The rise and demise of EFLNA/ENASA (1970-1979

"Most Eritrean mass organizations, either at home or abroad, were actively created by either the ELF or the EPLF, EFLNA's relatively uniqueness was that it formed independently of any existing pro-independence movement in Eritrea and sought to retain a measure of autonomy throughout its life
"(Gaim Kibreab)

The demise of EFLNA

Researched and compiled by Resoum Kidane 22-5-2019

After the Eritrean rebels launched offensive against the Ethiopian force in February and March, 1975, the Eritrean struggle gained international coverage.  Additionally the Eritrea struggle gained more international coverage when the Ethiopian government intensified its revenge by carrying out barbaric atrocities in the capital city, Asmara and other villages. In protest at these atrocities the EFLNA members in many cities organized demonstrations to condemn the Ethiopian army and conducted teach-ins in many cities to raise awareness of the just struggle of the Eritrean people for independence.

As a result of the Ethiopian force atrocities and war in the capital city and others villages, many Eritreans fled their homes and went in to exile, some of them to the USA.  The EFLNA which was mainly founded by students in the early 1970s, later expanded with the arrival of new Eritrean refugees such as workers and high school students. With this influx the social composition of the EFLNA’s membership gradually changed.        

In connection with the above, it is worth mentioning that the social composition of the EPLF’s fighters had also changed as many students and intellectual joined the fronts. This period, 1975-1977, was when anti-intellectualism and a petty bourgeoisie began to grow in the Front. Regarding the EPLF’s attitude towards the educated and petty bourgeois fighters, Dr Bereket briefly mentions the journey he had with 400 trainers that took  7 days  from  BaHri Bara to  Sahel in 1975.  He recalls:

“I wondered whether the trainers would survive the military training that awaited them. I would find out months later that they did survive and had become physically fit and adept at desert warfare. Moreover, they turned a corner, having been purged of what their trainers called petty bourgeois sentiments and aspirations, and armed with a new ideology drummed into them during months of training” (Habte Selassie , 2007: 316 page)

During those years the political education and the other instructional materials were mainly anti- intellectual and focused on the alliance of workers and peasants. Concerning this alliance against intellectualism, in the 1970s,  there was a saying that 10 peasants’ che-guar danga are better than 100 educated fighters. It characterized the EPLF leadership’s thinking, which was to favour the uneducated peasant fighters over the educated ones. This phrase was used by the EPLF leadership as a method of repression and to demoralize educated fighters.  During those years the petty bourgeoisie were always suspected and watched with vigilance by the ‘true’ revolutionary cadres most of whom were from peasant and working class origins. In 1975, when the Cader School opened to teach Marxism, the first students were from the peasantry``. They were uneducated military leaders like Wuchu (che-guar danga).  The political education and  anti-intellectual campaign in the EPLF also influenced to the member of EFLNA.

One female EFLNA member recalls how less-educated women resisted serious political discussion and rejected potentially useful aspect of Western analysis  and were increasing hostile towards “bourgeois intellectualism”. She adds, “most of our women didn’t go to school. They came there from high school and when they came there from high school they ended up working as waitresses or cashiers or things like that.” [Harper, 2009)
From 1975 onwards, with the arrival of new Eritrean refugees from North America, the EPLF’s financial demands shifted  to the EFLNA workers and those in unskilled service work. But the legacy of the intellectual members who concentrated on political philosophy and education, should never be forgotten in the history of the armed struggle for independence.

According to Hareper, one of EFLNA’s greatest legacies has been the amount of printed material it produced, translated, published, and distributed. The EFLNA produced materials for EPLF fighters in the field as well as for Eritreans in Europe, the Middle East and other parts of northern and eastern Africa. In addition to its regular magazine Harnet and its Tigrinya-language political journal N’QHat or Consciousness, the EFLNA culled, translated, and reprinted selections from EPLF publications such as Vanguard (Fitewerari) and Spark (MahTA) etc

During those years until 1976 the EFLNA operated as a separate organization giving support to the armed struggle but not taking orders from the EPLF. Many members clearly valued and guarded EFLNA’s autonomy, fearing they would lose control of their activities and their ability to question the EPLF leadership if they became too entangled with the front

According to Harper,(2009)feeling pressure from the EPLF, EFLNA voted at its eighth congress in 1977 to transform itself into two mass organizations: the Association of Eritrean Students in North America (AESNA) and the Association of Eritrean Women in North America (AEWNA) were established.  The move placed the organization under the control of the EPLF and on equal footing with all other mass associations around the world.  Within the EFLNA, the decision was marked with ambivalence; however, not all members supported the shift to formal organization status. Since its inception in 1970, the EFLNA had exercised and valued its autonomy and distance, even as it had aligned itself with the EPLF. But pressures to centralize and homogenize all wings of the nationalist movement eventually led to EFLNA’s dissolution as one member explains:

“The people that said “let’s keep our independence” it’s because they saw the gains we can have by being independent. In other words, we can pass independent resolutions, we can think independently, and if we can think independently, then we can become more resourceful to the struggle. The people who said “we can’t remain independent“ saw the independence as an alienation of our organization from the struggle at home and they said.  So there was a very strong debate on both sides of the issue, let’s stay independent and let’s be part of the revolution……. .If you are part of the organization you can’t condemn the leadership, you are bound by the rules and regulations of the front, and you have to do whatever the front tells you to do, and in that way you can’t go and have an independent view of yourself”

As a consequence of EFLNA lost its autonomy and became EPLF’s mass organisation. The rift between EPLF and EFLNA exacerbated at the 9th General Congress of EFLNA and the second congress of AEWNA in 1978. At the 9th General Congress both organizations AESNA and AEWNA unanimously condemned the EPLF leaders for not condemning the Soviet Union for its support of the military junta’s ('Derg') offensive against the Eritrea revolution in 1977 and 1978

The crisis reached its final stage when in 1978 the EFLNA leadership and members condemned the EPLF leadership and dissociated the organization from the EPLF body. According Mehreateab after members of the EFLNA returned from their congress to their respective places of residence, members entered into a personal and collective loss of direction.  The organization they worshiped as faultless was suddenly diminished and tarnished.  The connections with EPLF that had given them a sense of having an impact on events in Eritrea was suddenly lost. 

Mehreateab adds that the EFLNA members justified its action by stating that: “The stand taken at our congresses is a culmination of a year and a half internal struggle with the EPLF leaders on major questions of strategy and tactics of the Eritrean revolution. The principal differences between us the EPLF leadership lie, whether to regard the Soviet-led revisionism as our enemy or friend, especially when it is directly confronting our revolution, on the question of peaceful solution.  According to EFLNA, both Fronts have in the most “shameless manner betrayed the national struggle” and “have proclaimed themselves as apologists of the Soviet-led revisions aggression. . (See: Against the capitulationism line of the ‘Leaders’ of the Eritrean Revolution EFLNA New York New York 1978 p.1)

In August 1978, EFLNA led by Mengesteab Isaac broke away from the EPLF. Mengeastab was an influential member of EFLNA’s leadership who had challenged Isaias. Following the split the anti EPLF leadership group issued a declaration condemning the EPLF leaders and renouncing EPLF membership. Thereafter EFLNA was divided into two factions, one supporting Mengisteab and his group, the other remaining loyal to the EPLF.

Regarding Mengesteab’s break away group  from the EPLF, Dr Bereket states that  the split shook the movement   in North America to its foundation, creating one of the most serious crisis the EPLF faced and at a crucial time in the Eritrean struggle for independence.  “I happened to be in Italy attending the EFLE annual meeting, addressed by EPLF’s Sebhat Efrem. Sebhat and I discussed the crisis created by EFLNA’splite and what needed to be done to minimize the damage. He was uncharactercally harsh in his condemnation, dismissing outright my suggestion for diplomacy in approaching the breakaway leaders. I remember him raising his voice and saying we will not deal in diplomacy.” 

Dr Bereket adds: “It is hard to believe that the strategic retreat was the only or even the main reason for Mengesteab’s disaffection and drastic step, I am forced to speculate that there was another reason and I am reminded of recent writings reporting that Mengisteab and another companion who had made a field trip in 1975 were informed of some unsavory facts concerning the EPLF’s treatment of some of its members the so called Menk’a”.

This is also supported by Kibreab who states that many ELFNA (ENSA) activists raised questions about the EPLF putatively democratic nature. The Menk’a members who were later executed by the EPLF had many friends and former classmates within ELFNA (ENASA) and the incident disillusioned more than a few.  Among these were Mengeastab Ysiak chairperson of  ELFNA (ENASA ) and Petros Yohanese co-editor of a magazine called Teihsha at Addis Ababa University in the early 1970, who became active member of ELFNA (ENASA ) in Canada

The change of EFLNA from being an autonomous association to an EPLF mass organization was another contributing factors to Mengesteab and his group’s split from the EPLF in 1978.   Megesteab and his group denounced the EPLF for not condemning the Soviet Union for supporting the military junta ('Derg') offensive against the Eritrea revolution in 1977 and 1978.   

After the split, members the EFLNA divided into:  “Loyal” members of EFLNA and “the loyal followers of EPLF” in some US cities. Thereafter there was intensive campaign against Mengestab and his group by the EPLF and  loyal followers of EPLF. The book published by EFLNA “Eritrea, revolution or capitulation” was prohibited to EPLF fighters and its mass organisations. . . This book was published by Eritreans for Liberation in North America.; Association of Eritrean Women in North America, it is available from amazon. com and the Library of Congress.

Regarding this Beyan Negash who was high school student in Cairo, 1979  recalled that  when the EPLF members in Cairo were prepared to receive the translated version of the controversial booklet (Against the capitulationism line of the ‘Leaders’ of the Eritrean Revolution EFLNA New York New York 1978)  but was prevented by the arrival of Naizghi Kiflu, Haile Menkerios (former member of EFLNA) and Alamin M. Said, who discouraged any discussions of the translated material let alone disseminating it to its members.

By 1979 with increasing internal squabbles and in-fights within the EFLNA, it ceased to exist as a viable organization. After its demise many the founders and other members of this association who committed themselves to the movement underwent uncertainty in their beliefs and convictions.   When looking back on the history of EFLNA,  it is clear that many of their members sacrificed their scholarship from illustrious universities in the US, bright futures and  had devoted their time and money to the movement.  Many of them delayed having families and children, and abandoned taking up professional careers.[Harper, 2009

Abraham (MIT) one of whom was given full scholarship for PhD in Mathematics from John Hopkins University had declined the offer. This was the first time that Abraham prioritized something else over his academic pursuance. He believed that there was a greater need for him somewhere else: the struggle for the liberation of Eritrea. Here, we witness a tangible enactment of the ethos of sacrifice that was to define the Eritrean community in North America during the 70s.

According (Hareper) after the demise of EFLNA the largest majority member of EFLNA refocused their energy no their personal lives including going back to school, pursuing professional careers and getting married and creating their family in the US.  Most vowed to participate in non-political events concerning Eritrea and Eritreans.  

Abraham MIT was among those who returned to campus and entered Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1980, and achieved a Master’s Degree in Law and Diplomacy in 1982. Abraham MIT passed away at the age of 65 on Sept 10, 2014, Abraham is survived by his wife, Azezet Abraha, and his three children, Andom, Semere, and Zied. Readmore.
To conclude, as Gaim Kibreab states in his book, the EFLNA was formed independently of any existing pro-independence movement in Eritrea and sought to retain a measure of autonomy throughout its life. EFLNA was not created like other Eritrean mass organizations, either at home or abroad, by the ELF or the EPLF.

From 1970 to 1978, apart from raising funds, members of the  EFLNA were also actively involved in publishing literature to raise political consciousness among the EPLF mass organisations and fighters. Members of the EFLNA also played an important role in raising  awareness of the Eritrean struggle among non-Eritreans in North America which contributed to the formation of Eritrea Support Group campaigns in the USA  and Europe in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

Last but not least, the great legacy of the EFLNA was the establishment of Radio Liberation in 1979. The EFLNA initiated this project with the approval of the EPLF. In the liberated areas Radio Liberation later became Dimtsi Hafash, Voice of the Broad Masses, which today remains the most accessible source of government produced information for Eritreans at home

On the 40th anniversary of the demise of the EFLNA, we should remember the founders of the EFLNA who met in the late Mustafa Saleh’s Harlem apartment to discuss the formation of the organization following the massacre of 120 innocent civilians at Besikdira and another 740 civilians in Ona village, on December 16th, 1970.It was sad to see the EFLNA’s demise in 1978 after came under the loyal followers of the EPLF led by Hagos Kisha.


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