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Abyot – The Lost Revolution |

Abyot – The Lost Revolution

Abyot - The Lost RevolutionI ran across a series of remarkable documents on Wikileaks that reveal a fascinating moment when both the Derg and US imperialism were taking action to suppress the radicalization of Ethiopian workers.

Abyot - The Lost Revolution
CELU Logo

An early June, 1975, cable from an Addis Ababa diplomat back to his boss in the State Department, reveals a US Charge d’Affaires Parker Wyman positively freaking out about developments within CELU, the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions. In following a chain of self-referenced cables on Wikileaks, an incredible story is revealed which I haven’t actually read in this amount of detail anywhere else.

CELU was founded in 1962, assisted by pro-imperialist forces in world labor (aka the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, AFL-CIO) hoping to create a captive, docile labor organization with whom the “business community” could cooperate to forestall more militant working class organizing while claiming to promote the free organization of labor. Of course Ethiopian law forbade strikes, and it wasn’t CELU’s original intention to challenge that. It’s not for nothing that the AFL-CIO is jokingly referred to worldwide as the “AFL-CIA.”

However, bad timing for the AFL-CIO in Ethiopia: The development of an organized urban working class in Ethiopia coincided with revolutionary times, and Ethiopian leftists quickly identified CELU as a valuable conduit for expanding their influence among workers. CELU seems to have been beset by factionalism between its original leaders and younger revolutionaries, but joined EPRP May Day activities out in the streets in 1975. Shortly afterwards the Derg closed it down, and arrested a handful of its leaders. But by the end of May, the Derg relented and allowed CELU to continue to function. The younger generation seized the moment to win leadership of CELU.

Kiflu Tadesse, in the first volume of his landmark The Generation history of EPRP, tells the story in more detail of how the leftists, mainly from EPRP but also from Meison and Senay Likke’s WazLeague, gained control of CELU from its old guard. But he doesn’t tell a key part of the story of what was actually an impressive, albeit temporary, EPRP success. Let’s piece it together.

Here are excerpts from the cable, which reveals palpable panic over sudden communist subversion of CELU:

“IN SESSIONS JUNE 2 AND 3 NEW CELU PROVISIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE BEGAN CONSIDERATION OF NUMEROUS PROPOSED CHANGES. FIRST ACTION TO BE TAKEN WAS VOTE TO SUSPEND OLD CELU CONSTITUTION…. FIVE POINT RESOLUTION NEXT CONSIDERED…. DEBATE INCLUDED EXTENSIVE CRITIQUE OF AMERICAN LABOR RELATIONS WITH “SOCIALIST COUNTRIES” GOING BACK AS FAR AS BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION. AFL-CIO ESPECIALLY CONDEMNED FOR ALLEGED ANTI-SOCIALIST ACTIONS IN CHILE IN RECENT YEARS. PRESENTATION WAS IN SUCH GREAT DETAIL THAT IT WENT FAR BEYOND KNOWLEDGE OF LABOR GROUP PARTICIPATING IN DEBATE. CONCLUSION PROBABLY THAT MATERIAL WAS FED IN EITHER BY CELU STAFFERS GIRMACHEW LEMMA…AND/OR KIFLU, WHO SPENT SEVERAL YEARS STUDYING JOURNALISM IN RUSSIA. IN ANY CASE, THIS WAS FIRST SPECIFIC APPEARANCE OF COMMUNIST LINE AND CONTENT WAS DISTINCTLY RUSSIAN.”

Abyot - The Lost Revolution
Germatchew (Girmachew) Lemma, EPRP labor leader

Germatchew Lemma and Kiflu (Tadesse), were two former student activists who had become leaders in the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party. At this point in 1975 EPRP was largely underground, and while its “Democrasia” paper was widely circulated, the name “EPRP” was not yet publicized until later that year.

Germatchew was a respected activist. In his memoir Wore Negare, former EPRP activist Mohamed Yimam recounts, “He was an electrifying speaker who mesmerized the audience. Charismatic and towering, he had a commanding presence that that eclipsed anyone who stood near him…. In Girmachew I saw a leader that I was instantly attracted to and seemed capable of leading people to do anything that he wanted them to.”

Kiflu is of course the author of the definitive Generation books we’ve just cited. While he did go to university in the Soviet Union, to attribute his intervention here to Soviet subversion shows how clueless the US embassy was about the dynamics on the ground. While the USSR was not yet in 1975 fully the patron of the Derg, it was then — and ultimately — completely disinterested in the civilian left, and in the end backed the Derg’s state-controlled labor federation.

Back to the cable, again full of insinuations that a dark communist conspiracy is at hand:

MARKOS HAGOS, NEW CHAIRMAN, WAS NOTIFIED LATE JUNE 2 THAT HE APPOINTEDORER DELEGATE TO ILO GENEVA CONFERENCE. FACT THAT HE COULD COMPLETE HEALTH, PASSPORT, TAX AND ALL OTHER FORMALITIES TO ENABLE HIM TO DEPART NEXT DAY SUGGESTS HE MUST HAVE BEEN PREPARED WELL IN ADVANCE….IT IS BECOMING MORE APPARENT THAT STRATEGY OF MAY 31-JUNE 1 MEETING WAS CAREFULLY PRE-PLANNED. SEVERAL INFORMANTS, RELIABLE IN PAST, BELIEVE THAT PRIME MOVERS WERE GIRMACHEW LEMMA OF CELU STAFF AND GETACHEW AMARE WHO SUPPOSEDLY OBTAINED SUPPORT OF LT. COL. ATNAFU ABATE, 2ND VICE CHAIRMAN OF PMAC, AND LEFT-WING GROUP IN DIRG. FORMER OPPOSITION LEADERS, MAINLY FROM SMALL UNIONS, ARE SAID TO HAVE JOINED IN ENTHUSIASTICALLY AND WERE REWARDED WITH SEATS ON PROVISIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE.

Abyot - The Lost Revolution
Markos Hagos, leader of CELU in 1975.

Markos Hagos, the new leader of CELU, was in fact an EPRP member. He was not a former student leader, but came out of the rank and file of insurance company workers. CELU staffer Getachew Amare seems to have also been EPRP, at least he was accused of being so when he was put on a Derg deathlist in 1977 (Kiflu, v1, p.144)Atnafu Abate was one of the three leaders of the Derg in 1975. The reference here is curious: while Atnafu seems to have often disagreed with eventual Derg sole leader Mengistu — indeed he was eliminated by Mengistu in late 1977 — but I have yet to see a source corroborating communication between EPRP and Atnafu at this time, only later after Mengistu’s first, early 1977 purge.

The cable goes on to urge its distribution to US agents attending the upcoming ILO conference to be on the lookout for CELU radicals.

FOR GENEVA: PLEASE PASS FOREGOING INFORMATION TO PAT O’FARRELL AND JERRY FUNK OF AALC ATTENDING ILO CONFERENCE.

AALC is the acronym for “African American Labor Center.” Here’s a brief background on AALC from Beth Sims’ Workers of the World Undermined“The African-American Labor Center (AALC), founded in 1964, is active in some 31 countries ranging from Angola to Zimbabwe. Its founder and first director was longtime labor activist and CIA operative Irving Brown.’ He molded the institute into an anticommunist organization that spread the doctrine of labor-business harmony and bread-and-butter unionism to its African beneficiaries. Under Brown, the AALC became a vehicle for funneling U.S. aid to procapitalist, economistic African trade unions, a role which it continues to play today.”

The US embassy was so clearly concerned about the presence of revolutionaries within CELU, it wanted to keep an eye on the CELU organizer during his trip abroad. And so the relationship between the US government and advocates of labor peace is exposed.

As mentioned,  it wasn’t just the US embassy that was worried about CELU and worker radicalization. The U.S. Embassy was watching the Derg’s repressive moves against CELU with optimistic caution. A previous cable is fascinating. From May 1975:

6. COMMENT: IF CAUSE OF RUCKUS IS — AS ASSERTED — SIMPLE EXASPERATION WITHIN DIRG WITH CELU IN-FIGHTING AND MOVE TRIGGERS REASONABLY STRAIGHTFORWARD ELECTIONS, LABOR MOVEMENT COULD CONCEIVABLY EMERGE STRENGTHENED FROM THIS EPISODE. HOWEVER, IF RADICALS HAVE THEIR WAY, THE STRENGTH TO OVERRIDE OPPOSITION IN AT LEAST SOME UNIONS, AND THE MOMENTUM TO PRESS AHEAD WITH ATTEMPT FOIST MORE PLIANT LEADERSHIP ON CELU IN PREPARATION FOR ITS TRANSFORMATION, DIFFICULT DAYS COULD LIE AHEAD.

That May, Derg representatives went to workplaces where the workers were represented by CELU to justify trying to shut down the confederation. Another cable discusses a confrontation between EAL workers (Ethiopian Airlines, organized by CELU) and the Derg:

DIRG CAPTAIN THEN TOOK FLOOR AND WENT THROUGH EXPLANATION ON REASONS FOR CELU HEADQUARTERS…. CAPTAIN PLACED EMPHASIS ON “CAPITALIST ORIGINS” OF AND SUPPORT FOR CELU. HE NOTED THAT SUCH A CELU HAD NO PLACE IN SOCIALIST ETHIOPIA. THIS ELICITED IMMEDIATE REJOINDER FROM SEVERAL EAL EMPLOYEES WHO NOTED THAT CELU HAD BEEN IMPORTANT TO THEM; ASKED BY WHAT AUTHORITY DIRG HAD CLOSED IT; AND DEMANDED TO KNOW WHAT DIRG PROPOSED PUT IN ITS PLACE. “WE HAVE SUPPORTED CELU WITH OUR VOTES AND OUR MONEY* WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR US?” OTHER EMPLOYEES THEN REPORTEDLY SPOKE UP TO SAY THAT DIRG HAD DISSOLVED STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS WHICH HAD SUPPORTED ITS RISE TO POWER AND TO NOTE THAT DIRG NOW SEEMED BENT ON DOING SAME TO UNIONS. DIRG SPOKESMAN REJOINED THAT “CIA” HAD FINANCED CELU AND IT OBVIOUS THIS COULD NOT CONTINUE. SEVERAL EMPLOYEES THEREUPON IMMEDIATELY RESPONDED THAT DIRG WAS FINE ONE TO TALK ABOUT AMERICAN SUPPORT. IT WAS BEING SUPPORTED BY AMERICAN FUNDS AND AMERICAN SUPPORT FOR ETHIOPIA WAS SURELY NOTHING NEW. DIRG MEMBERS THEREUPON WITHDREW. NEW EAL GENERAL MANAGER TRIED CONCLUDE SESSION ON PATRIOTIC NOTE EMPHASIZING NEED FOR DISCIPLINE. EMPLOYEES TOLD HIM THAT EAL WAS DISCIPLINED ORGANIZATION, BUT THAT DID NOT MEAN EMPLOYEES UNPREPARED SPEAK THEIR MIND TO HIM OR TO DIRG.

And so the Derg’s attempt to use a left-wing posture to justify its repression of CELU was rebuffed, and as noted, the Derg at least temporarily relented.

Yet here is the meat of the US concern, and actually the Derg’s concern as well. In the resolution at that June meeting, the workers of CELU under their new, revolutionary leadership, actually did the right thing and formally renounced ties with the AFL-CIO. This gets at the heart of the competing socialist strategies in the Ethiopian revolution: the Derg attempted to impose its will, the EPRP went to the people. The text of this amazing resolution is reported in another cable:

WHAT IS AFL-CIO?
1. THIS ORGANIZATION SHOWED ITS TRUE REACTIONARY NATURE BY SEVERING ITS RELATIONS FROM THE WORLD WIDE LABOR UNION WHICH WAS LED BY PROGRESSIVES AND FROM THE SOCIALIST RUSSIAN LABOR UNIONS ESTABLISHED IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY. 2. THIS ORGANIZATION WAS ANTI-BOLSHEVIK AND WORKED AGAINST THE ANTI-REACTIONARY CAMPAIGN WHICH WAS CARRIED OUT IN THE WEST WHEN THE GREAT BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION CRUSHED THE REACTIONARY ELEMENTS. 3. THIS IMPERIALIST ORGANIZATION REFUSED TO RECOGNIZE THE RUSSIAN PROGRESSIVE GOVERNMENT EVEN AFTER PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT TRIED TO ESTABLISH RELATIONS WITH THE NEW REVOLUTIONARY GOVERNMENT OF RUSSIA. 4. FROM EARLIEST TIMES, WHEN AMERICA DECLARED WAR AGAINST SPAIN THE MADE THE PHILIPPINES ITS COLONY, THIS ORGANIZATION SUPPORTED THE INVASION IN THE NAME OF THE WORKING CLASS AND IS THEREFORE ANTI-WORKING CLASS. 5. THIS ORGANIZATION SUPPORTED THE AMERICAN INVASION OF VIETNAM, WHICH CAUSED THE DEATH OF OVER TWO MILLION PEOPLE. 6. THIS ORGANIZATION HAS SOUGHT TO RULE OVER THE THIRD WORLD AND HAS BEEN A SABOTEUR ESPECIALLY IN AFRICA, THROUGH SUCH ORGANIZATIONS AS THE AALC. 7. THIS ORGANIZATION SUPPORTED THE PREVIOUS LEADERSHIP OF CELU AND CHANNELED ALL ITS MONEY TO REACTIONARY ELEMENTS. THEREFORE, CELU HAS SEVERED ITS TIES WITH THE AFL-CIO AND IS READY TO FACE ANY HARDSHIPS WHICH IT MAY ENCOUNTER AS A CONSEQUENCE.

It’s a remarkable statement, clearly contextualizing AFL-CIA activity within the aggressive agenda of imperialism. Of course this is not an accident: it was written by the EPRP.

In yet another cable the embassy’s informants describe the authors of this resolution, again worriedly insinuating the authors are agents of the Soviet bloc. It’s clear the embassy is unaware of dynamics out on the street, highly confused about the nature of the opposition to the Derg. Their red-baiting is obvious, but their finger pointed at the Eastern bloc is laughable. It is again interesting that they tie the authors to Atnafu: One might note by implication that the embassy saw political stability in Mengistu’s wing of the Derg. Indeed in 1975 the Derg was still being armed by the United States. From the cable:

MESFIN GEBRE MIKAEL, ONE OF ORIGINAL FOUR FOUNDERS OF CELU, NOW WITH ILO, TOLD EMBOFF JUNE 7 THAT THE FOUR “TECHNICAL ADVISORS”LED BY KIFLU AND GIRMATCHEW WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR DRAFTING RESOLUTIONS PASSED BY CELU….HE ALSO BELIEVES THAT KIFLU, “THE BRAINS” OF THE GROUP, WHO HAS FOUR YEARS JOURNALISM EXPERIENCE IN RUSSIA, SECURED FINANCING FROM MOSCOW CHANNELED THROUGH HUNGARY AND BULGARIA AS WELL AS FROM “CHRISTIAN TRADE UNION GROUP-IN BRUSSELS TO PAY ORGANIZING EXPENSES…. PUBLISHED DOCUMENT IS ACTUALLY SECOND DRAFT. FIRST DRAFT WAS VERY RADICAL AND ANTI-DIRG…. GEBRE SELASSIE GEBRE-MARIAM, ANOTHER OF CELU’S FOUR ORIGINAL FOUNDERS AND NOW ADVISER TO MININT, AGREED THAT FIRST DRAFT WAS WRITTEN IN STRONG LANGUAGE AND ATTACKED DIRG…. HE IS FAIRLY CONFIDENT, HOWEVER, THAT ELECTION WAS CONTROLLED THROUGH ABOVE-CITED TECHNICAL ADVISERS WHO, HE ASSERTED, ARE IN TURN CONNECTED TO DIRG FACTION LED BY LT. COL. ATNAFU, PMAC SECOND VICE-CHAIRMAN.

Here is the coup de grace: This final cable, dated June 11, 1975, also recommends that AALC operations in Ethiopia be terminated because of CELU’s new, anti-imperialist position. And so, even in the face of suppression by the Derg military government, EPRP successfully drove US imperialism out of the Ethiopian trade union movement. Wow.

Unfortunately, CELU was finally banned by the Derg in September of 1975, leaving the newly radicalized CELU only a few months to organize. The Derg set up its own pro-government trade union association, the All Ethiopia Trade Union (AETU). A new labor code did not guarantee the right to strike. And so the “socialist” Derg continued the tradition of labor peace. The EPRP meanwhile continued to organize clandestinely in the working class, setting up an underground revolutionary union, the Ethiopian Workers Revolutionary Union, or ELAMA.

Markos Hagos went underground in 1976. Sources conflict on his fate: Kiflu says he was publicly executed as part of the first wave of the Derg’s “War of Annihilation” in 1977. The April-May 1977 issue of Forward, journal of the World Wide Federation of Ethiopian Students, says he was “killed on March 24 in a gun battle with fascists, who attempted to arrest him. In the fierce gun battle, the valiant revolutionary fighter had finished off well over 20 of the search squad soldiers before his death.”

Germatchew Lemma went underground with the rest of the EPRP leadership. Kiflu tells the story in vol. 2 of The Generation how Derg surveillance identified several EPRP safe houses in June of 1977. After a half-hour gunfight, Germatchew and a number of other party members escaped the initial raid. But Germatchew was killed attempting to reach a fallback safe house. Unbeknownst to him it had also been raided and Derg soldiers lay in wait. He “was killed on the spot.”

Abyot - The Lost Revolution
Atnafu Abate in 1975

Derg member Atnafu Abate, suspected by the embassy of being connected to the CELU rebels, was executed by Mengistu in November of 1977. Ironically Mengistu accusations against him included “consorting with CIA agents.”

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