Recalling Ethiopia’s Wars: The Rage of Numbers
The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is often called the world’s most deadly since Korea. Perhaps if the long liberation wars in Ethiopia and Eritrea (1975-91 and 1961-91) respectively were fully assessed, the verdict might be different. In any case, it is salutary to recall just how bloody the fighting was in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and how devastating were the humanitarian consequences.
A new book by Gebru Tareke, The Ethiopian Revolution (Yale 2009), is in large part a detailed military history of the wars, especially during the years 1977-91. The Ethiopian army and insurgents all kept extensive records, and Tareke had access to much of them (not, unfortunately, the EPLF’s archives or leadership). The book has caused much controversy in Ethiopia, especially over the question of whether it is a fair representation of the TPLF’s armed struggle. What is not in doubt is that Tareke reminds us of the scale of the conflict.
On seizing power, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam took massive military support and advice from the Soviet Union. His military strategy was overwhelming force. Seized by what Clausewitz had called “the rage of numbers,” he built sub-Saharan Africa’s largest conventional army. At the end of 1989, it had on its books 374,000 regular soldiers plus 74,000 militia and 72,000 conscripts. After Mengistu aligned with the USSR in 1977, the army had acquired more than 300 fighter aircraft, 1,700 tanks and vast amounts of other military hardware from the Communist bloc.
The liberation fronts were smaller, but also grew to size and capability comparable to the national armies of most African states. Tareke contrasts Ethiopia’s internal wars (including the Eritrean war) with other civil conflicts:
“Distinguishable from the predatory warlordism of Somalia, Liberia and Sierre Leone were the Eritrean and Tigrayan movements that were more like the purposeful, popular, disciplined struggles of China and Vietnam, whose organizational, mobilizational, and combat techniques the Ethiopian rebels so assiduously and efficiently replicated. In Ethiopia, politics was in command; in the other cases, it was the Kalashnikov.”(p 5)
Tareke provides detailed descriptions of some of the military offensives and counter-offensives that marked this war, that involved some of the largest conventional battles on the African continent since World War II.
Operation Red Star in Eritrea in 1982 involved 22,184 Eritrean guerrillas (including a contingent of about 2,500 Tigrayans) facing 84,537 regular troops. The government army deployed 55 aircraft, 131 tanks, 162 armored cars, one warship, 102 infantry vehicles, 499 field artillery, 48 rocket launchers, 873 mortars, 691 antiaircraft guns (used against hillside redoubts), 1,349 antitank guns and 7,714 heavy machine guns. The EPLF possessed 19 tanks, 31 armored cars, 28 field artillery, 162 mortars, 45 antiaircraft guns, 387 antitank guns and 384 heavy machine guns, as well as the advantage of being deeply dug into mountain trenches. The fighting lasted four months, and the EPLF repulsed the offensive. A total of 43,000 combatants were killed or injured on both sides.
Intense fighting like this was intermittent during this war. But even when there were lulls, the pressure never ceased. For seventeen years, daily bombing sorties by the airforce meant that in the rebel-held areas, nothing moved during daylight. Vehicles were hidden, people stayed underground or under trees. Markets were held at night. Farmers even plowed their fields at night.
Tareke describes a dozen or so other offensives and battles. At Af Abet in 1988, the EPLF overran the Ethiopians’ largest garrison in Eritrea. The army lost fifty tanks and about 8,000 men were killed, injured, captured or dispersed. In Operation Adwa later that year””an almost entirely unreported series of battles in Tigray””the army lost 8,482 killed and wounded, and claimed to have inflicted 5,812 casualties on the TPLF. That was a mere prelude to a bigger and more decisive battle in Shire in early 1989. The TPLF claims it inflicted almost 20,000 casualties and captured 14,304 soldiers; Tareke considers the first figure an overestimate and puts the toll at 10-12,000.
The biggest and most decisive battle of the war was the EPLF attack on the port of Massawa in February 1990. The capture of the port spelled the end of the Mengistu government. The scale of the encounter is astonishing, involving tank and naval battles, surpassing Af Abet or Shire.
Tareke does not go into detail about the humanitarian consequences of this war. He refers briefly to the bombing of Hauzien market on 22 June 1988, when the Ethiopian airforce flew 53 sorties over seven hours, reduced the town to rubble and killed an estimated 1,800 people, almost all civilians. The government said it suspected TPLF units were there. No eyewitness ever suggested this was correct. He makes passing mention of other massacres, looting, and forced displacement.
Comparable levels of destruction were visited on south-east Ethiopia during and after the war with Somalia in 1977-78, and tens of thousands died in the “Red Terror” unleashed also in that year. On account of the unusual fact that when the Genocide Convention was incorporated into Ethiopian domestic law, genocide was defined to include political groups, Mengistu was subsequently tried and convicted in absentia of genocide for his role in those massacres.
Tareke compiles the records and estimates for total fatalities, which converge on about 400,000 soldiers and 125,000 insurgents killed in the course of the war, with an additional 300,000-500,000 civilians violently killed. Many more were left physically or mentally handicapped. In addition, the war was the principal reason for the famine of 1983-85 which claimed somewhere between 600,000 and one million lives. If we add other famines too, and the elevated mortality in the general population due to the non-existence of health care systems, the death toll mounts higher still.
The combination of ideological certitude, massive organizational capacity and addiction to brute force, made Mengistu Haile-Mariam into one of Africa’s most terrible dictators. Hopefully, Africa will never witness anything like it again.