BY SENNAY ZEMEN
The relationship between the EPLF and the TPLF during the armed struggle was full of chapter of incidents despite both joined forces against their common enemy, the Dergue. After independence, Eritrea was deeply committed to the belief that both Eritrea and Ethiopia would ‘cross the river in the same boat’ to help each other promote common goals or mutual interests.
In the shadow of looming danger over unresolved border friction and growing inconspicuously anti-Eritrea feelings, both set to open a new page of cooperation in all fields and, as such, signed agreements on economic, political, military and set up committees to push ahead with the agreements. Leaving the past behind, Eritrea was aiming high to bring the two countries to a shared future of common prosperity.
Many African politicians hoped that the two ‘comrades-in-arms,’ who joined forces to defeat one of the strongest military regimes in black Africa, would do miracles in reviving their economy devastated by 30-year war so much so that they could blaze a new trial for many African leaders.
Most, unfortunately, things didn’t go well the way Eritrea and others expected or wished. No sooner did Eritrea declare its independence and began revitalizing its economy from scratch by the ‘sweat of its brow,’ the TPLF, in no time at all stepped up touting ‘Badma’ rhetoric with temerity as “it is part of Tigray.” Its police and militia, flouting the OAU Charter of 1963 on colonial boundary agreements, in which Ethiopia was one of the signatories to it, embark on fixing or marking out new boundary lines between Eritrea and Tigray by setting up heaps of stones over the border as coordinators. Due to the avaricious acquisition of land, the tension that had been lingering over 18 years ago started again to gather momentum.
Eritrea stands by the principle of dialogue rather than confrontation and partnership rather than alliance. To put it another way, the border dispute between the two could be settled only through consultation and negotiation in a peaceful way, which was the EPLF’s unwavering stand during the armed struggle. Against a background of rising tension, in October 1993, the EPLF and TPLF agreed to form a joint committee tasked with investigating the situation on the ground and reporting the findings to top political leaders. The committee met and held talks several times. For example, in Eritrea (in Shambko) and in Tigray (Shire), and was reporting the outcome of the meeting to the higher authorities, respectively.
From the onset, Eritrea sensed that something treachery was afoot inside the TPLF. The committee was unable to make any tangible progress or made no headway since its formation due to the TPLF’s political chicanery and prevarication over the truth of the situation. It reiterated its stance over Badma, saying the issue is “not negotiable,” which indeed gave the committee a rough ride. In spite of the fact that any peaceful negotiation between two parties is a two-way street, the TPLF sticks to “my way or the highway” attitude and, as a result, the situation was going from bad to worst. There is no political will of the TPLF to the border conflict in sight, dark cloud of the dangerous situation was slowly hanging over the border.
Does Badma, a small village in a backwater area inhabited by Kunama ethnic group until recently, bear an ancient and honoured name in Tigray history? The answer is ‘no.’ But the TPLF has invented an apocryphal tale that “a king named Azena, from Kunama, was ruling Axum. Maybe the king was from Badma!!
Without delving into this nonsensical and captious story, why was the TPLF so interested in Badma for years?” Does it endow huge deposits of natural resources such as oil or natural gas? Whether the TPLF claim was driven from natural right, historical right, legal right, divine right, or any other right remains a puzzle. Without ascertaining its veracity, however, it went on to claim shamelessly that it has been part and parcel of Tigray since “time immemorial.” Having said that, it was not hard to guess how things would pan out as the TPLF continued grabbing land by force and defying negotiation. In light of this fact, it was with certain naivety to expect any enduring or long-standing relationship between the two. Indeed, the claim was a disposition to stir up future conflict.
Without having any element of truth or justification, police and militia of the TPLF took the matter into their own hands and annexed Eritrean territories. They treated harshly Eritreans, banned them from tilling their lands, burned their crops, raided their villages, beaten them with sticks, arrested them for weeks, and intimidated them to leave their villages through excessive force. Though Eritrea was communicating with the TPLF leadership and informing them about the situation, the TPLF remained deliberately blind to the realities of the situation. The ‘militia’ continued expelling Eritreans, grabbing their land, and confiscating or looting their property. This morally repugnant practice and an appalling act of aggression became, to borrow a modern phrase, the order of the day.
After consolidating its power through political shenanigans, securing an abundance of wealth, and winning international support, the TPLF flexed its military muscles and began to look for trouble in order to realize its political apocalypse of Eritrea predicated by its fortune tellers, which presaged the end of Eritrea. It is worth remembering that the TPLF had been discomfited by the previous EPLF’s political stand towards Ethiopia. This is to say that, it opposed strongly the Manifesto (1976) and since then the TPLF has yet rankled with it. It was at its wits end worrying what to do with the EPLF since its dreams could not be achieved as long as the EPLF was in power. To this end, it engaged deeply in political machinations to get rid of the EPLF.
To make the matters worse, in October 1997 the TPLF started to make waves with Eritrea. Without giving a lot of consideration for Eritrean sovereign rights, it contracted a private German company, GTZ, to demarcate the border between Eritrea and Tigray. By definition, Tigray is an independent state within an independent Ethiopia.” It should come as no surprise that the cabinet and parliament of the TPLF-led Federal government of Ethiopia were ignorant of what was going on in Tigray. The self-made map, superimposed on the map of Eritrea, became ‘official’ after it appeared in the front-page of the TPLF newspaper ‘WEYN’ and henceforth it was distributed to schools and government offices. When Eritrea asked an explanation about the unusual activities on the border, the TPLF replied that “we are surveying agricultural lands for development.”
Most shockingly, their relationship further took turn for the worse when on July 18, 1997 the TPLF under the pretext of pursuing “ugugumu’, a small band of Afar rebels fighting for Greater Afar, deployed two-battalion equipped with heavy weapons made an incursion into Eritrea and occupied an Eritrean village, Adi Murug, under Badda administration, and put the surrounding areas under their full control. Indeed, the Afar rebels had never posed a threat neither to Eritrea nor to ‘Ethiopia’. The deliberate incursion aimed at annexing Eritrean lands further highlighted the lingering potential danger and augured signs of confrontation. When Eritrean military officers tried to meet the aggressors, they were told that “the land belongs to Tigray.” The invaders refused to pull their troops out of the occupied land and instead dismantled the Eritrean administration and replaced it by Tigray administration. The residents were told either to leave the village or remain part of Tigray region.
Following the incessant aggressive acts and encroachments on Eritrean sovereign territories, in August 1997 Eritrea sent a delegation to Addis to protest against the incursion and other provocative acts. Similarly, President Isaias wrote also a letter to late PM Meles regarding the calculated iniquitous activities of the TPLF, but to no effect. Out of arrogance, it paid a deaf ear to Eritrean concerns over the border incursions and annexation. Though Eritrea was committed to the belief that a peaceful solution can be reached with common efforts through negotiations, the TPLF was on a different wavelength towards its future relationship with Eritrea and resolving the border dispute.
The tension between Eritrea and TPLF further mounted after Eritrea introduced its own new national currency to draw independently its own fiscal and monetary policy. Though Eritrea informed the TPLF authorities about of its new currency, they threw up their hands in despair at the plan. Long before the new currency came into circulation, Eritrea put forward a proposal for discussion to the TPLF which include among others: how both countries would deal with exchange rate; how Ethiopia would collect its birr which was in circulation in Eritrea; how Ethiopian traders would pay port services; to consider the system followed by COMESA countries; or, as a last resort (ultima ratio) trade transaction would be conducted by foreign currency. The TPLF defied giving a reply or comments despite repeated telephone calls by the head of Eritrean Commercial Bank to his counterpart in Addis.
It should be noted that the IMF was invited to help both countries solve currency swap disagreements and set procedures for collecting Ethiopian currency. The TPLF rejected the recommendation of the IMF and requested additional advice from the WB. After it asked both countries to send a delegation, the TPLF failed again to do so. In addition, an expert from Czechoslovakia was invited to share his experience how the country dealt with such cases when it was partitioned into many states. When all attempts to solve the financial disagreements come to nothing, on November 8, 1997, Eritrea’s new currency, the Nakfa, came into operation. In the same breath, the TPLF threatened its people living on the border and at all points of entry in no circumstances should they make any exchange with the new Eritrean currency. TPLF cadres started to tear up and burn Eritrean new currency to express their anger and frustration. As a result, trade between the two countries came to an abrupt halt.
To put further Eritrea’s patience to test, in February 1998, the TPLF army made similar inroads deep into Northern Red Sea region Eritrean, Asseb-Bure road, from 71 km border to 57 km and entered Sereru village. The TPLF army dismantled the administration of the village and gathered the people to tell them that this area ‘belongs to Ethiopia,’ just as they did in Adi Murug. Before they left the village, they destroyed the AfriCare water project funded by NGO and robbed thousands of cement sacks of the project. It goes without saying that the repeated incursions into Eritrean territories were aimed at turning up the heat on Eritrea in order to fire the first shot so as to serve it as an occasion of war for its war agenda. But Eritrea remained loyal to its commitments to principle of a peaceful resolution to the bitter end and warned its army not to take any action in face of fast-developing dangerous trend and pugnacious nature of the TPLF in order to save the situation from further escalation, lest it should be dragged into armed conflict.
During the Amhara Imperial times, the Ethiopian people including Tigraynas were subjected to all kinds of inhumanity and indignity. In addition, the Emperors introduced the ‘divide and rule’ policy and treated them badly that verged on slavery. They impoverished intentionally the people and reduced them to penury in order to make them toothless so as not to pose any threat for their imperial rule.”. Because of this, the people were experiencing many ordeals and forced to face humiliation, injustice, and other crimes, which was more than anyone could bear. The TPLF’s deep-seated and chronic inferiority complex, therefore, took root in the 1940s, started to take shape during the armed struggle, and become institutionalized in the TPLF mind after they took power in 1991. Put it briefly, the feeling grew gradually from a seed into a towering tree and started to bear poison fruits after they controlled the country’s politics.
Most, unfortunately, the new Tigray Emperors inherited, revived and fanned the flames of ethnic hatred to fulfill their political ambition. Since then, they have been playing politics with the old policy to seek vengeance for the humiliation they suffered and make good use of it to create fissures among the people. The existing division among the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia was, therefore, the result of the policy pursued by the TPLF in the past 27 years. By all intents and purposes, they established a one-ethnic group political system based on ‘master-slave’ relationship, pretty much the same to the previous regimes. What is more, Ethiopians were forced to pay tribute to the TPLF for the sacrifice paid by its people.
Notwithstanding the fact that the TPLF’s inferiority complex is the product and legacy of the previous regimes, it set to make a drama out of it and tried to shift the blame on Eritreans who have nothing to do with the tribulations that its people had suffered for long. Despite this fact, the hostile policy, both in word and deed, against Eritrea and its people came in all shapes and sizes. As of early 1991, it raised its people on extreme forms of complex and deafened them with gratuitous and mendacious propaganda that “Eritreans treat Tigriyans with derision,” in an effort to pass on their long-held hatred to their people. It also played on the divide and rule policy to isolate the people of Tigray from Eritreans. Hate speech, accompanied by bellicose mood, was echoed and heard across the region.
Furthermore, its security agents were ordered to register secretly Eritreans living in Tigray and other regions in order to keep track of them. They were organizing local gatherings to peddle their hostile propaganda against Eritreans. In one gathering, for example, one participant stood up and said “we are told by the Eritrean government to wash our cars before they arrive Asmara.” The TPLF was intoxicating its people with pernicious lies and innuendos to unheard levels in order to play the two people off against each other. They were also cultivating young cadres and indoctrinating them with a similar old sentiment. In short, the intensive campaign in all forms against Eritrea and its people became a flavor of the day.
But the question is: do Eritreans really despise Tigrayans? The answer is emphatical No. As saying goes “there is no necessity for proving the existence of light,” there is no need to say more about the two people’s strong relationships. The tissue of lies of the TPLF can be easily refuted by referring to past and present history. A good example was when the two people met in 2018 after 20 years of separation, they hugged each other while tears were rolling down their faces. Did anybody sense any signs of contempt from Eritreans towards Tigrayans. The so-called ‘Eritreans contemn Tigrayans’ is, therefore, all in the TPLF heads.