Getahun on Ayele, 'The Ethiopian Army: From Victory to Collapse, 1977-1991'

Fantahun Ayele
Solomon A. Getahun

Fantahun Ayele. The Ethiopian Army: From Victory to Collapse, 1977-1991. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2014. 328 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8101-3011-1.

Reviewed by Solomon A. Getahun (Central Michigan University)
Published on H-Horn (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Shimelis B. Gulema

This book, which grew out of a PhD thesis, is based on secondary sources augmented with an impressive array of archival materials from the Ministry of Defense and oral information gleaned from former combatants. Armed with such sources, Fantahun intimates to us details of the various battlefields, ranging from the planning phase of operations to executions of battle plans, the ebb and flow of the morale of combatants, and the successes or failures of the many campaigns, which often were accompanied by the sweet taste of victory or the agony of loss.

Fantahun also successfully conveys the mistrust between Mängestu and his generals, sabotage against the Ethiopian army from the outside as well as from within, poor intelligence, difficulties in logistics, and the cumbersome (Soviet-style military) command structure that left no room for individual initiative, and how these contributed to the failure of a series of military campaigns against the Eritrean and Tigrian liberation fronts or secessionists, whichever way one looks at it. In trying to explain how an army that beat the Somali invaders was defeated by fewer and less equipped guerrilla forces, Fantahun leaves us with a somber note: ``a critical examination of the turmoil the army was in and the multifaceted problems it encountered would make it difficult to accept the thesis that it lost the war because it was less heroic or less courageous than the insurgents'' (pp. 226-227).

However, Fantahun's work is not without deficiencies. For instance, while he provides a clear picture of the sources of weapons and training for the Ethiopian and the Somali armed forces, there is no such information for the insurgents, the Tigrian People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). Fantahun thus overlooks one of the most important variables in the EPLF/ELF's thirty-year secessionist war: the Arab factor. Had he tried examining the role of the Arabs, he would have come across the sources of material and moral support for the secessionists. The pioneering works of Professor Shumet Sishagne and Daniel Kendie reveal the significant roles that pan-Arabism and Nile water politics played in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war--such that the involvement of the Arab countries, primarily Egypt and Sudan, in Ethiopia's internal affairs was often more detrimental than the Cold War rivalry between the USSR and the United States.

The author's statement on the Red Terror in Asmara is wrong: ``The 'red terror' turned ... some major cities, such as ... Asmara, into slaughterhouses'' (p. 207). As a matter fact, the Red Terror never happened in Asmara! This is because there was no Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in Eritrea and hence there was no peaceful protest or ``White Terror'' in Asmara as was the new normal in the rest of Ethiopia during the early days of the Ethiopian revolution. Until the Ethiopian revolution and the Somali invasion of Ethiopia, the Eritrean secessionist movements were barely known even in Eritrea. They were very much confined to the lowlands of Eritrea, so much so that the government of Ethiopia and the Eritrean people often referred to the rebels as ``bandits'' (ሽፍታ) rather than by the prestigious title, ``liberation front.'' Though sporadic engagements occurred between the Ethiopian army and the insurgents in the prerevolution days, the army was most noted for looting and slaughtering cattle, living off the Eritrean peasants and nomads, and forcing rural villagers into camps. From the start, the EPLF-ELF struggle was rural-based protracted struggle as opposed to the EPRP's urban campaign. Besides, there was no need for the EPLF-ELF to hold demonstrations in Asmara demanding secession from Ethiopia. If this had happened in Asmara during the revolution, both the EPLF and the ELF knew that the Derg would turn the city into, to use Fantahun's phrase, ``a slaughterhouse.'' Lucky for the EPLF-ELF, the EPRP was doing it on their behalf in Addis Ababa and the rest of Ethiopia. The only time Eritreans took to the streets in Asmara during the days of the revolution was not to demand secession from Ethiopia but to protest against the rivalry and ensuing bloodshed between the two Eritrean antagonists, the EPLF and the ELF. The retaliatory action that the Ethiopian government took in Asmara that remotely resembled the Red Terror happened in December 1975. It took place after an EPLF commando infiltrated Asmara and attacked government assets. As a reprisal for EPLF's bravado, the government security forces killed a total of fifty Eritrean youth, of whom eighteen were strangled with piano wire. In January 1975, at the height of EPLF-ELF siege of Asmara, Ethiopian government forces took revenge by conducting an extrajudicial killing of innocent civilians. The government, in addition to admitting the unlawful killing of civilians, punished the perpetrators. Thirteen soldiers were executed while some ninety of them were transferred--a totally unknown practice by the Derg during or after the Red Terror years in the rest of Ethiopia. With this, an incident that only remotely looked like the Red Terror in Eritrea was over. While Fantahun's Red Terror was over in Asmara, the Red Terror in the rest of Ethiopia had not yet begun. It happened in later years, between 1977 and 1979. The only encounter the populace of Asmara had with the Red Terror was through the Ethiopian Television (ETV), when upon the demise of the Derg the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) initiated war-crime trials of former government officials.

Contrary to Fantahun's claim (p. 197), on the eve of the fall of Meşewa the EPLF and TPLF had actually allied with the Oroma Liberation Front (OLF) to invade Assosa. The invasion of Assosa (today part of the Benishangul-Gumuz State) via Kurmuk, a Sudanese border town, was facilitated by the Sudanese government. With the cooperation from Sudan the northern secessionists were able to transport their armies across Sudan. The invasion of Assosa, as later events indicated, had much greater objectives than exposing the vulnerabilities of the Derg and the capabilities of the EPLF-TPLF. It was designed to force the Derg to remove some of its best forces from Eritrea to Assosa. Indeed, the government transferred some of its best units, including parts of the famed Sparta Commando and the Mountain Divisions, from Eritrea to Wallega. The government's objective was not only to dislodge the insurgents from Assosa but also to punish Sudan for its continued meddling in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. Mängestu publicly vowed to ``deflate'' (ማስተንፈስ) Sudan as he had Somalia. General Zeleqe Beyene of the Central Command was tasked with this objective. A helicopter gunship squadron was stationed at Nedjo town (150 kms away from Asossa and about halfway between Nekemte, the capital of Wallega, and Assosa) at the command of an air force colonel. However, as soon as some of the units arrived in Nedjo, not only did the EPLF and its affiliates leave Assosa but they also struck one of the most prized trophies of the thirty-year war in Eritrea, Massawa. As in all its military campaigns the Derg fumbled. In a desperate attempt to save Massawa, the Derg moved its war machine from Assosa to Asmara but to no avail. Masswa fell into the hands of EPLF-TPLF while Sudan was spared from being partitioned like Somalia, at least for the time being.

Some of Fantahun's remarks are speculative and unnecessary. For instance, with respect to Col. Mängestu's reluctance to grant the author's request for interview, the latter writes, ``I suspect that he backed away once he saw my questions because most required him to admit that he committed strategic mistakes on various fronts'' (p. xviii). Couldn't the former president have had other reasons as well?~ In the same manner, after expressing his ``regret'' for being unable to travel to Eritrea and visit the various battlefronts and interview former EPLF combatants, he goes on to explain that ``I know that Eritrean officials would never allow access to their archives'' (p. xviii). How does he know?~ And in any case, travel between the two countries was banned after the 1998 war. In both instances the author could have avoided such speculative remarks by just stating the facts: Col. Mängestu declined to be interviewed while the existence of the travel ban between the two countries prevented him from traveling to Eritrea.

On the reorganization of the Ethiopian army in the immediate aftermath of the Italo-Ethiopian War, Fantahun indicates that ``the Ethiopian government gathered the prewar cadets and graduates of Holäta and St.Cyr and organized the army under the newly established Ministry of War'' (p. 7). While this was true, the role of the former Italian askaris--Eritreans and Ethiopians--in the reorganization of the army is overlooked.

The book suffers from occasional repetitiveness. For instance, the section ``training the new army'' (pp. 15-18) could have been merged with the previous section. Except for the training at Soba, Haile Sillassie's demand for the withdrawal of the British from Ethiopia, and the buying of fighter planes from Sweden, there was no new information that necessitated the creation of a new section under that subheading. This is also true for ``choosing an army supplier'' (p. 41), which could have been merged with ``keeping the army supplied'' (p. 63). ``Somalia invades'' appears on repeatedly, on pp. 22, 30, and 105. In short, the chapters and subheadings need a little more reorganization.

Aside from such minor loopholes and mishaps, Fantahun's work will greatly contribute to the understanding of Ethiopia's debacle during the thirty-year war. It will also right the wrong concerning the Ethiopian army, which is frequently and misleadingly labeled the ``Derg army.'' Above all else, however, the book will immensely help in understanding the military history of Ethiopia, and will likely contribute to the development of programs in military history at the country's various universities. 

Printable Version:

Citation: Solomon A. Getahun. Review of Ayele, Fantahun, The Ethiopian Army: From Victory to Collapse, 1977-1991. H-Horn, H-Net Reviews. January, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.