Denounce the Ethiopian-chauvinist aggression! (part 2)

The right to self-determination and

the Ethiopian-Eritrean war

by Frank, Seattle


(From Communist Voice, vol. 7, #1, issue #26, May 1, 2001)

Pretexts for war
--The border dispute--
--The economic issues--
The unfolding of the war
Western culpability in the war
Building an independent trend of the Eritrean workers
The situation confronting the Ethiopian workers
The path toward an enduring peace
Latest developments
Sidebar: Background on Ethiopia and Eritrea
--Some important dates--
--Governments and political parties--

. Since the first installment of this article the OAU/UN-brokered peace deal has moved ahead. The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) troops and observers are in the field, prisoners of war have been exchanged, troops from the contending armies have mostly moved to the agreed-upon positions, etc. Also, on December 12 the two governments signed a comprehensive peace agreement officially ending the war.

. Thus peace has come, a great blessing for the impoverished masses of both countries. But how long it holds remains to be seen. Both governments are already shopping for more arms. The Ethiopian capitalist press continues its chauvinist propaganda: Ethiopia has a "legitimate right" to Eritrean ports, etc. And in March the peace deal itself came close to breaking down. There's also no justice in this peace. When all is said, the responsibility for the killing scores of thousands of people and the bringing of carnage to Eritrea lies squarely on the shoulders of the Ethiopian government. Yet this government goes on as if nothing has happened. Its leaders are even praised by such representatives of the world imperialist order as the U.S. State Department, the European Union, the UN Secretary-General, etc. Meanwhile Eritrea faces a serious food and refugee crises caused by none other than these esteemed leaders.

. Part I (see Communist Voice, Vol. 6, #3) discussed how both the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes stem from victorious liberation organizations which set up bourgeois nationalist governments in the 1990s. They preside over capitalist exploitation and oppression, and, to different extents and in their own ways, smother democratic rights for the masses. Therefore in both countries the working class needs to organize its own political movement to resist and, ultimately, to overcome this exploitation and oppression (which necessitates struggling for real--not paper---democratic rights). The development of such movements will inevitably, over time, weld the oppressed masses of the two countries closer together; a necessary first step toward a peace that can endure.

. But the Ethiopian workers and other oppressed people face special political tasks which their comrades in Eritrea do not. Ethiopia is not only 20-times as big a country, but its rulers have proven to be die-hard opponents of democratic resolutions of the national questions handed down from the preceding regimes. Denial of the right of self-determination was the motor which drove the Ethiopian government deeper and deeper into war with Eritrea. Denial of the right of self-determination is the ultimate cause of the wars it presently wages against sections of several nationalities at home (wars which lead it to recurring invasions of Kenya and Somalia and killing people there). More, it's deeply involved in building a sphere of influence in Somalia with the ultimate aim of dominating the entire country. It also works to dominate Djibouti. In truth the Ethiopian state is presently the bastion of reaction on the Horn of Africa. Therefore each step the Ethiopian workers make in organizing themselves into an independent political force which struggles to uphold the right of nations to self-determination is an especially powerful blow for liberation of all of the oppressed in the region.

. Meanwhile, even if faced with threats from an Ethiopian-chauvinist regime across the border, it's not in the interests of the Eritrean masses to prettify "their own" regime. For example, the Eritrean government threw away the lives of several soldiers in a clash with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in 1995. The new Eritrean bourgeoisie was bent on establishing that it, too, was a force to be reckoned with in the region. It also had an economic motivation: undersea oil reserves and fishing rights. But as it turned out, an international arbitration court subsequently ruled that the islands had belonged to Yemen all along. Prettifying acts like these undermines the Eritrean workers' attempts to establish an independent political trend.

. But is the importance of the right to self-determination stressed in this article warranted? Let us back up and see.

Pretexts for War

. From 1993 (the year in which the Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence) to 1998, the two new governments had maintained what they called "brotherly relations". They were able to reach various economic and other agreements. They each said good things about the other to the people at home. But frictions were mounting: over the location of the border, and on economic issues. When a border dispute led to shooting and deaths, rather than pull back and sort things out, war was declared by one party within a matter of days. The world press thereafter generally said that the war had been caused by border encroachments and/or economic issues. Let's see if these in themselves really caused the war, or if they only served as convenient pretexts.

--The border dispute--

. The first fighting broke out over a disputed border area. The border is more than 600 miles long, and as members of the OAU the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments are committed to upholding the old Italian colonial boundary as today's boundary. Obviously the colonialists' drawing of lines on a piece of paper didn't take into consideration the wants, traditions or needs of peoples affected by their drawing of lines, but neither the Ethiopian nor Eritrean governments pushed the issue of peoples in the border region being able to decide for themselves which country they wanted to be part of--if either. However, the old colonial border was never clearly demarcated on the ground. That "worked" during the days when Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia by force (was colonized). It also worked during the first years of Eritrean independence. In those years of the early '90s both regimes, for their own reasons, chose to leave the border vague and practice an "open borders" policy. This made it possible for both unwitting farmers and consciously land-grabbing farmers to exploit the land of another country and claim it was part of the country they felt allegiance to. It also made it possible for local authorities to unknowingly or knowingly levy taxes on and police people of the other country. Thus the door was open for mistakes, individual encroachments, and collective or expansionist encroachments.

. Beginning in 1992 it seems that all of the latter began to occur. New disputes continued to arise, and by the summer of 1996 this was occurring almost every week (and sometimes daily). Meanwhile, many of the old disputes went unresolved. The latter half of 1997 was even worse. The disputes often resulted in farmers being arrested or fined for farming in the wrong country. there were also charges of Eritrean farmers being beaten by Ethiopian local authorities (usually Tigrayan), and driven off their farms by these authorities working in conjunction with vigilante groups composed of Tigrayan farmers who then took over the vacated land.

. At first the two governments had left it to their respective local administrations to resolve border issues, but the local administrations most often either couldn't reach an agreement or wouldn't stick to an agreement. But in 1997 entire towns and villages were increasingly becoming subjects of dispute, and national troops rather than local police or militias became involved. This led to the setting up, in the latter part of 1997, of the Joint Border Commission composed of representatives of the two national governments. (Today both governments claim credit for initiating the commission but, as on almost every issue, the Ethiopian government just asserts it whereas the Eritrean government provides some kind of documentation: a letter from Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dated Aug. 25, 1997.) The Joint Border Commission couldn't resolve anything either. In the first quarter of 1998 the situation continued worsening.

. Judging the rights and wrongs of the many individual disputes is made impossible by lack of really trustworthy information. An example of what one finds from the Ethiopian government is its "Background to and Chronology of Events on the Eritrean Aggression Against Ethiopia" issued in June 1998.(1) This "background" mainly discusses 1998, with only a few allusions to any prior border problems. On these it claims that it "was the Ethiopian side which had raised more of the complaints regarding the issue". But this proves nothing. A side saturated with expansionism could very well raise more complaints as part of its expansionism. Beyond this the document just gives the government version of 1998 events . . . and hate-mongers against the Eritrean regime--"aggressors" and "expansionists" who "have been transforming their country into a virtual military camp by training and arming the overwhelming majority of their able bodied citizens and inculcating in them racist and jingoist ideologies". One does find some more serious documents written by Eritreans however.(2) These really do treat the border disputes, and efforts to resolve them, all the way back to the first days of Eritrean independence. But they're obviously based on Eritrean government documents, reports from local authorities, etc. This means that these more serious treatments of the border issues can't be taken as telling the whole truth either. Nevertheless, the overall picture of repeated boundary disputes over whom should be farming where, paying taxes to whom, etc., and the repeated failures of the joint committees to resolve these issues is indisputable. More, the general picture of a creeping expansion by Ethiopians (usually Tigrayan) is believable, much more so than the ravings of the Ethiopian regime.

. One thing the two governments can still agree on is that during the first five months of 1998 the Joint Border Commission resolved nothing, and that eventually shooting broke out between an Eritrean border patrol and a Tigrayan militia unit on May 6, 1998 near Badme. Casualties occurred. There were telephone calls, representatives of the two governments met, etc. Nothing was resolved. The Eritrean government moved troops either into or near Badme town on May 12 (it depends upon which side tells the story). Both governments claim this town as part of their territory. According to the Ethiopian government: "In response to the Eritrean military action, the government of Ethiopia mobilized its armed forces to protect the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity" against "the belligerent aggression of Eritrea on peace loving Ethiopia". On May 13 it declared war (pretty fast for peace lovers).

. It is possible that the Eritrean government may have been adventurously flexing its muscles in these May 1998 events. Yet at the same time it kept the clashes secret from the public (an interesting way to be "inculcating . . . racist and jingoist ideologies" against Ethiopia); and it expressed anger when representatives of the Ethiopian government publicized them. It said it kept everything secret in order to not inflame emotions. That seems logical. Flexing ones muscles behind the scenes is one thing, wanting a full-scale war is another matter. What would the Eritrean regime gain by war with a power having 18 times the population, 7 times the gross national product, 3 times as large of military and half again as large of military budget as Eritrea's?

. In early June 1998 the Eritrean government issued a proposal for a solution to the crisis which called for both sides to "reject solutions that are imposed by force", set forth a plan for border demarcation by the UN Cartographic Unit "or any other body with appropriate expertise" within six months, and set forth a phased plan for demilitarizing the disputed areas within one month. The latter would be "implemented through the involvement and monitoring of observers" (who would also be involved in a "full investigation of the incident of May 6, 1998"). If the Ethiopian government sincerely wanted peace, why didn't it either take this up or propose a serious alternative? Why instead was Prime Minister Meles Zenawi later in the month blustering that "(Ethiopia) would teach Eritrea a lesson . . .". (See the Reuters report of June 23.)

--The economic issues--

. The economies of Ethiopia and Eritrea are closely intertwined. Hence from the first days of Eritrean independence economic cooperation arrangements were worked out between the two governments. But competition-driven friction between the national capitals of the two states was bound to arise. In 1995 the first frictions appeared; and by 1997 the two governments were squabbling, coming to impasses, "agreeing to disagree", etc., on several questions of importance to each: who would bear the cost of refurbishing the oil refinery at Assab, monetary issues, questions surrounding the ports at Massawa and Assab, trade issues. Soon the Ethiopian government was taking such unilateral actions as buying gasoline directly from producers rather than the Eritrean refinery, issuing new trade rules (including on how payments were to be made), and when the border crisis arose, ordering a boycott of Eritrean ports.

. One of the above monetary issues in fact is said to be the "real cause" of the war by some writers in the world press. This was the Eritrean government's issuance of its own currency, the nakfa.

. In 1993 the two governments had agreed that the Ethiopian birr would temporarily remain the currency used in Eritrea. That left the Eritrean state at the mercies of the monetary policies of the Ethiopian regime and the National Bank of Ethiopia. And since the two governments were pursuing different development strategies (the Eritrean capitalists could export relatively more finished products and generally called for free trade while their Ethiopian counterparts exported relatively more agricultural products or raw materials and generally favored more protectionism), the fact that the National Bank of Ethiopia adopted interest and exchange rate structures to serve the interests of Ethiopian capital (to the extent it could in a world dominated by bigger financial sharks) would inevitably mean that the profit-making of the Eritrean capitalists would be restricted in ways they would want to rebel against. Add to this that Ethiopian capitalism in the form of the National Bank of Ethiopia accrued all seigniorage(3) associated with the issuing of new birr notes, and one can see that the Eritrean capitalist class would want to issue its own currency and pursue its own monetary policies. And at the beginning of 1998, after extensive consultations and haggling with the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government did so.

. The Ethiopian government's response was to restrict use of the nakfa in settling accounts in the trade between the two countries.

. Another very contentious issue was Ethiopia's use of Eritrean ports. It appears that the Ethiopian bourgeoisie was getting a good deal in terms of port fees, etc., when one compares what it had to pay in Kenya and Djibouti.(4) Moreover, the Eritrean authorities weren't proposing much of an increase, if any. But the Ethiopian capitalists screamed that the Eritreans were bleeding them to death anyway.


. Under Ethiopian colonialism the Eritrean economy had been looted and turned into an appendage of the more backward Ethiopian economy. The measures taken by the Eritrean government in 1997-98 represented further steps away from that old reality. But in essence they were not that different than the squabbling over economic matters which is common between capitalist governments and which do not lead to wars. And most governments would consider it insane to launch a major war over border issues like those outlined above. No, the fundamental cause of the war was chauvinist denial of Eritrea's right to remain an independent state. This is why the frictions over economic and border issues inflamed into war.

. The formation of a unified Ethiopian capitalist ruling class has never been really achieved. There are serious national divisions which at some point could lead to the country being fractured. Nevertheless the Tigrayan bourgeoisie which now has the upper-hand in the government, and the Amhara bourgeoisie which dominated it prior to 1991, were able to unite on an Ethiopian-chauvinist platform in May 1998. Those bourgeois of the other nationalities who support the EPRDF joined the cabal

. In Part I we discussed that the TPLF had toned down its Tigrayan-chauvinist appeals to form an alliance with the EPLF against the Derg. (It also did this in order to make alliances with other Ethiopian groups, many of which were organized on a nationalist basis.) After gaining power it maintained this policy. To rule the country it had to maintain the domestic alliances built during the liberation war and cemented into the EPRDF. Moreover, Eritrea had won its independence on the battlefield. Even if the TPLF leaders had secretly wanted to, in the early '90s they were in no position to militarily reverse this. Instead they chose to support the referendum on Eritrean independence and continue good relations with the new Eritrean government. This was of economic benefit to both Ethiopian and Eritrean capital. It was also of particular benefit to Tigrayan capital since the economy of the Tigray regional state is most closely linked to that of Eritrea.

. However, the TPLF leaders pursued this course in the face of a great wail sent up by the ultra-chauvinists from the Amhara bourgeoisie. They screamed " 'the Eritreans' are now running the country!" and other silly nonsense. (There were also elements within the TPLF itself who were openly hostile toward Eritrea during this period.)

. During the first years of TPLF rule the bourgeois of the Amhara nationality had lost a great deal of prestige because of their previous adaptation to the rule of the Derg. (And before that the Amhara lords had been the social basis of the Selassie tyranny.) Thus their chauvinist clamoring was met with a good deal of mass skepticism, including among the Amhara masses who are exploited and oppressed by these ladies and gentlemen. But they continued to organize for a comeback through various political organizations as well as the large part of the independent press they control. (They also operate in the country's parliamentary bodies.) From these positions they took advantage of the government's suppression of democratic rights, the failures of its economic policies to serve the people, etc., to promote themselves as having some kind of the "alternative", and thereby increased their political support. When the war came they naturally supported it. The only problem, according to them, was that the Meles regime couldn't be trusted to lead it ruthlessly enough. When the war was ended they screamed that it should have been continued. They filled the press with articles blaming Eritrea for Ethiopia's underdevelopment (i.e., with Eritrean independence "Ethiopia became land-locked which retarded and strangled the economic progress of the country"). They raved on and on about Ethiopia's apparently God-given right to have access to the sea. (This must be a God-given right because their "strong historical arguments" purportedly upholding this right are chauvinist drivel.) And they called for more militarization.

. Thus in May 1998, frustrated with dealing with the Eritrean government on economic issues, and with the border issue evolved into a crisis, the TPLF went back to its old chauvinism, knowing that it could count on the main bourgeois opposition to support war. Initially, it may have been unsure as to its exact war-aims. But as the war developed, it became clear that it had seized on the opportunity presented by the border crisis to organize a war aimed at least at grabbing the port of Assab if it couldn't smash the Eritrean government and install a puppet regime. Its minimum objective was to grab all disputed territory by force. The unfolding of the war supports this thesis.

The unfolding of the war

. The war began with border skirmishes and air strikes by both sides. In June 1998 the Clinton administration brokered a moratorium on the air strikes but the Ethiopian government "reserved the right" to end it whenever it decided the so-called peace process was failing. In other words it "reserved the right" to unilaterally violate it. During the rest of 1998 the Eritrean side dug in in several of the border territories it claimed (plus some strategic areas across the border), while both sides continued sending troops and tanks to the front. There were also mobile movements and counter-movements around the route to Assab.

. Meanwhile diplomacy continued. But in September the Ethiopian president (Negaso Gidada) had declared "The use of force will come at the time when the government believes is right. . . .", and in February 1999 his government decided that time had arrived. It told some lies about the Eritrean government "bombing first" as a pretext for sending its jet-fighters back into action and throwing huge numbers of troops and tanks at the Eritrean army which it had promised to "rout". Besides killing tens of thousands of fighters on both sides, this accomplished nothing insofar as "liberating" disputed territory. Of course since Ethiopia is a bigger country with a bigger army its government could afford to plow more soldiers into the sand to "defend" its "national sovereignty" (a few hundred square miles which might not even belong to it). Thus it began mobilizing even more soldiers for the front, stepped up its armaments shopping, brought in advisors, etc.

. The Eritrean armed forces had held the line in the February 1999 fighting, and later in the month the government accepted the OAU cessation of hostilities proposal in its entirety. The proposal called for mutual redeployment of troops from the disputed border areas, boundary demarcation by an international team, third-party oversight, assessment of fault in the May 6, 1998 incident, reparations, etc. (Not radically different in its main outlines from the Eritrean proposal of June 1998.) However the Ethiopian government stalled and prevaricated in meeting after meeting of international officials. For domestic consumption it painted itself as standing up to imperialism by doing propaganda along the lines that U.S., British and other imperialists would be intervening on the Horn of Africa in the guise of peace-keepers but really following their own agenda and favoring the Eritrean side. (True, the imperialists would follow their own agenda, but this agenda didn't include favoring the Eritrean government and the Ethiopian government knew it.) It said it "agreed with" or "accepted" one modified proposal after another, but it would sign nothing. It dragged the discussion of technical details out for months on end. It said it agreed with 95% of the proposal, and the Eritrean officials said "O.K., sign the 95%". It wouldn't. And on May 12, 2000 it gave lie to all its peace platitudes by launching a huge attack, overrunning Eritrean lines and invading the country.

. Thus the Ethiopian government's war aims were again exposed as being bigger than achieving a border settlement. An "authoritative" framework for settling the border dispute (e.g., one not proposed by the Eritreans) had been there with the other side agreeing to it since Feb. 1999. The Ethiopian side was after much more.

. In the first days of their May-June offensive, the Ethiopian armed forces overran Eritrean positions all along the front and forced the Eritrean side into chaotic retreats. On the radio and in its press statements, the Ethiopian government crowed on and on about "routs", "fleeing Eritrean soldiers", etc. If one believed the Ethiopian war propagandists, it was clear that the Ethiopian forces would very shortly be in Asmara (the Eritrean capital). But the Eritrean forces were able to regroup, fight back, and begin taking ground back. In early June the Ethiopian forces appear to have been stuck in several places across the breadth of Eritrea. The Ethiopian government and general staff then opted for their fall-back objective of seizing strategically vulnerable Assab. Several divisions were poured into this front, but their June 9-10 attack got them nowhere (nowhere other than ploughing up to 10,000 more soldiers into the ground, according to Eritrean sources). So now, foiled in achieving objective number two, the Ethiopian government pursued its minimum objective by presenting the Eritrean government and OAU with a fait accompli: Ethiopian-occupied Eritrean territory. If the Eritrean government was going to get peace it was going to have to bow to certain new Ethiopian demands. Already, during the fighting, it had bowed to the demand made through the OAU that it redeploy its forces from the Bada and Burrie areas, areas which had never been part of the border dispute. Now it had to accept a 25-mile "temporary security zone" which was all in its own undisputed territory. (The long and narrow shape of Eritrea and the way it configures with Ethiopia means that this zone comprises a considerable part of the country.)


. So on June 13 the cessation of hostilities documents to this effect were signed, and on June 18 the cease-fire officially began. Based on the invasion of Eritrea, the annihilation of many Eritrean men and women fighters, and the fact of the "temporary security zone" in Eritrean territory, the Ethiopian government could proclaim a big victory to its fellow chauvinists at home; and based on the fact that it had signed a peace document it could go before the international donor community and demand that more than $1 billion in funds (its own figure) be unfrozen, could demand it be given debt relief, another IMF package, etc. It would then go back to its old game of stalling, making new demands, trying to get out of its words of "agreement", etc.,--but this time words it had committed itself to on paper.

. Thus in July the Ethiopian representatives went to the semi-proximity talks held to consider technical matters regarding the final boundary demarcation with an agenda which would have overthrown what their government had agreed to when it signed the OAU documents in June. Since for more than two years the Ethiopian side had been yelling that it was being encroached upon by the terrible Eritrean expansionists, logic would say that the Ethiopian government would want to rapidly move ahead and get the U.N. border-demarcation team into the field. But no, it wanted the border question settled by arbitration. Apparently it fears that the U.N. land-survey will show that Eritreans were not encroaching, and perhaps that Ethiopians were.

. Also during the summer it worked to inflame domestic opinion against the Eritrean government--especially with hypocritical shrieks about the treatment of Ethiopian residents of Eritrea. On August 11 the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry threatened the Eritrean government with "grave consequences" on this question.

. In September Meles Zenawi went to the United States parading as a man of peace, so peaceful in fact that he was now talking about a "comprehensive peace treaty". But his grandiose talk just skipped over the small matter of implementing the OAU cessation of hostilities provisions: troop withdrawal, border demarcation, determination of which side was at fault in the May 6, 1998 incident, reparations.

. In January 2001, even though the Ethiopian government had now signed a comprehensive agreement and co-operated with the UNMEE forces, it still was using its occupation of parts of the temporary security zone as a bargaining chip to win acceptance that Badme, Zalambessa, and Badda were uncontested Ethiopian territory before the war began. Rather than wait for the UN cartographical unit to do its work, it "warned" that it wouldn't withdraw from the TSZ if these places were included in it.

. In late February the Ethiopian government crowed that it had completely withdrawn from the proposed Temporary Security Zone ahead of schedule. UNMEE verified this on March 7. Then on March 15 a UNMEE patrol discovered 3 companies of Ethiopian soldiers 6 kilometers inside the zone. The UNMEE Forces Commander protested and on March 22 asked that the forces be withdrawn. The Ethiopian authorities refused (while also acknowledging that the area had not been included in the redeployment plans they'd previously given to UNMEE).

. On March 23 the Ethiopian government failed to deliver minefield information as it had agreed to do. First it said it had laid no mines, then it said it had kept no maps. (With one exception, the Eritrean side has stuck to OAU/UN agreement. This is that it halted its required troop rearrangement for over a month because of an error in a UNMEE-translated map. In mid-April it did complete this requirement.)

. Meanwhile, in mid-March U.N. officials had to admit that the Temporary Security Zone hadn't been established during the time-period they had set out. So on the 15th the Security Council extended the UNMEE mandate for 6 more months. Finally, on April 18 the zone was declared as established. Yet it seems that the U.N. is once again appeasing Ethiopia. The mine information has still not been turned over in late April, and some Ethiopian troops remain in the TSZ! This while Eritrean police, militia and civilian authorities take over administrative duties and the displaced population returns.

. This brings us to the predicament the Ethiopian regime has been in: It agreed to withdraw from the twenty-five mile TSZ, and, depending on the results obtained by the U.N. cartographers, it may have to abandon some territory it previously claimed as sovereign. More, according to the OAU/UN agreement it could even be assessed with reparations. It then winds up with nothing (or less than nothing) to show for its war--a war which it touted as being a glorious victory. If that happens, the TPLF's Amhara-chauvinist opponents are sure to turn up the audio.

. No doubt this predicament has put a lot of pressure on the regime. It may also be at root of the major split which occurred in the top leadership of the TPLF in the last weeks of March.

Western culpability in the war

. The ruling Ethiopian politicians (or ruling Eritrean politicians for that matter) like to posture before the people as independent, or even as big anti-imperialist fighters--but in reality their country is tied to imperialism by a thousand threads. More, the Ethiopian bourgeoisie and imperialist bourgeoisie of the rich countries share common fundamental interests: further capitalist development of the country (or the expansion of capitalist exploitation and oppression of people, and further wrecking of the earth). And the common drive to maximize profits on this basis forces them into each others' arms, into an alliance--unequal as it may be. Naturally there's a many-sided struggle over prerogatives in this alliance by both sides, but it remains an alliance nonetheless. Along with this economic alliance has developed a military and political alliance, again based on shared interests.

. The first point on this is that before the war U.S. imperialism had been arming both sides for a number of years in its "strategic" interests. So had the French, Italian, Israeli, several East European, and some other imperialists. For its part, the U.S. government sees the Sudanese regime to the west as a threat to U.S. monopoly capitalist interests and has opted to build up the military machines of Ethiopia and Eritrea to counter it. Another strategic concern is controlling the shores of the Red Sea. Hence, after the EPLF had taken power, and after the U.S. was left without allies in the region strong enough to reverse this, a friendly policy toward the Eritrean regime was adopted. Finally, in general, U.S. imperialism would like to use the Ethiopian regime as its top cop in the region (similar to the days when it built up the armed forces of Haile Selassie).

. The second point is that the U.S. and other imperialists also armed both sides for no other motive than money-making.

. The third point is that the dominant imperialist powers appeased the Ethiopian government and continued to arm it when it was clearly preparing a war of revenge, i.e., after the Eritrean government's declared acceptance of the OAU's cessation of hostilities proposal in February 1999. This took the form of the U.S. facilitators in particular repeatedly going along with (and objectively siding with) the many ruses the Ethiopian government put forward for not agreeing to a cease-fire. It also took the form of the U.S. and other big powers doing absolutely nothing when Ethiopia violated the moratorium on air strikes.

. In May 2000 it was reported in the New York Times and elsewhere that Meles Zenawi boasted to the French ambassador that he planned to "get a quick return on his investment" in military hardware (paid for through loans and diverted famine-relief funds) very shortly before he restarted the war. The French ambassador expressed "shock". Why he would have been shocked is a question we can't answer. But to an ordinary mortal who had any familiarity with the Ethiopian bourgeoisie it would be pretty plain that Meles had been shopping for arms with the intent of using them, and that appeasement of the Ethiopian government's delaying tactics and other actions would only embolden it. It understood well enough that large Ethiopia was considered important by the strategic planners of the imperialist countries whereas much smaller (and perhaps not so trustworthy) Eritrea was considered expendable. It knew it could invade its neighbor and suffer few major consequences from the rich and powerful countries. Only after the assault was begun were arms shipments cut off by the UN Security Council--a little late and, since arms were also cut off to smaller and weaker Eritrea, a decision which no doubt worked in Ethiopia's favor.

Building an independent trend of the Eritrean workers

. To defend their class interests the Eritrean workers must resist the effects of the capitalist system presided over by the EPLF/PFDJ. They have the legal right to organize and strike, but the erroneous idea that they shouldn't demand much or it will undermine the new nation (or harm the well-being of "the people") etc., is spread among them by EPLF trade union officials. The latter also depend on bureaucratic red tape to hold the workers back from open struggles. Thus part of building an independent trend of the Eritrean working class is struggling against the ideas and policies of the EPLF in the trade union struggle.

. To defend their class interests the Eritrean workers must also get active in the struggle for democracy. Today the regime relies more on nationalist intimidation (plus co-optation) to subtly smother opposition than extra-legal and murderous ways. But it has at times used extra-legal measures against opponents and everyone knows it. So far, to our knowledge, the most extreme instances of this have been against members of reactionary organizations which have taken up arms against the government. But ordinary journalists have at times been arrested on trumped-up charges. Moreover, what happens, when progressive movements of the workers or other toilers begin to seriously threaten the profits of the Eritrean capitalists (including state-capitalists)? Other bourgeois-nationalist regimes have resorted to the club and there is no reason to think that the EPLF will act differently. In Part I we gave an example of the EPLF's anti-democratic attitude toward progressive opponents even during the days of the national liberation war. It still fears democratic ferment and discussion. Nevertheless, under domestic and international pressures, ten years after liberating the country it's finally going to organize elections (this December). This is a new arena calling for the conscious and organized struggle of the working class.

. To defend their class interests in the present conditions the Eritrean workers must also defend Eritrea's right to be independent. The Eritrean regime represents exploitation and oppression, but Ethiopian Colonial Administration II would be much much worse. A real working-class policy would radically differ from that pursued by the EPLF, however. The workers wouldn't forego the economic and political demands of their class because the nation was threatened, for example. More, it would be centered on forging unity with the workers and other toilers in Ethiopia and throughout the region. For the Eritrean workers the right of self-determination and independence is important as a necessary step in order to reunite with the Ethiopian and other workers, this time on the basis of equality.

. The building up of precisely a class movement such as this, and a movement independent of the bourgeoisie and the traditional nationalist illusions, is what will ultimately restore a revolutionary movement in Eritrea, a proletarian internationalist movement.

. In contrast to this, the EPLF's standpoint during the 1998-2000 war was nationalist rather than proletarian internationalist. This gave rise to some interesting results. In its appeals to the Ethiopian people the EPLF suddenly "discovered" that the root cause of the war (and of the suffering of the people) was that Ethiopia had a "TPLF minority-led regime" (minority in the sense of ethnicity or nationality, not in the sense that it's a government of the bourgeoisie, however divided it may be, a class comprising a small percentage of the population). It couldn't say that behind the Ethiopian aggression stood the Ethiopian bourgeoisie (presently dominated by Tigrayans, certainly, but enthusiastically egged on in the war by the Amhara bourgeoisie and others). Such talk might have helped stir anti-capitalist sentiments in Ethiopia and at home--something it fears. Moreover, this nationalist approach left the EPLF leaders voiceless when it came to the very important question of addressing the people of Tigray (which is right across the border and is where most of the Ethiopian war was being launched from). Telling a Tigrayan worker or farmer that the problems in the country and cause of the war is that the national government is stacked with Tigrayans might bring down charges that you're a racist or chauvinist. But if patient, the worker or farmer might ask "didn't the TPLF march on Addis Ababa, with you as our ally, and overthrow the Derg? Wasn't that something all progressive Ethiopians needed and wanted? Further, wasn't it just yesterday that you were telling us that this was a good regime? Besides, we Tigrayans represent a small percentage of Ethiopia's 65 million people. How could have a TPLF dictatorship existed all these years?"

. A proletarian internationalist approach would have stressed that the TPLF represented Tigrayan capitalism, a force which exploits and oppresses the masses of Tigrayans, and a force which uses them as cannon-fodder in reactionary-nationalist wars meant to achieve its exploitative class aims. It would also have pointed out that the TPLF-led regime is based on a system of alliances with capitalists of other nationalities (cemented into the EPRDF). Without these alliances it couldn't have ruled for the past ten years; and based on these alliances it was now waging a war which every member of the alliance hoped to gain something from . . . and which the masses of Ethiopians would get nothing but suffering from.

The situation confronting the Ethiopian workers

. The Ethiopian workers live in the poorest country on earth, a country from which thousands migrate each month, a country where hunger and starvation constantly stalk the land. The TPLF/EPRDF is merely following in the footsteps of the overthrown regimes of Haile Selassie and the Derg in being a regime of starvation, e.g., it financed a chauvinist war, and now finances a new war build-up, while people literally starve. (Thank the rains, not the government, that this year is better than the past two years in that "only" a few million people are considered "at risk" of starving.) So much for how much the chauvinists really care about the Ethiopian masses! Moreover, the Ethiopian workers live in a country where journalists critical of the regime are constantly being imprisoned, where many political organizations are outlawed and violently suppressed, where torture and murder of opponents to the regime is common, and where hell-hole prisons are overflowing with political prisoners. For the masses of people the democratic rights and protections of the constitution are only a bitter joke.

. Another important situation confronting the Ethiopian working class is that one of the first acts of the TPLF/EPRDF was to reorganize the Ethiopian administrative system from one based on the arbitrary territorial divisions of the feudal state to one based on territories populated by particular nationalities (the 9 regional states).

. Even though the TPLF originated this reform doesn't mean the act itself is reactionary and should be condemned. It has problems like some nationalities being lumped together with others but the form is democratic. It facilitates the people of a regional state being able to exercise their right to national self-determination (which must be connected to a definite territory). It also may facilitate the bringing into sharper focus the class contradictions between the bourgeois officials of a regional state and the masses of people of a particular nationality. The issue is that the TPLF favored this reform but turned around to practice national oppression in new ways than had been done by the previous regimes. This oppression has given rise to national resistance in many forms, including armed struggle.

. The Amhara bourgeoisie, which greatly fears the fracturing of Ethiopia into several states, turns this on its head. According to it, the regional-state reform itself is the cause of what it conveniently calls the "ethnic strife" in the country. It thereby covers up the fact that national oppression is at root of this. Allegedly, if we went back to the old system then we wouldn't have this "ethnic strife". Curiously enough though, under the old administrative system the TPLF, Oromo Liberation Front and many other nationality-based organizations, in alliance with the EPLF, rose up with guns to topple the Derg. This is because the old system was erected on national oppression and therefore didn't stop what the Amhara bourgeoisie calls "ethnic strife" at all. But the class interests of the Ethiopian toilers demand continued struggle against national oppression, now orchestrated by the TPLF/EPRDF, however. And if national equality can only be achieved through the breaking up of the present Ethiopian state, that's preferable to endless oppression as the Tigrayan, Amhara, or other chauvinists vie to dominate everyone else.

. In the face of all this (and more) the Ethiopian working class lives and struggles nonetheless. This year, for example, construction workers in and around the capital have launched a series of strikes which continue as of this writing. Such struggles ensure that the workers have some kind of future. Yet for that to be a really liberated future, the workers have to begin to build class-wide movements around not only their economic demands, but also around such political questions as the wars and national oppression led by their exploiters. Politics inevitably raise the question of who should have political power, who should rule. We'll therefore end these brief comments on the situation confronting the Ethiopian workers with comments concerning some political trends presently waging struggles for power.

. The seizure of power by the Amhara bourgeoisie or some other bourgeois faction wouldn't benefit the masses or bring peace. Enough has been said about them above. Another oppositional force, however, is the widely-known Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP). The latter is repressed, its members are "disappeared" or imprisoned when captured, and it says it is fighting for a people's democracy. We denounce the savagery the regime practices against the EPRP, but if the workers and exploited peasants are to develop their own political trend they must nonetheless oppose the politics of this party which has betrayed its revolutionary past. More, a short review of the history of this party reveals important lessons for Ethiopian revolutionaries today.

. The EPRP was founded in 1972. Its journal Democracia quickly became very influential among the revolutionary youth and students of that generation. It played an important role in both the February 1974 revolution which toppled the feudal state and during the first years of struggle against the military dictatorship (the Derg) which grabbed power.

. During those years the EPRP came forward to openly champion the causes of the workers and peasants, and it raised the banner of Marxism-Leninism. From this standpoint it rallied many thousands of Ethiopians to support the right of the Eritrean people to self-determination. Thus one of the things it showed through its work--underground, then above ground, then underground again--was that the struggle to uphold the right of the Eritrean people to self-determination would find an echo in Ethiopian society, e.g., among the oppressed workers, peasants, students and youth. This demonstration of proletarian internationalism astonished Haile Selassie's regime, and continued to astonish the Derg during its first years. Today, when both the government and the main bourgeois opposition have fanned up a stinking storm of Ethiopian chauvinism, recollection of this past experience should give Ethiopian revolutionaries confidence that an internationalist appeal defending the right of the Eritrean people to remain independent will find an echo among the masses.

. Today the EPRP leaders allude to "many mistakes" the party made in its early years. Without a doubt this demonstration of proletarian internationalism is considered one of these. Nor was it a mistake, in fact it was to its great credit, that the EPRP repeatedly exposed the ugly features of the pro-Soviet revisionist trend called Meison. (This group strove to line up mass support for the Derg, egged on the crushing of the revolutionary left, etc., with pseudo-Marxist phrases. The Derg used it to gain mass support as well as to confuse and split the genuine left. For its part, Meison sought positions as a civilian face for the junta.) The EPRP couldn't have survived and advanced as an independent political trend without exposing and practically opposing the fake Marxism of this and other trends. But its anti-revisionism was hampered by fashionable ideas, particularly Maoist ideas, and under conditions of terror it abandoned anti-revisionism altogether (which went hand in hand with abandoning proletarian internationalism). This giving up of the struggle against revisionism led what had been the revolutionary party of a revolutionary generation to rapid decay and death as a force embodying the revolutionary interests of the workers.

. Thus throughout the '80s and '90s the EPRP opportunistically maneuvered to form alliances with one rotten political force after another. It even allied with the Derg in its death-bed struggle against the armies of the TPLF/EPRDF and EPLF. Today its leaders spit on their own early history and thereby spit on the graves of the thousands of young people who were gunned down in the '70s with the proletarian internationalist slogans of the EPRP on their lips and in their hearts. It's led by chauvinists who parade themselves as being more nationalist than the government itself. It holds that Eritrea was never a colony of Ethiopia and that Eritrean independence is "illegal". When the border dispute first became public knowledge, it proclaimed that "Meles must not be allowed to hijack the anti-EPLF campaign" and publicly allied itself with the ultra-chauvinists in the TPLF who, unlike Meles, had never dropped their ranting against Eritrean independence. It politically allied itself with the Amhara chauvinists when it said that Meles "put the interests of Eritrea well ahead of Ethiopia's" and complained about Eritreans having some well-paying jobs in the Ethiopian civil service. When the war developed in earnest, it released a statement "condemn(ing) in the strongest terms the (Eritrean) aggression which is real and that is wreaking havoc" while accusing Meles of shedding "national interests" in his secret talks with the U.S., U.N., etc. And at the war's end it allied with Meles' justification campaign for a new war by writing its own article denouncing treatment of Ethiopians in Eritrea while sloughing over the treatment meted out to Eritreans in Ethiopia.

. So in 1998-2000 the EPRP added its voice to the war-mongering of the chauvinist bourgeoisie as a whole, and in particular it united with the Amhara bourgeois faction in complaining that the government wasn't fighting hard enough for Ethiopian interests. But after adding its voice to the anti-Eritrean crusade in this way, the EPRP (sometimes) turned around to denounce the war as "useless". But this only means it agreed with the fundamental chauvinist aims of the government but differed in some way on how they should be achieved. On domestic policy, the EPRP decries the recurring famines but can only suggest more privatization in the countryside as being the solution. It also decries the lack of democratic rights under the TPLF-led regime and says it's fighting for a "people's democracy". The Ethiopian masses certainly want and need democracy. And the term people's democracy implies a society where the majority of the people (in this case workers and peasants--and predominantly peasants) are conscious, organized and active enough to dominate the politics of the country. But this requires a stern class struggle of the oppressed, something the EPRP gave up on many years ago.

. Another important oppositional force is the nationalist organizations: the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Sidama Liberation Front (SLF), several Afars groups, and others. They're waging armed struggle against the regime. Some have also published their programs and other documents on the Internet. Our trend, however, knows little of their actual policies and practice. Thus, although it's in the obvious interests of the workers to fight national and ethnic oppression in order to unify their ranks and prepare themselves for their own liberation, we can say little regarding the attitude which should be taken these particular groups. The decisive thing though is that the workers organize and struggle around their own independent program. A proof of this, as discussed in Part I, is what happened when the nationalist TPLF and EPLF gained power.

The path toward an enduring peace

. For there to be a lasting and democratic peace on the Horn of Africa a new class, the proletariat, has to come to ultimately come to power. The proletariat has no way of living other than selling away its precious mental and physical capacities to exploiting capital. It owns no means of production, no means by which to exploit the labor of others, and, therefore, has no interest in an exploitative and oppressive system---the driving force of national oppression and war.

. The path to power is going to be a long one, however. On the Horn the working class is small in numbers. The overwhelming majority of the people are peasants. The peasantry includes a whole section which not only owns means of production, but uses it to exploit the labor of others, a section which is driven by the laws of capitalism to expand operations at the expense of neighbors, etc., and which successfully does so. These rich peasants (in a relative sense) form a crucial social support for the regimes as well as for the bourgeois oppositions. In Ethiopia, this includes support for the chauvinist parties of the big bourgeoisie.

. But another section of the peasantry doesn't have such a stake in maintenance of the exploitative status quo. These poor peasants don't have the means through which to exploit the labor of others. They're used and abused in their dealings with their richer brethren. They're starved out in their efforts to wring a living from the soil. They walk miles to seek new lives in the cities (where many eventually become proletarians). And, in Ethiopia, they're used as cannon-fodder in the chauvinist wars of the exploiters. This mass of humanity therefore forms a potentially powerful ally of the working class. To cement a real alliance the proletariat needs to develop its independent politics and organization. The poor peasants must see an inspiring new force coming into being which is fighting for ideas and demands which they too can heartily support.

. The first step on the path toward an enduring peace on the Horn of Africa therefore remains building an independent trend of the working class in the countries there.

Latest developments

. As this article is being finished we've been reading reports from Addis Ababa which underscore what a bitter joke Ethiopian "democracy" is. Briefly summarized they run as follows:

. Students at Addis Ababa University had been peacefully boycotting classes to protest the suppression of the student newspaper and disbanding of the student council last fall. They were also opposed to a police station being on campus. On April 11, as student representatives were in a discussion with the AAU Vice-President, a police "special force" stormed campus firing live ammunition and brutally clubbing students. At least one student was killed and scores were wounded.

. During the next few days students at other universities as well as high-school students organized peaceful protests in support of the AAU students. These protests began to move off the campuses and were joined by the masses in the streets.

. On April 16 a student who had been active organizing one of these support protests was found shot dead on a river bank. This was followed by a major protest in the streets of the capital the next day. The masses attacked government buildings, liberated goods from shops, etc. The federal police shot many people dead and wounded hundreds.

. On the 18th the government closed Addis Ababa University. The masses rose up all over the city. Government vehicles were torched everywhere and more government buildings attacked. There was continuing liberating of goods by the people, many of whom are poor and unemployed. The police were firing automatic rifles far into the night.

. There are no casualty figures, and the government is not going to release any honest ones. Already, before the 18th, there were "missing" students. Now, no doubt, there will be hundreds of "missing" people. Amnesty International's first report said 41 people were killed. The Ethiopian Democratic Party is saying 200 people were killed on the 17th and 18th , and many hundreds wounded. It also says 100 of its members were arrested and their whereabouts are unknown. The Addis Daily Monitor says 2,300 people are being detained at a prison camp 38 kilometers out of town.

. Besides gunning people down in the streets the government has resorted to other repressive measures. Beginning on the 18th, it prevented vendors from distributing private newspapers and detained many. On the 21st it apparently released most of these after they promised to stop vending papers. On the 23rd it "reopened" Addis Ababa University, but very few students showed up. And no wonder! Before getting back into school the students first have to go through two days of "formalities". The latter can be nothing but some kind of Gestapo inquisition. The security police have also put out a "wanted" list of students the government is searching for.

. So it seems, dear reader, that the TPLF/EPRDF is digging its own grave ever deeper. Unfortunately, only the parties of the right are being mentioned as active in the streets on the 17th and 18th. And many of these are attacking the ordinary people who rose up as "hooligans". This only presses home the need for the workers and other oppressed people to build a political trend independent of the chauvinist bourgeoisie. <>


(1) Available at the pro-Eritrean Eritrea-Ethiopia Conflict Info Site at and also at the pro-Ethiopian Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict WebPage at http://www/ (Return to text)

(2) See, for example, Genesis of the Border Conflict by Tekie Fezzehazion or The Cause of the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border Conflict by Alemseged Tesfai. Both are available online at the Eritrea-Ethiopia Info Site at (Text)

(3) Seigniorage is the difference between the cost of bullion plus minting expenses and the value as money of the paper printed (or metal coined). It is a source of government and/or national bank revenue. (Text)

(4) The Eritrean economist Gebremichael Mengistu's Do Ethiopia's Recent Claims and Allegations on the Economic Relationship That Existed Between Eritrea and Ethiopia Hold Water? deals with the port and other economic issues in some detail (available at the Eritrea-Ethiopia Info Site at This writer has seen no serious refutations of the basic facts in this article by defenders of the Ethiopian regime. Instead what one finds are the kind of inflammatory absurdities Mr. Mengistu takes up cudgels against. (Text)

Sidebar: Background on Ethiopia and Eritrea

. Eritrea and Ethiopia share the Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa) with Djibouti and Somalia. Sudan is to the west and Kenya to the south. On the north Eritrea is bordered by a long stretch of the Red Sea whereas Ethiopia is landlocked. Both are very poor countries.

. Until 1974 Ethiopia was a feudal empire consisting of many nationalities: Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan, Sidamo, Somali, Shankella, Afars, Gurage, and others. The traditional ruling class came from the Amharas, although at times Tigrayans also led the empire. The masses of these two nationalities were exploited and oppressed by their rulers while the peoples of the other nationalities suffered the double yoke of both class and national oppression.

. For nine-tenths of the past century Eritrea existed as a colony of first Italy (until the end of World War II) and then Ethiopia. It too is peopled by several nationalities, but not having the history of oppressor and oppressed domestic nationalities which Ethiopia does, the relations between them are considerably different.

Some important dates:

. 1961--The armed phase of the Eritrean national liberation war is launched by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).

. 1970--The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) is founded. It is more democratic and uncompromising than the ELF and rapidly becomes the main force of the liberation war.

. 1973--The Tigray People's Liberation Front is founded in Tigray based on a Tigrayan-nationalist program.

. 1974--In February the feudal state is overthrown by the combined blows of peasant rebellions, leftist student, youth and intellectual-led struggles in the capital (Addis Ababa), and finally, a decisive revolt by junior military officers. The latter turn on the left, and then on the masses. At home they set up a military dictatorship (called the Derg) under which the Amhara bourgeoisie enjoys a privileged position. Abroad they switch from an alliance with U.S. imperialism to an alliance with Soviet social-imperialism.

. 1991--The EPLF completes the liberation of Eritrea. The TPLF, in alliance with forces from other domestic nationalities as well as non-nationality-based democratic forces, and the EPLF, drive the Derg from power in July. The TPLF-led alliance (the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF) sets up a new government.

. 1993--Eritrea gains its internationally-recognized independence in a TPLF-backed referendum. The vote is 98.8% in favor of separation.

. 1998--The Ethiopian government uses the developing border disputes and economic contradictions it has with the Eritrean government as the pretext for launching a war to reverse Eritrean independence.

Governments and political parties:

. Until this year the EPLF has ruled through the People's Front for Democracy and Justice--the only officially recognized party. The rightist ELF (now split into four factions) and the Eritrean Islamic Jihad (also consisting of several factions) conduct sporadic armed actions to weaken the regime and some political propaganda. We know of no leftist parties. Democratic elections are supposed to take place in December.

. During its early years the TPLF/EPRDF undertook several democratic reforms. But by the time it got around to organizing elections it had begun to turn these inside out. Great things were said but nationalist parties that didn't agree to federalism a la the TPLF were outlawed. Other parties were outlawed. And some legal parties even had their members killed or imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Today the main oppositions consist of several illegal nationalist parties (OLF, ONLF, SLF, etc.) and the parties of the Amhara-chauvinist bourgeoisie (which include the constitutional-monarchist party). The latter include legal, semi-legal, and illegal parties. <>

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Last modified: June 25, 2002.