Eritrea: The Federal Arrangement Farce

Often, I am accused of factoring out Ethiopia’s violence in my account of how the Eritrean revolution (ghedli) came to be. There are three types of “violence” the accusers have in mind:

a)  that Haile Selassie unilaterally abrogated the federal arrangement, a systematic violence that targeted both the autonomy and democratic system of Eritrea entailed in that arrangement;

b)  that the Ethiopian occupation was a colonial one, a pervasive violence with all or most of the colonial characteristics that colonizers in Africa displayed towards their colonial subjects;

c) and that the Ethiopian army committed numerous atrocities through the duration of the ghedli era – mass killings, imprisonments, burning of villages, destruction of property, etc – that drove many to join the revolution.

The second is blatantly false, for the stark dichotomy between the colonizer and the colonized that defined the rest of colonial Africa was entirely absent in Eritrea, and I have argued so before. The first and third did indeed take place, but don’t provide the necessary rationale for the revolution of independence. If there are any causes for the Eritrean revolution, justified or not, we have to seek them outside those parameters set by the violence factor as invoked by Eritrean nationalists.

I have always regarded (a) and (c) untenable arguments in the most obvious way that I have felt they didn’t require article-length responses until I saw a brilliant commentator by the penname of “Serray” using these very arguments to point out the failures of my omissions [1]. It is not that I didn’t address these issues before, but it was done either tangentially in some of my articles or in comments as responses to queries by readers in my blog. And when it comes to the first one, a greater part of my article, (II) The Circular Journey in Search of Asmara, [2] can also be construed as a supplemental argument to that. Now though, after Serray’s and others’ similar comments, I feel that it would require responding to (a) and (c) in article format to address the points marshaled in regard to the violence factor by those who feel that ghedli was a necessity borne out of these kinds of violence; and, hopefully, my stand on this matter will be made clear at the end.

In this posting, I will deal with (a) only: on the unilateral annulment of the federal arrangement by Haile Selassie as a cause for the Eritrean revolution. The following argument doesn’t try to strictly follow the strictures entailed in Serray’s analysis; I would rather adopt a general approach that responds to relevant hypothetical questions in regard to the subject matter to reach a larger audience. In the end, I will address his question in a more direct fashion.

[What has made me post this article (and its sequel) in are Slah Younis’ goodwill gesture, Serray’s reprimand and Beyan Negash’s prodding. With that spirit, let me say to everyone: Happy Holidays!]

You cannot give what you don’t have

The sheer farce of the federal arrangement is to be seen in the discordant nature of the arrangement itself: the UN handed Eritrea a democratic system (complete with a constitution, parliamentary procedure, free elections, free press, independent judiciary, autonomous governing body, etc), but ironically made an absolute monarch a warden of that constitution. Now I am not concerned about the fate the constitution, for it had been designed to be dead on arrival. What I am wondering is how the monarch was, per impossible, supposed to find a place for a democratic constitution in his imperial domain – the question is addressed to all those who share this fallacious premise that the task was indeed doable. It is like asking a guy with a small garage designed for a tiny car to find a parking place for a huge truck in that same garage. If these disproportionate demands were to be forced upon the garage owner and the Emperor, both the garage and imperial structures would have to be dismantled to accommodate the truck and the constitution respectively. If there is such thing as working in total bad faith, it would be the UN coming up with this farcical arrangement in the first place.

The farcical element in this deal can be teased out by asking this question: How was it possible for Imperial Ethiopia to let Eritrea have a federal system (and the democratic system that necessarily went with it) while it had none for itself? How was it possible for it to give what it didn’t possess? How was it possible for an absolute monarchy to accommodate an island of democratic enclave within its imperial domain? Anybody that entertained such an idea to begin with was either immensely naive or criminally irresponsible. While the former describes the state of mind of many Eritrean elite who have made that annulment their battle cry for half a century (especially the nationalist historians), the latter description fits well the UN. Even as the UN architects knew that the federal arrangement under such a condition was unsustainable, they failed to come up with any other formula because they were anxious to get rid of the Eritrean problem from their hands as soon as possible.

Most of the Eritrean nationalists, having already uncritically accepted the above mentioned untenable assumption – namely, that the UN mission was doable – have even tried to make a connection between the annulment of the federal arrangement and the “colonial nature” of the Haile Selassie reign over Eritrea. This comes from a completely wrong understanding of the nature of colonialism.

A colonial system is characterized by a striking duality between the colonizer and the colonized, with the former getting all the privileges and the latter all the deprivations. Under such a system, democratic deprivation can be categorized as a quintessentially paradigmatic colonial tool because of its systematic nature that touches everything in the life of the subject. For instance, while colonial powers like England and France were practicing full-blown democracy in their own countries, thus maximally privileging the subject in the metropolis, they were denying those very rights in their overseas colonies, thus maximally depriving the colonial subject. A clear cut example would be the case of Apartheid South Africa, where both the colonized and the colonizer shared the same space: while the minority whites were practicing full blown democracy within their own insulated community, they were denying the majority blacks such a democratic privilege. Given this, the reason why democratic deprivation (as it occurred with the annulment of the federal arrangement) doesn’t count as a colonial tool in Ethiopia’s case was simply because the monarchy was not denying Eritreans democratic rights that it was reserving for Ethiopians only. There was a more pragmatic reason for this that the Eritrean elite failed to see because it didn’t fit with the ghedli narrative they wanted to weave: the monarchy annulled the federal arrangement mainly because, if left unchallenged, it would eventually lead to its own demise, as others parts of Ethiopia would no doubt have sooner or later demanded for the same rights. This puts the colonial question that most Eritreans are enamored with on its head: while colonial nations like England and France didn’t want democracy to spread from the metropolis to the colonies, the Ethiopian monarch didn’t want democracy to spread from Eritrea (supposedly the colony) to Ethiopia (supposedly the metropolis) – you can see the absurdity of the nationalists’ claim when their ascribed colonial terms are discordantly superimposed on this diametrically opposite order to the colonial one.

Recognizing the federal arrangement problem for what it actually was – that it was a national one (Ethiopian) rather than one confined to Eritrea only – would have been the first step in finding a solution. Of course, typical of the Eritrean elite’s mentality, they didn’t even want to share their problem with the rest of Ethiopia; that would, unwittingly, equalize them with the rest of Ethiopia, and the “uniqueness” of Eritreans would be lost – the first traces of the colonial mentality to emerge to the surface.

The colonial mind at work

If the Eritrean elite were capable of looking at this problem as a national one (as encompassing the whole of Ethiopia), then the nature of the problem would have readily offered a way out of the debacle: the only way Eritrea could have attained democracy was by having a democratic Ethiopia. Similarly, the only way Eritrea could have had a federal arrangement is by having it implemented throughout Ethiopia. By the same token, it would be absurd to attempt the converse: to hold on to one’s enclave of autonomy and democracy in a domain ruled by absolute monarchy. The irony is that it takes a colonial mind to attempt such a quixotic act: for to think that the Ethiopians were incapable of democratizing themselves (as the “founding fathers” did) was to confine that democratic attribute to Eritreans only, the same way the colonial powers did in regard to themselves vis-à-vis their subjects in the colonies.

That colonial mentally of the “founding fathers” is unwittingly, but nevertheless succinctly, captured by Saleh Younis [3]:

 “…  The other half (Ibrhaim Sultan/Adulkadir Kebire at the UN and Woldeab Woldemariam in his writings) argued that  Ethiopia was more feudal, more primitive, less industrialized, less developed, and less democratic than Eritrea and it would slow down Eritrea’s progress.”

Notice, again, how deep the colonial nature of the above statement is, that being the genesis of what turned out to be the master argument of the Eritrean revolution.. The main argument provided by colonial powers why they were not allowing democracy in their overseas colonies was that Africans were incapable of handling democracy, that they were like children that needed constant guidance and supervision – or to put it in Saleh’s term, that they were “primitive” (a thoroughly colonial term of the first order). And the irony is that this happens to be the very same argument that these “founding fathers” marshaled to argue for independence from a supposedly colonial nation. The audacity is that they did it, among other places, on the UN podium! That tells us how much they had internalized the colonial assumptions of Italian occupation that they were not even aware of the contradictions their stand carried as a people demanding liberation in a language steeped with colonial vocabulary.

The Muslim League in particular was notorious in deploying the master argument. Even though it mainly used a different argument within its constituency or among the Arabs and Pakistani (namely, the Islamic identity of the nation) to argue for independence, it never failed to invoke the master argument whenever it wanted to convince those it considered outsiders, be it the West, the UN or Kebessa Eritreans. If one takes a cursory look at the Muslim League’s literature in that era, it is rather astounding to see how this argument was used ad nausea. Reference to Ethiopia as “backward”, “feudal”, “medieval”, “uneducated”, “uncivilized”, “ignorant”, “primitive”, “archaic”, “inferior”, etc was frequent not only in its newsletter, but also in its correspondence with UN authorities. Joseph XXX, despite his very sympathetic reading of the Muslim League, doesn’t fail to detect this phenomenon: [4]

“… Taking their [the Muslim League’s] rhetoric a step further before the commission representative again couched their goals as a movement to build a ‘modern’ Eritrean nation against rather return to the archaic system in Abyssinian tradition ‘it is certain that the Amharics are primitive. Their administration – which is based on ignoble dictatorship – is that of a very remote past, and can be compared to the Middle Ages.’ …”

Despite Italy’s grim educational legacy, the Muslim League kept on hammering that imagined superiority, “it is known and admitted by all reasonable men, that it is not right to place a Nation which enjoys a standard of education and equality under an inferior nation” [5] And when the argument was mixed with Islamism, as it often did, the Muslim League put it this way [6]:

“Now the Eritrean People has achieved a certain intellectual evolution by its contact with the civilized nations, and for that it has today a level of education superior to that of the Ethiopian people. To this should be added the equity and equality amongst the Moslems did not exist in Ethiopia where the traces of Middle Ages still exist today”

The Kebessa separatists were soon to buy into the master argument; but unlike the Muslim elite’s case, it was also used for internal consumption to convince one another, and remained to be a signature of the Kebessa-led liberation movement through the duration of ghedli. Once internalized, they were to remain captive to the sense of betterment they got from their colonial heritage long after the Muslim elite were to walk away from it to fully embrace the Islamic/Arab cause. Thus, the genesis of the bifurcation of the Eritrean cause that characterized mieda Eritrea is to be found in the Muslim League’s literature of the ’40s and ’50s, Janus-faced as it was to appeal to two audiences with little shared concern except that imagined superiority. 

From the above, it is clear what the modernist blinkers that prevented Eritreans from looking at the problem as a national one encompassing the whole of Ethiopia had been: a reaction to modernity brought about by colonialism that turned defensively religious, on one hand, and facilely “modern”, on the other hand. Had the Eritrean dissenters turned their issue into a national one, there is no doubt that they would have done what the Emperor feared most: they would have been able to spread the “Eritrean problem” to the whole nation. That is, the call for decentralization and democratization would have appealed to the rest of Ethiopia too; probably even more so than in Eritrea itself, where the oppression was mostly imagined (take, for instance, Southern Ethiopia and the land issue as a point of comparison). And they would have done that without the prohibitive cost it demanded of them to be where they are now, since the sacrifice would have been shared by the rest of Ethiopia.

The Eritrean elite who opted for separation didn’t take the “national route” because they were looking at the federal arrangement not for its liberating and reciprocal aspects but as a means that would keep them distanced from Ethiopia, even as they were not happy with the distance they eked out of such an arrangement; for them, Ethiopia was still too close for comfort. With the demise of the arrangement, they found a perfect pretext to get as far away as possible from that entity they believed to be too habesha (too Christian for the Muslim elite, and too backward for the Kebessa elite) to be associated with.

One needs to look at how the federal arrangement was looked at by the UN and by the two main adversary groups – the Union Party and the Muslim League – to grasp the extent of the lethal misconception of what it stood for by all parties involved.

The nondemocratic appeal of the federal arrangement

When the United Nations proposed federation with Ethiopia, it was not because any one of those movements that mushroomed in that era (Union Party, Muslim League, Pro-Italia, Liberal Progressive Party, etc) had proposed it; they didn’t even have a full grasp of the liberal and reciprocal possibilities that such an arrangement held to entertain it as a truly viable option. The UN came with the federal arrangement as a compromise solution to the demands of two large blocs: while the overwhelming majority of the Kebessa elite (the Union Party) wanted to have an unconditional union with Ethiopia, the overwhelming majority of the Muslim elite (the Muslim League) wanted total independence from Ethiopia. Both parties saw the problem as that of proximity: while the Unionists wanted to come as close to Ethiopia as possible, union being the most ideal outcome, the Muslim elite wanted to be as far away from Ethiopia as possible, separation being the best outcome. The UN saw this mentality for what it was, and offered a solution that took this “proximity problem” to its heart, while still meeting Ethiopia’s demand for access to the sea.

By coming up with the federal arrangement, the UN was meant to strike the middle. But the UN solution was no solution at all; it was a perverse Solomonic judgment: two children had to be sliced to create a new child called “federation” that no one wanted – not the UN, not Ethiopia, not the Unionists, not the Muslim League. How so?

The UN’s callous solution

When the UN came with its “solution”, none of the architects could have honestly believed that it would hold for long. The idea that somehow a federal system where Eritrea would have a vibrant democracy with an autonomous governing body would be left to work within an absolute monarchy would be a cruel joke played upon those with vested interest on this arrangement (if there were any), given that it was structured in such a way that it would be impossible to implement it on the ground. If the monarch cannot implement it without destroying his monarchy in the process, why on earth would anyone propose it in the first place?

To reiterate and elaborate on the crucial point: if Eritrea were to continue as a federal region of Ethiopia, complete with its democratic and autonomy privileges, then there is no doubt at all other regions of Ethiopia would sooner or later have demanded the same treatment. And in those regions that border Eritrea such as Tigray, Wollo and Begemider, the clamor for autonomy would have been the loudest.  Other places such as Gojjam, a region that had a semi-autonomous existence with its own king in the not-so-distant past, would have followed soon. The whole of South, with a lot of unattended and festering grievances, would have joined this clamor as soon as it was heard from the vocal North.

And this spread of discontent wouldn’t have taken the shape of regional loyalty only: one could easily imagine whatever gain garnered among the civic society in Asmara would also be demanded in Addis Ababa. For instance, Ethiopia couldn’t have allowed labor union in Eritrea without allowing the same thing in Ethiopia, for the latter would have no doubt demanded for the same rights. The same would have happened with the free press: if it had been allowed to continue for some time in the federated area, there would be no way such freedom could have been curtailed to Eritrea only. And more so with the language issue: if Eritrea were to retain Tigrigna and Arabic, not only would others demand the same rights regarding their indigenous languages (Tigreans, Oromos, Somali, etc), who is to prevent the Muslim elite in Ethiopia demanding Arabic as their national language (based on the same tenuous arguments that Eritrean Muslims do – think, for instance, about Harari Muslims)? The language predicament that the monarch faced could probably be better grasped by focusing on a language that has no respect for borders, the Tigrigna language: how would it be possible for the monarch to confine the Tigrigna language as an official one to Eritrea only while denying it to a much larger Tigrigna-speaking people just beyond the Mereb River? It wouldn’t have been long before the Tigreans demanded the same linguistic privilege.

It is easy to figure out from that above observations that keeping Eritrea autonomous and democratic would have opened a Pandora’s Box that would have eventually unraveled the monarchy. Given that, Haile Selassie’s move was not only understandable, but also inevitable. This is the conclusion that anyone with a modicum of political knowledge could have easily reached at the very moment the UN proposed it. Sure enough, the architects of this “compromise” were much more sophisticated than that, but they were looking for any reason to get rid of the “Eritrean problem” from the hands of the UN – one of the many colonial problems that the UN was juggling with at that time.

Given the above, for anyone to accuse Haile Selassie of unilaterally abrogating the federal system would be intellectual dishonesty; for, to assert that, one has to assume that there was a way the Emperor could have left the federal system in Eritrea intact and still prevailed as absolute monarch in the rest of Ethiopia. If so, what should have been the focus of scrutiny is not why Haile Selassie annulled the arrangement but why the UN in the first place came up with such an undoable compromise.

So the bottom line is this: the UN offered Eritrea the federal arrangement not because of the intrinsic values such an arrangement carried (how could that be if it was not doable), but because it would allow it to dispose Eritrea as quickly as it could; that is to say, faced with two irreconcilable demands, it used this supposedly intermediate solution as a tool of disposal.

How about the two adversaries – the Union Party and the Independence Block? What was their take on the federal arrangement? Did they see it for the intrinsic liberating and reciprocal values it carried?

The Unionists’ understanding of the federal arrangement

With the federal arrangement, although both adversary groups didn’t achieve what they aimed for, neither stopped from trying to reach its ideal distance. That is to say, neither the Unionists nor the Muslim League followers cherished the federal arrangement for its liberating aspects; instead, both saw it in terms of distance that had to be either overcome or maintained.

When the Unionists saw the federal arrangement in positive light, they took it as an intermediary step that would eventually culminate in union with Ethiopia; that is, as a welcome step in the right direction, in the sense that it saved them from the dreaded other option of total separation from Ethiopia, but nevertheless a step that had to be eventually overcome. And when they began to see it negatively (that is when it was already in place and seemed irrevocable), it was as an obstacle that was preventing them from coming closer to Ethiopia – and that is where the nuances of the annulment of the federal arrangement gets lost among the Eritrean elite.

If the Unionists had the vested interest in dismantling the federal arrangement, it doesn’t make sense to attribute all the blame to Haile Selassie only. But don’t tell that to the Eritrean elite, who want to discount, at best, or totally leave out, at worst, the role played by Eritreans (and the Eritrean parliament) in dissolving the arrangement. The Unionists, who made the largest party and the one in power at that time, were forcefully behind the drive for unification.  What is more, it is the Unionists that were more zealous than the Ethiopian government in bringing the federal arrangement to a quick end, sometimes at a pace that even the Ethiopian authorities were uncomfortable with (diplomatically, the Ethiopian authorities were astute enough not to aggravate the British or the UN on this matter until opportune time was found). Where the latter advised caution, the Eritreans were running ahead at full speed in this dismantling race. But that doesn’t mean that Haile Selassie wouldn’t have eventually abrogated the federal system; he necessarily would. But the claim that he unilaterally annulled the federal arrangement is bogus; he did it with full collaboration of the party that was in power then, and by extension, with overwhelming majority of Kebessa (and a minority of lowlanders) supporting the move. After all, even though by then it was a fait accompli, the formal vote for union in the Eritrean parliament was unanimous. [7]

With union, the Unionists reached their ideal distance; that is, no distance at all. Even though the honeymoon between Ethiopia and Kebessa was not to last long, at its time union was a goal that the Kebessa elite cherished most, with the distance between them and Ethiopia reaching its disappearing point.

The Muslim League’s understanding of the federal arrangement

The Muslim elite’s defense of the federal arrangement was not because of any democratic scruples; as in the case of their Christian counterparts, they saw the arrangement only in terms of distance. When they saw it in positive light, it was as the lesser evil of the two options: federalism or union/partition. If it was up to them, it was complete separation from Ethiopia as one entity that they wanted. So the only reason why they wanted to keep the federal arrangement was because they believed it to be the only buffer zone that would maintain the minimal safe distance from Ethiopia under the then prevailing circumstances. With that buffer zone in place, they meant to safeguard Islamic identity; the Muslim League’s self-appointed national assignment being how to hold Eritrea together through the grid of Islamic identity, with Islamic institutions and the Arabic language buttressing that grid. Union with Ethiopia or partition of the nation into two would go against the very structure of that grid, the former by eliminating it and the latter by breaking it. And when the buffer zone was gone, they wanted to put the biggest distance possible and hence their preference for the war of separatism.

The failure in understanding the true nature of the federal arrangement was even worse among the Muslim elite who, in their allergy to anything habesha, also failed to see the gains that would come as being part of a larger entity. In the federal arrangement, all they saw was that by maintaining it they would be able to cut their losses; they couldn’t see any dividend coming out from being part of that larger entity. Even the merchants (a profession that was dominated by Muslims, and especially the Jeberti, as a result of the Italian legacy) who profited the most out of this arrangement never saw this advantage for what it actually was (except for a few Massawa merchants, perhaps due to a somewhat cosmopolitan past). When later the Kebessa students joined their Muslim counterparts in the separatist movement, they carried this fallacious assumption – that it is only the case that Ethiopia needs Eritrea – through the duration of ghedli. The idea that Eritrea too needs Ethiopia was unbearable to them, that being the root of the self-reliance mantra that ghedli was to embrace. If so, one needs to look at a compromise of a different sort in the nature of the federal arrangement that the Eritrean elite failed to understand – its reciprocal aspect.

When a people enter a federal arrangement, they retain some of their autonomy while sacrificing the rest for a greater return in other aspects that are no less necessary: the larger the federal system, the more the resources, the bigger the market, the greater the prosperity, the better the security, etc. – whose deprivations in all cases mark the Eritrean state now. And the poorer and more insecure a nation gets, the less likelihood for democracy to take hold in the land – another apt description of the Eritrean state now. Even the very idea of federalism itself has a greater chance of success in a larger nation, where viable federal entities could be constructed. That the federal question that is now haunting Eritrea (as demanded by minorities) can only be made workable within a larger entity was lost on many of those same minorities that were vocal in their demand for independence. The Unionists never made this mistake in its totality as the separatists did; they felt that they needed Ethiopia as much as it needed them, although never fully grasping the reciprocal possibilities it entailed to the extent they should have. [8]

If one looked at the federal system as an obstacle to reach the farthest distance possible (as the Independence Bloc did), then we have a readily available answer why the separatists never wanted to make the Eritrean federal problem a national one: it would bring them closer to Ethiopia. For the Muslim League, whose idea of keeping the farthest distance from Ethiopia simultaneously meant reaching the closest distance to the Arab world, the idea of a federal system that encompasses all of Ethiopia would be tantamount to committing suicide. As for the hapless Kebessa elite who later joined this mission of covering the longest distance without having any clue as to which point they were coming closer to as they kept running away from their roots, they eventually had to invent that proximate point ex nihilo: ghedli itself! Having no clue where they have been heading to, they conflated the ghedli journey with the “Eritrea” that they wanted to reach. That is to say, neither the Muslim nor the Christian separatists saw the federal arrangement for the intrinsic liberal and reciprocal values it carried. The bottom line is that, when everything is put into consideration, the Eritrean elite separatists decided to aim for less at a prohibitive cost, while it could have been the other way round: they could have aimed for more with less sacrifice.

We have seen the farcical nature of the federal arrangement as reflected in each of the players involved in this farce: for the UN it was a means of disposal; for the Emperor, it was a means for eventual unification; for the Unionists too, it was a step stone towards unification; and for the Muslim League followers, it was a buffer zone to be maintained. None of them saw it for its intrinsic liberating value that it could have had for the individual; and, further, the reciprocal nature of the arrangement was totally lost on the separatists.

Lessons unlearned from the federal arrangement farce

The fact that Eritreans failed big time to grasp the farcical nature of the federal arrangement has further given birth to three farces down the road:

(a) The self-reliance farce

As pointed above, the nature of the federal arrangement problem provided a readily available solution. What the Emperor feared most was that the Eritrean problem could spread to the rest of Ethiopia; if he had believed there was a way of confining democracy and autonomy that the federal arrangement entailed to Eritrea only, he would probably have gone for it. This realization would have saved Eritrea from the torturous route it has taken, paying a prohibitive price along the way, to be in the unenviable position it finds itself now. If the Eritrean elite had fully grasped the nature of the problem, even the armed struggle (if it came to that) would have been expedited in a way that would have drastically cut the Eritrean losses – in body count, in demographic loss, in resources spent, in the time it took, in the progress curtailed, etc – and kept all the dividends that come from such a reciprocal federal arrangement.

If so, let’s entertain the seemingly impossible: if the struggle had taken a nationalist bent that included all Ethiopia, what form would it have taken? At no time it would have been picked up by at least three critical bodies to make it succeed in the shortest time possible. First, given the proximity and festering grievances, Tigray would have joined the revolution at the earliest time possible. In fact, if we are to talk in terms of neglect, Tigray was more neglected than Eritrea. Besides, the memory of the first Woyanie movement was still fresh among the Tigrean elite. Wollo, with its recalcitrant famine problem and the Raya-Yeju grievances, was next in line. You could easily imagine how the conflagration would go to other parts of Ethiopia – Begemider, Gojjam, the South, etc. Second, the student body in Ethiopia, in general, and in Addis Ababa, in particular, would have quickly connected to the cause. This is especially true of Addis Ababa students, who were already politicized and had a more cosmopolitan outlook than the provincial Asmarinos. And, third, the army would have been denied the main motive for fighting the Eritrean insurgents: cessation. Sabotage and defection, or even uprising, would have been the hallmarks that would have defined the army. Under this scenario, the Haile Selassie regime would have collapsed at no time. If so, the Eritrean elite by “owning” their revolution, or rather by refusing to share it, they gave the Emperor the best gift they could possibly give to extend his reign.

[I am not mentioning the above scenario because it is my preference. I am only bringing it up to show what could have been better for Eritrea even under the worst scenario if it had taken the national option. As for me, continuity, even under the slowest kind of reforms, outperforms the interruptions brought about by armed revolutions in our region. I honestly believe that, had it not been for ghedli, Eritrea would have continued to make progress it had already registered under Haile Selassie reign – that is, even after annexation. I would rather bet on the course of that evolutionary process rather than on the revolutionary road of the clueless ghedli generation.]

The ironic part is that the Eritrean elite came in the end to understand that unless the revolution goes trans-national, there was no way they could win the war. As Zekre Lebona reminds us in one of his latest articles, the war that defeated the Menghistu regime was not an intra-national alliance between Kebessa and Metahit, but a trans-national alliance between EPLF and EPRDF. [9] Pushed to its logical end, here is the discordant picture that we get: a people that have natural affinity to one another fought together (as they did throughout the centuries) to bring forth the reality of a colonial map that lacks the internal logic that such an alliance carried. That is to say, even though the Eritrean elite got it right when they sought the alliance, they failed to grasp its underlying logic in its totality. They missed the main point: if the war of independence would have been impossible without that trans-national alliance, then the nation-state itself would also be rendered untenable without the enduring presence of that alliance. With the lesson of the federal arrangement lost on them, they acted as if it was only Ethiopia that needed them. The border war happens to be the consequence of that lethal misunderstanding.

The ghedli generation is rather famous for inanely believing that it is Ethiopia that needed Eritrea, and not that both needed each other. The overemphasis on wedebatna, out of all other national “treasures”, to show the coherence of the demand for independence comes from having totally failed to grasp the reciprocal nature of the federal arrangement. All that the Eritreans could see from the logic of wedebatna was that Ethiopia would remain dependent on them. When this belief becomes a state of mind, one can easily detect its colonial nature. Despite the obviousness of it all, the colonial powers preached that the colonies depended on them. There is one critical difference though: while the colonial powers used force to enforce that “dependence”, Eritrea is unraveling in the very process of doing so. This is, indeed, the appropriate end when a colonial mentality follows the opposite direction to the colonial power order.

(b) The constitution farce

You would think that if Eritreans had learned the lessons of the farce of federal arrangement, they wouldn’t have repeated the same mistakes in regard to the current shelved-off constitution. Notice how the new Eritrean constitution starts with a similar farce. First, a brand new constitution is offered to the Eritrean masses, the same way the UN did, by muhuran Eritreans without any input from the public (unless you consider the monologs they conducted as dialogs). In this case, it was even worse because the drafters were doing the bidding of Shaebia, which demanded a non-implementable constitution tailor-made to make it look good in the eyes of the West. And, second, true to the old script of the ’50s, the President was made the warden of that constitution. The sad part of that farce is not that Isaias shelved it off (for it was meant to be shelved off), but that one of the main drafters, Dr Bereket Habteselasise, came to disingenuously say “aminayo” – the very same way the UN “trusted” the Emperor to protect the constitution. And the farce goes on when the opposition keep asking the tyrant to implement a constitution that was never meant to be implemented, when the issue happens to be the very survival of the nation, thereby humanizing a totalitarian system by their discordant demand – the same way the elite kept reminding Eritreans of the unilateral annulment of the federal arrangement as the cause for their revolution as if there was a way to implement it, thereby rendering the national option impossible to entertain for the average Eritrean. In both instances, it is clear to see that rallying around the constitution couldn’t be done without hiding or sidelining a deeper problem. So in realty, what are getting shelved off are not the constitutions (for, given the inevitability, that is the least interesting aspect of them), but the deeper possibilities hidden by such shelving off.

The Eritrean nationalists never tire from telling us that, given the dismantling of the federal arrangement, Eritreans were justified in conducting a 30 year war of independence. Well, let’s take them at their words, and see where it ought to take them in regard to their actions based on that belief. Now, if they are to be consistent with their belief, one would expect that they would react to the “unilateral annulment” of the Eritrean constitution by Isaias Afwerki the same way they did to a similar act by Haile Selassie. Now, given that Shaebia has failed to implement the constitution, first, do we now call Shaebia’s rule as that of colonialism, and, second, do we again conduct a war of cessation (think of those entities that believe self-determination up to cessation is the only way out of their predicament) or, better yet, a war of unification based on that? In support to the latter move, one could argue that since the war of cessation hasn’t brought all the intrinsic values that the federal arrangement carried, maybe the war of unification will do. Now, if you think the latter is absurd, so is the former. This alone would demonstrate how farcical the argument that wants to justify the revolution as being due to annexation is. I know how the nationalists would respond to this family resemblance: that in the case the Isaias regime, the solution is changing the regime. Well and good, but why wasn’t that solution applicable in the case of Ethiopia? There would be no answer to this except for someone to mutely point his/her finger at the colonial map – as the nationalists often do when all their arguments come to a dead end.

(c) The compromise farce

Striking the middle is not necessarily a compromise. If a woman wants to divorce her husband because of irreconcilable difference, a judge cannot come up with a workable compromise that strikes the middle in between her “irreconcilable difference” and her husband’s “reconcilable difference”. For instance, he cannot say, “Well, since the one wants to dissolve the marriage and the other wants to keep it, let’s settle for half-a-marriage.” That is how the UN came with the federal arrangement; a compromise that not only no one wanted, but as non-implementable as half-a-marriage.  After hearing the two parts of Eritrea, one wanting nothing to do with Ethiopia and the other believing that it was part of Ethiopia, it came with a compromise of half-an-Ethiopia that neither of them wanted.

The British came to know Eritreans within that short period of their rule more than Eritreans ever came to know about themselves. That is why the initial British solution was the only one that made sense (even as they had ulterior motive for proposing it): split Eritrea into two, one part going to Sudan and the other part going to Ethiopia. If that was done, we would have been spared from 50 years of insanity. The Muslim elite would have been happy joining their kin in Sudan; at least, until they began to feel the full weight of the Arab identity imposed on them from the North. The Kebessa elite would have remained put in their cities, if for nothing else but for lack of meshefeti; their protest would have been confined to students’ shebero in the streets of Asmara. This way the masses would have been spared from the madness created by the colonial aspirations of the Muslim and Christian elite alike. I know that such a split is not to be entertained now, for so much water has passed under the bridge since then to make things much more complicated than it was then; that is, now there is no other place to start but the default position – Eritrea as is. Yet, the failure of this lesson is to be seen in other similar aspects of the national problem, the most recalcitrant of which is that of “hadnetna”.

Hadnetna, as conceived by both the opposition and supporters of the regime, has always taken the image of that impossible compromise. It is obvious that no one feels “united” under the hade hizbi, hade libi mantra of Shaebia. So was it with the federal arrangement; neither of the two population groups felt united under it. Eritreans are fond of saying that ever since Eritrea was born, they have lived in peace and harmony, and that it is only enemies that divide them. In fact, things tend to be just the other way round. They confuse the kind of “unity” they attained under supervision – first under the Italians, then under the Ethiopians and now under Shaebia – for real unity. It is like attributing good behavior to children observed only under the supervision of their teacher. This is so because in those rare instances when there was no such supervision, the evidence belies the claim the Eritreans make: neither during the ghedli era nor now in diaspora (two cases where they were/are totally independent to display their unity without “alien” supervision) have Eritreans shown the slightest inclination to get united. Instead of asking themselves what this recalcitrant problem is, they keep hiding it under the rug of a non-existent “hadnetna”.

Moreover, what the belief in the non-existent hadnetna does is make the believers assign hefty tasks such as regime change and stability of the nation to such an internal variable only. They don’t realize that change, be it forceful or peaceful, cannot be entertained without the good will of Ethiopia. And much more so with the stability of the nation: again, after change, there is no way that the economic, security and political stability of the nation could be attained without a critical role played by Ethiopia. What this tells us is that even as an independent nation, Eritrea will not escape the reciprocal bondage that it existence demands. For those who keep harping on hadnetna, this is totally lost on them.

Confusing temporal order with conceptual order 

Let me now go back to Serray’s comment that inspired this article. In this entire article I have been responding only to one of the three accusations leveled against me when it comes to Ethiopian violence: the unilateral annulment of the federal arrangement by Haile Selassie. Here is how Serray puts it [10]:

“… In fact, Haile Selassie’s unilateral annexation is the REAL cause of the armed struggle and the real reason why those who started the struggle went seeking Arab help to launch the fight …”

And then he goes on to reprimand me for having not ceded this point and for having, instead, futilely trying to locate the cause in the “colonial mentality” of the ghedli generation, Christians and Muslims alike. He is saying that, when it comes to the Muslim elite, it is not the colonial Islamic/Arab cause that I attribute to them that caused the struggle, but that it was the annexation that drove them to seek help in Islamic/Arabic world. In short, he is accusing me of putting the cart before the horse. But he is also making a bigger point: that given this temporal order, the Islamic/Arab cause that I have been harping about never existed then, and doesn’t exist now.

Although Serray is right to point the annexation as a triggering point for the struggle, there are two logical flaws in his argument: first, he fails to see which aspect of federal arrangement was appealing to those who started the revolution and hence whose deprivation became their rallying cry; and, second, he confuses the temporal order of one (the revolution) following the other (annexation) for a conceptual order. Let me explain:

For the temporal order to work as a causal order, Serray has to argue as if the Muslim elite who rose up in arms did cherish the federal arrangement for the right reasons: for its liberal (democracy and autonomy) and reciprocal values. If that was the case, they would have attained it at a lesser cost and ended up with a better deal if they had not jealously confined the problem to Eritrea only. But if it is the distance they wanted to traverse from the habesha world that became their main motive, then the Islamic/Arab cause becomes as tangible as it could possibly get. If so, it follows that if there was a way of gaining that distance by losing their democratic rights, their autonomy and the reciprocal gains (all three entailed in the federal arrangement), they would have naturally gone for it – and, in fact, that is exactly what they have ended up doing, although so far without success in attaining their ideal distance.                                                                              

If so, the temporal order of Ethiopia’s annulment of the federal arrangement followed up with the Muslim elite seeking help in the Arab world shouldn’t be confused for a conceptual order. The triggering point should not be confused for the cause; even as in this case the triggering point happened to overlap with the cause in its structure, it doesn’t mean the cause was not there before the triggering point. That deep urge to traverse the longest distance from the habesha world, something that could be only attained in its totality by joining the Arab world, was there long before the Federal Arrangement itself: that was what the Muslim League had been all about. And if we look at the Egyptian role, we have to look at the pre-annexation era, before 1962, to see how pan-Arabism deeply influenced the Eritrean Muslim elite who were flocking to Cairo in the federation era. So contra to what Serray claims, the cause was there long before the annexation. In fact, Egypt began to be disengaged from the Eritrean cause after annexation, after which the Arab cause as it pertains to Eritrea was to be taken up by Syria and Iraq (and to a lesser extent, by Libya).

Serray makes the same mistake when it comes to the issue of Kebessa students: he confuses the Afagn terror in Asmara followed up by Asmara students fleeing to mieda in large numbers for a conceptual order. While this rationale fails to explain how a similar phenomenon took place in towns and cities across Eritrea that had experienced no Afagn terror, the conceptual one does. The conceptual explanation does that by locating the cause to the colonial mentality of the ghedli generation. I will try to address this issue in my installment on the violence of the Ethiopian army.

So far, I have only argued that the annulment of the federal arrangement, as articulated by Eritrean nationalists, couldn’t be the cause of the revolution. But Serray’s point goes beyond that: that the colonial mentality that I attribute to the Muslim elite as a cause for the revolution is purely in my imagination. In this article, I have refrained of saying much about that colonial mentality. Since already this article has run too long by’s standards, I will deal with that concern in another article.


We have seen above how the Eritrean nationalists have made annexation their revolutionary battle cry as if they have grasped what it was that they have lost with the annulment of the federal arrangement. Eritreans seem to be fond of attributing to themselves whatever that is grafted on them from outside so far as those grafters are considered superior, be it the colonial heritage from Italy, a brand new constitution from the UN or democratic institutions enabled and supervised by the British. That is, the “civilization” that the Muslim League was unabashedly attributing to Eritrea was only knee-deep, never to be witnessed again in mieda or liberated Eritrea. Let me leave the reader with an extensive quote from Tekeste Negash to underscore the farce of such an understanding [11]

“The democratic institutions, which the Ethiopian government was accused of dismantling were not institutions created by Eritreans themselves but were superimposed on the Eritrean society by the UN agencies. The freedom of political opinion which indeed prevailed in Eritrea, once again, came into existence and was made possible by the presence of the BMA [British Military Administration]. Without the decision of the BMA to engage the Eritreans in the future of their country, and without the presence and supervision of the BMA, there would not have been an open society during the 1947-52 period. To the extent that the structures of a civil society as we experience them in Western hemisphere are the culmination of processes which began several centuries ago, it would be preposterous to expect the ex-Italian colony to indulge in such exercise. It would be distortion of dangerous magnitude to argue that the Eritreans had in fact more advanced political institutions, as many of the propounders of Eritrean nationalism have done.”


[1] On the comment section of Younis, Saleh; Yohaness Tukabo and the King’s Men; Nov 24, 2013, The comment was posted on Nov 27, 2013.

[2] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; (II) The Circular Journey in Search of Asmara, Oct 23, 2012;

[3] Younis, Saleh; De-Romanticizing Ghedli: Serving A Toxic Brew To The Young And The Disillusioned; June 24, 2009,

[4] Venosa, Joseph L.; Paths toward the Nation: Islamic Identity, the Eritrean Muslim League and Nationalist Mobilization, 1941-61; 211 Dissertation, Ohio University; p.143. The quote within the quote atributed to the Muslim League had its reference: Four Power Commission, Appendix 169 “Summary of Views of Representatives Hearing at Agordat (Agordat District),” 2.

[5] Four Power Commission, Appendix 165, “To: the Hon. International Commission of Investigation,” 3. (as quoted by Venosa, Joseph L., p. 145).

[6] Ibid. (as quoted by Venosa, Joseph L., p.145).

[7] Negash, Tekeste; Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience; 1997.

[8] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; (II) The Circular Journey in Search of Asmara.

[9] Lebona, Zekre; Cutting It Both Ways across the Mereb River; Dec 03, 2013;

[10] On the comment section of Younis, Saleh; Yohaness Tukabo and the King’s Men.

[11] Negash, Tekeste; Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience; p.144.


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