Date: Monday, 30 November 2020
Many aspects of the ongoing Ethiopian conflict leave observers taken aback. Among them is the story of Marxism-Leninism in that country: in 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam and his comrades, the officers of the Derg, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in a coup. The new regime, through successive bloody liquidations, soon adopted Marxism-Leninism.
The next year, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was established. The Front, since its inception, has adopted this Marxism-Leninism itself. Their mutual commitment to the ideology did not reduce the acrimony of the conflict between the two parties by a single iota. From the beginning, the Front accused the regime of failing to resolve the “national question” and fought a relentless war against it, a conflict that would become the major reason for the regime’s downfall in 1991. For the Front, the “national question” meant nothing more than the Tigray’s rights vis-à-vis the center in Addis Ababa controlled by Amharic “comrades”.
Another Marxist-Leninist faction also welcomed Mengistu’s Marxist-Leninist regime by escalating the conflict: the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The Front had been established in 1972 as an alliance between the Christians of the Eritrean highlands and the Muslims of its coast and as a rival to the Eritrean Liberation Front - Revolutionary Command, which represented the Muslims of western Eritrea. The latter was conservative, but it was nonetheless more conciliatory towards Marxist regime than its rival Marxist front.
In the meantime, between 1977 and 1978, the Ogaden War was fought between two self-declared Marxist-Leninist regimes: the Derg’s Ethiopia and Mohamed Siad Barre’s Somalia. The reason for the war was the two countries’ dispute over the province. The two sides’ self-declared “internationalism” did not contain the war any more than it did the Sino-Soviet or the 1978-1979 Vietnamese-Cambodian conflicts.
The emptiness of ideology was the other aspect of choosing it. This is because the intellectual aspect was a far second to communities’ perceptions of how best to further their interest. For example, in the Angolan war against Portuguese colonialism (1961-1974), which continued as a civil war between the anti-colonial fronts that went on until 2002, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) chose Soviet Marxism-Leninism. As for the National Union for the Complete Independence of Angola (UNITA), it decided on Maoism, with an emphasis on its Chinese national character, not its Marxism.
The secret behind the distinction is that the former represented the Ambundu, while the second represented the Ovimbundu. And because the MPLA was supported by the Soviets and the Cubans, UNITA resorted to seeking not only China’s support but also that of the apartheid regime in South Africa. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the MPLA abandoned Marxism-Leninism.
In Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at the time), Joshua Nkomo founded the reformist Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) in 1961, and in 1963 Robert Mugabe established the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which adopted Marxism-Leninism. Nkomo represented the Ndebele tribe, and Mugabe represented the Shona tribe; together, the two tribes constitute the majority of the Zimbabweans. But the Marxist-Leninist Ndabanangi Sithole, who belonged to the small Ndau tribe, broke with his “comrade” Mugabe in 1975.
In 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement demanding the south’s independence from Khartoum was formed. The movement, which the Western media dubbed “center left”, was sparked by bloody clashes, before and after southern independence, between the Dinka and Nuer tribes.
There are many similar examples, the most famous being those seen in the former “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen” and Afghanistan under Soviet Communism.
In South Yemen, President Salem Rabih Ali, who is from the Abyan governorate, which is tied to Shabwah by an old alliance, fell out with his “comrades” from Radfan, Yafa and Dhale. The latter adopted the Soviet interpretation of Marxism. Rabih Ali followed the Chinese-Maoist interpretation before he was executed in 1978.
The same conflict, with differences in names and addresses, re-erupted in 1986; it cost a lot of blood and killed socialism and with it the republic described as “popular democracy”.
In 1967, the Afghan Communist Party, called the “People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan”, split into many wings, two of which are the most important: Khalq, which was led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and mostly composed of Pashtuns and rural inhabitants, and Parcham, which was composed of urbanites and led by Babrak Karmal. The former was more militant, accusing the second of being too soft on King Zahir Shah. The conflicts of the two factions and their many executions and poisonings, which the Soviets were not far from, became notorious. It hastened Soviet military intervention and the communist regime’s subsequent downfall.
These experiences and others indicate how limited ideology’s influence is in societies in which an extended kinship system, whether sectarian, ethnic or regional, is entrenched and powerful. Kinship and tribalism are decisive; as for the ideas and concepts that distract the younger generation, they come in the tenth place. This conviction gives one a large degree of immunity against believing what some say about themselves and want us to believe about them.