In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 2 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in April 2002)
The cause of the war, as was pointed out by Issayas and his commissars:
- Woyane has a grand plan to link Eritrea to Tigray and create a Tigray-Tigrigne nation.
- The Woyane issued a new map that encompassed Badme into Ethiopia. (the issue of territorial integrity)
- The Woyane killed 7 to 12 Eritrean civilians (the exact number varied many times) who approached it to broker the then-ongoing border problem.
- The Woyane wanted to colonize Eritrea. (the issue of national sovereignty)
- The Woyane wanted to overthrow the GoE
But could the above reasons alone justify an all-out war? Before discussing the scenarios mentioned above, I will first go briefly over the background of the border conflict and the old alliance of EPLF and TPLF.
A Brief History of the EPLF and Its Ethiopian Allies and the Origin of the Border Conflict
After harboring and training the founders of the EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front, and TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front, ተጋድሎ ሓርነት ህዝቢ ትግራይ) in the Sahel region, in the mid-Seventies, the EPLF unleashed both these diametrically opposed fronts into Tigray.
It is worth mentioning here that, while in Eritrea, as was proved many times, the members of the two fronts fought alongside the EPLF in the civil war between the EPLF and ELF, from 1973 through 1974, inside Eritrea.
While in Tigray, it appeared that the TPLF and EPRP were competing against each other in a contest to win over the EPLF and its favoritism, and in the beginning, until early 1977, it appeared that the EPRP was scoring against the TPLF. Moreover, when stationed at the Asimba mountain ranges in Tigray, by virtue of its numerous educated members and astute politicians, the EPRP appeared to have scored additional points against the TPLF by attracting more recruits, including many Tigreans.
However, for the reason that was to be revealed later in 1980-1981, between 1977 and 1978, the TPLF scored against the EPRP, and thus with the blessing, or by the request of the EPLF, in 1978, the TPLF attacked the EPRP militarily and drove it out of Tigray. (Also, between 1975-1976, the TPLF annihilated Tigray Liberation Front, (ተጋድሎ ሓርነት ትግራይ), a front which the Eritrean Liberation Front supported)
After that, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Woyane was wandering throughout Tigray purposelessly. It seemed to many it did not know what to make about its revolution and presence in Tigray. During those years, heavily backed by the EPLF, it needlessly picked on ELF, EPRP (after it located itself to Begemider), EDU (Ethiopian Democratic Union), and against Eritrean citizens, who had been living around Shire, Adi-awAla, Sheraro, and Badme, since the 1940s and 1950s. The TPLF made detaining, expelling, and confiscating properties of Eritreans its routine job.
Again, at that moment, the TPLF was under the Svengali-like control of the EPLF; therefore, it perpetrated all its actions against Eritreans before the eyes or under the coaching of the members of the EPLF. At that time, nothing mattered to TPLF but appeasing her Svengali, the EPLF, and likewise, nothing mattered to EPLF but its alliance with TPLF.
During those years, the TPLF, under the leadership of Gidey Zerazion, believed to be an Eritrean by father, also a henchman of Issayas Afeworki, had appeared to have considered the border problem more than its entire issues combined. Also, it made the resolution of the border problem the precondition to any relationship it could ever contemplate with the ELF. But as was later revealed, the border issue had nothing to do with how the TPLF was behaving.
The Border Line Around Badme
The Ethio-Eritrea border around Badme is the least complex problem that two nations could ever face and the easiest to arbitrate because:
- A straight line makes its starting point at the Merab/Gash river and its ending point at the Tekeze/Setit river.
- Right in the middle of the two points lies a small hill called Gemhalo, which no one ever disputed as the border point between Tigray and Eritrea.
- Thus the straight line starts at the Merab/Gash river and goes through the Piano Badme and the Gemhalo hill to the Tekeze/Setit river.
- Both Eritreans and Tigreans have always agreed that Sheraro belonged to Tigray and Shelalo belonged to Eritrea.
Suppose Eritrea wants to claim the entire Badme region. In that case, it cannot do so without modifying the starting and ending point of the straight line, thus without seceding a piece of land from the Setit/ Tekeze river bank and giving it away to Tigray.
In other words, Eritrea cannot gain the entire region of Badme without losing a much more valuable land from the Setit/Tekeze river bank and losing a body of water of the River itself, or without going to the extreme and claiming the district of Sheraro which Ethiopia always administered.
In much the same way, if Ethiopia wants to claim the entire region of Badme, it cannot do so without modifying the starting and ending point of the straight line, thus without giving away a piece of land from the Tekeze river to Eritrea, and without possibly seceding land from the fertile Sheraro region to Eritrea, or without going to the extreme and claiming the district of Shelalo, which Eritrea always administered.
Nevertheless, since the TPLF appeared to put the border problem at the top of its agenda in its negotiation with the ELF, in response, in 1980, the ELF set out to find a permanent resolution to the problem. Thus, it approached the TPLF with a topographical map drawn during the Italian rule of Eritrea. The map described every hill and stream in the region and referred to them by their original name in the Kunama language.
The TPLF agreed in principle that both the TPLF and ELF should resolve the problem by the presented map. The TPLF did not have any problem with the map. That map might have given Ethiopia more than 80% of the Badme region and could have buried the border issue forever, provided the TPLF was serious about resolving the issue and ready to shake hands with ELF, but also, provided the EPLF was prepared to let the TPLF slip off its fingers.
It was clear that the TPLF was seized by EPLF, so it could not decide for itself. But the EPLF was not about to let the TPLF resolve the border issue because it would go against its secret grand plan to use the TPLF in its forthcoming war, for which the EPLF was preparing to destroy the ELF.
To Woyane, the border issue was not an end, but a means to affirm its loyalty to the EPLF
After the TPLF nagged for years over the border issue, the ELF presented it with a fair offer it could not refuse, an offer that could permanently resolve the border conflict in that part of the border, but also a solution that could bring harmony between the ELF and TPLF; however, after that, the TPLF disappeared from the scene, and its subsequent appearance in Badme was in September of 1980 when it reached Badme as an accomplice of the EPLF in a joint military assault against the ELF.
So what was TPLF’s real problem with the ELF, then? Nobody knows, but amid the raging war aimed by the EPLF to expel the ELF from all of Eritrea, it was rumored that the EPLF had promised the TPLF that once it helped it rid of the ELF, it would agree to establish a Tigray-Tigrigne nation, a notion which also Woldeab Woldemariam considered. Ato Woldeab Woldemariam also was a Tigrean-Eritrean, as is Issayas Afeworki.
However, right after the EPLF got what it wanted, the EPLF and TPLF went in their separate ways, and the rumored plot of Tigray-Tigrigne did not materialize, and once again, the TPLF was left in Tigray with nothing to do. The only real gain for the Woyane was it was left to have control over Badme and its environs until May of 1998. Nevertheless, it is unknown why the TPLF broke up with the EPLF and whether or not there was a quid pro quo deal between the two over Badme, whether the rumored Tigray-Tigrigne’s plot was true, or whether the EPLF had a real plan to link Eritrea with Tigray but was compelled to break its promise when it later discovered that the union of Eritrea and Tigray would break the Moslem-Christian ratio in Eritrea and thus would not be acceptable to Eritrean Moslems; or whether the EPLF was just using the TPLF for one objective alone, and that is, to help it destroy the ELF. No one will ever know, and none of them will ever reveal what happened in the late Seventies and early Eighties, even as they are now arch-enemies, since if there had been such a plot, revealing the secret would certainly embarrass both of them equally.
After being used by the EPLF and getting nothing in return, the TPLF went through “house cleaning,” which resulted in the purging of Gidey Zerazion, Issayas Afeworki’s agent. But after receding for some years, the TPLF made a comeback in the mid-Eighties, but at this time, it seemed to find a reason to wander around Tigray, also in what appeared to be a new sense of undertaking to placate Eritreans, it seemed to champion the Eritrean cause for total independence. It started accusing Eritrean fronts, including the ELF-RC and EPLF, of not living up to the desires of the Eritrean people, “no alternative to the total independence of Eritrea,” including by authoring a book in rebuttal to Tesfatsion Medhanie’s book:” Eritrea, Dynamics of a National Question.”
Now let me go back and analyze one by one the 5-reasons theory pointed out at the beginning of this article, which Issayas and his commissars inside and abroad described as the cause for the Badme War:
It was astonishing to hear this Tigray-Tigrigne concept again in 1998, after sixteen years, but this time as was proclaimed by the PFDJ, for being the Woyane’s ultimate goal to impose upon Eritrea unilaterally.
But was there any truth to it? Or was Issayas haunted by his old sin? Where did the PFDJ get the very idea? If the Woyane has such a dream, it cannot carry them out without the backing of Eritreans. But do we know of any group of Eritreans who were, or are committed to, such a concept? Regardless, if the Woyane had such a dream, we cannot deprive it of its dreams, for we know its dreams will remain dreams for as long as there is not a single Eritrean force committed to it. Or was there ever?
Regardless of Woyane’s intentions, this reason could not justify an all-out war from the Eritrean side.
A New Map by the Woyane:
As was mentioned earlier, the Woyane was left by the EPLF in 1981 to have complete control over Badme and its surroundings; therefore, the disputed territory was controlled by the Woyane until May of 1998, when the PFDJ drove the Woyane or the Tigray region’s militia out of it.
The question should not be, therefore, whether the Woyane issued a map without consulting with Issayas or whether or not it had a legitimate right to publish a map that encompassed Badme into Ethiopia, which was, by the way under its control; rather, the question should be, why Issayas had not attempted to delineate Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia, from 1993 until 1997, before the Woyane issued its own map?
Even if Issayas disagreed with the new map issued by the Woyane, it could not be a reason for him to declare war against Ethiopia and forcefully occupy Badme. He could have made another map that refuted Woyane’s map until brokered by mediators.
Again, publishing a map by the Woyane could not justify Issyas’s declaration of an all-out war.
The Woyane Murdered 7 to 12 Eritreans
If this was the reason that prompted Issayas to send a mechanized brigade to strike on Badme, then was he retaliating for the murder of 7-12 Eritreans? If so, how did he intend to stop the Woyane from retaliating to his retaliation by murdering the rest of the Eritreans who had been living in the more than 30 villages inside Tigray, from Badme through the regions of Tserona beyond the Ruba (brook) Belessa? How about the more than three hundred thousand Eritreans who lived in other parts of Ethiopia? There is no doubt that Woyane’s militias executed innocent Eritreans; then again, it wasn’t their first time doing so. They had been doing that since the late-Seventies; they made many executions or harassments of Eritreans before the eyes or with the blessings of the EPLF during those years.
But most of all, Issayas knew that the TPLF’s militias murdered the 7-12 Eritreans. Still, he also knew that the order did not come from Melles himself or the federal government of Ethiopia but from the local Woyane militias. Therefore, there was no point in dragging the federal government of Ethiopia into the war. Well, that was what he succeeded in doing when he forcibly occupied Badme.
Furthermore, did it occur to Issayas that by his very action, he was endangering the lives of more than three hundred thousand Eritreans who were at that time living in other parts of Ethiopia?
Again the murdering of 7-12 Eritreans by the Woyanes could not justify the declaration of an all-out war against Ethiopia by Issayas.
The Woyane Wanted to Colonize Eritrea
That was simply absurd. Why would it expel Eritreans from Ethiopia if it had this motive? Melles had never intended to rule Eritrea; Issayas knew that that was the fact, and those in his inner circle knew those facts. Issayas knew Ethiopia had fewer soldiers and armaments and a less prepared or powerful army than Eritrea. Issayas spent years, from 1993 through 1998, recruiting and training tens of thousands of soldiers in Sawa; he knew the Woyane did none of that in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia did not have the force to retake Badme, much less to colonize Eritrea. In fact, 80% of the Ethiopian army that captured Badme in February 1999 were recruited during the first eight months after the war broke out. Issayas knew that was the truth about the Ethiopian army’s weaknesses but deliberately chose to lie to Eritreans. As later was discovered, this lie alone had garnered him support from more Eritreans than his other four lies combined. His lies paid off for him because, by this lie alone, Issayas raised fears among Eritreans.
(In the last battle in 2000, after punching into Eritrea, Ethiopia had more than enough power to seize Asmara. Issayas knew that was the fact; his hasty decision to accept the DMZ (demilitarized zone) in Eritrea reflects that. There is no doubt Eritreans could have forced Ethiopia out of Asmara right away. But the fact remains that Ethiopia had the power to penetrate Eritrea deeply and capture Asmara but did not choose to do so. Issayas knows very well that Melles never wanted to re-colonize Eritrea.)
The Woyane Wanted to Overthrow the GoE (government of Eritrea)
There is some truth to that though the Woyane did not reveal that until October 1998, long after the PFDJ publically declared its intention to overthrow the Melles regime. Both governments had, and still do have, the desire to topple each other.
Governments always engage in plots and counterplots to unseat each other, but no government in its right mind risks an all-out war to thwart a plot. The rule of thumb is if a leader has confidence in his people, he should know he is safe because no outside force can remove him from power. But did Issayas have confidence in his people? Again, in 1998, the Woyane had no contact with Eritrean Alliance. They did not exist.
Still, this reason, especially the presumed plot by the Woyane to topple the PFDJ, cannot justify declaring an all-out war and the loss of 19,000 Eritreans. By the way, hadn’t Issayas admitted earlier his desire to topple the regime in Sudan?
The War Was Perpetuated by the Miscalculation of Each Other
The EPLF’s miscalculation of the Woyane alone did not perpetuate the war after it broke out, but also the Woyane’s miscalculation on Eritreans. Prior to the start of the war, the Woyane understood that Eritreans were up to their eyeballs with the PFDJ; that Issayas Afeworki’s popularity was dwindling; that Eritreans preferred the Woyane regime in Ethiopia to PFDJ when investing their money in businesses; that Eritreans were getting fed up with PFDJ’s economic monopoly; with the too many red tapes of the PFDJ; with the business and tariff regulations of the PFDJ that seemed to change daily, with the PFDJ’s extortion-like tax policy on businesses. In addition, the TPLF had wrongly assessed the louder complaints from the forsaken former Tegadelti, the brutal action by Issayas against the Mai Habar heroes, the 1993 protest by the Tegadelti against the GoE, the infamous Sawa program, the confiscation of land by the PFDJ. Therefore all the above scenarios would work in its favor; consequently, it believed that with a little push from outside, frustrated Eritreans would toss Issayas down.
But not only was her calculation wrong but worse, Woyane did not know how to take advantage of the circumstances where her assessment was right on the money. For example, firstly, the Woyane simply imagined Eritrean business owners in Ethiopia would take its side after the war broke out rather than risk their lifetime investment and wealth in Ethiopia. What it failed to understand about Eritreans, in this case, was that Eritreans always preferred freedom to wealth-under-subjugation, also a concept that Issayas has not grasped yet. Thus, by expelling Eritreans from Ethiopia, not only did it reward Issayas with a new, fresh, and large constituency, but in some cases, with its appalling acts, it placed him on the moral high ground.
Secondly, the Woyane forgot that many members and ex-members of the ELF and all opposition Eritreans were still holding grudges against it for its involvement in destroying them in the Eighties, and after the liberation of Eritrea, for betraying their leaders and handing them over to Issayas. The opposition parties did not condemn the war against the Woyane immediately. In fact, some opposition groups, like the Jihad and ELF (Abdalah Idris), even extended an olive branch to Issayas to fight on his side against the Woyanes. Other fronts with hyphenated ELF names felt vindicated for fighting for Badme during their time. In addition, some fronts thought that the war could be a blessing in disguise; they believed the new event might force Issayas to reconsider his position on them and make peace for the nation’s sake. These organizations considered Issayas Afeworki to be a lesser evil than the Woyane. The bottom line is that it seemed easier for a few opposition fronts to forgive Issayas than the Woyanes.
Thirdly, the Woyane failed to recognize that there was no smell of organized force against Issayas inside Eritrea, be it among the civilians or the Army, partly attributed to its collaboration with Issayas in destroying them. Also, Woyane forgot that Eritrea had no free press which could refute or verify Issayas’s claims.
Fourthly, the Woyane failed to send a clear message to Eritreans and demonstrate that its battle was only with Issayas and not with the Eritrean people and that the war would be confined only to the contested border around Badme. Had it limited its hostility to Issayas, maybe its assessment could have been correct. But instead, by air-raiding Asmara and maneuvering its armies around Assab, and later by expelling Eritreans from all of Ethiopia, it played into the hands of Issayas. It forced Eritreans to rally around the flag.
In conclusion, the 5 points pointed out above as the leading cause of the war and its perpetuation could not justify the declaration of an all-out war by Issayas and the loss of thousands of Eritreans. But since the PFDJ has been consistent with the border demarcation problem as the cause of the war, next, in part three, I will discuss how Issayas should have resolved the border problem before and immediately after the war broke out.