…We want to establish a system guaranteeing democratic rights and institutions, not the whims of certain groups or leaders and we need these democratic institutions as preconditions for any economic policy. First democracy, then development.
INTERVIEW WITH ISSAYAS AFEWORKI
ERITREAN PEOPLE’S LIBERATION FRONT (EPLF)
STEPHEN LEAVIT (AUSTRALIA)
JOHN SORENSON (ERAC CANADA)
JOHN STONE (NETHERLANDS)
INTERVIEW: ISSAYAS AFEWORKE
Issayas Afeworke is Vice-Secretary General of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The following interview was held inside the liberated area of Eritrea in August 1986.
Question: You joined the Eritrean liberation struggle in 1966 after leaving your studies at University in Addis Ababa. Could you describe the nature of the liberation movement at that time?
Issayas: The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was the only front until 1970; it was horrible, just a mess, it wasn’t a national organisation at all. In the towns things were more cosmopolitan. No one cared about tribalism or religion but when you came to the front you find people divided along these lines. There was no leadership, only regional commands and every regional commander was an emperor in his domain: nobody could enter that region without his permission, some of the section leaders would levy taxes, they could do whatever they liked. Within these regions you find the people divided on ethnic grounds or even narrower clan divisions. When I joined there were four divisions and a fifth was in the process of formation. Within the front there was a formula: “You come from a certain place, therefore…” In the towns no one cared about these questions of identity and we felt that upon joining the front our first task was to fight this sentiment and overcome the struggle within the ELF between these divisions. All the time people were asking for unity; why have five or six divisions with different leadership?
Question: How were these divisions overcome?
Issayas: People had to fight. The Ethiopians organized mopping-up operations to crush one sector after another. The target was not these armed groups but rather Ethiopia’s scorched earth policy was directed at the civilian population. Thousands were killed and about 70,000 had fled to Sudan. So people began asking these armed groups: “What about our security? If the section command is crushed, the troops flee then the Ethiopians come and kill us. Why not defend us?” Spontaneously people began to realize that the problem was with the type of organisation and leadership. They saw that if the front was united the piecemeal.
Ethiopian policy of looting, burning and killing might not have succeeded. The leadership of the front at that time was outside Eritrea – in Syria, in Cairo and a so-called Revolutionary Command in Kassala, beyond the border. People were asking for one leadership within the country rather than all these tribal chiefs who were causing more problems.
Also, students and town-dwellers were flowing to the country and they were a boost to the mass movement.
The demands of the people were supporter by a majority of the fighters but the outcome was division. Some of the division commanders refused to accept the demands of the people, they resorted to eliminating elements within their ranks who rejected their leadership and hundreds were imprisoned. Some of the leaders were growing rich, levying taxes and investing their money in Sudan, improving their own living conditions at the expense of the people. They never accepted the demands of the population and there was fierce fighting, many people were killed, especially the more enlightened ones who had come from the towns. Power was in the hands of a few and they tried to crush everyone who opposed them so once again many people had to flee to Sudan to escape the policies of the front at that time. So one was compelled to decide whether to fight within such divided groups or try to create a new situation. In 1970 the EPLF began to be organized among those who had fled to Sudan and these people then began going back into Eritrea to do political work among the population, to tell them about other means of fighting .
Question: Is there a model of Third World development which you see as applicable to Eritrea?
Issayas: The problem is that we don’t have a model. Look at Tanzania, it’s a mess now, it’s economy is in shambles. I don’t know ‘if they’ve reached an agreement with the IMF to improve their economy. It seemed to be a model at first, it made a lot of progress but now it’s facing a lot of difficulties. You can’t take it as a model. Other economics in Africa … none of these have achieved anything. We have Sudan with a lot of natural resources, agriculture, everything, now it’s in debt for $13 billion or more. What happened to all those resources? At one time it was seen as the breadbasket of the Middle East, now people are starving and relying on aid from Europe and America. Why all these economic problems when they followed a free-enterprise system. Did free-enterprise solve the problems of that country? If we choose a capitalist system we will have the same problems as those people have faced. If we have an exclusively socialist economy that would rely on the resources of the population without asking for any outside aid or allowing any investment from outside we’ll face the same problems as certain countries I’ve mentioned. It doesn’t mean we don’t have any ideas about what the economy of our country should be. A balanced but mixed economy would fit reality here but again we have to do our homework.
Question: So it’s going to be a unique model of development in Eritrea?
Issayas: I don’t know. I might be boasting if I say that Eritrea is unique because we can’t be unique from other people. Maybe because we’re still at this stage of liberation struggle and we’re not encountering these practical problems and we can gain time by saying leave us alone and when we reach the next stage we’ll define it. Maybe that’s what we’re doing now. I think there can be some solution to the uniqueness of our struggle. Maybe the political aspect of our reality is another factor. We’re neither with the East nor the West at this stage.
We have a lot of bitter experience with our struggle, we’re not like other liberation movements who have received aid from one of the global strategies of East or West. We feel we don’t have to rely on either side, we have to do it on our own although we welcome anyone who with the idea of exploiting our resources for mutual benefit. We want to establish equal relationships with other nations. It’s very idealistic to talk like that at this stage but I’m sure the population will come up with a realistic ideology that will benefit everyone. I hope I stay around to share it.
Question: Can you describe the military situation here at this time?
Issayas: We’re now expecting a new offensive. This might create a new situation both in terms of our revolution and within the military policy of the regime in Ethiopia. The Dergue is out of steam now. They have 40-50,000 new recruits who are supposed to boost the capacity of the regime’s armed forces in Eritrea for the upcoming offensive. Of course, the target was to conscript not less than 100,000. In the last three rounds of national service declared by the regime, all conscription programs have not hit their targets. Now the situation is becoming worse because the opposition, even though spontaneous among the Ethiopian population, is becoming stronger. These recruitment difficulties mean that the military policy of crushing the EPLF cannot be successful. Now they’re resorting to other tactics, attempting to deploy a large number of paratroopers and airborne units to open a new flank in one of our sensitive areas. They’re training about 2 airborne brigades although they already have 4 and they weren’t effective in the last offensive. They might feel they’re introducing a new element in the war which will create changes – we’ve always said that when the regime is frustrated, when its offensives fail, it tries to create new factors. We’re prepared for any airborne operations in our base areas, we consider it to be a suicidal plan which won’t change conditions.
On the contrary if this offensive fails it will put us in a better position to launch our own offensive. So far, after the last offensive we’ve intensified our operations behind enemy lines – you may have heard about our operations at the Asmara airport and in Massawa. We had very successful operations in many parts of the country even though these may not have been given as much publicity outside. These operations have been very embarrassing to the Dergue and what’s more, the participation of the population is increasing in our favour. Thousands of young people are joining our ranks and that has given the EPLF a greater capacity to defend its base areas and go on the offensive to bring a decisive change in the balance of forces. The northeast Sahel front has now been pulled back by the regime; this was due to the feeling on the Dergue’s side that there was no point in maintaining that front because of its vulnerability to the EPLF. It was creating a situation which allowed the EPLF to boost its military capacity since our resources are from the Dergue and whenever we capture a certain area we obtain more arms which will allow us to go on the offensive. So we can say that we’re waiting for the next Ethiopian offensive know in a that its failure will create a situation in our favour.
Question: What are the realistic possibilities of an Eritrean military victory?
Issayas: We’re not very militaristic in our attitude. We don’t think we can have a purely military solution. In the past, when the Haile Selassie regime fell it was not because we were in a position to threaten the regime by military means alone. The political situation in Ethiopia had developed to the point where the population could exert enough pressure from one side and the Eritrean struggle was another factor. So there is a unity of factors which is spontaneous. We say that the same thing will happen now. The opposition inside Ethiopia is growing, the regime is becoming more and more isolated, its military ventures have failed to achieve anything. There’s low morale not only among the rank and file but among high-ranking officials within the armed forces who feel that the situation is hopeless. Even the establishment of the new republic, the new constitution, is seen by many as offering no solution to the problems of the regime. Many high officials feel trapped in a vicious circle which is leading to their own downfall.
I don’t mean to discredit other opposition and democratic movements in Ethiopia but the fact that the EPLF is the main target and that effective pressure is only coming from our side means that the role of certain movements or democratic forces will only be secondary. After our military role comes the pressure from the population. Everybody’s fed up now with the regime to a degree where they’re openly criticizing the constitution and this republic.
The momentum of this opposition will lead or contribute to the downfall of the regime. It’s not only us as a political or military force that will bring about the downfall of this regime. Globally the Dergue is becoming more isolated and the result of these combined factors will create a situation where the Eritrean people will achieve their goal.
Question: How much territory does the EPLF actually control now?
Issayas: Except for the big towns and the main roads connecting them practically every part of Eritrea is under our control. Within the towns at least 95% of the population would say they’re with the EPLF. We can actually say we’re in full control of the country. Militarily, the Dergue has garrisons in the towns and convoys moving along the roads but that cannot be said to be control of those areas. There are peripheries where we have equal control. We have the support of the population even where the Dergue claims to be in control. In military terms we control not less than 85% of the country. The towns, in terms of area, are insignificant. As to strategy, we have the advantage now because we are building bases in all areas. We’re in a position now where we can take the initiative and hit any target, even Asmara itself.
Question: But is it realistic to try to take the towns without air cover?
Issayas: Our strategy has changed since the strategic withdrawal. The aim of capturing the towns is to inflict losses on enemy personnel and acquire supplies from the enemy. We don’t have a strategy of maintaining the towns, the main aim is to capture resources. We do have the capability of capturing towns and holding them. We now have a conventional war situation. We have a defence line not less than 500k. long. Air raids and bombardments of our position have never been successful and at this stage you don’t find the enemy even interested in bombing our positions. In the towns it’s a different matter, we want to save the civilian population from casualties. If there’s a need to maintain areas, we have the capacity to maintain any areas we captured. We’re not afraid of bombardment but we don’t want to cause civilian casualties.
Question: Capturing the towns would of course demonstrate the EPLF’s capability …
Issayas: Well, you know, these are journalistic attitudes. We can send our commandos to attack important targets and this will get a lot of publicity but militarily it is not a priority.
Question: When major strikes have occurred these haven’t been well reported. Why has the press ignored Eritrea?
Issayas: It’s very clear from our experience that the West is not seriously interested in giving publicity to what we do here. That silence is in line with the policies of the West. The U.S. government has been trying to win back the regime from the Soviet Union and they don’t want to provoke it. Any propaganda publicity of EPLF achievements would count as provocation. For that reason the media in the U.S. is prohibited from giving publicy to the EPLF. The same policy is being followed by EEC countries.
The situation in Afghanistan is very different, simple operations are given exaggerated publicity. In Lebanon the situation is also different and people talk about it a lot. You’d never expect the media in the Soviet Union to talk about Eritrea except to defame the EPLF. In the West there’s greater freedom of the press, greater access but there are still obstacles. If we had the support of one of the superpowers a lot more would have been said. In fact, daily you would have heard declarations, military communiques and other news. But it’s also good to do things without boasting …
Question: I don’t know if it’s correct to speak of a cohesive plan to block news about Eritrea. One has to look at the internal dynamics of the media, the ideas of what constitutes “news”, competition, expense…
Issayas: Publicity about the misuse of food aid was openly blocked by the U.S. government because that publicity would conflict with the U.S. policy of portraying the regime as one interested in the well-being of the population. That was meant to bribe the regime, bring it closer to the U.S. It didn’t work out that way but I’m sure the U.S. media tried its best not to portray the true ugly nature of the regime and its misuse of relief aid.
Question: In 1983 it was very difficult to get publicity, perhaps because the situation was seen as an obscure struggle between Marxist groups. But now the media are eager to get any reports on the misuse of food aid, resettlement, anything against the Soviet Union…
Issayas: Now, yes, the policy has changed because all strategies have failed towards detaching the regime from the Soviet Union. Any new developments from the Dergue are now attributed to the Soviet Union. The U.S. administration sees Ethiopia as similar to Egypt, Sudan and Somalia and wants to draw it away from the Soviet Union.
But is the situation really similar to those examples? Isn’t it wise to see into this situation from a different angle, to bring an end to the war and let people decide for themselves what relationship they’d like to have with outside forces? Why does the U.S. government stick to the same policy of the last 50 years? From the end of World War II until now the U.S. has pursued the same policy towards Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Isn’t it worth reconsidering that policy? Many things have changed. A new policy that conforms to the reality of the situation could form a way out instead of seeing things from a competitive angle where you have the Soviet Union trying to influence an area, strengthen its grip here and there, and fighting that influence without giving due consideration to the aspirations of people in the area. Taking the interest of the people into account would guarantee a permanent relationship based on mutual interest.
Question: What are the prospects for a peaceful solution in the Horn?
Issayas: These attitudes of the superpowers are an obstacle to any peace plan. Of course, when we do declare a proposal it’s not accepted by the regime, we don’t expect them to accept any peace proposal. They have only a military option and the SovietUnion also feels that by crushing the EPLF they can strengthen their grip and expand their influence. That’s become their strategy so we can never expect them to have an interest in a peaceful solution. The U.S. position isn’t good, they don’t enjoy their former influence in the Horn. If there’d been a change in policy they could have played a role with other Western governments in imposing measures to compel the regime and those who support it to accept a peaceful solution. But, as I said, the U.S. still feels it can play the same game and kick out the Soviet Union without considering a peaceful solution to the Eritrean issue. A political solution to the Eritrean problem remains a secondary issue to the U.S. administration and there’s been no serious effort made towards a solution. Otherwise there would have been a tangible result. But since the game remains to see who’ll hold the ball both the Soviet Union and the U.S. are trying to snatch it from each other’s hands.
As they say, when elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers. And we live there in the grass and we’re suffering from these policies. This doesn’t mean that peace only depends on the superpowers. We’re striving to achieve that goal by different means, publicizing our proposals, making the Ethiopian population aware of these proposals to make it part of their demands, to make neighbouring countries and opposition groups to play a role, to invite other parties not directly involved in global strategies to contribute to this process.
Question: What about the most recent proposals by the ELF to act as a negotiator in the peace process with the involvement of the new government in Sudan?
Issayas: Without talking about who they are, if these peace proposals are taken as a propaganda device they will not have tangible results. These proposals should not be used as propaganda devices. We’ve been working hard, making contacts with the Sudanese government, particularly the Umma Party before it came to power as well as after the new government was established. We proposed and received a favourable response from the Sudanese government about playing a role in bringing about a peaceful solution. These other groups immediately afterwards issued memoranda from here and there asking the Sudanese government to mediate simply because our call and the positive response of the Sudanese government had been one of the headlines in the newspapers. It was very embarrassing for them. The next week Sabbe and 4 or 5 other men sent their memoranda to the Sudanese government only to get their names in the newspaper.
Seriously we’ve discussed this with political parties in Sudan and we’ve been encouraged along these lines but it’s difficult to say what will be achieved because the response from the Dergue is not positive so these efforts may not bear fruit. But the Sudanese government is affected by events in Eritrea, in Ethiopia and in southern Sudan and serious negotiations between the EPLF and the Sudanese government are a prerequisite to contacts with the regime. This is not because we wish to be the sole representative of the Eritrean people, any group can sit in a round-table discussion. What we want to achieve is a political solution, it’s not who represents the people or who gets their names in the Deadlines. We know there are difficulties and the Umma Party and the present government recognize the problems.
Question: How does the situation in southern Sudan and the activities of the SPLA affect the chances of negotiations?
Issayas: If the situation in the southern Sudan is handled properly the Sudanese government can play a role but there are different attitudes. The regime in Addis Ababa doesn’t recognize us as an opposition let alone a liberation movement with a cause and just demands. It’s not prepared to sit and negotiate with the EPLF. They might want it in a discreet way but they’d be embarrassed by any open negotiations. When it comes to the Sudanese government it’s different. They are prepared to sit with Garang, to invite him to a constitutional conference to bring a solution to the problem. The attitude of the SPLA and our attitude are not the same because we have a concrete proposal for a solution although the political situation is not favourable for proposing any constructive program.
Whereas the preparedness of the present government in Khartoum is clear, the SPLA has demands which we feel might not be acceptable to other groups and this means it’s creating a situation where the other party is not prepared to enter into peace negotiations. Whatever contact they’re making is purely political manoeuvering. That is our attitude. So unless there’s a preparedness from all sides, including the regime in Addis Ababa, to negotiate without preconditions then it will also be very hard for the Sudanese government to play any role in achieving peace in the Eritrean case.
Question: I get the impression you don’t support the aims of the SPLA . . .
Issayas: It’s not actually a matter of supporting or not supporting. What does the SPLA stand for? That’s a question in itself. Is it a representative of the aspirations of the south? There is a problem in the south, these are second class citizens. They have suffered from previous governments in Khartoum. They don’t have equal rights in all aspects of life. These rights have to be guaranteed one way or another, of that we are confident and as a principle we support that cause. It can be solved in a democratic manner in Sudan and we feel that during the transitional stage before the present government that group was creating a democratic atmosphere favourable to achieving a solution to the problems of the south despite the bias and prejudice existing in the north. This atmosphere could have been utilized to find a solution.
Is the SPLA for radical change in Sudan as a whole? How can that be achieved? Any government in Khartoum, if it doesn’t meet the demands of the SPLA, will have to fight that organisation.
That’s what the SPLA is doing now. I’m not saying they have to stop fighting, to stop asking for equal rights – there are very democratic demands in their program – but what do they want to achieve? The government says it’s prepared to negotiate, there are different ideas coming in from different political groups in Sudan, some opting for greater regional autonomy, some for a federated Sudan. Isn’t it better to find a negotiated settlement when there’s preparedness from all sides despite differences in attitudes?
Question: What convinces you that the conditions are right now for a negotiated settlement in Sudan?
Issayas: We know from many sources that there’ re outside forces complicating these matters. It’s not because we have a negative attitude toward the SPLA and it’s leadership or the demands of the southerners. Such a movement is used as a bargaining card; explicitly or implicitly the Ethiopian government seeks to use it as a means of pressuring the government in Khartoum. The Soviet Union directly or indirectly, tries to use this movement as increasing its influence in Sudan.
The SPLA might say there are no external sources on them but the mere fact that they are fighting the government, that the war is being escalated, is instrumental to outside interests. The Ethiopian regime is boosting the movement in the south. In less than 3 years the regime has been able to build an army of not less than 25,000. We have been fighting for 25 years. If we hast the same external resources we would have toppled the regime in Addis Ababa long ago and become a very strong power in this area.
Why is the Ethiopian government eager to pour all these firearms into southern Sudan? Is it because they are interested in the rights of the southerners when they have denied the rights of their own people? I don’t think there’s a genuine interest from the Ethiopian side. What they’re doing is purely political maneuvering. Is the Soviet Union outside this game? We don’t think so. With all these arms being transported to the region the end result is that the influence of the Addis Ababa region is transplanted to Sudan and at the same time the Soviet Union is trying to establish good relations with the government in Khartoum. They’re definitely in the game, they may be behind the curtain, doing it in a very smart way but they’re involved in this. I think it’s from this angle we have to see the situation in the south rather than to say we’re with or against the SPLA as a movement.
Question: Could you comment on the recent gesture of solidarity with the WSLF as exemplified in the recent issue of Adulis?
Issayas: It’s not actually support for the WSLF. Within our program for the peace process in the Horn of Africa we’re not merely looking at our own problems in Eritrea. Also the problems between Ethiopia and Somalia must be resolved. There are rights of the Somalis in the Ogaden, there’s a vast area in which the borderline has never been defined. The Italians never reached an agreement with Menelik or with Haile Selassie, it was left open. Nobody knows where the border lies. The OAU took a position regarding the border conflict which was not just and it never had any legal grounds on which to base its arguments so we say that the conflict must still be resolved.
Does the WSLF meet the demands and aspirations of the Somali people in the Ogaden? It’s a very tricky question. But still the issue of Somali self-determination remains, whether they prefer regional autonomy, an independent state or some kind or alliance with either Somalia or Ethiopia it has to be left up to the Somali people. We can’t impose a solution but there should be a negotiated settlement. Our article in Adulis referred to the recent meeting in Djibouti between Mengistu and Siad.
The Addis Ababa regime is trying to play a game when it thinks it has a strong bargaining card when Somalia is aggravated globally, when the Americans are not supplying Somalia, when it’s not encouraged by its allies in the West to strengthen its defensive capacity and there is armed opposition from within Ethiopia that is harassing the regime, as well as tribal and other political problems. Bearing all these difficulties in mind, the Ethiopians think they can compel the Somali government to sign an agreement which would renounce the rights of the Somalis in the Ogaden and its legal claims about defined borders. Of course this can’t be done. No matter what the situation at this time it can’t just sign an agreement that would favour Addis Ababa. The Americans and the Italians have failed in that and what we see as a fair solution is one that should disregard these present weaknesses. It ‘s in this context that the WSLF was mentioned. We can’t say we have bad relations with that front but we have many issues we raise with them when. We disagree on many things but this does not mean we have bad relations.
Question: You spoke of a difference in the aims of the WSLF and the Somali people.
How do you characterize the nature of this gap?
Issayas: The WSLF doesn’t have a clear view on solutions to problems. In the 1960s unity was the dream of every Somali. Reality was different. Djibouti became independent, British and Italian Somalia formed the present state, the Ogaden was left out and the Northern Frontier District was incorporated into Kenya and recognized as such by the Somali government. Where does the WSLF find its social base among these divisions? Is it exclusively for liberation of the Ogaden? If so, does it want an independent state? Is it calling for regional autonomy? In reality, the WSLF has been a projection of the Somali government, it was not an independent organisation. Its leadership is not competent to claim that it expresses the aspirations of the Somali people. They don’t even know what they’re doing or what they want to achieve, whether they want to fight for an independent Ogaden or unite that part of the country with Somalia. What they want is not very clear. The other part of the problem is their practice; they are not active. Also, they claim areas inhabited by Afars, Oromos and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia and they’ve come into conflict with the Oromo Liberation Front and other political groups which have been active in these areas. They don’t have a defined policy and it’s for those reasons we say they’re not the organisation to fight for the rights of the Somalis in the Ogaden. But since there is no other alternative and they claim to be part of that movement it’s not for us to issue decrees saying they only represent part of the country. We have our attitudes.
Question: Basically what you’re saying is that the EPLF distinguishes itself from all other fronts in the area by its structure and aims?
Issayas: Of course, we have our referendum with 3 choices. What We’re doing in Eritrea is clear. What kind of relationship we wish to have with all liberation movements is also clear. We might come into conflict with one group which says it wants to establish an independent state. There are groups which distort history, distort reality and talk about unrealistic aims. They are not practical and have not achieved even their minimum goals. We might have differences with various groups but we don’t want to interfere with their affairs or impose our programs. But we can have our say. It’s a long story …
Question: I assume you’re referring to the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front). At one time relations between the EPLF and TPLF were quite close but a rift has developed lately. What’s the nature of this rift?
Issayas: I think I’d be making a mistake if I indulge myself in any talk about the TPLF. It’s our policy now not to go into any propaganda campaign against the TPLF or talk about our differences with them for the simple fact that we think indulgence in such polemics, campaigns and counter-campaigns will only weaken our capacity. We don’t want to give any time to polemics against the TPLF or any other organisation for that matter.
They’re talking about social imperialism, about the EPLF not being a national democratic front and such things. We know who we are and whoever wants to come here and see if the EPLF is doing things right or wrong. They’re talking a lot but one had better read their recent book on Eritrea and the EPLF. That’s good material to see their side but from our side we don’t have the energy to go into polemics. That’s not our business at this stage and we don’t have an interest in talking about what is socialism or what is communism and so on. We have our programs and we stick to them. If we feel we have to fight a certain group we’re ready in any way – propaganda or military action.
Question: Are you saying that relations have deteriorated to the point where military conflict is a possibility?
Issayas: Why should we? That would be foolish. We would never allow such a conflict. We would even accept an attack from the TPLF without any reaction from our side. We know any escalation of the cold war propaganda campaign could escalate into a conf1ict. Propaganda often flares into skirmishes. Who would that serve? For these reasons we’ve decided not to go into the matter even though the TPLF is talking about us. Anyone who wants to know about this can look into their publications because they’re publishing a lot, book after book, pamphlets … I don’t know what their goal is. This will only serve the Dergue and outside forces who want to create a gap.
Question: Do you foresee any changes to the National Democratic Program at the upcoming Congress? Will there be any changes in the leadership of the EPLF? When will the next Congress be held?
Issayas: We have a draft program which takes the developments of the last 8 years into account. This has been discussed already. We have changed several aspects of our program since 1977. As for who’ll come into the leadership and who’ll remain, I can’ t say. No date has been set for the Congress. We had intended to hold it during July and August 1986 so that outside members could attend but technical problems postponed it. The military situation is also a factor. But we hope to have the Congress by the end of this year.
Question: Everyone has been expecting the ninth major military offensive from the Ethiopians to take place this month. Why has the offensive been delayed?
Issayas: Some officers have been deserting from the front-lines. One or two divisions have refused to go into war. It’s actually a mutiny. There are attempts being made to keep these divisions in their positions at the front-line. Also technical problems at the training camps may be a factor. The Ethiopians are training some airborne divisions, an elite army. Their experience in the past has not been successful so what they’ll try now is to use this elite army. Selection of effective recruits for this army causes delay.
There has also been a lot of trouble about the constitution. There have been two lines on this, some opting for a federated Ethiopia with different entities. The other group are unionists who want a monolithic structure with the central government doing everything in Addis Ababa in the name of regional autonomies. Of course, the federalists have been defeated according to our information although this hasn’t been publicized.
Many have been deserting from the ranks of the army. About three to five thousand Soviet experts have been brought in to fill the vacuum which the regime is creating by harassment and conscription. Skilled workers and intellectuals are not relied upon so there’s a brain drain they have to fill from the Soviet Union, East Germany and Bulgaria. They’ve also invited the North Koreans. All these factors have caused a delay in the offensive.
Question: How much longer can the Dergue persist in attempting to bring about a military solution in Eritrea?
Issayas: It’s a matter of attitude. The regime will always opt for military measures, they’ll never compromise. But to sort out their problems, I don’t think this can ever be resolved without democratic measures.
Question: How much is Ethiopian military policy related to Mengistu’s own personality?
Issayas: That’s one o f the problems of Third world countries, like epidemics.
Certain leaders come to power and everything becomes associated with their personalities,
they don’t want to share power or decision-making. Mengistu is one of this paranoid group of leaders. He’s trying, to build an empire and of course building an empire is the dream of lunatics. Hitler was like that, Mussolini was like that and Mengistu is one of those types.Otherwise, with 7 million people facing starvation, with all the opposition, democratic demands, one would at least respond. His attempts to join the Soviet Union and crush all
opposition by military means . . . it ‘s a personal problem. These governments don’t function democratically, individuals decide and this reflects their complexes and attitudes and leads to a catastrophic situation . Thousands are dying, isn’t it time to find another solution? Even the internal problems, the unionist attitude puts one man at the top. This dictatorial nature complicates the situation within the Dergue.
Question: These strong paternalistic leaders seem to be characteristic of many African states …
Issayas: Because there isn’t unity among the people it would be foolish for any leader to think of creating a monolithic state or system. In Ethiopia, the Oromos, Tigrayans and Somalis are all aspiring to self – rule. Why not give it to them rather than imposing a system to rule them from one site? Either give them self – rule o r create a monolithic system. But it’s a dream to think of establishing a strong industrial or agricultural state in Africa . Amin, Obote, Numieri, Qaddaffi, these are typical examples of individuals with dreams of ruling, crushing everybody. We always say that if Qaddaffi had a population of 40 million he would have invaded the whole of North Africa . Why should one dream about that?
Question: What sort of international support does the EPLF receive? Why has the EPLF failed to gain support from the OAU, unlike Polisario?
Issayas: Is Polisario such a strong organization that it’s been able to impose itself on Africa and the OAU? Is it because Polisario enjoys the support of the population of Western Sahara? It’s outside the wishes of Polisario because Algeria is very interested in creating a certain situation in that part of North Africa, using its resources to impose Polisario as a representative of Western Sahara within the OAU. When it comes to our cause and that of Western Sahara there’s no difference. But in our case, geographical position and global interests cause additional problems. On those grounds I don’t see any comparison with Polisario or the support they’re getting. We don’t expect any support. We know the position of the U.S., the Soviet Union and other African governments.
It’s not because of the validity of our cause or the effectiveness of our movement that we don’t get any support. People are feeling allergic about it because it’s a very sensitive issue, they don’t want to talk about Eritrea. We’ve learned to do things on our own. don’t have the same support the Viet Namese received or that the Palestinians are getting. Why?
Question: But Eritrea has receive support from Arab countries in the past, what about Syria?
Issayas: We haven’t got a single rifle from Syria. They give moral support. We haven’t received arms from anyone. Ammunition, yes.
Question: So why is the Eritrean liberation struggle different from these other
Issayas: Eritrea’s uniqueness is based on its colonial history and it’s claim for
independence is also based on that history. While this historical background has its role to play it’s also the case that the more you try to impose a solution of uniting one group with a certain body, the more there’s a feeling of independence. After World War II when Libya and Somalia were given their independence this had an effect on Eritrea. I don’t mean it inspired that demand, it was already there, but people began to say “Are we less than Libya or Somalia? Why can’t we be independent like everyone else?” The federal solution was an imposition by the UN, it wasn’t the wish of the Eritrean people and when it came as a solution it was rejected. If the federal solution had worked and not been violated by Haile Selassie could armed struggle have started. I don’t think so. This imposition of a solution led to a psychological desire for independence.
When the U.S. left in 1974, when Haile Selassie was overthrown, there was talk of re-establishing the federal system. There was a feeling that a new relationship might be possible. But because the Soviet Union came in, there was an imposition of unity by force. This sentiment of independence has been a very long process, has had a long development and is part of our psychology. This feeling has been growing through our struggle because we have our cultural, political and historical identity. The more there is oppression the more we have to fight, the more we feel that we have to be independent.
We’re not narrow, we’ve proposed our referendum with 3 choices. If there can be an accomodation of the interests of the Ethiopian regime this could be negotiated by representatives. I think it is this psychological factor which distinguishes the Eritrean struggle from other independence movements more than anything else. To fight for 25 years and sacrifice so much is not easy. Many groups – Basques, Armenians – have fought for a long time .
Question: Does the EPLF accept the OAU’s principle of maintaining colonial boundaries?
Issayas: Yes because we have our own colonial boundaries. That s the paradox in the OAU, that article of their charter was a clever trick of Haile Selassie. Take southern Sudan . . . many say why not give them an independent state? There is an option for forming an independent state outside the colonial boundaries, why not accept it as a solution since the other situation hasn’t worked? It’s a question of under-development, of problems of minorities fighting for their rights who need democratic attitudes from their rulers.
Question: Many African leaders maintain that their first task is nation-building as a precondition for development and insist that they can’t give these rights to all minorities …
Issayas: This is sophistry, trying to justify undemocratic attitudes by arguments which seem to take into account the needs of the people. If development is to come by crushing people…we’ve been fighting for 25 years. What’s been gained in this attempt to create this big empire? Nobody has been able to create this empire. In the 19th century Teowdros failed, Menelik, Yohannes, Haile Selassie failed and Mengistu will fail too. As a course of development it’s never succeeded. The logic is: before democracy development comes. It’s not realistic. Development only comes by creating a democratic political atmosphere. It’s putting the cart before the horse to say “development before democracy”. It’s a kind of sickness, like Qaddaffi’s desire to create Arab unity from the Atlantic to the Middle East. Would a sensible man have that type of program? You have to fight to create such a big nation. If you forget it you don’t worry other people.
Question: Is an independent Eritrea really a viable proposition?
Issayas: Our programs are good examples and are the outcomes of our experience. We’ve said that we don’t have to rely on the resources of others but we’ve had long discussions about this. Say we want a certain factory, we can’t build it from scratch. We might go to Italy for the technology but we must give something in return. Both the public and the private sector must invite foreign investment, we can’t get this technology if outsiders can’t get profits. We have to allow foreign investment from anyone with those interests. We can’t just rely on our friends who were sympathetic during the struggle. So we’ve made certain changes to the National Democratic Program. The National Democratic Program serves as a general guideline, it doesn’t mean it can’t change. We want to establish a system guaranteeing democratic rights and institutions, not the whims of certain groups or leaders and we need these democratic institutions as preconditions for any economic policy. First democracy, then development.
People like to live better, have the best food and good houses. How do we fulfil these desires? We need political rights and we have to know the wishes of the population. We will have to bring compromises to benefit all and there will be a trial and error period.
We can’t say we have an independent state with a stable economy. The mere fact of our survival leads to innovation. Had we relied on outside help we wouldn’t have found ways to solve our daily problems. Say we capture a tank and must repair the clutch. You don’t ask for outside help, and you do it on your own. This has had a positive impact culturally, our experience will not be like that of other African countries. The viability of any economic plan depends on the human factor.
Much of this is due to colonialism. The uniqueness of Eritreans is not because they are like some kind of “Aryan race”. The Italians created an extensive infrastructure to serve their own interests. The demand for labour was very high, people were forced to integrate themselves. Sixty years of colonialism created a tradition of hard work and creativity, it left an impact on our society. Later there was a challenge from outside forces, the dismantling of this infrastructure was not accepted by Eritreans. It was seen by them is an attempt by outsiders to deprive them of what they’ve achieved. This created an attitude of trying to retain skills and developed into the overall process of transformation. You can’t find the same thing in Ethiopia. Italian farmers introduced many things and there have been Many demands on the front to build canals and reservoirs and so on. There’s a mentality of maintaining the culture and traditions introduced by colonialism.
Question: So are you attributing this unique Eritrean identity to a direct result of Italian colonialism?
Issavas: I think I can’t deny that. But this is not to just accept colonialism as a good thing. It has introduced many things, developed our economy and culture. That is undeniable even though we’ve been good fighters for a long time. That too can be attributed to the sense of survival a tradition of perseverance, the wish to fight whoever comes from outside to make you kneel down. This has its own history over 3 or 4 centuries. The accumulation of all these factors leads to a unique identity.
Question: You spoke earlier of ethnic and tribal divisions existing here, particularly in the rural areas. How were these divisions overcome to create this Eritrean identity?
Issayas: How these divided people came to such a unified leadership is an historical accident. Politically the people are very advanced. In the 1940s religious and tribal differences led to skirmishes and these were exploited by Haile Selassie. When federation came people realized that it was these divisions which had led to this kind of solution. Otherwise, if they had been united, another option would have been available. From 1952 and throughout the 1960s, especially in the towns, there were the beginnings of organizations without these divisions and it was prohibited to introduce such differences into the movement. ELF in the countryside was not cosmopolitan and had this very narrow attitude of clans and tribes. The geographical factor played a role, no one could fight repression in the towns, they had to flee to the countryside. Many commanders were from backward areas, they had been shepherds, peasants, soldiers in the Sudanese army. The consciousness was high in the towns but the leadership of the armed struggle in the countryside didn’t reflect the aspirations of the people.
Question: What is the current situation regarding prisoners of war?
Issavas: We’re negotiating with the Red Cross. They’re realized certain mistakes of the past and we hope to come to an understanding with them. We’re not changing our policies which are very clear and more practical than those of the ICRC. ICRC was trying to deal with us as a party which had agreed to the Geneva Conventions but ironically didn’t take into account the situation in Addis Ababa. ICRC deals deals with both sides in Iran and Iraq but not here. When we raised the question of our prisoners, the regime said it was an internal problem with bandits and political dissidents so the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to them. The Dergue regards its prisoners as traitors and deserters. The ICRC tried to impose unacceptable conditions on us while being submissive to the Dergue.
We hope the ICRC will be more involved in helping POW’s in the future. There are many psychological problems among the prisoners, longing for their families and so on. We try to make contacts with families through indirect means, through radio asking for food and medical aid to better their conditions. We make the POWs participate in physical activities, games, create cultural troupes among them and try to make them conscious. Some have joined the EPLF, there are hundreds within our ranks. We released some POWs but these were picked up by the kebeles and forced into rehabilitation camps or back into the army. This happened in 1979, 1982, 1983. The biggest number we released was 500. Some were executed by firing squad on their return, some were imprisoned and some came back to the EPLF. Later 300 prisoners were supposed to go back secretly. Some elements informed and they were forced to go back into the army. It’s hopeless to release they so them can be forced into the army again.
The role of the ICRC could be better organized, they could send messages to families. They have the opportunity to negotiate to safeguard the rights of POWs without preconditions. We are also looking for a third party which can accomodate POWs. Sudan is a possibility although in the past there were problems with Numieri. One group was handed over to Sudan in 1981 by the ELF and these 70 prisoners were used by Numieri as a bargaining card with the Dergue. Many were handed back and killed. Another group of 250 deserters from the Tessenai attack fled to Sudan but were denied asylum and imprisoned in a camp with very bad conditions. Finally Numieri agreed to hand over this group and they met the same fate. We hope the new government can genuinely help these prisoners either by letting them stay in Sudan or r returning discreetly to their villages.
Some NGOs have discussed compensation for prisoners. We don ‘t want this compensation, we are not holding them for ransom. In Addis Ababa our prisoners face firing squads or are imprisoned for life. We have attempted to exchange prisoners but the Dergue won’t negotiate, won’t respond or recognize us. We will release prisoners with no preconditions. But it s a problem to release them into the hands of a regime they’ve rejected.
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Contributed to asenai.com by AIDA KIDANE