Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi – A dove of peace and a military strategist
By Sani Awol
A week after the untimely and tragic death of H.E. Meles Zenawi, the prominent local elder Professor Ephrem Yishak revealed an unheard story.
He said: in 1989 when a group of Ethiopian scholars and elders sent a request for all Ethiopian parties to take part in a peace talk, it was Meles who responded first without preconditions.
The story was a new one for the general public. Nonetheless, it was consistent with Meles’s image as a peace maker. All who observed his leading role in the efforts to resolve conflicts across Africa, disagreements among leaders in the African Union and the olive branch he repeatedly extended for trouble makers at home and the region would agree that he was a man of peace.
Therefore, Ephrem Yitsak’s account of Meles’s unconditional willingness to negotiate with all forces for peace was not that surprising.
What we didn’t know much about was he was at the same time an architect of the effective use of the military which is necessary when the peace effort fails.
Though TPLF have been fighting since 1975, Dergue was unwilling even to seat and talk for a decade. The pivotal turn that forced Dergue to recognize TPLF came around 10 years old. Until then, though TPLF controlled almost 90% of Tigray, its military tactic had been limited to gorilla warfare methods.
TPLF’s military strategy couldn’t take the struggle to the next stage of asserting full control on the region and flushing the Dergue army from its strong holds and bases around urban centers. So, TPLF’s fast progress was facing a setback.
About the same time, drought hit northern Ethiopia. Millions in Tigray were threatened by famine, as the drought coupled with years of war, poor provision of agricultural input and market access as well as recurrent irresponsible bombing of civilian areas by the Dergue. Even more sadly, the Dergue refused TPLF’s offer for a truce and for providing full access to humanitarian agencies.
So, TPLF had to avert the catastrophe by sharing its fighter’s food to surrounding people, by transporting hundreds of thousands to refugee centers in Sudan and by lobbying & providing protections for aid organizations who were willing to enter through the border with Sudan.
The lesson of all these were clear for Meles Zenawi, who was rising as the mastermind of TPLF interms of systematizing the party’s political positions and in upgrading its organizational structure.
Meles, alongside similar minded leaders, convinced the party leadership that it is time to divorce with the outdated strategy. The only way to stop the suffering of the people is to shorten the war either through peace talks with the Dergue or by defeating it militarily.
For either of the two to happen, TPLF must embark on a conventional warfare strategy and take the war into a higher stage.
Subsequently, Meles developed a researched Military doctrine of TPLF. The doctrine provided a clear guide on how TPLFs military capacity should be built, how it should fight, how it should secure areas under its control and how it achieves superiority over enemy forces.
Meles developed the doctrine based on international experience, the nature of TPLF, the nature of Dergue and the nature of the war. Meles prepared both the first draft paper and the final document after discussion with his colleagues and also gave trainings for TPLF fighters.
Meles’s doctrine was tested and proved effective immediately after the trainings when Dergue mobilized huge army to the region boasting it will end TPLF once and for all. By applying Meles’s military doctrine, TPLF fighters annihilated tens of thousands Dergue army which camped around Shere town and soon flushed Dergue from all over Tigray.
Dergue was forced to admit it was fighting with a popular force rather than than “some bandits”.
TPLF fighters guided by Meles’s military doctrine faced major setback of strategy only once when they fought Dergue army around Guna mountains in 1989. Even then, Meles who was hundreds kilometers away, developed an improvised strategy and sent to the commanders on the field, who successfully implemented it.
Guided by Meles’s doctrine and effective commanders, TPLF fighters had became unstoppable after the mid-1980s.
However, that didn’t turn Meles into a military adventurist. He consistently perused negotiations and peace talks both with the Dergue and other armed groups regardless of TPLF’s fast growing military strength.
He and his party persistently perused talks with OLF to establish ties and a common front. Though OLF had been ideologically unfocused and militarily weak organization that it was believed better to include all forces of change rather than rely on sheer military power.
Meles’s leading motto was to mobilize everyone who can contribute even by throwing a stone. Sadly, OLF was not of the same attitude. After several time-wasting discussions and talks, when TPLF sent as per their agreement two of its cadres to help train OLF fighters, OLF officials mistreated them labeling them spies and the whole effort failed.
Nonetheless, when Meles became a transitional President his first task was inviting OLF to become part of the government including ministerial positions.
Meles’s attitude towards ANDM founders is perhaps most representative of his foresight and firm belief in cooperation. When ANDM founders split from EPRP and took refuge in TPLF control area, it was Meles (he was only an executive member) who lobbied TPLF leadership to treat them as partners and not to disarm them. As he predicted ANDM became a well-organized force of revolutionary-democracy in a few years time.
Despite the difference in the number of fighters and resources, Meles remained firmly committed to equal partnership. When EPRDF was formed in 1988/89, TPLF and ANDM took equal seats in the leadership of the organization and elected Meles as their leader. This principle was applied when OPDO and SEPDM later joined EPRDF.
It was at this time that a group of elders and scholars led by Professor Ephrem Yishak sent letters to Ethiopian armed as well as the Dergue regime requesting their willingness for peace talks. Meles was the first to respond and affirm his party’s willingness, while Dergue never sent a reply letter except oral responses.
Meles’s confirmation was not a lip service. In fact he sent a second letter urging them to hold the peace talks at the earliest time possible to save lives. Proffessor Ephrem described the situation as follows:
<< የደርግን ደብዳቤ በመጠባበቅ ላይ እያለን ከጠቅላይ ሚኒስትር መለስ ዜናዊ በድጋሚ ሌላ ደብዳቤ መጣልን፡፡ በወቅቱ እነሱ እያሸነፉ ነበር፡፡ ይኼም ቢሆን ግን ‹‹አሸናፊ ነኝና ዕርቅ አልፈልግም›› አላሉም፡፡ እኛ ሁሉንም የፖለቲካ ድርጅቶች ስዊስ ላይ ለመሰብሰብ ያሰብነው እ.ኤ.አ በሰኔ ወር 1989 ላይ ነበር፡፡ በደብዳቤያቸው ‹‹ስብሰባችሁን ሰኔ ከማድረግ ይልቅ ወደ ግንቦት ቀረብ አድርጉት›› ብለው ጻፉልን፡፡ ቆም ብዬ ስለሁለተኛው ደብዳቤያቸው ሳስብ፣ ሁሉም ነገር በሰላም እንዲያልቅ የነበራቸው ፍላጐትን ያሳየኛል፡፡ ጦርነት ከቀጠለ ብዙ ሰው እንደሚያልቅ ገብቷቸዋል፡፡ >>
However, due to Dergue’s reluctance the elders effort didn’t bore fruit and the Americans had to intervene as negotiators.
Meles remained willing to hold peace talks with the Dergue even when EPRDF fighters reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa and until Dergue became an irrelevant force by the change of the situation on the ground.
The EPRDF army, shaped by Meles’s military doctrine, triumphantly entered Addis Ababa.
Meles’s commitment to go half the way for the sake of peace and, when that fails, to guide the military option in the most scientific and less costly manner continued at a larger scale after EPRDF assumed governmental power in Ethiopia.
(to be continued)