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The People’s Front: A Continuation and Summation of the Eritrean Struggle

EPLF fighter disarming Ethiopian soldier on the coast of Eritrea

By Simon Weldemichael | Adi Keih College of Arts and Social Sciences

The People’s Front (PF) is the strongest and best political mass organization formed in the course of the Eritrean struggle for independence and self-determination. Setting aside the long tradition of resistance against historical foreign domination, the more contemporary organized struggle for independence was begun by Mahber Fqri Hager in 1941.

From the beginning of this organized movement until the formal commencement of the armed struggle in 1961, Eritreans discovered and reached a diverse political landscape in the hope of making their dreams happen. The various political parties of the 1940s were unable to mobilize the entire population and made the future blurred. The experience of 20 years of political strife couldn’t bring a solution; accordingly, this motivated Eritreans to turn to armed struggle under the leadership of the ELF. The beginning of the armed struggle, although it advanced the resistance in a new direction, largely failed to overcome the existing problems and for many was unlikely to lead the people toward independence. Finally, by the initiative of progressive and reformist fighters, the People’s Front (PF), a precursor to the EPLF was formed and the transformation of the Eritrean struggle was initiated. .

Fighting against any kind of oppression and domination is a tradition of Eritreans. Keeping the long tradition of resistance in mind, it is a historical fact that the EPLF was the biggest contributor to the extraordinary victory of Eritreans. The PF as seed and the people as soil. The PF as fish and the people as sea. Together the PF and the people have travelled more than 40 years in Eritrea. The PF showed its commitment as a good shepherd by protecting the country from foreign domination and incursion. The PF gave lives for the people and the people vested enormous trust in it. The PF miraculously brought Eritrean identity and dignity again from the dead through sacrifice. Clapham states, “In explaining why Eritrea took the path it did, a very high emphasis must be placed on the leadership and organization of the EPLF: its insistence on a unifying rather than a divisive ideology, …, its disciplined and centralized hierarchy of command, and the continuous presence of the leadership in the battle zone, rather than in the distant comfort of exile” (Clapham 2001: 9). However, the influence of the PF was not only limited to Eritrea. Ethiopia, too, was enormously influenced by the EPLF. Ethiopian historian Gebru Tareke tells us that “the insurgent [TPLF] not only received vital assistance at the initial stage of their struggle, but from time to time have coordinated their operations with the EPLF, the most formidable force in the region” (Tareke 1996: 20).

Other scholars have also noted how one of the key features that differentiated the EPLF as a national liberation movement was its commitment to simultaneous social and political struggle and the incorporation of this approach into its political culture as well as its practice. Dynamism, pragmatism, rapid adaptation to disastrous conditions and qualitative organization and the high level of consciousness among its members altogether made the unthinkable happen in Eritrea. According to Clapham, “This [EPLF] was without doubt one of the strongest insurgent movements of the modern era, not just in Africa but in the world.” The PF scored victory never known by any revolutionary group in 20th century in Africa and elsewhere. Visiting journalist and historian Basil Davidson, marveling at the accomplishment of EPLF’s victory over the Nadew Command, reported to BBC from Sahel that “one of the biggest ever scored by a liberation movement anywhere since Dien Bien Phu”. In short, as it was told on the account of Professor Bereketeab, the EPLF was transformed into a state organization possessing all the necessary capabilities for taking on state power long before independence (Berekeatab 2000: 212).

The 50 years long (1941-1991) political and armed struggle for national independence and dignity, was achieved through enormous sacrifice. For the first time, the people of Eritrea, under the leadership of the PF, have become masters of their own country and hold their future in their own hands. Although the EPLF as a liberation front accomplished its mission with resounding success, as clearly articulated in the National Charter, it has never viewed independence as an end in itself but rather as a precondition for building a modern society in which justice and prosperity prevail. A referendum, in which the entire population consciously and enthusiastically participated, was conducted in 1993 where 99.8% voted for national independence. Therefore, it is important to note that independence was the result of a long historical struggle and the PF is the continuation and summation of previous political organizations initiated by Eritreans.

The PF’s legitimacy and its ascendancy to power were quite unique from other political forces in Africa. PF legitimacy is based on two premises: the achievement and maintenance of independence and ensuring stronger integration and cohesion in Eritrean society (Bereketeab 2000: 207). After independence, the PF made changes and structural adjustments to fit with the task of nation-building, which in many ways is more complicated than the task of achieving independence. The slogan used during the struggle for independence, “Politicize, Organize and Arm the Masses,” is needed now more than at another time. Well aware of its importance, the PF mobilized and organized the masses with the aim to elevate political consciousness. The power of mobilization of PF was manifested during the critical periods of the Weyane invasion and the subsequent “no peace no war” condition. There is strong united resistance by Eritreans - living inside and outside the country - all under the umbrella of the EPLF. Once again, the PF has successfully become the good shepherd of independent Eritrea and Eritrea becomes a formidable, respectful and confident player in the international arena.

Today, the industrious people of Eritrea are working to realize the task of building a peaceful, just and prosperous country. They were aware of the fact that independence we won with heavy sacrifice will be worthless if not supported by economic and social liberation. The people of Eritrea, guided by the direction of the PF, foiled the plans of our enemies, thereby asserting its determination and capacity not only to survive but to develop. Many conflicting explanations about the power of the PF were raised by some observers. Leaving aside the nonsense criticism and defamation mainly motivated by frustration and hatred, the clarity of purpose, nationalism, and the political line of the PF have no contest. Furthermore, there is a need of reforming and further strengthening of the PF. For the people of Eritrea to live in harmony, peace and stability, with no distinction along regional, ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, the existence and predominance of the PF was essential. The post-independence PF did not change its ideas on self-reliance and social justice. It continues to mobilize public support inside and outside the country, and it respects its commitment to build Eritrea. The dominant western or mainstream view with regard to the black and Jews was well expressed by Fanon in his book “Black Skin, White Masks”: “The Negro symbolizes the biological danger; the Jew the intellectual danger” (165). To update Fanon’s view to contemporary reality, “the PF symbolizes the nationalist and confidence danger.” Accordingly, the Sha’ibia confidence is a symbol and reality in Africa that challenged foreign hegemony and was perceived as a threat. To use the words of the world’s prominent intellectual Noam Chomsky “it could become a ‘virus’ that might infect others not by conquest but by example” (Chomsky 2003: 69).

The People’s Front is a growing seed, given life through the blood of thousands of our best fellow men and women. It is not a political party close to some but far off to others. It is a broad national front of all Eritreans who want to build and develop Eritrea. The PF must remain a confident political force and be transformed by the renewal of its ideas. In the past, the PF has shown the Eritrean people the power of its works, in giving them an independent nation, and now it is striving to give the country prosperity and justice. Yesterday, it girded Eritreans’ strength in the battle against enemies and now the battle against poverty. For our enemies to be scared and scatter and poverty to continue to shatter, let the PF go from strength to strength.

EPLF fighters dancing with their people 

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