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  • From Guerrillas to Government: The Eritrean People's Liberation Front
  • Nelson Kasfir
Pool, David . 2001. From Guerrillas to Government: The Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Oxford: James Currey; Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. 206 pp. $22.95 (paper).

The Eritrean People's Liberation Movement (EPLF) capped the longest guerrilla struggle in Africa, and perhaps the world, with victory in 1991, and since then as the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has ruled Eritrea with an iron hand. Formerly an Italian colony, Eritrea was controlled by a British military administration from the time it defeated the Italian military until 1952, when the United Nations agreed to its federation with Ethiopia. By 1962, Ethiopia had undermined the federation and absorbed Eritrea. Nationalist response in the 1950s led to guerrilla war. Pool provides us with a full-length treatment of the EPLF from its origins in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to its military victory and first decade as the independent government of Eritrea. The penchant of guerrilla leaders for secrecy, a practice essential for survival, makes the formation and development of guerrilla organization an extraordinarily difficult subject for study. It will be a long time before a complete account of the EPLF is possible. We should be grateful to David Pool for the depth of information and subtle social analysis he has presented here.

The central question in the book is an important one: how did the EPLF manage to establish itself as an autonomous and cohesive organization, able to defeat and drive out an existing guerrilla organization and gain wide acceptance in all parts of a society marked by religious and ethnic [End Page 124] cleavages? In contrast, as one would expect of any guerrilla organization in a deeply divided society, the ELF was organized on ethnic lines and had a strong Muslim orientation in response to Ethiopian support for Christian organizations. Incorporation by Ethiopia had been in part the consequence of religious divisions that made some Coptic Christians and Tigrinya-speakers allies of their Ethiopian counterparts, leaving Muslim groups to form the nationalist opposition and later the ELF.

Pool takes a roughly chronological approach to his analysis of the internal organization of the EPLF, its relations to the population, and its military victories, which led to international recognition and ultimate success. His discussion of the relation of the EPLF and ethnic groups is not conceptually consistent. When he provides ethnographic information about each of the nine significant Eritrean ethnic groups, he implies that each holds a single unchanging homogeneous identity. Yet when he discusses the impact of competing empires on them, as well as their migrations, he explicitly argues that their identities should be considered fluid, not static. In a sophisticated analysis of early Eritrean nationalism, he further shows that nationalist movements blurred sectarian identities without dissolving them, and that the EPLF used cultural differences among ethnic groups ("nationalities") instrumentally to undercut the religious cleavage represented in its competition with the ELF. Nevertheless, he also suggests that hierarchical cultures may contribute to a sense of "stateness" within a guerrilla organization. Does he think the EPLF became an autonomous and cohesive organization because its leaders came from, and first recruited from, settled hierarchical populations long exposed to imperial rule? Finally, he also says he wants to represent the EPLF leaders' view of these "nationalities," even though their view seems considerably more static than fluid. Taken together, these insights into ethnography on the one hand and social change on the other provide an ambiguous contribution to his central question: did the differences among groups demonstrate the difficulty or the relative ease with which the EPLF overcame ethnic and religious cleavages?

In the core of the book, Pool discusses the organizational growth and eventual dominance of the EPLF. It is difficult to tell whether pragmatism or the leaders' application of Marxism-Leninism is more important. In either case, overcoming ethnic division was a central goal. Military success against its internal rival may also be part of the explanation of the cohesion and autonomy of the EPLF. Pool traces the unification process of the different groups of defectors that became the EPLF. The critical early decisions were agreement on...


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pp. 124-126
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