Compiled by Drs. Tsegezab Gebregergis
General Sebhat Ephrem is a leading figure in both the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) from the early 1970s, when he left for the field. And also in the current party, Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Sebhat was born in Asmara, Eritrea (Ethiopia at that time) in 1951, to Eritrean parents from the village of Barda. His father (Efrem Amanuel) was a Protestant-educated schoolteacher and hospital administator of Itegemenen Hospital. Sebhat attended the Issac Teweldemehin Elementary [geza Kenisha] (now know as Evangelical Lutheran) , after that Luul Mekonen High School before going on to study pharmacology at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Abeba.
Sebhat left to join the EPLF in 1972, together with Petros Solomon, Tekie Tesfaldet, Beraki Gebreslasie, Habtemichael Woldegiergis, Yemane Dawit, Brhane Gebrezgabihier, Adhanom Gebremariam, Tesfai Temnewo, Afwerki Teklu and Woldensie Berhe. At the university, they established a study group of 12 members. The group was responsible for studying and discussing about Eritrean revolution and identity. They read books regarding politics which could help them know more about there identity and the need of the armed struggle. Before leaving for the armed struggle, they made physical preparations. They ran every day and they ate little and quit drinking milk at all. This was to make themselves physically ready as they had some information about the hardships of the armed struggle. They left the link to the university with the freedom fighters smooth and as a result many university students joined the armed struggle in large scale after them.
With the help of a Commando freedom fighter , they got to the Filfil Selemuna area. At that time they joined the Hizbawi Hayltat 2nd Group , PLF-2 (which later developed into the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF)); there were only around 50 freedom fighters.
Once in the field Sebhat started of in 1973 as “Komisar ganta” – Political Commissar in the Bileqat Training Camp. Then in 1974 Sebhat became head of Recruitment “Kifli Tealim” in Semenawi bahri, and after that in 1975 Sebhat became “Merahi Butoloni” – Battalion Commissar for Battalion-3 , stationed north of Asmara where they Patrolled the road to Keren and joined the final assault (together with Battalion-607 and Battalion-301) & liberation of the city Nakfa.
At EPLF’s 1:st Organizational Congress in 1977, Sebhat was elected to the thirteen-member EPLF Political Bureau and was appointed head of the front’s new Department, the mass administration department “Hizbawi Mmhd’dar” and became responsible for the movement’s efforts to organize the entire civilian population, inside and outside of Eritrea.
A crucial instrument in the expansion of the organization of and control over Eritrean society in the liberated, semi-liberated and occupied areas. It task included not only mobilizing and winning the masses to the cause of the EPLF, but also attending to their basic needs. The DPA set out to establish two levels of administration – the people’s committees and the people’s assemblies. The committees, which were generally seen as transitional, were set up either in areas newly occupied or controlled by the front or in areas close to or behind enemy lines. The membership was usually small but very committed to overall goals of the struggle. The general village meeting elected them and their duties were to liaise between the front and the village involved. All the front’s directives and programs were transmitted through them and whenever delegated by the Mass Administration Units (MAU’s) responsible for their areas, they carried out administrative, judicial and other work on behalf of the front. The next level of structure of these committees was the people’s assembly or “baitos”, which were formed of representatives from more than three villages.
To raise the political consciousness of the people , regular political education was conducted. Topics discussed include the history of the Eritrean peoples and their struggle, methods of the struggle , basic political concept, forms of colonialism, its collaborators and their tactics, development in the international political scene , rights and obligations of the masses, democratic organizational principles and perseverance.
Outside the country the Department organized the diaspora “Hafash Widibat” (civil societies) called National Unions. Eritreans in the National Union’s learned the politics of survival and, as a result, developed the spirit of resilience that was instrumental in the formation and strengthening of Eritrean associations in exile. These associations provided crucial resources of finance, public relations and expertise in different areas, which were missing in the field. For example, at the end of 1977, EPLF requested that all active EPLF members of the mass organizations visit the field. The front wanted to strengthen the various structures it had created during the FIrst Congress, be it in the area of education, health, agriculture, information, administration or political mobilization.
Sebhat had a gift for developing organizational systems, while his blend of intelligence and humor was well suited to EPLF “fighter culture”. An ardent Maoist, he briefly participated in the menqa movement in 1973.
One of the first thing Sebhat did as head of mass administration was to kick of a rally in Keren for women equal right in November 1, 1977 with a military declaration of the EPLF’s commitment to women’s emancipation during and through, not after, the national liberation struggle. Saying “Without the full participation of women, there can be no liberation in Eritrea”. The march was the first instance of women standing together in public to demand equal rights, and it was all the more remarkable for taking place in Keren, a prominent Muslim market town with conservative social traditions. It was also one of the first times that civilian activist and EPLF fighters took to the streets together. The march signaled both an escalation in the struggle over women’s rights and a significant boost in the level of civilian political activism.
Also at EPLF’s 1:st Organizational Congress in 1977 Martyred Ibrahim Afa and Mahmoud Sherifo were assigned responsibility for the northeast front, Martyred Ali Said and Petros Solomon for the Nakfa front, Haile Woldetensa’e for the Cadre school, and Sebhat Efrem for the area they at that time termed “Behind Enemy Line” which following 1977-1978 Strategic Withdrawal to the Sahil area (Nakfa) meant nearly all of Eritrea (except Sahil).
This made Sebhat responsible of the Commando units. One of the units operations was in 1984, when Sebhat led the EPLF Commando Operation raid on the Asmara Airport, that destroyed a third of the Derg’s airforce (33 fighter airplanes) in 18 minutes. The Commando Unit for that operation had 12 fighters. Following are there code names : Semere, Weldemariam, Tsegay, Embaye, Sile, Ghirmay, Yehdego, Araya, Mehari, Asrat, Kusun and Ayni’alem. After successfully destroying 33 fighter airplanes, they all except Embaye managed to escape. Commando fighter Embaye was caught in all the smoke and lost his way out and decided to martyr himself. In order for the Operation to succeed there were a total of 90 freedom fighters involved with pre-studies, tactical blueprints, spies and dubbel agents.
At EPLF’s 2:nd Organizational Congress in 1987, Sebhat was Re-elected to the nine-member EPLF Political Bureau this time he was appointed head of the newly created General Staff of the liberation army “Sirihitat nai teklali stafee” (with Petros Solomon as Vice-General), and is credited as the leading strategist of the Afabet (Operation Nadew), Semenawi bahri, Massawa (Operation Fenkil), Denkel and Dekemhare victories in the last years of the armed struggle.
These victories were won by a flexible combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics, extremely accurate fire-control, and sheer bravery against Ethiopian forces protected by superior firepower and uncontested control of the air. By 1991, the EPLF had expanded to 95,000 fighters, spread over the length of Eritrea, with heavy-weapons units operating alongside the armed forces of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) deep inside Ethiopia. The EPLF’s army provided the organizational superstructure for the front’s internal unity, as well as the instrument for winning it’s independence.
The office of the General Staff were also responsible for the development and transformation of EPLF’s way of training its infantry, artillary and mechanized units as EPLF used a flexible combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics and extremely accurate fire-control. Drawing up lessons, preparing course materials through translating books on the use of weapons of all sorts.
Although not much is known, it is said that Sebhat is one of the guys who created TPLF as a fighting group in the 70s to make a buffer zone, and one of the key figures that engineered there move all the way to Addis-Abeba.
After liberation , Sebhat moved from one post to another as an organizational trouble fixer. He stayed with the army until June 1992, when he was appointed Mayor of Asmara. He retained this position even when he was also Minister of Health in March 1994. After completing the reorganization of these two areas, he returned to the army in May 1995 to become the Minister of Defense and Eritrea’s first full (four star) General.
Since liberation, and the selection of Sebhat Efrem as Minister of Defence, the Eritrean army has experienced a major transformation. During this period the EDF saw many cuts into its force in an effort to professionalize the force. By 1996 the army had been reduced to about 45,000 and which at that point was reorganized along the lines of a modern, regular army, with new ranks and regulations under a more traditionally structured officer corps.