About Assegid Gebre Selassie’s Gahdi and the TPLF by Messay Kebede
My purpose begins by stating that my reading of Assegid Gebre Selassie’s Gahdi (part one) significantly departs from the review of the book by Tecola Hagos, an esteemed friend and an established public intellectual for the democratization of Ethiopia. Even though Tecola was critical of some aspects of the book, notably, of the “jubilation” that Assegid displays in his narratives of the TPLF’s victories against the Ethiopian army––since he seems to forget that the so-called victories were victories against his own country––in the main, his review is laudatory. The main reason for the praise is neither the literary quality of the book nor its conceptual insights but its truthful account of important political and military events by a person who had been both a direct participant and observer.
Nonetheless, every time Tecola reviews a book, something insightful is bound to happen, mostly because he has a way of putting the finger on issues that the author either failed to articulate properly or does not want to confront. His review of Gahdi is no exception to the rule, and the discernment comes out in the following statement: “what is most puzzling to me is the fact that why TPLF that was well organized, had superior manpower and weapon by the 1980s remained in some kind of subservient relations with EPLF’s Leadership.” The puzzle is real and reveals the failure of the book in that Assegid never succeeds in dissipating it. On the contrary, the book aggravates the riddle to the point of casting serious doubts on the veracity of its reports and explanations of events.
Though I reserve a more complete and detailed review of the book for a later date, I could not postpone the crucial importance of Tecola’s puzzlement, as it throws into relief the great question of Ethiopians about the nature of the TPLF. My claim is that Assegid’s book goes a long way in delivering the essence of the TPLF, provided that one reads it, not as an accurate account of events, but as a sloppy attempt at self-exoneration. I say “sloppy” because the book rests on a flagrant contradiction between Assegid’s visceral commitment to the TPLF and his own political demise, which he identifies with the loss of Assab and the wretched condition of Ethiopia under the TPLF.
The commitment is expressed by Assegid’s unreserved admiration of the TPLF’s fighting spirit and superior military strategy, an admiration so unbounded that he does not hesitate to say that the TPLF was the major, if not the only, defeater of the Derg. His account of the military force of the EPLF is deliberately demeaning, not to mention his utter contempt for the Ethiopian army. It is no exaggeration to say that, according to him, the TPLF would have defeated the Derg even without the EPLF when the plain fact is that the TPLF prevailed only after the Ethiopian army had been considerably diminished in its unsuccessful confrontations in Eritrea. The fate of the Derg was decided, not in Tigray, but in the Sahel mountains.
Unfortunately for Assegid, the more he assigns the exclusive victory over the Derg to the TPLF, the more he enhances the military and organizational power of the TPLF, and the less comprehensible becomes its subordination to the EPLF, all the more so as at times Assegid speaks as though the EPLF were the instrument of the TPLF rather than the other way round. Consequently, to explain why the TPLF failed in its commitments to liberate the Ethiopian peoples and create a prosperous and united Ethiopia with Assab as its main port, Assegid concocts the thesis that its leadership fell into the hands of Eritrean agents, the principal actors being Meles Zenawi, Abayi Tsehai, Sebhat Nega, Seyoum Mesfin, etc. Hence the puzzling issue: if the TPLF was so strong and the EPLF so weak, how on earth was the weak able to dominate the strong?
Assegid alludes to repression and deception silencing pro-Ethiopian elements in the TPLF. But his explanation falls flat when he himself admits that the anti-Eritrean forces within the TPLF failed to show a strong opposition to those working for the EPLF (see p. 31). Moreover, throughout the book, Assegid shows that the EPLF systematically engaged in activities detrimental to the TPLF and that the two organizations were sworn enemies from the get-go. He even states that the EPLF conspired with the Derg to undermine the TPLF, for instance by providing sensitive information to the Derg (pp. 138-139).Given this deep and protracted animosity, it is not clear how the leaders and fighters of the TPLF could be tricked, let alone forced, into giving the leadership to groups that were openly siding with the cause of Eritrea.
To the extent that the explanation of the derailment of the TPLF from its original goal is hardly convincing, the reason why Assegid clings to an irrational explanation is obviously rooted in his refusal to take a hard and critical look at the ideological and political goals of the TPLF. Since he refuses to question the original intent, he had to come up with an explanation involving derailment, essentially through the suggestion that Eritrean agents infiltrated the organization and brought about the betrayal. What speaks here is not reason or the resolution to understand and admit mistakes, but passion and the need to exonerate oneself by attributing the negative outcomes to a conspiracy, however unbelievable it may be.
The bare truth, however, is that the secession of Eritrea was the major condition allowing the TPLF to become the single hegemonic force controlling Ethiopia. Unquestionably, so long as the EPLF was a contending force within Ethiopia, the domineering goal of the TPLF could not come to pass so that pushing Eritrea out of Ethiopia was the appropriate strategic choice. (For further information on this point, see my article “The Underside of the Eritrean Issue.”) This same hegemonic goal explains why the TPLF decided to battle with the EPRP and the EDU, even as an alliance with these opponents of the Derg would have been more logical for an organization committed to democratize Ethiopia.
The point is that the TPLF has never been an organization committed to democracy; instead, it had a hegemonic agenda from the start, a point that has been recently underscored by another but more remorseful founding member. I have in mind Aregawi Berhe, who wrote: “the TPLF leadership put forward ethno-nationalism with ‘self-determination including and up to secession’ as its principal goal mainly because it offered the best chance of building an effective fighting force that leads to power, which understandably is the elite’s own goal” (A Political History Of The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991), p. 307.)
What this reveals is that the so-called agents of Eritrea actually designed the right strategy to achieve domination. They understood very early that the best way to weaken the Derg and become the sole owner of Ethiopia was to fully support the Eritrean independence. The port of Assab was the necessary sacrifice to realize such a goal, given that any desire to retain the port would lead to war, thereby placing the TPLF in the same situation as the Derg. Indeed, to secure Assab, the TPLF would be forced to occupy Eritrea and engage in the same destabilizing conflicts as the Derg, with the added difference that it would have been in a much more disadvantageous position to pursue its hegemonic interests.
The great lesson here is that dissident members of the TPLF cannot join the struggle for democracy by denouncing the derailment of the organization for the simple reason that the theory is contradictory and utterly untenable. They must have a hard and critical look at the initial ideology and political agenda of their organization and admit that the predominance of Meles and his clique is neither an accident nor the product of a conspiracy, but a logical development of both the initial stand against Ethiopia and the subsequent hegemonic aspiration. They must do so for their own sake and regeneration into a democratic force, for admission of guilt chiefly conditions their emancipation from the demons of resentment, radicalism, and vindictiveness.