Politics is science. Not exact science but still science. In science and mathematics, if you collect a lot of data and analyze your data with meticulous attention to each and every detail, you will see a pattern emerging. If you observe and study the pattern, you can come-up with a working formula that won’t fail you. And if you can come-up with a working formula, you can predict the future with absolute certainty or close to it. And Eritrean politics could not be any different. And let’s see why:
A Winning Political Formula – A Strong Regional Power Base With National Message That Goes Far And Beyond Any Single Ethnic Or Faith
We Eritreans have enough data accumulated in the past six decades to study the cause-effect relationship of our past politics. We have seen boom, gloom and doom of many political organizations. By now, we should be able to know why political organizations mushroom and fail in Eritrean politics. If we paid close attention to the sequence of events of our past politics and connect the dots, there is definitely a clear pattern that can’t be missed. And if we analyze the pattern, the winning political formula is there for you to see. In Eritrea, there are at least four possible winning political strategies (formulas) predicated on a strong regional base that will allow any political party to win and govern effectively.
Remember, like any politics at home (EPLF/PFDJ) or abroad, in order to win and govern, you don’t need absolute support of all citizens. All you need is the support of the majority of the population. And you can achieve the support of the majority using different base combinations. Knowing you don’t have broad mandate to govern your way, you can win and govern effectively by compromising and sharing power with other political forces.
The idea of a winning political formula predicated on a strong regional base that has a National Message with broad public appeal that could spread into all ethnics and regions, is a lightning-rod argument that defies the old political preaching that we are accustomed to. But if we examine our past, our political preaching and our political reality on the ground were never inline. Though it is bold argument, there is a marvel to this lightning rod argument. And this is the beauty of it – by examining our past, new political thinking will reign and we will all learn to accept:
- All politics are local and no ethnic group or faith is monolithic
- Religious and ethnic politics as an agent of positive change and as a tool for an effective governing, stability and prosperity is a waste of time
- Positive change comes only as a result of Home Grown Alliance; not as a result of Brain Transplant. Transplanted brain is prone to rejection by the body in an instant. Even if it is not rejected in an instant, it sure will be on life support. There is no record of a body with Brain Transplant walking and thinking straight on its own; ever. Believing otherwise is an illusion.
- Whenever there is a change in government, we will know in a split second who is most likely to be happy and who is not.
Knowing who will be happy and who will be nervous is an important barometer to identify, who is most likely to support the new government and who is most likely to be in the opposition. Knowing supporters and opponents, and knowing why they behave the way they do, the winner will prepare itself and the Nation how to assure and accommodate the communities on the other side of the isle; so the Nation can have peaceful and smooth transition of power.
But before we jump into it, let’s go back in history and explore what political formulas were used by ELF and EPLF to end-up where they are today. The objective is to bring to light the winning political formulas in bits and pieces combining with our past experience so we can test the odor of fumes. After this article and the one following it, there will be more than enough cues to the argument, everybody will very much know the Political Calculus (strategy) this writer is trying to convey. And finally, sometime in the future, complete analysis of different combinations of Winning Political Formulas will be argued. For now let’s move to part II of this article.
In part I of this article, we established the following statements as undisputable facts:
- Had ELF accommodated all Muslims of all Ethnics and regions, Tigrigna dominated organization in the field of Eritrea would have been just a pipedream.
- After 1967, due to Muslim mass exodus, Eritrean ethnic demography was completely altered never to be the same again.
- After 1978 forced recruitment was the norm on the two main fronts. Since Muslim fighters were 20% or less of the total fighting force on the main fronts, it is fair to assume the years before Eritrean independence, Muslim population in side Eritrea to have been 20% or less.
- Due to the ethnic reality on the ground, Tigrigna domination on all levels was inevitable if Eritrean Independence was ever going to be achieved.
Therefore, it seems ethnic Tigrigna domination on all levels of the revolution was, an open and shut case. But was it? No it wasn’t; it was more complicated and a lot harder than anyone would think.
Today’s Tigrigna dominated PFDJ/GOE is a simple derivative of Tigrigna dominated EPLF; that’s a no brainer. The thorny argument is how Tigrigna dominated EPLF made it to the top. Yes reality on the ground necessitated it; but since it wasn’t achieved through peaceful transition, when did ELF leaders had it wrong? What caused ELF to reduce itself from a lone dominant organization, into a weak vulnerable one that couldn’t defend itself? Which came first, the flow of young Tigrignas to Eritrean revolution at a record number or a promising organization that accommodated ethnic Tigrignas to play their role? Was Nehnan Elamanan written with an evil intent to dominate Eritrean Muslims? These and other questions are the argument of this article. Let’s roll:
Nehnan Elamanan Was ‘Never’ Written With an Evil Intent To Dominate Eritrean Muslims
Without a doubt, Nehnan Elamanan was never a cause but an effect. It was never a sinister action but a justified reaction. It was never unforeseen sudden bombshell that came out of the blue but a product of a looming mirage in the horizon that was burning hot at the ground level for a whole decade. It never started with an evil intent to dominate Muslims but with a simple resistance to change the status quo. Or simply Nehnan Elamanan was one of many Nehnan Elamanan manifestos from grieving fighters and communities that refused to accept the status quo. It was a product of the mistreatment and alienation of ethnic Tigrignas and other ethnics and regions by the leadership of ELF.
Make no mistake – it is too much credit to the few words of Nehnan Elamanan that were hardly circulated to the wider public, to rock and sink a ship. It is too much credit to the amateur content of Nehnan Elamanan, to initiate an avalanche that buried a vibrant ELF. It is too much credit to the amateur politics of Nehnan Elamanan that were read only by less than 0.01% of the population, to start a spark of raging fire that engulfed and consumed ELF. It is too much credit to the half dozen young men under twenty five years of age, who were spending most of their time hiding between two killer jaws to live to see another day, to make history by changing the course of history.
It is beyond any person’s comprehension the whole history of Nehnan Elamanan, ELF-PLF, EPLF, PFDJ and GOE, to be narrated, produced, directed and played by the whim of a single man or a single group. It is beyond any person’s comprehension, for an organization (Nehnan Elamanan) that owes its very existence to its camaraderie and strong coalition with Muslim organizations to have hatched with Anti Muslims Platform. It is beyond any person’s comprehension, for an organization that was breast fed, cuddled and sheltered by Muslims from a fragile egg to larva, to pupa and then into full fledged belligerent killer bee to have hatched as an Anti-Islam organization.
Listen, the authors of Nehnan Elamanan and their allies sparked a raging fire that consumed ELF simply because of, one and only one reason: they were serving the passion of a larger community that was marginalized by the leaders of ELF. More communities saw their dreams and aspirations in the leaders of Nehnan Elamanan than in the leaders of ELF. Anyone who argues otherwise is trying to reconcile two irreconcilable arguments. And these are the two irreconcilable arguments:
Argument #1. ELF was a better organization with wider public support than any other organization in the field.
Argument #2. ELF reduced itself from a lone dominant organization in the field, to a weak vulnerable organization that couldn’t defend itself. And finally it was defeated and fragmented into smaller irreconcilable organizations.
Well, there is no way on earth these two arguments could be both right. One of them is definitely wrong. Since ELF was defeated and it is fragmented into irreconcilable smaller organizations, then it must have been less popular than the organization of the authors of Nehnan Elamanan and their allies. Let’s face it, you can’t have wider public support than any other organization in the Eritrean Field, and at the same time keep shrinking in size and lose to a less popular organization. Without a doubt, the organization with the highest public support won. Let’s learn a lesson from history and move on.
Mind you, the argument is not what the authors of Nehnan Elamanan and their organization (EPLF/PFDJ/GOE) ended up to be. The argument is: did their grievance have any merit to it? Were the authors of Nehnan Elamanan justified to write their manifesto and create an alternative organization to ELF? Were the authors of Nehnan Elamanan more popular than ELF? Was their manifesto and organization driven by bigotry, enmity and evil intent to dominate Muslims? Please understand, don’t make your argument based on the current regime; base your argument as if we are in late 1960s and early 1970s. Let me make my point very clear. The Ethiopian Derg was a barbaric regime by any measure; but that doesn’t mean the rebellion by the Ethiopian people against the monarchy of Haile Selassie in 1974 was wrong. PFDJ government might be wrong for Eritrea; but the very reason to rise up against the leaders of ELF couldn’t be. I hope you got the idea.
I know for many people who are toiling in the opposition, the argument that, the authors of Nehnan Elamanan and their allies had wider public support than the leaders of ELF; is hard pill to swallow, but how else can you explain it?
For the sake of argument, let’s say the argument that, ‘the authors of Nehnan Elamanan and their allies were justified to form their organization and they were more popular than ELF leaders’ is a bogus argument. Then to make your case you don’t have any other choice but to choose one of these four arguments; and let’s see how you (the reader) fare on these arguments:
Argument #1. If your argument is, yes The Tigrigna Christians, The Tigres of Sahel and Semhar, The Afars and The Kunamas were mistreated by ELF leadership, then, they all had every right to form their own organization and fight the leadership of ELF to change the status quo. Since they had every right to organize and fight, ‘their manifestos’ (remember Nehnan Elamanan was one of many manifestos) could not be construed as an evil intent to dominate others; because doing so would be supporting the repressive ELF leadership, or simply it would be victimizing the victim.
Argument #2. If your argument is, yes The Tigrigna Christians, The Tigres of Semhar and Sahel, The Afars and The Kunamas were mistreated by ELF leaders, but they should have fought inside ELF and reformed ELF; well fine, but if that is a realistic fighting method, then, why are you in the business of opposition organizations? Why don’t you fight the PFDJ regime from Asmara and reform the government? Isn’t that hypocrisy? Aren’t you being dishonest?
Argument #3. If your argument is: you are just PFDJ franchises; you are the Opposition of the Opposition, you are a bigot, Ethnocentric, Exclusionist, Fascist, Neo-Nazi, Land-grabber, Supremacist, ZerE Shefatu….then you don’t have what it takes to make your case. Vilifying, name calling and labeling is not strength but a weakness; it is not self-confidence but self-doubt; it is not a solution but a problem. Whining and complaining is neither an alternative idea nor a vision. Counting and magnifying PFDJ mistakes and misdeeds day in and day out is not going to get the job done.
Blaming Nehnan Elamanan and its authors without addressing ELF mistakes and misdeeds is not sincere argument that will win you the hearts and minds of those who disagree with you. If all you got is fear mongering, demonizing and threatening, you’re not helping your cause. You are going to lose your case in the court of public opinion. And you will be insignificant. And I suppose that is not what you wanted. Or is it?
Argument #4. If your argument is, The Tigrigna Christians, The Tigres of Sahel and Semhar, The Afars and The Kunamas were not mistreated by ELF and they didn’t had any reason that justify splitting from ELF, well, I’m going to articulate to the best of my knowledge all the missed opportunities, mistakes and misdeeds that were done by ELF leaders, and please let’s challenge each other so we all can learn from our past.
But before we go to the mistakes, misdeeds and missed opportunities of ELF leaders, there are few points I want to make very clear; please allow me to explain my position on ELF and EPLF:
ELF And EPLF: Two Great Organizations That Stood For A Noble Cause
Again let me make myself very clear. I don’t want this article to be construed as an ELF bashing article. When I present the mistakes that were made by ELF leaders, I’m not into ELF bashing spree. I’m not into the business of discrediting the heroic accomplishments of ELF. I fully understand the difference between ELF and ELF leaders. I fully understand the difference between EPLF and EPLF leaders. And we all should as well.
The objective of this article is not to trash, vilify or demonize ELF. The objective of this article is not to compare ELF and EPLF and judge which one was the “right organization”. The objective of this article is not to incriminate ELF leaders and exonerate the leaders of EPLF from their past and present mistakes and misdeeds. The objective of this article is to articulate the series of mistakes, missteps and missed opportunities that were made by ELF leaders so we all can learn from our past; and hopefully, stop from repeating the same mistakes again. Yes mistakes that were impediment to our revolution’s smooth progress; yes mistakes that made us pay heavy price in time, sweat, blood, soul, treasure and hope.
As to incriminating leaders, I have said it before and I will say it a million times. Our leaders volunteered and gave everything they had and served their country and their people with courage and honor, the best they know how. Yes at a very young age without any rules or Laws to guide them. Accepting the principle of, ‘the best they know how’ is, the only bridge that will connect our political organizations that are at different wave lengths. That’s the only principle that will help us to sit, negotiate, and reach some consensus without being winners and losers. Accepting the principle of ‘the best they know how’ is the only venue that will spare us from sliding into a slippery slope.
Remember, leaders are in a position of power to lead for the common good, to the best of their knowledge. Leaders are in a position of power to make unpopular and controversial decisions. Leaders are not in a position of power to be liked by everybody. Our political organizations and our political leaders were not and are not enemies of each other. They are opponents of each other with different competing ideas for the common good. We’ve tried time and again, ‘every idea is bad idea but our idea’ approach for decades. We’ve tried ‘everyone who disagree with us is the enemy of Eritrea and should face justice (our justice)’, approach for decades. And look where we are today. It’s time to try something different: agreeing to disagree with respect and work for the common good.
Prosecuting, persecuting and lynching our leaders, is not the way to move forward. Immunity for all is the only way to move forward. History is the judge of all deeds; and let history judge our leaders. And let us exercise our rights of free speech and free press, and be the critics as we should.
Again, ELF and EPLF were and still are two noble organizations that stood for a noble cause. These great organizations were and still are, organizations made by larger than life heroes who sweat, bled and died for the love of their country and the love of their people. These organizations were and still are greater than any single person, any individual leader or any group of leaders.
The point: there is something the leaders of EPLF/PFDJ/GOE never seem to understand. When the leaders of ELF failed their organization, they didn’t just fail a great organization. They failed ethnics, regions and communities who believed and invested into an organization they loved and trusted the most. When any person disrespects ELF or EPLF for that matter, he/she is disrespecting the regions, ethnics and communities who paid heavy price with flesh and blood of their sons and daughters.
Listen, I don’t care who said what, unless we want to ‘learn our history’ from some “Tourists” who visited Eritrean field for few months and interviewed few people; unless we want to believe sensationalized shallow “history” written by some “Journalists” who wrote our “history” for their own reason; our history is very clear and simple. Our differences and our civil wars were never because of irreconcilable ideological differences; it was never about competence since all organizations had their strengths and weaknesses; it was never between educated and uneducated, it was never between brave men and cowards, it was never between ethnics; it was never between faiths. Like any other political competition in this planet, it was and still is a fight between competing regions and competing leaders with dominant personalities. Any person who thinks otherwise doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.
Yes sometimes it looks like it was between competing ethnics; but it never was. The reason why it looks like it was between competing ethnics is because, ethnics live inside regions. Within a region some ethnics are bigger and more dominant than others. And when regions compete, the dominant ethnic in the region carry’s the heavy load and becomes more visible, which gives the wrong impression to the regional competition.
One of the greatest mistakes of EPLF/PFDJ leaders is their relentless campaign to discredit and belittle ELF’s accomplishments. And by the same talking, one of the greatest mistakes of the ‘mirror image of the Higdefites’, (the ethnic and religious organizations at the opposition camp) is, their relentless campaign to discredit EPLF and its accomplishments. Take it from me, it never worked before and it will never work in the future; it can only add fuel to the fire.
I live in a country (USA) that went through devastating civil war that claimed the lives of 620,000 men some 150 years ago. Unlike Eritrea’s EPLF/PFDJ, while the war was still raging, Abraham Lincoln (the then president) nominated a vice president from the South (a region that was about to be defeated) to mend the rift that torn his Nation. A month after his inauguration speech for his second term, and six months before the complete defeat of the South, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; and his Southern Vice President (Andrew Johnson) was sworn as US president.
Well, after all the efforts made to heal the wounds, and after 150 long years, one would think the deep scar of the American Civil War is long forgotten. But it is not. It still is as sensitive as it was 150 years ago. The Southern pride is still alive and well. The Southern Flag (Confederate Flag) is still flying high in all Southern States.
And Eritrean civil war is no different. For the past four decades, EPLF/PFDJ/GOE has tried to discredit the accomplishments of ELF and the men and women who served in it. To this day, they haven’t changed a single person’s mind from the ELF camp. All this years, they were just talking to themselves. And without a doubt, it won’t be any different 150 years from now. Because when one pocks at ELF with a sharp needle, he/she is pocking the scared deep wounds of communities, ethnics and regions, who trusted and invested in ELF with sweat, blood, soul, treasure and hope.
Listen: you could deliver a speech that trash ELF heroic accomplishments to the people of Zager and surrounding villages in Karneshim, and may get a positive response to your speech; but if you deliver the same speech at Adi-NeAmn, Adi-Bidel or any Ansseba village in Western Hamassien (which is a few hours distance by foot), your audience will feel humiliated and disrespected to say the least. You could deliver a speech that ridicule ELF heroic accomplishments to the people of Hirgigo and may still receive a positive response from your audience, but if you give the same speech to the people of Mensura, your audience will feel disgusted as if someone was spitting on their face.
Again, you can trash EPLF heroic accomplishments in Eritrean refugee camps in the Sudan and may get positive response as a result of their despair, but if you give the same speech at any village in Karneshim who have paid more than their fair share or at GuraA (few kms from Dekemhare) which is believed to have paid a 1000 lives of its best young men and women during the liberation era, it definitely will feel to your audience as if an arrow was going through their hearts. And if one of your audiences happens to be the mother who lost her eight children to the war of independence, it will feel like a Bullet piercing through her brain; and she may not get up; because the shock is too much for her to absorb.
This is how much words hurt. This is the regional flavor to our past experience. And this is a reality the ‘PFDJ crazies’ and the Higdefite ‘mirror images’ at the opposition camp, never seem to understand.
Now let’s move to our main argument: When did ELF had it wrong?
The War Of Tigres And Its Unintended Consequence: Tigrigna Domination
In a nutshell ELF leaders failed their organization (ELF) because of two simple reasons:
- 1. They were hell bent to Empower Muslims by marginalizing non Muslims
- 2. They were determined ELF To Remain Western Tigre (Bin-Amer) dominated organization
ELF leaders firm belief on these two principles have been very costly. It claimed many lives, and it was great impediment to the progress of Eritrean revolution. It led to failure that ended up being very costly to the ethnics, regions and communities who trusted and invested dearly in ELF. It has been very costly to the Eritrean people as a whole. And sadly to this day, though not their fault, it has put our Western Tigre brothers (The Bin-Amer) at the short end of the stick.
Were ELF Leaders wrong? Yes, absolutely they were. They were wrong because they were unfair to the other ethnics and regions. And they were wrong because they had unrealistic ambition. For instance, if Western Tigres were 85% of the population, and if Eritrean Muslims were 98% of the population, then their vision would have been perfectly right. But Western Tigres are not the largest ethnic groups in Eritrea.
Therefore, their resolute determination to dominate Eritrean Revolution couldn’t have been right. But since they led the launching of ELF, they believed they had the mandate to dominate and lead. Their determination to dominate and have it their way, created a strong backlash from an early stage of the revolution. But the first large scale organized opposition to reform ELF didn’t happen until 1967. In 1967, under the leadership of Eastern Tigres (Red Sea Region), fighters from all grieving ethnics and regions stood-up and challenged the Western Tigre dominated leaders of ELF to reform the Revolution (ELF) and accommodate all ethnics and regions. And this is how the political showdown was shaped:
The Reform Movement And The War Of Tigres
To see clearly the Ethno-Regional-Politics of the playing field, let’s look at the Eritrean ethnic and regional makeup. By 1967, due to ELF misdeeds, ethnic Kunamas had already opted-out from the business of Eritrean Revolution and they were not players in the Reform Movement. With the Kunamas out of the ELF Reform business, the total ethnic population of all Western Eritrea (Western Tigres + Bilen + Hidareb + Nara) was about 20% of the total population. Total population of Kebessa Muslims and Christians (Tigrigna + Saho + Jeberti) was about 60% of the total population. And Eastern population (Eastern Tigres + Afar) constituted about 15% of the population. The Western Tigres, since they led the launching of ELF, they dominated ELF leadership from top to bottom. And with domination of power comes allocation of resources. Now let’s see how resources were allocated in the Field:
Western Divisions (Divisions one and two) were ethnic Bin-Amer and Bilen dominated divisions which administered the Barka and Senhit regions. These divisions were well represented in the highest leadership in Cairo (Supreme Council); they were well represented in Kessala (Kiada Al-Sewrya); and they had a strong army that was well armed and well financed in the Field.
The Red Sea Division (Division IV which was Eastern Sahel, Semhar and Denkalia division), was well represented in Cairo (Mejlis Al-AEla); it was well represented in Kessala (Revolutionary Leadership); and it was well armed and well financed in the Field.
The Kebessa Divisions (Divisions III and V) or the divisions of ethnic Tigrignas, Sahos and Jebertis were not represented in Cairo (Supreme Council), they were not well represented in Kessela (Revolutionary Leadership) and they were under-funded and under-armed in a hot hostile area. To run their daily business they had to make close connection with the Powerful Tigres of The East (Red Sea) or the powerful Tigres of The West (Barka) to get arms, finance and promotion. As expected, the grievance started with the least funded and least armed in a very hostile area: the ethnic Tigrignas and ethnic Sahos.
In the first five years of the revolution (1961-1966), ELF leaders inside and outside Eritrea made so many mistakes, in such short time, they completely lost the confidence of many ethnics and fighters. To correct the mistakes that were done by ELF leaders, and to reform the organization (ELF), fighters from the grieving ethnics (the Kebessa Divisions) had to align themselves with one of the powerful Tigres; otherwise their supply will be completely cut off and they will be crushed. In 1967 the Tigres of the East (Red Sea Division) rallied the grieving fighters (The Kebessa Divisions) and formed a Reform Movement (Harekat Al-Eslah) to reform the organization (ELF) and accommodate the grieving divisions and ethnics.
If we see at the Eastern Tigre Sponsored Reform Movement, its fighters and their constituents constituted over 70% of the Eritrean ethnic population (Eastern Tigres + Afar + Saho + Tigrigna and Jeberti). With the Kunamas out of the playing field, the math was not there for the Western Tigres Sponsored Coalition (Bin-Amer-Bilen Coalition) to prevail. Calculating the odds of their winning, the powerful Western Tigre Coalition refused to participate in the Reform Movement (1967 Eslah Movement).
But a little over a year later (late 1968), the tide started to change. The Sahos became the King Makers. Though still divided, the majority of the Sahos were persuaded to switch alliance and rally behind the Western Tigre Coalition. They did. And for switching side, though not on equal footing, but still, the Sahos were rewarded with:
- Ceremonial Chairmanship (presidency) at Adobha Conference (August, 1969)
- Hawkish Top Military Commanding Positions (Edarat Al-Askeria) to execute the Liquidation War (Tesfia) against the splinter groups (after ELF’s First National Congress; November, 1971)
- Another Ceremonial Chairmanship (presidency) for being good allies after ELF’s Second National Congress (June, 1975)
Well, with the Sahos aligning themselves with the Western Coalition and ethnic Tigrignas and Kunamas completely opted-out, the cohesion of the Eastern-Tigre Sponsored Reform Movement (Eslah) lost momentum and started crumbling. As that wasn’t bad enough, the powerful Western-Tigre Coalition penetrated the leadership of the Eastern-Tigre Reform Movement (Eslah) with an amazing skill and owned the Movement. With ethnic Tigrignas and ethnic Kunamas out of the equation, the Sahos aliening behind the Western-Tigre Coalition and the Eastern-Tigre Reform Movement leadership penetrated and owned by the Western-Tigre Coalition, the Western-Tigre Coalition victory seemed a sure thing. Smelling the aroma of victory, the Western-Tigre Coalition hijacked the Eastern-Tigre Reform Movement (Eslah) and headed to Adobaha for a Conference to consolidate and legitimize their power.
Since the odds of winning were not in their favour, the Eastern-Tigre Coalition, yes the very coalition who started the Reform Movement (Eslah) attended the Adobaha Conference hoping the Western-Tigre Coalition would do nothing but the right thing. Weighing their odds, and to send a message, some of the top leaders of the Eastern-Tigre Coalition even refused to participate at the Adobaha Conference and chose to wait and see the outcome of the Conference by sending their junior representatives.
The Adobaha Conference discussed all the issues and challenges that were facing the Revolution (ELF), and came out with impressive ultimate and immediate goals and objectives. To mention few:
- Adobaha Conference passed a resolution to dismantle the Ethnic Based Regional Divisions (Menatiq).
- Adobaha Conference passed a resolution to restructure the un-efficient organizational bureaucracy. All the Division Leaders in the Field, the Revolutionary leadership in Kessala, and the Supreme leadership in Cairo were all demoted and frozen.
- Adobaha Conference passed a resolution to have, one organization, one army, one leadership, all in the field of Eritrea.
- Adobaha Conference passed a resolution to apply different approach (positive approach) to resolve the grievances of ethnic Tigrignas and ethnic Kunamas.
After all the resolutions were passed, it was time to Nominate Leaders; and that ruined the whole progress. The Western-Tigre Coalition demanded 53% (20 0ut of 38) of the leaders to be from the Western-Tigre Coalition, and 47% to represent the rest of the ethnics and regions. And since the game was set at the preparatory committee, they never had any problem having it their way.
Starting right at Adobaha Conference, fighters from every ethnic and every region were infuriated. Everybody cried foul to the Western-Tigre Coalition demand. The problem was problem of ‘fair representation and proper accommodation’; but every fighter from every ethnic and every region with a grievance put a negative spin to the misrepresentation and formed their splinter groups.
- To the Conservative Tigres of Barka, their justification to form their organization (Obel) was, “because ELF was controlled by Bilen and the Communists had too much power and say in ELF”.
- To the ethnic Tigrignas who were hiding between Ala and RiEsi-Addi writing their Nehnan Elamanan Manifesto, their justification to split and form their organization (Selfi-Natsnet) was, “ELF was Anti-Christian Islamist Organization”
- To the fighters from Semhar, Sahel and Denkalia (Red Sea Coalition), their justification to split and form their organization (PLFI-PLFII) was, “because ELF was Bin-Amer-Bilen dominated organization”
In the years between Adobha (1969) and the War of Tesfia (early 1972), though well armed and well financed, the grieving organizations (PLFI-PLFII and Obel) failed to unite. The Selfi-Natsnet issue was considered unique. Those three years (1969-1972) were the most chaotic and the lowest moment in the history of Eritrean Revolution.
In 1970, with ethnic Tigrigna and ethnic Kunama completely opted out; and the Afar, the Semhar, the Sahel, the Selfi Natsnet Group and the conservative Tigres of Barka having their splinter groups and standing against the leaders of the Western-Tigre Coalition, the leaders of the Western-Tigre Coalition (ELF), nominated a preparatory committee for their First National Congress and invited the grieving splinter organizations to attend the ELF National Congress and bring their grievance to the table. But the splinter groups knew better. They knew that was a half-hearted invitation. Because real invitation and negotiation starts at, nominating preparatory committee members and at setting agendas; not at the congress itself, (sounds familiar doesn’t it?)
As scheduled, ELF’s First National Congress was completed in November 1971. True to their conviction, knowing all the odds that were stacked against them, The Red-Sea Coalition (PLFI-PLFII), The Obel and The Selfi-Natsnet groups stood their ground and refused to attend ELF’s First National Congress. The leaders of the Western-Tigre Coalition, instead of trying to reform their organization to accommodate those who were grieving; with arrogance, they gave ultimatum to the splinter groups: comply (Altezm) or face annihilation (Tedmir/Tesfia).
The splinter groups refused to comply. The Western-Tigre Coalition was cemented and reinforced by the endorsement of the Sahos. The war of Tigres was declared. The gloves were off. The die was cast; Alea Jacta Est. and Eritrean Political Landscape was carved in stone. Forty years and still counting, Eritrean political landscape hasn’t changed much since.
But as smart and as savvy as they were, the Western-Tigre Coalition made a fatal mistake in their war calculation. Yes a fatal mistake they will live to regret. Not knowing the unknowns, and relying on conventional wisdom, they believed the odds of winning were in their favour. They were absolutely right. It looked like it. But it wasn’t. And this is how the Western Coalition miscalculated their odds:
- They assumed Eritrean people didn’t have any appetite for pure ethnic and regional organizations. They assumed these pure ethnic and regional organizations that were a world apart in their point of view couldn’t unite under any circumstance.
- They assumed the negligible Nehnan Elamanan group would sit and watch the war of Tigres to take its course. They assumed the grievance of the authors of Nehnan Elamanan was minor administrative problem that could be negotiated and solved easily. Since ethnic Tigrigna were completely opted-out, they assumed the Tigrigna factor was insignificant factors to tip the scale.
- With ethnic Tigrignas and ethnic Kunamas out of the equation, with the Sahos pledging their allegiance to the Western-Tigre Coalition, they assumed the Math was on their side; and they assumed the war will end with swift and decisive victory in their favour.
But they were wrong. And there are few lessons to be learned here.
Lesson #1. It can be argued, due to their regional proximity to the theatre the Sahos number in the Western Coalition was negligible; and they didn’t fit well in the Western-Tigre Coalition; but even if the argument is, yes they were significant and yes they did felt at home; with the Sahos on board, the Western-Tigre Coalition Constituents constituted only about 30% of the total population. And that will leave about 70% of the population still unrepresented and still unhappy.
Therefore one can argue with confidence even if the Tesfia War was to end with Swift and Decisive Victory, it wouldn’t have brought neither confidence nor stability to the Eritrean people and Eritrean Revolution. It would have just postponed the problem to the future. The failure of ELF was never a failure of military might. It was a failure of math. As savvy as they were, they didn’t master the art of addition and multiplication to broaden their base. The math was not there for them to win. The Western-Tigre Coalition tent was too small to accommodate all and lead. With a third of the population as your base you can’t win and lead. That was the crux of ELF’s failure. If the Western Coalition had won the war of Tesfia, would Eritrean independence have been possible without the full representation and confidence of the other ethnics and regions? Absolutely not.
Lesson #2. You may know how to start a war, but for sure you will never know how the war you ignited is going to end. War is a science of hitting a moving target. There are a lot of internal and external factors, variables and unknowns that will determine hitting your target successfully. And unfortunate to the Western Coalition, the Unknown Factors ended up being the Deciding Factors. In a moving target, there is only one method proven to maximize your success: adopting and adjusting to the ever-changing position in-time of your target. And that was a trait the Western Coalition never had.
If they would have had that trait, they would have used it when they had many chances and opportunities to make good use of it. Instead of getting into confrontation, they would have used it in 1969. Instead of getting into a shooting war with arrogance, they would have used it in early 1972. Instead of alienating their base, they would have learned a lesson from their past and made a good use of it in 1975. But instead, they wanted all or nothing. They gambled big and they lost big; and never recovered ever since. The rest is just politics.
Of course there are a lot of people who would beg to differ. There are those who would say, ELF was as diverse as the Nation itself. And this are the very people who are screaming their heart out, day in and day out, to prove to us that the PFDJ government is ethnic Tigrigna government. Well, I wouldn’t defend the PFDJ government for anything; but with one leader in its executive and two in its Revolutionary Council representing ethnic Tigrignas from 1971-1975 (10%), and only 25% of its leaders from ethnic Tigrigna from 1975-1981, unless one wants to defend the indefensible, if not worst, ELF was as bad as the PFDJ government. Of course that doesn’t justify anything; but it sure does challenge our thinking: if ELF and PFDJ way of leading the Nation, are two extremes that are wrong for Eritrea, then the right way must be somewhere in the middle. The challenge for all of us is finding the middle. And so far the middle has proven to be, still illusive.
Well, if history is a lesson, and if we human beings are smart species who learn from our past mistakes, there are no shortages of valuable lessons. But I’m very doubtful that we are what we claim to be. I think history repeats itself time and again; and we are doomed to live in denial to the last second, only to have the same fate like the ones before us. If I’m wrong, and I hope I’m, right at our backyard, there are plenty of lessons to the students of history. There are plenty of lessons for all of us. We have learned a valuable lesson from the arrogance of our Western-Tigre brothers who wanted it all and lost it all. We have learned a valuable lesson from the arrogance of the Amharas to our South who wanted it all and lost it all. And who knows, those who are intoxicated by the myth of power at the EPLF/PFDJ/GOE camp today, might also learn a thing or two from ‘the arrogance of others’.
N.B: part III of this article will come soon.