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Kings of Kings and Colonels

In ancient times, each locality, and later each city, had a king. One of them emerged stronger and subjugated the rest. They accepted his authority over them and submitted to his rule with varying level of autonomy. Thus, he became King of Kings, who overtime became an expansionist emperor. Some historian trace that to the Byzantine emperors who gradually accepted neighboring king of kings, such as the Sasanians (Persia/Iran) known as Shahan Shahs, as their equivalents. The last Iranian Shahan shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi; he was overthrown by Ayatollah Kumeini’s during the 1979 revolution.

The Shahan Shah was a friend of Haile Selassie; in 1968 he visited Asmara with his wife Queen Farah Diba where he was accorded an elaborate reception: the main street in Asmara was closed to the public while workers washed the tarmac, painted the trunk of the palm trees and the edge of the pavement, white. Iranian and Ethiopian flags were hoisted all over the place and poster pictures of the visiting couple plastered on the walls of the street. The Queen also visited the Elaberet plantation on the way to Keren.

The Jews title, equivalent to “the King of Kings of Kings” is Melech Malchei HaMelachim though they believe that name is reserved for God. The Assyrian title for king of kings was Shar Sharani while in Armenia the equivalent title was Basileus Basileon.

In what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia, the first emperor to call himself king of kings was “Sembrouthes…  who called himself Nəgusse Neggest. That information was found in an inscription in Greek around the village of Dekemhare, close to the Eritrean capital city, Asmara.’

The last king of Kings of the so-called Solomonic dynasty that ruled Abyssinia (1270-1974) was Haile Selassie who was deposed by the Derg Revolution in 1974.

Occupational Colonels in Keren

In my school years I knew a few strictly professional police colonels, most of them were old officers of the British Field Force. Some of them became lethal tools of the Ethiopian occupation while the rest were benign and considered themselves law enforcers until their death or retirement. But then there were Colonels like Abbe of the Commandos force. I left Keren when he was still a captain, but I knew he was promoted to a colonel. Many years later I found him in Kuwait and when I addressed him as captain Abbe, his face stiffened, and he corrected me: General Abbe.

But I also knew a few other Colonels of the Ethiopian occupational army: Colonel Welaana, Colonel Werqu, and Colonel Biju (or Bichu)–who was the most outgoing and famous colonel. He was killed in a bar in Asmara by clandestine members of the Eritrean liberation forces.

The worst was Colonel Welaana, the Butcher of Ona and Besekdira, he oversaw the massacre of 600 and 250 villagers in the two villages, respectively. During his time, many Eritreans were imprisoned, suspected of supporting the Eritrean liberation forces. I was a ninth grader when together with some friends we were jailed for unfounded crime.

One late morning, two soldiers carried me to Welaana’s office at Forto to be questioned by him. He sat behind a large desk straightening his long mustache and giving me a deadly look … that is a story for another time…if you are interested.

Our jail mates were older people who were later killed. Their bodies were dropped at the dry bed of the Shfshfi river and left there covered with some sand. People walking by would find the bodies that animals uncover and then relatives of missing persons will go to the place to identify the bodies for proper burial.

Soon, Colonel Welaana was replaced by Colonel Werqu who tried hard to pacify the town with soft gestures: being extra nice and smiling non-stop, trying to learn Tigrayit, lifting the dusk-to-dawn curfew that went on for six-years in Keren; that’s why I don’t have mush memory of my town at night though I heard it was full of lights like Vegas! It could have been an exaggeration.

Once Werqu brought an amateur army brigade band from Asmara to cajole the people of Keren. They held a night-long concert to which the residents of the town were invited. But Kerenites accepted the invitation to satisfy their curiosity; they wanted to walk on the grounds of the notorious Forto garrison. Not many had ventured there since the Ethiopian occupation after which Forto became a frightening place– not many who were taken there came out alive.

Now Forto became a venue of a concert. They erected a tent, built a stage, and soldiers played rudimentary songs with lyrics of a few repeated words, in Amharic, that many didn’t understand. We watched Gennene Debbebe, the soldier who composed a seven-word song that became a hit among the soldiers: Asmeraytu ketema, belibie emagnalehu end tagegni girma (Asmara city, I wish from my heart you would be magnificence).

Of course, no one expected him to write a new lyric for Keren. He just replaced Asmeraytu with Kereneytu and delivered the same song all night. He visited other towns to entertain the garrison dwellers; he would replace Asmeraytu with the name of the town where the garrison is and perform the same seven-word song.

At Forto Keren, the nostalgic young peasant-soldiers jumped and sweated to the beat of Gennene’s song—they looked very homesick. Then it was an open mic session. Everyone jumped up to the stage and gave it a try. A song by a town prostitute with a heavily tattooed neck still rings in my head: endenesh endenesh, endenesh endenesha, meaning, how are you how are you, how are you how are you! Like a broken record, she repeated that for what seemed eternity.

Then the crowd left in the wee hours of night. See! Werqu literally liked the “killing me softly” approach, unlike Welaana who was a born butcher.

Eritrean Colonels

Colonels are of two types: 1) active commanders and soldiers, and 2) the support staff who just get the title as a promotion. They could be medical doctors, intelligence officers, logistics personnel, etc. The former are benign and some of them are nice people. I know a few ex-Eritrean army colonels, and I would not include them in the brutal colonels that I observed as a teenager. The latter are commanders and active military people. And since most of them graduate to the title over time, they have good affinity with the rank and file under their command. It’s natural that some soldiers look up to them while others consider them corrupt and abusive.

Generally, anyone with a title above a Colonel is more of a political appointee. Generally, a Colonel or Coronel (and many countries have a different name for the rank of a Colonel) is above a lieutenant Colonel and below a brigadier General. A Colonel’s rank might quickly catapult you to a higher rank or it becomes the highest rank beyond which you will never advance.

The origin of the title is probably the Italian word Colonna (column), “commander of a column”. Like a brigadier is a brigade commander.

The Italians and Swiss say, Colonnello, Maltese say Kurunell, and Portugal and Spain Coronel. In Eritrea, while city boys say Colonel, the rest say Coronel or Koronel. In Arabic a Colonel is Aqeed, root word is Aqd, contract. Most Tigrayans say Konerel.

Tidbits

Do you know between 1947 and 1962, the commander of the Ethiopian air force was Swedish? Did you know Nazi Germany’s Führer Adolf Hitler gave Ethiopia 16,000 rifles, 600 machine guns, 3 airplanes, and 10 million rounds of ammunition? Did you know there were foreign mercenaries fighting alongside the Ethiopian forces, including Austrian Nazis and Belgian Fascists? I am adding this because someone said to me (though he said he was joking) that the Eritrean struggle was an “Arab managed insurrection”. So, I am providing some facts that we can use as a joke in conversations.

Usurper Colonels

There were many (and still are) colonels who choked their people in many countries. Some are put in that position, others are power hungry rascals, and others are boringly dull and foolish. But the bad colonels greatly outnumber the others. Let’s see famous colonels who usurped power in their countries:

Gamal Abdel Nasser, his replacement Anwar Al Sadat (both Egypt), Muammar Al-Gaddafi (Libya) Jaafar Numeiry (Sudan), Ali Abdalla Saleh (Yemen), and Mengistu Haile Mariam (Ethiopia). I am just mentioning a few from memory, only Colonels, not the many generals, captains, or even junior soldiers who crushed their way into presidential palaces riding tanks.

But the worst yet, the uncalculating gambler, who risked the wellbeing of his people and the entire Horn of Africa region, is Ethiopia’s colonel Abiy Ahmed. He is childish, unrefined, pompous, and too showy who “knows more about wardrobe room than a war room” as someone put it. See how the Nobel foundation embarrassed itself? Awarding such a prestigious award to a man who is no better than a boy scout platoon leader in unforgivable.

Eritrean Colonels

Most conscripted ex-Sawa Eritrean soldiers I met, have nothing good to say about the colonels under whom they served. It could be because the objective or subjective dislike, or it could be they are the likes of Abiy. I wish it’s not the latter. But we shouldn’t despair, only a few colonels are needed to right the wrong, provided their conscience is alive. After all, you do not need a hundred colonels to get involved in reforming a system; they might end up in a fight over who become the leader and make matters worse. For instance, Colonel Seid Hijay’s attempt in 2013 was aborted because there were so many of them involved.

——–
NB: This a summarty of a Youtube program I presented in Tigrigna, Negarit 138, at my YouTube Channel, Negarit
Ref: public sources and personal memories

About Saleh "Gadi" Johar

Born and raised in Keren, Eritrea, now a US citizen residing in California, Mr. Saleh “Gadi” Johar is founder and publisher of awate.com. Author of Miriam was Here, Of Kings and Bandits, and Simply Echoes. Saleh is acclaimed for his wealth of experience and knowledge in the history and politics of the Horn of Africa. A prominent public speaker and a researcher specializing on the Horn of Africa, he has given many distinguished lectures and participated in numerous seminars and conferences around the world. Activism Awate.com was founded by Saleh “Gadi” Johar and is administered by the Awate Team and a group of volunteers who serve as the website’s advisory committee. The mission of awate.com is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally, to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth. Miriam Was Here This book that was launched on August 16, 2013, is based on true stories; in writing it, Saleh has interviewed dozens of victims and eye-witnesses of Human trafficking, Eritrea, human rights, forced labor.and researched hundreds of pages of materials. The novel describes the ordeal of a nation, its youth, women and parents. It focuses on violation of human rights of the citizens and a country whose youth have become victims of slave labor, human trafficking, hostage taking, and human organ harvesting--all a result of bad governance. The main character of the story is Miriam, a young Eritrean woman; her father Zerom Bahta Hadgembes, a veteran of the struggle who resides in America and her childhood friend Senay who wanted to marry her but ended up being conscripted. Kings and Bandits Saleh “Gadi” Johar tells a powerful story that is never told: that many "child warriors" to whom we are asked to offer sympathies befitting helpless victims and hostages are actually premature adults who have made a conscious decision to stand up against brutality and oppression, and actually deserve our admiration. And that many of those whom we instinctively feel sympathetic towards, like the Ethiopian king Emperor Haile Sellassie, were actually world-class tyrants whose transgressions would normally be cases in the World Court. Simply Echoes A collection of romantic, political observations and travel poems; a reflection of the euphoric years that followed Eritrean Independence in 1991.

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  • woldu hadgu

    Dear Saleh Johar:

    God bless you. Your articles are always suffused with wisdom, intellect and knowledge. You are also an immovable rock to us. In times of tumult in this website we look for your calm introspection. Thanks again.

    In civilian sphere I think the general manager will be like the colonel sitting at the right place to take power. The supervisor, the manager will be the captains and majors while the directors and CEO’s will be like the generals (desk bounded and alienated for the bottom). That is my take.

  • leGacY

    Greetings SGJ,

    Very interesting topic and as someone with zero military knowledge I learnt few things. I am curious about the leader who died in SA? I couldn’t hear the country he commanded.

    Where does “Shaleka” ,not sure what the English rank name is, fits in here ?First, higher or lower than Colonel ?Dont “Shalekas” closely oversee colonels?

    On the issues of Afars, I think it probably has a lot to do with their nomadic lifestyle which doesn’t have room for political hacks and pontificators . If think most of our ills are as a result of pontificators.

    • Saleh Johar

      LeGacy,
      Not many of us has enough military knowledge. But hey, thanks to the open knowldge, it’s all you can eat buffet 🙂

      Shaleqa is the equivalent of a Major, commander of a 1000 soldiers made of three shambels, made of three platoons (motto Aleqa), made of three teams, 1st Lt (?) and so on. But number of formations is tricky. The military doesn’t adhere to numbers that much particularly in times of war and turmoil. If we take the example of the Eritrean struggle, it depended on MejmouAa (team), manageble group of about 10-12 people. Three of them made a platoon, Fesiila (Ganta?). Then when the numbers grew, the platoons were increased to seriya (Haaili) around 100 people, three such formations made a battalion, and so on–a group of three formations makes the next higher formation. But in extraordinary situations, if there are many casualties that cannot be replenished, vacuumed out, the numbers decrease drastically. And id there is a flow of conscripts, it inflates. So, the Abyssinian military formation gives you a clear idea until you reach the rank of Shii Aleqqa thereafter, it conflicts with the modern formation. When Western grouping go to Lt. Colonel, Colonel, Brig General, etc, The Abyssinian follow a different heirarchy: fitewrari, QegnAzmach, GraAzmach and all the way to the highest war commander who could be a Ras or a prince/king.

      Shaaaleqa is either under Lt. Colonel or colonel, I am not sure.

      On the Afar temperament, I think it’s a different character… a bit different from the Nomadic and Sedentary culture, unique in its own right.

      • leGacY

        Hi SGJ,
        Oh, you really know your stuff. ahha. Then you are probably the person I need to ask this. How does discipline gets enforced in army like the TDF, which most of them are (I am just assuming here) volunteers? I am thinking that it has a different order than let’s say during Gedli era. For example what happens when a soldier fails to obey orders?

        Thanks,

        • Saleh Johar

          LeGacy,
          I will try…
          When you volunteer to serve in an armed group, you are automatically accepting military discipline. Little difference between parts of the world and throughout history.

          Feudal and traditional societies are very obedient to authority, it’s city boys who always get in trouble because they whine, disobey orders and engage in insubordination and mutiny. I assume they face the military discipline because without that an army cannot be kept in tact as an effective fighting force. The military rule is across the board.

          However, it depends on the commander. One who leads by example, cares for the lives of his soldiers and doesn’t use them as a cannon fodder just to win an insignificant battle faces unhappy troops who cause him (and themselves) trouble. Otherwise, a good commander build efficient fighting troops with less problems—there is little need for disciplinary actions. But if it gets to that, it’s always harsh, in any military institution and some are good at hiding the actions they take for fear of agitating the troops or the support base, the communities.

  • Brhan

    Hi all, interesting article from BBC Tigrinya ,includes SGJ sayings
    ዑስማን ሳልሕ ሳበ፡ ንናጽነት ተቓሊሱ ኣብ ስደት ዝተቐብረ ኤርትራዊ ተቓላሳይ
    https://www.bbc.com/tigrinya/58011286

  • Fanti Ghana

    Selamat Memhir and All,

    Well,well, well! I used “Koronel” a good portion of my life until I saw it in writing many years after I came to the USA.

    By the way, do you see a connection between Aqd and እቅድ (Amharic: a plan or a program) which could easily mean a contract if stretched?

    • Saleh Johar

      Fanti,
      There are so many originally Arabic words that has been assimilated to our languages either with a similar meaning or a little change. Think about Kertabet, for vaccination, and tekehtibu for enrolling in school or the military. Because both enrollments requires registration (Teqeyidu) Qeyyid means “register” in Arabic. Teqeyede, or qeyidu. Aqd is a contract, and covenant as in matrimony. WE usually say, Aq’d gerom meaning they entered into a contract or signed a matrimonial covenant. Marrying a widow is never referred to as he married her, but Aqiddula.

      Colonel is pronounced in three ways. Colonel-Correct, Korenel,-corrupted, and Konerel-the Tigrayan version 🙂

      • Fanti Ghana

        Selamat Memhir,

        I knew the phrase “Aq’d gerom” early on but I didn’t put two and two together. The Tigrinya word “ቀይዲ” as in “ምእሳር” can easily be traced to that root word too.

        It shouldn’t be but it is amazing the sheer volume of words in our regional languages that are Arabic based (or vise versa for all we know). Every time I thought I knew them all, I keep getting surprised every now and then.

        What a tragedy to claim thousands of years of history and we don’t have a single Arabic Study Institute to better understand of ourselves and our history.

        PS:
        My most recent discovery was the Arabic word “መኣድ” => A flat plate used for serving food. Tigrinya መኣዲ or ምኣዲ as in “ኣቱም ቆልዑ መኣዲ ቕሪቡ’ዩ ኣይተዕገርግሩ” which I thought was referring to the food until this discovery.

        • Saleh Johar

          Kentiba Fanti,
          Two points:
          There is an entire surra in Kuraan which is called “Suret Al Maaeda”–the verse of Maadi.
          You know the prejudice against Arabic was the instigation of the Portugese who were competing for control of the Red Sea with the Turks. That is when Arabic became synonymous to Islam and the zealotry hadn’t stopped to date. But before that, the cultural ties was just amazing to read. Even Abyssinian Kings had their seal with Arabic inscription including Yohannes. To make it worse, Haile Sellasie declared the official religion was Tewahdo Christianity and all Muslims had to be marginalized. And since Arabic was made synonymous with Islam, it got us where we are.
          Scholars avoid this subject because it’s hot and they would rather avoid confrontation–that is why most scholars are dishonest. This olf article might shed some light:

          http://awate.com/language-and-religion-in-eritrean-politics-2/

  • iSem

    Hi Saleh:
    You also forgot that King Solomon of Israel gave Ethiopia a son.
    About the colonels always conducting the coup, it could be their position is perfect: they manage./influence enough men and they are embedded unlike the generals. I think, in ghedli parlance the colonel is like merahi beteloni and at that level you are likely to attend the day to day military operations.
    About successful coups: Eritreans should take training in Sudan, their coups are almost bloodless, the last Sudanese Spring was more bloody than all the coups from Abud to AlBashir

    • Saleh Johar

      iSem,
      If I had started mentioning all the legends and myths, it would be a hundred episodes just on the Solomonic demons. But you are right, that son of Solomon is the curse of our region and should have been mentioned as a reminder. Don’t worry, I have plans to a present Kibre Neggest and the confusing names of Queen of Sheba, Makda, and Belqis. There are three of them: the Amhara version, the Tigrayan (and to a lesser extent Eritrean version), and the Arab version.