Book Review: Tadesse Tele Salvano’s Ay Massawa! – Messay Kebede
The book presents an encircled army defending with courage and determination the port of Massawa against the ferocious attacks of the EPLF’s military forces assisted with units of the TPLF. This army unit of 17000 men resisted for ten long days even though it had no other choice than death or mere surrender: it could neither retreat as the Red Sea blocked any backward move, nor receive reinforcements given that the EPLF firmly controlled the road to Asmara. The book is all together an epic, an immense tragedy, and a great tribute to Ethiopian nationalism. Many combatants were killed on both sides although the book does not offer figures of the dead, the wounded, and the prisoners.
The central figure of this military saga is Brigadier General Techome Tessema, the commander of the 6th Nebelbal Division. He is the hero in that he magnificently incarnates a forceful leadership and the determination to fight to the end. Ultimately, preferring death to capture, he killed himself. His death led to a collective suicide of 150 of his men, including his close associates.
The author, Tadesse Tele Salvano, is not wanting in heroic feats, either. A sergeant performing political functions, he had already fought many battles in Eritrea and was injured 5 times. During the battle of Massawa, he was wounded and made prisoner by the EPLF. He was taken to the Sahel but escaped after killing his guard. He fled to the Sudan with military secrets and reached the Ethiopian Embassy, which flew him back to Addis Ababa where he was received by Mengistu Haile Mariam for a long talk.
Before going further, I want to indicate that I wrote this review with two purposes in mind. First is the importance of understanding why the huge, well-equipped, and ideologically pumped up Ethiopian army lost against forces that were operating as only guerrilla groups for many years. Ethiopians cannot confidently commit themselves to their projected undertakings unless they understand the reasons for the colossal defeat of their national army, thereby reconstituting their shattered self-image. Second is the challenge that Tadesse’s book presents, for his testimony markedly differs from others on the same topic. The description of an army unit fighting with such determination and willingness to die makes the defeat of the Ethiopian army even more incomprehensible. Witness: the Ethiopian resistance was so fierce that the EPLF was forced to use two generals that it had captured as a propaganda instrument. Using a powerful megaphone, the captured generals urged the troops to surrender in exchange for a safe trip to places of their choice.
That the army was still willing to fight with such a remarkable determination even after the massacre of 30 generals and colonels and the arrest of 250 senior officers following the attempted coup of May 1988 is indeed stupefying. It only adds to the puzzle of knowing how the army gradually descended into a situation where it had to fight a conventional war against two armies of equal if not superior strength, both in size and equipment. According to Tadesse, when the EPLF attacked Massawa, with the exception of air power, it had clearly acquired military superiority over the Derg’s army in armament, recruitment, and training.
Though Tadesse’s intent is less to explain defeat than to narrate a saga, he cannot avoid the issue. And this is where his approach is different. He does not mention––at least in this book––those reasons by which other authors have explained the Ethiopian defeat. Among the most important ones, we find leadership incompetence, especially the erratic and inept influence of its commander-in-chief, the lack of adequate training, the politicization of the army with the subsequent institution of what is known as a triangular command system in which the commander shares power with a political commissar and a security officer, the outcome of which was a serious deterioration of discipline, and last but not least, the insurmountable topographic obstacles inherent in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
In this particular book, Tadesses seems to dismiss the above reasons by portraying a military unit in which the commander, General Techome, works in perfect harmony with political commissars and shows no animosity toward Mengistu Haile Mariam. Since he is not among the plotters of the attempted coup, we can even assume that the General was committed to Mengistu. The way the resistance is described discloses no lack of discipline and commitment to fight. On the contrary, Ethiopian nationalism is revealed in its full strength with military men ready to die for the integrity of the country.
Naturally, Tadesse cannot discount that the killing, imprisonment, and dismissal of so many senior officers accused of being involved in the coup attempt had significantly reduced the fighting ability of the army, even though he does not expressly blame Mengistu for destroying the army to safeguard his power. Whatever criticisms of Mengistu that the book contains, they all emanate from the captured two generals whose treacherous behavior casts doubt upon their judgments.
The other important reason that Tadesse underlines for the defeat in Massawa is that both the army and the Ethiopian government were fooled by the peace negotiations that were taking place in Kenya under the mediation of Jimmy Carter, all the more so as a year had passed––since the debacle in Afabet––without any major clash between the Ethiopian army and the EPLF. Little did the Ethiopians know that the EPLF was actually using the break to recruit, train, and prepare its army for massive attacks.
Tadesse reveals the extent to which the army in Eritrea was heedless of the attacks on a grand scale that the EPLF was preparing. The assault on Massawa came as a surprise for everybody, including Major General Hussein Ahmed, the commander of the Second Revolutionary Army. The state of unpreparedness for large attacks is baffling, as shown by the fact that the navy was calmly preparing its 33th graduation ceremony when Massawa was attacked.
Now is the explanation for the Massawa defeat credible? Can we assume that the leadership did not expect massive attacks, especially after the capture of huge stocks of heavy weapons and tanks in Afabet? What is more, was Mengistu himself negotiating in good faith? These questions lead the reader to doubt Tadesse’s assumption that the Ethiopian government decreased its war effort because of ongoing peace negotiations. The truth is that the government had already reached its absolute limits in terms of recruitment and war preparations.
The second issue about Tadesse’s book is its reliability. I am not saying that the epic dimension of the testimony is an invention: the detailed and graphic presentation of events clearly rules out this possibility, even if here and there exaggerations do transpire. My concern with reliability wonders whether the resolution to tell a saga did not cover up the other components of this tragedy, without which it is not comprehensible. The more Tadesse highlights the determination and commitment of the Ethiopian army, the more the question of knowing what drove this army to this desperate situation becomes a burning issue. It is not clear to the reader why, unlike other authors, he is obviously reluctant to put the blame of the defeat on Mengistu and his leadership. Nor does he endorse the view of the winners according to which they were able to defeat a much bigger army because of higher determination and efficient leadership.
So analyzed, Tadesse’s book does not provide any better insight into the reasons for the Ethiopian defeat. However, it does challenge those works that easily explain the defeat by contrasting the dedication and efficiency of the insurgents with the lack of determination and competence on the Ethiopian side. Not only is competence a relative term as reflected in the saying that “the one-eyed person is a beauty in the country of the blind,” but also the Massawa epic of the Ethiopian army disputes the alleged lack of determination. Scholars are hereby asked to come up with a more complex and comprehensive explanation of Ethiopia’s complete defeat. Seeing that the defeat brought such dire calamities on the country as the loss of Eritrea and the fragmentation of ethnic federalism, the effort is worth the price.