Seye Abraha and the Ethio-Eritrean War

By Eskinder Nega / August 27, 2010
“I never thought that the war (the Ethio-Eritrean war) would lead me to permanent fallout with my lifelong friends,” ponders Seye Abraha of his lost camaraderie with Meles Zenawi and his allies in a book that was released in Addis on Tuesday. “But so apprehensive was I to become of the ideas they promoted, I lost hope in them in due course.”

“Liberty and the dispensation of justice in Ethiopia” is a 440-page book that Seye wrote after his release from seven years of imprisonment, accused of corruption during his four years stint as Defense Minister in the '90s. This is his shot at absolution, the silver bullet that is meant to clear his name once and for all. He has magnanimously donated the proceeds from the book to his party, UDJ. Mercifully, the book has been skillfully edited for syntax, punctuation and clarity, a norm in most parts of the world, but which is mysteriously (and annoyingly) absent from most Amharic books. At least the copies that I and friends bought are US prints, the quality of the cover and inside pages, much to our delight, far superior to the local norm. We gladly paid the asking price: 70 birr.

As Seye tells it, the crack in the fêted harmony that long prevailed between TPLF leaders first occurred immediately after the outbreak of the Ethio-Eritrean war. “But it was strictly between Meles and the rest of us,” recounts Seye. Two months after the Eritreans occupied Badme, the unlikely epicenter of the dispute, leaders of the TPLF sulkily acknowledged the inevitability of war the nation was ill-prepared for. The Eritreans were clearly the dominant military power in the horn. “They were vying for political, economic and diplomatic concessions from their neighbors,” observes Seye. The imperative to regain Ethiopia’s military preeminence, a dominant heritage of the region, was quickly agreed upon by all the leaders of the TPLF---save one. “Only Meles took exception to defining our (the nation's) purpose as that of totally crushing Shabiya’s (the ruling party in Eritrea) military prowess,” writes Seye. The plan, in other words, was for regime change. (Some had even grandeur ambitions in private.) But Meles worried about Eritrea’s independence, then only five years old, and the diplomatic fallout from occupying a sovereign nation partially or fully. “We went to great length to convince him, and he finally relented,’ narrates Seye. The hard part being over, the next step was merely routine: rubber-stamping the decision by the broader EPRDF leadership.

A Central Command was set up----ostensibly entrusted with the responsibility of co-ordinating the war effort but in reality to monitor Meles. Seye Abraha, Tewelde Welde-Mariam (both form the party), Tefera Walewa (Defense Minister), Tsadkan Welde-Tensay (Chief of Staff), Abadula Gemeda (Chief of the Army), Abebe Tekle-Haymanot(Chief of the Air force) and Meles Zenawi became members of the Command. In time, the Command was to become more prestigious and powerful than Meles; who, as PM,was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

But Meles was not really convinced. As Seye sees it, he had only chosen to play the part of saboteur from inside. And he details how the purchase of Suk-27 planes, which were to play a crucial part in the war, was almost derailed by a stonewalling Meles. “ First, he said there was no money (to buy the planes.) When it was ascertained otherwise, it was untouchable because the IMF said so,” writes Seye with apparent exasperation. The relationship that was once strained, but which improved markedly when Meles gave in, was now visibly poisoned. “It undermined our trust in each other,” maintains Seye. But a showdown was not in the cards. “We slowly swayed Meles in favor of the purchase. Tewelde did most of the convincing,’ says Seye. ( Tewelde was Meles’ deputy in the TPLF.)

The war went splendidly. What the Americans said was impossible, the dislodging of the well dug-in Eritreans by military means form Badme, was accomplished with lightening speed and limited casualty to the Ethiopian side. The army was on a roll, highly motivated for more success on the Central and Eastern fronts.

And this is where, for Seye, the straw that was to break the camel's back surfaced: the Algiers Technical Arrangement.

“The Technical Arrangement did not only fail to meet our demand for a return to status-quo-ante, but accorded partial recognition to the Ertirean’s claim over Badme, the very area we had just liberated by force of arms,” relates Seye. But Meles, much to the fury of Seye, was in favor of accepting it. He warned of devastating sanctions contemplated by the international community. When that failed to make an impression, “he brought up Lenin, Tewedros and Menelik.”

The socialist revolution was possible in Russia because Lenin had the foresight to accept the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, argued Meles. (Russia had to surrender land to the Germans.) Eritrea is no Germany, nor is Ethiopia Russia, retorted his opponents. But citing Ethiopia’s past, he persisted. “Tewedros blundered when he fought the super power of his time, the British, and he paid with his life. Menelik, on the other hand, had the wisdom to concede part of his country ( Eritrea) to save the far larger part(what is Ethiopia minus Eritrea),” argued Meles. We should learn from history, he insisted.

But none in his party, the TPLF, and only one from the coalition, Kassu Ilala, an MD turned politician, was to be swayed by the power of his argument. It was a devastating blow for him, the clear low point of his political career. He was ready to leave, but his opponents opted(fatefully) to wait for the end of the war. On a personal level, Seye and Meles could barely tolerate each other anymore. “This is when we stopped greeting each other,” discloses Seye. It was open war in all but name. “The climax of our differences had to await the finality of the war. In context of a nation mobilized for war, publicizing our disagreements would have been disastrous,” writes Seye. “But while we were fully engaged in the war effort, he (Meles)was plotting our downfall,” concludes Seye bitterly.

And there is no better way to neutralize your opponents than to accuse them of corruption, asserts Seye. “ This is the genesis of the corruption charges against me,” says Seye.

Rumors of corruption exasperate the division within the TPLF leadership. Absurdly, and perhaps as a sign of its politicization, it abruptly dominates the internal debate only within the TPLF. The other EPRDF organizations remain totally immune to the allegations and counter-allegations of corruption that wreaks the TPLF. Upping the challenge, Meles’ opponents propose the establishment of a committee to investigate. “ We proposed that our personal assets and that of our immediate relatives be registered and their origins investigated,” says Seye. The response of Meles is bizarre: “We reject your proposal because we believe in fighting corruption not by trivializing it to police work and investigations but at the level of the perception that enables it.”

The preposterousness and obvious implication of this response will haunt not only Meles’ legacy but also all those who had sided with him.

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: