[This article originally appeared on November 14, 2001, it is updated for republishing]
A Lion dons a crown and holds a banner; on top of both the crown and the banner’s mast is a cross. That was the emblem of “moAa ambesa ze-amnegede yehuda, grmawi qedamawi atzie haile sellasie, ngusse negest ze-itioPia (The Lion of Judah, The Graceful King of Kings Haile Sellasie the First, Emperor of Ethiopia). That emblem was yet positioned in the middle stripe of the tri-color Ethiopian flag: red on the top, green on the bottom, and yellow in between. To many Ethiopians and Eritreans, that symbol represented injustice, oppression, backwardness and terror, while a few others considered it their primordial symbol and they pledged full allegiance to it, in what seems to be a yearning to be decolonized from the Italian fascist rule, or an expression of the cultural and ethnic relations with the people across the Mereb River. Also, many Eritreans of the time could trace their ancestral origins in Ethiopia and naturally they share the common heritage of the Axumite civilization. Many Italian subjects of Eritrea had sided with Ethiopia against the Italian colonizer and fought gallantly under the Ethiopian flag, mainly in the battle of Adwa but also in many other less significant battles.
After Fascist Italy was defeated by the Allies in WWII, the former Italian colony of Eritrea was taken over by the British military administration which introduced democratic institutions and liberal ideas. Eritreans started to express themselves freely, they found an opportunity to forge their unity and they built a stronger sense of nationalism that aroused the need for self-determination. But as Eritreans were seriously looking forward to charting their destiny, the United Nations reached a deadlock trying to decide how to “dispose off” former Italian colonies: Libya, Somalia and Eritrea.
The forties ushered Eritrea into a phase of intense of political debate and struggle, and the overwhelming majority started to mobilize by initiating grassroots movement, building bridges across the nation’s social segments to forge alliances with different social forces. Newspapers flourished, political awareness grew by leaps and modern Eritrean nationalism was born. Eritrea witnessed a vibrant political environment like no other time before and the burning nationalism of the time needed a symbol behind which all citizens would rally.
In the struggle to assert a strong national identity, pro-independence groups developed fast and the new political environment created sophisticated political leaders. Ibrahim Sultan led a class struggle to emancipate the Tigre serfs from the yoke of the Shmaglle nobility by establishing AlRabita AlIslamia. A large portion of Eritrea, mainly the social forces that suffered from historical class oppression, rallied behind him; and he found formidable allies, mainly in Abdulkadir Kebire, Nasser Pasha and Omar Qadi. At the same time, the Liberal Progressive Party emerged under the leadership of Ras Tesemma, his son Abraha Tesemma, and Seyoum Maasho and Weldeab Weldemariam. A formidable nationalist alliance emerged when AlRabita AlIslamiya and the Liberal Progressive Party united and four smaller parties joined the alliance to form the Eritrean Independence Bloc, which challenged the Unionist Party that was heavily financed and trained by Ethiopia. It is widely believed that the idea of the blue flag was conceived in that atmosphere by the Independence Bloc. Some old-timers state the choice of a flag which resembled the UN flag was a political choice to gain the sympathy of the UN that had the final word on the future of the country.
Eritrea entered an age of intense flag waving: The Unionists waved the Ethiopian flag; the Pro-Italia party waved the Italian flag, yet a few who opted for a British mandate waved the Union Jack and a small number of Italian war veterans waved the Italian flag.
Symbols are of great psychological and moral value through which affinities and allegiances to an idea or an entity are expressed. People need symbols that reflect their identity, their aspirations and values. Football teams have their own colours that adorn their gears and banners. Scouts have emblems and flags. Ras Teffarians put bandanas and headbands which carry the colours of the Ethiopian flag, which they consider Ras Tefferi’s flag, and they consider him a god. Companies and organizations have logos. Political parties have slogans and banners. Countries have flags.
Before the creation of modern Eritrea, people had their own clan, tribal and religious symbols. For instance, some members of the Beni-Amer tribes have cheek marks that identify them. Some people in Denkalia sharpen their teeth into a V shape. In the highlands, some people put tattooed crosses on their forehead and wrists as a symbol of their faith,. Many Christians put a black thread around their neck and display crosses on their chests as a sign of their devotion to their religion. Muslims cover their heads with turbans and Tagiyet; they carry banners (Beyreq) in religious rallies as an identification of a certain religious sect or persuasion. Since time immemorial, humanity carried some sort of a symbol or another, and it is still prevalent today. All those popular symbols are an expression of belonging to an entity, a reflection of identity or an expression of a personality.
The modern Eritrean nation was created around a combination of symbols, mainly the flag. In 1952, through their elected representatives, Eritreans settled for the blue flag as their common symbol. The flag displays three olive branches on a blue background: two branches with eleven leaves each, hug a third branch which carries twelve leaves. Eritrean nationalism that was symbolized by that flag still rages on; it is the only symbol that Eritreans unanimously agreed upon as a wholly representative symbol, it was the seal that asserted the creation of Eritrea as we know it today.
Sixty years ago, regional and international powers were thinking of partitioning Eritrea so that it can blend and dissolve between Sudan and Ethiopia. Eritreans found themselves at a crossroad: either to be partitioned or unconditionally united with Ethiopia; the wish of the majority to be free was ignored. The Unionist Party was determined to undermine the aspiration of the nationalists; it was the main hindrance and culprit that prevented the full independence of Eritrea. Finally, the big world powers and the United Nations that had to resolve the Eritrean dilemma offered three options; all of them were detrimental to the future of Eritrea:
1. Partition: supported by a negligible minority.
2- Unconditional unity with Ethiopia: fiercely advocated for by the Unionist Party and supported by Ethiopia, and…
3- Independence: fought for by the Independence Bloc including AlRabbita AlIslamiya.
The majority of Eritreans rallied behind the Independence Block and saved their country from disappearing forever; the partition project was defeated and Eritrea stayed undivided, as one parcel.
But neither the Unionist Party not the Independence Block would budge from their positions. That led to Eritrean parties reaching a compromise solution: to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia under the crown of King Haile Sellassie. It was a painful solution that Eritrean nationalists had to accept in order to save the country from being partitioned. Unfortunately, the compromise deal of federal arrangement between Eritrea and Ethiopia barely lasted for ten years.
The Eritrean flag was debated, voted for and agreed upon by all the 68 founding members of the Eritrean Council that had a mandate of six-months to prepare the first Eritrean constitution. After the lapse of the six-months mandate, a resolution was passed authorizing the founding council to become the first Eritrean Parliament for a period of four years. Fourteen of the founding council declined and some were appointed as Ministers in the Executive Authority while others took public service positions. Elections were carried in their electoral zones for new legislators to replace them. Those who declined were:
1- Ato Mesfun Gebrehiwet
2- Sayed Yassin Hassen Naib
3- Ras Tessema Asberom
4- Grazmatch Tekle Haimanot Bokhru
5- Gegnazmatch Hadgembes Kiflom
6- Nasser Pasha Abubeker
7- Grazmatch Mohammed Saeed Ali Bek
9- Inspector Embaye Gebre Amlakh
10- Ato Tedla Bairu
11- Fitewrari Haragot Abay
12- Azmatch Tesfai Berakhi
13- Ato Embaye Habte
14- Ato Tesfaledet Gered
[source: Mohammed Said Naud; AlHaqiqa Welta’rikh]
The Blue Flag (Khedra as it is passionately referred to in Tigre, and awliE in Tigrinya) became the symbol of the nascent state of Eritrea. When Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, it was already an established sovereign state with its own national flag: the Blue Flag.
Previously, the unionists had rejected independence and had always yearned to be ruled by Haile Selassie, but throughout the federal period, they continued identifying themselves with the Ethiopian flag and sabotaging the federal arrangement. Soon, Emperor Haile Selassie began to openly violate and abolish the federal arrangement: he dissolved the Eritrean parliament and outlawed the Eritrean flag which he lowered and hoisted the Ethiopian flag in its place, practically occupying Eritrea militarily. The lowering of the flag sparked the long and arduous armed struggle by Eritreans for self-determination.
Towards the end of the fifties when the Ethiopian government started to undermine the federation, the Eritrean Liberation Movement, (Haraka, also known as Mahber shewAte) had already established a grassroots movement to struggle peacefully, it went underground when its members were imprisoned and tortured. In September 1, 1961, Hamid Idris Awate started the Armed Struggle. Both the Eritrean Liberation Front and Haraka rallied around the blue Eritrean flag.
In the sixties, it was very common around old strongholds of the Unionist party to see the Ethiopian flag revered. Though not required by law, the Ethiopian flag was carried in funeral procession and hoisted in venues of weddings and other public ceremonies. Bulls were wrapped in the Ethiopian flag on their way to be killed for a feast or a wedding. On the other hand, nationalist Eritreans brought the outlawed blue Eritrean flag from its hiding just to look at it and pay homage. In a very secretive ritual, every once in a while parents would show it to their children so that they do not forget, and told them that the Eritrean flag was their true symbol and not the occupational flag that Haile Sellassie forcefully imposed on Eritreans.
The propaganda of the Unionist Party aggressively targeted the blue flag. To them, it was the “flag of the United Nations.” At the same time, the Ethiopian Flag was promoted as one belonging to Janhoi, Haile Selassie, the elect of God. While the Ethiopian flag was given a divine value, the Eritrean flag was portrayed as one belonging to the shifta and Arab sellouts who betrayed their “Mother Ethiopia” and they worked hard to separate the child (Eritrea) from its mother (Ethiopia). At later stages, it was difficult for people who grew up feeding on this type of propaganda to come to terms with the fact that the blue Eritrean flag was actually decided and approved by the founding fathers, by the first ever elected body of legislators that Eritrea ever had. Furthermore, all Eritrean parties that represented the entire social and political forces of the country, including the pan-Ethiopianist Union party, participated in the negotiations and accepted the flag as a unifying symbol of Eritrea.
On September 1, 1961, the national hero Hamid Idris Awate resurrected the blue flag that the unionists tried to bury in collaboration with Haile Sellasie. He raised it high and set out on a long journey to reclaim a hoisting ground for it in all parts of Eritrea. Singers and poets have sung for the blue flag that represented Eritrea and its future; the people rallied behind it and the fire of nationalism was re-kindled. It represented the dreams of all Eritrean nationalists and patriots who kept its image in their minds; it was the magnet that pulled all Eritreans together.
Around 1973, the last remaining unionists were defeated once and for all. All Eritreans gave allegiance to the true Eritrean flag. United under that banner, Eritreans liberated all of Eritrea with the exception of Asmara, Massawa and Asseb.
By then, the ordeal would have been over but partisan politics prevented Eritreans from realizing their dreams and hoisting their long exiled and outlawed flag. Just a few years after all patriotic forces rallied behind their flag, a new confusion ensued. The EPLF perplexed Eritreans by coming up with a new flag which was inspired by the red revolution of the leftists of the era under the guardianship of the Soviet and Chinese Communists. In its organizational congress in 1977, the EPLF introduced a flag that displayed three triangles of blue, red and green, a yellow star in the red triangle. The EPLF denied that it was launching a new flag, it claimed it was only introducing an organizational banner, not many believed the EPLF. But the damage inflicted on the Eritrean psyche, and unity, was very serious. Time proved that the EPLF launched what it called an organizational “banner”, with the intention of erasing the blue flag.
Three years later the EPLF attacked the ELF in collaboration with the TPLF (Ethiopian) whose banner resembled that of the EPLF. The ELF was militarily defeated and pushed out of Eritrea and into Sudan. As a result, the ELF disintegrated into several small splinter groups one of which was known as SAGEM. In the eighties, a division of SAGEM led by Ibrahim Toteel, merged with the EPLF and as a result, the EPLF grudgingly reinstated the blue flag. Thereafter, until Independence Day in 1991, both the blue flag and the EPLF banner were flying side by side.
However, after the independence of Eritrea, both flags were merged to form a shabby combination: a flag with uneven triangles where the blue flag, now changed into a triangle was stitched to the bottom of the EPLF “banner.” That combination flag that was promoted with a slogan “Free Eritrea” and printed on T-Shirts, posters and stickers, became the de-facto flag of the EPLF government; and it was hoisted until the referendum for the self-determination of Eritreans was carried out. The flag was scrapped on May 24, 1993, when the independence of Eritrea was officially declared. The PFDJ came with yet another flag; this time a yellow olive branch on a red background and three triangles of Red, Blue and Green, the colours of what was first introduced as an “organizational banner.” But the yellow star will not do in post-Berlin wall world, in its place the PFDJ put the leaves from the original Eritrean flag, this time they were not green as natural leaves would be, but yellow leaves that seem to be dead.
Officially, according to the PFDJ’s drafted but unimplemented constitution, the present flag is transitional; it unequivocally states that the National Assembly will make the final approval of the design of the flag. However, in Article 4 of the unimplemented PFDJ constitution, in the part that deals with “National Symbols”, #1 reads like a de-facto statement: “1. The Eritrean Flag shall have green, red and blue colours with golden olive leaves. The detailed description of the Flag shall be determined by law.”
As of now, more than two decades after independence, Eritrea doesn’t have an elected Assembly; the present unelected Assembly has not decided on the flag yet and has not met for years. Article 4 also states that “2. Eritrea shall have a National Anthem and a Coat of Arms reflecting the history and the aspirations of its people. The details of the National Anthem and the Coat of Arms shall be determined by law”. The PFDJ didn’t explain why the flag was detailed for approval while the composition of the National Anthem and the designing of the Coat of Arms were left for the future National Assembly to decide upon.
It is said that the present flag is a brainchild of Isaias Afwerki, a production of his artistic genius that he designed while on a visit to Kuwait in the eighties; he had a well-outlined vision on how to erase the memory of the blue flag from the Eritrean collective memory, to erase the flag that ignited Eritrean nationalism. No doubt, the haphazard decision taken regarding an important national symbol, the flag, has caused a great deal of moral and psychological damage to the Eritrean unity, a serious political polarization of Eritreans.
On October 27 of 2001, when Mesfin Hagos was a guest speaker at a London meeting, the PFDJ’s flag of 1991-1993 was displayed in the auditorium. PFDJ supporters who don’t even know the history of the “Changing symbols of Eritrea” were quick to condemn him for sitting under “the flag that was designed in Mekele.” Dimtsi Hafash, the official Eritrean government radio roared as usual: “The flag of traitors”. The entire PFDJ operatives considered that treason. An article in the government Website, Shaebia.org read: “The flag was a combination of the EPLF flag and the flag of the [Eritrean] groups that work with the Weyane.”
Some Eritrean didn’t have the chance to be acquainted with the blue flag properly; other Eritreans have followed the evolution of the Eritrean symbols since they were born. The PFDJ is neither qualified to chose the symbols of Eritrea nor caring enough to lecture Eritreans on the virtues of a flag, what they have introduced is a symbol of authoritarianism and disunity; it is a symbol of oppression. It should be shunned by all activists who should not rally behind a flag that is a symbol of oppression, imposed by an authoritarian ruler, and undemocratically imposed by the oppressor of the Eritrean people. But for a start, activists must stop referring to the Eritrean Flag as “the one given to us by the UN”.
[This article originally appeared on November 14, 2001, and again on Nov. 11, 2012, with an update. It’s being republished for the third time]