Eritrea and the Mengistu Regime
After the emperor was deposed, the Derg stated its desire to resolve the Eritrean question once and for all. There were those in the Derg's ranks who pressed for a decisive military solution, while others favored some form of negotiated settlement. Influential Derg nationalists continued to endorse, as had the imperial regime before them, the ideal of a "Greater Ethiopia," a unitary, multiethnic state. They pressed for a military solution while claiming to support the right of all Ethiopian nationalities to self-determination. This position was first articulated in the PNDR in 1976 and clarified later that year by the Nine Point Statement on Eritrea. Subsequently, the regime made other attempts at dealing, at least rhetorically and symbolically, with the Eritrean problem.
In 1976 Osman Salah Sabbe, an Eritrean who had helped found both the ELM and the ELF, attempted to reconcile the two movements to form a united front. But after this effort failed, Osman formed a third front, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Liberation Front (ELF-PLF). In later years, the Derg sought to exploit the internecine Eritrean disputes.
Disagreements among the various Eritrean factions continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These differences were mainly ideological. At the time, the EPLF and the ELF could best be described in ideological terms as leftistnationalist and the ELF-PLF as moderate nationalist. Although the EPLF and the ELF-PLF consistently called for Eritrea's independence, the main ELF faction never closed the door to the possibility of an equitable federal union. As subtle as the differences among these groups appeared, they were enough to prevent the formation of a united front against Addis Ababa.
In addition to its highly disciplined combatants, the EPLF benefited from its broad base of popular support and its political organization. The EPLF became a de facto government in areas it controlled. It was a highly structured political and military institution involved not only in training its fighters militarily but also in educating them politically. The EPLF's basic units for political participation were national unions. The Eritrean national congress was the paramount political organ of the EPLF and was made up of the Central Committee, delegates elected by the national unions, and the Eritrean People's Liberation Army (EPLA). The congress defined general policy and elected the Central Committee (composed in the late 1980s of seventy-one full members and seven alternates), which in turn elected the general secretary and the Political Bureau's eight members. The EPLF charter called for national congresses to be held every three years unless circumstances dictated otherwise. Between congressional sessions, the EPLF Central Committee was the highest authority within the front. It met every nine months and was responsible for developing the EPLF political agenda and for overseeing policy implementation. The Political Bureau was the EPLF's primary executive organ. It met every three months and had broad administrative powers. When the Political Bureau was not in session, the general secretary, aided by a secretariat, possessed wide executive authority.
In March 1987, the EPLF held its second congress in areas of Eritrea that it controlled. The first congress had been held ten years earlier after Eritrean forces had captured almost all of Eritrea. At that time, the euphoric Eritreans expected that their goal of an independent Eritrea was about to be realized. However, they subsequently suffered a series of reversals from which it took the EPLF almost a decade to recover. Like that earlier meeting, the 1987 gathering was also a unity congress. It resulted in resolution of the difference between the EPLF and another splinter group, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Central Command (ELF-CC), at the time the most prominent remaining ELF faction.
Following the EPLF unity congress, the organization stepped up military pressure against the Ethiopian regime. By March 1988, the EPLF had scored some impressive battlefield successes. The EPLF broke out of entrenched positions in the Nakfa area of northern Eritrea and occupied the important garrison town of Afabet. Afabet's fall forced the Ethiopian army to evacuate the urban centers of Barca, Teseney, Barentu, and Akordat. The government also ordered all foreign relief workers out of Eritrea and Tigray, declared states of emergency in both regions, and redeployed troops from the Ogaden to Eritrea. The highly disciplined Eritrean forces faced much larger and better equipped Ethiopian units, but the Ethiopian troops, many of whom were teenagers, had become war weary and demoralized. By early 1991, the EPLF controlled most of Eritrea except for some urban centers.
The most significant attempt to address the Eritrean issue was embodied in the 1987 constitution, which allowed for the possibility of regional autonomy. At its inaugural session, the National Shengo acted on this provision and endorsed a plan for regional autonomy. Among autonomous regions, the plan accorded Eritrea the greatest degree of autonomy. In particular, the plan assigned Eritrea's regional government broader powers than those assigned to the other four autonomous regions, especially in the areas of industrial development and education. Under the plan, Eritrea also was distinguished from other autonomous regions in that it was to have three administrative subregions: one in the north, made up of Akordat, Keren, and Sahel awrajas; one in the south-central part of historical Eritrea, consisting of Hamasen, Mitsiwa, Seraye, and Akale Guzay awrajas; and one encompassing the western awraja of Gashe na Setit. By creating Aseb Autonomous Region, the government in Addis Ababa appeared to be attempting to ensure itself a secure path to the Red Sea. Aseb Autonomous Region comprised Aseb awraja of historical Eritrea, along with parts of eastern Welo and Tigray regions.
By 1991, however, administrative reorganization in the north-central part of the country was a reality only on paper. Since 1988 the area had been under a state of emergency. The regime had been unable to establish the necessary party and administrative infrastructure to implement the plan, mostly because of the escalation of opposition in Eritrea and Tigray since the promulgation of the 1987 constitution. The EPLF, for example, rejected the reorganization plan, terming it "old wine in new bottles." The ELF expressed particular outrage over the creation of Aseb Autonomous Region, viewing it as another WPE attempt to annex a significant part of the historical colony of Eritrea to Ethiopia. The ELF called for the Ethiopian government to agree to immediate negotiations without preconditions with a unified Eritrean delegation.
Even as the EPLF recorded its most significant battlefield success in 1988-89, a rift was developing between that organization and ELF splinter groups. This rift revolved around religion, as the ELF's conservative, primarily Islamic elements came to distrust the EPLF's predominantly Christian leadership. The EPLF also espoused a much more explicitly socialist program than did the ELF factions. To encourage further divisions among the Eritreans, the Mengistu regime in late 1988 met with five former ELF members (who claimed to represent 750,000 Eritreans) to accept their proposal for the creation of an autonomous Eritrean region in the predominantly Muslim lowlands. These five men rejected the EPLF's claim that it represented all Eritreans. Mengistu forwarded the proposal to the National Shengo for consideration, but the regime collapsed before action could be taken.
|Country Studies main page | Ethiopia Country Studies main page|