Twenty-seven years after the start of the Eritrean armed struggle for liberation and after fourteen years of military dictatorship of Derg, the field of Eritrea hosted a historic battle of considerable significance. March 17-19, 1988 the EPLF smashed Ethiopia’s Nadew command stationed at Nakfa Front and liberated the town of Afabet.
The demise of Nadew command and the liberation of Afabet ended the military stalemate. The balance of power tilted in favor of Eritrean freedom fighters after the annihilation of Ethiopia’s strongest command that had been stationed at Nakfa Front for ten years.
Four months before the major battle, EPLF fighters launched a successful strike on Nadew that helped them to test the actual fighting capacity of the command. Raged by the attack and the impotent reaction of his army, Mengustu Hailemariam flew to the site to witness what had happened and hear the explanation of the commander of the Nadew Command, General Tariku Ayne, who later Mengustu killed. General Tariku Ayne was killed in February 1988 and in his place a new commander, Colonel Getaneh Haile, was appointed. Following the capture of Afabet by the EPLF, Mengistu appeared on national television and publicly declared ‘From now on, everything to the battlefield!’
The military history of Eritrea is not limited to the deeds of the armed forces. The discipline, intelligence and fighting spirit of the army and the cooperation, coordination and involvement of civilians in the conduct of war should be incorporated to create a fuller picture of the history. To do so, one must study the thirty years’ war of liberation in depth. Eritreans need knowledge of their military history in order to become well informed and thoughtful citizens.
Our military history has a civic and political function that serves nation building.
After its second and unity congress in 1987, the EPLF decided to intensify its military operation to speed up the liberation of Eritrea. In 1987 alone 168 operations were conducted in different fronts including behind enemy lines. These operations played a significant role in paving the way for the strategic operation in 1988.
Nadew command was a 22,000 strong army, stationed at Nakfa front for ten years. The demise of the command was one of the most significant strategic operations of the EPLF that changed the balance of power in favor of Eritrean freedom fighters. The EPLF carried out the operation in from four flanks. As planned, the EPLF liberated the town of Afabet within 48 hours. In this operation the Derg lost 18,000 men, 50 tanks, 100 trucks, 60 heavy artillery, 20 anti-aircraft artillery, and tens of thousands of light weapons were seized. The center of gravity of the Ethiopian army was smashed and the Derg lost one of its most experienced and war hardened army. Lt. Col. Afewerki Wassae, political commissar of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea, and many other top military leaders were captured. The shockwaves of the demise of Nadew shattered the political foundation of Addis Ababa and reverberated across the continent all the way to Moscow. For the first time since the beginning of soviet intervention in Eritrea, three Soviet military advisors, two of whom were colonels, were captured in the battle. Basil Davidson, a prominent historian of Africa, described the event as “one of the biggest victories ever scored by a liberation movement anywhere since Dien Bien Phu.”
The destruction of Nadew command was a turning point with huge political gains for the Eritrean revolution. The destiny of Eritrea’s war of liberation and the military dictatorship of Mengustu was decided at Afabet. The military victory in the battle of Afabet gave the EPLF fire power and negotiating power.
The EPLF demonstrated superior military competence to win victory over the Soviet aided and guided Ethiopian army. The coordination among various units of the EPLF, the command and control of the army, the exact implementation of the proposed plan and the discipline of the army altogether made victory possible. Sun Tsu, an ancient Chinese military strategist, states that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won. A skilled general has to see victory before going to war. In this case the military leaders of the EPLF were skilled in calculating victory before fighting. On the eve of the battle of Afabet, martyr Major General Gebrezgiabhier Gebremariam (Wuchu) had delivered a historic speech to his army. Standing before his army, he confidently said, “We have come here to participate in the burial ceremony of Nadew Command.” Based on his extensive experience, he was able to foresee the demise of Nadew. EPLF’s military leaders had confidence in their fighters and knew they would win the battle.
The destruction of Nadew command compelled the Derg and its allies to lose balance. The desperation on the part of the Derg was demonstrated vividly when Ethiopian army commanders decided to bomb their trucks, tanks and their army. They also bombed defenseless civilians in retaliation to their devastation and humiliation at the battle field. In May 12, 1988 the regime committed an atrocious massacre in Sheeb, killing 400 innocent civilians, most of whom were women, children and the elderly.