- The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa
Academic scholarship on African military history remains underdeveloped within the larger field, but Gebru Tareke has made a major contribution over the last twenty years: his work on the Ethiopia-Somalia war of 1977–78, and in particular on peasant uprisings through Ethiopia’s twentieth century has established his reputation as one of northeast Africa’s foremost historians. The region has been one of the most violent zones anywhere in the world since the wars of liberation and attendant violent upheaval across Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. In this book, part of the Yale University series on military history, the region’s conflicts between the 1960s and 1990s are finally given the serious treatment they deserve–and this is military history of a high standard, bringing together a range of movements and conflicts, which are often dealt with separately by northeast African specialists, into an integrated narrative. [End Page 1389] As one might expect of Gebru Tareke, the book is impressively researched, with some fascinating detail unearthed from both archives and oral informants in Ethiopia itself–though less from the Eritrean and Somali sides, directly at least.
After discussing revolutionary war in its wider context, the main body of the book is organised in two parts. The first deals with the various armies themselves, their development, aims and structures. Thus there is an examination of the Eritrean guerrilla movements, from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front; the rise of the Tigrayan nationalist movement, culminating in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), now in government in Ethiopia; and the armed forces of the Marxist Derg state of the 1970s and 1980s. In the next section, the author turns his attention to ‘battlefield Ethiopia’. He discusses at length the Ogaden war between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977–78; the major clashes between the EPLF and the Derg–around the former’s rear base at Nakfa, and the battles at Afabet and Massawa; and the victory of the TPLF over government forces at Shire in 1989, before describing the advance of the combined liberation forces on Addis Ababa in 1991. The analysis is detailed and frequently incisive, although the prose is occasionally lazy: TPLF leader Meles Zenawi’s rise to power was “methodical and crafty. He seems to have known what he wanted and how to get it”; EPLF leader Isaias Afeworki had “imposing physique and good looks,” and “would have been star material anywhere but chose to be a liberation fighter.” Yet these lapses do not significantly undermine the telling of the story.
The book has an epilogue in which the author offers some brief remarks about the Eritrean-Ethiopian war of 1998–2000. Gebru’s reversion to the cliché that this was a “foolish war”–it may have been tragic, but “foolish” is inappropriate–reflects an insufficient appreciation of the problematic nature of EPLF-TPLF relations over the longer term. The two movements collaborated against a common enemy, for a time; they were never the ‘close comrades’ implied in this book. Indeed, the book would have benefited from a sharper exploration of the ethnic and political natures of the military contests during the c.1960-c.1990 period; a deeper discussion of the historical role of violence in Ethiopian and Eritrean political culture would have enhanced the narrative. This said, however, The Ethiopian Revolution is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature on northeast Africa’s modern wars and their continuing ramifications.
London, United Kingdom