Ethiopian Civil War 1974-1991

[ 1974 - 1991 ]

After 1974, insurgencies appeared in various parts of the country, the most important of which were centered in Eritrea and Tigray. The Eritrean problem, inherited from Haile Selassie's regime, was a matter of extensive debate within the Derg. It was a dispute over policy toward Eritrea that resulted in the death of the PMAC's first leader, General Aman, an Eritrean, on November 23, 1974, so-called "Bloody Saturday." Hereafter, the Derg decided to impose a military settlement on the Eritean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). [By 1975 the EPLF had more than 10,000 members in the field.] Attempts to invade rebel-held Eritrea failed repeatedly, and by mid-1978 the insurgent groups controlled most of the countryside but not major towns such as Keren, Mitsiwa, Aseb, and a few other places. Despite large commitments of arms and training from communist countries, the Derg failed to suppress the Eritrean rebellion.

In 1976 Osman broke with the EPLF and formed the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Liberation Front (ELF-PLF), a division that reflected differences between combatants in Eritrea and representatives abroad as well as personal rivalries and basic ideological differences, factors important in earlier splits within the Eritrean separatist movement.

Encouraged by the imperial regime's collapse and attendant confusion, the guerrillas extended their control over the whole region by 1977. Ethiopian forces were largely confined to urban centers and controlled the major roads only by day...

Although there is some disagreement, most military observers believe that Cuba refused to participate in the operation in Eritrea because Castro considered the Eritrean conflict an internal war rather than a case of external aggression. However, the continued presence of Cuban troops in the Ogaden enabled the Mengistu regime to redeploy many of its troops to northern Ethiopia....

By the end of 1976, insurgencies existed in all of the country's fourteen administrative regions (the provinces were officially changed to regions in 1974 after the revolution). In addition to the Eritrean secessionists, rebels were highly active in Tigray, where the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), formed in 1975, was demanding social justice and self-determination for all Ethiopians. In the southern regions of Bale, Sidamo, and Arsi, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF), active since 1975, had gained control of parts of the countryside, and the WSLF was active in the Ogaden. Under Ali Mirah's leadership, the Afar Liberation Front (ALF) began armed operations in March 1975, and in 1976 it coordinated some actions with the EPLF and the TPLF.

Despite an influx of military aid from the Soviet Union and its allies after 1977, the government's counterinsurgency effort in Eritrea progressed haltingly. After initial government successes in retaking territory around the major towns and cities and along some of the principal roads in 1978 and 1979, the conflict ebbed and flowed on an almost yearly basis. Annual campaigns by the Ethiopian armed forces to dislodge the EPLF from positions around the northern town of Nakfa failed repeatedly and proved costly to the government. Eritrean and Tigrayan insurgents began to cooperate, the EPLF providing training and equipment that helped build the TPLF into a full-fledged fighting force. Between 1982 and 1985, the EPLF and the Derg held a series of talks to resolve the Eritrean conflict, but to no avail. ..

On September 10, 1987, after thirteen years of military rule, the nation officially became the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) under a new constitution providing for a civilian government. The PMAC was abolished, and in June of that year Ethiopians had elected the National Shengo (National Assembly), a parliament. Despite these changes, members of the now-defunct Derg still ran the government but with different titles. For example, the National Shengo elected Mengistu to be the country's first civilian president; he remained, however, the WPE's general secretary. Other high-ranking Derg and WPE members received similar posts in the new government, including the Derg deputy chairman, Fikre-Selassie Wogderes, who became Ethiopia's prime minister, and Fisseha Desta, WPE deputy general secretary, who became the country's vice president.

Despite outward appearances, little changed in the way the country was actually run. Old Derg members still were in control, and the stated mission of the WPE allowed continued close supervision by the government over much of the urban population. Despite the granting of "autonomy" to Eritrea, Aseb, Tigray, Dire Dawa, and the Ogaden, the 1987 constitution was ambiguous on the question of selfdetermination for national groups such as the Eritreans, except within the framework of the national government. And although the constitution contained provisions to protect the rights of citizens, the power of peasant associations and kebeles was left intact.

By the end of 1987, dissident organizations in Eritrea and Tigray controlled at least 90 percent of both regions...

In March 1988, the EPLF initiated one of its most successful military campaigns by striking at Ethiopian army positions on the Nakfa front north of the town of Afabet, where the Derg had established a base for a new attack against the insurgents. In two days of fighting, the Eritrean rebels annihilated three Ethiopian army divisions, killing or capturing at least 18,000 government troops and seizing large amounts of equipment, including armor and artillery. Subsequently, the town of Afabet, with its military stores, fell to the EPLF, which then threatened all remaining Ethiopian military concentrations in northern Eritrea.

The Ethiopian army's defeat in Eritrea came after setbacks during the preceding week in Tigray. Using the same tactics employed by the EPLF, the TPLF preempted a pending Ethiopian offensive in Tigray with a series of attacks on government positions there in early March. A government attack against central Tigray failed disastrously, with four Ethiopian army divisions reportedly destroyed and most of their equipment captured. In early April, the TPLF took the town of Adigrat in northern Tigray, cutting the main road link between Addis Ababa and Eritrea.

The March 1988 defeats of the Ethiopian army were catastrophic in terms of their magnitude and crippling in their effect on government strategy in Eritrea and Tigray. The capability of government forces in both regions collapsed as a result. Subsequently, Ethiopian government control of Eritrea was limited to the Keren-Asmera-Mitsiwa triangle and the port of Aseb to the southeast. The TPLF's victories in Tigray ultimately led to its total conquest by the rebels and the expansion of the insurgency into Gonder, Welo, and even parts of Shewa the following year....

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...

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...

After May 1991, Eritrea was controlled by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). EPLF set up a Provisional Government of Eritrea under its leader, Issaias Afwerki. In a referendum held April 23-25, 1993, more than 98 percent of registered voters favored independence from Ethiopia. In May 1993, the Government of Eritrea was formed, consisting of a National Assembly with supreme authority, a State Council with executive powers, and a president. Issaias Afwerki elected president by National Assembly. The new government was to last not longer than four years, during which time a democratic constitution is to be written.


Also fighting to topple Mengistu was the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), formed in 1988 and allied with the TPLF. Aided by the Oromo Liberation Front (a smaller group formed in 1975 to seek autonomy for southern regions), the EPRDF and TPLF finally succeeded in deposing Mengistu (February-May 1991). The EPLF took control of Eritrea, which later gained full independence (May 3, 1993), leaving Ethiopia a landlocked country. More than 250,000 persons died in the 31-year-long war, aggravated by drought and famine.

Related Conflicts

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