Internal political developments of the Eritrean struggle for self-determination (Part I)

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Third stage (1961-70)

The pressing task of the first stages of the Eritrean struggle was the establishment of a national organization. With the advent of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) at the end of the second stage, 20 years after the beginning of the political movement that task was close to fulfillment. But why was it that it was the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and not the ELM that launched the armed struggle in 1961? Was it because that ELM lacked the preparedness or the will? Or was it because a line more progressive than that of the ELM was required and the ELF supplied it? In other words, was there a historical necessity for the ELF?

The inception of the armed struggle in 1961 was undeniably the expression of the aspiration of the Eritrean people for independence. Hence its historic importance. The advent of the ELF as the leader of the armed struggle, however, was purely a historical accident. The leaders of the ELF were people from whose memories the narrowly divisive sectarian politics of the forties had not faded. They had played no active role in the political movement that emerged during the Federation period and were not influenced by the strong national consciousness that developed at that stage. In addition, the formation of the ELF abroad, far from the political realities of Eritrea and influenced by politically conservative forces in the Middle East, contributed to their narrow outlook. Be that as it may; the launching of ELF activities in the remote western lowlands bordering the Sudan where armed struggle could thrive was positive.

From the outset, the ELF’s political campaign took a religious bent. Although this was a reaction to the sectarian agitation of the Unionist Part and the Orthodox Church, and reflected the sentiments of a large section of Eritrean society, it was not conducive to national unity. Indeed was very retrograde, especially in light of the national awareness that gripped the urban population during the second stage. Moreover, sectarian sentiments resulting from backward socioeconomic structures and the intrigues of enemies may be excusable in ordinary people but not so for a leadership that presumes to guide a national movement. For this reason, even though the ELF was able in the first few years of the armed struggle to arouse the people, it was plagued by narrow tribal conflicts.

In contrast, the ELM enjoyed wide popular support-especially in the Sudan-and was more advanced in its outlook, organizational structure and working methods. It could have played a corrective role. But the ELF leaders exacerbated their differences with that movement and when the ELM in 1965 sent armed units into Eritrea to participate in the armed struggle, the ELF leaders liquidated the patriots thereby initiating the ELF tradition of settling secondary contradictions by violence. Fortunately the conflict between the ELF and ELM did not adversely affect the Eritrean people’s enthusiasm for the armed struggle. From all corners of the country as well as from abroad, Eritreans flocked to the ELF, swelling its ranks. This influx from the cities and abroad, particularly of students, introduced a quantitative change in the composition of the ELF.

The ELF leadership divided Eritrea into regions and divided the Liberation Army-command as well as rank and file-along tribal and provincial lines, thus fomenting provincial; tribal and religious sentiments instead of building a single army and through it fostering national unity. This also affected the prosecution of the liberation war. Instead of leading a nation-wide effort, the ELF could only carry out isolated, small-scale operations. Moreover, since its conception of politicizing the people could not transcend traditional and narrow circles, the wide participation and active collaboration of the people merely reflected their political sentiments. The people did not play a conscious role but only followed traditional leaders.

The Revolutionary Command, the group established to liaise the decentralized commands in the field with the Supreme Council, suffered from incompetence and backward composition and outlook and resided outside the field, in Kessela. It was incapable of coordinating the work of the commands inside Eritrea and providing leadership. It served more as a center for concocting conspiracies to perpetuate divisions.

The Supreme Council, the highest body, was not responsible to any authority. It was not only based far from the field but also disunited. Each Supreme Council member attempted to build his own power base exacerbating the divisions within the growing Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA). The art of manipulating the feelings of clans, tribes, religious and regional groupings and of sowing discord among them developed. While it was understandable that the drawing up of an organizational structure-which would define the legal powers, duties and inter-relationships of the various organs-could be overlooked while the ELF was small, the Supreme Council regarded its traditional way of division, intrigue and manipulation as the norm and saw no need for democratic and institutional administration. Therefore for almost three-quarter of the period of the third stage (1961-70); programs, policies as well as policy-making and executive bodies were non-existent in the ELF. Its foreign relations were extremely narrow and, confined to the Middle East. Moreover, in their pronouncements abroad, members of the Supreme Council wallowed in contradictions thus adversely affecting the Eritrean cause both at the regional and international levels. The Supreme Council also misused ELF funds in the pursuit of its political games. It could get away with this because the ELF had no organs or procedure for auditing its finances and property.