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Relationship between EPRP, EPLF and TPLF

January 3, 2010

A Political History of the TPLF Excerpts from the book written by Aregawi Berhe

From the beginning, the relationship between the Tigray People Liberation Front and the Eritrean People Liberation Front was an amorphous connection, but on the side of the militant Tigraians, who counted on historical, cultural and kinship ties, it was believed the new relationship with the EPLF would work. There was the perception among TPLF members that the TPLF elite was well-educated and could articulate and extend the long-standing relationship between the two peoples beyond what Italian colonialists had created in the 1880s. However, considering the attitude of the EPLF that transpired in due course, it was by and large external circumstances, i.e., the pressure of a common enemy that propelled therelationship to work. Yet unlike the larger section of the ELF that was from the outset influenced by Islamist lowlanders, the EPLF had a clearer picture aboutcultural and political developments in Ethiopia in general and in Tigrai in particular, largely because of their affinity and exposure to kin across the Mereb River. Contacts between EPLF activists andmilitant Tigraians had started much earlier, during the Ethiopian student movement of the early 1970s.

When the militant Tigraians were confronted in 1974 by an aggressive military force, the Derg, that sought total obedience from everybody, they were in outright defiance and searched for support in order to launch armed insurgency. It was imperative for them to look for such support from the EPLF. But EPLF leaders, on the other hand, were hoping to find an ally inEthiopia that could cooperate in expanding their theatre of operations. It was a time when the EPLF was badly in need of support from Ethiopian sympathizers in its efforts to dislodge the remaining government forces concentrated in a few towns in Eritrea. The well-publicized news of ELF-TLF joint operations inside Ethiopia in early 1975 must have motivated them to quickly link up with a Tigraian front. These circumstances led the TPLF-EPLF relationship to start before it had had time to conduct formal discussion or agreements. There seemed to be enthusiasm in the EPLF camp for supporting a Tigraian movement at this juncture, which led the forging of working relations between the two fronts.

After the initial connection was established, modalities of cooperation were expected to be set and political positions discussed and agreed upon, but the EPLF instead offered in advance to train as many recruits as the TPLF could mobilize. It was an attractive offer the TPLF could not afford to waste. It focused on seizing the opportunity and on finding recruits to be engaged in fighting the enemy. The formalities that would define the relationship between the two organizations were therefore ignored and informal contact became the defining aspect of the relationship.

Initially the cooperation appeared to go smoothly, but the EPLF’s support for the TPLF did not match the latter’s expectations. Many reasons could be attributed to this shift ofattitude on the part of the EPLF: perhaps because the relationship was not based on a formal agreement, or existing relations between the EPLF and EPRP might have created reluctance of the EPLF towards the TPLF, or perhpas supporting a struggle for the self-determination of Tigrai might have set an unwanted precedent for Eritrea.

The EPRP was then considered the strongest revolutionary party and indeed had huge numbers of followers all over Ethiopia. It was also widely believed to assume power sooner or later. The EPLF too seemed to believe this. For the EPLF, its relationship with the EPRP was thus much more important, as the latter claimed to represent the whole Ethiopia. And when compared with the EPRP at that time (1975-76), the TPLF was just a small ethno-nationalist movement with fewer followers. However, there were some sticky political problems for both the TPLF and EPRP regarding Eritrea. While they recognized the struggle for the Eritrean independence as genuine, they had differences as to whether the case was a ‘colonial issue’ or not. Without conducting the necessary study or having appropriate discussions, the TPLF held the view that the Eritrean case was a ‘colonial question.’ as the EPLF wanted it to be. It was probably an opportunisticstand , designed to outflank the EPRP from the privileged position the EPLF offering it. Without understanding the consequences that were to haunt it in the discourse of Ethiopianpolitical history, this position continued to be the stand of the TPLF for years to come.

Another concern of the TPLF was what the removal of the TLF from the scene, which took place as early as November 1975, would mean for the EPLF. The ELF’s wider mobility, supported by the a proxy organization in Tigrai, might have prompted the EPLF to initially look for its own proxy organizations in Tigrai to counter its rival. But once the TLF had been dissolved, the EPLF had less need to worry about the ELF’s activities gaining ground in Tigrai and beyond. That situation appeared to reduce the TPLF’s importance for the EPLF’s and gave more weight to its relations with the EPRP.

Towards the end of 1975, differences between the EPRP and the TPLF surfaced when they were operating in the same territory and trying to mobilize and organize the same people. News of rivalry between the two was also coming from the towns. On the initiative of the TPLF. leaders of both fronts met in Marwa in January 1976 to look into these encounters and consider possible remedies. The TPLF presented a suggestion that it thought would benefit both organizations and avoid them overlapping and clashing. The TPLF requested that the EPRP operate in regions of the country that the TPLF could not reach. By implication, the suggestion was recognition of the TPLF as the viable front that could take care of the struggle in Tigrai against the common enemy, the Derg. As we saw earlier, the demand infuriated EPRP delegates and they broke off the meeting and enmity was created. This was a concern fro EPLF leaders, but their main worry was that a fragmented or ethnically based movement inEthiopia might weaken a viable future ally — the EPRP. Eventually, TPLF military action, like that launched against the TLF, would deprive the EPLF of an ally expected to seize power inEthiopia and the anticipated acquiescence to handle the Eritran question would evaporate. The EPLF continued to exert pressure on the TPLF to come to terms with the EPRP and in a letter to the TPLF, the concerns of the EPLF were clearly stated, with an underlying warning note. For strategic purposes, the EPLF stood beside the EPRP and influenced by their leader’s desire to work with the EPRP, EPLF top cadres urged Ethiopians, and especially Tigraians in Eritrea, to join the EPRP and not the TPLF.

In the first half of 1976, the TPLF unexpectedly had released its controversial manifesto, better known as Manifesto 68. In this hand written document, the TPLF declared that its struggle was for Tigrai’s independence from Ethiopia, which was basically the same claim the Eritrean fronts had put forward for their region. Earlier, this position had been entertained by the TLF, but it was vehemently rejected by the TPLF on the grounds that there was no historical or political justification for it. It was a surprise to many fighters to see their organization come up with such an unwarranted claim. The EPLF also opposed the TPLFmanifesto for independence on the grounds that Tigrai was an inegral part of Ethiopia and there was no justification for secession from Ethiopia. At this time, the EPLF was reluctant to support separatist movements in Ethiopia, not just as a matter of princople but for various other motives as well…


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