Review: Herui Tedla Bairu’s Book

Title: Eritrea and Ethiopia: A front row look at issues of conflict and the potential for a peaceful resolution.
Author: Herui Tedla Bairu
Publisher: RSP: The Red Sea Press:
Year: 2016
ISBN: 978-1-5690243-0-0
Pages: 308

A lucky encounter got me to talk to Mrs. Mehret Bairu. Not entirely sure about the exact time, but it was during the time when Herui Tedla Bairu, her nephew and the author of the book under review, was touring the US as the newly elected chairman of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA). However, I do vividly remember where we met; it was at the home of a friend.  A decade later, the impression she had left on me could neither be easily defaced nor erased by the corrosive passage of time and the frailty of human memory.

It is rare that I come across the ilk of Mrs. Mehret Bairu; there was an unmistakable aura of respectability about her. I am almost sure it had nothing to do with her advanced age, although, it might have added to it. No wonder Herui describes her as “the epitome of modern and independent Eritrean womanhood” and “the Matron of the Nursing School in Asmara for several decades.” No doubt her full gray hair with her serene face had added to her dignified and noble demeanor. There was a je ne sais quoi about her.

Beneath the glasses she was wearing, I could see the placid but sharp and penetrating eyes that bespoke her intelligence and sagacity. She was leading a small group of believers in prayer and mezmur selam reminiscent of the prayer-houses of early Christianity. It was an uplifting experience that even a Tewahdo to-boot like me can partake in, appreciate and enjoy. It sure was an edifying and enduring lesson that beauty and love transcends all. Amid this ambiance, my curiosity got the better of me and had to ask who the lady was. “She is weizro Mehret,” my friend responded, “the sister of Tedla Bairu.” Since the age of four, I recall hearing about the Bairu family; and the first thought that came to my mind was that the apple, truly, doesn’t fall far from the tree.

My childhood memories are sprinkled with popular songs like “ati men kediniki zAleba: Tedla Bairu zeyelen sni Tseba” (Hey, who has donned you the robe? It was Tedla Bairu with his teeth as white as snow [milk]) and “Wedi Tedla neAba telay wedana rgum amHaray.” (Come quick to our rescue, son of Tedla, the cruel Amhara are wiping us out.) The Bairus were an important part of the Eritrean imagination and zeal that swept the mid-seventies and the three decades preceding it. The author is absolutely right when he said, “Judged by the leading roles the Bairu family played in the politics of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the books, essays, and articles that flourish about them, it is possible to claim that they constitute one of the most influential families in the Horn of Africa.”

When the prayers and hymns came to an end, my friend asked if I could give Mrs. Mehret a ride home. Enthusiastically, I responded in the affirmative–knowing full-well that it would afford me an opportunity to pick on her brain. And that is exactly what I did. During our conversation, I informed her that I was part of a group that was making due preparations for Herui’s forthcoming public meeting in Dallas, and she said something that was pithy, poignant and has stuck with me till this day. Herui, she said, should invest what-ever energy and wisdom that is left in him, in writing the history of his fathers and country (Tarik abotatun adun ytsHaf). She was mindful and concerned that the contributions her family had made could easily be forgotten, and at a human level, I could empathize how she would want her nephew to be preoccupied with the preservation of his family’s legacy.  Indeed, Herui and his family have had “a front row look at issues” which have consumed several generations of Eritreans and Ethiopians, and it is only right that he shares his perspective on this important part of our history–that is still a big part of us. Sharing he does with a perspective that is provocative, enlightening and engaging.

In his new book, “Eritrea and Ethiopia: A Front row look at issues of conflict and the potential for a peaceful resolution,” Herui does exactly that. It is a wish that has come true and w/z Mehret would have been proud. Important as writing is, we are fortunate that Herui has not relegated himself to it only; he is still an active and important voice in the Eritrean opposition, and his philosophy of “Strategy Adi” and “Cooperative Democracy” should be taken seriously and receive a wider audience. I have heard few people shrugging it off as a nativist and atavistic clinging to a way of life long gone; but nothing could be further from the truth. Although the “strategy Adi/Ad” in its core is a call for the devolution of power and the reaffirmation that “all politics is local”, it has the advantage of an unmistakable cultural familiarity and continuity. It could easily be embraced by a majority of Eritreans, as well as Ethiopians, as organic and indigenous. Herui’s genius is in presenting the old as new and the new as old.

The book “seeks to explore the long standing phenomenon of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia by examining the internal political contradictions lodged in each society.” Every conflict in the last seven decades, whether it is Eritrea’s thirty-year liberation war, the so-called border war which flared in 1998 and the struggle against the Eritrean dictatorship in post-independent Eritrea “confirms the centrality of this on-going phenomenon.” If one understands Eritrea’s historical aspiration for sovereignty, as “the first African state to be decolonized”, and Ethiopia’s need of “Access to the Red Sea”, then one can understand the “existing state of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia” and “provide tentative solutions to the conflict.” The boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia cannot be a problem, so argues Herui, since it has been legitimized twice by the United Nations: once in 1952 when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia and later in the 1993 UN-supervised Referendum that finally brought Eritrea’s independence.

The study covers the period between 1941 and 2011 with the hope of providing “a holistic view of the phenomenon of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and within these specific countries.” It relies “on the paradigms of qualitative, context-specific, research, with the researcher’s role being included in the situation;” thus, the claim to “a front row look.” From the onset, Herui points out that “Narratives are to political studies what theories are to the natural sciences.” This allows him to “provide a political interpretation of the phenomenon of conflict in colonial and post-colonial Eritrea and Ethiopia, in a natural as opposed to a laboratory setting, from a holistic perspective, within the context of the paradigms of qualitative research.” Interpretation is exactly what he does and does it well.

It is the narrative which a nation tells that informs its political mindset and identity; and whoever controls that narrative controls the past, present and future history of that nation. Herui puts the popular narrative, that has been reigning supreme in Eritrea for over five decades, up-side-down. He does it by invalidating the basic propositions that have sustained these popularly held narratives. Like a skillful prosecutor, he subjects them to a meticulous reasoning and logic that even shakes the most ardent believer.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to provide the whole megillah, but it will be helpful if I highlight some of the important questions he raises and conclusions he carefully draws. A sample of the important questions the author raises are, “Was the MFH (Mahber Fqri Hager) an Ethiopian stooge organization? In contrast, were the non-MFH organizations ‘nationalists’, understood as upholders of anti-colonialism, national unity, and national independence?” “Do Eritrean political parties during the period 1941-51 satisfy the criteria of Eritrean nationalism, understood as, anti-colonial, national unity and independence?”

The formation of Mahber Fqri Hager (MFH) in 1941 was the culmination of the irredentist movement that has been going on for decades to which Herui’s grandfather, one of the leaders of the Bible Readers’ Movement and an early translator of the Bible into Tigrinya, was an important voice. MFH and the many parties and organizations that came after it in the 1940s were primarily irredentist organizations and not nationalists. “The immediate objective of the founders of the MFH was to demand the abrogation of the apartheid laws of fascist Italy, to replace Italian administrators by Eritreans, and to end the colonial status of Eritrea in favor of some kind of association with Ethiopia.” No wonder MFH eventually morphed into the Unionist Party. MFH was an indigenous, organic and independent organization with no ties to Ethiopia or influenced by it because, “in 1941 Ethiopia was a British protectorate—hardly in a position to influence the foundation of MFG.”

“Until the establishment of the Independence Block in 1949, none of the Eritrean political parties had a program of immediate national independence.”

“None of the Eritrean parties satisfy the criteria of Eritrean nationalism, as measured by the criteria of national unity, anti-colonialism and immediate sovereign independence. Full-fledged nationalism was developed during the struggle for national independence from 1958 onwards, with the formation of the ELM, and, later, the ELF in 1961.”

The Eritrean Askaris who deserted the Italian army to either return to their respective homes or join the Ethiopian army, and who played an important role in the defeat of Italy and in the return of the Ethiopian monarch, were part of the greater irredentist movement. The British saw the MFH as the Eritrean version of the Indian Congress Party and its destruction became their preoccupation. Similar to what they did in India, they succeeded to create the Muslim League but failed to create the Eritrean version of Pakistan. The brutal killing of Eritrean Christians in Asmera in August of 1946, at the hands of the Sudanese Defense Forces with their tacit approval, should be understood within this context. (In protest to this massacre, Tedla Bairu resigned from his post with the BMA.)

“The British encouraged the formation of the Muslim League in January 1946 thus disrupting Muslim/Christian solidarity within the MFH. After the Bet Giorgis Conference (BGC) the Muslim League was the first party to be established in December 1946.” The League had two core objectives: 1. To convince world opinion that Eritrea has no cultural or historical ties with Ethiopia, and 2. To keep Eritrea under British trusteeship until it becomes viable for nationhood.  Four months later the Unionist Party followed. Too much is made of the alleged failure of the BGC, but it has to be pointed out that the first BGC was very successful since all the Eritrean organizations agreed on a common platform and submitted it to the BMA on October 16, 1946. The second BGC (November 24) was “more like a meeting for the implementation of the October Agreement.”

The religious divide that seemed to inform the parties became evident when Ibrahim Sultan, the Secretary General of the Muslim League, argued that “two thirds of the Eritrean population are Muslim; the Christian community constitute one third of the Eritrean population. We, therefore, request that you, the Commission of Enquiry of the Four Powers, recognize the right of the Muslim League to represent the views of the majority of the Eritrean population regarding the future destiny of Eritrea.” Furthermore, it stated that the majority members of the MFH are “not native Eritreans but are of Ethiopian descent.”

Ethiopia, by then, had become a haven for Eritrean irredentist elites who rose to prominent positions in both business and politics and it is not unreasonable for some Eritreans to consider union with Ethiopia instead of Eritrea staying under British, Italian or United Nations trusteeship. In 1944, the Society for the Union between Eritrea and Ethiopia was created (SUEE) in Ethiopia. The SUEE, the author argues, “was established to bypass the autonomous MFH…for the MFH was an irredentist/nationalist organization that did not permit interference in its internal affairs.” The condemnation leveled against the Unionists (federalists) has no merit, and there is no evidence to show that it was funded by Ethiopia. On the other hand, the parties such as the Muslim League (1946) and the Liberal Progressive Party (1947: formerly known as Tigray-Tigrinyi {1943} and Eritrea for Eritreans) of the Independence block were all created and funded by foreign parties such as Italy and the British. “The leaders of the Muslim League and the LPP are in the pay of external powers…and the Pro-Italia Party…was established with the financial support from the government in Rome.”

The resignation of Chief Executive, Tedla Bairu, the author’s father, was in the legacy of MFG and the Unionist/Federalists. The Ethiopian’s understood the significance of Tedla’s resignation and “Ethiopian Cabinet Ministers were instructed to plead with CE Tedla to withdraw his resignation”; they gave up after two days of intersession. Tedla’s resignation speech at Cinema Capital was significant since it was directly tendered to the Eritrean people. “Tedla’s courage in facing matters of principle is…without comparison in the modern history of Eritrea” and his resignation should be “studied as a tolling of the bell for the events that unfolded in the late fifties and sixties. The greed of the Imperial family, and the political system based on intrigue, destroyed the possibility of peaceful co-existence between Eritrea and Ethiopia.” Tedla Bairu, the federalist who fought the annexationist led by Assfeha Woldemichael, would finally join the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1966 and serve in its leadership. The fact that the Chief Executive was replaced by the Chief Administrator tells the story of the Federalists and the Annexationists.

It is important that we go back to the beginning of things to get a better and hopefully more accurate perspective of things. I have focused on the parts that dealt with the 1940s and 1950s because everything that had happened and is happening today is a replay of it. History is unfolding in the present and Eritreans, as people, have yet to muster the courage to meet these too familiar issues head-on. Mistrust and fear have become the hallmarks of Eritrean politics and a genuine conversation on issues that matter are always put aside. Herui has done an excellent work in helping us wrestle with a very contentious part of our history and his courage must be commended.

The book could have even contributed more had the author made an effort to show us not just the good parts of his history and his family’s history but also the bad and the ugly. For someone who has been on the losing side, it is mindboggling why he would not attempt to take personal and organizational responsibility for the failures and shortcomings of the organizations he was affiliated with. He portrayed himself as always right; making the right judgments; who puts the national interest first and foremost; and that just cannot be true; no one is infallible. It was a huge turn-off for me, but I refuse to let a little folly outweigh wisdom. This is a problem not unique to Herui; a lot of Eritrean authors and leaders suffer from it. It is time that people see the wisdom that writing and talking about one’s weakness, vulnerabilities and mistakes does not render one small; it is actually the stuff of greatness. Herui does show a lot of respect and magnanimity towards a lot of his former comrades, but his vindictiveness, regardless of their merit, towards certain personalities such as Dr. Bereket H, Dr. Jordan G, and the late Seyoum O makes him look petty.

Overall, this is an excellent book that every student of Eritrean and Ethiopian history must read. It is a book that tackles the core problems and recommends solutions by someone who had “a front row look at issues of conflict and the potential for a peaceful resolution.”


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