Re-writing TPLF’s history (Part Two) – Eskinder Nega, Addis Ababa.
She was sitting at the corner of Mexico square in downtown Addis, intensely engrossed in a thin book dangling between her delicate fingers. A book worm myself, I couldn’t resist the temptation to pop the question.
“Good book, eh?” I inquired. She looked up, and smiled.
“A collection of poems,” she responded, and held up the cover.
“Think I should buy it?” I asked her. One of Addis’ proliferating book vendors, she told me that poems are popular and sell reasonably well.
“How about those over there?” I queried, pointing to three books displayed next to each other: Mengistu Haile-Mariam speaks, by Genet Ayele ;Liberty and the dispensation of justice in Ethiopia, by Seye Abraha; and Meles Zenawi and the voyage of the TPLF, by Col Eyasu Mengesha.
“They sell well,” she replied cautiously, no doubt her alarm bells ringing. This is Ethiopia after all, and who knows what danger lurks behind a stranger boldly venturing in to politics.
“But which one sells the best?” I persisted. She wasn’t smiling anymore. She looked at me suspiciously. I looked back with the most innocent look I could muster.
“Those sell best,” she said, pointing to Mengistu’s and Seye’s. My laughter caught her off guard.
“How about that one?” I asked, pointing to the book about Meles. She stared back at me, too afraid to respond. “You know it’s not a crime to tell the truth,” I pressed on. She stood up. And suddenly, with a daring look, she exploded.
“It doesn’t sell as much as the other two,” she blurted out. “I don’t know who you are. And I don’t care what happens to me. It’s the truth.” Bemused and delighted by her defiance and courage, I bought a book of poems she recommended.
Other vendors confirmed what she said (which indicates how unpopular the EPRDF really is), and I couldn’t help but wonder how the “admirer” of Meles who bought 40,000 copies (which comes out to 2.4 million birr, not 240,000 birr as I erroneously calculated in the first part of this article) would dispense of his sizable holdings.
Anyhow, back to the book: Meles Zenawi and the Voyage of the TPLF( Meles Zenawi ena Yehewehat Yetegel Gezo) by Col. Eyasu Mengesh
MURDER IN THE MOUNTAINS OF TIGRAY.
Six months after the birth of the TPLF, contact is established with the other, slightly older, Tigrayan organization, the Tigrayan Liberation Front (TLF.) Inspired and encouraged by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), the TLF was founded a year before the revolution in 1974; aspiring, according to Eyasu(the author of this book), “ to liberate Tigray from Ethiopian colonialism.” But it looked to Ras Mengesha, governor of Tigray in the early 70s, and scion of the Tigrayan aristocracy, for leadership, writes Eyasu contemptuously. ( Ras Mengesha, for the record, had no contact with the TLF, nor has he ever sympathized with its cause.) “TLF’s activities were restricted to Agame(a region in Tigray) and few other cities.”
Wary of the armed conflict between the ELF and its offshoot, the EPLF, both fighting for independence in Eritrea, merging—not merely forging an alliance—the two Tigrayan organizations was keenly agreed upon by both sides to avoid a potential catastrophe—armed conflict between two fragile analogous organizations. (Most Tigrayan students and intellectuals favored the far more potent EPRP, a pan-Ethiopian grouping, at this time.)
But the sentiment was not unanimous. “ Meles strongly objected to the merger, “ notes Eyasu, quoting a book, Tsenat, which also dwells on TPLF’s history. In fact, so belligerently did Meles speak out, Seyoum Mesfin, back then his superior but now his cowed junior as Foreign Minister, was compelled discipline him. (The punishment is not specified.) The reason behind Meles’ strident objection? (Prepare for a hearty laugh!) “He insisted that a democratic organization (the TPLF) and an anti-democratic organization (the TLF) could not successfully merge.”
Put to a vote, in which all members of the TPLF participated, the majority opts for union. Meles, obviously ambitious, but still a middle ranker at this stage, suffered his first political setback. And damingly, his aggressive discourse singled him out in the wrong way to his peers and superiors alike, and they were not willing to let it pass. They punished him. Sadly, the penalty was to have no effect. Apparently, here lies the genesis of an intolerant politician that will one day derail the nation’s sensitive transition to pluralism.
And had it not been for the failure of the merger, with its tragic and homicidal ending, redeeming those who had been against it, the trajectory of Meles in the TPLF was in the wrong direction. The leadership was not happy with him.
Having agreed on a merger, a date was set to consecrate the communion in the presence of all members of both organizations. On the set date, however, when the totality of both organizations’ members convened at Zegebela, TPLF members were suddenly inundated with news of a split within the TLF that had a bloody ending. Allegedly, unbeknownst to the TPLF leaders who had negotiated the merger, the TLF leadership had been ravaged by a split that eventuated in scores of people being executed.
Infuriated, TPLF leaders demand a written confession. TLF leaders, of course, reject the ultimatum, but still hope for the merger. “What happened next is wrong,” says even Eyasu. TLF members were disarmed while they slept, and the leadership summarily executed. They were not tried—they were simply shot in cold blood.
Meles’ part in this tale of treachery and homicide is unclear. Eyasu, to little surprise, stirs clear from it. As a prominent dissenter to the merger, however, Meles could have hardly been indifferent to the climax that had suddenly gone his way. But he was not a member of the transitional CC that run the TPLF at the time. By 1991, when the EPRDF assumed power with the TPLF at its core, only two members of the transitional CC, Seyoum Mesfin and Abay Tesahye, remained in the organization. The others had either died or left the party.
With TLF eliminated, the next step for the TPLF was to increase the ranks of its armed fighters; then still barely over a hundred strong. Thirty people, including the physically frail Meles, were dispatched to Eritrea as the third batch of trainees. Fifteen difficult days later, they finally make it to EPLF territory. “And this is where the first strain in the long and difficult relationship between the EPLF and TPLF occurred,” recounts Eyasu. The training that was sought was refused, “most probably to please the EPRP,” speculates Eyasu. Outraged and shocked, the TPLF contingent hurriedly treads back home with the devastating news. EPLF support was crucial to jumpstart an insurrection in Tigray.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear where Eyasu is heading: The relationship between Meles and the EPLF suffered at first contact, permanently scarring Meles’ impression. The new Meles has an anti-EPLF credential deeper and longer than many of his critics!
ETHIOPIAN NATIONALISM AND THE NEW MELES
And then comes what will most probably be one of the most contentious parts of the book. The setting is the founding congress of the TPLF, held a year after the launch of the organization, where a leadership was to be elected and the transitional party program, drawn by Abay and Meles a year earlier, ratified either in its original format or in a revised version.
“A revised version was read to the congress,” says Eyasu, “and it set the goal as the secession of Tigray from Ethiopia.” A huge controversy erupts. Meles couldn’t have known about the revision, argues Eyasu, because he was not a member of the leadership. His critics, however, maintain otherwise. “On the contrary, “ goes on Eyasu, ‘ Meles spoke passionately against secession at the congress and was instrumental in its reversal.” Aregawi Berhe at this time being the dominant personality in the party, Eyasu insists, must have known about the revision. “What has been propagated is contrary to what had happened,” counters Eyasu.( Aregawi Berhe, who has left the party and now lives in Europe, allegedly attributes the secession clause to Meles.) In other words, not only has Meles never flirted with secession, as his critics and rivals disingenuously charge, but has in fact always been a strong Ethiopian nationalist.
The new Meles is draped in the Ethiopian flag. Ready made hero for all Ethiopians!!!
The end. (Last part of this article will appear the week after next.)
Next week: The EPRDF CONGRESS: AN ASSESSMENT.