TPDM on a short leash

By Elias Kifle

Some Eritrean friends are asking me why is it necessary for Ethiopian Review to start a public discussion on concerns regarding the disappearance of Ethiopian patriots in Eritrea and problems facing Ethiopian opposition groups. They are urging me to work behind the scene to find solutions. That is also my preference. For over a year, my colleagues and I were engaged in intense behind the scene discussions with Eritrean authorities regarding Ethiopian opposition groups inside Eritrea, and particularly the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF). As a strong advocate of cooperation between the Eritrean government and Ethiopian opposition groups, I would not want to jeopardize the progress that has been made in the past couple of years despite enormous difficulties. However, a corrupt mid-ranking Eritrean official named Col. Fitsum, who is assigned to advise Ethiopian opposition groups, has ran amok and it seems the Eritrean government is unwilling to control him. The rogue colonel has been trying to block the effort to revamp EPPF — an organization that has not moved an inch in its 10 years existence — and when he noticed that he is losing ground, he has launched a disinformation campaign using the Asmara-based EPPF radio and web site. He has also tightened his grip on EPPF more than ever. A few months ago, I and several others had finally decided that locking horn with a rogue, albeit powerful Eritrean intelligence officer in Eritrean territory is not worth it and decided to take a different route. This move seemed to have threatened the colonel even more and he started to take desperate actions, including the arrest of those who are thought to be involved in the new movement. He has also called an urgent meeting and ordered the dismissal of several EPPF central council members, including those who had already withdrawn themselves.

We will take a more in-depth look at EPPF another time. Here, I will try to illustrate that EPPF is not the only organization that is facing difficulties in Eritrea. In Ginbot 7’s case, for example, Col. Fitsum has dispersed most of the soldiers who had defected from the ANDM wing of Woyanne and arrived in Eritrea in early 2009 to join the new movement by turning them against each other. He forced the few who remained in Eritrea to create a new group named Amhara Democratic Force Movement so that they would not join Ginbot 7. With the exception of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), all the other Ethiopian groups are in the same boat. The only reason ONLF is facing little or no problem in Eritrea is that Col. Fitsum cannot get involved in their affairs. As a result, ONLF is the only opposition group that has been able to carry out serious military actions against Woyanne.

One of the Ethiopian armed resistance groups that seems to be by far the strongest is the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM). I visited one of the TPDM shelters in Oct. 2009, and I was impressed by the sheer number of its troops. The first question that came to my mind while visiting the TPDM army was, why are we not hearing about any major military offensive by the TPDM forces against Woyanne? TPDM could easily make Tigray ungovernable to Woyanne if it is allowed to fight. ONLF doesn’t have 1/10th the number of fighters TPDM has, and yet it is consistently bleeding Woyanne’s nose until every one in the world knows about it.

I asked the TPDM leadership this very question. They were too afraid to give me an answer, but it was not necessary. I could read the frustration in their faces. Instead of fighting Woyanne, TPDM fighters currently spend their days toiling on farms without pay. The fighters want to fight. The leaders want to fight. But fortunately for Woyanne, they are put on a short leash by their Eritrean “adviser.”