The Underside of the Eritrean Issue – By Prof. Messay Kebede

August 24th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

These days we catch the TPLF leaders openly claiming the paternity of the Eritrean independence and boasting about their achievement. (more…)

These days we catch the TPLF leaders openly claiming the paternity of the Eritrean independence and boasting about their achievement. More surprisingly, as though the issue of a second reunification of Eritrea with Ethiopia was back on the agenda, we hear them expressing their absolute opposition to such a development and their resolution to prevent it by all means necessary. Witness Sebhat Nega recently gave an interview in which he emphatically declares: “the EPRDF-led government of Ethiopia is the one and only force that would defend the independence of Eritrea” (Ethiomedia). In another interview, backing Sebhat, Meles reaffirms the unwavering commitment of his government to the Eritrean independence and its resolution to oppose fiercely any attempt to reverse the status quo. Since I do not see any credible force in Ethiopia today that would seriously threaten the Eritrean independence, I am puzzled by these interviews. Hence my question: what is the real purpose of these interviews?

Let me put Sebhat’s assertion in the context of the full interview. Sebhat seems to suggest that the movement that threatens the hardly won independence of Eritrea comes from none other than Isayas Afeworki and his associates. He finds that the past history of Shaebia has established beyond any doubt that it “is a treasonous group and can betray the struggle of the Eritrean people any time” (Ethiomedia). He supports the accusation by asserting that more than once the EPLF and its leadership have demonstrated a wavering stand on the issue of independence, as shown by the fact that the EPLF was ready to “consider a power-sharing arrangement with the Derg” (Ethiomedia). The agreement did not come into effect because of the opposition of the TPLF. In the words of Sebhat, “we were fearful that Shaebia would surrender but that fear was dispelled because we took measures that would block Shaebia from surrendering to the enemy” (Ethiomedia).Put otherwise, the TPLF forced the EPLF into accepting independence.

As though to vindicate Sebhat’s extraordinary insinuation, Isayas has recently declared his allegiance to a united Ethiopia by authorizing the publication of a magazine dedicated to the oneness of Ethiopia. While this official stand in favor of unity does not necessarily mean that Isayas is having second thought about the Eritrean secession, it does suggest that he has no ill-intention toward Ethiopia. Better still, directly contradicting the policy of fragmentation pursued by the TPLF, the Eritrean government puts on the role of a staunch defender of the Ethiopian unity.

In light of Sebhat’s and Meles’s fanatical support, the single question that deserves to be asked is the following: why are the TPLF leaders so adamantly opposed to the inclusion of Eritrea? Their opposition expresses more than a mere political inconveniency; it seems to convey a visceral fear, the sense of an impeding disaster. Listen to Sebhat, “we exerted tremendous efforts within and outside of the country and more than any other Eritrean political organization that Eritrea must break away from Ethiopia-and achieve independence” (Ethiomedia).

According to Sebhat’s explanation, the reason for imposing independence on Eritrea is simple: it has been a long standing commitment of the TPLF derived from the understanding that the Eritrean question is a colonial question. Unlike other nationalities within Ethiopia, the episode of the Italian colonization shows that “the question of Eritrea was different” (Ethiomedia). As was the case with other colonized countries, independence should have been the sole outcome of decolonization. In other words, the TPLF’s unwavering commitment to the independence of Eritrea originated from the conviction of supporting a just cause.

Needless to say, some such justification is an ideological discourse hiding the real reason, of which the TPLF leadership itself may not be fully aware. To get a sense of the real reason, we should review the nature of the relationship between the TPLF and the EPLF during their long fight against the Derg. It is now in the open that the relationship was based on many misunderstandings and had a rocky history of ups and downs. The collaboration survived because both needed each other to fight effectively the Derg. Any weakening of one of them meant that the Derg would turn with full force against the other. Such was the reason why, according to some dissident members, the TPLF had to send Tigrean combatants to rescue Eritrean fighters during the offensive of the Red Star Campaign. The defeat of the EPLF would have allowed the Derg to concentrate all its forces in Tigray and crush the TPLF.

Statements abound suggesting that when the TPLF finally succeeded in liberating completely Tigray from the Derg through a series of military successes, the faction within the TPLF advocating the independence of Tigray acquired momentum. However, a consensus was reached on a new political stand stating that the TPLF will pursue the fight against the Derg and liberate the rest of Ethiopia only under the condition that it remains the sole hegemonic force. The best way to achieve this political goal was to devise the policy of ethnicization and enforce the establishment of ethnic states. In thus dividing the Ethiopian polity along ethnic lines, not only would ethnicization undermine Ethiopian nationalism, but it would also give the upper hand to the TPLF through the creation of dependent ethnic parties.

This political vision had one insurmountable limitation, to wit, it could not include the EPLF. Not only was it utterly impossible to turn the EPLF into an dependent party, but it was also certain that it would become a formidable competitor for the control of Ethiopia. As Sebhat himself admits, “Shaebia was a strong national force, i.e. militarily. It was a well-organized group with a strong army” (Ethiomedia). With Eritrea inside Ethiopia, the scheme of the TPLF to remain the only hegemonic force would go into dust. Accordingly, Eritrea had to be pushed out of Ethiopia. All the more reason for so doing was that the Eritrean front had deliberately discarded ethnic identity in favor of a supra-ethnic or national identity transcending ethnic and religious differences. Whatever be the arrangement, the maintenance of Shaebia inside Ethiopia entailed the marginalization of the TPLF. Let alone Shaebia, even the OLF with much less resources and military power refused to be treated as an dependent partner because it did not owe its existence to the TPLF.

Even when Eritrea became independent, the cooperation could not continue. Economic and political rivalries poisoned the relationship of the two former partners. Conflicts multiplied leading to an atrocious war that resulted in the defeat of Eritrea and the signing of a peace treaty based on further misunderstandings. While some influential members of the TPLF advocated the removal of Isayas by marching on Asmara, the clique of Meles, to the great dismay of many, dismissed the idea. We now know why: it was less to protect Eritrean interests or ruling elite than to counter any situation that might resurrect the issue of reunification. Once Ethiopians control Asmara, who knows to what development such a control can lead?

To understand why today the TPLF leaders give interviews defending the Eritrean independence, we have to keep in mind the aftermaths of the Ethiopian election, which brought about the political and ideological bankruptcy of the present government. The TPLF leaders know that only the use of repressive methods can prolong their hegemony. They also recognize that they cannot sustain their repressive forces if another war starts with Eritrea. Now that they are bogged down in Somalia in addition to being massively contested inside the country, they need to subvert the Eritrean ruling faction by encouraging the internal opposition. Oh, they would like to resolve the conflict by accepting the Hague ruling in favor of Eritrea, but they realize that any territorial concession would anger Tigreans. What else is then left but to invent a situation of threat to Eritrean independence in the hope of presenting themselves as the only defender of that independence? The message to Eritreans is thus clear enough: if something happens to us, then your independence is in jeopardy, for we are your only friends, the only guarantor of the status quo.

On the other hand, Isayas is well aware that the best way to weaken the TPLF is to concretely support Ethiopian unity, thereby proving that his government is more concerned about the integrity of Ethiopia than its own government. The Eritrean government seems to admit that only the rise of nationalist forces can defeat the TPLF hegemony, obvious as it is that playing the ethnic card does no more than extend the TPLF rule. You defeat the TPLF if you deprive it of the political means to divide and rule. Slightly apprehensive, Aigaforum writes: “It is likely the dictator [Isayas] may have decided to try one more time to unseat the EPRDF government with the help of Hailu and Siye thus the cry for one Ethiopia.”

Messay Kebede, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Dayton (Ohio), can be reached at

  1. Shumet Menywab
    | #1

    I said it many times before and the situation is known now to understand it clearly. These loves of TPLF for Eritrean Independence and love of EPLF for Ethiopian unity is the desperate time at a final showdown between the two powers. The TPLF’s strategy is for Greater Tigray. Controlling the whole Ethiopia under ethnic policy is to serve its aim. Without having Eritrea separated from the rest of Ethiopia, there will not be enough time to warming the ‘egg until turning to chicken’. It is a good thing that the ‘egg is not going to turn to chicken now’ because of two things are emerging. The Tigrian Patriotism and the EPLF’s hate of TPLF sharpening!

    The first good thing happened on the day of EPLF and TPLF could not share power peacefully. And these created the present odds between the two that would guarantee the chicken will never come out of the shell. I hope these realities will bring a third situation that is the peaceful coexistence of Eritrean and Ethiopian people with mutual understanding of one needs another without the two powers dividing them from each other.

    Thank you, Prof. Messay, for your one more brilliant article of the many you have before.

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