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Perspectives on the Eritrean-Ethiopia Relations and Outcomes
Yohannes Kiros


The way the Eritrean politicians have described history during their long sojourn in Metahit or Nakfa has laid the foundations, cementing the mainstays for confrontational policies towards Ethiopia. The act of these politicians resembles that of a pettish child, i.e., they show immaturity by appealing to emotions rather than to reason. The self-opinionated contradictions and hatreds are so embedded in their mindsets that further reconciliation and rapprochements are distant.

For the sole purpose of power and abiding passion for war by an “invincible” army, they have been raising dusts here and there and justifying wars now and then. Falsification of history and abnegation of the relations have been the characteristics of these leaders. These are still lacerating the feelings of the peoples against any normalization. To add to it all, repeated and concocted stories and the continual rhymes, bemoaning their fate and condemning Ethiopians, assailing others with insults, being enamored of Eritrea as an extraordinary and rich country, regarding Eritreans as special people, Eritreans as brave and hardworking, Eritreans as civilized, etc. have been and are to the ears of Ethiopians, serve as barriers to the common understanding and healing the wounds among them. What then? Is there any possibility to dissociate Eritrea and lift it from the African continent and place it somewhere near Italy? Since this highly wishful thinking remains a dream, Eritreans should wake up from their illusion, learn from reality, live to coexist and handle issues of significance with their neighbors.

National programs, front propagandas, individual standpoints have always established that Eritrea is a colonized country bounded by the Red Sea on the East, the Sudan on the North and West and Ethiopia and Djibouti on the South. Their perception of the history of Eritrea and the ensuing fictitious “30 years” of war against colonialism, which was ignited by the extremist groups to dismantle the relations, have created a never ending hate among the peoples with continued vicious circles of wars, mayhem, disaster, diseases and displacement of the poor peoples, who are found in a permanent squalor of total impoverishment. Let me try to summarize the historical account given by the EPLF (or other likeminded organizations or persons) in its national democratic program (NDP) adopted at its congress of Jan. 31, 1977. This will help us understand their heresy and its preposterous impact on Ethiopian organizations, especially the TPLF in defining the Eritrean issue from its own “scientific” horizon.

Aside from what they call the 3000 years of Ethiopian feudalists’ fabrications of a legend to rule and expand, the EPLF historians claim that after the fall of the Axumite Kingdom, no viable state ever existed except for tribal and clannish warfare as well as aggressions between Moslems and Christians. Therefore, our knowledgeable historians with parochial outlook adduce that the Axumite Kingdom is an attempt or excuse by the Amhara chauvinists and feudalists to claim Eritrea as an integral part of Ethiopia. Skipping the period after the Axumite Kingdom, the history of Eritrea arrives at the sudden occupation of the Red Sea in 1557 by the Turks, which according to them was resisted from advancement into the Eritrean hinterland. The Egyptians took over after the Turks in 1867 and their repeated attempts to expand southward were frustrated by popular resistance. Their rule was only confined to Keren and the coastal areas and was weakened by the Mahdists to be finally driven out by the Italians in 1885 (Italics mine). We know that the Bahr Negassis, appointed by the Emperors in Gonder were in due administration of these territories to be followed by Ras Michael Suhul, Dejazmatch Subagadis, Dejazmatch Wube (during King Theodros) and as illustrated in part I, by Ras Alula (during Emperor Yohannes) who drove out the Mahdists, Egyptians and annihilated the Italians in Dogali. The EPLF history books are full of distortions and libels on Ethiopians. The purport of what has been written is to distance from the Ethiopian heritage and the sacrifice paid to resist foreign intruders. The fact that Yohannes, Emperor of Ethiopia, is simply called king of Tigrai is an attempt to undermine and conceal the very existence of an Ethiopian state with strong ties to Mereb Melash under his leadership. It may also be explained by the simple fact that Eritreans should not know that the “inferior and uncivilized people”, i.e., the Agames (name of Awraja in Tigrai) and the “adgi”, name given to the Amhara, were once great rulers of this problem-ridden part of Ethiopia.

Although it was the desire and interest of the Eritreans to join Ethiopia (see part II), there is a total blinding of the period of Ethiopianism except for the false description of an alliance of Eritreans with the Allied powers to drive out Italians in 1941 (remember the pro-Italian group in Part II). The compromise put forward by the US about an alternative mechanism with a federal solution with Ethiopia at the fifth regular session of the UN General Assembly, was blamed for an imperialist and neocolonial interests of the US to give away the territory to the Amhara expansionists and feudalists and provide them access to the sea. Thus, conclude the Eritrean adherents of this new colonialist theory, Ethiopian colonialism was established through a proxy arrangement to fulfill the hegemony of US imperialism. However, in most Eritrean publications and propaganda, colonialist rule in Eritrea is totally ascribed to the “conquest” of Eritrea by Emperor Yohannes. Eritreans are nurtured by these white lies portraying Ethiopia as a non-existent, backward and nonviable state in order to create a myth of a totally isolated and civilized state of Eritrea, which suffered under the clutches of colonialism for almost 400 years with a continuous resistance from its people. This fable serves as a background to the “heroic” resistance, which gave rise to the start of the armed struggle in 1961 and “liberation” in 1991. But, what is the truth about this legendary 30 years war? Let’s recount the short period of “recorded” history, the discords and squabbles among the different fractions in Eritrea, which still continue to multiply like a hydra but I have no stamina to enumerate here.

The Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was founded abroad by the self-exiled traditional leaders from the Moslem dominated lowlands as described in Part II. This movement not only lacked clear vision with outlined goals, but it also consisted of backward clans and sheiks with the prime objective of creating hatred, bloodbath and instability among the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. No one really knows, even the Eritreans themselves, the exact time when the first insurgents entered Ethiopia from the Sudan. It is simply alleged that the ELM, which changed its name into Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), had its leadership, the Supreme Counci,l operating in the Sudan. This leadership acting in the name of Eritrea was exploiting the generosity of Arab countries by posing as Arabs. They were busy seeking aid during prayers going from one mosque to another in most Arab countries, meeting both influential and wealthy Arabs, pretending to be Baathists in Syria and Iraq and lauding that the brotherly people of Eritrea presented as Arabs and Moslems, were suffering at the hands of the barbarous Christian Ethiopians. In 1965 the Front’s leadership divided Eritrea with the few manpower they had into five different zones, based on religion and nationality, each with its military commander and zonal administration. The zones were autonomous entities, collecting their taxes, looting cattle, accumulating property, levying taxes and fines, plundering public and private travelers, contending and fighting against each other on religious and ethnic grounds. In short, they were acting as gang of robbers competing for trophies, fame and domination. Undemocratic practices in this feudo-hierarchical organization had led to executions, incarcerations and mass disappearances. After many internal squabbles, clashes and liquidations, the General Command, which got the upper hand in 1967-1969 after dismissal and murder of hundreds, was resisted by an internal splinter group. This splinter group, which was largely Christian (Issayas group) and the ELF head of foreign mission Osman Salih Sabe, organized their forces and created the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Liberation Front (ELF-PLF). Though Sabe the head of the foreign mission to a large extent lacked foot soldiers in this new alliance, he played an important role in creating new relations with Arab countries and funding this fledgling and shaky organization. However, Sabe, married to a Syrian, lined his pockets at the expense of poor Eritreans and became one of the richest shipowners in the Red Sea region.

The Revolutionary Council of the ELF passed a resolution to annihilate the ELF-PLF in 1972. The war between these two groups lasted for three whole years, causing a great deal of casualty, injury and destruction. This war was to continue even after the fall of Emperor Haileselassie between 1974-1976, when Asmara was fully terrorized by these separatist groups. The ELF, whose soldiers were being trained by Iraq, was forced to explain every single step it took, be it congress decisions or its military actions against Ethiopia or ELF-PLF to its commanders and financers in Baghdad. Iraq, which assumed the role of unifying Arab nationalism after Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and in contention with Syria, was pumping millions of dollars in military support for organizations that were instrumental for its dream of becoming a regional hegemony.

When the Revolutionary command went to Baghdad to explain its congress decisions in 1975, it met Sabe concluding the principal agreement of merger, which was to be ratified a few months later in Khartoum. The EPLF bitter and sidelined by this agreement declared the agreement nullified and started hunting the Sabe people within its rank and file executing many fighters. In 1978, when the EPLF delegation went to lobby support from the Iraqi leadership, it was told that they could also secure finances, but were also ordered to refrain from using any kind of force against Baathist movements (interview with Issayas, Vanguard, July, 1978). Therefore, the ELF survived and continued until the end of the 1970s. But with no “national unity” at the end of the tunnel, the ELF was finally expelled from its operative area (Barka) in 1980 to the Sudan in a joint military action by both the EPLF and TPLF. With the expulsion of the ELF, no one other than the EPLF came to dominate the political and military life in Eritrea. It took the EPLF more than 16 years (according to their chronology) to “liberate” a hole, Nakfa in Sahel, which due to the chaos after the military takeover in Ethiopia had not so much military activity. Mentioning the significance of this “bravery”, the CC of the TPLF sent a message congratulating in commemoration of the second year victory of the EPLA (army) over the enemy. The message reads, “ The victory recorded by the heroic EPLA is a result of the just cause and principled stand taken by the EPLF. This victory necessitates a blow to the army of the fascist derg and its reactionary supporters. The people of Tigrai and its vanguard the TPLF convey their full admiration for the victory at Nakfa and our principled support for your cause” (Progress, No. 52-60, Oct. 1979-Jan. 1980).

The EPLF had also its heydays in exterminating what was usually called “the anarchists” or “Menkae” dissidents, who didn’t follow the doctrines of the great author to “We and our principle”, Issayas Afeworki. Many Eritreans accused to be spies and collaborators of Ethiopia were killed by the “fedayeen”, snipers both in towns and villages. All in all the number of people killed during these years among Eritreans themselves exceeds far more those killed in direct combat between the Ethiopian army and the insurgents. Eritreans have not yet digested or recognized the enormity of the bloodshed and crimes by these predators. Unfortunately, this game continues as long as they remain instruments of external forces destabilizing the region. In light of these facts, the “agonies” Eritreans attribute to the period of Haileselassie era seem insignificant. The Emperor, giving priority to reconciliation and diplomatic isolation of the fronts, had only a division and after 1967 a commando force (about 300) mainly Eritreans to suppress the dangerous movement in Eritrea. On his yearly visits to Eritrea, staying in one of his palaces in Massawa or Asmara, the Emperor used to relent the situation as a transitory misbehavior of adolescence.

During the whole period of their struggle against “colonialism”, due to their shallow understanding of the legacies of the people, they made Ethiopian residents in Eritrea, the primary targets of their outrage and terrorism. Ethiopians whether public employees, private entrepreneurs and hard earning men and women were in Eritrea a fortiori of having the same destiny and opportunity to work and serve, marry, move, invest, etc as their more than 400000 Eritrean counterparts living in Ethiopia. Generations of Ethiopians have been living with Eritreans without any discord. However, the propaganda and deeds of the separatists were and are horrifying for those who experienced the pogrom both during and after the “liberation” struggle. Not withstanding the pillage the Eritrean people went through, large tracts of neighboring areas in Ethiopia were subjected to repeated attacks and thefts. Many people do know by now the case of the poor Ethiopian workers, whose tongues were cut, based on suspicion to have poisoned the waterholes because they just happened to be in the immediate vicinity of the brigands. Thousands of soldiers, who as prisoners of war (POW) should have been treated according to the Geneva Conventions, were summarily executed, interrogated and flogged to death and some were kept under total servitude to work on roads, dig trenches, fetch firewood and water, etc barefooted and under arduous working conditions. Propaganda video films with odious fascist messages that “ an inferior people were conquering the Eritrean wombs” and describing “miscegenation” as a final blow to the very existence of the Eritrean race, were not only anchoring repeated and ingrained prejudices but were also creating a future tragedy for Ethiopians living in Eritrea. When the EPLF gained control of the cities and towns in 1991, consequent to this policy, it started immediately compelling the “occupants” to leave Eritrea. In a matter of a few months, 180000 Ethiopians were forced to leave Eritrea abandoning their private properties, uprooted, confiscated, robbed, abased and mocked. Rejected by the new Ethiopian government, these people who were once self-reliant were degraded to begging alms and living in makeshift plastic shelters, scattered throughout Ethiopia. No one can ever forget the fate of the more than 3000 children, whose fathers happened to be Ethiopians and were damped near the border to Zalambessa. In line with the fascist policy of the EPLF, any Ethiopian and anything Ethiopian was to be removed, discarded or demolished. It was clearly stated in the NDP of the EPLF, that it would:

obliterate the decadent culture and disgraceful social habits that Ethiopian colonialism have spread…..

nationalize all industries in the hands of the Ethiopian colonialism….

mercilessly punish aliens (Ethiopians) who as lackeys and followers of Ethiopian colonialism…..etc., (my insertion).

However, the TPLF had no contingencies and failed to rescue and protect its own citizens against the crimes committed by the EPLF. Instead of nipping this plot in the bud, the TPLF continued to appease Eritreans, despite massive protests and warnings from Ethiopians against this unholy alliance, war-cloud and exploitation of Ethiopia. These Ethiopians were dismissed as chauvinists, narrow nationalists, reactionaries, anti-people, warmongers, warriors, derg remnants, etc. The Eritrean dictator, who rolled into Badme and occupied Irob-Zalambessa, and Bure was allowed to desolate and ravage for two whole years. The explanation given was plain and simple, i.e., EPLF stabbed us in the back!

The inhumane act by the EPLF has been and is still a disturbing and an unforgettable chapter that has to be addressed and thoroughly analyzed by historians. This analysis is needed not to deepen the hatred against each other but to heal the wounds and gain lessons so that lunatic leaders, hatemongers, extremists and troublemakers do not repeat their heinous crimes. The twist of the irony is that those who used to spread racial purity, are now haunted as “agame and amhara, adgi” by the very people they indoctrinated and are now asked to step down from the Eritrean political scene. There maybe some truth in the assertion that very few in the leadership in Eritrea can trace back their “Eritrean ancestry” farther than a generation.

The ELF or the EPLF have always been vacillating in their ultimate stands and relations with others. They can befriend one today and become enemy tomorrow depending on the whims of the leaders of these organizations. They are cunning and know how to cut out the histrionics and master performances in order to convince outsiders and their supporters. I remember once in 1989, when an EPLF delegation was in Atlanta to meet government representatives of the US, the EPLF as if in a combined order suddenly ran, dispersed and hid themselves under the tables around. Aghast and surprised by this scene, the Americans asked what all this was about and got a reply from these actors that it was an instinctive act to take shelter against military jet planes and thought that the planes, which flew were Ethiopian. Feeling pity, the Americans gave all the comfort and sympathy for these scared and poor fellows!

In 1982 (Progress, No. 131, Jan. 26), the EPLF condemned the direct involvement by Muammer Ghadaffi in the war against them by supplying Ethiopia more than $80 million and three C-130 Hercules planes for troop transport. Now the Brother is elevated above all others for his intimate friendship and solidarity (birds of the same feather..) with the Eritrean people! The ELF and EPLF together or separately met the derg several times for final settlement of the Eritrean issue. The ELF met the derg 7 times and after its disintegration, most of its clannish leaders were offered governorship in awarajas and woredas. The same was also true about the EPLF, which met derg officials 11 times, especially under the auspices and guidance of a common friend the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The GDR, which was one of the leading socialist countries strengthening the war machinery of the derg alongside with the USSR, was proposing self-rule in the form of autonomy or a union or a merger of socialist oriented groups and countries in the Red Sea region (Ethiopia, South Yemen and EPLF). There were times, when the EPLF contemplated accepting these solutions. But the successful surge by the TPLF changed the course of events, thereby strengthening the position of the EPLF. As soon as the military government of Colonel Mengistu was overthrown in May 1991, Issayas on his way to the London conference of the opposition forces declared that there was a way out of the present impasse. In his interview to the EPLF’s propaganda leaflet (Echo, 1991) he insisted that, the Eritrean people should live together with Ethiopia not only for the sake of preferring bigger bread is better than a smaller one but he claimed also that both have the same destiny and culture. In 1996, when Issayas was on official visit to his comrade-in-arms, Meles Zenawi, he at a press conference said that it was a matter of time that Ethiopia and Eritrea will unite in some form of arrangement in order to create a confederation or union. Both Eritrean separatist groups have had their own puppet organizations in Ethiopia. The TLF was collaborating with the ELF, the EPLF was training and taking joint military actions with the TPLF while at the same time was imposing its will on the EPRP and OLF, issuing now and then communiqués be it military or political. The EPLF could sometimes blackmail an organization into submitting its will, otherwise there was a risk that the organization could not enjoy and garner up the support from the same sources. The EPLF has not concealed its ambition to render Ethiopia weak and disintegrated by directly cooperating and supporting anti-Ethiopian groups. Its direct intervention in the Southwestern part of Ethiopia in alliance with the OLF, where derg’s forcefully relocated people were slaughtered and burned alive in a gruesome attack by these organizations, is still vivid in our memories.

Eritreans should know that the destiny of both peoples should lie in the hands of responsible leadership. No one can live in a glorious past by idealizing and romanticizing a myth into eternity. It is true that many people lost their lives and were terrorized both in Ethiopia and Eritrea by previous regimes. Issayas has repeatedly and clearly stated that pluralistic society in Eritrea is premature and counterproductive and therefore the conclusion should be a president for life hailed and praised by the masses as a sole and absolute monarch to incriminate, prosecute, judge, appoint and remove citizens. This is the general pattern and standard of coercion for leaders coming to power by the barrel of the gun. Violence is so deep-rooted that alternative methods of peaceful settlements are unknown to their mind. A concerted and conscious struggle against these merciless and vicious dictators should be one of the prime tasks for the democratic forces in Eritrea in creating mutual understandings among the peoples to a peaceful and prosperous life.

Ethiopians and Eritreans share the same heritage, culture, language (except few) and history (except for the 50 years of Italian and 10 years British occupation). The ideals of the present regime “after me the deluge”, have to be abandoned for the sake of future generations. Ethiopia can never accept being strangulated of its natural outlet to the sea by the illegal agreement of two unrepresentative organizations. If access to the sea is not resolved peacefully, no conflict will only be limited to minor internal adjustments of small degrees of latitudes and longitudes.