On the Ethio-Eritrean war:

Denounce the Ethiopian-chauvinist aggression!

by Frank, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #25, Nov. 27, 2000)

Part I: Introduction


. From May 1998 to June 18 of this year the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia suffered the cruelties of a war which left scores of thousands dead on both sides and almost one-third of the Eritrean population displaced. (1) Among the latter are thousands who still cannot return to their homes, or what's left of them, because they lie in areas occupied by Ethiopian troops. More, the nightmare may not be over. The Ethiopian government has floated pretexts for further aggression in diplomatic statements as well as to pressure the Eritrean government to make economic concessions which the people would suffer the brunt of. And if the Ethiopian regime doesn't actually launch a new round of war in the near future it's only because of cynical calculations revolving around money, political power, military might and support from the U.S. and other big powers.

. In the rich countries the press and politicians, in their rare mentioning of the Ethio-Eritrean war, repeatedly referred to it as being "a senseless slaughter". That was convenient since the ruling powers of the West and Russia and eastern Europe were guilty of helping to prepare and prolong the blood-bath. But from our standpoint the war was a horrible crime against the masses of people of Eritrea and Ethiopia and we want to prevent new crimes. This impels us to struggle to make every bit of sense out of the Ethio-Eritrean war we can. The masses of people need analysis if they're going to draw the kind of firm political conclusions necessary to build movements capable of uniting Ethiopians, Eritreans and the workers and oppressed people of all countries in fierce struggle against new aggressions, whether on the Horn of Africa or elsewhere. The article below is a contribution to building such an analysis.

. The history leading up to the present situation is that Ethiopia was ruled by a feudal monarchy until 1974. The masses of people (comprising many nationalities) were oppressed by a ruling class drawn from the privileged section of the Amhara nationality, and a brutal colonial war was carried out to enforce the annexation of Eritrea. In February 1974 the masses of Ethiopian people rose in a democratic revolution which succeeded toppling the emperor Haile Selassie but they were not organized enough to found a democratic state. Instead a military junta (the Derg) consolidated power and turned on the masses with fire and sword. It called itself socialist but built an oppressive state-capitalist regime that continued the oppression of the various nationalities and the colonial war against Eritrea. In 1991 the Derg was overthrown by a coalition of liberation groups, the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front), of which the strongest component was the TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front). Eritrea was then able to gain its formal independence peacefully through an overwhelming vote of its people. There were high expectations for the new regimes in Ethiopia and Eritrea, regimes led by former liberation organizations, but the Ethio-Eritrean war is simply the most dramatic of many events showing that the Ethiopian and Eritrean toilers still face the need to organize for their own interests against the current ruling classes.

. Thus the Ethio-Eritrean war and its aftermath raises a number of general theoretical issues of controversy and interest to working-class revolutionaries and other progressive people the world over. In this introduction we would like to comment on three of these.

. (1) The right of nations to self-determination (which must include the right to secession if it is to mean anything) remains an important issue in today's world. Neither the liberation of the colonies of the old colonial empires nor imperialist globalization has wiped it off the historical agenda. (2)

. Eritrea was, after all, Ethiopia's colony right up to the early 1990s, and the article below shows that the Ethiopian government was fighting to re-establish a colonial relationship. The article also discusses the internal national and ethnic oppression by the Ethiopian regime and some of the struggle against it, including armed struggle by forces from several oppressed nationalities. Meanwhile, in neighboring Djibouti there are also armed actions by a group from an oppressed nationality. Thus the question of the right of nations to decide for themselves their own political futures is being sharply posed on the Horn of Africa, just as it is in Palestine, Kosovo, Chechnya, Indonesian-annexed West Papua and elsewhere. And in Ethiopia, either the struggles of the workers and oppressed peasantry force the bourgeoisie to practically recognize the right of nations to self-determination (the constitution only recognizes this right on paper) or there will be years and decades more filled with wars with Eritrea and wars with the oppressed Ethiopian nationalities.

. True communists uphold the right of nations to self-determination. Moreover, our stand is that upholding the right of the people of a nation to democratically decide their future is far more important than the particular issue of whether independence or continued union may be the best solution to a particular national question. For example, in some instances, once the right to decide is won, we may not think actual separation makes a lot of political or economic sense. Nevertheless, if the masses of people opt for independence anyway this is far preferable than is denial of their democratic right to make the choice. If separation really is a mistake then the masses of people will eventually see it as such and find a way to correct it. But if they're denied the right to self-determination they have every right to ask what other democratic rights are going to be denied them. After all, the old system of national oppression has repeatedly taught that denial of the democratic right for a nation to have its own state is invariably connected to denial of democratic rights on every question of import, just ask the people of West Papua, Chechnya, or Kosovo. Some elitists may protest that they're not so callous as the chauvinist rulers of Indonesia, Russia or Serbia but elitists should not be trusted. Elitism by nature is anti-democratic and also prone to error.

. Yet while upholding the right of nations to self-determination communists do not support nationalist demagogy or even every nationalist movement. We in fact fight for a socialist world where national differences will gradually fade away, and to accomplish this new world we rally round the slogan "Workers of all countries, unite!". But for there to be a revolutionary unity of the world's workers the workers of the oppressor nations must show in practice -- in their struggles against their own rulers -- that they're fighters against national and ethnic oppression and forcible annexations. This proletarian internationalism lays the basis for confidence and trust between the toilers of oppressing and oppressed nations and undercuts both bourgeois-nationalist demagogs and narrow nationalism in the oppressed nations. Further, through participation in the struggles for national rights in the oppressed nations the workers and other toilers learn to stand up from their down-trodden position by confronting all the old imperialist rot about their being uncivilized, racially inferior, only fit to be servants, ignorant plantation and sweatshop laborers, illiterate peasants, etc. They also begin to learn more of the role of other classes in society. Taken together these things help prepare the workers and exploited peasantry of the oppressed nations for stronger struggle in their class interests once the particular national question is resolved. They can more proudly and confidently take their place in the world struggle of labor with capital.

. Further, while upholding the right of nations to self-determination we don't imply that this is anything other than a bourgeois-democratic right, even if a particular national movement is led by forces proclaiming themselves revolutionary and socialist. Moreover, rather than weakening or breaking the bounds of capital national liberation may accelerate capitalist development, particularly in the industrially undeveloped countries. In fact the more the workers and other oppressed people get organized and push for their economic and democratic demands, including demands for the equality of women, education, social welfare, etc., during the course of the national liberation struggle, and the more resolutely the national struggle is carried through to the end, the more likely it is that it will accelerate capitalist development and create a broader basis for proletarian struggle against capitalism. But that suits us just fine. In general, capitalist development, with all its infamies, must bring with it the relative increase of the modern proletariat in society -- the grave-digger of the capitalist system of production. In particular, the resolution of a national struggle in this way leaves the workers and other toilers standing on better grounds, i.e., more democratic grounds, from which to launch further struggles through which they build up the class consciousness and organization necessary for a socialist revolution. There are more democratic and less democratic capitalist states and the former best facilitate the proletarian struggle in achieving its ultimate objectives in the most direct and rapid of fashion. Achievement of national liberation in this way lays the groundwork for forcing the capitalists to adopt a more democratic framework.

. (2) Should we expect that militant and victorious national liberation organizations will give rise to socialism, or "sort of" socialism? Or should we expect that victory in the national liberation struggle only issues in a new stage on the path to the liberation of the working class and all of the oppressed?

. We think the answer is the second. As a matter of fact in Eritrea in 1991, or the Afars' homeland, Oromia, West Papua, and a number of other oppressed nations today, there was/is no possibility of socialist revolution, at this time, even if genuine Marxist parties were being founded as we write this. The working classes of these nations are very small relative to the peasantry (or people engaged in pre-capitalist relations of production) and the nations themselves are fairly small (with exceptions -- Oromia has about 24 million people). In the present conditions there are neither socialist countries to lend support nor a massive world revolutionary ferment tying down the hands of the imperialist oppressors. Thus the road to socialism is going to be long. (This does not mean that communist political work can not be taken up now however, far from it.)

. But in favorable world conditions we would not expect even militant, heroic, persevering, and socialist-colored liberation organizations like the Eritrean People's Liberation Front was to give rise to socialism either. This is because they essentially represent either the petty-bourgeoisie (of which the peasantry is often the predominating force), the radical bourgeoisie, or some combination of the two, even though they present themselves as representing the entire people (which they may sincerely believe). They may also present themselves as socialists (and sincerely believe this too) but their socialism boils down to reforms fully compatible with capitalism. Most often these include combinations of (and to greater or lesser extents) punishment and suppression of members of the old regime (or colonial puppets if the nation were a colony), nationalizations or state capitalism, land reform, greater democratic freedoms, government support for healthcare, education and other social welfare measures, etc., most (if not all) of which benefit the people. However, neither the class character of an organization nor its real political orientation is always something one can determine at the drop of a hat (or the drop of a phrase). Therefore it might be worthwhile to review some of the history of the EPLF, an organization that shared the same class standpoint and same general politics as many other liberation organizations founded in the 60s and 70s. It was somewhat exceptional in that it led a protracted national liberation war to victory rather than seeking an accommodation with the former colonialists. And in this war it fought and overcame not only the Ethiopian chauvinists, not only internal bourgeois and other reactionaries who launched a civil war to wipe it out, but also U.S. imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism, Cuban troops, etc. (the revisionist "socialist camp") which took turns supporting the Ethiopian colonial masters. This latter fact gave it a good deal of prestige among revolutionaries around the world. It also strengthened a trend of anti-revisionist Eritrean militants which the EPLF ultimately crushed. (After this we'll more briefly take up the Tigray People's Liberation Front.)

. The EPLF originated as a split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1970. The ELF had launched the armed struggle in 1961 but apparently as only a pressure tactic to get the UN to negotiate an independence which would bring the bourgeois and feudal forces it represented to power. It also divided the liberation movement on religious, ethnic and regional grounds and resorted to repression when its views were challenged. The young EPLF rejected these ideas and went among the masses to organize a people's liberation war. Two years later the ELF provoked a bloody civil war against the EPLF which it got the worst of and it eventually agreed to forming a united front to fight the colonialists.

. The EPLF was able to achieve this victory because not only did it say it was fighting a national democratic revolution, but it did in practice mobilize the masses against the more backward social relations, instituted land reform in the areas it came to control, to a certain extent fought the oppression of women, etc. -- all indicating a revolutionary democratic stand.

. But the EPLF also inferred it would go on to struggle for socialism once national independence was achieved, said it was based on a worker-peasant alliance, gave the slogan "workers of all countries unite!" (on special occasions), etc. This was an era when a whole number of national liberation wars were being fought (or had just been concluded) which were led by false Marxist-Leninists (Vietnam), Maoist-populists (Kampuchea), or "African socialists". The EPLF leaders were no doubt inspired by these forces and spoke the common "socialist" language typical of them. More importantly they shared the same class standpoint (or initial class standpoint if we're talking of Vietnam) and this set them up to identify a combination of bourgeois reforms as being socialism, and to embrace the state-capitalist systems in the Soviet Union, Cuba and elsewhere as models of "socialism". (And if someone insisted the workers and other toilers of these countries were oppressed and exploited? Well, that was explained away in various ways . . . not the standpoint of proletarian revolutionaries.)

. That the EPLF embraced revisionist state capitalism as their model became very clear in 1977-78. By then the Ethiopian military junta had made an alliance with the Soviet camp and the latter was sending advisors, tons of armaments, jet fighters and Cuban troops to help it in utterly crushing the Eritrean national liberation movement. Eritrean organizations in North America (who had also began participating in the EPLF's mass organizations) argued with the EPLF leaders that this was only further proof the USSR and its allies were social imperialist and revisionist, and that it was wrong to popularize the Soviet Union as being a socialist model. But the EPLF leaders' held tightly to their "socialist" conception and summed up their reply as follows: "we have never for any reason considered the Soviet Union as our enemy, as an imperialist force, as a capitalist system and as a counterrevolutionary force." (3) (They also tried to sue for peace by issuing a statement in June 1978 from Lebanon which sloughed over the question of the justness of the national liberation war and indicated a willingness to bargain on what had previously been upheld as a precondition for talks: recognition of Eritrea's right to be independent.)

. Socialism can only be attained though a democracy by the masses of people the likes of which the world has only so far seen glimpses of (for example in the first years after the Bolshevik revolution, i.e., before the revisionists gained power and smothered it). But already in the latter 70s the EPLF leaders were also revealing that their conception of democracy didn't extend very far regarding democratic rights for the masses. Rather than favoring public discussion over what was socialism and what was revisionism they castigated this as "indulging" oneself, "adventurist", wanting to "fight everybody at once", etc., and banned the publications of the just-mentioned organizations from the liberated regions of the country.

. No doubt the EPLF's ideas about socialism evolved over the years, and especially when the state-capitalist system in one revisionist country after another was rejected by not only the masses of people it allegedly served, but also a great portion of the ruling state-capitalist bourgeoisie it had until then really served. At this point the evolution may have taken it back toward the more open capitalist model of the West and included even its neo-liberal ideas. At any rate, upon gaining power in the early 90s the EPLF inherited an economy which already had state-capitalist organizations operating in it, sought and got aid from the IMF and World Bank, plus punishing some of the rottenest collaborators with the colonialists and implementing various reforms of benefit to the masses of people. It still vaguely talked of an on-going Eritrean revolution but it seems to have dropped its talk of socialism. Of course this would only have been revisionist talk for if one had in mind organizing a genuine socialist revolution in the future one would encourage independent organization of the working class for example. But the EPLF was intent upon smothering the class struggle and democratic strivings of the masses with calumny about the need to maintain the unity of the people. If that didn't work then repressive measures were used. In the end the rose-colored petty-bourgeois nationalist EPLF became a front for liberated Eritrean capitalism.

. The TPLF was founded in 1973. This was a time when the momentum against the Ethiopian feudal system was mounting with the overthrow of the Haile Selassie monarchy coming just two years later. And the TPLF may have represented elements of the Tigrayan bourgeoisie from its inception. If not, it certainly took up elements of its politics in its 1976 Manifesto, i.e., liberating and building a "Greater Tigray". The latter would have included several areas of Eritrea, including its main port. Some of these areas were claimed on the basis of common language (and a democrat could support such a claim if the masses of the areas were given a chance to decide for themselves if they wanted to federate to "Greater Tigray") but access to the sea was claimed on the basis of hundreds-of-year-old events which had no relevance to who now lived on the land or what their aspirations were. This was reactionary nationalism.

. However, the TPLF soon at least toned down its reactionary nationalism and made generally democratic appeals to mobilize the masses of Tigrayans into struggle for a new Tigray. It also formed an alliance with the EPLF (which had formerly denounced it) against the common enemy. And it even had a revisionist faction in its ranks (the "Marxist-Leninist" League of Tigray). Yet it does not seem to have ever really abandoned its reactionary nationalism. For example: By the early 1990s the days of the Derg were clearly numbered. Its Soviet state-capitalist patron was going into its final crisis while it faced growing rebellions all over the country in addition to the continuing national liberation war of the Eritrean people. In these conditions the now-Prime Minister (Meles Zenawi) gave a revealing interview with American writer Paul Henze on March 31-April 1, 1990.

"He told him, first, that he did not expect Eritrean unity to hold, once the Derg was expelled from Eritrea. The main reason he gave for this was that Eritrea was a religiously divided nation (but so is Ethiopia--Fk) and that he expected to see internal conflict once the enemy had gone. Second, he also expressed his unreserved preference to see, not an independent Eritrea, but one linked to Ethiopia in a federal arrangement. In explaining this, he told Paul Henze 'we look at this from the viewpoint of the interests of Tigre, first, and then Ethiopia as a whole. We know that Tigre needs access to the sea and the only way is through Eritrea. . . . There are many Tigreans in Eritrea. . . . They don't want to be treated as foreigners there . . .They have the same history. . . .'" -- quoted from Alemseged Tesfai. (4)

Certainly a democrat could prefer a federal arrangement (as long as he or she upheld the right of the people themselves to decide the matter) but "Tigray first", "need(ing) access to the sea. . . . through Eritrea", and talk of Tigrayans in Eritrea being "treated as foreigners" represented the same old chauvinist stand of the Tigrayan bourgeoisie which had been written into the TPLF manifesto 14 years earlier.

. In the early 90s the TPLF made alliances with the leaders of other rebelling forces through the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front) and together with the armies of the EPLF they were able to march on Addis Ababa and overthrow the fascist military dictatorship in July 1991. Although Tigrayans are not one of Ethiopia's largest peoples, and the fight to overthrow the Derg was not mounted solely on nationalist bases, the TPLF had the better organization and most guns. It was therefore able to seize power and rule the country through a system of alliances with federalist bourgeois from the other nationalities or peoples -- all of whom fought for the interests of Ethiopian capitalism. At the same time the Amhara bourgeoisie, which had adapted itself to the rule of the Derg and to great extent supported it, was reduced in rank. Both in feudal times and in modern times Amharas had formed the ruling class which dominated and oppressed the other peoples of Ethiopia. The taking away of some of the prerogatives of the Amhara bourgeoisie, particularly those who had lived high during the days of the Derg, the jailing of various Amharan generals and members of death-squads who worked for the Derg, etc., economically and politically benefited the new rulers of the country. Economically, they grabbed positions in state-capitalist concerns, granted themselves lucrative government contracts, etc. Politically, they needed to show the Amharan bourgeoisie through acts of coercion that it had better adapt itself to the new arrangement or else. They also needed a degree of popular support to stay in power and this was a convenient way to feign a democratic heart.

. The masses who had fought to overthrow the military dictatorship expected a better day and for a period of time were able to breath more freely as the TPLF maneuvered to consolidate its power and get the economy going. (Although it differed with the EPLF by favoring more protectionism, it seems to have favored the same mix of state-capitalism and private capitalism, and like the Eritrean government, it sought and got IMF/World Bank loans.) Also during this period the TPLF supported an Eritrean referendum on independence and the Eritrean people voted 98.8% to separate. (Elements of the Amhara bourgeoisie screamed that the TPLF was committing treason by doing this while they must have known that it was in no position to reverse the defacto independence which the EPLF had already won on the battlefield.) But the new day was short-lived as the TPLF took more and more repressive measures against the masses, particularly of the oppressed nations and ethnic groups. This was maintaining the old system. (Formerly the monarchs had used the masses of these oppressed nationalities and ethnic groups as menial servants and cannon fodder. Now the ruling bourgeoisie uses them as a pool of super-exploitable laborers, uses them in its divide and rule schemes, and continues to use them as cannon fodder. Those bourgeois political organizations based among the oppressed nationalities who have joined the EPRDF actually support all of this even if they mildly protest.) Finally, in just seven years after gaining power the TPLF was pressing the masses into a bloody crusade to reverse Eritrean independence.

. (3) Following from the first two points is the need for the working class and other toilers to have their own politics and organization in the national democratic revolutions as well as the democratic movements to overthrow domestic tyrannies. The working class is the most consistently democratic class, and, as discussed already, by organizing and fighting for its class interests it pushes the democratic struggle the farthest and positions the masses in a better way for the struggle against capital in the liberated conditions. Further, in those conditions, without independent politics and organization the proletariat inevitably finds itself in a passive position when the bourgeoisie organizes a chauvinist war like the Ethiopian bourgeoisie did during the past two years. The logical conclusion is that the working class should not only not trail behind petty-bourgeois or bourgeois-led liberation fronts but should contend with them for leadership of the democratic movement. This is an underlying viewpoint in the following article.

. (The rest of this article will appear in the next issue of Communist Voice.)


(1) We don't know the actual number of war casualties. Both governments conducted war propaganda which minimized their own casualties while exaggerating those of the other side. And even if one government, the Eritrean one, were a little more honest in this regard it still could only roughly estimate casualties on the other side. Nevertheless, the figure 80,000 killed is often used in the international press and this may be a reasonable estimate. (Return to text)

(2) In fact accelerated capitalist development has both sharpened existing contradictions between oppressed and oppressor nations and given rise to new social forces currently resisting imperialist oppression and plunder in the Southwest Pacific and Africa in particular. (Text)

(3) The EPLF's Message to the 9th Congress of Eritreans for Liberation in North America and the 2nd Congress of Association of Eritrean Women in North America. The quotations from the EPLF leadership in the next paragraph are also taken from this message. (Text)

(4) This article can be found by searching for Alemseged Tesfai at http://www.eritrea.net/ (Text)

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