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Notes On The Historical Trajectory of Eritrean Nationalism

Eritrea—which was once an Italian colony, a British protectorate, and briefly an autonomous region before it was reduced to a mere province of Ethiopia—became in 1993 an independent nation-state, redefining post-colonial African map, hopefully not setting a dangerous precedence. The history of over thirty years of bloody armed struggle had inflicted unbearable human suffering with both Eritrean and Ethiopian blood mingled, flooding the Eritrean mountains, hills, rivers, and streams.[1]

The Eritrean nationalist struggle began with full hopes and ended full of disappointments. The costly struggle merely produced at the end a distorted, bastardized, nation-state.  To date, in post-independence Eritrea, not even  a semblance of a constitution exists. A personality cult is at its frightening height of power.

Indeed, despite the tragedy that mercilessly descended upon the population—during the brutal war unleashed by the Ethiopian dictator, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam – the history of the Eritrean nationalist struggle is—to employ Shakespearian expression— “A Tale Told by an idiot full of sound and furry Signifying nothing.”[2]

When, how, and why did that happen? Indeed, Eritrea’s chance for a peaceful democratic change appears slim, unless that burning question is publicly raised and debated by the Eritrean themselves.

 

This article tries to address that question. It will focus on the historical role of the Eritrean petty-bourgeois class – the very class that was in the forefront conducting the armed nationalist struggle for independence.

Although in reality it is complex, as overlapping abounds, I classify the Eritrean petty-bourgeois class into three strata to achieve and maintain analytical clarity. These strata constitute of the political, intellectual, and private business. In what follows I take up each stratum to describe and explain its peculiar historical role in ultimately producing the bastardized nation-state.

The Political Stratum

This strata is organized and led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), also known by its Arabic acronym as Shaebia.

In order to comprehend its historical role and conceptualize what I refer to as its ‘original sin’, we need to capture the when, how and, why of the process the leadership followed in its organizational formation. To that effect, a critical reading of the pamphlet, Nihnan Elamanan3,  Our struggle and its goal—apparently written by the current President of Eritrea, Isaias Afeworki– is in order.

At the outset, a visceral anti-Muslim sentiment of the author is visible in the writing. That behavior need not surprise us, as the author comes from the Kebessa, the Christian highlands. He was merely expressing his long standing ancestral culture that despises and treats Muslims as second-class citizens. What is surprising, however, is how the author goes around to justify his and his clique’s highlanders split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), also known  by its Arabic acronym as Jebha – an older Muslim dominated political organization which had been struggling for Eritrean independence since 1961.

According to the author of Nihnan Elamanan, the split was caused by the concern of the Christian blood frequently shed by the ELF Moslem leadership.  But what remains suspicious is whether President Afeworki led the split over the concern regarding the killing of Christians, or over some thing else? We need to interrogate his own answer in the context of the period.

Under the Jebha leadership, there was little or no space for the Christian leadership. Afeworki knew that bitter reality very well. A split was the only alternative left if the Christian elements were to assume leadership; and the Kebessa region would offer a fertile ground for mobilization. As those familiar with the history of EPLF may recall, the Kebessa indeed provided EPLF a fertile ground for effective mobilization, especially so after the Ethiopian government of war policy increasingly began to alienate the population4;   but what was hidden behind the author’s explanation was his own pursuit of power.  Indeed, it never took the public long before it discovered Afewerki’s hidden power ambition.

Not long after the split from Jebha, Afewerki and his highlanders clique began to shed blood in the process of their own organizational formation. In that respect, the first and historically momentous event was the summary execution of the “Menka” leaders in the early 1970’s5. That execution was arbitrary, as there was not even a semblance of a court trial.

The ‘Menka’ leaders advocated for democratic changes and labeled Afeworki’s leadership as authoritarian and its ideology as a petty-bourgeois narrow nationalism6. The ‘Menka’ leaders were principled and courageous enough to face the shooting squad in graceful dignity, rather  than compromise their principles. Subsequent to their execution, the blood of thousand dissidents within EPLF continued to be shed. Torture and imprisonment became a common practice. The decision to eliminate the ‘Menka’ leaders – it is widely rumored– was singularly that of Afeworki.  If indeed that was the case, it is a sad story that the clique around him—who later in 2000 were themselves sent to jail—never appeared to consider the law of the unintended consequences.

All the negative elements that were to transpire in broad day light in post-independence Eritrea were implicit in that arbitrary execution of the ‘Menka’ leaders. That Eritrean martyrs, over sixty thousands, would sacrifice their lives for freedom that never saw the light of day was long implicit in that eventful day – the execution of the ‘Menkka’ leaders. That rule by personality cult would become the norm in post-independence Eritrea was no less embedded in the execution of the ‘Menka’ leaders. That life in post- independence Eritrea would be unbearable enough to produce a ceaseless Eritrean youth refugees7– incidentally, the leaders of tomorrow’s Eritrea – was also contained in that momentous historical event. Indeed, Stefano Poscia had to characterize the event as a Dark chapter in the history of EPLF8.

But the death of the ‘Menka’ leaders was not in vain. Today, the demands of ‘Menka’ leaders have found their echoes among the new Eritrean generation, whose spirit and language appear to be democracy and freedom. Indeed, the original sin of EPLF leadership is likely to haunt it.

The Intellectual stratum

The members here were the willing ideological rationalizers of EPLF leadership. Predominantly, they came from the Eritrean Christian highlands. They were Kebessa intellectuals. These intellectuals appeared the most cowardly and opportunist elements that the homeland of Bahta Hagos, Zerai Deress, and Idris Awate, has ever produced.

In what follows I will try to reconstruct their collective historical role in derailing any historical possibilities that might have paved the way for democratic change in the history of the Eritrean struggle for independence. I will confine my description and explanation to three historical significant events.

From day one, these intellectual elements had advanced a blank check to EPLF leadership, particularly to Afeworki.

In the early 1970s when the ‘Menka’ leaders were summarily executed, these Kebessa intellectuals never raised their collective voice – I know of no intellectual who publicly raised her/his voice at all. Albert Einstein says that those who have the privilege to know have a duty to act. But like the sycophant clique around Afeworki, the Kebessa intellectual elements also never seemed to ponder over the law of the unintended consequences. They never appeared to understand that their utter silence might help deliver a Frankenstein Monster that would one day rise to pursue them to death. The Ethiopian wisdom, ‘Neg Bene’, never crossed their minds. The Kebessa intellectuals’ historical crime did not stop here.

When EPLF leadership militarily evicted the ELF from its own homeland in 1981, these intellectuals publicly turned their back; not even a single voice was raised.

 

They failed to understand the lasting devastating implications of their utter silence. The existence of two competing political organizations has – all things being equal – a potential tendency to open the democratic process. Were these Kebessa intellectual elements ever aware that their behavior might contribute to derail that potential possibility? Certainly, at the end of the a day a single highly organized and politically intensely engaged EPLF was aided to emerge as the sole power in the entire territory of Eritrea in 1991.

During the Referendum in the early 1990s the Kebessa intellectuals again buried their heads in the sand.

By all standards, the Referendum Proposal by the EPLF leadership was narrow and undemocratic, especially compared to what had been presented by the same leadership in the early 1980s during the peace negotiation with the Ethiopian military government at the Carter Center9.

We all recall that the social and political environment of the referendum was highly toxic: There was no freedom of the Press, as the media was under the full control of EPLF; Jebha was not allowed to participate as an opposition political party in its own homeland. EPLF had its own agenda regarding when, how, and why the referendum would be carried out.

What is amazing was that to decide the fate of 4/5 million people is a serious business, yet the Kebessa intellectuals never rose up to their historical duty: To challenge the toxic social and political environment and demand the freedom of the Press, a public debate to expand the referendum choice, to assess the cost/ benefit of any choice; in short, to have an informed voters on historically momentous issue that was going to define the fate of Eriteans10.

Indeed, the Carte blanche support that these intellectuals elements extended to EPLF leadership may be mind boggling, but not inexplicable.

In the his book signing forum in New York, two or three years,  ago,  Bereket  Habte  Selassie did admit regarding  the blind support that the Kebessa intellectuals extended to EPLF leadership. However, he added that they were clouded by the larger desire to attain independence.  I totally reject his answer: The motive for the blind support appears to lie somewhere else, which Bereket seems to hide, or may be, did not reflect upon.

I submit the explanation lies in the regional sentiment of the Kebessa intellectuals. Deep in their hearts, they were longing for an Eritrean independence under the Christian control.

As the readers may know the modern history of Eritrea, it was the Muslims who were at the center in the struggle for Eritrean independence. The demand for independence was the sole property of the Eritrean Muslims, and for legitmate historical reasons, which could not be pursued here. The Kebessa elements had at best a marginal presence, until the early 1970s and after. In other words, the rise of EPLF leadership dominated by Kebessa elements was entirely a new phenomenon in the modern political history of Eritrea.

The Kebessa intellectuals saw in this new phenomenon a rare historical opportunity for their own ascendancy in the area of privilege and social status- Not only would the rise to power of a Christian leadership open access to privilege, it would most of all rescue the long-standing fear of Kebessa people regarding an independent Eritrea under a Muslim leadership11. How else could the invariable blind support of these Kebessa intellectual elements be explained??

It is said that it is better late than never. Some of these intellectuals are today demanding for democratic change; and Anti-Isaias  Afewerki movement has indeed become fashionable.

But these intellectuals need to be reminded: Afewerki did not come down from Mars; it was rather the Eritrean soil that produced him. Every Eritrean, especially the Kebessa intellectuals are historically answerable.

The Kebessa intellectuals need self redemption; they need to confess publicly regarding their historical role in inflecting pain and sorrow on their own people, before they ever utter the term democracy that was totally alien to them— incidentally, a term that was dear to the hearts of “Menka” leaders.

The Private business Stratum

Here I have merely brief comments to make, as there is little information. This  strata was well known for its material and moral support to EPLF. We know now that its fate has turned out to be a comedy.

The inherent logic of any business activity is defined by two principles: Avoidance of authoritarian political environment and a tireless desire to seek a larger and wider market. Yet, the Eritrean private business strata suddenly found itself under the authoritarian regime and under narrower Eritrean market.

Some of us may recall that under the reign of Haile Selassie, successful Eritrean business class was highly visible all over Ethiopia. The members  were found in import/export, hotel, mechanic etc business activities. By contrast, under independent Eritrea, there are no longer rich private business strata, as business activities are monopolized by Shaebia. The days of Kidane Adgois, etc,  successful Eritrean business individuals  under the reign of the emperor ,  have become the Golden Age never to return. Cry me a river! What else could one really say?

Conclusion

Paul Sartre- as an existentialist—says that the individual is the sum total of her/his own decisions. What an apt description of the historical role of the Eritrean petty bourgeois class! Its dreams were indeed narrow and petty. Dreaming the big and the beautiful has been alien to it.

The current crises in Eritrea, manufactured by no other than this class itself, have come to overwhelm the leadership.

Isolated from its regional neighbors, the international community, and the US imperialism apparently poised to topple it behind the Musharif of the Horn of Africa— Meles Zenawi— the Eritrean regime may collapse any time.

The great question is: Which way Eritrea? In my opinion, the salvation of Eritrea lies in the Eritrean Youth. This author appeals to them to rise up and make a difference! My generation is fast disappearing. Tomorrow’s Eritrea belongs to them not to my generation. They need to act now!

As the Ethiopian youth also finds itself in a similar horrible condition, the Eritrean youth should not hesitate to forge a lasting bonds in the struggle for eternal freedom.

I wish them the Best!!

(The author, Ph. D, is a Professor of African Studies at York College, The City University of New York–CUNY.)

Notes

1.  Bereket Habte Selassie.  Conflict and Intervention in the Horn of Africa{ NY: Monthly Review Press, 1980};   Ray Patman. Eritrea : Even the stones are burning { Trenton : The Red Sea Press , 1990 }
2. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine  eds. Macbeth { New York : Washington Square 1973 } p.179
3. “Nihnan Ilaman” in Liberation vol. 2, # 3{ 1073”, p.5-23.
4. See Habte Selassie.
5.  John Markakis. National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa{ London: Zed Press, 1090}.
6. Ibid.
7. Yebio Woldemariam. “The Saga of the Eritrean Refugees” in Asmarino.com{ January 2012}
8.  Stefano Poscia. Eritrea: Colonia Tradita{ Roma: Edizione Associata, 1990]
9. The Proposal had three choices; Independence, Federation, or Union.
10. Meles Zenawi is no less a culprit in this affair. The permission for the referendum that Zenawi       allowed through the UN was never meant to be the property of the Eritrean people; they never       owned it. It was rather the personal commodity of Shaebia leadership.
11. Even today, one only needs to shout in public “The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are     coming!” to scare off the Kebessa people.

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  • Kaddis

    “As the Ethiopian youth also finds itself in a similar horrible condition, the Eritrean youth should not hesitate to forge a lasting bonds in the struggle for eternal freedom.”

    I found this statement too loaded to be realistic; its too sloganish (?). First equating the Eritrean youth with the Ethiopian youth – where going to a University after high school is becoming a given next step – makes your whole story superficial.

    And what is eternal freedom – its sounds deadly (Sawa like)