The first decade of the Eritrean struggle for independence that started on Sep 1, 1961 was a time of growing pains. But in the late sixties, the military setbacks and draining of all regional support from the Arab region after the Six-day war, combined with the extensive and effective Ethiopian propaganda, resulted in serious internal crisis. Many combatants were determined to reform the organization and they formed Harakat Al-Islah (the Reform Movement.) Unfortunately the problems were deeper than what the Islah Movement could reform. By 1969, the crisis had deteriorated and resulted in sectarian rivalry.
In 1971, there appeared Nehnan Elamanan (We And Our Objectives), a document that Isaias Afwerki and his friends authored to justify their sectarian split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which they considered a “Jihadist” organization. They embarked on establishing an organization to mobilize Eritrean Christian Highlanders. Today, many believe that Nehnan Elamanan is the cause for all the fragmentation and polarization that Eritreans still suffer from.
Nehnan Elamanan came with allegations of grisly murders committed by what it called the “Jihadist” ELF against Christians; and after more than forty years, the allegations still circulate as truth among Isaias’ supporters. With time, the unsubstantiated allegation became urban legend, elevated to a myth, and further deepened the mistrust among Eritreans and to this day continues to divide Eritreans. In fact, it is difficult to understand the cultural disharmony, the sectarian mistrust, and the regional frustration that Eritrea suffers from without scrutinizing Nehnan Elamanan. Unfortunately, save for some loner pens here and there, not many have challenged the allegations made in the document. On the contrary, a number of so-called Eritrean scholars have been repeating the contents of the manifesto as divine truth. But those who read the polished English translation cannot be blamed for the translators themselves are certainly influenced by the message. It suffices to show that the title of the manifesto, Nehnan Elamanan, was translated as ‘Our Struggle and Its Goals’ whereas the correct translation is We And Our Objectives. The manifesto is all about “WE”—its authors identify themselves “most if not all of us are Christian highlanders”—which carried so many subliminal messages directed to a focused audience: Christian Highlanders. It was not (as the translated version tried to make it appear) about the STRUGGLE which, in the Eritrean psyche, means something of a national nature, with an all encompassing Eritrean scope, not a sectarian clarion call.
The manifesto still cries to be researched and analyzed; and we encourage qualified scholars to do just that. On our part, this article is our modest attempt to shed some light on it. We will challenge and explain the evolution of the manifesto because we believe that knowing the details of Isaias’ destructive designs in the past will help us better understand him and be better equipped to fight his tyranny.
Nehnan Elamanan is widely believed to be a creation of Isaias, his master plan. Therefore, we think a more fitting title for it would be ‘He And His Objectives.’ The manifesto is the seed of Isaias’ tyranny of today, and it is the reason why we have him at the helm of power in Eritrea.
In this article, we will first present an introduction to Nehnan Elamanan followed by an insight into how it came into existence and how it hastened Isaias’ sectarian split before he joined two other splinter groups with whom he formed EPLF, which he soon controlled, and which, after the liberation of Eritrea, became today’s PFDJ. Finally, we will explain how Isaias and his clique exploited the killing of Kidane Kiflu and Welday Ghidey, the only two names of casualties that appeared in Nehnan Elamanan and which it treated sensationally.
Nehnan Elamanan: The Eritrean Mein Kompf
Nehnan Elamanan was an attempt by Isaias to rewrite history to fit his grand plans for Eritrea. From the outset, he identified his constituency and focused on mobilizing the Christian population of the Eritrean Highlands, by addressing their baser instincts, cleverly using their fears and suspicions, spreading out any feeling of collective guilt (over Eritreans dealing with the Haile Selassie regime) and calling on them to rally behind him against what he portrayed as the dangerous other.
The dangerous other is “Qiada Al’Amma” (the General Command—the leadership of the Eritrean Liberation Front of the time—derisively, thereafter, referred to as “Amma.”). The General Command is described as a people who had no clear political principles, no military strategy (tebenja hizka m’kkublal…zttakhosu zneberu: roaming around and firing off guns haphazardly); who opted to use religion instead of nationalism as an organizing principle and therefore defined Haile Selasse as “Kaffr” and the Eritrean struggle as “jihad fi sebilli Allah” [struggling in the path of God]; whose favorite activity was looting Christian properties. It accused them of looting 10,000 cows belonging to Christian highlanders and, with the spoils, it explained, the General Command bought houses in Sudan, they got drunk, “the single among them got married and the married among them got remarried.” When they were not looting the properties of Christians, getting drunk and marrying and re-marrying, they were slaughtering Christians by the hundreds (“karatatom ksiHlu…nkrstyan kHardu” sharpening their knives to butcher Christians.)
With the “other” clearly defined as corrupt, bigoted, thieving and murderous thugs who used religion as an organizing principle, the document went on flattering the “we”—always defined as Christian highlanders. It told them that if they are suffering any guilt for the role of their forefathers in the 1940s, they shouldn’t because “The Eritrean people—after 1940—were divided into two political fortresses. When the majority of Christians were calling for union with Ethiopia, the majority of Muslims were calling for union with Sudan.” (never mind that this is not what the UN Commission reported at the time.) It told them that they should feel empowered because the last census which was done in 1957 showed the “we” are 55.7% of the population and “aslam hzbna” are 44.3%. It told them that the Christian highlander was just as nationalist, just as willing to fight for Eritrean independence in 1961—had it not been for the restrictions of geography.
It also claimed that the consensus which was reached in the 1950s to have dual official languages was forced by the UN because the UN saw everything through a religious prism. The idea of the ELF to divide Eritrea into 4 operational sectors [copied from Algerians in their fight against colonialist France] was based on the ethnic differences of the ELF leadership and it was right for the Christian highlanders to ask, “why is a Muslim/Saho leading us?” And even when he was replaced by a Christian highlander, it was not good enough because he was “Hade se’Abi’om zkhone kristanay Haleqa”[a Christian chieftain who was one of them.] And there was nothing wrong for the Christian highlander to make these demands because “natka yeHmmeka” [what is yours is what concerns you], it argued. All attempts for reforming the ELF failed because “wedi dmu ney gedf nay e’mu [bad habits die hard--but the expression describes "bad habits as hereditary] explained the document. And so, since the only two choices are to (a) surrender to the enemy [Ethiopia] or (b) be butchered by the ELF leadership, we don’t have the luxury of sitting on a razor blade and that’s why we are splitting.
The document played up every stereotype of the Muslim Eritrean: disorganized, barbaric, murderous, sectarian. It was 28 pages of “Aslamay entenegese yHarrd e’mber neyferrd” (put a Muslim in a position of authority and he is severe.) And it did its job: to this day, 40 years later, Eritreans who know nothing about Eritrean history know one thing: the ELF ["Amma"] was led by sectarian butchers. Not just Eritreans: even foreign “revolutionaries” internalized its message and called the ELF a “Muslim organization”. How did this document come about?
The Birth Of The Mysterious Document
For a long time before Nehnan Elamanan was openly distributed, Isaias and his group were clandestinely circulating parts of it, and messages with similar content to it. Apparently the originals of the messages were kept in Kessala [Eastern Sudan] and many of those who were part of the planning, writing or disseminating the propaganda of Nehnan Elamanan have repeatedly, and vaguely, mentioned them just as “documents”. They all stated that Kidane and Welday were in possession of some “important documents” in Kessela, Sudan.
An interview conducted by Isaias Tesfamarian [an Eritrean librarian who resides in California and works at Stanford University (?)] with several EPLF (the precursor of the PFDJ) party officials is very revealing. They state that at one time after Kidane and Welday were killed, Ghirmay Mehari (now Brig. General in Eritrea) and Wolderufael Sebhatu (martyred in Nackfa) were sent to retrieve the documents from Kassala. [i]
Brig. General Ghirmay states: “they were very important documents…. Wolderufael knew the whereabouts and the importance of the documents because he used to work with them [Kidane and Welday] …Once we got to Kassala we got some of the documents but not all.”[ii]
Woldenkiel Gebremariam, a current minister of the PFDJ says: “the documents were very important. Kidane Kiflu was in Kassala and Kassala was the coordinating point with the field. He used to follow up the situations in the field and record them. They were very important historical documents. Some of the documents (letters) were sent to the field. With the situation that we went through in the field, it is hard to say where they are. Some documents were taken by Tekue Yhidego and etc. to Aden from Kassala. We used to have them with our Hafash Wudubat (Mass Organizations). After we went to the field we did not know the situation of the documents.”[iii]
And Naizghi Kiflu, an ex-Minister of the PFDJ and its one time security director, who had been critically ill for some years, and died on Feb. 6, 2012 in the UK said: “The documents were very important. They used to describe the situations in the field. Who did what? Who got killed by whom …etc. are the sort of things that were in the documents. We left some of the documents with our Hafash Wudubat (Mass Organizations) in Aden, Yemen. Later, we heard that the documents were stolen.”
Mesfin Hagos, in a recent interview (we translated the relevant part of it to English) also mentions some documents: “…At the end of 1969… I was told that I was appointed to the engineering department, but shortly after…I went to the Sudan. There were some books in Sudan that I brought along with me from China, and that would help us in my appointed position [military engineering ]… [iv]
In a testimonial booklet, Gebremedhin Zerezghi, a veteran combatants who lived the events says: “Members of Srryet Addis[v] started to communicate and correspond through letters. When there was an attempt to read letters that were intercepted, it was impossible [to read them]. Some were in secret codes, some were in numbers, some were [written] in alphabets that seemed like Russian.”[vi]
We believe that those messages, and the repeatedly mentioned documents [referred to as “books from China” in Mesfin Hagos’ case], or some of them, are in the possession of the PFDJ, and once released they would surely clear a lot of grey information. But until such a time, the available information is enough to deduce what the documents were about: perhaps the seeds of Nehnan Elamanan.
At a time when there was rampant political conflict within the Eritrean liberation forces, and obviously Isaias and his group were weaving conspiracies, and the heavy-handed manner with which the ELF leadership tried to resolve the problems, one side would naturally want to defeat the other, at least in the propaganda war—that partially explains the motive behind Nehnan Elamanan. Also, in many instances, the ELF leadership proved to be seriously inept in solving some problems and resorted to extreme solutions. It is difficult to understand, let alone justify, some of its damaging actions—for instance, its decision to jail six-members of the General Command, all hailing from the Semhar region. This cannot be explained except in terms of regional bias even if they had committed subversion, a not-convincing explanation given by the General Command. It was amid this political turmoil, mass surrender and spying cases, and internal maladministration that Kidane and Welday were killed. They could have been innocent; but even then one doesn’t expect the revolutionaries of the day to set up courts for them and deliberate meticulously before passing a sentence—within the ELF, a serious attempt to establish a proper court system only started in 1975. And though Nehnan Elamanan alleges that hundreds of Christians were killed within the ELF, it didn’t mention any names save two: Welday Ghide and Kidane Kiflu.
In that environment of wild “revolutionary justice,” many innocent people—not just Christian highlanders—were killed, and many who fought against a more powerful entity were defeated. But it doesn’t follow that the defeated are always innocent who should be treated as helpless victims; had they been the victors in the power struggle, it is almost certain the role would have be reversed. In short, the price of revolutions is high, and liberation struggle it not peaceful either, nor is it a slow evolution. And everywhere and anytime, revolutionaries are led by zealots and it is the nature of revolutions to divide people into enemies and allies, nothing in between. It is because of such complexities that it is important for Eritreans to know the nature and content of the documents that were kept in Kassala. And why they were so important that Isaias and his group badly wanted to retrieve them from Kidane and Welday’s house.
It is not far-fetched to consider the “books from China” that Mesfin Hagos mentioned in his interview is a reference to the same documents that Ghirmay Mehari (now Brig. General ) and Wolderufael Sebhatu (martyred in Nackfa), were trying to retrieve from Kassala. It is very possible that they are the same documents that Naizghi Kiflu and Weldenkiel Haile mentioned. And it is very possible that the clandestine letters, that Gebremedhin Zerezghi mentioned in his testimony, were circulating among the combatants were the cause for the killing of Kidane and Welday, whose names automatically appeared on Nehnan Elamanan.
A serious question has been asked for decades regarding the allegation of Nehnan Elamanan: If the ELF was into the “slaughtering” business as alleged, why were “Christians combatants” like Mesfin Hagos, Isaias and many, many, others spared?
Theories: Why Kidane And Welday Were Killed
The ELF never formally denied or admitted killing Welday and Kidane though many who lived the era confirm privately that it did. They explain the killing differently, and in general terms. As Nehnan Elamaman, and many senior members of the EPLF testify, in the days when the two were killed, the ELF witnessed mass surrender by combatants from the highlands to Ethiopian garrisons and the Ethiopian consulate in Sudan. Given the politically polarized society, perhaps the events of the time threw a shadow of suspicion and mistrust on the Christian combatants. The polarization was definitely sharpened by the political situations that prevailed at the time, for example:
- A relentless and heavy Ethiopian propaganda that labeled the Eritrean revolution as a Muslim project and encouraged Christians to surrender by taking advantage of the blanket amnesty offered by the Ethiopian king. Many did.
- The onslaught on the Muslim population, wiping their villages, mass arrests, robbing of cattle and other properties carried out by the Ethiopian forces, particularly the commandos forces, who were composed of predominantly Christian highlanders.
- The general treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens as Ethiopia declared Orthodox Christianity as the official religion of the state.
- The military setback of the ELF after the Halhal debacle where the ELF was weakened and appeared un-salvageable.
- The Israel-Arab war that drained supply lines from the Arab countries and weakened the ELF.
- The emergence of ideological (Marxists influence from Yemen and Sudan) philosophies in the ranks of the ELF and the struggle that ensued between urban (who were more accepting of Marxist ideas) and rural (conservative) members of the organization.
The above could have been some of the reasons that made the doubtful combatants surrender in droves. But for other patriotic Christian combatants who remained behind and were totally against the surrender, it must have been painful to be categorized with those who surrendered when they chose to fight on. Such frustration would understandably trigger in them the urge to develop a counter narrative to vindicate themselves or at least ward off the suspicion. For Isaias, this must have been a grand opportunity to exploit and revive his old bigotry and prejudice as some of his schoolmates attest. The cause of the “hundreds” killed and of “Srryat Addis wiped out,” could only be a natural human reaction, a defensive mechanism by the injured to fight against the labeling and to defend themselves from being stereotypically perceived in a negative light. For Isaias, though, it meant a golden chance, an energy that would propel his sectarian split, a successful attempt to turn the tables on those he perceived as the other. And he cleverly used the incidents to mobilize Christians from the Highlands whom he considered his constituency.
Nehnan Elamanan: The Mother Of The PFDJ
In 1970, according to a number of veteran combatants, handwritten copies of some of the documents somehow ended in the hands of ELF security officers of the time. They contained allegations and language similar to what come out later on Nehnan Elamanan. The sectarian allegations were spreading wildly, and the security officers of the ELF began a surveillance task to check who was behind it. Kidane and Welday were implicated in the propaganda war (documents) as the statements of the above-mentioned veteran combatants indicate. Around the same time, a Sudanese officer tipped the ELF security personnel that Kidane, Welday and others were communicating with the Ethiopian consulate in Kassala—the consulate was aggressively luring the doubtful to surrender and it facilitated the surrender of scores of ELF combatants. It was in such circumstances that Welday and Kidane were killed and their bodies found around a place called Hafera, near the town of Kassala in Sudan.
No one claimed responsibility for the killing but fingers began to point towards some zealous officers of the ELF. Veterans of the revolutionary justice environment of the Eritrean Struggle are very secretive and do not allow themselves to be quoted publicly, but many of them recall versions of rumors that spread at the time: Kidane and Welday were accused of subversion against the ELF and treason for causing the surrender of combatants. The zealous security officers might have thought the killing would serve as a warning for others; or they might have been trying to contain and hide the damaging sectarian allegations that exposed the struggle to grave risks.
Others claim that after the leadership of the ELF became aware of the killing and wanted to punish them, the killers leaked some of the documents to gain sympathy from the public who would not condone but be angry at the combatants who were surrendering to the Ethiopians. But the leak and the wide spread of the documents had another unintended result: it hastened the split of Isaias. If not for the embarrassing situation the leadership found itself in after Welday and Kidane were killed, and if it didn’t panic and properly contained the damage, it would have certainly continued the surveillance calmly and reached a conclusive result. But the exposure of the documents and the panicky move of the leadership placed Isaias, the mastermind of the whole propaganda onslaught, in a precarious situation. He in turn panicked and began to devise an escape strategy.
At about the same time, the General Command assigned Isaias Afwerki and Saleh Fekak (both members of the General Command) to organize the people of the Highlands. They left the ELF bases accompanied by nine-combatants and they carried along typewriters, duplicators and other resources that would help them set up a local information unit. Once the group reached a place around the village of Fgret, Isaias excused himself for a few hours to visit his relatives in the area—he selected the three Christian combatants in the group to accompany him. Hours went by and Isaias didn’t return. Saleh Fekak and the six-combatants waited for another day and he didn’t show up. On the third day, Saleh Fekak sent three combatants to look for Isaias and his three companions; they failed in tracing his path in any of the villages in the area. Saleh Fekak abandoned the mission and returned to the ELF bases and reported that Isaias has disappeared with three combatants. Weeks later, Isaias met other scout forces in the Merrara area and told them that he could not work with Qiyadda AlAmma (General Command) and that is why he abandoned his colleagues in Fgret—that was the beginning of his split. It was then that Isaias edited Nehnan Elamanan and publicly disseminated it after adding the names of Kidane Kiflu and Welday Gidey to it.
In 1991, members of what was known as United Organization (UO), a conglomerate of parts of many struggle era groups, entered Asmara. They had hoped to be recognized as a political party to compete in Eritrean politics; but Isaias’ PFDJ had another idea. The UO members were told that they were just individuals and should stop dreaming of continuing as a political party. A small number of them, the helpless, were absorbed in the public sector, the rest either went into exile anew or were left to wander in Asmara in confusion. Shortly thereafter, many were silently snatched by the PFDJ’s security apparatus and disappeared. One of those who disappeared a few years later from his hotel room in Asmara was Mohammed Osman Dayer, a veteran who was the security chief of the ELF when Kidane and Welday were killed. In a short time, the PFDJ successfully blocked any future testimony or impartial investigation into the case that propelled the tip of Isaias propaganda spear.
The ambition of Isaias to have his own organization goes back to 1969 when weeks before the convening of the Adobha conference, he approached the late Mohammed Ahmed Abdu to agree with him “to establish and lead a military division composed purely of Christians from the Eritrean highlands.”[vii] Woldeyesus Ammar laments, “History has attested that Isayas Afeworki, a born loner, was not able to heed to that important advice from his senior commander, Mohammed Ahmed Abdu. Isayas carries on that absolutely negative trait to this day. “ [viii]
To achieve his goal, Isaias has perpetuated the mistrust among Eritreans for over forty years and to this day continues to do so. From the outset, his attitude and views foretold what he was planning: destroying the Eritrean Liberation Front from within, a goal he made clear on his first day he arrived to Kassala via Tessenei in Western Eritrea. He said, “The first day I arrived in Kassala, I was frustrated, people telling me about the ugly nature of the ELF. It was a nightmare. For some reason that no one explained, we were ostracized.” [ix]
Isaias’ statement comes regardless of the fact that he had just joined, and he couldn’t have observed anything about the ELF on his first day of joining. Why then such a serious allegation on his first day? As many who know him testify, his statement exposes his bias and prejudice that he carried along with him from his past. Today, Eritrea is under the mercy of Isaias because he was not challenged since a long time ago when he was paving a path for his current tyrannical rule. He consistently perpetuated a strategy of victim mentality until he achieved the goal of creating an organization molded in his shape: the PFDJ.
The November 1971 document entitled “Nehnan Elamanan” [literally translated to “We And Our Objectives” (but in its English translation “Our Struggle And Its Goals”)] most likely started out as a document written by reformers but was eventually changed into a Clarion Call of us (Christian highlanders) vs them (Muslims) by Isaias Afwerki. It appeals to the baser instincts of Christian highlanders and it flat out lies and exaggerates and, when necessary, omits the motives and magnitude of the persecution of Eritreans by the ELF leadership. However, because it was interlaced with revolutionary rhetoric, it was presented as a respectable document to a selectively targeted group of influential Eritreans and fellow-travelers in the socialist camp.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as in now, the Eritrean people could not forgive two infractions: (a) surrendering to the enemy and (b) splitting and weakening their liberation organization. In trying to justify the former, and trying to prepare the Eritrean people to accept the latter, the author of the final version of Nehnan Elamanan (Isaias Afwerki) wildly exaggerates the number of Christian highlanders that were killed by the ELF leadership (the document claims that 300 Christian highlanders were killed over a two year period but gives the name of only two) and it uses specific language to suggest how they were killed: knives slit with throats. However, despite all the inflammatory language, in the mid 1970s, when Christian highlanders were given the opportunity to join the field, a large percentage of them still joined the ELF—either because they didn’t believe the accusations or because they hadn’t heard them yet. The EPLF (precursor to the PFDJ) intensified its campaign of painting the ELF as a “Muslim organization bent on slaughtering Christians” (“Amma Haradit“) non-stop, until the organization collapsed in 1981 eaten within, and assaulted without by the combined efforts of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF.)
Note: next, in an article entitled: “Srryet Addis: Blatant Lie?”, we will shed some light on the allegation of what came to be known as Srryet Addis, the most sensational allegation of Nehnan Elamanan. Subsequently, we will publish Gebremedhin Zerezghi’s testimonial, available in Tigrinya booklet, which we translated to English. In due time, we will also present to you the English translation of Nehnan Elamanan after we thoroughly check its accuracy compared to the original Tigrniya version.
- An Eyewitness In The History of The Eritrean Revolution, Gebremedhin Zerezghi, May 1997. (Will be published soon and this will be replaced by a link to it)
- Woldeyesus Ammar, “From The Mystries Of “Siriyet Addis.” April 25, 2004, (This article first appeared on awate.com, on a column called Spotlight. Weldeyesus Ammara was a high school classmate and a university colleague of Isaias Afwerki in the 1960s.
[iv] Mesfin Hagos in an interview with Radio Erina Dec. 1, 2011
[v] A group of Christian Highlander recruits from Addis Ababa who were allegedly killed by the ELF according to Nehnan Elamanan
[vi] Gebremedhin Zerzghi, An Eyewitness In The History Of The Eritrean Revolution (originally a Tigrinya booklet translated to English by the Awate Team)
[vii] Woldeyesus Ammar, a high school and university colleague of Isaias Afwerki: http://web.archive.org/web/20070505031415/http://www.awate.com/portal/content/view/3076/8/
[viii] More on this by Woldeyesus Ammar: “….Isayas opined that the 5th division to which he belonged would be more effective if it is let to be “a pure Christian and Kebessan force”. Mohammed Ahmed Abdu did not agree, and literally begged Isayas not to pursue that idea. Mohammed Ahmed Abdu reminded Isayas that even the ill-conceived division of ELA into regional commands required at least one third of fighters to be from outside each regional command. http://web.archive.org/web/20070505031415/http://www.awate.com/portal/content/view/3076/8/
[ix] Dan Connell, Conversation with Eritrean Political Prisoners.