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The Ethiopian Revolution

The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa

Gebru Tareke
Donald Kagan
Frederick Kagan
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    The Ethiopian Revolution
    Book Description:

    Revolution, civil wars, and guerilla warfare wracked Ethiopia during three turbulent decades at the end of the twentieth century. This book is a pioneering study of the military history and political significance of this crucial Horn of Africa region during that period. Drawing on new archival materials and interviews, Gebru Tareke illuminates the conflicts, comparing them to the Russian and Iranian revolutions in terms of regional impact.

    Writing in vigorous and accessible prose, Tareke brings to life the leading personalities in the domestic political struggles, strategies of the warring parties, international actors, and key battles. He demonstrates how the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam lacked imagination in responding to crises and alienated the peasantry by destroying human and material resources. And he describes the delicate balance of persuasion and force with which northern insurgents mobilized the peasantry and triumphed. The book sheds invaluable light not only on modern Ethiopia but also on post-colonial state formation and insurrectionary politics worldwide.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15615-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan

    War has been a subject of intense interest from the beginning of literature around the world. Whether it be in the earliest literary work in the Western tradition, Homer’sIliad, or the Rigvedic hymns of ancient India, people have always been fascinated by this dangerous and challenging phenomenon. Few can fail to be stirred by such questions as: How and why do wars come about? How and why do they end? Why did the winners win and the losers lose? How do leaders make life-and-death decisions? Why do combatants follow orders that put their lives at risk? How do individuals...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)

    • [Part One Introduction]
      (pp. 1-10)

      Ethiopia is one of the very few countries that have experienced a revolution in modern times. In fact, in the midst of civil wars it witnessed two parallel revolutions with essentially the same ideological goals though different strategic ones. Revolution and war fed each other in a dialectic that was at once destructive and constructive. For nearly two decades, Ethiopia was a land of war, death, destruction, despair, and misery, but also one of hope, reform, and reconstruction; of struggles for national cohesion and identity but also for autonomy, freedom, dignity, and an unfettered future. This book seeks to show...

    • 1 Roots and Outcomes of Revolution: A Review
      (pp. 11-44)

      Selecting benchmark dates as beginnings or endings of long and complex historical processes can be arbitrary, often faulty. But if we were to choosetheevent that both foreshadowed and inspired the generation that catalyzed the Ethiopian Revolution, it certainly would be the aborted coup d’état of 1960. That event set in motion a decade of political protest against monarchical absolutism that did not abate until the more momentous upheaval of 1974. What transpired in that year, of course, was not imagined by the conspirators of December 1960.

      Thirty years after his coronation as king of kings of Ethiopia and...


    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 45-54)

      Two revolutions were waged simultaneously in Ethiopia from 1975 to 1991. One was led from the center by radical soldiers who dubbed themselves Marxist-Leninists and used the state’s resources and tools of control. It was a top-down revolution that relied heavily on force and compulsion. The second was guided by insurgent intellectuals, also Marxist-Leninists, and its primary base was the countryside. Although the means were military, its principal weapon was mass mobilization and political organization. To stress that the military was only ancillary to the political, Mao qualified his famous utterance by explaining that “the Party commands the gun, and...

    • 2 The Victorious Nationalists: Insurgent Eritrea
      (pp. 55-75)

      From earliest times a relatively restricted space that today incorporates most of Tigray and much of Eritrea formed the core of Ethiopia. Its proximity to western Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean placed it in a zone of extensive intercommunication and commercial networks. The intermingling of humans, animals, plants, cultures, and ideas across the Red Sea produced a distinct civilization that can be described as Afro-Asiatic. Its heartland was Aksum, the antecedent of the modern Ethiopian state.

      Legatees of the Aksumite civilization, the Tigrayans and Eritreans of the southern highlands (Kebessa) spoke the same language (Tigriniya), used the same...

    • 3 The Victorious Ethnonationalists: Insurgent Tigray
      (pp. 76-110)

      Mengistu was perpetrating a fraud. Much as he was in the habit of demonizing his Eritrean opponents as foreign agents or mercenaries, the president was now accusing Tigrayan dissidents of being unpatriotic. He was interpreting as anti-Ethiopianism the historical interregional, interfeudal, interdynastic, interclass struggles for power and for control of the peasantry’s labor and meager surplus. Like their feudal forefathers, who time and again challenged their regional rivals, the modern ethnic entrepreneurs, or “cultural brokers,” as they have been called, wanted to snatch state power from Mengistu. And they did. Mengistu should have noted carefully Gabre Hiwet Baykedagn’s astute remark...

    • 4 The Vanquished Revolutionary Army: Birth and Evolution
      (pp. 111-137)

      Revolution and war were twin causes of the grand-scale militarization of the Ethiopian state. The social consequences of the changes were felt more sharply among the agrarian population, the largest segment of society. The revolutionary government’s fixation on winning the wars required the mobilization of resources on a vast scale. Military imperatives dictated agrarian policies and the state’s exploitative relationship with the peasantry. No village or community escaped the never-ending demands for men and resources. Even if the new structures of power and the coercive economic policies did not directly help the insurgencies, they sufficiently eroded the relationship between the...

    • 5 The Vanquished Revolutionary Army: Defeat and Demise
      (pp. 138-176)

      It is quite obvious that the revolutionary soldiers did not lose for lack of men and weaponry. To appreciate why they lost we need to look at three interrelated issues. First, there was the contentious relationship between party and army. By introducing the triangular command, the party undercut troop unity and effective control. Second, government economic policies and political structures may not have strengthened the insurgencies but they indubitably weakened the state. Third, the military had its own serious internal weaknesses, which made it extremely vulnerable to ever vigilant and opportunistic enemies.

      When the party is morally limp, eschews self-sacrifice,...


    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 177-181)

      Ethiopia was a battleground for three decades, without respite. Except for one major engagement with an outsider, it was all domestic violence—civil wars between centrists and separatists or autonomists. For four years following the political cataclysm that began in 1974, the fledgling revolutionary government was hard pressed from both within and without. To the Eritrean insurgency were added numerous ethnoregional and ethnonationalist uprisings throughout the country. Few would have wagered on the survival of the state as it veered toward dissolution. But by the middle of 1978, it had successfully restored central authority by eradicating its armed urban opponents...

    • 6 Ogaden: “Socialist” Neighbors at War
      (pp. 182-217)

      Revolutions almost invariably encourage external meddling that seeks either to smother or to shield them. They cause sudden dramatic shifts in interstate relations, in wider international alliances, and in regional power balances. During one of the tenser periods of the cold war, the world witnessed two such episodes in the span of three years in the Indian Ocean littoral: Somalia’s aggression against revolutionary Ethiopia in 1977, followed by Iraq’s invasion of revolutionary Iran in 1980. The outcomes were starkly different. With resources to match those of its enemy and with the duplicitous help of the United States, Baathist Iraq was...

    • 7 Nakfa: “Even the Mountains Fought”
      (pp. 218-246)

      Victory against Somalia did not usher in national cohesion and social peace; on the contrary, by 1980 Ethiopia was gripped by escalating civil wars. The government, which had emerged enormously strengthened militarily following the Ogaden war, sought to suppress one, then another revolt in a series of sweeps and campaigns. These efforts were unsuccessful. Then in 1980 and 1982, respectively, it waged major offensives against the “eastern irredentists” and “northern secessionists.” Operation Lash by and large achieved its aims, but Operation Red Star, which appears to have been inspired by the first, was a military disaster. The eastern rebellion was...

    • 8 Af Abet: Ethiopia’s Dienbienphu?
      (pp. 247-261)

      The EPLF won one of the most resounding victories in the annals of conventional warfare in the third world, and perhaps its most glorious one, on March 19, 1988, at Af Abet. It destroyed the most formidable garrison in northern Eritrea and set in motion a series of events that would lead to total victory three years later. A long-simmering crisis in the Ethiopian army combined with the cunning and ingenuity of the rebels to produce the outcome. A command that was torn apart by rival cliques seems to have forgotten that it was fighting an enemy of surprising resilience,...

    • 9 Shire: “Unexpected Grand Failure”
      (pp. 262-290)

      The military’s crushing loss at the battle of Shire on February 15–19, 1989, will stand in the annals of the civil wars as the most unlikely of defeats. A guerrilla force that was on the run only five months earlier tenaciously and dexterously outmaneuvered the army and went on to win a splendid victory. This historic engagement took place in the western district of Shire, from which it derives its name. It is hard to imagine a major battle that was so unexpected and yet so complete and consequential, both militarily and politically, as the five-day battle of Shire....

    • 10 Massawa: The Denouement
      (pp. 291-310)

      Following a brief hiatus after Shire, the EPLF and TPLF went on the offensive to finish off a depleted and evidently demoralized army. They were fired up by their staggering successive victories. Shire opened the way to southern Ethiopia while tightening the noose around the SRA in Eritrea, a noose that grew more constricting with the loss of Massawa in 1990. On the other front, the EPRDF delivered a blow to the TRA at Dabre Tabor and was inching closer to the Abay gorge, which separates northern and southern Ethiopia. It would be a matter of months before the whole...

  9. 11 Conclusions
    (pp. 311-342)

    It was an accurate reflection. An obscure ordnance officer in his midthirties from one of the most oppressed small communities of southern Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam was catapulted to the highest levels of state power in the midst of political turmoil in 1974. The event marked the end of monarchism and inaugurated a new era of republicanism, albeit distinguished by militarization, terror, war, misery, and dislocation, all on a scale unparalleled in the country’s history. Mengistu’s unceremonious exit in May 1991 was as dramatic as his unanticipated climb to power. It was also dramatic in that it marked the end...

  10. 1998: Postscript
    (pp. 343-350)

    The Eritrean-Ethiopian war of 1998–2000 leaves us wondering with Hegel whether governments ever learn from history. Only seven years after their joint victory against the Ethiopian military regime, the former comrades of the northern liberation fronts, who now ruled two sovereign states, blundered into a war neither anticipated. The war was unplanned by its protagonists and unpredicted by the world, and it ended with catastrophic consequences for both. The reasons were either convoluted or fabricated. It was a foolish war, against the wrong enemy, and on a false pretext. Isaias Afewerki, president of the newly sovereign state of Eritrea,...

  11. Appendix A
    (pp. 351-351)
  12. Appendix B
    (pp. 352-352)
  13. Appendix C
    (pp. 353-354)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 355-412)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 413-424)
  16. Index
    (pp. 425-437)