Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

PWOC Political Committee Statement: The Horn of Africa

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 4, No. 7, July 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following statement was issued by the Political Committee of the PWOC and represents its analysis of the present situation in the Horn of Africa.


As Ethiopia prepares its offensive against Eritrea, all anti-imperialists are faced with the responsibility of making an analysis of the complexities of the struggle in the Horn of Africa and producing orientation that can guide our activity. In approaching this task we must be clear on what our criteria are. The overriding consideration in the Horn, as elsewhere, is what resolution will most advance the general anti-imperialist struggle. The various questions that arise in relation to the Horn–the character of the Dergue, the nature of the Eritrean national struggle, etc. – all must be evaluated in this light.

The left is clearly divided in its analysis of events in the Horn. Some, notably the Communist Party USA, the Workers World Party, and the Communist Labor Party basically subscribe to the Soviet line which holds that the Dergue is Marxist-Leninist, Ethiopia is socialist, and all those who oppose it, including the Eritrean liberation movement, are doing the work of reaction and imperialism. Others, namely the organizations which uphold China’s international line, characterize the Dergue as a fascist regime and a pawn of Soviet social imperialism. They support the left opposition within Ethiopia to the Dergue, the various national movements within the old Ethiopian Empire and supported Somalia in its war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden.

Progressive international opinion, which largely backed Ethiopia in relation to Ogaden, is more divided in terms of its attitude toward Eritrea. While only a few progressive countries, liberation movements and parties back Eritrea fully, there appears to be growing reservations about a military solution.


Central to any perspective on the Horn is the question of the character of the Dergue. The two opposing viewpoints, the one that holds that it is Marxist-Leninist, the other that it is fascist are both one-sided and false characterizations of a contradictory phenomenon. These characterizations serve to rationalize a pre-conceived policy rather than illuminate the actual nature of the Dergue.

There seems to be little question that the Dergue has carried out a genuine anti-feudal, democratic revolution in Ethiopia. Acting in response to the mass movements unleashed by the fall of Haile Selassie’s reactionary government, the Dergue carried out sweeping democratic reforms. The age old system of feudal and tenure was abolished by the nationalization of the land and its division among the peasantry. An extensive program of nationalization of banks, insurance companies, manufacturing and commercial businesses was carried out. Mass associations of peasants, workers and women were formed in conjunction with these reforms.

At the same time the evidence does not point to the conclusion that the Dergue is carrying through a democratic revolution of a new type, that is, a revolution that on the basis of the worker-peasant alliance and proletarian leadership will go over to the socialist revolution. Rather, the democratic revolution in Ethiopia is stalled and appears to be degenerating. While on paper committed to a transition to civilian rule and basic democratic rights, the Dergue has, especially since 1977, launched a ruthless terror aimed at its left opposition. Left elements who collaborated with the regime played a central role in the mass associations, and were a major factor in the Dergue’s progressive policies were purged and suppressed in that year. The mass organizations appear to have become increasingly bureaucratized. The extent and arbitrariness of the so-called “red terror” would hardly seem conducive to developing the democratic content of these forms.

But the real Achilles heel of the Ethiopian revolution is the national question. No amount of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric can obscure the basic chauvinism of the Dergue’s attitude and policy toward the various oppressed nationalities of the old Ethiopian Empire. From the beginning the Dergue’s slogan has been “Ethiopia First”, its policy the maintenance of the “territorial unity and integrity” of an empire built on force and annexations. While the Dergue is committed on paper to some limited forms of autonomy for the different nationalities, its actual practice in relation to Eritrea, where the right to self-determination is absolutely clear, is a better indication of the regime’s real attitude. Mengistu consistently refers to the Eritrean liberation struggle as “separatist banditry”. The Dergue persists in regarding Eritrea, which was forcibly federated with Ethiopia in 19S2 and annexed outright in 1962 as a “province of Ethiopia.”

The fruits of the Ethiopian revolution are being squandered by the Dergue in the colonial war against Eritrea. The political and economic tasks associated with the consolidation of the democratic revolution and a transition to socialism are incompatible with the national policy of the Dergue.


The international realignment of the Dergue is no proof of its socialist character. It does not even guarantee that it will be a stable anti-imperialist force. In fact, it is the Dergue’s colonial policy more than anything else that seems to have determined its alignments. In 1976, well after it had carried out its radical democratic program of land reform and nationalizations, following the failure of the of offensive against Eritrea, the Dergue turned to US imperialism and Zionism for aid. The US responded by providing the largest dollar amount of weaponry in its 24 years of aiding Ethiopia, including F-5 starfighters and M-60 tanks. Israel trained a 20,000 man elite unit for anti-guerrilla war known as the Flame Brigade. In December of 1976 the Dergue went to Moscow and obtained an even better deal, an open-ended promise of aid, which now comes close to $1 billion, mostly in military hardware. The Soviets also provided 1,000 advisors. Three months later the Dergue broke off ties with the US and formally aligned itself with the Soviet camp.

But both Washington and Addis Ababa appear to be keeping their options open. The Agency for International Development continues to give grants to Ethiopia. In May of 1977 the International Monetary Fund gave the Dergue a loan of S57 million. At least as of last year Israeli personnel was still involved in training Ethiopian troops. The Dergue thus does not appear to have irrevocably severed its ties with imperialism and it is certainly not inconceivable that at some future point it could reverse its international alignment. A failure to carry through the tasks of the democratic revolution makes such a possibility all that much more likely.


If the Dergue is neither M-L or fascist, then what exactly is it? The Dergue appears to be a petty bourgeois nationalist formation with kinship to similar formations like Nasserism in Egypt and the Ba’ath Socialist regimes in Syria and Iraq. These regimes represent a bureaucratic and military strata of the petty bourgeoisie whose aspirations are circumscribed by imperialist domination. In the absence of an organized worker peasant alliance with proletarian leadership, these forces dominate the anti-imperialist struggle. While such forces have begun the democratic revolution, none have successfully effected a transition to socialism. The bureaucratic, petty bourgeois “socialism” that is the product of these movements does not provide a stable foundation for such a transition and invariably there is backsliding and degeneration. Ethiopia under the Dergue appears to have much in common with Egypt under Nasser. Both countries carried through real but partial social revolutions. Both regimes suppressed their left opposition and monopolized power in the hands of a bureaucratic-military elite. Both countries aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and adopted a general anti-imperialist stance. The fate of Egypt after Nasser illustrates the instability of these formations, their vulnerability to renewed imperialist penetration.


The other central question in relation to the present crisis in the Horn is the nature of the Eritrean national movement. The Dergue, while recognizing some elements of a national question in Eritrea, insist that given the overthrow of the reactionary Selassie regime and the present “socialist” nature of Ethiopia, that Eritrea remain part of Ethiopia. It might be one thing if the Dergue opposed secession while recognizing the right of Eritreans to secede. But clearly that is not the case since the Dergue is carrying out an annexationist policy and denying Eritrea’s right to self-determination.

The USSR echoes the Dergue on this point. Again, while acknowledging a national problem, the Soviet theoretician; argue that it is “an internal Ethiopian question and up to the Ethiopians to decide.” This is a strange notion coming from so-called Leninists. We would have thought that the question of secession was up to the Eritreans to decide.

The Dergue and even some of its left critics see the Eritrean question as the problem of an oppressed nationality within Ethiopia and belittle the Eritrean claims to. nationhood. But the facts do not support such an argument.

Like other African nations, Eritrea’s nationhood is a product of colonialism. Prior to the occupation of Eritrea by Italy towards the end of the 19th century, Eritrea had known invasion and partition by many conquerors and had enjoyed only brief periods of relative independence. Like Ethiopia, Eritrea was not and is not a homogeneous nation but a country with many nationalities, languages and religious groups. It was the colonization of Eritrea by Italy which created the modern political and territorial entity of Eritrea. The experience and resistance to colonialism shaped the national consciousness of the Eritrean people.

The Dergue seeks to win support for its annexationist policies by playing on the OAU nations’ hostility toward secessionist movements. Early in its existence the OAU agreed that borders inherited from colonialism must be maintained. Any other policy would open a Pandora’s box since in Africa no state is made up of only one nationality, and many ethnic groups cross national boundaries. Imperialism has exploited secessionist movements, as in Katanga and Biafra, and thus the OAU policy has the support of progressive as well as neo-colonial African states.

This is why Ethiopia had almost unanimous support in the Ogaden war with Somalia. Somalia’s claims to territory in both Ethiopia and Kenya are a clear violation of OAU policy. But Eritrea is not the Ogaden. Eritrea was a distinct colony, first of Italy, and after World War 2 of Britain. The forcible merger of Eritrea some 26 years ago with Ethiopia was done under the auspices of the UN with the backing of western imperialism.

Ethiopia’s outright annexation of Eritrea some ten years later cannot be justified in terms of respecting the boundaries inherited from colonialism. If anything, it is Ethiopia’s policy of annexation which contradicts this principle. The nearest thing to an analogy in Africa is the case of Namibia. The former German colony of Southwest Africa is now forcibly held by South Africa which gained control of it by being designated trustee by the League of Nations. Namibia’s right to independence does not contradict OAU policy nor does Eritrea’s.


The final argument of the Dergue and its supporters is that the Eritrean national movement is a pawn of imperialism and Arab reaction. On the surface at least this would seem to be the strongest card in the Dergue’s deck. Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, and the Sudan support Eritrean independence. The Sudan has also been the principal backer of the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU), the right-wing feudalist opposition to the Dergue.

According to a number of correspondents, the State Department is considering backing Eritrean independence as well. Clearly this support is based on preventing the development of further Soviet influence and protecting the joint interests of the oil sheiks and US imperialism.

But on closer examination, this argument is not so compelling after all. The character of the Eritrean Liberation Movement itself must be taken into account. There are three distinct liberation organizations, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and the ELF-PLF.

The armed struggle was launched against Ethiopia by the ELF in 1961. The ELF was dominated by bourgeois nationalist elements who subordinated the armed struggle to diplomatic maneuvers, failed to fully mobilize the masses, and played down the class struggle. As a result the movement made only limited gains.

The EPLF grew out of an opposition within the ELF and broke with them in 1970. While on paper the programs of the two organizations were similar, in practice, the EPLF sought to develop a policy of people’s war, developing mass organizations of workers, peasants and women, building schools, clinics and consumer co-ops and carrying out a policy of land reform in the countryside.

The ELF sought to crush its rival, resulting in a civil war which lasted until 1975. Since then there has been a cease fire and limited cooperation between the two groups. Recently an agreement was reached calling for the eventual merger of the fronts. This is to be a protracted process to allow for ironing out the major differences between the two.

The ELF-PLF was a split off from the EPLF. Headed by Ousman Sabbe, former head of the EPLF foreign delegation, ELF-PLF represents the extreme right of the movement and has close ties with Arab reaction.

Of the three organizations, the EPLF appears to be the largest and strongest with three times the members of ELF. ELF-PLF is very small and holds only a small area of territory along the Sudanese border. Over the last year ELF has apparently suffered significant defections, mainly to the EPLF, but some to the ELF-PLF as well.

The EPLF calls for a policy of self-reliance. It does not seek or accept aid from the reactionary Arab bloc or the imperialists. It seeks to develop support from anti-imperialist forces. In the past EPLF has received assistance from Algeria, Cuba and China, but today receives no concrete aid. Only the PLO and the Polisario Liberation Fronts among anti-imperialist forces actively back Eritrea, but neither provides economic or military aid.

The ELF receives aid from Iraq and Syria, while the ELF-PLF gets money from the Arab Emirates and the Saudis.

Thus the reactionary forces have not backed the whole liberation movement, but only those sections which they consider reliable allies who would insure that an independent Eritrea would not be a threat to their interests. The ELF-PLF is weak and discredited. When the ELF and the EPLF announced their merger agreement they also called for the ELF-PLF to disband within 60 days or be crushed.

The ELF’s potential for penetration by reactionary forces may still be a question mark, but the merger and apparent growing hegemony of EPLF would seem to lessen this danger. EPLF itself gives every indication of being a mature and tested revolutionary force with proven independent bearings.


Given this, at the present time there is no basis to conclude that the Eritrean movement is a pawn of imperialism or that an independent Eritrea will strengthen the hand of Arab reaction. The present balance of forces within the Eritrean national movement make it far more likely that, given the chance, Eritrea would emerge as a non-aligned revolutionary force. With an independent Eritrea emerging out of a protracted liberation struggle with a mature revolutionary leadership, there is reason to believe that the Eritrean revolution will go deeper and prove more durable than the top down revolution of the Dergue.

Furthermore, the resolution of the Eritrean national question will provide the best framework for the Ethiopian revolution to go forward. Only a democratic solution to the national question can offer the political context and the economic capacity to move forward toward socialism.

As long as the Dergue is able to disorient the masses with national chauvinism, squander their blood and the fruits of their labor in a colonial war, real democracy, let alone socialism, cannot be anything more than a hollow slogan.

Finally, the future of the Eritrean movement cannot be separated from the policy of the Dergue and its international backers. The commitment to a military solution and annexationism can only serve to push the Eritrean movement in the direction of reaction. It is to the credit of the EPLF that they have resisted this. But a protracted Ethiopian campaign with Soviet weaponry and possibly Cuban troops will tend to strengthen the hand of those who argue for an alliance with any forces willing to aid the movement.

Thus it is possible that the Dergue’s present charge that the Eritrean movement is a pawn of reaction could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly the way to insure that Eritrea’s aspirations for independence are not put to the uses of imperialism is to insist that the Dergue recognize the legitimacy of those aspirations and withdraw its armies.


The key to a progressive solution of the conflict in the Horn is the attitude and policy of the Soviets and Cubans. Without the massive military aid the Dergue presently receives from the Soviets, the regime could not long hold its remaining positions in Eritrea, let alone launch a major offensive. The involvement of Cuban troops as well as being militarily significant provides greater legitimacy for the Dergue owing to the well deserved prestige of Cuba in anti-imperialist circles.

At this point there have been contradictory reports as to the involvement of Cuban and Soviet personnel in Eritrea. The fact that the offensive has not materialized seems to indicate reservations on the part of the Dergue’s allies. Nevertheless, having backed Ethiopia in the Ogaden at the expense of their ties with Somalia, the Soviets are undoubtedly reluctant to jeopardize relations with the Dergue by attaching conditions to their aid.

Ethiopia provides a far more substantial foundation for Soviet great power ambitions in the area than either their former ally, Somalia, or their other present ally, South Yemen, both of which are smaller and weaker. The present Soviet position is a product of a policy which subordinates proletarian internationalism to the needs of great power rivalry with US imperialism.

At the same time, it is probably wrong to think that the Soviets are urging the Dergue toward a military solution in Eritrea. It is more likely that they are the captives of the Dergue on this question than the other way around. A non-aligned, independent Eritrea appears to be something the Soviets could live with. The argument that the Soviets require port facilities in Eritrea to replace those they lost in the break with Somalia is not that compelling. The Soviets are presently using the port of Aden in South Yemen, directly across the gulf from their former base at Berbera. It is not at all obvious why this is not a suitable alternative.

The Soviets were clearly reluctant to back a military solution in the Ogaden. Only their diplomatic efforts to win support for a federation of progressive states in the Horn and Gulf areas met with failure did they support an Ethiopian counter-offensive.

The Soviets are under increased pressure to abstain in the event of a full offensive. South Yemen recently reversed its policy, withdrawing its troops from Ethiopia and once again extending base areas to the Eritreans. Syria and Iraq have also been vocal in their opposition to an offensive. Given that these countries are important allies of the USSR, the Soviets cannot simply ignore this pressure. It is also possible that the Soviets are encouraging these moves from behind the scenes in order to restrain the Dergue without appearing to be directly interfering.

There has been much speculation that Cuba has serious reservations regarding the Dergue’s Eritrean policy. Observers have noted Cuba’s former ties with the EPLF, the fact that EPLF has supported Cuba’s role in Angola, and the silence of the Cuban press in relation to criticism of the EPLF.

There have been reports of a visit to Havana by an EPLF delegation and of divisions within the top party leadership. At the same time, the Cuban party has been an enthusiastic and largely uncritical booster of the Dergue’s Marxist-Leninist pretentions. At best it is a risky business to predict what Cuba’s ultimate attitude will be.

If Cuba does back an Ethiopian counter-offensive, we must not hesitate to criticize this serious mistake. But we must not fail to distinguish between this and the progressive role Cuba is playing elsewhere in Africa.


Anti-imperialists must call on the Soviet Union and Cuba to withhold their aid to the Dergue pending the regime’s abandonment of its plans for a military solution, and its recognition of Eritrea’s right to independence. Simultaneously we must raise the slogan ”US Hands Off” – we must understand that US imperialism will inevitably seek to turn any Soviet reluctance to back the Dergue to its own advantage, and develop our tactics accordingly.

We also must take care to distinguish our attitude from those who routinely back any measures that have the effect of weakening the Soviet Union to the benefit of US imperialism. This is particularly important in the present context – where the Carter administration and its allies in NATO are seizing on alleged Soviet and Cuban “subversion” in Africa to mount a campaign aimed at bolstering neocolonialism throughout Africa.

A strong international expression of support for Eritrea, support which is clearly framed in the context of opposition to imperialism, is what is presently called for to prevent a setback for revolutionary interests in the Horn of Africa.