The Battle of Shire – February 1989

A Turning Point in the Protracted War in Ethiopia

By Tekeste Melake

In the late 1980s the military government of Ethiopia found it­self in a very precarious situation as a result of the escalating war in Eritrea and Tigray. As of May 1988 the government focused its manpower and material resources for the war effort in the northern battles. However, at the battle of Shire (Dec. 28, 1988 -Feb. 19, 1989) its huge army was decisively neu­tralized by rebel forces. Almost two years and three months later the EPLF captured Asmara and the EPRDF occupied Addis Ababa, making the battle of Shire a turning point in the protracted war in Ethiopia. This paper is a brief account of the event and has been prepared primarily from authentic, original sources from the government and the concerned rebel forces.


The TPLF was founded in 1975 by a group ofTigrian university students most of whom were active participants in the Ethiopian student movement. The front began its guerrilla activities on 18 February of the same year. It made its zone of operation in the localities of Tigray, which are known to have been influenced by the protracted war in Eritrea. TPLF’s area of operation between 1975 and 1978 was mainly eastern Shire, eastern Axum and eastern Adigrat, all adjacent to Eritrean territory.

Partly because of its military preoccupation in Eritrea and Ogaden and partly because it underestimated the potential threat from the TPLF, the gov­ernment did not launch significant military campaigns into the region until 1978, although there were cases when the government made efforts to elimi­nate TPLF’s “suspected” members and supporters during the Red Terror. This, on the other hand, provided the TPLF with the opportunity to operate in the larger part of Tigray.

Later, however, the growing political and military activities of the rebels were not only felt by the government but made it launch better organized mili­tary campaigns into the region. Between November 1976 and early 1983 the government launched six major offensive campaigns against the TPLF. But none of these campaigns could attain their goals. The TPLF mostly avoided conventional resistance whenever the military balance of power was in favor of the government. It usually moved out of its liberated zones of operation downwards to Wello and the Assab Dessie road and averted planned govern­ment offensives. The front during this time largely depended on guerrilla war­fare to destroy government forces stationed in the different parts of Tigray.

No major offensive campaigns were launched during 1983-1984. The TPLF effectively used this period for reassessment and consolidation of its positions. In September 1984, following misunderstandings with the EPLF, the TPLF constructed its own supply line through Welquait, western Tigray to the Sudan.

The 1985 great famine and drought made hundred thousands of people flee to the Sudan. Relief Society ofTigray (REST) did its best to alleviate the problem through cross-border supply. The government on the other hand launched joint operations of its airforce and ground forces to stop flights of the drought and famine stricken Tigreans to the Sudan. Its efforts in this respect, however, failed. In June 1985, when the rainy season approached except for the children, elders and weak women REST brought back the hundred thou­sands of refugees from the Sudan.

On the other hand 1985 was also a year of significant advancement for the TPLF in many aspects. A congress of its members was held and a crucial re­assessment was made on the history of its ten years of struggle. After demo­cratically held discussions from top downwards to the smallest unit, the front purged some founding members and others such as Aragawi Berhe and Giday Zeratsion for political and disciplinary reasons.

With respect to its military strategy, the congress realized that the govern­ment forces were superior in terms of manpower, possession of weapons and other facilities. But it also knew that many of the government soldiers had been conscripted, trained and deployed by force. It then defined its new mili­tary policy to be “we should not fight the army but its leadership and liberate those who joined the army without their consent.”

The 1985 congress of the TPLF also considered the need for a permanent base area. In 1985/86 the rebels destroyed the bridge on the river Tekezze, blocked the Welqait-Tembien-Adi Da’ero roads and founded a permanent base area at Kazza and Dajana.

The TPLF was able to integrate itself with the people ofTigray. It defined its political line in a way to uphold the grievances of the people. Leaders and fighters of the front operated inside the people tasting the life of the poor peas­ant. Through time the rebels refined their political and military position through a series of corrective measures, produced disciplined, well-politicized and gallant fighters and managed winning victories over government forces. In both of its political and military operations it clearly identified and attacked targets. It objectively exploited government weaknesses and endeavored to win not only civilian support but also that of government soldiers. At times of both relative peace and fierce fighting it objectively addressed grievances of gov­ernment soldiers on class and nationality basis.

It has also been widely reported that the TPLF showed a good degree of hospitality to prisoners of war. As a matter of fact those who were allowed to rejoin the army went on disseminating pro-TPLF information among their colleagues. Soldiers who listened to them and who saw their colleagues being safely returned began to see submission to the rebels as a good opportunity to save one’s life. … continued on page 2