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
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
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
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
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.