- Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War
In the period immediately after they overthrew the derg—the military regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991—Eritrean President Isaisas Afeworki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi joked that they had switched mothers. The president's mother came from Tigray in Ethiopia, while the prime minister's hailed from what is now Eritrea. The camaraderie of the two leaders and the goodwill they had for one another helped forge a firm alliance between their respective parties as they came to dominate politics in both countries: the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), now renamed the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which heads the coalition that rules Ethiopia. Both forces originated from the same highland Tigrayan culture, and the leaders seemed to be strongly aware of this affinity. Above all, they seemed to have convinced themselves that the continuation of their political hegemony depended on their solidarity against many of their common detractors in the region. [End Page 212]
Despite occasional tensions, relations between the two forces remained close almost from the beginning of the armed insurgency in Tigray during the mid-1970s. The first group of TPLF fighters were trained in and launched from Eritrea. EPLF commanders initially played a prominent role in assuring the viability of the fledgling insurgency. A book called Terarawun Yanqeteqete Tewuled (The Generation that Rocked the Mountains), published in Amharic under TPLF sponsorship shortly before the 1998 war, reveals the extent of the EPLF's role in starting the TPLF's armed struggle. In return, the EPLF won not only a potentially valuable military ally, but also an unwavering supporter of Eritrean independence. The TPLF went out of its way to produce a 331-page book, Ye Eritrea Hizb Tigil Keyet Wodet (The Eritrean People's Struggle: Its Beginning and Future Direction), to explain the colonial nature of the Eritrean question and to justify its claim for independence.
In the military sphere, the TPLF was able to blunt the repeated campaigns of the Ethiopian army against the EPLF by blocking access to Eritrea. The fact that the sizable Ethiopian force was bogged down in Tigray enabled the EPLF to defend its base in the Sahel when its own force was routed by a successful Ethiopian counteroffensive in 1978 and 1979. The assistance from the TPLF also played a crucial role in the EPLF's war against its rival, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), in 1980 and 1981. In fact, ELF forces operating in the southwestern parts of Eritrea were for the most part crushed by the TPLF army. In the late 1980s, the military collaboration between the two fronts grew in scale and intimacy, resulting in many spectacular victories against Ethiopian government forces and, ultimately, the collapse of the derg itself. Once in control of Addis Ababa, the TPLF government provided unreserved assistance to the EPLF to facilitate the Ethio-Eritrean separation and to ensure the success of Isaias's regime in Eritrea.
In 1998, this exemplary brotherhood collapsed suddenly, and the close cooperation between the two quickly escalated into a murderous conflict. Given the tradition of secrecy and political opacity in both organizations, few outsiders had any clue about what lay behind the rapidly deteriorating relations between the two former allies. It is this mystery that Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War attempts to explain. We owe the authors, Tekeste Negash and Kjetil [End Page 213] Tronvoll, much for producing the first serious and comprehensive account of the 1998 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Because Brothers at War came out while the conflict was still in progress, before the secretive tradition in both parties began to crack, the book did not benefit from many of the sources that came to light after the division within the ruling cliques in both countries. Oftentimes, books that are rushed to print to fill the information gap...