The first liberation of Eritrea (1975-1977)
ELF dissident groups, which formed the ELF-PLF, were transformed in September 1973 into the Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces (EPLF) with Mr. Romedan Mohamed Nur as its secretary and Mr. Isaias Afwerki as its military commander. Both had studied Maoist guerrilla strategy in China in the 1960s. No sooner had it been created than the EPLF faced internal dissensions challenging the newly elected leadership. Critics were violently suppressed. To avoid a possible resurgence, the EPLF set up a new internal security apparatus known as Halewa Sewra (lit. the “Shield of the Revolution” in Tigrinya) as well as a Central Committee secretly controlled by the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), a clandestine communist movement formed in 1971 by ELF-PLF leaders, including Mr. Nur and Mr. Afwerki.
EPLF discipline and its social revolutionary political program gained support not only in its base, located in the Northern Red Sea region, but also in the Christian highlands. Following clashes around Zagher, in the northwest of Eritrea, under popular pressure the ELF and the EPLF negotiated a cease-fire in October 1974. This was one month after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had been overthrown by a military junta that was known as the Derg.
In January 1975, the ELF and the EPLF, both reinforced by additional recruits, launched a common attack on Asmara. This was the prelude to a larger offensive that led the two Fronts to liberate almost 95 per cent of Eritrea. Despite having a larger contingent, the ELF lacked sufficient discipline and organization to outstrip the EPLF in its territorial expansion. By the end of 1977, the EPLF was controlling a zone from the coast to Nakfa in the north and extending to inland Dekemhare in central Eritrea, with the exception of Asmara and the islands of Massawa. On the other hand, the ELF had captured the highlands and the western localities of Mendefera, Adi Quala, Agordat and Tessenei, as well as towns in the Gash-Barka and Anseba regions.
By 1975 the new influx of recruits and sympathisers compelled the EPLF to reorganise and adopt new policies. It created a unit called Fitwari (lit. “Vanguards” in Tigrinya) which gathered 14 to 16-year-olds and provided them with education and rudimentary military training. The presence of women in the EPLF also increased during this time. In 1973, the first three women had insisted on being given military training, paving the way for more women to be admitted to the EPLF and, by 1975, women were openly recruited for military training. Women were very successful in recruiting other women, and organising civilian women in rural and urban areas.
From 23 to 31 January 1977, the EPLF held its first congress in Sahel. An expanded Central Committee was elected as well as a Political Bureau with Romedan Mohamed Nur as secretary general and Isaias Afwerki as vice-secretary. The organization was also rebaptised “Front” instead of “Forces” and an 11-point program aiming at the creation of an independent, secular and egalitarian State was adopted.
Importantly, the political program included gender equality. The EPLF openly noted that one of its main goals was to liberate women from the inferior status conferred on them by traditional laws and customs. The land reform policy adopted during this time saw the redistribution of land to the landless and poor peasants, enabling women for the first time in history to own property.
In rural areas, peasants’ organizations were set up to implement the land reforms. Students and labor organizations were constituted in cities to promote and support the struggle, as was the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW). At the second regular meeting of the EPLF Central Committee in November 1977, polygamy was abolished and a law stipulating that marriage must be with the consent of both man and woman implemented.
In 1975 the new regime in Ethiopia led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, which had embraced a communist ideology, was provided with massive military support by the Soviet Union. Although it had become the most numerous independence force after the defection of Christian contingents from the ELF in the summer of 1977, in December of the same year the EPLF suffered its first serious defeat against the Ethiopian army when trying to capture their naval base in Massawa. In April 1978, the EPLF and the ELF signed a unity agreement that was tested in May by a common offensive launched to capture the town of Barentu, in the west of Eritrea. The joint forces were defeated by an Ethiopian military force much stronger in numbers.
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