Certainly it is no longer a guerrilla war in the classic sense, but a war of position: a localised stalemate which allows the Eritreans to develop their presence further away, behind Ethiopian lines, in rural areas around Asmara and the other towns.

It is ironic that the mosque at Nacfa, pocked with shrapnel scars and nationalist graffiti, should still be standing, for the influence of Islam in the Eritrean movement is not what it used to be. The ELF – the original front – was formed in Cairo in 1961, with support from Nasser. Eritrea, divided equally between Moslems, predominantly from the lowland areas, and Christians, nearly always from the highlands, has been characterised both by Selassie and Mengistu as a hotbed of Muslim dissent and a valuable asset to Islamic states in the region who wish to turn the Red Sea into an ‘Arab lake’.

The style and composition of the old ELF leadership made this thesis eminently more tenable twenty-five years ago than it is today. The founders of the movement were all Muslims. From the outset the Front sought to forge links with the peninsular Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and rapidly came in for criticism from more radical Eritreans for its ‘feudal’ and divisive attitudes in the field. The emergence of the EPLF, formed by two disaffected groups in 1970, introduced a new element. The EPLF was an astute radical movement with an even proportion of Christian and Muslim activists. In areas under its control it embarked on vigorous programmes of land reform, health, education and – on paper at least – sexual equality. At the same time, its relentless drive for hegemony within the movement led it to play down the cultural and religious differences which had prevailed between nine different nationalities and two confessional groups in the territory for hundreds of years.

By the early Eighties the EPLF had the largest effective guerrilla presence in Eritrea. There had been a more or less decisive confrontation with the ELF and there was now, in addition, a third force based abroad – a money-raising outfit headed by a former EPLF member shuttling round the Middle East for funds whose subsequent disposal was never clear. The ELF-PLF, as the third force was known, and the various factions of the ELF were the main recipients of conservative Arab money. They were also a guarantee to the Saudis, who did indeed have their own ‘Arabising’ designs on Eritrea, that the movement would not fall to a Marxist leadership with an ambitious secular programme and the discipline to impose its will in the field.

If the Saudis are sadly disappointed, the Eritreans – insofar as they are now represented by the EPLF – are seriously short of military and political funding. Eritrea’s status as an Arab issue may well remain assured by its place on the map. The liberation movement itself may continue to elicit considerable interest from the Muslim states. But with Somalia impoverished, Sudan uneasy, Egypt making common cause with Ethiopia against the drought, and the Saudi Navy impounding critical shipments of arms destined for the EPLF, it is stretching a point to argue that the guerrillas are hand in glove with their Moslem brothers. On the contrary, they seem isolated. And this isolation is simply part of the overall picture: that of a movement ostracised by the Organisation of African Unity, spurned by the US, dumped by the Soviet Union, fumbled by the Cubans (pro-Eritrean in the beginning, they gave vital logistical support to the PMAC from 1977 but refused to field troops in Eritrea) and studiously overlooked by the UN, which undertook the federation of 1952 and has still not been formally notified of its cessation.

In the field, the guerrillas seem painfully conscious of this isolation. Intellectuals ‘living in the cactus’, as they describe themselves, the Eritreans hunger for information about other liberation movements (journalists are requested to list their coverage of similar conflicts on a xeroxed form, word soon gets around and a host of questions follows). Yet, in my own experience, no sooner were conversations of this kind under way than their end would be signalled by troubled expressions, long pauses and shrugged shoulders, as though discussion of the ANC or Polisario – two groups who have made considerable diplomatic gains – merely drove home the ‘forgotten’ character of the Eritrean conflict. After a few moments, a decisive silence would take hold, followed by a peremptory change of subject or a general dispersal.

Over the land itself, a similar vexed silence seems to preside. During periods of intensive Ethiopian air activity it is torn apart by MiGs flying low and bombing or rocketing any available target: a school, a group of nomads, a camel herd, an agricultural project. In the extreme north it is periodically interrupted by the drone of high-flying Soviet reconnaissance aircraft. Near the front line, it is broken by the occasional clap of artillery fire. The silence folds back over each episode. Yet it is not all-pervasive. For there is also the constant, barely audible rustle of Eritrean ingenuity: an ingenuity that has produced a solid medical, educational and agricultural infrastructure, much praised by visiting aid workers for its thoroughness. The medical facilities in particular are a model of resourcefulness, with three rudimentary operating theatres powered by diesel generator, a small pharmacy producing infusions and tablets – chloroquine, aspirin and penicillin – and a laboratory built in camouflaged containers where Eritrean paramedics develop cultures in an ancient paraffin-powered incubator and check samples of water from suspect wells.

EPLF reforestation and agricultural schemes, though restricted in scale, are imaginatively organised, with millet and sorghum growing projects that oblige nomads to practise fixed cultivation in addition to re-stocking their decimated herds. Eritrean children are receiving an education in basic literacy and young adults are training as engineers, agronomists or nurses in sandbagged classrooms camouflaged with strips of sacking from relief food deliveries. Low levels of military activity coupled with a big infusion of aid from more than forty independent donor organisations – $30 million in cash and kind since the height of the drought – are bringing the EPLF steadily closer to its objective of a new social order.

Since many of these receipts are earmarked for development projects rather than simple emergency food relief, the EPLF can also claim to be working towards the goal of self-reliance. Yet all of these advances are cordoned off from the rest of Africa by the remoteness of the terrain and the exigencies of the war. It is a strange situation: in a secluded corner of the continent a ragged army of Eritrean fighters is defending some twenty thousand square miles of terrain which the drought had reduced to a nightmare of scorched lowland and arid mountain but which international aid workers, slipping in across the Sudanese frontier, are now hailing as a development paradigm.

It is a situation, moreover, about which little has been known for almost a decade. The reading public ‘has no interest in a war that drags on indecisively’ – so the proprietor of the Beast tells the unfortunate William Boot as he leaves for Ishmaelia. And if the Eritrean war has failed to elicit much interest since the late Seventies, how much less newsworthy have been the gains and setbacks of the complex society evolving in its shadow. It was only as a result of the disastrous famine two and a half years ago that the Eritreans emerged briefly into the light of day again.

Griffin has strong views on the national question: ‘A political solution in Ethiopia must take into account the claims of Eritrea and Tigray in the north, the Oromos in the west and the Somalis in the Ogaden. Experience throughout the world has shown that repression cannot work indefinitely.’ This sanguine position is followed by a good sense of the complexities involved – and sorting out ethnic autonomies for some eighty nationalities in Ethiopia is a complex business. Where Eritrea is concerned, however, the crucial questions are very simple. For the moment, nothing short of superior force can persuade Addis Ababa to relinquish its access to the Red Sea. The Eritreans, whose strategic position is the major source of their sorrows, have offered Ethiopia a corridor to the coast after independence. This appears to have cut no ice. Any Ethiopian regime must also be aware that the loss of Eritrea would set a grim precedent for the empire, despite convincing arguments about the territory’s special status.

In 1976, the PMAC floated a nine-point peace plan for Eritrea, offering regional autonomy. It was rejected by the guerrillas. For seven years they have urged a referendum in which Eritreans would choose between full independence, regional autonomy or some form of federation. Such is their confidence in the groundswell for independence. The corollary of this confidence is a political will verging on obduracy. For the EPLF there is no compromise on the idea of the referendum. Yet they know that there is little in the military situation to bring Addis Ababa around, and nothing tangible in the new Ethiopian constitution to suggest that the national question will be dealt with any more seriously now that the PMAC has in theory ceased to exist. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the EPLF will be pushing on with the development of a dissident nationalist community, fired in the crucible of the conflict.

Four days before leaving the territory, I was taken to meet the EPLF’s General Secretary, Isayas Afeworki. We made our way up a dry river bed to a group of camouflaged dwellings. Anchored in a motionless stupor by the heat of the afternoon, a donkey stood in the sun with its eyes half-shut while two goats tussled at a denuded shrub growing in the nearby rock. Inside his ill-appointed reception room, Afeworki talked at length while a member of the EPLF’s Politbureau kept notes. He spoke in slow, nearly perfect English, insisting at length on the importance of the referendum. There could be no solutions imposed from above; these had already been tried – compulsory federation in 1952, annexation ten years later – and had failed. Solutions which ‘do not comply with the wishes of the population’, he said, will be short-lived. ‘We don’t want short-lived solutions to the problem.’ His hands were eloquent. He kept them extended forward, with the palms open but inclined, giving every remark a faint inflection of reproach. How, they seemed to ask, can anybody fail to see the justice of our cause and the extent of our suffering? Now and then they would wipe the air, remonstrating with a legion of flies, before returning to pose the question.

The first part was answered by John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State at the time of the misbegotten federation. ‘From the point of view of justice,’ he said, ‘the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country be linked with our ally Ethiopia.’ As for Eritrea’s suffering, it has gone largely unacknowledged. Even with the recent focus of attention on the Horn of Africa, its misfortunes are subsumed within the framework of regional drought and famine. Yet the war is a catastrophe in its own right. It has been estimated that in battle alone Eritrean and Ethiopian deaths in the first twenty years of the conflict totalled a quarter of a million. Today there are roughly half a million Eritrean refugees in the Sudan and many others exiled in the Middle East. Yet the catastrophe, too, is ‘indecisive’, as any contemporary Lord Copper would be quick to point out. It crosses new thresholds quietly and inexorably, in a kind of solitary confinement. In the conference chambers of the international community it has become a discomfiting legend whose mention elicits little more than a curt nodding of heads. For the moment, Eritrea is a geopolitical prisoner, owing much of its courage, but more of its adversity, to the fact that its case has not yet come up for serious review.

[*] Macmillan, 274 pp., £27.50 and £9.95, 0 333 41993 6.