Eritrea: out of the ashes

Wednesday, June 12, 1991

By Tony Iltis

The collapse of the Ethiopian military regime, following the flight of Haile Mariam Mengistu to Zimbabwe, ends 14 years of brutal dictatorship and raises hope for an escape from the oppression, war and starvation that have made Ethiopia and Eritrea synonymous with suffering.

On May 28, Meles Zenawi, leader of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), announced that the front would form a temporary administration pending the establishment of a transitional government within a month. Internationally supervised elections will be held within a year.

The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), which has liberated the whole of Eritrea, will not take part in the transitional government but will form a provisional administration in Eritrea until a referendum is held on independence.

The Eritreans' long struggle stems from their being denied any opportunity for self-determination. An Italian colony from 1890 until the British invaded in 1941, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia by the UN in 1952, without the people being consulted. In 1962 the Ethiopian government terminated the federation and annexed Eritrea. This resulted in a guerilla struggle by the conservative nationalist Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The EPLF originated from a breakaway by radical sections of the ELF.

Ethiopia had only a brief experience of colonialism, under Italian occupation from 1936 until 1941. Prior to 1974, the dominant economic and political structures were archaic and semi-feudal, the emperor, Haile Selassie, ruling by divine right. In the countryside, 40% of the population lived over two days' walk from any government services, and only a quarter of agricultural produce was marketed.

By the early '70s, the inability of the imperial system to modernise or to contain the Eritreans led to its disintegration. This was accentuated by famine in 1973. The main pressures for change came in the urban areas — from students, the embryonic working class and, most significantly, the armed forces.

The Derg

Throughout 1974 there were student protests, transport workers' strikes and mutinies by ill-fed soldiers. On September 12, 1974, the government was overthrown by group of junior officers known as the Derg — Amharic for "committee" — and led by Mengistu.

The Western media have generally characterised the Mengistu regime as "hard line Marxist." The regime characterised itself as such until the late '80s, when the Soviet Union and Cuba stopped supplying military aid and the Derg had to find support elsewhere, for example from Israel.

However, the leftist rhetoric of the military regime reflected more than reliance on Eastern bloc military aid, which only began in 1977, after the Somali invasion of the Ogaden province. To remain in power, e Derg to destroy the old semi-feudal ruling class. In March 1975 it nationalised all rural land and cancelled debts owed by tenant farmers.

In the south the land reforms were initially well received. There, land was concentrated in large holdings, and the majority of peasants were tenants. The Oromo people of the south became a major support base for the Derg.

In the north, however, most peasants owned land, and there were traditional bonds between the peasantry and the local nobility. Armed opposition to the new government broke out in the northern province of Tigray, the Tigrayan Liberation Front being originally led by the local aristocracy.

Faced with a lack of cadres, the new regime initiated the zemacha, a scheme in which some 40,000 students went into the countryside to mobilise peasants for the land reform.

Opposition forms

Despite these revolutionary measures against the old ruling classes, the Derg had little in the way of a mass base and sought to prevent popular mobilisations. Throughout 1975 there were strikes in favour of workers' self-management. However, the extremely small size of the working class enabled the Derg to crush the unrest with little difficulty.

From the military's viewpoint, the zemacha had the additional advantage of dispersing radical students away from the capital. However, the enthusiasm of the students for land reform and autonomous peasant associations made the military wary that the zemacha could develop its own momentum. Consequently, the movement was brought to heel.

Two political groups, the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) and the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP), were formed by students returning from the zemacha. While the MEISON initially characterised the military as progressive, the EPRP, in 1976, began an urban guerilla campaign. The government responded with the "Red Terror" of 1977, annihilating both groups and crushing all student opposition.

Another group of students from the zemacha remained in the countryside and joined the Tigrayan Liberation Front. By 1976 they had replaced the leadership of the front, giving it a revolutionary program and renaming it the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).

In July 1977, Somalia invaded the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. This increased Mengistu's credibility by allowing him to appear as defender of the nation against foreign aggression. Secondly, it led to the Derg receiving Soviet arms and assistance from Cuban troops. By March 1978, the Somali invasion had been defeated.

Although Cuba did not allow its troops to be used against the Eritreans, their presence freed the Ethiopian military to launch a counteroffensive against the ELF and EPLF who, by 1977, had liberated most of Eritrea.

By August 1978, the Eritreans were in disarray. The EPLF, which had built up a strong popular base, weathered the assault better than the ELF. In 1979 fighting broke out between the two Eritrean groups, and by 1981 the EPLF, with assistance from the TPLF, had established itself as the only significant Eritrean force.

Despite continuing Soviet aid, during the '80s the Mengistu regime proved unable to defeat either EPLF or the TPLF. During the 1983-84 famine, the Derg achieved infamy by using mass starvation as a military weapon, stopping relief supplies reaching Tigray or Eritrea. Trucks bringing food aid were bombed by the Ethiopian airforce.

Revolutionary democracy

The EPLF and TPLF received no support from any government, relying instead upon their peoples. Both organisations developed revolutionary grassroots democracy. The entire population was organised into committees: women's committees, peasants committees, militia committees and so on, with decisions being made from the bottom up.

A social revolution took place. Literacy and health campaigns were undertaken — an enormous task in such an underdeveloped region under any circumstances but almost miraculous under conditions of war and famine.

Some of the greatest achievements have been in the area of women's liberation, with mass independent women's organisations being formed and women well represented in all areas of political life. In the guerilla forces women fight alongside men in mixed regiments. The May 29 Age quotes a TPLF fighter explaining that she joined the struggle because "women were not equal to men and were oppressed. So I wanted to fight for women."

With more than half its budget being spent on the war, the Mengistu dictatorship resorted to expropriating all agricultural surplus to buy arms. It thus alienated its support among the Oromo peasants of the south.

By 1988, the regime was faltering. At the battle of Afabet the EPLF overran a government garrison, putting 20,000 troops out of action. The Soviet Union and Cuba began withdrawing their support.

In 1989, the TPLF moved beyond the boundaries of Tigray and formed a coalition with the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Movement. This coalition, the EPRDF, now consists of four organisations.

In desperation Mengistu turned to Israel. The recent, well-publicised, transfer of the Falashas, or Ethiopian Jews, to Israel was a bizarre exchange. The Israelis got much-needed propaganda, and in return Mengistu got cluster-bombs!

Despite the collapse of the military dictatorship, the future, without doubt, will be difficult for Eritrea and Ethiopia. In the short term, aid is desperately needed to overcome years of famine and war. In the longer term, both countries are likely to face difficulties attracting will be needed for development.

The sudden collapse of the military has created something of power vacuum in parts of Ethiopia where the EPRDF was not previously established. The large numbers of soldiers from the defeated army could also cause difficulties.

However, the record of both the EPLF and the EPRDF/TPLF suggests that a region long associated with tragedy may become one of hope.

From GLW issue 15

Eritrea: Out of the ashes

Wednesday, January 29, 1992

By Dan Connell, Asmara

Green Left Weekly -- When thousands of fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front rolled into this Eritrean capital atop captured Soviet tanks on May 24, jubilant citizens poured out of their houses to greet them. The crowds were so thick that they prevented the EPLF from catching panicked Ethiopian troops then fleeing out of the north side of Asmara.

"It was complete hysteria! Nobody bothered to lock doors or wear shoes. Every resident was in the streets. People were dancing a few metres away from the retreating Second Army as if they were in a dream", one Eritrean said afterward.

The people of Eritrea remain elated over the end of their 30-year war for independence. But the dancing is over, and the tortuous task of constructing Africa's newest nation-state out of the ashes of the continent's longest and most brutal armed conflict has begun in earnest.

The central priorities for the newly established Provisional Government of Eritrea are the creation of stable political structures and the reconstruction of the country's war- and drought-ravaged economy, senior officials say. They pledge an open political process and a regulated market economy. They also say they will dissolve the EPLF itself in 1993, after establishing constitutional government and convening national elections.

The task before the Eritrean nationalists is daunting. War and over a decade of chronic famine have left the Red Sea territory utterly devastated. Its antiquated infrastructure is in a shambles, its subsistence agriculture is reeling from a terrible drought, its limited light industry is largely destroyed, and more than 85% of its 3.2 million people, many of whom were displaced by the fighting, are now subsisting on international relief. Nevertheless, most Eritreans remain hopeful.

Big challenges

During a five-week tour, travelling by bus, flatbed truck, four-wheel drive vehicle and, occasionally, by foot, I interviewed scores of Eritrean officials, private citizens, local and foreign relief workers and visiting diplomats. The consensus is that the new government is off to a good start but that the challenges it faces are enormous. It is under heavy pressure to produce tangible results soon.

The most frequent comment of people on the streets is that they relish their new freedom to go wherever they like, whenever they choose. The EPLF has lifted the curfew here, in effect since the early 1970s, and abolished all travel restrictions within the country.

Walking the streets of this lovely, Italianate city, a visitor is immediately struck by the atmosphere of openness and joy, the orderliness of the city itself and the evident civic pride of its 460,000 inhabitants. No guns are visible, as all EPLF soldiers are required to leave their arms at the outskirts of the do not carry weapons.

However, there are constant reminders of the terrible costs of this long war. Nearly every family has lost at least one member to the fighting. Most have two, three or more children living abroad as refugees and exiles, and many are now only discovering whether their sons and daughters survived.

Sadia Omer was 10 when she was separated from her family during the battle for Nacfa in March 1977. When her parents fled to Sudan, Sadia was taken by the EPLF to a school hidden in their mountainous rear base area. Six years later she was assigned to a remote village in the western province of Barka to work as a teacher. Last month, on a brief leave from the EPLF, she found her mother in the border town of Karora, together with the three brothers and sisters born after she disappeared.

"I felt something very deep when I kissed my mother", she says. "I had forgotten them. All I knew was my learning and teaching. But when I saw them I had all these new feelings." Sadia says she will continue teaching for the next 18 months, but after the referendum, which she is certain will lead to Eritrea's full independence, she wants to return to school to study medicine.

Colonial rule

Eritrea was established as an Italian colony in 1890. After defeating Italian forces in East Africa in 1941, Britain governed Eritrea for a decade before it was federated to Ethiopia under United Nations auspices. The Eritreans launched their war for independence from Ethiopia in 1961 as the late emperor Haile Selassie moved to annex the territory. The US and Israel then backed Selassie in the war with Eritrean nationalists until 197 when a newly installed junta, known as the Derg, realigned Ethiopia with the Soviet Union.

Moscow poured over $10 billion in modern arms into Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, but the escalation of the war only increased the destruction without altering its outcome. On May 24, the EPLF routed an Ethiopian force estimated to number 15,000 troops. Two days later, the Addis Ababa regime collapsed and a coalition of Ethiopian opposition groups under the banner of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front took power.

In July, the EPRDF declared its formal support for Eritrean demands for self-determination, agreeing to plans for a UN-supervised referendum on

Eritrea's future status within two years.

The new provisional government has moved decisively to establish its separate Eritrean identity. A visitor needs a special visa from the EPLF and must clear Eritrean immigration on the way into Asmara and Eritrean customs on the way out.

Blank spaces on many buildings testify to the fervour with which Eritreans erased any overt sign of an official Ethiopian presence, and many bars and restaurants have been hurriedly renamed. Downtown Asmara now sports a Denden Bar, a Freedom Pharmacy, and a Nacfa Restaurant to commemorate famous battle sites.

In their zeal to separate themselves from Ethiopia, Eritrean leaders country into the old post or telephone systems. Negotiations are going forward to open their own distinct lines of communication. Meanwhile, Eritrea remains cut off from the outside world except for a handful of satellite uplinks and hand-delivered mail. Though Ethiopian Airlines remains the main carrier to Asmara, its tickets are being sold at an office marked "Eritrean Airlines".

In October, the government opened elementary schools across Eritrea with a new curriculum taught in at least four of the country's nine local languages. Officials say they plan to allow students to study in their native language up to grade six. After this, the language of instruction for all will be English, a neutral choice in this ethnically diverse nation that will provide students with access to international publications, officials say.

Most Eritreans point to the early 1950s as the peak of their economic and political development. At that time, the territory had 1176 kilometres of asphalt roads, a 352-kilometre railway linking the Massawa port with the western towns of Agordat and Barentu, and more than 5000 commercial and industrial firms. Most towns had running water and electricity, and there were independent newspapers, several political parties and an independent trade union. All that changed under Ethiopian rule, residents say.

Little help

Today, most of the roads are in shreds from the constant stress of Ethiopian military traffic and the lack of any maintenance for over 15 years. Electricity is sporadic, most urban water systems leak up to half their load into the ground, and the railway has been completely dismantled. Ethiopian troops used the iron cross-ties and rails to build bunkers during the last phase of the war.

EPLF leaders concede that they are starting practically from scratch. "Our people are our main resource", says economic minister Haile Wold'ensai. "We have both a challenge and an opportunity. The problem in this transition period is that because of the issue of sovereignty, we cannot expect much help from the outside, but this was also true during the liberation struggle, and it did not prevent us from accomplishing our goals then."

The new government's first priority, according to Wold'Ensai, is to rebuild the country's war-damaged infrastructure. To this end, the entire EPLF army of 95,000 young men and women has been asked to serve another two years without pay. Recently, a compulsory "national service" was also announced, requiring all citizens between 18 and 40 to register. All those not gainfully employed or in school are liable for call-up for 12-18 months.

The government is targeting food security as a medium-range goal, but admits that this will be impossible to achieve without significant changes in the system of rain-fed agriculture. Meanwhile, it hopes to attract capital from abroad to regenerate Eritrea's industrial sector. Most formerly nationalised enterprises, with the exception of banks and insurance companies, will also be privatised as soon as possible, Wold'ensai says.

However, the Eritreans are having considerable difficulty in gaining on and the financial aid and investment that could go with it. The Sudanese, long-time supporters of the Eritreans, were the first to establish an official presence in Asmara. Egypt and Yemen have since followed suit, but formal ties with western countries are proving harder to come by.

A series of high level delegations from the US and the UK have been through Eritrea, but formal relations are still at talking stage, external affairs spokesperson Ahmed Baduri says. "We're patient, and we don't want any confrontations", he adds.

Eritrean insistence on being dealt with separately from Ethiopia is, however, generating some friction and some hard lessons in the whimsicality of international protocol. When the German ambassador to Ethiopia arrived unannounced and without an Eritrean "visa" at the Asmara airport, demanding to meet with high-ranking EPLF leaders, he was refused.

Eritrean official claim he then threatened to block European Community food aid. Unmoved, EPLF leaders protested to the German Foreign Ministry, which retaliated by issuing a travel advisory to German nationals, warning that Eritrea is unsafe to visit. The issue is yet unresolved, and neither side appears ready to back off.

The United Nations is proving the easiest international body for the Eritreans to deal with. The World Food Program was the first UN agency to set up operations here, followed by UNICEF and then UNHCR. In November, Trevor Page, the former coordinator of UN relief operations in Sudan, was appointed to manage all UN operations in Eritrea. In a sharp departure from normal protocol, Page reports directly to UN under-secretary James Jonah in New York, bypassing UN offices in Addis Ababa.


The Eritreans are pushing ahead with efforts to institutionalise new forms of self-rule. The model they propose calls for three co-equal branches of government: a popularly elected legislature, an executive selected by the legislators and an independent judiciary, according to Yemane Ghebre-ab, director of the government's Information Department.

In late October, judges at the national, provincial and district level were appointed for lengthy terms by the Justice Department. Elected people's assemblies have been functioning for over a decade at the village level, and provincial elections are planned soon, government officials say. However, executive positions at the provincial and national levels will remain under the direct control of EPLF until national elections are held after the 1993 referendum.

"This is part of a continuous process of educating our people to the practice of democracy and then turning over power to them", says Sebhat Efram, the commander of the EPLF army that captured Asmara. "The EPLF as a separate entity is already disintegrating. After the referendum, our mandate is finished, and the front will disappear."

From GLW issue 41

After war, new problems for Eritrea

Wednesday, February 19, 1992

By Dan Connell

ADI CAIEH, Eritrea — Green Left Weekly -- Each afternoon a cold wind howls over the lip of the plateau, some 2500 metres above sea level, sending clouds of thick brown dirt swirling through the empty streets, deserted except for swarms of small, scantily clad children. Their parents are in the surrounding countryside trying to salvage a harvest from their scorched grain fields. Otherwise there is little activity in this once bustling frontier outpost.

Adi Caieh is a dusty and desolate town left behind by political events in Asmara, the capital, and now dangling at the outer edge of Eritrea's deeply depressed postwar economy. Its current plight typifies the peacetime challenges the new Eritrean government faces after 30 years of war.

Eritrea's fight for independence from Ethiopia, which annexed the former Italian colony in 1962, ended last May with the capture of Eritrea's last remaining government-held cities by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Shortly afterward, Ethiopia's ruling military junta collapsed. The new Transitional Government of Ethiopia agreed to let the Eritreans hold a United Nations-supervised referendum to decide their future status in 1993.

However, the end of the fighting does not mean an end to the problems for the people of this war- and drought-ravaged Red Sea territory.

The Ethiopians left behind a devastated economy which the EPLF, now calling itself the Provisional Government of Eritrea, is trying to reconstruct. The Eritrean nationalists start with almost 90% of the population of 3.2 million on emergency food relief, an obsolete and badly damaged infrastructure, few resources on hand and almost no external assistance apart from emergency food aid.

Like much of Eritrea, the region around Adi Caieh is suffering from protracted drought. A late start and an early finish to the annual summer rains leaves much of the wheat and barley drying in the fields far short of maturity. The Eritrean Relief Association, the main agency for drought relief, is forecasting 70% crop failure, but this is only the start of the region's problems.

Under Ethiopian rule, Adi Caieh was an administrative centre for the province of Akele Guzai, an agricultural area with almost half a million inhabitants, most subsistence farmers who are so poor today that they lack seeds to plant for next season.

Employment in the town centred on the many government departments headquartered here. These are now all closed. EPLF administrators, agricultural specialists, doctors and other personnel are working for no pay, so they add little stimulus to the local economy.

Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers based here also fed money into the economy through scores of bars and restaurants. EPLF soldiers, however, are not paid, so their presence in place of the routed Ethiopian army also adds no cash to the local market. As a result, sed.

After EPLF fighters captured Adi Caieh in April 1990, they built a new road up the steep escarpment to supply their forces. The road also facilitated commerce with coastal traders who plied their small boats across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, but the Gulf War brought a halt to this bustling trade as the international armada blockading Iraq also disrupted informal commerce throughout the region.

Then the EPLF capture of Asmara last May shifted the main trade routes to the formerly embattled centre of the country. This leaves Adi Caieh and many other rural areas almost entirely cut off from what little trade takes place between Eritrea and the outside world.

According to Luel Ghebre-ab, Adi Caieh's chief administrator and the first and only woman mayor of a large Eritrean municipality, the town needs rebuilding almost from the ground up. She charges that the Ethiopian military government did nothing for the town in its 15 years of rule but tax its residents to support the war while letting the community's infrastructure run down and decay.

The local water system, installed by Italian colonists in the 1930s, has never been repaired. It now leaks over a third of its water supply into the ground. Ethiopian soldiers stripped the forests around the town, leaving the area subject to devastating soil erosion and the people without firewood or construction materials for their houses, many of which were damaged by the war, according to Ghebre-ab. "Thirty years of war have taken everything to zero", she says.

Most of the EPLF army is now engaged in rehabilitation work, and the new government has announced a program of "national service" that requires all unemployed youth to take basic military training and to participate in public work projects for 12 to 18 months.

An EPLF agriculturalist said they are planting a million eucalyptus seedlings in Akele Guzai province this year.

They are also terracing many of the steeper hillsides to curb erosion. "We have to travel with what we have — we can't expect the new government to help at this time, and we can't sit idle and wait for something to come from heaven", Ghebre-ab said.

From GLW issue 44