Eritrea’s Flawed Beginning in 1991: How It Contributed to What it is Today

(This paper was presented a year ago at a conference in Geneva entitled:  “Eritrea at Silver Jubilee: Stocktaking on the Nation-Building Experience of a ‘Newly’ Independent African Country.” The writer now wished to share it with interested readers for further debate as to why Eritrea is in bad shape today and what is should do not to repeat past mistakes. Translations of same, at least in Tigrigna,  will be available soon. Good reading – WA).


“The beginning is the most important part of the work” – Plato (in  The Republic)
“The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead” – Ralph Waldo Ellison

At starting to draft this article, the writer somehow mulled over the word ‘beginning’ itself,  and a quick look at today’s handy references provided two apt quotations: one ascribed to the legendary Plato and the other to an African-American novelist of the last century.[1]  The citations help in pointing out the article’s central subject-matter of highlighting the oft forgotten facts surrounding the very start of Eritrea’s independent existence. The approach intends to challenge the ongoing and so far dominant suggestion claiming that Eritrea went wrong only after the 1998-2000 border war.

At this silver jubilee of their independence, many Eritreans agree that their prolonged and costly struggle did not achieve most of its key promises that included national unity, peace, democracy and prosperity. And under today’s sad situation, many feel that the very survival of the hard-won sovereign entity is gravely endangered. Not having a political transition plan and not being able to address societal sensitivities through inclusion as of day one are argued here to be the most serious mistakes. Long-time friends and close observers[2] of the  Eritrean situation also nowadays concur with the suggestion that the flawed beginning was a factor that greatly contributed to failures experienced during the past quarter of a century.

The focus and the first assumption of this article is that inclusion of the other  political organizations of the pre-independence period could have encouraged dissatisfied elements within the winner front as well as other segments of  the civil society,[3] including religious establishments, to gradually coalesce into new pressure groups towards becoming voices to be reckoned with. The belief is that their combined voices could have succeeded in putting pressure on the new authorities to allow political space and thus help avert the growth of tyranny that bedeviled life in Eritrea for the past quarter of a century. (One would also add in passing that, since the excluded organizations were strong believers in Badme’s being part of Eritrea, they could have asked the return of that village to Eritrea before finalization of the referendum. Given the good relations that existed between the then ruling fronts in Eritrea and Ethiopia, one would assume – and why not! – that the issue could have been finalized then very easily, thus denying excuses for the latter day growth of  one-man rule in Eritrea.)

The second assumption is that inclusion of other organizations could have spared the country of the relative growth of religion-based groups in the mid-1990s, whose appearance worked in favor of the winner front’s leader and his close circle. The belief is that such an “Islamist” bogeyman was used to sow fear and stoke mistrust in the society in order to justify the exclusion of those forces that the front’s leader (or leadership) repeatedly generalized in describing  as “the rotten, ethnic and confessional factions.”[4]

This writing, which benefitted access to rare statements of some Eritrean political entities, secondary sources, personal testimonies and the writer’s own experience in the struggle, approaches the argument at hand by reviewing a number of essential  dynamics in the Eritrean historical and political landscape. These include religious, ethnic, linguistic and geographic cleavages which incontestably were and still are weighty in the daily lives of the people. The political divisions experienced during 50 years prior to independence (1941-1991) as well as the common people’s perceptions that the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was ‘for’ the Muslims while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) ‘belonged’ to Christians, also had their magnitude to be considered. They all reinforce the argument that adequately addressing the issues of inclusion and reconciliation were important for a successful start in independent Eritrea.

In this regard, the article first reviews some factors that led to exclusion. Secondly, it attempts to explain how the participation of the ELF factions in 1991 could have helped to avert the growth of dictatorship. The third section explains the uses of any kind of a reconciliation process in post-conflict situations, while part four examines the cleavages in the society which included paramount national issues that perturbed since the long past Eritrea’s leading patriots – the like of Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan and Woldeab Woldemariam. The fifth section deals with key reactions of the organizations denied return to Eritrea, their well expressed willingness to cooperate with the new authorities, and the belated vindication of their calls for inclusion. The sixth and final section makes concluding remarks briefly  pointing out the lessons learned for a way forward.

I. Factors that Led to a Bad Start in 1991

There were multiple factors that caused Eritrea’s flawed beginning. These included 1) the character of the strong-man  and the type of front he succeeded to build; 2) the excessive submission to and trust in the strong-man by his colleagues that ended with their inability to check the concentration of power in one person[5] as of the early years; 3) low level of political consciousness in the society at large, including of those in the diaspora; 4)  the weakness of other Eritrean political formations that had no strong voice to be heard domestically and regionally, and 5) the total absence of pressure/support or advice on the need of successful political transition in 1991 by Eritrea’s immediate neighbors as well as by the United Nations and the rest of the international community.

  1. The ‘Strongman’[6] and the Front He Built: The president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, is usually judged to have a lion’s share in causing the ongoing misfortune in Eritrea. This can be explained by taking into consideration his aggressively vindictive and inflexible disposition as a person; his skilful manipulation of differences between individuals/groups as well as his very subtle use of Eritrea’s social cleavages at all stages of his political life.[7]

The EPLF was built to what it has become mainly under the firm guidance of the hard-working Isaias Afwerki, who remained its virtual top and unchallenged leader ever since the early 1970s when the group he led distanced itself from the mother organization, ELF, that suffered of many easily exploitable weaknesses. The left ideologies of the period that encouraged small elite control also had their impact in shaping the authoritarian character of the EPLF, as was the case for many liberation movements of that era.

In order to grow into an outstanding African liberation organization of its time, the EPLF successfully utilized effective mobilization capabilities; absolute commitment it succeeded to instill in its members; tight  internal discipline through fear of severe punishment, and the unshakable position of Isaias and his team to the nationalist cause they championed superbly.[8] The skilful formation of alliances[9], albeit temporary, and tightly managing diaspora communities in many places for material and human resources were among the methods the front used to survive and grow.

Unlike the ELF, which was diverse in composition and crippled by multiple power centers, the EPLF enjoyed the advantage of having only manageable internal differences. It also succeeded to  show to the outside world its good qualities – of which it had plenty. But the repressive nature of its security apparatus and the heavy-handedness of its top leadership remained little known outside the country. Not surprisingly, many of the front’s members also admit today to have been ignorant of  ‘the other side’ of their own front.  In this well-guarded situation, the western media was inclined to write only about the good aspects. However, there were  a few exceptions, like an American journalist,  John E. Duggan, who claimed his trip was arranged for him by the front’s supporters in North America. After three and half months of stay in the EPLF liberated zone in 1978, he wrote:

When I left the EPLF zone and got back to Port Sudan, I felt as though I had just gotten out of prison. This frustration was so great that I knew there would be no way I could honestly relate the things I had seen in the EPLF field without mentioning this all-pervasive background of controlled information… The EPLF is really a repressive organization with no internal democracy.[10]

Eritreans outside the EPLF-fold who watched its fast growth continually expressed concerns about the man on its driving seat who was perceived to be too unyielding and divisive in a multi-cultural setting. Fears of some segments of the society could also have sprung from the fact that the EPLF,[11] led by a charismatic leader and believed to be succeeding in mobilizing a big chunk of Eritrea’s critical mass (highland Eritrea), could eventually end as one-man authoritarianism in independent Eritrea or become a raw ‘majoritarian’ dictatorship in the name of one-party rule.

In the late 1970s, when fierce rivalry and mistrust deepened between the two liberation organizations, existing biases and fears were reflected in exchange of charges in the form of commonplace mockeries, folkloric songs, poetry and commentaries. From the ELF side, for instance, the EPLF was ridiculed to have become a force consisting of “one-man worshippers.” A letter, purportedly contributed by a reader and  published in an ELF official organ in 1982  also alleged  that the front was “driven by the insatiable ambition to power of one person.”[12] The same letter accused the ‘strongman’ of having used the ills of Eritrea’s social backwardness to turn the EPLF into his possession as “a private company.” Such insinuations sounded wild exaggerations to some people at that time – but may be not now.

Those fears of an all-powerful front and its leader intensified after the defeat of the ELF in the hands of the combined forces of the EPLF and the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At last and when the EPLF realized the long-awaited dream on 24 May 1991, the first public statement[13] of the new Eritrean authorities was made on 20 June by Isaias Afwerki, who made it clear that no organization other than the winner front would be allowed to return to Eritrea. Leaders and members of the banned organizations were told that they could return home only as individuals. But these organizations and large numbers of refugee caseloads, who were their sympathizers, remained in the Sudan. Thus, the June 20 speech implied that there was no ground for starting a national reconciliation process in Eritrea, and denied the existence of other organizations.

But the truth was that the EPLF was not alone in the 30-year struggle that had its ups and downs.  As the calls made in 1991-92 by the various Eritrean organizations attest (see section five below), those humiliated and left out organizations believed that they were not only entitled to be  included but were also able to contribute in building a better future for a new Eritrea. Their demands matched the widespread expectations, but only if reason and logic were to prevail. One could say that even the simple requirement to satisfy the psychological factor of one’s compatriots itself could have required that,

no matter how respectable they are, how strong they are, how deviant they are, how badly they have behaved in the past – are included in the process.[14]

Instead, Isaias Afwerki preferred to stick to denial. When asked as to why Eritrea was not organizing a conference like Ethiopia did in the summer of 1991,  he responded:  “There are no Eritrean organizations but the EPLF. All what I know is of countries encouraging [some elements] to incite ethnic conflict in Eritrea” and that his front was not ready to make “theatrics in order to look democratic.”[15]  This was the true Isaias of yesteryears – and definitely also of today after 25 years in total grip of state power.

  1. Consequence of Excessive Trust

The other important factor that led to Eritrea’s failure to make a good start in 1991 was excessive trust on the top leader. Throughout the years, there was discernible absence of sufficient control by the rest of EPLF leadership over the doings of the front’s ‘strongman’ who, in the end, could also sell his ideas and characteristics to his close cirlce. Researcher and close Eritrea observer, Gaim Kibreab, who met many of the leadership elements  in the early years after independence, witnessed “ominous signs of vindictiveness”[16] by EPLF leaders against others. He added: “Not only were the EPLF/PFDJ leaders unwilling to listen to the ‘other’ voice, but they were also determined to suppress any such voice.”[17] What was taking place was the fear that was expressed long ago by those in the other organizations. And no wonder that  even outsiders found it quite ironic to see Eritrea’s liberators feigning ignorance of the internal make up and history of their own society.[18]

When the EPLF leader issued his 20 June statement that deeply debased rival organizations, the rest of the leadership members did not mind it. They appeared to have strongly believed that only their front was entitled to lead and forge a successful African ‘Singapore’ out of Eritrea[19]. This belief could have encouraged them to agree in their great majority to ignore the exigency and long-term benefits of inclusion. Their focus on realizing a developmental state required no ‘niceties’ like democracy. Thus, by accepting the exclusion of other organizations, the EPLF leadership appeared to be ready for ‘benevolent dictatorship’ with absolute rule by one-party as long as it allowed their presence in a ‘collective leadership’.[20] Very few of them, if any, could have thought that the trend would end up with the absolute control of one-man who on 22 May 1992 was designated – on top of his leadership posts in the EPLF CC –  “the Secretary General of the Government, the Chairman of the State Council, the Chairman of the National Assembly, and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.”[21]

  1. Eritrean Diaspora Communities and the Intellectuals

It was not only those who surrounded the emerging national figure in the pre- and post-independence periods that failed to help in making Eritrea’s new beginning a success. The social milieu that helped the strongman and his team to do whatever he/they wanted to do is also to blame. The support given to the EPLF by Eritrean diaspora communities during the days of the liberation struggle was much to be commended. However, the unqualified support given to the post-independence authorities in the past 25 years raises many questions. In the first place, giving unqualified support was not deserved, and, in addition, it was too harmful to other compatriots who were kept at bay after liberation. A good number of Eritrea’s intellectuals remained accomplices in this sin of providing life-giving resources and propaganda support to a regime that did not merit it. They were part of the blame as stated in this quotation:

The failure of the large majority of the Tigrinya-speaking Christian intellectuals in the transnational Eritrean communities to take a firm stand against the government’s appalling record of human rights, the exclusion of the opposition groups from power sharing and the relegation of the Arabic language into the background – all have led to the exclusion of the Middle East-trained Eritrean returnees from the labour market.[22]

This assertion is very true although one should add to it that a large number of non-Muslim Eritreans in the rival fronts were equally affected by the exclusion. To some intellectuals, who were supportive of the government, nothing was wrong in the country until the border war with Ethiopia because “the hopes and dreams [of Eritreans] were not misplaced”.[23] They happily referred as ‘big successes’ to the adoption of documents like the National Charter and the Macroeconomic policy. The initial economic growth reports were taken as indicators of a bright future as if that type of growth is not to be expected for some time in a previously devastated region starting from the scratch.

Indeed, those Eritrean elite were dodging the fact that absence of inclusive political and economic institutions finally leads to state failure. No attention was given to the truism that sustainable economic growth and prosperity are organically linked to inclusive political and economic institutions, while “extractive institutions typically lead to stagnation and poverty”.[24] It is hard to believe that those intellectuals to be unaware of studies concluding that the solution to “economic and political failure of nations today is to transform their extractive institutions toward inclusive ones.”[25] It was of his being fully aware of this fact that Eritrea’s prominent scholar, Bereket Habte Selassie, reportedly tried to ask the new authorities at that early beginning  to include in a unity government the other Eritrean organizations. But he had to lament in a recent publication, saying:

Unfortunately, the EPLF leadership did not see it fit to accept the proposal, which is one of the causes of our sad predicament.[26]

Amidst the euphoria of independence in 1991-93, therefore, the EPLF rank and file, their supporters, including the intelligentsia, cared less about others. There was no sign that they felt  the strongman of the winner front was being further emboldened and left free to start building an absolute dictatorship. One would say in retrospect that what they could have done was to call for inclusion of other political entities and the civil society as of that critical juncture in new Eritrea. Needless to emphasize, commencing with a wider participation in 1991 could have changed the direction that was taken after independence.

Unfortunately, it was only those affected by the exclusion that asked for a national conference to discuss the future of the newly born state. One can say they were ignored by their own countrymen and women who kept silent or took sides with the victor front and its leader. What was replayed was reminiscent of the Tigrigna maxim, Znegese Ngusna, zbereqet Tsahaina, which can be translated to signify: ‘Whoever is crowned is our King, as [the sun] that rises is our Sun’.

  1. The Weakness of Political Formations outside the EPLF

It is possible to say that Eritreans lived in wars and/or under war-like situations throughout their  short history of 126 years (1890-2016)[27], and their collective mindset could not escape being shaped by their history.  In this kind of highly militarized society, raw military strength and  competence meant a lot. This is to emphasize that after its defeat in the second civil war of 1980-81, the ELF was fragmented and the resulting pieces had small armed units which counted nothing compared to what the EPLF had become militarily by the late 1980s. The other distinction the EPLF had was its effective propaganda machinery which reduced the ELF factions (in the eyes of gullible compatriots) to ‘fifth columnists’[28] and all Muslims to ‘Islamists’. The inability of those factions to unify and challenge the propaganda of the winner front further weakened their position and voice. An additional severe blow was Sudan’s support of the new government in Asmara and ordering those political formations to go back home unconditionally, which they could not –  knowing well what awaited them in Eritrea.


  1. Lack of External Support

The right decision and wisdom lacked at home was not filled up by others.  The new authorities in Ethiopia, who held a relatively inclusive national conference for their country, did not recommend a similar process for Eritrea while they could, both legally[29] and morally. The Sudan also took sides with the new Asmara authorities abandoning  for a while Eritrean fronts based in its soil since many decades.

Likewise, the rest of the world was not helpful – while it should – based on learned lessons of the past.  In the 1960s, when ex-colonies in Africa were declared ‘independent’, the peoples of the continent dreamt of a glittering future in the making. (Eritreans were to be in a similar elusive atmosphere of hope 30 years later). But for most of Africans, the decades that followed territorial independence proved to be ‘shattering experiences’ mainly because colonial masters handed over independence with great haste and without preparing their former colonies for self-rule.[30]

Without contributing to make it happen, Eritrea’s well-wishers joined Eritreans in the wishful hope that the new state born after so many failures in the rest of Africa, would be spared the mistakes of the continent and its bedeviling tyrannies. Nothing was done to lay down the necessary conditions for a successful transition in Eritrea that could have ensured the dream of seeing a ‘model state’ in Africa. The UN and other international and regional bodies and governments did not give attention to the prerequisites for a successful start.

Therefore, one can say that it was partly as a result of lack of any internal or external pressure on, and/or advice to, the EPLF that this front denied the return to independent Eritrea of political rivals of the era of armed struggle and held a UN-observed referendum in their absence. Instead of holding an inclusive national conference, the EPLF held only its own congress and adopted a National Charter that tried to tackle big national issues like land and languages – in the absence of  the others. This was followed by the act of drafting and ratifying a national constitution – also in their absence. Still, many in the EPLF rank and file did not see that the ongoing chain of exclusionist measures against the ‘others’ may one day be extended to the very soul of their organization itself.

In fact, the EPLF mass organizations were among the early casualties when they were ordered to disband in the eve of independence.[31] Next to be affected were some of the front’s fighters who protested in May 1993 asking for, inter alia, the holding of the third EPLF congress without delay. War-disabled veterans who asked for improvement of their situation were silenced in a brutal manner that no one should have condoned. The malaise was, gradually but surely, spreading and affecting the higher echelons in the makeup of the ruling body. The rank and file of the winner front and the rest of the population kept its deadening silence that one can recall today only with shame. It fact, what was taking place in Eritrea as of the early 1990s does strike a chord with Martin Niemöller’s 1946 poem about the Germans of World War II who ignored the fate of the communists, the Jews and others until their turn came and no one was around to help them.[32]

II. How ELF Factions Could Have Made a Difference in 1991

One may question the supposition that return to Eritrea of the factions of a vanquished and fractured political organization like the ELF could have made a difference – i.e. help  avert both the growth of a tyranny and the appearance of fundamentalist groups in post-independence Eritrea. This author’s assumption is based on the likelihoods and facts discussed below.

  1. The spectacular military victories the heroic EPLF army scored during the late 1980s were overwhelming, awe-inspiring. But the tempting narrative that it was this front alone that mattered in Eritrea because it ‘alone brought independence’ to the country did not tell the whole story. Despite its organizational shortcomings, including lack of leadership that at the end weakened it, the ELF was everything for many Eritreans during the first two-thirds (1961-81) of the 30-year-long armed struggle.[33] Even by 1991, some of the moderate[34] factions of the ELF were not spent forces both politically and in account of followers. Above all, they still possessed conscious and capable political cadres scattered all over the region and beyond. A big chunk of them hailed from the highland regions and could have no problem in winning many hearts and minds in 1991 in Tigrigna-speaking Asmara. To the best conjectures of this writer, ELF members originating from the Eritrean highlands,[35] who, at one stage or the other were members of the ELF and still believed it was the embodiment of Eritrean unity, were at least as many as those in the EPLF – and only very few of them saw the latter as a democratic alternative although their ELF had its huge shortfalls. The ‘mother’ front’s contributions in both political and military spheres were also remarkable, although they still remain untold or distorted by continued and strong misinformation of the winner front. It is usually forgotten and down played that the ELF rank and file had enjoyed, especially during 1973-1981, an highly intense political education and open space for discussion within the front as well as in  its autonomous mass organizations. Therefore, former ELF members could have proven to be positive assets in building a state of institutions and of checks and balances in post-independence Eritrea.
  2. Similarly, the return to Eritrea of ELF cadres and members could have emboldened voices within the EPLF. The letter of G-15 in 2001 stated that by the late 1980s, there were leadership figures within the EPLF who had the feeling that “absolute trust and the uncontrolled family type of work” within the front was harmful and required reform and change of direction.[36] There were also senior cadres who distanced themselves from the EPLF in the 1980s questioning the handling of issues affecting the front and the nation. As noted earlier, the front’s highly active relief agency and its devoted mass organizations were unhappy with the increased controls. The fighters’ protest in 1993; the dissatisfaction caused by the heavy-handedness of the strongman at the February 1994 congress[37]; the fatal Mai Habar incident, and related events showed that there existed simmering discontents and disagreements within the ruling front. Former ELF members who joined the EPLF in the late 1980s[38] were aware of the excessive controls within the EPLF leadership of which they were very critical before joining it. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that these elements could have found it feasible to work with other political groups and individuals from outside the hitherto closed EPLF circle.
  3. During the armed struggle, the civilian population wished and repeatedly asked for the unity of the two fronts.[39] The return to Eritrea of ELF factions in 1991 could have provided the population with the opportunity of demanding dialogues which could at the end lead towards creating the necessary trust for launching a reconciliation process. On top of this, there were many former members of ELF urban cells in Asmara and the rest of the cities. Given the opportunity of meeting in independent Eritrea, those ex-members, who shared experiences in the field of struggle, could have joined hands in building viable political pressure groups. In addition, one could foresee significant contribution in this reconciliation process by a revived stock of social bonding and enduring networks in the Eritrean civil society that Gaim Kibreab proficiently illustrates in a lengthy volume.[40] It is true that this stock of social capital was subjected to setbacks and reverses in the pre-independence years due to unhappy episodes; but a sincere call for a new beginning could have empowered it to again play a significant role. Eritrea’s religious establishments, as members of the civil society, were depositories of this social capital which could be expected to have played its part in preventing the growth of dictatorship. To mention a few examples: the role of Eritrea’s Muslim intelligentsia[41] in building political awareness in the country, and church leaders who defied political authorities in the pre- and post-independence periods were laud voices to be reckoned with.

An exemplary Clergyman in Eritrean Civil Society, 1991

To briefly illustrate the huge capacity embedded in Eritrea’s civil society (e.g. religious institutions) and their exemplary voice in post-independence Eritrea, it is pertinent to cite one of the many voices that tried to be heard as of the early 1990s: that of Abba/Father Teweldeberhan Tzeggai, who warned against the consequences of a bad beginning. In November 1991, Abba Teweldeberhan was invited from his mission in Eritrea to Frankfurt, Germany, to address a thanksgiving and prayer gathering on the country’s independence to about 500 compatriots who were, interestingly enough, from different Christian denominations. By the fall of 1991, it was already made clear that the ‘other voices’ were being ignored. In reference to this, the priest told his Frankfurt audience:

We know there were two brothers in the [Eritrean] field of struggle. One has returned home, [but] we have not yet heard from the other. As we [read] the word of the Lord saying, “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” we are now forced to ask: Shabia, where is your brother Harnnet?[42]

In the same Frankfurt speech, the Eritrean priest of the Capuchin order, paid gratitude to God and to Eritrea’s martyrs who made the ultimate sacrifices  for “peace, justice, fraternity, solidarity and prosperity” and prayed for the new leader(s) to have wisdom.  He added:

It is also my hope, and  my personal call on our higher religious leaders, both Muslims and Christians, to openly come forward and demand for national reconciliation.[43]

The priest rhetorically asked as to what the country would look like without reconciliation and under exclusion of one by the other. In providing his own answers, Abba Teweldeberhan warned: “Abuses will pile up in the country” and that this can result in an endless cycle of resentments and revenges among a divided people.[44]  Abuses have piled up all along the past 25 years, but, fortunately, his fear of an internecine conflict did not take place – at least not so far.

Soon after the results of the Eritrean referendum were reported in May 1993, Abba Teweldeberhan hand-delivered an  article to the editors of the official newspaper, Hadas Eritra,  but they refused to publish it. In that article, the priest challenged the arbitrariness in choosing a national flag for the new state, and questioned the composition and mandate of the body electing the president. He also listed seven powers  allotted to the president, and this appeared to him as an act of “reincarnating Menghistu Hailemariam” in Eritrea. He challenged several other actions[45] of the provisional government and did not hide his fear that the new authorities were headed towards building a full-fledged “authoritarianism” by not opting to start “a new Eritrea with a new spirit”.[46]

III. Reconciliation in Post-Conflict Situations

Eritreans affected by the declared policy of exclusion demanded that there be a national conference at which the need for political reconciliation and national issues could be discussed and resolved. But other Eritreans supporting the new regime were also prone to deny such needs: ‘With whom does one reconcile; who is enemy of who?’  ‘What do they need other than independence’ etc.[47] Their argument was that political reconciliation was not applicable for the Eritrean situation. However, experiences in post-conflict situations manifest the importance of having it in order to transit to a long awaited  new beginning. Proponents of political reconciliation see it as an absolutely necessary bridge from the old to the new. In the words of Charles Villa-Vicencio, the leading author of the final report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “political reconciliation is the litmus test of a successful political transition and peace endeavor”[48] and that it obligates the concerned parties  to make vital decisions “on how to deal with the past in order for a new kind of society to emerge.”[49] To Archbishop Edmond Tutu, reconciliation can also constitute a simple effort involving a minimum level of cooperation among  erstwhile rivals in order to ensure holistic justice that cannot and should not fail to include human rights, economic development and of course the rule of law.[50] This makes it clear that there is no rigid formula for political reconciliation, which is described as a multi-faceted process.

On this basis, Eritrea could have used the features in political reconciliation suitable to its situation without compromising basic principles and objectives of such processes. Thus, degrees of restorative justice, truth-telling, forgiveness, healing, fostering trust and  mutual understanding were not impossible to reach in Eritrea through time-taking endeavors. Vicencio also emphasized that it would be “immoral and irresponsible” for liberation movements, states and individuals to try to side-step the challenge of reconciliation that leads to sustainable harmony and national unity.[51] Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea of 1991 preferred to side-step it.

IV. Why a Reconciliation Process for Eritrea?

In the late 1970s, when both the ELF and the EPLF were at their best and, in their different ways, preparing to become at least one of the ruling parties in Asmara, many foreign journalists were visiting Eritrea and writing about the country and the struggle. As mentioned earlier, the American John E. Duggan, was one of them, who, in his ‘first hand report’, described Eritrea in the following terms:

If you like politics, you will love Eritrea…[It] is a microcosm of the politics and problems of the Third World….nine languages, and two major communities – highland Christian peasants and lowland Moslem nomads and semi-nomads – Eritrea is typical of the manifold problems confronting any Third World country today.[52]

The Eritrean society underwent important changes during the years of nationalist awakening and the armed struggle – a period stretching from 1941 to 1991. However, with the considerably high rate of illiteracy-cum-poverty and the multiple cleavages noted above, the transformations are not to be exaggerated. Furthermore, there occurred serious reverses of the positive changes that were cultivated during the years of armed struggle. One notable reversal occurred after the 1980-81 civil war that deepened polarization in the society. This event created bitterness and anger within the defeated ELF that suffered fragmentation, and encouraged the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism.[53]

By the early 1990s, there were  half a dozen Eritrean political organizations other than the EPLF and the still nascent Islamist movement,[54] and fragmentation was continuous. Therefore, the claim of fully achieved unity in Eritrea – as the government’s hade-hizbi-hade libi (one people-one heart) slogan wishes to portray – can only be half true at its best. It may indeed be too early for Eritreans not to forget the fact the country was created by “severing its different peoples from those with whom their past had been linked and by grafting the amputated remnants to each other under the title Eritrean”.[55]  It was only a decade before independence that the ELF and the EPLF  were in the threshold of victory when they controlled nearly  90% of the country. But they failed to come together. This weakness, which by the way reminds one of what is going on in the current Eritrean opposition camp with several dozens of “political” formations,  was summarized by an Eritrea observer in 1983 in the following sharp terms: “The reality of ethnic, religious, regional, social and personal rivalries couched in revolutionary phraseology legitimizing disunity proved stronger than the relatively young sentiment of Eritrean nationalism”.[56]

Eritrean intellectuals, freedom fighters and even the simple folks knew well the apparent need of carefully addressing the question of unity and mutual respect as it was also  repeatedly urged by  leading Eritrean patriots. Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan, a towering figure in the growth of national consciousness and its awakening in Eritrea, for instance, urged his compatriots as follows in a letter addressed to the 1987 congress of the EPLF:

My children, make peace amongst yourselves. Be united. Don’t be Muslims and Christians… Avoid religious, ethnic and regional differences and confront the enemy through forging a solid platform.[57]

He was repeating this language after 41 years of the divisive conference of Bet-Giorgis[58] that he attended and at which he claimed he was maligned[59]. Similarly, Woldeab Woldemariam, in his eulogy for Ibrahim Sultan in late 1987, wrote:  “Do you remember [Ibrahim Sultan] that the most difficult challenge in our struggle was safeguarding national unity?”[60] It was in the same eulogy that Woldeab Woldemariam attributed 90% of the credit of keeping Eritrea united to Ibrahim Sultan.[61] Also emphasizing the importance of unity in the Eritrean diversity, Mohammed Saied Nawd, the founder in 1958 of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), had this to say in his 1996 book:

Our struggle has not finished yet, it continues. From our three objectives, only the [territorial] liberation of Eritrea is realized. As for the other two objectives, namely national unity and the formation of a democratic state, the struggle  is continuing to realize them. And the path to these is democratization – furnishing justice and equality among our people. And the struggle to achieve that would help us achieve a strong national unity, peace, stability and prosperity. But if we tread a different path, we will face unbearable difficulties.[62]

The unfinished struggle referred to in the above quotation naturally required addressing lingering problems. In fact, many Eritreans still remembered in 1991 what was documented in a 1971 pamphlet entitled Nhnan Elamanan[63] whose main author is alleged to be Isaias himself. In it were listed killings allegedly committed by Eritrean ‘Muslim leaders’ of the ELF. It was also in January 1973 that the same group argued that Eritrean nationalities were not treated equally in the national struggle and that “the history of Jebha [i.e. ELF] was nothing but a history of oppression of one nationality by the other.”[64] In short, there was no love lost between the rival Eritrean fronts: bitter allegations against one another continued till the eve of independence and beyond. This thorny relationship was encapsulated in a September 1990 radio broadcast of the EPLF that alleged the other Eritrean organizations  to be spies of the Arabs and the Ethiopians.[65]

The Eritrean president, who did not see the need for reconciliation in 1991, never failed referring to the ‘ugly past’ whenever he found it opportune. For instance, he gave the following puzzling account in an interview conducted with an Ethiopian magazine in September 1997:

If I were not aware of our own [Eritrean] situation, I would have described the grisly mass murders in Somalia, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Liberia as barbaric crimes perpetrated by backward peoples. I would have said ‘we are different, we are not like them’. But what we had gone through in Eritrea was not different from what is going on in other countries. We in Eritrea suffered mass murders, one ethnic and geographic group cleansing the other in a cowardly and inordinate manner. We have now come a long way from that past, and the present and future generations [in Eritrea] who had not seen what we did would be surprised of what is going on in Somalia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Liberia. The surprise comes because they did not know what had happened in our country. Seen from this angle, it would appear that the present and future generations would benefit from knowing about it. But unless done in a constructive way, making the new generation aware of a black spot in its history is a bit difficult”.[66]

Leaving aside their veracity, there have been allegations of ‘crimes’ committed by one group or individual against others. In the above quotation, the president was hinting at the importance of presenting the past in “a constructive way,” which is agreeable. Even in 1991, the expectation was not to find an  overnight solution to the entire historical baggage, alleged abuses, mistrusts and ill-feelings. However, allowing political inclusion, even limited, and then starting a process of reconciliation and accountability over past and future mistakes could have helped in averting the failure being witnessed today.

V. The Ignored Calls for a Rational Beginning in 1991

In their different ways, the organizations denied return expressed readiness to be partners in a joint rebuilding of the country. As noted earlier, they had deep mistrust of the winner front’s strongman, but appeared to have hoped that, this time round, he would not be allowed by his colleagues and by the general public[67] to ignore the promises of the 1987 EPLF congress. The front’s strongman was also making misleading utterances during that period. For instance, he affirmed in 1990 stating that “one-party system will neither enhance national security or stability nor accelerate development” and that exclusion of others “could be a major threat to the very existence of our country.”[68] It partly sounded believable.

In those post-independence days of excitement, few were interested to listen to other voices or read their statements. And no wonder that their significant pleas remain unknown to the Eritrean public to this day. Therefore, in order to shed some light on what was taking place in that historic juncture in Eritrea, this article will try give  some space to those  pleas for inclusion.[69]

The ELF-Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC) and the ELF-Central Leadership (ELF-CL/Sagem) were more vocal among the excluded fronts. The latter organization, which in the 1980s seriously tried but failed to work with EPLF, regretted with prophetic words in its 20 June 1991 statement that Eritrea’s hard-won victory “will not be consummated” due to the way the winner front was approaching major issues including unity and democracy. On its part, the ELF-RC was leading the contacts with fraternal fronts in the Sudan to jointly contact and urge the EPLF to forget the past and organize a national conference in which a new Eritrea of all could be launched. In the period between 24 May and 24 December 1991, the ELF-RC alone issued  seven statements, including two letters addressed personally to Isaias Afwerki,[70] literally begging for magnanimity. For instance, on 30 May 1991, only five days after the entry of the victorious EPLF army to Asmara, the organization issued a statement describing the formation of an EPLF government as  “a step in the right direction.” The other Eritrean organizations made similar appeals. But, the new government did not approach any of them other than trying to sow division within each group with the aim of winning  individuals.[71] Another ELF-RC statement issued on 7 June predicted what will befall Eritrea if the new authorities in Asmara fail to heed the calls of the others. The statement partly read,

We are passing through an important epoch in the history of our national struggle. The fate of our future generations hinge upon what we do today. History will pass its judgment on us all if we ever let this chance [for reconciliation] slip away…Playing ostrich and denying the existence of several national organizations with different political standpoints in the Eritrean arena today is absolutely unacceptable…[72]

What initially appeared to be a positive outcome of the letters to Isaias Afwerki was his agreement to meet the ELF-RC leadership in Asmara.[73] Accordingly, the ELF-RC Chairman Ahmed Nasser and  team finalized trip arrangements in October 1991 to fly to Asmara.[74] But while part of the delegation was already at the Khartoum  airport, a call from the EPLF government’s Khartoum representative, Mohammed Ali Omero[75], asked them not to fly to Asmara that day.[76]

For the Eritrean authorities, that was the first and last known attempt in 25 years to contact an Eritrean political organization. To Gaim Kibreab, the Eritrean scholar who followed the country’s developments at least for the past 30 years, the October 1991 event  could have turned to be an “unprecedented opportunity” for new Eritrea by making  “a difference in terms of setting in motion a process of negotiation, understanding, compromise, healing and, over time, trust and mutual cooperation.”[77] Unfortunately, the refusal to meet with a rival organization was, he added,  “a clue to some of the consecutive tragedies that have been befalling the country and its people in the post- independence period”.[78]

Fifteen months after the defeat of Ethiopia in Eritrea, and after the failure of individual efforts of the Eritrean organizations to be listened by the EPLF, they issued on 20 September 1992 a joint statement entitled the ‘September Declaration’. The statement affirmed that there was no disagreement with the EPLF on the objective of liberation but what they rejected in 1991 was “its exclusive domination of power” and warned the Eritrean people of what they called “emerging new dictatorship.”[79] One of the points in the Declaration stated:

We demand the convening of a national reconciliation congress in which all the Eritrean forces take part, and whose aim is to reach a national consensus on a charter defining the foundations and features of the independent state of Eritrea.

The signatory organizations were the ELF-RC; the ELF-Central Leadership/Sagem; the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea, and the ELF-United Organization which included pre-1977 EPLF factions. There was no reaction from the government, and efforts to call for inclusion died down by end of 1992. However, in relation to the referendum in 1992-93, the ELF-RC continued publicly asking for participation in organizing the referendum seeing it not only as an important milestone in the struggle for nationhood but also as equally significant  step towards recognized participation in a national affair – an ABC of democratic partaking.  For this purpose, it addressed two memoranda  in November and December 1992 asking the UN Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Qali to intervene. The 2 December 1992 memo explained that, “apart from settling the issue of independence, the referendum process shall be judged by its substantive contribution to the democratization of political life in future Eritrea.”[80] At the public level, a  massive demonstration was held in Germany in March 1993 underlining: ‘Yes to Independence’ and ‘No to Exclusion’. The requests for participation fell on deaf ears with even the  UN keeping silent. Exclusion of participation in organizing the referendum made the process remain exclusively an EPLF affair.[81]

Their Calls Vindicated, but When it Got Too Late

A decade later, after tyranny was well consolidated, the old pleas of the ‘others’ were vindicated when former ardent supporters of the government started questioning the  mutual denigrations of the past.[82] One such voice was from a group of 13 EPLF elite who appealed for a change of direction in a noteworthy letter, usually referred as the Berlin Manifesto of G-13. Addressed to the Eritrean president, the letter stated,

Eritrean military victory and the assumption of sovereign statehood should have been accompanied by a spirit of reconciliation fired by magnanimity…wisdom and statesmanship required a call for reconciliation extended to all Eritreans irrespective of belief or political affiliation to join hands in rebuilding a shattered society and economy. It is an opportunity that is lost but that can still be reclaimed.[83]

Numerous publications recounted how those mistakes of the early 1990s ‘wounded’ the nation and ‘deferred’ the dreams of the struggle. The border war with Ethiopia was an eye-opener for many who felt that it was time to ‘reclaim’ the lost opportunities, as G-13 hoped. The call started by G-13 was followed by another message of G-15 which did not succeed. As in 1991, the regime supporters and the general public  remained silent.

The last attempt for change of direction in Eritrea was the 21 January 2013 army ‘uprising’ (the Forto incident) by a small and  ill-organized unit. Most probably as part of continued exploitation of bogeymen, the president appeared to have directed his insiders  to demonize the incident as ‘a sectarian’ attempt by the leader of the armed unit in collusion with his name sakes in the PFDJ.[84]

VI. Eritrea’s Learned Lessons and a Way Forward

“We must create a state of equal partners”[85]  – Hussein Khalifa,  Nov.2015

The points raised in this appraisal of Eritrea’s shortcomings in the early 1990s and the quick assessment made about its enduring cleavages intend to warn of two risks that may still be ahead for Eritreans. The assumed risks are: a) another dictatorship replacing the current one, and/or b) the society plunging into a chaotic situation exploitable by external forces.[86]  Learning from past mistakes and addressing lingering problems properly can avert or at least help minimize potential damages of these awful risks.

One of the major shortcomings of the period under review was the winner front’s   unpreparedness (rather, unwillingness) to have an inclusive[87]political transition plan aiming to include all stakeholders in order to create a state of equal partners. Corollary to this was the refusal to positively respond to calls for national unity and political reconciliation process suitable to the Eritrean setting.

By the late 1980s, there was no lack of indicators that an end to the war with Ethiopia was in the cards. This was clear especially after the spectacular victory at Afabet in March 1988. Other indicators of victory included the intensification of dissatisfaction within the Ethiopian army and the changing policies of the two superpowers of the day towards Ethiopia and the liberation struggle in Eritrea. Moreover, backed by the resolutions of the 1987 congress, senior cadres of the EPLF who reportedly sensed some lack of accountability in the front, as the G-15 letter noted, were able to warn their top leadership that an act of “winner-take-all” formula will not have to be the way to go after independence. It was only a couple of years before independence that a prominent leader in the front at that time, now Era-Ero prisoner Haile Woldetinsae (Durue), confided to the British professor and author/activist, Lionel Cliffe, that the great danger facing the EPLF was how to tackle Tigrigna chauvinism.[88] This shows that at least some of the leadership and senior cadres were well concerned of what could happen after independence.

It is also important to note that there was hope that, as a victor,  the EPLF would act rationally and address the question of  inclusion of ‘the others’, especially at a time when winds of polarization were on the increase and old social bonds and mutual trust were being severely eroded. We have seen that existing perceptions of marginalization worsened after the defeat of the ELF in the hands of combined EPLF-TPLF forces in 1980-81 further widening divisions in the society and encouraging the growth of extremist and sub-national voices. It was no surprise that the denial of return to Eritrea of erstwhile rivals fell as total disdain and deeply felt humiliation to the affected organizations and their  followers  who belonged to all of Eritrea’s regions, religions and cultures.

Today, the loss of trust that was caused by those shortcomings of the early 1990s is continuing as a barrier affecting joint work; there are non-EPLF folks who still find it difficult to fully trust former EPLF/PFDJ leadership and senior cadres who are trustworthy and committed for a positive change in the country. At times, people forget that the cause of all evil in Eritrea is the PFDJ system of governance itself.  The fears and mistrust in the society are many times given religious and regional tones. For instance, a document called ‘The Eritrean Covenant’ claimed in 2010 that the dictatorship in Eritrea was enforcing  ‘ethnocratic policies’  which were a serious threat “to the peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between Eritrean Christians and Muslims”.[89] The document justified the claim by stating that Eritrean Muslims do not enjoy “equal opportunities to education, employment and economic benefits”[90] and that their share in government, if any, remains less than 10% while Eritrean Muslims constituted about half of the nation.  The questions of land and official languages are also among the controversial issues many Eritreans raise for discussion and correct resolution in the future.

Fortunately today – and unlike in 1991 or 2001 –  the number of Eritreans, who are not happy with most of what the EPLF/PFDJ did in the post-independence period, is already huge and growing by the day. A collective Eritrean critical mass appears to be forming. Therefore, one can again say that victory could be in the cards. This makes it imperative to all concerned to learn from their past mistakes and prepare for a future better than what was experienced in the past quarter of a century.

The lessons learned can lead to the following conclusions: 1) Eritrea cannot afford to go through another round of exclusion; therefore, preparations for a better future need to be laid down before the actual event (removal of the regime) takes place; 2) taking onboard all stakeholders will safeguard not only national unity but also become a means in checking and balancing the forces towards creating a democratic state of institutions; 3) a suitable political reconciliation process need to be initiated in order to try to put historical baggage behind the coalescing forces; and, finally, 4) the support of external forces has to be garnered now to insure that they external inferences shall not affect the success of the transition plan.

The Eritrean situation makes it imperative that there be two phases for the transition plan: Phase I covering the period before the removal of the regime, and Phase II for the post-PFDJ period. To this end, a conference in diaspora sponsored by independent entity or entities, can convene and draft a provisional charter that defines the tasks of the stakeholders in the struggle. The conference in diaspora would adopt a provisional charter defining what is to be done in Phase I whose functions extend until the holding of another conference in Eritrea and launching Phase II.

As always, reaching a common agenda; building coalitions, and making hard compromises are among the challenges and priorities because “transition-making is not a task for the dogmatic.”[91] Therefore, every participant in the process for democratic change in Eritrea is required to learn from countless past weaknesses and prepare to face the two formidable challenges mentioned in the opening paragraph of this section:

  • Averting another tyranny after the one-man despotism of the past 25 years, and
  • Ensuring that post-PFDJ Eritrea is not another place like the post-Siad Barre Somalia.

No place for complacency in regard to these dangers; they may – who knows[92] – replicate themselves in Eritrea after the demise of the current dictatorship.

In 1992, this writer casually observed: “Woldeab Woldemariam has returned home but not yet Idris Mohammed Adem. And without the return of all […], the future of Eritrea could be still hanging in the scales.”[93] To this day – and only to emphasize – the challenge remains to be how to include  everybody and still remain effective. It is an uphill struggle, and what is  expected of Eritreans now is to do all what it takes to create a truly participatory ground well before the fall of the dictatorship in order to design the silhouette of the future state of Eritrea through continued dialogue and understanding among all stakeholders.


  1. Abba Teweldeberhan Tzeggai. Diggi Gifuat (In Defense of the Oppressed. Milano: published NA, November 2001.
  2. Alemseged Tesfai. Aynifelale: 1941-1950. Asmara: Hidri Publishers, 2001.
  3. Andebrhan Welde Giorgis. Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope. Houston: Strategic Books Publishing & Rights, 2014.
  4. Bereket Habte Selassie. The Wounded Nation: How a Once Promising Eritrea was Betrayed and it Future Compromised. Trenton: The Red Sea Press, Inc., 2011.
  5. Charles Villa-Vicencio. Walk with Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa. Georgetown: Georgetown UP, 2009.
  6. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Croydon: CPI Group, UK Ltd, 2012.
  7. K.N. Trevaskis.  Eritrea, A Colony in Transition. Oxford: 1941-52, Oxford UP, 1960.
  8. Michael Banks, ed. Conflict in World Society: A Perspective in International Relations. Brighton: 1984.
  9. Redie Bereketeab. State-Building in Post-Liberation Eritrea. London: Adonis & Abbey Publishers, 2009.
  10. Rotberg, Rovert I, and Thomson, Dennis, ed. Truth V. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2000.
  11. Wolde-Yesus Ammar. Eritrea: Root Causes of War and Refugees. Bagdad: Sindbad Printing Co., 1992.

Journals, other publications

  1. Abraham Paulos. Senselet Sened No.3. Kassel: October 1998.
  1. Al Hayat, Arabic newspaper. Beirut, No. 10,453 of 19.09.1991.
  2. EPLF. Fitsametat, periodical, No. 193 of 1987.
  3. Eritrean Newsletter (vol. 45 of Jan. 1982). Reader’s letter entitled, “EPLF: Profile of Adventurism in Eritrea.”
  4. John E. Duggan.  1978 manuscript. Eritrean Newsletter vol. 45 of Jan. 1982
  5. Joseph L. Venosa. “Because God Has Given Us the Power of Reasoning: Intellectuals, the Eritrean Muslim League, and Nationalist Activism, 1946-1950”. Northeast African Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2012, 29-62.
  6. Lionel Cliffe, “Forging a Nation: the Eritrean Experience,”   (The Third World Quarterly, Oct. 1989
  1. Sandra Fullerton Joireman. “Minefield of Land Reform: Comments on the Eritrean Land Proclamation”. African Affairs, 95, No. 379, Apr., 1996, 269-285.


[2]  One was  Dan Connell, an American journalist/researcher, who until 2001 believed that the EPLF was everything in Eritrea. In his March 2016 interview with Ethiopian TV,  he confirmed  that a  mistake was made at the beginning in 1991 by excluding the ELF side –  see:

[3] The civilians (gebar) and fighters (tegadelti) were treated differently  and complaints simmered from the start.

[4] Fitsametat (EPLF periodical, No. 188, Oct. 1986), 7.

[5] The ‘Menkae’ movement of 1973 criticized dictatorial tendencies  and demanded reform but was harshly nipped in the bud, leaving behind it a trail of fear, mistrust and increasingly deadening silence inside the front.

[6] Isaias Afwerki has been the unchallenged ‘strongman’ for the past 45 years of whatever group or regime he led.

[7] Isaias and this writer  were class- and ELF cell-mates  in the 1960s in Asmara and Addis Ababa.

[8] Contrary to hearsay, this writer believes that Isaias never  faltered from struggling for  Eritrean nationhood at least until the eve of independence. But Isaias believed only he and his front could do the job successfully.

[9]  In its early days, the small organization Isaias led forged an alliance with a prominent ex-ELF leader, Osman S. Sabbe in the early 1970s. The other  alliance was entered with the TPLF, although it had its ups and downs.

[10]  John E. Duggan, (1978 manuscript published in the Eritrean Newsletter vol. 45 of January 1982), 2-3.

[11]  EPLF leaders and total membership were dominantly from the highland and the Massawa regions since the merger of factions in early 1970s. Even between 1991 and 2015,  there has not been a single cabinet minister from the  western Barka region from where a high percentage of  Muslim Eritreans hail.

[12]  Eritrean Newsletter, ‘EPLF: Profile of Adventurism’, a contributor’s letter published in  vol. 45 of Jan. 1982,   4.

[13]  Usually referred to as ‘Hashewiye’ wudibat (‘merry-go-round’ of organizations) – an expression in Tigrigna.

[14] Michael Banks, ed., Conflict in World Society: A Perspective in International Relations, (Brighton: 1984),  17.

[15]  Al Hayat, Arabic newspaper published in Beirut, No. 10,453 of 19.09.1991.

[16] Gaim Kibreab, Critical Reflections on the Eritrean War of Independence (Red Sea Press, Inc. Trenton 2009), 402.

[17] Gaim, Critical Reflections, 414.

[18]  Sandra Fullerton Joireman,  African Affairs, Vol. 95, No. 379, Apr., 1996,  269-285.  In the article entitled.  “Minefield of Land Reform: comments on the Eritrean Land Proclamation”, she expressed surprise on the decision to deny return to the ELF, a mistake which she thought would ferment  conflict and instability in the long run.

[19]  Andebrhan Welde Giorgis,  Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope (Houston: Strategic Books Publishing & Rights, 2014),  191.

[20]  Letter of G-15 to PFDJ members, dated 7 March 2001.

[21] Andebrhan, Eritrea at a Crossroads,  158.

[22]  Gaim, Critical Reflections,  402.

[23] Redie Bereketeab, State-Building in Post-Liberation Eritrea, (London: Adonis & Abbey Publishers, 2009), 265.

[24] Daron Acemoglu, and James A. Robinson,  Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, (Croydon: CPI Group, UK Ltd),   91.

[25] Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail,  402.

[26] Bereket Habte Selassie, The Wounded Nation: How a Once Promising Eritrea was Betrayed and its Future Compromised, (Trenton: The Red Sea Press, Inc., 2011), 233.

[27]  Italians mobilized thousands of Eritreans for the 1896 Battle of Adwa; the 1911-1922 war in Libya and in their 1935-1941 invasion of Ethiopia. The liberation war (1961-1991) and the post-liberation 25 years under the repressive dictatorship which provoked hostilities with the Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti are part of the wars and war-like situations under which the people suffered in their short history.

[28] The blame that the ELF of Abdalla Idris received some material support from Ethiopia and the Dergue’s  ‘autonomy’ project  supported by a manipulated few lowlanders was used to demonize political  organizations as an additional excuse for their exclusion in 1991.

[29] The EPRDF was able to pressurize the new authorities in Eritrea because without Ethiopia’s consent for  independence, the  new Eritrean state could have remained in a limbo like Somaliland.

[30]   Alex Russell,  Big Men, Little People,  (London: Pan Books, 2000),  2.

[31] Some insiders however claim that the measure of disbanding the EPLF mass organizations, that was led by Mahmoud Sherifo,  was initiated in order to revitalize and widen an already weakened structure.

[32] German clergyman  Martin Niemoeller is famously quoted for his 1946 poem in German which partly says:  “First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” See:

[33]  The ELF  was started with fighters mainly from one region and one religion but,  at the end  included all regions and religions of the country. However, its leadership, especially the military office, remained from a narrow circle and that had discernible impact  in its eventual defeat and fragmentation.

[34] Moderate fronts at that time  were: ELF-RC; ELF (led by Abdalla Idris); the ELF-Central Leadership/ Sagem; the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea;  the ELF- NC/Obel, a faction of pre-1977 EPLF, and ELF-United Organization, (with elements from an EPLF faction) led by Ali Berhatu, a colleague of Osman S. Sabbe, founder of PLF in early 1970s.  Some ELF-UO leaders went to Asmara only to be  ordered to dissolve their front.

[35]  According to Gime Ahmed, a senior officer in the ELF military office, registration for military ID cards in 1978 found  that 85% of the ELF fighters originated from highland Eritrea.

[36]  Letter of G-15. This group of leadership figures,   formed after the border war with Ethiopia, ended with the clampdown of 18.09.2001 that incarcerated 11 of the signatories and their alleged sympathizers in the media.

[37] At the congress, Isaias Afwerki infuriated many congress participants by decisions he took without consultation. It was in this congress that Ramadan Mohammed Nur, formally the ‘top’ leader of the  front till 1987,  was dropped even from the list of candidates for new leadership reportedly hand-picked by Isaias himself.

[38] Former prominent figures like Herui Tedla, who was ELF vice-chairman in the early 1970s, and the ELF-CL/Sagem  that joined EPLF in 1987 had personalities like Ibrahim Toteel and Zemehret Yohannes.

[39] During the years of struggle, there were attempts by the civilian population to reconcile the ELF and EPLF. For a good example of the 1976 attempt that did not work, see  Gaim, Critical Reflections,  348-355.

[40] Gaim,  Critical Reflections.

[41] Joseph L. Venosa, “Because God Has Given Us the Power of Reasoning: Intellectuals, the Eritrean Muslim League, and Nationalist Activism, 1946-1950”, Northeast African Studies, vol. 12, No 2, 2012) 29-62.

[42] Abba Teweldeberhan Tzeggai, Diggi Gifuat (In Defense of the Oppressed),  a book compiling his articles in Tigrigna, English and Italian, (published in Milano, November 2001), 20. The name  shabia in Arabic refers to EPLF and Harnnet or Jebha to the ELF.

[43]  Abba  Teweldeberhan, Diggi Gifuat,  21-22.

[44]  Abba  Teweldeberhan, Diggi Gifuat, 21.

[45] Abba Teweldeberhan, Diggi Gifuat, 39. The Eritrean priest wrote to the authorities his strong denunciation of the press law and the closure in 1995 of a church newspaper, “Haqin Hiwetn/Truth and Life, a newspaper that was never censored let alone to be shut by previous  repressive regimes since its foundation in Asmara in 1947.

[46]    Abba  Teweldeberhan, Diggi Gifuat,  24-28

[47]  For instance, this writer  personally witnessed these phrases directed against him  in  the 1990s in Dehai, a pro-government email network, and comments to his articles in entitled “Unity and Reconciliation.”

[48]  Charles Villa-Vicencio, Walk with Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa, (Georgetown UP, 2009)  2.

[49] Vicencio,  Walk with US and Listen, 151

[50]   Archbishop Edmond Tutu, ‘Foreword’, in Vicencio, Walk with Us and Listen,  ix-xii.

[51]  Rothberg, Robert I.,  and Thomson, Dennis, ed., Truth V. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, (Princeton UP, New Jersey, 2000),  19.

[52]  Eritrean Newsletter, vol. 45 of January 1982, excerpts from his 1978 manuscript.

[53]  A group of ELF leaders staged a military coup that encouraged polarization based on religion and region.

[54]  The Islamist movement started in early 1980s;  four groups merged to become Eritrean Jihad in 1988.

[55] G.K.N. Trevaskis, Eritrea, a Colony in Transition, 1941-52, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1960) 10-11.

[56]  Erlich Haggai, The Struggle over Eritrea, 1962-78 (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1983),  96.

[57]  EPLF publication, Fitsametat No 193 of 1987, p. 15 (author’s translation from the original in Tigrigna).

[58]  The conference,  held in Nov. 1946 was overtaken by unionists who side-lined Ibrahim Sultan and his followers.

[59] Alemseged Tesfai, Aynifelale: 1941-1950, ( Asmara: Hidri Publishers,2001),  186.

[60]  Eulogy entitled Yizikerekado (do you remember?) was published in several Eritrean magazines of the day.

[61]  To this day, many Muslim elite believe that Eritrean Muslims cared for unity more than their Christian compatriots. See, for example, The Eritrean Covenant (Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar):

[62]  Mohammed Saied Nawd, in the introduction to his Arabic book published in June 1996, entitled Harakat TaHrir al Eritria-al Haqiqa wa’tarik. See:

[63]  English translation is “We and Our Objectives”. The document was widely distributed among Tigrigna readers.

[64]  Fitewrari vol. 1 no. 1, January 1973 (writer’s translation from the original in Tigrigna).

[65]  Horn of Africa Bulletin vol. 2 (6) Oct.1990, excerpts from Dimstsi Hafash, EPLF radio broadcast of 09.09.1990.

[66] Reporter, Amharic magazine of September 1997, vol 1 No 1), 5.

[67] In the same way that G-15 expected the general public to be on their side.

[68] An interview quoted in Gaim Kibreab, Critical Reflections,  412

[69]  The author has in possession unpublished statements of organizations mentioned in this section.

[70] The letters to Isaias were addressed on 26 June and 27 July, 1991

[71]  See Gaim, Critical Reflections,  369-371

[72] Senselet Sened No.3 of October 1998, (compilations by Dr. Abraham Paulos, Kassel, Germany).

[73]  The request was for all organizations but he only wanted to see the ELF-RC.

[74]  According to Tesfai Degiga and Negusse Tzeggai, the delegation consisted of Chairman Ahmed Nasser, Mohammed Nur Ahmed, Seyoum Ogbamichael and Michael Ghebreselassie.

[75]  Ambassador Mohammed Ali Omaro is now in prison after his recall from west Africa.

[76] No one knew then why it was cancelled. However, president Isaias told Mohammed Nur Ahmed, who left the ELF-RC and joined the government in Asmara in the early 1990s, that he (Isaias) personally cancelled it because he did not like the ELF-RC telling the world media about their to coming to Asmara!

[77]  Gaim, Critical Reflections, 368

[78] Gaim, Critical Reflections, 365

[79]  Memoranda in possession of this author in three languages.

[80]  The two memoranda addressed to the UN, were  signed by Seyoum Ogbamichael, the then ELF-RC  foreign relations head. They expressed the co

nviction that participation of  all stakeholders in the referendum would prove to be a significant step in starting a democratic process in new Eritrea.

[81] While demanding  for recognition and participation, ELF-RC leadership was encouraging its members to vote in the referendum  without saying this was their party line.

[82] Dawit Mesfin, who sent a strong letter of  personal apologies in 2000 and in 2001 addressed the ELF-RC festival in Kassala,  was one of the early brave voices. Dawit was one of the 13 signatories of the Berlin Manifesto.

[83] Bereket Habte Selassie, op. cit. 292.

[84] The PFDJ regime imprisoned  leading PFDJ figures whose Muslim names sent a message to gullible folks.

[85] Hussein Khalifa, chairman of the ELF,  speaking at the National Consultative Conference of 11 Eritrean organizations that met in Nairobi, Kenya, between 27 and 29 November, 2015.

[86] External forces can include extremists from afar or countries of the neighborhood.

[87] The 1987 EPLF congress was called “unity” congress although it had little that could qualify  it have that description. It was only very few former ELF cadres split from the ELF-CL/Sagem who attended it.

[88] Lionel Cliffe, “Forging a Nation: the Eritrean Experience,”   (The Third World Quarterly, October 1989), 17.

[89] Initially introduced to be from a group called ‘Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar’ with no names given, the document was later on endorsed by a  new formation called Eritrean Lowland League.


[91] Abraham F. Lowenthal and Sergio Bitar, “Getting to Democracy: Lessons from Successful Transitions), Foreign Affairs , January/February 2016.  pp. 134-144.

[92] Who also knows that further frustration in Eritrea may push some people to the old notions of annexation/partition that were defeated in the 1940s and nowadays appear to be impossible to contemplate.

[93] Wolde-Yesus Ammar, Eritrea: Root Causes of War and Refugees (Bagdad: Sindbad Printing Co., 1992)  94.


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