What President Isaias’s history tells us about his stand on Eritrean independence and the truth
(martinplaut)—Professor Gaim Kibreab has just brought out an important book: “From Ally to Enemy – the Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa; a failed intervention.”
Published by Red Sea Press it is worth reading to understand just how President Isaias has operated over many years. There is a pattern to be discerned and it should be on Prime Minister Abiy’s bedside, if he wants go know what to expect from his Eritrea ally.
To put Professor Gaim’s key finding in a nutshell, at a critical moment in Eritrea’s fight for independence, Isaias went to a make or break meeting with representatives of the Ethiopian Derg, organised by the East German Communists in January 1978.
Drawing on hitherto unseen documents from the East German archive, Professor Gaim shows that the stand Isaias took put the fight for Eritrean independence in question and – perhaps as worrying – Isaias then told a pack of lies to his own party, the EPLF, about what had been agreed.
The Soviets and East German pour weapons into Ethiopia
The background is the invasion of Ethiopia by Somalia in 1977-78. The Ethiopian military regime – the Derg – was allied to Moscow, and the Soviets and their East German and Cuban allies poured weapons and technical support into Ethiopia.
At times a Soviet plane was landing in Addis every 20 minutes bearing weapons. Some $4 billion worth of Soviet arms were provided.
Of course, the Eritreans had been fighting for independence from Ethiopia since 1961, but now found themselves up against an Ethiopian army that had grown from a strength of 65,000 to 250,000.
By March 1978 the Somali offensive had been defeated and this massive army, with brand new Soviet weaponry and military advisers, were confronting the Eritreans.
It is in this context that the East Germans convened a summit to try to end the war in Eritrea.
The EPLF’s secret vanguard party – the Revolutionary Party of Eritrea – sent Isaias Afwerki to lead them in talks in Berlin.
Isaias declared the meeting “historic” even though the Soviets, East Germans and Cubans made their position crystal clear. They proposed that “Any solution has to be found within the framework of the Ethiopian state, even though they are aware this is uncomfortable for the Eritrean movements.”
This went against everything Eritreans had been fighting for.
The East Germans and Soviets, despite confronting the Eritreans, and supporting the Derg, regarded both the Ethiopian leadership and the EPLF as in the “anti-imperialist” camp. The Europeans attempted to find a way of bridging the differences between the Derg and the EPLF, which was why they brought them together.
The Berlin summit
Isaias told his host, the East German leader Erich Honecker, that the Eritreans were “proud and happy about this meeting.”
Yet the divisions between the Ethiopians and Eritreans were enormous.
The newly strengthened Ethiopian military were in little mood to compromise on the fundamental issue: Eritrean independence. Honecker adopted the Ethiopian position – pressing for “full autonomy” for Eritrea, but within the framework of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity.
The East Germans took this stand, despite knowing that the Ethiopians had no intention of allowing this, and were looking for a military victory in Eritrea.
Isaias warned that the Ethiopians had to come up with new proposals, otherwise no solution would be found. But he also insisted that the primary objective of the Eritrean revolution was the fight against imperialism – not for independence.
“What we need are guarantees that the fight against imperialism and reaction will continue,” he told his hosts.
The Second Summit
This took place on 23 March 1978, with Isaias leading the Eritrean side and Berhanu Bayeh representing the Derg.
The East Germans continued to press for a peaceful political settlement, despite knowing that no such settlement was on the cards.
Aware that this was the situation, the EPLF only reluctantly agreed to Isaias’s participation. And Isaias promised not to compromise Eritrea’s demand for independence.
Despite their differences, both sides accepted the East German proposals, which had been endorsed by the Central Committee of the Soviet Union.
These were the reccomendations.
“1. Both sides confirm their resolve to stop the bloodshed immediately and bring about a political solution.
2. The Provisional Military Administrative Council of Ethiopia [Derg] will make a public declaration expressing its concrete proposals for the implementation of regional autonomy for Eritrea in the framework of the Ethiopian state and under inclusion of all willing positive forces in Eritrea.
The Central Committee of the EPLF recognises the achievements of the Ethiopian Revolution and declares itself ready for cooperation in the interests of implementation of regional autonomy.
3. Revolutionary Ethiopia’s secure access to the Red Sea must be guaranteed by its uninterrupted access lines and its control over Asmara and the ports of Massawa and Assab.
4. Both sides form a common commission for the purpose of implementing the above points and all other steps for the security of the Revolution in Ethiopia and regional autonomy in Eritrea.”
As Professor Gaim observes: “The third proposed agreement amounted to surrendering Eritrean sovereignty and territory.”
Rather than rejecting this plan, Isaias simply lied to his own people when he reported back on what had been agreed.
Interviewed by the EPLF’s official organ, Vanguard, in July 1978, he declared that: “The Derg accepts and declares the right of the Eritrean people to self-determination.”
The documents that Professor Gaim has unearthed show that this was simply untrue.
“I have thoroughly scrutinised the East German documents” the professor writes, “and nowhere did I come across these alleged proposals. In stark contrast to Isaias’s claim, Honecker made it crystal clear that the best solution to the Eritrean problem was the one proposed by the Derg – regional autonomy.”
In the end the East German proposals came to nothing. The war in Eritrea continued and was finally concluded when the EPLF took Asmara in 1991, at the same moment as their Tigrayan allies in the TPLF (supported by Eritrean heavy artillery) took Addis Ababa.
Professor Gaim’s book contains many more fascinating revelations – not least of which is Isaias’s willingness to turn his back on agreements he had reached with other Eritrean movements, including the ELF-RC.
In May 1978 the EPLF and ELF-RC met in Beirut and agreed that the two organisations would work together and that they were the “sole representatives” of the Eritrean people. Yet only weeks later Isaias was to agree to the East German proposals without apparently consulting his ELF-RC comrades.
Isaias simply told the East Germans that the ELF-RC were not significant. Worse still, he smeared other Eritrean movements, saying that they “have allied themselves with the imperialists and the rection in the Arabic region.” As Professor Gaim points out, the allegation was groundless.
What lessons can be drawn from this?
Firstly, that Isaias felt no obligation to truthfully represent what he was doing to his Eritrean comrades, or to the Eritrean people.
Secondly, that Isaias was willing – even at this stage of the war of independence – to consider signing up to a pact that diminished the sovereignty and integrity of Eritrea.
Access to the sea, and the ports of Assab and Massawa, were of critical importance to Ethiopia then, just as they are to Prime Minister Abiy’s government today.