Book Review: The Dynamics of an Unfinished African Revolution

The dynamics of an Unfinished African Revolution.
Eritrea Ancient History to 1968, volume
1, Bloomington, IN: Lulu publishing, 2020.
242 pages list of references and index.
By Mohamed Kheir Omer.

By Tekeste Negash
Emeritus professor
March 20, 2020

The Dynamics of an unfinished African revolution is a very ambitious book. The text under review is the first volume and we are promised a second volume treating the history of Eritrea from 1968 up to the present. In the foreword to this volume, Kjetil Tronvoll wrote with great confidence that the book presents “an interpretation of Eritrean history, diverse cultures, the liberation struggle, and contemporary society that challenges the EPLF/PFDJ narrative head on.” …. “Mohamed has harvested a diverse set of sources to reinterpret the history of his homeland, and by that he breaks down the hegemonic narrative of EPLF/PFDJ”.

This volume is made up of five chapters sequenced in the following: Ancient history of Eritrea is covered in the first chapter.  In few pages (about forty double spaced pages) the author sketched the histories of cultures and societies in present day Eritrea. The Aksumite kingdom is presented as an important component of Eritrean history as well as the history of the Afar and that of the Tigre-Beja belt. And neither the Kunama and the Baria [Nara is the correct name] are left out.

The description of Eritrea as an amalgam of parts and pieces where the Eritrean highland regions of Hamassien, Akele Guzay and Seraye are described as part of the “Aksumite kingdom, considered to be the cradle of Ethiopian civilization (p.6)” is an interpretation that was pursued by the Eritrean Liberation Front in the early 1960s and probably up to the middle of the 1970s.

The Aksumite kingdom declined and eventually disappeared by the tenth century AD. Aksum ceased to be the centre of power for many centuries indeed and it was nearly one thousand years after its demise that it emerged as a centre of power during the reign of emperor Yohannes, 1872-1889. To describe the Eritrean highlands as parts of a kingdom that had long ceased to exist raise a question as to how much Mohamed Kehir Omer (henceforth MKO) had grasped of the historical trajectories of the region outside of Eritrea.

On the basis of a single source in Arabic, (MKO) wrote that (p.9) the Geez script is essentially a script from southern Arabia (al-Masnad script), imported by the Aksumites. Volumes have been written (mostly in English, Italian and French) on the complex relations between Aksum and southern Arabia. The argument that the Aksumites imported the Geez scrip has been challenged ever since the 1970s. According the latest sate of our knowledge (Stuart Munro-Hay, 2005), not only is the Geez scrip developed on the African side of the Red Sea but it was exported from the 4th century Before the Christian era to southern Arabia by migrants from the region around Adulis.

MKO might be right that Geez was indeed imported from southern Arabia but he has the obligation to explain why he chose to privilege just one source and ignore other sources on the subject. The question of whether Geez script is imported from southern Arabia or not is not a question of an alternative view of reading/understanding the past. Neither is it a question of political ideology. The issue is an empirical one and it can be answered one way or the other depending on the empirical sources that one is able to assemble.

The description of the history of the Afar, once again on the basis of a single source (Al-Shami, 1997) leaves a great deal to be desired. The identity of Ahmed el Ghazi (Ahmed Gran) who from his base in Harar defeated the Ethiopian armed forces and ruled over Ethiopia from 1528 until 1543 is assumed to be that of an Afar. The army of Ahmed el Ghazi described as an Afar army (p.19) got its supplies and replacements of military equipment from the Afar area. The Portuguese military support to Ethiopia is quite correctly mentioned but nothing is said about the massive support that Ahmed el-Ghazi (Ahmed Gran) received from the Ottoman Empire both in terms of latest weapons and Turkish men of arms. The Turkish role in Ethiopian history in the 16th century is quite well documented by Spencer Trimingham, who is mentioned and sometimes cited but in a very arbitrary manner.

The occupation of Massawa is presented as an affair between Italy and the Egyptian government without taking into account the massive research on the role of Great Britain and Ethiopia´s reaction to the creeping Italian expansion.

The problem with chapter one has to do with the ambition of the author to squeeze too much information into few pages. The attempt to outline the ancient history of the Eritrean region (made up of four cultural and linguistic sub regions) requires much more space than the author anticipated as well as much more extensive and critical reading than what the author was able to demonstrate in his footnote apparatus.

The second chapter presents highlights from the Italian, the British and the Federation periods of Eritrean history. It is indeed a very long chapter covering three quite distinct periods. A considerable amount of the material is based on secondary sources with notable distortions. The chapter stressed the demographic changes that Eritrea underwent during the colonial period. An aspect that the author mentions is the dramatic increase of the Tigrinya speaking peoples of Eritrea from 40 per cent in 1905 to 54 per cent in 1939 (p.49). The author dose not dispute the increase but attributed it to Ethiopian migration into Eritrea. The argument is plausible but there is very little evidence to support it. According to the census of 1931, (as reported by Alberto Pollera in 1935) , the migrant population from Ethiopia (that includes Tigrai as well) was about 6000 souls.

Another highlight discussed in chapter two is the role of Eritrean ascaris (colonial soldiers) and most of the material is based on the research I carried out (Tekeste Negash, 1987).  Apart from the statement that Eritreans of different ethnic and religious backgrounds lived and fought together, the section does not draw any other conclusion. The building of rail and cableway infrastructure is given due space in this chapter and is concluded by a table from my book of 1987 on the breakdown of Industrial firms in Eritrea in 1940. MKO does not mention that these were Italian firms and the contribution of the Eritreans was their labour. A few paragraphs accompanied by pictures describe the state of education during the Italian colonial period. The chapter also presented very briefly indeed the issues of land ownership, the judiciary and the prison system.

The way this chapter is concluded, I suppose, sets the tenor of the entire study and what would follow in the second volume. It is important to provide a full citation in order to do justice to the views of MKO and to introduce the reader more fully to the main substance of the book. I quote:

Eritreans (except very few individuals, like Bahta Hagos from Akele Guzai, who first allied with the Italians but later revolted against them) embraced Italian occupation almost whole-heartedly. We did not resist like the Ethiopians and Libyans or the Sudanese who resisted both Turko-Egyptian and British colonialism. We served in the Italian army loyally and fought their colonial wars in Ethiopia and Libya, but we resisted Ethiopian occupation for thirty years and defeated it. The Italians also treated the Eritrean better the other colonial subjects.

Why did we embrace Italian occupation? Many questions come to mind. Was it because we were pragmatic (we were not in a position to resist the Italians; therefore, we saved our new entity from destruction)? Was it because they created our country and introduced us to modernism, to limited education, to roads and railways, and to modern architecture? They even introduced us to the Catholic faith. They protected us from the raids of our southern neighbours. They made us feel superior to our neighbours and to other Africans, a mindset that we maintain even today and that was reinforced by the liberation movements.

An issue for discussion that poses several questions is how we more or less embraced Italian colonialism from 1890 to 1941, but we strongly resisted Ethiopian occupation for thirty years, 1961-91. Was it because we felt we were superior to the Ethiopians? Was it because they were black? Our Ethiopian neighbours take pride in being the first African army that defeated a colonial army at Adwa. They called us banda though Ethiopians were also recruited in the Italian army. I think resistance to Ethiopia was more forceful because the Ethiopians embraced one group and mistreated the others and because they were unjust and more brutal than the Italians. In addition to that, they dismantled what the Italians had built.

The Italians were instrumental in creating Eritrea as a social, political, and economic entity. They laid down the institutional and economic framework of the colony. Economically, they introduced the new colony to capitalist economy and developed small industrial firms and agricultural schemes. Socially, they enabled different sections of Eritreans to know each other in the colonial army and through the network of roads and railways. Administratively, they created new provincial and district structures, at the same time as they kept the traditional rule nearly intact. Educationally, they made limited basic opportunities. Militarily, they used Eritreans in their colonial expansion in Libya and Ethiopia, which among other issues resulted in a large immigration from Tigray which upset the population dynamics. They brought peace and stability. Overall, living within a defined entity and having been connected to a single economy under Italian occupation, Eritreans started to develop a sense of a common national identity (pp 67-68).  

Italian colonialism and its impact on Eritrean society is a subject that I studied in great detail at the end of the 1980s (Tekeste Negash, 1987). I do not have the intention to cross-examine chapter two because it differs so much from my work and neither is it fair to do so in this format.  I leave it to the reader to draw her/his conclusion on the impact of Italian colonialism with a note that not all Eritrean communities accepted Italian occupation wholeheartedly. I wish that MKO had been aware of two important parameters. The first is a sensitivity as to how Italian colonialism impacted the various ethnic and social groups in Eritrea.  The second is a more critical appraisal of the legacy of Italian colonialism.

The Eritrean economy that MKO talked highly about rested on Italian personnel and capital. This meant that it was only under the continued presence of Italian capital and knowhow that Eritreans could enjoy a better standard of living. Independence would unsettle the balance unless the Eritreans found ways of keeping the Italians and their independence at the same time. The latter solution was rather inconceivable given the opposing views as to the role and impact of Italian colonialism among a significant section of the Eritrean population. The Eritreans of the Orthodox faith would accept nothing less than union with Ethiopia.

In the section under the highlights from 1941 to 1958, the author echoes the views of scholars that he feels comfortable with at the expense of more recent interpretations.  The British Military Administration is treated in a very disorganised manner. The formation of the Eritrean Muslim League is given a prominent place, but with very little concrete information. The pioneering study of Joseph Venosa (Paths toward the nation: Islam, community and early nationalist mobilization in Eritrea, 1941-1961, Athens: Ohio State University, 2014) is used in a quite haphazard manner. Venosa´s conclusion that the Muslim League´s (ML) significant role was the protection of Muslim rights and hence the political and cultural autonomy of the Muslim communities in Eritrea is neither fully appreciated nor sufficiently discussed. The presentation of the various political Parties, namely, the Eritrea for Eritreans and the Pro-Italia- New Eritrea Party is a re-hash of what is already known. The section on the Eritrean Political Party that advocated union with Ethiopia (also known as the Unionist Party) is essentially based on Kennedy Trevaskis and Jordan Gebre Medhin. The Unionist Party is accused of being handsomely subsidized by the Ethiopian government, while (p.94) the non-unionist parties were largely financed by their membership. The question of external interference through financial support is indeed an important question. However, in addition to what the British authorities wrote on the negative impact of Italian funding of pro-independence political parties, there is also some research on the subject that the author could have taken into account.

MKO misses the politics of the Unionist Party when he writes on p. 100, that the “Unionist Party sabotaged Eritrean independence in the 1950s with the Orthodox Church at the time …playing a crucial role in mobilizing followers”. In treating the Unionist Party the way he did MKO revealed a profound bias on the non-Muslim regions and cultures of Eritrea.  Lloyd Ellingson, Joseph Venosa and Tekeste Negash, all authors that MKO cites, do not describe the Unionist party in the way he did.

The United Nations Resolution federating Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1950 and the politics of federation from 1952 to 1962 is presented in broad terms accompanied with hitherto unknown photos of politicians of the period. The conclusion of this long is quite interesting as it reveals some notable contradiction of thought expressed earlier. He writes on p. 130 that “most Muslim elites were for the independence of Eritrea and against the partition of the country between Sudan and Ethiopia”. Further on, MKO wrote that, “most Christian elites and the masses they were able to mobilize were for union with Ethiopia”. “Ethiopia annexed Eritrea gradually… because almost half of the population at the time wanted it” (p.130). On the basis of the above summation of the political dynamism of the 1950s, the author raised the perennial question as to why the Muslims and Christians lacked trust in each other. Are the interests of Eritrean Muslims and Christians wide apart even to day? Answering the questions in the affirmative, the author puts forward his understanding that, “culturally speaking, Eritrea has two main components, the Islamic Arabic and the Christian Abyssinian, related to their historical links. Thus, the author concluded this long chapter as follows: 

We continue to see its manifestations [cultural struggle) even today. The varied political statements of those early days, represented by the call for Eritrea´s independence, union with Ethiopia, and the Tigray-Tigrinya unity, are still present today in varying degrees. What I want to say in summing up all this (at the risk of simplifying a complex reality) is that we need to recognize our diversity, the two main cultures to begin with, embrace them, and through them embrace all other aspects of our diversity: ethnic, religious, and cultural. This is imperative for the realization of a future Eritrea that is democratic and just. Defeating the current dictatorship is the first step towards that goal but not an end in itself (p.131).

The Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), established at Port Sudan in November 1958 and ceased to exist in 1964, is treated in chapter 3. Based on the accounts of its founder Mohamed Saeed Nawad, the Eritrean Liberation Movement held its first secret congress in Asmara in 1959 and decided to carry out a coup d´etat and declare the independence of Eritrea. The ELM was known in Tigrinya as Mahber Shewate (an association of seven members) and was led by Muslim Eritreans. It did some mobilizing in all the major cities of the Ethiopian empire including Addis Ababa. While the leaders of the ELM were planning for a short and rather easy victory, a group of Eritrean students (all Muslims) in Cairo established the Eritrean Liberation Front on July 1960. The newly organized ELF soon succeeded to recruit Eritreans serving in the Sudanese army.

The story of the ELF is fully treated in chapter 4. The major difference between the ELM and the ELF was that the ELF believed in war as a means for achieving independence whereas the ELM argued that it could bring the attention of the world by persuading Eritreans to stand up for their independence.

The ELF was led by Idris Mohamed Adem (the former president of the Eritrean Assembly who was expelled from his position in 1956).   In and around August 1961, Idris Awate rebelled against the Eritrean/Ethiopian state supported by the Eritrean Liberation Front, that was formed a year ago in Cairo. Apart from the fact that he was promised support from the Eritrean Liberation Front, Idris Awate had his own reasons. First, he had a very long career as a shifta (Bandit) fighting against the Kunama (A small ethnic group that straddles on the Eritrean-Tigrean border in and around present day Badme). Idris Awate was half Beni Amer and half Nara)

MKO does a wonderful job in documenting as well as in allowing the primary sources of the ELF to come out clearly. Idirs Awate was a disgruntled local leader. His enemies, the Kunama were armed by the state, whereas, his people the Beni Amer  and Nara were not. His decision to rebel against the government for what he considered was an unjust policy (that of arming the Kunama at the expense of the Beni Amer and Nara) was the main reason that was soon exploited by the Eritreans in Cairo and in the Sudan.

Barely a year after its formation, the ELF carried out what it called the Agordat city operation – a bomb detonated killing four high politicians and wounding more than thirty. This took place on July 12, 1962. The Agordat operation brought the ELF to the attention of the outside world. The independence of the Sudan in 1964 and the first Ethiopian- Somalia war in 1964/5 increased the value and importance of the ELF. The leaders of the ELF could, since then move freely with Somali passports.

The actual operations of the ELF is treated in Chapter five.

Led by Idris Mohamed Adem and Osman Saleh Sabbe, the ELF became a familiar figure in the Middle East. Syria provided military training for hundreds of ELF fighters. Twenty-six fighters were trained in China where Isaias Afwerki, the current president of Eritrea was one of them. From its establishment in 1961 until the end of 1966, the ELF was led by Eritrean Muslims. The highest organ of the ELF, known as the Supreme Council, was led entirely by Muslims. The Revolutionary council had ten members, nine of whom were Muslims.

The chapter provides important insights into the working of the ELF up to 1968 and the internal challenges it faced. The ruthless military offensive carried out by the Ethiopian state from 1964 to 1968 is quite well documented. The role of Isaias Afewerki, first as a member of the ELF and later as a leader of his own organization, the TPLF is told mostly on the basis of Erlich Haggai and Dan Connell. Bu the question remains as to whether the ELF fought for the liberation of the whole of Eritrea or for some parts of it given the fact that it was established and led by Eritrean Muslims? Indeed, the author mentions the root cause of the organizational and political crisis of the ELF but he simply reports how others described the problems. I think he could have taken issue with the concluding thoughts of Joseph Venosa who wrote (p. 360) that the Cairo based ELF leadership dramatically shifted the debate concerning both Eritrean identity and Islam´s place in the nationalist struggle. The “ELF reinvented itself as a Muslim nationalist movement pitted against Ethiopian Christian domination” (Venosa, p. 361).

The Dynamics of an unfinished African dream: Eritrea: Ancient History to 1968 is the first volume of two. The subject matter of the second volume, that is the history of Eritrea from 1968 until 2020, is I believe much more complex than the history of the earlier period. Many would argue, in the same vein as MKO that independence brought the domination of one ethnic group (the Tigrinya/Christian) over the other three cultures, namely the Afar, the Tigre-Beja and the Kunama and Nara. Others such as Tesfaye Gebreab, (2017) would argue that the independence of Eritrea was a dream fulfilled and that there is no unfinished dream left.

The demographic changes that took place since the last thirty years have created huge imbalance in power relations among the various Ethnic/cultural communities in Eritrea. This is obviously a very sensitive subject but the fact that 80 per cent of all students in post primary schools are Tigrinya speaking Eritreans tells a great deal of who is ruling Eritrea. Although the issues that MKO would confront in writing the second volume are very complex I admire his determination and I hope that he would succeed to produce a narrative that would enrich the conversation among all Eritreans in search for an all inclusive system of governance.


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