|Tiny Eritrea, population 3 and 1/2 million people, has been invaded by Ethiopia, population 60 million plus. Presently, there are almost 1 million Eritrean refugees driven from their homes and farms, many into the desert, with no shelter, little food or water, with over half of them being children under 5 years of age.
Up to 1 million Ethiopian troops are continuing to launch major assaults on Eritrean defenses, even though the Ethiopians proclaimed “the war is over” more than two weeks ago.
This invasion constitutes one of, if not the largest, land war since WWII. At the same time it is estimated that up to 15 million Ethiopians are in the midst of famine, suffering from 3 years of drought. Why, many ask, is this happening?
Ethiopia claims they are the victims of Eritrean aggression, are merely seeking to defend their sovereign territory and have no intent to permanently seize any Eritrean territory. The Ethiopians, along with the entire international press, continue to describe this invasion as a “border conflict.”
As someone who has been a student of the situation in the so called “Horn of Africa” since the early 1980’s I find this claim ludicrous.
What the media almost never mentions is that the invasion of Eritrea by Ethiopia is funded by the USA and armed and advised by Russia. Preliminary research shows that in the last 18 months the American government has provided Ethiopia with at least $460 million in aid in the form of hard, convertible cash. The Economist reports that the UK based International Institute for Strategic Studies claims that Ethiopia has spent over $460 million on arms in the last year alone, almost all of it from Russia and former Soviet block countries. Could these figures be coincidental?
When confronted with these figures, supporters of the “border conflict” line immediately raise the question, “why would the US support the invasion of Eritrea?” They point out, correctly, that Eritrea has almost nothing any outsiders wants, except of course, access to the sea for Ethiopia, which is the main reason why Ethiopia under Haile Sellasie illegally annexed Eritrea over 40 years ago.
But again, why would the US support this invasion? To answer this question I must provide a little history on the subject. Very few people outside the region, especially journalists, have done their homework on this conflict.
At the end of the 1800’s, Italy, the last European country to invade Africa, grabbed what was left over, establishing the colony of Eritrea on the western side of the Red (or Erythrean) Sea south of Sudan. Italy held this colony until over run by the British during WWII. Following the war, Britain, after stripping Eritrea of any thing of value, withdrew, turning Eritrea over, supposedly, to the UN. The UN passed the buck to Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Sellasie, with the provision that a plebiscite be held (in accordance with the UN Charter) on whether the Eritreans wanted independence or to be federated with Ethiopia.
Without Eritrea, Ethiopia was landlocked, something that vexed Sellasie’s Amhara ethnic minority that ruled Ethiopia. Sellasie, of course, being an “Emperor” had no intention of holding elections and proceeded to illegally annex Eritrea.
Following annexation, Sellasie set about trying to turn Eritreans into good Ethiopians, forcing the use of the Amhara language in schools and various other chauvinist practices that ensured that the Eritreans would rebel.
By 1960 the Eritreans had had enough and began what was to be the longest liberation war in modern African history. Even though the US provided major military support to the Ethiopians, by the mid 1970’s the Eritreans had pretty much destroyed the cream of the Ethiopian army that was occupying their country. Eritrea was on the verge of winning independence when a council of army officers, called the Durgue, led by the notorious Col. Mengistu, overthrew and assassinated Sellasie.
Spurned by the US, Mengistu and the Dergue announced themselves to be Marxists and quickly turned to the Soviet Union for support. The Soviets responded with billions of dollars of weapons and advisers, including thousands of Cuban troops who played a key role in Mengistu’s ability to consolidate his power. (This is the only time it seems that the Soviets and Cuba did something really rotten in Africa).
Mengistu and the Dergue immediately began to attack the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) who had, by the late 1960’s, succeeded in uniting all the Eritrean people under a united front for national liberation. The EPLF withdrew to the rugged terrain of the Sahel desert and the northern end of the African Rift Mountains and returned to peoples war guerrilla tactics.
It is important to note that in the early 1970’s the EPLF was instrumental in founding the TPLF or Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. Tigray is immediately adjacent to Eritrea and had long suffered at the hands of the Amhara dominated government in Addis Ababa. The TPLF is now the ruling regime in Ethiopia and the US proxy responsible for launching the invasion of Eritrea. More on this later.
Even though the EPLF was “anti-soviet” their aim was to establish a democratic, independent, “socialist” country and as such were on the US’s shit list. As such, the EPLF was forced to go it alone, in the process of which they developed an enormous self reliance and self sufficiency. One must not forget that all of this was carried on through the worst drought in Africa in the 20th Century.
Their strength was always the Eritrean people, including the Eritreans in the Diaspora and remains so to this day.
Through out the 1980’s the Soviets pumped increasing amounts of the latest military hardware into the Ethiopian army as they desperately attempted a series of larger, more powerful military campaigns to try and wipe out the EPLF liberated zones. By relying on classic “peoples war” tactics of strategic withdrawals followed by sudden, concentrated, overwhelming counterattacks when their enemy was overextended and vulnerable, the EPLF destroyed every Ethiopian offensive, culminating, by the end of the decade, in the battle of Afabet which remains one of the most crushing military victories in history.
Having effectively destroyed the Ethiopian military at Afabet, the EPLF, with their allies the TPLF, drove on Addis Ababa and the last outpost of the Mengistu led Dergue. Having surrounded Addis Ababa, the liberation forces allowed Mengistu to fly to Zimbabwe and end the fighting, sparing Addis from destruction.
Having accomplished their mission, and facing an enormous humanitarian crisis at home due to the war and drought, the EPLF withdrew, leaving Ethiopia effectively in the hands of the TPLF forces.
Originally, the TPLF had only called for independence for Tigray, but when it became apparent that the Dergue’s days were numbered they changed their position, declaring that their goal was to oversee a united Ethiopia, of course under Tigrayan rule.
By 1993 Eritrea had carried out their independence plebiscite, as well as the vote ratifying the EPLF leadership as the peoples choice to lead the country ,and set about rebuilding their homeland. Relying primarily on support from patriotic Eritreans in the Diaspora, Eritrea established a socialist based, mixed economy which quickly became the fastest growing economy in Africa.
Eritrea soon became known for its independence from western aid institutions as well as for being the most efficient and corruption free society in Africa. To this day Eritrea is the only country in Africa that owes nothing to the World Bank or the IMF.
This independence, backed up by a thriving economy, is a powerful role model for not only Africa, but for the rest of the world. If tiny, natural resource poor Eritrea can not only go it alone, but do better than all the rest of the IMF/World Bank controlled countries, what is to stop everyone else from following suit?
This is the reason behind the US support for the Ethiopian invasion. The US elite want Eritrea brought back under their dominance, or at the very least, so devastated that they are no longer a role model for the rest of the world.
In the mean time, the TPLF ethnic minority regime had become increasing isolated in Ethiopia, due mainly to their incompetence and corruption. To divert public dissatisfaction with the regime, as well as to appeal to latent Amhara imperialist ambitions, the TPLF regime began a series of actions with the goal of once again subjugating Eritrea and gaining Ethiopian controlled access to the sea .
By 1995 Ethiopia had unilaterally redrawn its borders with Eritrea and set about establishing Ethiopian administration in these areas.. The TPLF regime began to make public declarations of an “Axumite Heritage” (Tigray being the home of the ancient Axumite Empire) encompassing all of Eritrea, parts of Sudan, Somalia and Kenya. Increasingly belligerent, the TPLF regime carried out a series of actions that culminated in armed confrontation with Eritrea in their border areas in 1998. This is the basis for the claim that this is a border conflict. The facts of the matter is that Eritrea has been doing nothing more than maintaining their colonial borders, something which is “sacrosanct” under the OAU Charter, with Eritrean troops having yet to set foot on Ethiopian soil.
When Ethiopian troops began attacking Eritrean forces in 1998 the Eritreans quickly gave them a drubbing, infuriating the TPLF government. There followed a year of major Ethiopian military build up and subsequent attacks in the early summer of 1999. These were major assaults, the largest ground war since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, and were noted for the Ethiopian use of “human wave” tactics reminiscent of WWI. Needless to say, enormous numbers of Ethiopian troops, mainly from the Oromo ethnic group, were cut down attempting to storm the Eritrean trenches. Video footage showing what seemed to be miles and miles of rows of Ethiopian dead supported Eritrean estimates that over 50,000 Ethiopians died in a matter of days.
Licking their wounds the Ethiopians began another even greater military expansion, increasingly paid for with US $’s. In December of 1999, Russia, desperate for foreign currency, announced major arms credits to the TPLF regime.
Following a round of OAU sponsored “peace talks” Eritrea accepted all the Ethiopian demands, only to see the Ethiopians refuse to sign the agreements. After completing their build up the TPLF regime launched their new offensive on May 12. Under the supervision of Russian Generals and provided with US and Israeli satellite intelligence, the Ethiopia army was able to pinpoint an Eritrean weak point and breakthrough into western Eritrea, the bread basket of Eritrea. There they proceeded to carry out a “scorched earth” campaign until driven out by Eritrean counter attacks.
All this time, due to drought, an increasingly desperate famine was developing in southern Ethiopia. Widely reported in the western press, once the invasion started the famine disappeared from the news. All we heard was about Ethiopian victories, the vanquishing of the Eritrean military and the increasingly desperate situation the Eritreans were facing in this “senseless border conflict”. Not a mention of the US $’s paying for all this insanity.
The reality on the ground is that the Eritreans have mauled the Ethiopian invasion forces severely, and following their practice of strategic withdrawals to maximize the preservation of their fighters, have pulled back into better defensive positions in the highlands. The Eritreans still have their tanks and mobile artillery in reserve and await the right time to launch their counterattack.
At the request of the OAU, the Eritreans carried out a unilateral withdrawal in the central, eastern and southern fronts of 20 km in an attempt to achieve a cease fire. The Ethiopians response was to advance another 20km into Eritrea, this despite their declaration the previous week that “the war was over.”
Following yet another OAU request, Eritrea has once again accepted all the Ethiopian demands to establish a cease fire. As during the talks before the launch of the May 12 offensive, the Ethiopians have refused to sign the cease fire agreement, instead, some of us suspect, using the breathing room to rush reinforcements to the front for their next round of attacks, this time continuing to try and take the southern port of Assab.
It is important to note that the Ethiopians, out of fear of the major threat the Eritrean armored reserves continue to pose to their increasingly overextended forces, have demanded UN or OAU military forces be placed on the Eritrean side of the border to protect them from an Eritrean counter offensive.
At this point, my guess is that the TPLF regime is going to have to keep attacking. They have absorbed enormous losses and have very little substantiative to show for it. They have been driven out of western Eritrea, repulsed repeatedly in the center and completely failed to take the port of Assab, something they desperately need to do to justify this war.
The famine is ongoing, severely aggravated by transport shortages caused by the war and they are under increased pressure from the Oromo rebels in the south. To keep their grip they will need to beat the drums of war louder and louder in the capital, Addis Ababa, while continuing to proclaim their victim hood and peaceful intentions while throwing more and more of the cream of Ethiopian youth into a growing holocaust.
Already, their US paymasters are growing concerned by their failure to crush Eritrea and have already begun to cover their tracks leading to the support they have provided to Ethiopia. It is the responsibility of us in the west to expose the criminal nature of the US support for this holocaust. The bottom line is without US $’s the TPLF regime could not have attempted this invasion in the first place. For the US to say they didn’t know their aid money was being spent on arms is like the Mafia don saying he didn’t know his capos were committing all their crimes.
The question is “are there enough of us in the west who care enough to expose this crime? Or don’t a million African refugees and another 100,000 dead Africans matter?”
Thomas C. Mountain is a long time revolutionary political activist and anti-racist educator. His background includes participation and leadership roles in the environment, land and housing struggles, labor, cultural work and education. He is founding co-chair of the Hawaii Black History Committee (1985), founding VP of the Hawaii Alliance for Peace and Justice in the Middle East (1982), co-editor and publisher of theAmbedkar Journal on India’s Dalits or Black Untouchables (1996) and one of the founders of the US Eritrean Peoples Friendship Association.
by Thomas C. Mountain
US Eritrean Peoples Friendship Association
Special to Antiwar.com