Fourth Stage (1970-81)
The past part of this stage, from the first EPLF Congress in 1977 until 1981, falls within the purview of an evaluation of the EPLF’s experiences. But this does not preclude its treatment here as it is inseparable from an overall assessment of the Eritrean political movement and developments within the ELF.
This stage abounds with impressive achievements. It was also one of civil war, dialogue, resumption of civil war, the fictionalization of groups and finally the emergence of a single decisive Front. It was not at all surprising that civil war ensued, as the ELF was still dominated by those who continued the line of the Supreme Council, those that had failed and found to be incapable of uniting all national forces, those who throve on divisiveness and were unwilling to solve any democratic opposition by peaceful means. With the birth of the EPLF, the liquidationist urge reared its head again and grew in magnitude. The civil war had its prelude in the decimation of the fledging ELM, the liquidationist campaign within the ELF ranks and the atrocities perpetrated on the people. The only thing that set it apart from the earlier campaigns was its scale.
After the Adobha Conference, the failure of the General Command to suppress all democratic opposition served to strengthen the challenge to its policies. This increased the isolation of the General Command and fed its fears. In common with all put schist forces, who ride on the crest of mass protests in order to change their orientation and liquidate genuine democratic forces, the General Command feigning observance of the Adobha resolutions set up its own congress-preparatory committee and invited the force that had split from the ELF (i.e. the EPLF) to participate. The scheme was to ensnare and liquidate the EPLF and if that failed to use the rejection of the offer to participate in what was evidently-by virtue of the composition of the participants and the way it was convened-an undemocratic congress whose outcome was known beforehand as an excuse for launching a liquidationist campaign.
In the event, the General Command convened what it called the First National Congress, coopted opportunistic and subservient elements to the leadership and declared its political program. It also presented the EPLF with an ultimatum, either return to ELF ranks or face a liquidationist military campaign. This was only an attempt to justify an already decided upon civil war and when the foredoomed re-unity failed to materialize, the leadership which had emerged from the congress, the Revolutionary Council, promptly ignited the civil war.
But the result of the civil war that was sparked off over-zealously and with expectations of a quick victory did not satisfy the Revolutionary Council. The EPLF was not liquidated. And although the civil war was accompanied by an intensive smear campaign, the people were unconvinced and gradually popular opposition to the civil war mounted within ELF ranks and especially the army, the propaganda campaign was also ineffective. Internal opposition to the civil war gained momentum. Abroad, except for one or two countries that fanned the fratricidal war, all friends of the Eritrean revolution opposed it. On the ground, the ELF despite its superiority in manpower and arms, failed to crush or weaken the EPLF. On the contrary, the strength of the EPLF grew quantitatively as well as qualitatively in the process of its defensive war. The EPLF’s condemnation of the civil war, its calls for democratic dialogue and for directing all arms against the enemy received popular support. After four years (1971-75) of bloodshed and heavy human and material losses, the liquidation scheme of the Revolutionary Council fizzled out.
At the time, the EPLF was neither a homogeneous or entirely democratic opposition force. It included in its ranks-at all levels-members of the Supreme Council who had lost out in the power struggle as well as elements that had split from the ELF because of narrow and vindictive outlooks. The opposition was aware of these shortcomings and concluded an agreement from the outset clearly defining its opposition, inter-relations and working methods. The contradictory lines and interests were apparent in the internal working of the EPLF, but did not erupt into open confrontation as long as the civil war continued. The broadly democratic force worked to strengthen its unity and consolidate its organization in the process of an internal political dialogue as well as joint struggles, while the force abroad which represented the line of the Supreme Council-and its internal accomplices strove to dominate the EPLF which they saw as a temporary regrouping ground or a bargaining chip. In the end, most elements of what was known as the Foreign Mission and their narrow-minded adherents in the field chose to leave the EPLF, which on that account, emerged stronger politically and organizationally.
The ELF leadership-the Revolutionary Council-was faced with a strong challenge when its attempts to manipulate the 1975 popular movement against the civil war were exposed and aborted, and the opposition of its ranks and file fighters to the liquidationist scheme grew out of control, leading to the formation of fighters dialogue committees (to discuss with the EPLF). As usual, the RC concealing its liquidationist schemes stage the “Second National Congress” to enable it to mount the popular tide and divert it towards its own ends. It endorsed the policy of democratic dialogue initiated by the EPLF, passing a resolution to that effect. But instead of entering into serious discussions with the basic force of the EPLF, the Revolutionary Council proceeded to conclude a unity agreement with the Foreign Mission, in an effort at exploiting the splittist trend of the Foreign Mission and its accomplices in the field. The RC also launched fresh anti-EPLF campaigns to find a pretext for liquidation. But these schemes too failed to yield results. And finally, following the first organizational congress of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces, internal and external pressure forced the RC to sign the October 1977 Agreement.
Realizing that the implementation of the agreement would not serve its interests, the RC started searching for loopholes to nullify the agreement and foment internecine clashes, at a time when raging battles were being fought against the colonial Dergue regime and the Eritrean revolution was scoring big military victories. Failing to consider EPLF victories as those of the Eritrean revolution as a whole, the RC incited clashes to place obstruction in the EPLF’s advance. And later when the balance of forces tipped in the enemy’s favor and the Eritrean revolution, particularly the EPLF, became engaged in an extensive defensive war, the RC stepped up its attacks in the hope of exploiting the situation to weaken the EPLF.
But things did not stop there. In violation of the provisions of the October 1977 Agreement on the minimum program for co-operation and the participation of ELF units in the defense of the revolution’s base areas, the RC withdrew its units and attempted to stab in the back the EPLF which was fully occupied by the defensive war. Finally, it mustered its forces and unleashed a large scale civil war but was defeated and pushed off into the Sudan in 1981. This defeat sharpened the internal conflicts that had been smoldering under patched-up alliances. Opposition to the dominant liquidationist leadership mounted and when this leadership attempted to solve the conflict by staging a coup, the ELF became fragmented and disintegrated.
The struggle in this, the fourth stage in the development of the Eritrean movement, should not be viewed narrowly as a conflict between the ELF and EPLF, but as a continuation of the efforts of the Eritrean movement to forge a broad national democratic front.
The EPLF has to be viewed within the context of the Eritrean revolution, not as a grouping of those who claimed the name and pushed a narrow, sectarian and liquidationist line. Hence, in the broadest sense it was not the ELF that disintegrated but the anti-national force and line represented at the first by the Supreme Council and its accomplices, subsequently by the General Command and finally by the dominant and reactionary faction of the Revolutionary Council.
To sum up, in the forty years between 1941-81, the Eritrean struggle for self-determination and independence passed roughly through the following stages: an initial stage of struggle between independence and anti-independence parties characterized by the domination of the forces of colonialism and empire builders and plagued by political chaos and disintegration; followed by a more advanced, politically sophisticated and unified national struggle and the beginning of a national organization, a return to divisiveness and the start of a rectification movement aimed at building a national organization, the recurrence of the mushrooming of organizations and the clarification of the national democratic line; and finally, the emergence of a broad and decisive national democratic fron.