Everything You Are Not Supposed to Know about Eritrea: Part 2

Interview of Mohamed Hassan

Grégoire Lalieu and Michel Collon: In 1950, on the basis of a UN decision that accorded with US wishes, Eritrea became an autonomous entity within a federated Ethiopia. How well did that work?

Mohamed Hassan1 : Rather badly. This decision made no sense because it forced two incompatible systems to live together. You had Eritrea on the one hand, which had benefited from development under Italian colonialism and where something of a class conscious working class had emerged ; and on the other hand you had Ethiopia led by an emperor, Haile Selasse. That regime was feudal, had no constitution, still practiced slavery and afforded no political rights. But as it was a federal system, Eritrea retained its own flag and parliament and even its unions and independent press … All things that were banned in Ethiopia!

This strange cohabitation was to lead indirectly to an attempted coup against the emperor Haile Selasse. Ethiopian officers travelled to Eritrea and noticed major differences from their own country. Besides that, the Pan African movement and the rash of independence proclamations affected the way the whole continent thought. Certain Ethiopians began to see that their regime was a backward one. Among these people was Girmame Neway. He had studied in the US and had been a governor of certain provinces of the Ethiopian empire. With the help of his brother who was a member of Selasse’s bodyguard, he attempted a coup in 1960 at a time when the emperor was on a visit to Brazil. But the Ethiopian army was not behind the movement and the coup failed. When Selasse returned there were two options available: either he maintained the federation with Eritrea and offered his own people the same rights as were enjoyed by the Eritreans or else he had to annexe Eritrea completely. The first option would have spelt political suicide for Selasse. As a result, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962.

GL&MC: With the implicit support of the UN! Why did the international community not protest?

MH: Yes, that’s pretty incredible. When Selasse annexed Eritrea, he ordered the arrest of newspaper editors, exiled nationalist leaders, banned trade unions and forbade the use of Eritrean native languages in schools and in official transaction. Equally he transferred Asmara-based industries to Addis Ababa. The idea was to make Eritrean workers move to Ethiopia and to depopulate Eritrea in order to turn it into a military base. Moreover, when Ethiopian troops were surrounding the Assembly and jets were flying over Asmara, the Eritrean parliament was forced into the humiliation of having to vote for its own dissolution.

Eritrea voted strongly and demanded UN mediation but got the reply: “Your request must first be referred to the federal government”, i.e., to Haile Selasse himself! In other words, the Ethiopian regime had the blessing of the imperialist powers, and in particular of US imperialism which dominated the UN. Emperor Selasse was supported everywhere and took advantage of this to give himself a good image, that of being the father of the African continent. Nobody opposed him – which was a grave misfortune for the Eritreans.

GL&MC: How come Ethiopia became a privileged ally of the US?

MH: During the 1940s, the US wanted to weaken their European competitors and began to take an interest in Africa. But the French and the British already held many colonies on that continent. Ethiopia, however, had not been colonized. For Washington, it was therefore the door through which it was going to be able to gain entry into Africa in order to spread its influence and compete against the colonial powers. Feudal Ethiopia thus became a US puppet, taking part in the wars in the Congo, in Korea … Later, when most African countries became independent during the 50s and 60s, Washington exerted pressure for the newly-created Organisation of African Unity to be based in Ethiopia. This would enable the US to control the whole continent. Just like the Shah in Iran, or like Israel in the Middle East, Ethiopia was to be a US policeman in Africa, albeit an underdeveloped one.

GL&MC: Once having exhausted all the diplomatic channels of the international community and organized peaceful demonstrations, Eritrea went on to launch an armed struggle.

MH: Yes. First it was waged by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The ELF was made up of various nationalist groups who sought independence. At the political level this movement was dominated by bourgeois interests and its socio-economic analysis was weak. At the military level, the ELF followed the Algerian model of resistance, a system according to which armed groups were divided up by region. This was a serious tactical error. This was firstly because most of the time the units spread over the different regions did not speak the same language. Thus, while you are fighting for the independence of a state, you are contributing at the same time to creating divisions which will one day undermine that state! Moreover, this cutting up of the resistance into autonomous groups gave rise to coordination problems that the enemy was able to exploit. For example, when a group was attacked in one region, its neighbors did not come to its aid. For the Ethiopian army it was a lot easier to fight separate groups that were isolated from each other.

The ELF’s lack of political vision, its military strategy and its internal divisions brought about the decline of the movement. But in the 1970s, progressive Muslims and Christian member of the ELF decided to form their own group, the People’s Liberation Front of Eritrea (EPLF). Inspired by Marxism, this movement drew lessons from its predecessor. It knew that it was necessary to mobilize the population as a whole rather than creating divisions. Its political vision was also a great deal more focused, being based on a proper analysis of Eritrean society. Rather than a mere armed struggle, the EPLF initiated a real revolution: the emancipation of women, the organization of democratic village councils, agrarian reform, education… All that allowed it to mobilize the Eritrean in support of its combatants. This was absolutely necessary to enable Eritrea to win its independence.

GL&MC: Nevertheless, the struggled seemed to be doomed to failure. Ethiopia had support from all over the world and Eritrea was struggling practically on its own against everybody.

MH: That’s true. Ethiopia was supported by the US, and also by Israel which wanted to forge alliances with the non-Arab countries of the region. Incidentally, at the time of the attempted coup against Selasse in 1960, it was thanks to Israel that the emperor – then on a visit to Brazil – was able rapidly to contact one of his general and organize the defeat of the rebellion. Later, Ethiopia was to present the Eritrean resistance as an Arab threat to the region, enabling it to secure the support of the Hebrew state. Israel specialists in counter-revolution trained an élite Ethiopian force of about 5,000 men which was known as the ‘Flame Brigade’.

Europe too supported Ethiopia by supplying it with arms. The Ethiopian government was above all the principal beneficiary of European aid to Africa. Selasse, the emperor, had a very strong presence on the African continent, which the Eritreans did not appreciate at all. I have explained to you how the US put pressure to have the OAU installed in Ethiopia. In the 1960s, in order to prevent wars from breaking out all over the continent, this organization decreed that the borders inherited from the colonial period were non-negotiable. But obviously this decision was not applied in Eritrea’s case. The Ethiopian claims over Eritrean had no legitimacy. It is as if Italy were to claim France on the basis that Gaul had been part of the Roman empire! But Selasse had the whole of the West behind him and such was his influence in Africa that the OAU simply turned a blind eye.

GL&MC: In 1974, after reigning for 44 years, Emperor Selasse was finally overthrown by a socialist revolution. But the new Ethiopian government did not grant Eritrea its independence. Why was that?

MH: The Ethiopian revolution came about as a result of an alliance between progressive civilians and military personnel. But very soon divisions appeared in their movement. Naturally, when the soldiers seized power, revolutionary students and intellectuals quickly demanded that the army should work towards a transition to civilian government. They, moreover, supported Eritrea’s right to independence. But the ruling military junta, called the Derg, was very chauvinist: there was no question of it giving up Eritrean territory. Moreover, the military had no intention of ceding power to civilians. Therefore the army launched a campaign of arrests and assassinations which, according to Amnesty International, resulted in over 10,000 deaths, principally among intellectuals and students. The Ethiopian revolution was thus purged of its most progressive elements and the military definitively seized power.

At the head of the Derg was Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Marian. His background was humble. His father was a soldier and his mother a servant. In power until 1991, Mengistu established a totalitarian regime and undertook the militarization of the country. Naturally, he wanted nothing to do with any kind of autonomy for Eritrea and he was severe in his repression of the resistance. At the end of the day, the Ethiopian revolution only meant passing from one dictatorship to another. At the height of the cold war, this country, which until then had been a strategic ally of the US, tumbled into the Soviet embrace. At that time Moscow provided major military support to Mengistu in his repression of the Eritrean resistance.

GL&MC: Twenty years earlier the Soviet Union had tended to favour Eritrean independence. How do you explain the change?

MH: First of all, Moscow in the aftermath of the Second World War, supported Eritrean independence because the US supported its annexation by Ethiopia. Obviously, once Ethiopia became an ally of the USSR, Moscow saw things differently. Besides, the Soviets in the aftermath of the Second World War understood the world and the Horn of Africa better. At that time they knew that as a former colony Eritrea had legitimate claims. However, later on Moscow’s foreign policy changed and became stupid. Its world outlook withered.

In fact, in the 1950s, the head of state Nikita Khrushchev developed a special new theory as to who the Soviet Union should support socialist revolutions in Africa: African countries had no need of a vanguard to direct their revolution as the USSR would be their vanguard party! Khrushchev expected to transpose the Russian experience of revolution to African countries without really taking into account the specifics of their situations. It is possible to express this in another way: the Soviets had had a shoe made to fit and they thought this shoe would fit everybody; and if your foot was too big, then all you had to do was to cut off your toes to make the shoe fit! Khrushchev’s theory was every bit as ridiculous as that. This explains why the Soviet Union had no real idea of what was happening in the Horn of Africa and supported Ethiopia. It was a mistake.

GL&MC: What was the impact of the resistance in Eritrea?

MH: Until then the Eritrean fighters had secured famous victories. The people supported the resistance. Many joined the ranks of the combatants, especially because the Ethiopian army regularly attacked the people, setting fire to villages and massacring civilians… Rather than frighten the Eritreans, these acts of repression strengthened the conviction that cohabitation with Ethiopia was not possible and the struggle for independence was absolutely necessary. In 1975 for example, numerous young people joined the EPLF after 56 Eritrean students were executed.

Also the strategy developed by the resistance had become very sophisticated. One example: Eritrea had practically no support and was fighting alone against everybody, which was problematic as far as arms procurement was concerned. Lacking any ally, the EPLF used its enemy as its main support! The fighters waged guerrilla attacks against Ethiopian soldiers and with every victory they gathered up their enemies’ arms. Over the years the resistance in this way became much better equipped, boasting even of heavy artillery. Imagine: the Ethiopian soldiers had to fight against their own tanks ! Thanks to this technique, the EPLF’s status rose from a guerrilla army to a mechanized army.

GL&MC: But it didn’t foresee that the Soviet Union would come to the rescue of the Derg in 1977!

MH: This was a difficult time. The red navy shelled the EPLF’s positions along the coast, Moscow sent 3,000 military advisers and an air lift to Addis Ababa brought in a quantity of arms. We calculate that the Ethiopian army received at that time 1,000 tanks, 1,500 armoured cars as well as 90 fighter planes and combat helicopters. Strengthened by Soviet support Mengistu in February 1982 launched an offensive along a broad front against Eritrea, i.e., the ‘Red Star’ campaign, with 150,000 men, the biggest battle witnessed by Africa since the Second World War.

GL&MC: In spite of all that Mengistu never managed to finish off the EPLF…

MH: All the same it was the hardest period of all the independence struggle. The EPLF had to abandon territory it had conquered in order to respond strategically. Besides, Mengistu had got Sudan to close off completely its frontier with Eritrea: for weeks there was no petrol, no food or any of the other supplies that were normally sent via Sudan. There was no opportunity either for refugees to reach camps the other side of the border. In spite of everything the Ethiopian army did not manage to wipe out the EPLF. It must be said that the movement was very well organized. Of course, the Ethiopian soldiers outnumbered them and were better equipped. But they were just under the orders of a dictator. For their part, the EPLF fighters were better trained and their motivation was greater.

Lastly, the ‘Red Star’ campaign marked the turning point in the long struggle for independence. It was the last time that the Ethiopian government was any real threat to the resistance. Once the offensive was over after several months of fighting, the EPLF retook the territory that it had been forced to abandon. Some years later, the USSR, as it was on the point of collapse, announced to Mengistu that it would no longer supply him with arms. The Ethiopian government began to vacillate. It had not only the Eritrean resistance to face but also other nationalist groups that had been set up in other parts of Ethiopia. Among these groups was the Front for the Liberation of the Peoples of Tigré (TPLF) which fought with the Eritreans. At the beginning this Front sought independence for the region of Tigré, but the EPLF knew how dangerous it was to be divided on the basis of nationality and advised that “You are, first and foremost, Ethiopians; it is as Ethiopians that you should fight and encourage your compatriots to overthrow the military dictatorship.” This is what happened in 1991: the Derg fell, Mengistu ran away and, after 30 years of struggle, Eritrea became independent.

GL&MC: After all these changes, how did relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea develop?

MH: Ethiopia is a country made up of different ethnic groups. Whether it was under Menelik II, Selasse or Mengistu, the regime that was in power never represented the diversity of the Ethiopian people. The country has always been ruled by minorities acting in their own interests, giving rise to major inequalities among the population. When the new government took power in 1991 everybody thought things were going to change. I, myself, agreed to work as a diplomat for that government. Eritrea also was full of hope. By becoming independent it had deprived Ethiopia of access to the Red Sea. But the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, proposed creating a free trade zone for the two countries: this allowed Ethiopians to use the Eritrean harbors very easily. The basis of cooperation among the countries of the Horn of Africa was laid and it seemed that peace would return for good.

GL&MC: But you soon became disenchanted?

MH: Since 1991, Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigré movement, has been in charge in Ethiopia. And he has no political vision. He has followed tradition in governing in the interests of himself and his entourage without taking into account the ethnic diversity within the country. Moreover, rather than finding ways of adapting the institutions inherited from Mengistu, the new government merely destroyed them. For example, it demobilized the Derg army rather than start up a democratic dialogue to find ways of developing things. As a result, many officers who had spent their whole lives in the army found themselves unemployed. The new government cheerfully destroyed the Ethiopian civil service. Naturally, the US ambassador was overjoyed in seeing this: Ethiopia was once again at the mercy of imperialist interests.

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In the last part of the interview, Mohamed Hassan will reveal the recipe for Eritrean development, how it is possible to save Africa, and why Eritrea is seen as a problem by neo-colonial powers. We will see why relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia remain turbulent. Finally, we will broach the question of political and human rights: is Eritrea a dictatorship ?

  • Translated from French by Ella Rule.
    1. Mohamed Hassan is a specialist in geopolitics and the Arab world. Born in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), he participated in the student movements of the 1974 socialist revolution in his country. He studied political science in Egypt before specializing in public administration in Brussels. A diplomat for his country of birth during the 1990s, he has worked in Washington, Beijing and Brussels. Co-author of ‘Iraq under the occupation’ (EPO, 2003), he has also participated in producing works on Arab nationalism and the Islamic movements, and on Flemish nationalism. He is one of the greatest contemporary experts on the Arab and Muslim world. []

    Grégoire Lalieu is an author associated with Investig’Action, a Brussels-based team of independent investigative journalists, directed by Michel Collon. Collon is a journalist, writer, and militant for peace. Read other articles by Grégoire Lalieu and Michel Collon, or visit Grégoire Lalieu and Michel Collon's website.