In his attempt to expand his empire, Haile Selassie depended on foreign assistance. The Dergue too realized that it could not wipe out the Eritrean people’s struggle and crush the Ethiopian people’s opposition and thus sustain the Ethiopian empire without the support of external forces. From the outset, the Dergue did all it could do to secure American assistance, so it could strengthen the army and meet the threat created by the increased strength of the Eritrean revolution and the Ethiopian peoples’ opposition. The U.S. was hesitant in offering arms, not because it was suspicious of the Dergue but because it panicked at the fall of Haile Selassie and at the strength and direction of the opposition which over threw the regime. It did not want to take a hasty step. Badly in need of arms, the Dergue lost patience and did a volt-face turning its attention towards the Soviets. The Soviet Union, which had been watching the developments from afar, quickly took advantage of the new opportunities opened from its global interest, and was only too pleased to deliver arms. In a short period, the Dergue armed forces quadrupled both in numbers and weapons. The intervention of the Soviets and their accomplices wetted the regimes craving for imperial expansions and liquidation of the opposition. This external factor resulted in destruction and bloodshed unprecedented in Eritrean history, prolonged the conflict and blocked other possibilities for resolving the problem.
In addition to stimulating the regime’s imperial ambitions on Eritrea, and consolidating dictatorial rule in Ethiopia, the intervention of the Soviet Union and its allies played a major role in destabilizing the region. Leaving aside the military measures taken by Somalia and used as a pretext by Ethiopia, Soviet intervention aroused the Dergues fantasy of becoming a regional power in the ‘ Horn of Africa and beyond. The Dergue invaded the territory of the Republic of Somalia, in a bid to exploit the problems of Southern Sudan and taking steps against the states in the region to force them to either submit to its domination or face destabilization. These developments not only reflected on the regime’s outlook but also revealed the role that the Soviet Union was playing in complicating the politics of the region.
Under these circumstances, which precluded a political solution, what should EPLF have done? And what steps did it take?
In the two terror filled years preceding the first EPLF organizational congress, the nature of the Dergue and the line and direction it had adopted were clearly evident. Its peace maneuvers, the barbaric strangulation of youth and other atrocities it perpetrated on the civilian population in the cities, its burning of villages and massacres in the rural areas such as Weki-Duba and Om-Hajer, the Nine Point Policy, the “Red March” invasion (July 1976), and the large-scale military preparation did not leave room for doubt.
In the first organizational congress, the EPLF assessed the nature of the Deruge regime, decided to vigorously pursue its all-sided struggle, formulated and set out to implement a military strategy of popular liberation and went on the offensive. The town of Karora was liberated on the eve of the first congress (07-01-77). Nakfa (23-03-77) Afabet (06-04-77), Dekmhare (06-07-77), Keren (08-07-77), Segeneiti (03-08-77), Digsa (05-08-77) were liberated in rapid succession. After the Massawa-Asmara high way came under the control of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army on October 12 , 1977, Dogali (18-12-1977), parts of Masswa (21-12-77), Dongolo and Ghidae (24-1-78, Embatkala and Maihabar (25-1-78) and Nefacit and Seidici (27-01-78), Agordat (31-08-77), Mendefera (24-8-77), Adi Quala (12-8-77). All rural areas and all Eritrean towns with the exception of Asmara were under siege, partially freed. Massawa as well as Adi Keih, Barentu and Assab, were liberated.