Kebire, The Father Of Eritrean Martyrs
In the forties, when Kebire was assassinated, Eritreans were divided into two major political blocs: one advocating unity with Ethiopia and another opting for independence. Each bloc believed to own the truth and fiercely struggled to destroy the other bloc. In the process, Eritreans lost Eritrea, which slipped between their fingers. It took Eritreans tens of thousands of lives and forty years of devastating struggle to recover Eritrea. Naturally, Eritreans are lamenting over the wrong decisions taken in the forties. Today, there is a political divide and it is important to learn from that history more than any other time.
Abdulkadir Mohammed Saleh Kebire is commonly known as ‘Kebire’, his family name which means senior, or great. Kebir is the direct translation of his great grandfather’s name, “Abe” who was affectionately known as Kebire. A devout religious family, the Kebire family has been well known since the middle of the 19th Century.
Abdulkadir Kebire was born in the Massawa area in 1902 though some stories indicate he was actually born in his mother’s village in the Dankalia region. As a child, Kebire attended Khelwa where he studied the Quran and Arabic. Later on he attended primary school and finished grade four, the highest education Eritreans were allowed to arrain under the Italian occupation. But Kebire never stopped pursuing knowledge on his own and he was mainly self-educated though he benefited from the knowledge passed to him from the elders of his family and his exposure to the rich library that his family possessed.
At the age of 18 Kebire traveled to Egypt where he witnessed the revolution of Saad Zeqlul against the British occupation, an incident that left its mark on him and shaped his rebellious character. Soon he became more interested in politics and was determined to make a change in his country and to improve the livelihood of his people.
When the Italians hired him as an advisor and translator in their Embassy in Yemen, he found it a great opportunity to acquaint himself with notable politicians and intellectuals of the era. Immediately he became a respected socialite around the diplomatic circles in Yemen and gained many friends. His fame and importance was noticeable to the extent that he participated in the team that was set to broker a peace deal between Saudi-Arabia and Yemen over a border disagreement of the two countries. The team included important personalities of the era: Shiekh Amin Al-Hussaini of Palestine (the leader/Martyr of the famous Palestinian uprising); The notable Syrian writer Hashim AlAtassi; and Prince Shekib Arselan of Lebanon. During his trips to Saudi Arabia to negotiate peace, he met and befriended the Saudi Prince, later King, Faisal Bin AbdulAziz, who used to call him ‘Al Messewe’e’.
Upon his return to Eritrea, he briefly entered the business world and become a successful businessman and established many charity projects including a technical school in Mai Dshto in Akria. Obsessed with encouraging Eritreans to be educated, Kebire become controversial for promoting the education of women– something that was taboo in those days. He believed that only through education and unity can the people be masters of their own destiny; such messages were his vehicle in the world of politics.
In April 1941 (2nd WW) the Italians were defeated and the victorious British Army decided to keep the Italian governing structure in Eritrea. Kebire was enraged that a “liberating force” could still depend on the services of a system that oppressed Eritreans. He was aware of the risks that Eritrea faced and raced against time to form a party that will struggle to safeguard the interest of Eritreans; a few months after the defeat of the Italians he formed the Liberal Nationalist Party together with his friend Gebremeskel Weldu.
Kebire organized the first ever public political demonstration in modern Eritrean history to oppose the continuation of the Italian bureaucratic structure. Kebire and his friend Gebremeskel Weldu demanded that all colonial Italian bureaucrats be removed from all administrative positions and demanded that a committee composed of able Eritreans to take over the civilian aspects of the administration and be responsible for the affairs of their country. However, the British had different plans and refused to cooperate.
Kebire was determined to expand his power base and towards this end, he met with notable politicians of the period to achieve that goal. The discussions led to the formation of the Mahber Fiqri Hager (Love of the Nation Association) of which Kebire was a founding member and served as the party’s vice chairman for five-years.
In the forties, the Eritrean arena was full of political parties and all major powers vied to advance their interests in Eritrea. Ethiopia intensified its bid and started to finance the Andnet party while patriotic Eritreans intensified their struggle to confront any decision that might endanger the welfare of Eritreans and exposetheir country to risks. It was in such a situation that the famous convention known as “Waala Bet Ghiorgis” was held; all Eritrean religious leaders, social notables and politicians of the time attended the convention. Unfortunately, the political parties left the convention severly divided on the type of future relation between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
As consequences of the Bet Ghiorgis convention, and other concerns that Ibrahim Sultan espoused, the Islamic League (Rabita Al Islamiya) was formed in 1946 in Keren. Sayed Bekri AlMurghani became the president of the party while Ibrahim Sultan was elected the secretary general of the party, and Kebire was elected as the party’s leader in Asmara and its surroundings. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Sultan the strategist and visionary man, and Kebire the party’s political dynamo, the Islamic League became a formidable Eritrean political force.
In June 10, 1946, thousands of members of the Islamic league and other Eritreans gathered to listen to Kebire’s political speech. As usual, Kebire emphasized the importance of education:
“…I repeated the words ‘Freedom’ and ‘Independence’ excessively, but I didn’t mention the means. That is because the means [to freedom and independence] is obvious and they have only one door: it is education. If we are truly demanding freedom and Independence, we have only one means to achieve that: education alone, education alone….”
In the long speech he outlined his party’s goals and demands; Kebire become the most admired and the most Charismatic leader of the age; his oratory skills and sound vision were confirmed and he remained a trusted politician known for his bravery and respectful character. Fluent in Arabic, Tigrigna, Tigre, Afar and Italian, his speeches were bold, yet diplomatic. Kebire’s personality was expressed candidly in a popular song of the time: “Kebire’s mouth that drips words of honey” and that song became a household jingle.
A letter dated Aug. 25, 1948, which Kebire wrote to his friend Shiekh Nur-Hussien who was residing in Somalia, to brief him about the developments in Eritrea, characterizes Kebire’s humble character. He wrote, “…if only you were not far, you would be the right person to lead us dear brother. But they found me and I had to bear the responsibilities”. Such was the nature of the humble man who was eager to serve his nation with honesty and dedication.
The Andnet party considered Kebire one of the most dangerous men who could undermine their struggle for the unconditional union of Eritrea with Ethiopia and they perceived him as the thorn that stood in their way. They send him threatening messages and tried to intimidate him. Worse, the Andnet thugs burned his farm in Ailet and his Dairy farm in Merara was destroyed by armed members of the Andnet ‘shiftas’ who stole the cows in the farm. But nothing stopped him from struggling for the self-determination of Eritrea and he loudly stated that he was only afraid of the Almighty and no one else. “Cowards can take my life, but they can never own my conviction and views”, is the belief that Kebire so much practiced.
By March 1949, Kebire who has become a mighty political figure and a real threat to the Andnet party, was assigned the task of presenting Eritrea’s case in the UN General Assembly. All Eritrean patriots counted on Kebire to present their case and the Islamic League was confident of his ability to win the debate and present a convincing argument. But the Andnet Party that felt threatened had another plan.
On a Sunday night, a few days before his expected departure to New York to present Eritrea’s case in the General Assembly of the UN, a hired thug shot Kebire with a pistol in a street in Asmara. He was taken to hospital, but he had lost much blood, and doctors struggled to save him for two days and nights. On Tuesday, after stubbornly holding to life, Kebire was pronounced dead. His killer, a known thug in the streets of Asmara, was shipped to Harar in Ethiopia, where he lived in fear until his death few years ago. Many old people of the time know the member of the Andnet party who was behind the hired thug who killed Kebire.
Eritreans still imagine and ponder: what would have been the outcome of Kebire’s presentation if he had lived to present Eritrea’s case to the UN! However, with Kebire out of the way, Aklilu Habteweld’s (The Ethiopian prime minister) team had to debate Ibrahim Sultan’s weakened and grieving team. Omar Qadi, another Eritrean independentist hero, a lawyer himself, commented on the absence of Kebire and said that the “Independentist Movement of Eritrea lost its brightest lawyer”. Ibrahim Sultan lamented, “I lost my right hand” in reference to the death of the great Kebire.
On a sad Wednesday of 1949, Kebire was put in his final resting-place in Asmara, he was 47 years old. Thousands of Eritreans and foreign dignitaries walked behind Kebire’s funeral—a procession that many claim was biggest in those days.
That was a glimpse of the history of Kebire, the father of Martyrs.