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TPLF and ELF Never Went Along Well

Excrepts from: A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991):
Revolt, Ideology and Mobilisation in Ethiopia Ph.D Thesis
Aregawi Berhe


The formation of the TPLF, which had established warm contact with the EPLF in a short
period of time, was not good news for the ELF. Its rival front, the EPLF, which was
contained in the northern terrains of Eritrea, had now found an ally in the south which
would share the opportunity of wider mobility that the ELF had monopolized so far.
From the beginning, the ELF showed its aversion to the TPLF by turning down all its
efforts to establish good relations. In April 1975, just two months after it was established,
the TPLF dispatched a delegation to the ELF Seraye administrative unit (better known as
No. 9) and made known its intentions to set up working relations with the ELF. This
initiative was conveyed to the highest bodies in Barka, their base area. Soon after, the
ELF held its 2nd National Congress, which delegates of the TLF and representatives of
Ras Mengesha Seyoum (later the leader of the EDU) attended. The TPLF was not invited,
despite its efforts to maintain contact. Not discouraged by the rejection, the TPLF made
extra efforts to contact the TLF and through that endeavour tried to ameliorate relations
with the ELF. It was also thought what had begun as good relations with the TLF would
help contribute to fixing the gap the ELF had created and forge better relations with the
In November 1975, relations with the TLF itself suddenly ended. After news of
the atrocities committed by the TLF against its own members began to spread like wildfire,
rank and file members of the TPLF, among them Meles Zenawi, Yemane Jamaica
and Sibhat Nega, started agitating for action to be taken. The TPLF leadership then called
an emergency meeting to discuss the matter and because the situation was getting out of
hand, it was left with no option but to take action against the TLF. The TPLF forcefully
subdued the TLF and put the surviving leaders under arrest (see Chapter 4 for the details).
It was an unexpected turn of events for all parties, the TLF, the ELF and the TPLF itself.
A few days later, the TPLF, confident of the righteousness of its measures against the
TLF, informed the ELF and invited them to assess the episode for themselves. The ELF
sent two of its senior officials, a central committee member and a division commander, to
Tigrai to discuss the matter with the TPLF’s leadership. They also had the chance to talk
about the matter in private with the TLF leaders under arrest. The delegation had nothing
negative to say about the drastic measures taken by the TPLF. The TPLF demanded that
the outcome of their investigation be reported in written form to all ELF members so that
relations at all levels would be comradely. But top ELF leaders, who feared the exposure
of their involvement in the TLF misdeeds, never released any such statement. It should be
recalled that prominent members of the TLF, like Tekeste Wubneh, Yohannes
Andebirhan, Berhe Tewldebirhan and Teklai Gebrezgi, were executed with the consent of
Salih Shume and Mohamed Kiduwi, both leaders of the ELF at the administration unit
no.10. The ELF delegation must have been embarrassed by this and related facts which
the TLF leaders revealed.
For the moment, the discussions seemed to have cleared future relations between
the TPLF and the ELF. In fact, the ELF dropped the issue of the TLF and the question of
the prisoners, altogether and began to focus on future cooperation. As a goodwill gesture,
it also granted its consent for the TPLF to retain the arms it captured from the TLF. These
firearms initially belonged to the ELF, which had every right to claim them. Such ELF
moves were thought to be signs of bridging the gap with the TPLF, but it was not clear
how the relationship would develop, for the ELF’s top policy engineers were based far
away in the Barka lowlands and would not be expected to change their attitudes towards
the TPLF as long as the latter’s contiguity with the EPLF was not severed.
As a matter of fact, the initial warm relations between the TPLF and the EPLF had
been one of the reasons for the bad relations between the TPLF and the ELF. From the
outset, the EPLF had portrayed itself as a revolutionary front that would embrace and
work with the Ethiopian revolutionary left, and was accommodating the EPRP and the
TPLF. The first TPLF recruits were trained and armed by the EPLF, an initial indication
of a serious alliance. Two long-time EPLF fighters – Mussie and Yemane Kidane (a.k.a.
Jamaica) – who were both Tigraians by birth, were transferred to the TPLF for good.
Mussie in particular was instrumental in maintaining the relationship with the EPLF
when it experienced problems. The organizational name TPLF resembled that of the
EPLF as did the TLF that of ELF. In the ELF camp, the rhetoric surrounding class
struggle, socialism and dictatorship of the proletariat entertained by both the EPLF and
the TPLF created the suspicion of a rising unified revolutionary force. This was
happening at a time when the ELF was claiming that it was the only legitimate
representative of all sections of Eritrean society. On top of that, the ELF’s perception of
the EPLF as an organization of Tigrigna-speaking highlanders from Eritrea who were
ethnically the same as the Tigraians in Ethiopia decisively shaped its attitudes towards
the TPLF as an ally of its rival, the EPLF. Besides, the permanent presence of ELF cadres
along the borders with Tigrai and their confrontational dealings with Tigraians living
there was another area where relations were difficult. TPLF-ELF relations were,
therefore, strained from the beginning by many factors and remained fragile all along,
sometimes even turning violent.
For the top ELF officials, who were always seeking surrogate organizations in
Ethiopia, the liquidation of the TLF in itself was understandably annoying. From then
onwards, the ELF invariably supported any organization in Tigrai that was in some kind
of armed conflict with, and could potentially weaken, the TPLF. In 1976 and 1977, the
ELF provided the Tigraian Movement Coordinating Committee (Teranafit) and its
umbrella organization the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) with military information
on the TPLF. Since the operational areas of both the TPLF and ELF in many cases
overlapped, it was possible for the ELF to pass sensitive military information to the
Teranafit and the EDU on the mobility and strength of the TPLF. This had happened on
several occasions, as the TPLF’s radio interception unit could prove, and indeed was a
‘stab in the back’ of the TPLF.
Later, in 1978, the TPLF destroyed the Teranafit by waging a counter-offensive
and also evicted the EDU from Tigrai. It seized armaments and ammunition from both
adversaries that bolstered its morale and strength. The TPLF became a formidable force
in western Tigrai and began full mobilization of the people without encountering any
resistance from its former rivals, the Teranafit and the EDU. Once again, the ELF did not
have any choice but to accommodate the TPLF, and relations between the organizations
appeared to improve.

By the end of 1976, the TPLF had managed to establish formal
relations with the ELF but they only lasted for a brief period. This time the ELF gave the
TPLF few arms and ammunition, which the TPLF needed but was not desperate for. It
also lifted restrictions on the TPLF outlet to Sudan through western Eritrea. The ELF also
assisted the TPLF on the diplomatic front, introducing it to Arab regimes such as Saudi
Arabia, Syria and Egypt, which offered advantages to the TPLF. However, friendly
relations did not last long. Despite the support the ELF was providing, the position of the
TPLF as far as the EPLF (the former’s rival) was concerned did not falter and this must
have annoyed the ELF. ‘The ELF also endeavoured to get the TPLF to accept its political
positions over those of its rival, the EPLF, something the TPLF was reluctant to do’,
(Young 1997: 113). The administration of Eritrean peasants who settled in the Tigrai
region was another source of continuous disagreement which the ELF took as
provocation. When the TPLF began to execute its land-reform policy which favoured
poor peasants, Eritrean landlords living near the borders were seriously affected. The
ELF stood up on behalf of these landlords and worked covertly and overtly not only to
frustrate the land-reform policy but also the TPLF’s entire politico-military venture. It
defended and offered sanctuary to feudal Eritrean or Tigraian elements opposed to the
land reform and committed acts of reprisal against members of the TPLF or even
ordinary TPLF sympathizers. The ELF protected such opponents of the TPLF by
claiming that they were members of its organization. Repeatedly, its units obstructed the
mobility of TPLF members or vehicles travelling to or from the Sudan through their

In the middle of all these tense circumstances, war broke out between the TPLF
and the EPRP in April 1978. Once again the ELF was quick to grab the opportunity and
use it against the interests of the TPLF. The EPRP army, which was operating in Tigrai,
was defeated and driven out of its base area in Alitena and Assimba by the TPLF in a
matter of days and fled to the ELF-held territory of Shumezana in Eritrea. It was
unexpected for the ELF to act as a host for the EPRP because they had no formal
relations and until then, the latter was known to be an ally of the EPLF, the ELF’s arch
rival. But all of a sudden, the ELF gave the EPRP sanctuary in its base area near Augaro
in western Eritrea close to the TPLF area of operations. The cooperation between the
ELF and the EPRP put the TPLF under a serious threat of war. The TPLF wrote a number
of letters of reconciliation to the ELF and in May 1978 leaders of both the ELF and the
TPLF met in Barka. They agreed to work together and not interfere in each other’s
administrative territory. They spelled out their differences, particularly on the nature of
the Dergue and the Soviet Union – the ELF considered the Dergue and the Soviet Union
as ‘truly socialist’ and ‘progressive’ forces, while the TPLF held that both were antidemocratic
and anti-revolutionary. Yet they agreed that such differences should not
hamper the progress of their cooperation as long as they were fighting against both of
them. Subsequently, they went as far as putting together their forces to challenge the
Dergue’s biggest military campaign on the Shire front in May 1978.
At this time, the ELF rearmed the EPRP and began supporting the latter’s plan of
establishing itself in Wolkait in western Tigrai. To accomplish this, the ELF had to escort
the EPRP through TPLF-held territory in western Tigrai where it had created popular
support. At the end of 1979, three ELF battalions under Tesfay Tekle, a member of the
ELF revolutionary council, joined the EPRP forces to cross to Wolkait but they were
attacked by TPLF forces at Moguee and forced to return to Eritrea. Reinforced by another
fresh brigade, the joint forces of ELF-EPRP advanced to Sheraro, the popular base of the
TPLF. But on 6 April 1980, they were intercepted by TPLF forces in the hilly terrain of
Gemmahlo and suffered a heavy defeat. The troops of both defeated fronts were in
disarray, each blaming the other for what had befallen them, although it was the
endurance coupled with the TPLF’s better fighting tactics that brought about their defeat.
Thereafter, the ELF refrained from attacking the TPLF in the western part of Tigrai while
the EPRP made a long march of retreat to reach remote areas of the Wolkait region. The
EPRP had difficulty reviving its forces and was then engaged in a survival strategy. The
implication of this war was that it frustrated attempts by the EPRP to launch an
operational zone in western Tigrai and Wolkait and to open a corridor from its bases in
Gonder to ELF territory in western Eritrea and eventually to Sudan. Once again, the
TPLF proved to be invincible in the eyes of its adversaries.
By November 1980, furious ELF units operating across central Tigrai launched
another surprise attack on the TPLF base area in Belesa-Maihamato. They chased away
the few guards they encountered and looted the small base area before returning to their
own territory. This was an unprovoked attack, and the TPLF was in no position to and
had no intention of declaring war on the ELF. By this time, the former had emerged as
the only formidable armed resistance force to the Dergue in Tigrai. The destroying and
eviction of the TLF, the Teranafit, the EDU and finally the EPRP was, however, a
message that the ELF had to consider seriously. The fact that it was now left without
proxy organizations in Tigrai indicated its isolation. Confrontation between the TPLF and
the ELF from then onwards became direct and had to be resolved one way or the other.
The TPLF and ELF operational areas were adjacent. The ELF operated in many
parts of Tigrai for military and economic reasons. The border claim and counter-claim
and the exclusive right to operate in the border territories continued to be a constant
problem in relations between the organizations. The policies on land, trade, the mobility
of people and the forceful extraction of material contributions and recruits from Eritreans
living in Tigrai continued to cause strain between the TPLF and the ELF. The ELF’s
border security officers declined to discuss seriously the problems with TPLF cadres and
seek solutions to the problems. The ELF wanted to impose their way and in the final
solution resorted to killing TPLF cadres and trying to overrun their base areas. Conflicts
became frequent, nerve-racking, and sometimes bloody. The ELF created a situation that
was unbearable for the TPLF and even more so for the people of Tigrai along the borders,

and, day in day out, they urged the TPLF to do something about it and to drive away any
ELF unit. The TPLF had thus many reasons to remove the ELF.
At the very beginning of 1981, the EPLF, which since its formation had been in a
similar – if not more hostile situation – with the ELF, sent a delegation led by Sibhat
Ephraim, a politburo member, to the TPLF to try to resolve the lingering problem with
the ELF. By this time both seemed to have had enough of ELF provocations and they
agreed on organizing equal numbers of forces to deliver a decisive blow to the ELF. In
mid-1981, combined TPLF-EPLF forces began their offensive from the Afar lowlands,
the eastern base area of the ELF and swiftly advanced on the central and western bases.
Without joint action, the war with the ELF would have remained an impossible task for
the EPLF alone. Weakened by internal squabbles and stretched over a wide area in small
units, the ELF was in no position to pose any meaningful resistance. In less than two
weeks, the entire ELF force was forced to leave Tigrai and Eritrea and flee to Sudan
following the impact of the joint TPLF-EPLF attack. Nharnet Team, an ELF sympathizer,
described the situation as follows:
The aggression on the ELA [ELF army] started and the TPLF of Ethiopia joined
in the fratricidal war declared by the EPLF that lasted till 10 August 1981. The
ELA was forced to withdraw to the border areas in the Sudan where it faced
many problems. During that fateful period of 1980-81, the ELA lost 1458
fighters martyred mainly in the destructive war provoked by the EPLF/TPLF
alliance (Nharnet, 2005: Part VIII).
TPLF-ELF relations had been rocky from the start and continued to be so despite the
conciliatory gestures made by the TPLF. At last it had led to this bloody confrontation in
which the ELF was defeated and ceased to exist as a viable organization. The defeat of
the ELF opened up the opportunity for the EPLF to control rural Eritrea without a rival.
The TPLF too had nothing to fear from behind for some time to follow. This was also a

relief for the Tigraians living along the borders. Afterwards splinter groups formed, made
up of dispersed ELF members, and they vowed to continue the struggle for independence.
They were against the rival EPLF and even those who looked to espouse Marxian
ideology took no time to establish a relationship with the TPLF. Later, the TPLF began to
support the Eritrean Democratic Movement (EDM) and the Eritrean Liberation Front
Central-Command (ELF-CC), better known as Sagem, as a countervailing force to the
EPLF. A new alignment that would complicate relations with the EPLF was in the

Source 251-274.