EPLF and the ’89 coup: Setting the record straight

By Neamin Zeleke, 4 March 2010 — I read successive recent articles by Mr. Tibebe Samuel Ferenji on Ethiomedia, raising objections to the opposition’s relationship with Eritrea. I have found the latest article, his third on this subject, to be particularly misleading and laden with fabricated and recycled assertions. Aside from the writer’s sudden appearance and zealous effort to enlighten us on the “real” nature of EPLF and its past deeds, I find the writer’ persistent focus on this particular topic very curious.

Several points raised by the writer beg for a prompt response lest we allow historical facts to be nothing more than products of a fertile imagination of any one who chooses to post an article on-line.

First, let me focus on the main and glaring misstatement of fact. It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the book written by Maj. Seleshi that any reference to the factual assertions in the book cannot go beyond a limited scope due to limitations of his sources and his admitted lack of access to major players inside Ethiopia. Additionally, even the author of the book himself would not share the sentiment of the Mr. Tibebe relative to the alleged relationship between the EPLF and the Ethiopian Army leadership involved in coup of 1989. I assert this because I happen to know and have talked to Maj. Seleshi on several occasions on this and related matters.
The most glaring of all fabrications is the assertion that EPLF somehow orchestrated the aborted coup against the former President Mengistu Haile Mariam. This is utterly false. Even Lt. Col. Mengistu himself had never made such a bogus claim. If there was any indication of evidence to support this claim, the former President Mengistu would have been the first to make it. I say that not to give credibility to the dictator but it would be so obvious to anyone that Mengistu would have been the first to tarnish his enemies with such a claim. Contrary to Mr. Tibebe’s corrosive description, the leaders of the coup were Ethiopians who spent 30-38 years defending their country and struggling to maintain its unity. They lost too many friends in the Eritrea. Many of its leaders such as Gen. Merid Negussie and Gen. Kumilachew, carried battlefield scars from bullet and explosive wounds they received in battle in Eritrea. Gen. Demissie and the other generals and officers stood their ground to the end to liberate their country from Mengistu’s stranglehold.

To sully these heroes and reduce them to nothing more than agents of the EPLF does violence to the proud legacy of Ethiopian patriotism, courage and sacrifice that they left behind for posterity. Our national character and the fabric of the future generation depend on the preservation of our history. This chapter of our history is full of heroic sacrifice as much as it is a tragic one. That is why it becomes vital to set the record straight.

Among the most offensive and flatly wrong assertions the writer made is the following: “Mr. Issaias orchestrated the Ethiopian elite Military force that was stationed in Asmara led by the late General Kumlachew Dejene to leave Asmara and to go to Addis Ababa in order to secure the palace should the coup succeed. Issaias’ motive was to leave a vacuum and eliminate this elite military presence in Asmara in order for the EPLF to march in and control the city of Asmara. The plan was “when hell breaks loose” in Addis Ababa, he thought, EPLF would have full control of Eritrea…”

Let me start by pointing out that Gen. Kumilachew was not the leader the of the Army in Eritrea. It was Gen. Demissie Bulto who was in charge. He was the commander of what was then known as the 2nd Revolutionary Army and led the coup in Asmara until its tragic conclusion. He was the one who sent Gen. Kumilachew to Addis Ababa as reinforcement force to help the coup leaders in Addis Ababa. Gen. Kumilachew’s absence from Asmara with some 400 troops could hardly create a vacuum given the fact that the leader of the army, his two other deputies–General Worku Cherinet, and Gen Hussien Ahmed–. all of the corps commanders, and over 250 thousand troops remained in Eritrea. Only a person without a cursory knowledge of military affairs would believe the absence of 400 troops would create a vacuum under such circumstances.

Moreover, at the time of the attempted coup, EPLF forces were never near Keren let alone Asmara and even the port of Massawa was under the control of the Ethiopian Army. The bold assertion that Mr. Issayas Afeworki planned to march to Asmara because 400 soldiers were sent to Addis flies in the face of the attendant facts and defies logic. This careless revision of history is indicative of the quality of the information with which Mr. Tibebe arrives at his dramatic conclusions. Our country’s history has been much abused by Westerners and some of our own citizens who treat historical facts as no more than spices prone to improvisation to cook the meal they choose to serve us. We cannot allow this to continue.

Before one ventures to rob many of Ethiopia’s true patriots of the dignity and honor they earned with their blood and sacrifice of life, one should dig a little deeper into history. The tacit assertion that EPLF was the mastermind of the attempted coup of 1989, that Gen Kumlachew was sent by the EPLF to Addis Ababa, etc. are preposterous claims that do not hold water for any person who has done the most rudimentary reading of the available literature on the subject.

Recently, Derege Demissie has published a book full of row historical facts about the coup attempt of May ’89. I have written a review of the book, Abate Yachin Se’at. The book has been widely read and received accolades for its thorough and fair presentation. One of the individuals Derege interviewed was Col. Girma Tesema, who was the highest ranking prisoner of war at Nakfa at the time. The 15-day ceasefire Gen. Demissie Bulto negotiated during the coup attempt was negotiated through Col. Girma. The ceasefire was negotiated only after the coup began and EPLF did not even have information that there was going to be a coup attempt let alone orchestrate it.

This is corroborated by the account of one of those who participated in defeating the coup. In his article published in Tobia and cited by Derege in his book, the captain described sitting in a meeting in Gen. Demissie’s office along with other officers. He wrote that during a meeting a tall officer from the operations department came in to the office and reported that EPLF has accepted the 15-day ceasefire offer. This was on the second day of the coup; obviously, if EPLF orchestrated the coup, there would not have been the need to make the ceasefire offer.

Other sources predate the genesis of the coup to early 80s. The report of the officer who conducted the interrogation of coup participants cited a document ceased from Gen. Abera Abebe’s hideout. According to this source, the plot began in early 80s while the general was a deputy commander of the 1st Rev. Army in Harar and worked with the then commanding officer Gen. Demissie Bulto.

Moreover, if the writer had met Gen. Kumilachew and spent some time with him, like I did even during his last few weeks suffering from a terminal illness, he would have met a person with utter disgust for what the EPLF stood for and its deeds. Gen. Kumilachew and others who participated in the Coup served in the Ethiopian army for over 30 years. They lost friends and countless troops fighting heroically against the EPLF. To suggest that they risked their lives to give the EPLF the victory they fought for so long to prevent is ludicrous.

Furthermore, contrary to the writer’s claims, Maj. Dawit did not play a direct role in the May 89 coup. Maj. Dawit was the one who he initiated contact with EPLF. Not the other way around. His was an attempt to explore the possibility of arriving at a peaceful settlement. He did not have a direct contact or access to the generals in Ethiopia. It is true that he had communication with General Fanta Belay, Minister of Industry at the time of the coup and previously commander of the Airforce, through a third party. The statements given by Maj. General Fanta to interrogators while in prison corroborate this fact. As opposed to being coordinated events, the movement to get rid of Col. Mengistu inside Ethiopia and efforts of Maj. Dawit were separate and parallel actions. None of the literature, interviews of participants, or books published on the subject makes the direct link the writer so carelessly makes in his article.

At several instances, not only Maj. Dawit, but also other former top officials handling Ethiopia’s foreign affairs during the Derg/PDRE regime, had meetings with the EPLF leadership in Italy and other places. These Ethiopians have either told the story to others or documented the fact that the EPLF was willing to accept a Federal arrangement and was even considering participation in an all inclusive transitional government. Col. Mengistu was the one who categorically refused to accept a federal solution for Eritrea.

At later stages, it was also the treasonous TPLF leadership that refused to accept a proposal made by Maj. Dawit and others for the formation of an all inclusive transitional government that included the EPLF. While the EPLF was willing to accept even when things were starting to fall apart for Derg regime at the 11th hour, it was the same TPLF which refused. It was also the same TPLF that refused a ceasefire during the coup of 1989 while the EPLF agreed. After some 19 years it is now clear to all that TPLF did not want its senior and most powerful partner that supported it to ascend to power to be an impediment to its dream of creating a minority domination of Ethiopia in all spheres of national life. Even junior partners like the OLF were kicked out within mere two years. It did not want any rival or impediment to TPLF’s agenda of monopoly over state power, domination and an all pervasive hegemony of Ethiopia. This was the fact yesterday as it is today.

We have also heard it from the horse’s mouth, from Sibehat Nega, the godfather of the mercenary and treasonous TPLF. Barely two years ago, Sibehat Nega, in an interview, he told the Ethiopian people that his organization, i.e. the TPLF, was the one that did not accept any compromise and that the TPLF fought more for “Eritrea’s independence” than the EPLF and that “EPLF was willing to negotiate with the Derg to settle for federation where it not for the push and steadfast position of the TPLF to the contrary….”. Although the statement was made as a self serving aggrandizement from a person who has no qualms to declare even after 18 years the treasonous and anti Ethiopia acts of his organization, there is a grain of truth in his statement. I suggest the writer do his homework by reading such works including Maj. Dawit’s book and that of many others recently published both in Ethiopia and abroad.

To clear up any residual misconception on this topic, I want to pose some rhetorical questions. What political and military conditions of the war in the north in particular the policies of the Derg/PDRE regime served to force the generals to plot a coup? Who started the idea and where? And how it came about? What were its stated goals? How and in what manner the communication with the EPLF was made? And most importantly why it also failed? These are some of the pertinent questions that need further reading and research before making reckless assertions. It would not serve both the current readership and posterity to twist facts and rewrite history in order to fit one’s political caprice in a singular but futile pursuit of trying to convince Ethiopian liberation groups not to engage with the government of Eritrea.

In order to hasten attaining our freedom and dignity from the bondage of the fascistic mafia murderers and tugs in power, one will explore any and all options including dealing with any and all forces to advance the objective. Even those who ceaslesly preach about freedom and democracy will deal with anyone as long as its serves to promote their interest. The minority regime in Addis Ababa has far worst records of human rights abuse, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and accused of genocide in Gambela and the Ogaden, not to mention the plethora of crimes it has perpetrated against the people of Ethiopia. But they support and prop it so long as it is “their dog.”

Let me wrap up with the following. Serious debates are welcome with all those who recognize that in politics there are no permanent friends and permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Several Ethiopian groups have made the liberation of Ethiopia from the ethnocentric minority mafia groups in power their paramount objective. Indeed the liberation of Ethiopia from the Apartheid like anti-Ethiopia minority dictatorship that has imposed a quasi-internal colonialism with its political, economic, and military domination over the rest of the Ethiopian people has become the prime and overriding task of our times. Those groups will do that by any means necessary within the bounds of international law and democratic principles including respect for each other’s views. Freedom and democracy are our rights. If we need to struggle for it, we will. If we need to find allies who will help us gain our freedom, we will form alliances. Throughout history all alliances were formed to promote mutual interests. Alliances were formed out of pragmatic necessity as opposed to based on moral Puritanism. We will keep our eyes on the prize!

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The writer can be reached at neaminz@aol.com.

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Posted by on March 4, 2010. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.