Triumph over Factionalism: ELF tragedies and setbacks
Nebarai Keshi, August 4, 2003
Posted on 06 Aug 2003

It has become a prevailing political order for the ELF offshoots to multiply whenever internal dispute reaches a stalemate. And every time we have a split, each side claims victory. Each side appeals to their supporters seeking some recognition and justification at the cost of demeaning and condemning their rivals. They turn into enemies and rivals as fast as thunder lightening.

As we know, ELF disintegrated in 1981 because the front's hierarchy and the relations within the various elements weren't structured based on unified, cooperative, collective and visionary leadership. ELF had a number of rival groups seeking to assert exclusive power, rule, and dominance in violation of the laws and principles of the organization. For example, Abdella Idris group, Ahmed Nassir group, Ibrahim Totil group, Hiruy group, and a number of others were rivals against one another at one time or another. There was also a party (Labor Party), which operated in total contradiction to the overall goal of the front. The leadership of ELF (known as the Revolutionary Council back then) was so besieged and preoccupied with power struggle that it didn't realize the collapse of itself and the front until it was too late.

Irreparable and weakened by the collapse, the ELF leadership couldn't come up with a viable strategy to reorganize and reform the front. As a result, the main backbone and the guarantor (the meseretat Tegadelti) of the organization soon retired and left the ELF for good. ELF Meseretat (fighters) didn’t fail ELF. In fact, they cried loud of the danger that was hovering over ELF in 1980/81. But nobody listened.

It is to be recalled that when ELF collapsed to its knees in 1981under the leadership of Ahmed Nassir, four groups and subgroups emerged. And hopelessly and uncertainly chose to the struggle:

· Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), led by Abdella Idris

· Eritrean Liberation Front-Central Command (ELF-CC/Sagim), Initially led by Zemhret Yohannes, Ibrahim Totil,Tewelde Gebreslassie, and others.

· Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC), led by Ahmed Nassir

· Eritrean Democratic Movement (EDM), led by Hiruy Tedla Bairu.

Yes, the venture failed at the outset. On the other hand, we were subjected to more and more divorces and separations over the years.

The trail of schism and disunity

In 1982, EDM split into three groups:

· Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea (DMLE), led by Gerebrhan Zerie

· Eritrean Peoples Democratic Movement (EPDM), led by senior ex-EDM members

· EDM (Retained the original name), led by Hiruy Tedla Bairu

With the exception of DMLE, EPDM and EDM hardly organized themselves as political organizations. Neither of them had political or military presence in Ethiopia or in Eritrea. Each operated either out of North America or Europe. Over the years, both of these groups became weak and reduced to handful confidants and comrades; eventually they disappeared from the Eritrean political scene by 1990s. However, when the war broke out, these two groups reemerged with a new badge:

· Hiruy became "Eritrean Cooperative Party" (ECP) and joined the Alliance at the end of 2002.

· EPDM along with some former ELF officials changed its name and became "Eritrean Independent Democratic Movement" (EIDM), and still operates mainly out of North America. It is not part of the Alliance even though it strongly supports it.

Recently, the EIDM split into two groups over the walk out of the ELF-RC from the Alliance camp in the fifth regular meeting in Addis Ababa: One group retains the name EIDM. The second group hasn't come up with a name as far as I know. I am not even sure if it is organizing itself to become one. Please note if no split has taken place yet, I stand corrected.

Eritrean Liberation Front-Central Command (ELF-CC/Sagim):

Right after its creation in 1982, it split over the course and overall direction of the struggle:

· One led by Tewelde Gebresslasie, now part of the Alliance.

· Another group led by Zemhret Yohannes and Ibrahim Totil joined EPLF

Again, Sagim led by Tewelde Gebreslassie split into two, mainly over self-determination policy and Tewelde's leadership style:

· One led by Tewelde Gebreslassie (retains the name Sagim), now known as Eritrean Peoples Democratic Liberation Front (EPDLF).

· Another one led by Abdella Mahmoud, now known as Eritrean Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERDF). Prior to the latest split, a number of executive senior members left Sagim and returned to civilian life.


Following the debacle in the fifth regular meeting of the Alliance in October 2002, ELF-RC found itself in deep political and leadership crisis. The bone of contention, Ahmed Nassir and Dr. Beyene Kidane said, "the machinations of the chairman and his political cohorts and, subsequently, the deeds he has executed since, have clarified to us that his intent is not to protect and safeguard the unity of the front but a purging process based on a narrowly defined need to retain power. Thus, within this uninviting environment, expecting the appointed RC committee to come up with a solution is an expectation that shouldn't be even considered. Consequently, on the heels of the third ordinary session of the RC, not only is our grassroots not mollified, we are actually witnessing the turmoil spreading to other branches” (

Another key and fundamental disagreement between the chairman (Suim Ogbamichael) and the two opponents (Nassir and Dr.Beyene) they say is the question of reclaiming ELF-RC membership in the Alliance camp. It is to be recalled that before Nassir declared the divorce from his long time organization, the ENA secretariat lifted the suspension and invited ELF-RC to rejoin the camp. But the chairman side demanded the removal of articles 3 and 4 from the ENA charter before ELF-RC rejoins the ENA. A strong stipulation, one might add. The Nassir side calls this approach " a pretext" and accused the chairman, Mr. Suim of perpetuating "division, deterioration and decline of ELF-RC", and creating "chaos within ELF-RC grassroots.” The chairman didn't budge.

In the end, those of Nassir group didn't trust Suim's stand to be the best course for ELF-RC and decided to split ... "While the front is heading towards malaise and disintegration, we cannot watch with our arms folded and escape accountability to history. We hereby give notice that we have chosen our mode of struggle. We call on the grassroots movements to organize themselves, to join the ENA and resume the struggle" (

Whatever has been brewing over the last nine months within the ELF-RC leadership, now it spiraled out control and resulted in the divorce and creation of a new split led by Ahmed Nassir and Dr. Beyene Kidane. We will wait for another hyphenated name to follow. Does this sound familiar? Yes, ELF is the mother of all splits. ELF factions seldom had a respite from breaking up into pieces and dots throughout history. How many groups and factions do the spineless Alliance leaders need before they land in the so-called democracy land?

Now, we have accusations and counter accusations centered on the one time icon, Ahmed Nassir, and the high-handed and arrogant, Suim Ogbamichael. In the meantime, the rank and file of ELF-RC is busy marketing this bitter divisions and break ups to their grassroots, notably by disclosing old grudges that they think would be helpful at tarnishing the image of the other group. For example, Ahmed Nassir is now being accused of failing ELF in 19981, fact ELF members knew back then. Moreover, Ahmed Nassir is being accused of longing for power, being inconsistent, and a drifter, a fact we have known for a long time. The truth is blaming and spilling the beans during crisis is a typical argument among ELF rival groups. Prior to this showdown and split, Ahmed Nassir was the most highly regarded and the most shining leader in ELF-RC. Now, suddenly and impetuously he is a whole of nothing because he declared he is joining ENA as a splinter group. It doesn't add up a bit. There are seems no merit to it considering the overall an ongoing crisis of ELF-RC. I am not defending Nassir in any form or shape here. I am trying to understand the intricacies of trust and faith of ELF-RC people beneath the surface. In fact, Ahmed Nassir has as much right as any other ELF leader to establish his own group. Who said he couldn’t. That wouldn’t be right in the land of ELF. As sad, frivolous, and barren as it is, curving out your own group has been a valuable political weapon for ELF leaders.

The Nassir side accused Sium, the chairman of ELF-RC, of being dogmatic, haughty, and controlling. In addition, they accused Suim of positioning himself permanently to hold tight onto power by appointing his political buddies to high profile positions. The fact is, Suim grew faster through the rank and file of the old ELF than anybody else. He became the mouthpiece of ELF leaders in campaigning against the grassroots movement in 1977. He was one of the promoters of the infamous political campaign dubbed “HA Hu Bel Falulay” which brought the democratic movement of ELF to a complete collapse in 1977. On a serious note, Suim is not a new breed. It is a sham and pretentious to portray Suim as a contemporary leader. His political résumé is equally as bad or worse as Ahmed Nasser’s.

What we are witnessing is nothing, but the deep-seated political and leadership crisis of ELF carried over from the old ELF. ELF fell into ruins because the leadership failed to lead. The present fiasco is exactly symptomatic and replica of the old ELF, which has to do less with democracy and opposition. To the best of my recollection, no ELF faction has ever succeeded in swaying Eritrean people on basis of its programs and policies over the last twenty years.

On closer examination, the issues raised and believed to be key point of discord between Suim and Nassir are nothing, but procedural and order of priorities. It is not about principles and convictions because none of them disagrees on the major principles of the ELF-RC. Where does the problem lie then? How can they suddenly be adversaries with no defining principles? How can they break up into fragments over procedural issues that don't even amount to a minimum and measurable divergence of opinion?

In my opinion, the answer lies in the annals of the old ELF leadership. It is not atypical for ELF leaders to fail by their own cynics and political maneuvering. One leader can't live under the shadow of another even if the principle of the organization requires it. When one side loses, it reacts in violation of the laws of the party. When one side wins, it seizes the opportunity to go beyond its mandate and dictate issues even if it means damaging the whole party. The point is the winner hardens its position, and the loser reacts to it. In the end, when neither party yields to reason, a new group is born. Such disposition is very much ingrained in ELF culture of politics and leadership; the thirteen or fourteen mishmash of subversive and fanatic elements (individuals, fanatic clerics, cliques, and splinter groups) operating under the auspices of Woyane are a living testimony to this fact.

How about the grassroots appeal depiction? For example, Ahmed Nassir called on the "grassroots movement to organize themselves, to join the ENA and resume the struggle." There is also counter appeal from Suim's side to condemn Ahmed Nassir's divorce from ELF-RC. First, the grassroots movement has been on standstill or decaying rapidly over the years. Hence, the idea of grassroots movement is false and contrived claim. The few that we have are either corrupted disciples that entangles itself with the leadership, or some unsuspecting die-hard ex-ELF freedom fighters that adhere to the name ELF. Second, even if we assume there are some members, it wouldn’t count much because the crisis already precipitated a lot of questions, divisions, and suspicions. Not only that, but also have already taken sides based on the ties they had developed prior to the break up. Third, there are also those who felt betrayed by the ELF-RC leadership and decided not to be part of it any longer. When you add up all these variables, you do have grassroots movement who are less equipped to reverse the unfolding crisis in the ELF-RC leadership. However, there is one role, in which those few grassroots can play - and that is to follow their divided leaders and help deepen the crisis to its worst form. Yet it isn't unconventional for ELF leaders to sing the language of Meseretat (grassroots) when they tumble down by their own making.

What are lost in this ordeal, according to some ELF-RC apologists, are "democracy" and the focus of struggle against the "dictatorial" regime in Asmara. I am not here to defend the GoE, but to shed light on the double standard politics of the torn apart Alliance leaders. Don’t we have warlords such as Abdella Idris, don't we have Sultans, Emirs, and Sheiks in the Alliance camp, and don't we have rulers such as Hiruy Tedla. The fact is the outbursts and madness in the name of democracy and opposition is weak on one hand, and obscures the real cause that brought the recent infighting and break up of ELF-RC to the surface on the other hand. Bluffing democracy may sound reasonable, but it is the undemocratic mind-set and outlook that poses great danger to democracy in
Eritrea. It is the endless ruptures, break ups, and disintegrations of ELF groups that pose great threat to democracy in Eritrea. It is the conviction to sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnic-based prescription that operates in opposition to Eritrea’s future democracy. All these characteristics are deeply rooted in the Alliance camp. And it is fraudulent and perverted to advocate democracy, unity, and opposition in the name of Eritrean people while those scandalous Alliance leaders keep dismembering their own small groups from subgroups to units, to subunits, and to tiny pockets. It defies reason and sanity to justify the unjustifiable (division and disunity) in the name of democracy. Democracy doesn't operate in vacuum. It is travesty. We know these endless fall offs and fallouts are the major danger to democracy and future genuine opposition in Eritrea.


Indisputably, the ELF leaders have been subscribers of divisions and cliques for over twenty years now. And this practice has been perfected, proven and well established formula in asserting personal power over a smaller and tiny groups. These are leaders who take pleasure and joy at declaring victory over tragedies and setbacks of Eritrean people. Therefore, it is not unprecedented to see ELF-RC being sliced up into two because its leaders are subscribers of divisions. All the uproar and commotion are nothing, but unique characteristics of all ELF offshoots that went through the same bitter divisions and break ups over the years. They can’t imagine power and politics without schism.

We have seen the Alliance leaders before and after the fall down of ELF consistently failing to overcome the politics of schism. It is a stunning phenomenon. Whenever they create their own niche, they claim it is being done for democracy, unity, renaissance, resurrection, and restoration (Mhdas). For example, Abdella Idris called it "rescuing and safeguarding" ELF when he established his own group through a bloody coup d'etat in 1981. Those of Tewelde Gebreslassie dubbed it "Sagim or Msgam" when they put together their own group. Gebrehan Zere coined it "Democratic Movement" when he established his own small group. Hiruy Tedla called it "Eritrean Co-operative Party", a name associated with Eritrea's unique culture of "working together" (Wefera), when he founded his ten people party. Another group also came up with a name, which stands out quite differently from the rest of the factions: the Eritrean Independent Democratic Movement. Independent of what, one might ask. ELE-RC declared it unity, new beginning, and perfection of principles when Ahmed Nassir and Dr. Beyene publicly divorced from it last week. Hailing and justifying political divisions are key factors that left ELF fully incapacitated as well as with no leg to stand on to this date. It is chronic and debilitating culture, which has been worsening unabated for many years now. How many splinter groups does it take to resolve conflicts in ELF? How many set of principles or visions does it take to stop factionalism? As ironic as it is, the motto seems divided we stand, dividd we achieve, divided we maintain, and divided we triumph.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Nebarai Keshi, who is solely responsible for the contents of this page, contributes the above article. For any comments, the writer can be contacted by e-mail: