Same March, Different Drummer

The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: A “World Distance” that Never Was ( by Yosief Gebrehiwet) is an answer to the question posed by Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All The Sacrifice? (also by Yosief Ghebrehiwet). The answer, it appears, is an emphatic no. The 50-year long journey for Eritrea’s independence was all a March of Folly, argues the author, because (1) the clueless leaders of the “Ghedli generation” tried to (2) replace “Habesha” identity with (3) an “alien” Ghedli/Arabic identity by constructing (4) unsound arguments—economic, identity, denial of rights, federalism—to advance their cause. Now, argues the author, Eritreans, after all the sacrifice are worse off than they were fifty years ago; they are in process of completing the circle but to avoid that they keep lengthening the band and, at some point, it will snap. The solution, says the author, is for Eritreans to reject the “alien” Ghedli/Arabic culture and embrace their Habesha culture, which does not necessarily mean a call for unity with Ethiopia but an assertion of Eritrea’s indigenous culture. The purpose of this article is to rebut all these arguments point by point.

Of course, I am keenly aware that to many Eritreans all this is just self-indulgence: when the house is burning and its residents are suffocating to death what is the use of discussing the biography of the architect and his grade point average? For me, the motivation is this: if you can save them, get to it; if you can’t save them, get your bullhorn and tell them how people just like them found the strength to survive and thrive. The best way to know that you can undertake an apparently impossible task is to know that people just like you have done it.

Before I go to my arguments, please note that my audience here is NOT Yosief Ghebrehiwet because, typically, I refrain from engaging the True Believers: my target audience is the Eritreans who either have had buyers’ remorse about Eritrea (Eritreans in their 20-30s who have been brutalized by the deformed elements of the “Ghedli generation”) as well as the few Eritreans who never bought into Eritrean independence (the Eritreans in their 40s-50s) and, for fun, all the Ethiopians who have been cheering Yosief Ghebrehiwet (all of you Ethiopians who get teary-eyed when Birhanu & Madingo sing ‘Selam Yager Sew’: benatye abesha: babatye Abesha: and nat Ethiopia eske mecheresha!)

I. Egostry

Imagine there is a great game you are into, basketball, soccer, it doesn’t matter. There is this epic game that your favorite team was playing; it went into triple overtime, lots of injuries, referees changed, coaches changed mid-game. You could not attend but, lucky for you, you have a friend who has a great eye for detail and he is a great story-teller. And sure enough he tells you every little mistake your team committed, in great detail, but when it comes to how the other team performed, he has no information at all: it is as if he wasn’t there. Frustrated, you say, but this was a historic game: what did the other team do that was noteworthy? And he has nothing. So you say, ok, so who won? And he says, well, time will tell!

Reading Yosief Gebrehiwot feels a lot like that to me. The Eritrean revolutionaries were not visionary? Compared to whom: to Haile Selasse? Mengistu Hailemariam? A revolutionary emancipator like Ibrahim Sultan had no vision and a relic latching to his medieval system, Haile Selasse, is a visionary? A black Stalin is a visionary? The Eritrean revolution required too much sacrifice, he says. Why is that: was it on a target shooting practice or was there someone on the other side shooting back at us? Eritreans are denying their Habesha identity, he says. Does this apply to the nearly half of Eritreans who want nothing to do with the Habesha identity and the entire luggage it brings with it? What exactly is Habesha identity? What is Ghedli identity?

Arabic is alien identity to Eritrea, he says. Which Eritrea: the coastal Eritrea? The one bordering Sudan?

Development psychologists like Jean Piaget taught us how infants are very egotistical: they cry when mom leaves because they don’t think she is coming back; when they close their eyes, they think the world has disappeared and are surprised to see it when they open their eyes. At some point, they develop, they go through stages, they learn. Unfortunately, this developmental stage is not mandatory for writing about Eritrea, which is why people who are not aware of something do not say “I am not aware of that”; instead, they assert with total confidence “it didn’t happen.” It is ego history. Let’s call it Egostry. And, regretfully, the writings of Yosief Gebrehiwet (where even the footnotes are self-referential), are Egostry manifest.

II. A Clash Of Visions

The Circular Journey In Search of Eritrea asserts, with total confidence, that the “Ghedli generation”—by inference those who rejected Ethiopian identity in the 1940s, those who initiated the armed struggle in the 1960s—were lacking “a clear vision” and were people “with no vision whatsoever.”

There is no truth to this claim whatsoever and I will prove it. Their vision was (a) a rejection of the Ethiopian vision and (b) an embrace of the visions that were promised by the Revolutions happening all around them in the post World War II world, particularly in Asia, in South America and in Africa. Not only where they positively rejecting the decrepit Ethiopian social order, they were embracing the promises of the Revolutions springing up all over the developing world. It was a clash of visions.

A. Rejecting The Ethiopian Social Order: Haile Selasse’s legitimacy to power was that he was a direct descendant of King Solomon. This is what the king (and Ethiopians, including elite Ethiopians, including elite pro-union Eritreans) believed in the 1940s and 1950s (and some do to this date):

In the 10th century BC, Makada, Queen of Saba, ascended the throne. But she was too young and unwise to rule. So she decided to go to Jerusalem, to learn from the wisest teacher, King Solomon, how to administer a State. King Solomon agreed—as long as she paid for her tuition. The tuition in statecraft commenced: she gave him gold, spices, she converted to Judaism, and he gave her education. He fed her, he got her drunk, then he seduced her. She returned back to Ethiopia and Menelik I was born. When he came of age, Menelik returned back to Israel, his dad King Solomon welcomed him, and was ready to make him king, but Menelik insisted on returning back home. Solomon said, son, you can’t return alone and he offered him escorts (retinue, in royal speak.) The escorts just could not envision going to a foreign land without the Ark of the Covenant and they stole it. Solomon sends his people to retrieve it: but God levitates Menelik and his retinue over the Red Sea, and they return home safely to Ethiopia. Menelik avenges his mother’s humiliation, returns home a Christian and with the Ark of the Covenant to boot.

Now all religions make perfect sense to their adherents and all religions sound like weird cults to those who don’t belong to them. Different strokes for different folks. Here’s the difference: Ethiopia’s “new” constitution of 1955 (Article 2 to be exact) said that “the ruling line descended from Menelik I, son of Makeda, queen of Ethiopia, and King Solomon.” 1

So, in the 1940s, when Eritrea’s revolutionaries were sampling Ethiopia, all they could see was a land ruled by kings who had historic, religious rationale for ruling. The only choice was whether the king would be benign and benevolent or cruel and totalitarian. The kings that Ethiopians venerated—Emperor Menelik II, Emperor Yohannes IV, Emperor Tewodros—were religious zealots and expansionists to those “visionless” Eritrean revolutionaries of the 1940s and 1960s who did not want anything to do with a country with such institutionalized barbarity and fear of the Mussulman.

The history of Ethiopia is the history of warrior kings. Sometimes they are modernizing and relatively tolerant, sometimes they are cruel and autocratic. In the mournful words of Abrar Osman, “bzeyka’zi ayneberen kal’e”! There is no story of artists, architects, industrialists in Ethiopia (Habesha big “h” or small “h”) since the oxen and the plough were paired.

The question is: was the king being presented as Eritrea’s emperor, fresh from being re-installed to his throne by the Brits, going to be a just king? A modernizing king? A king who has the interest of the country at heart? Let’s consult history: this king, Haile Selasse, was going to submit to fascist Italy just for the sake of his kingdom and it is only Mussolini’s stupid decision to declare war on the Allies that turned the tides in his favor. This king, Haile Selasse, had to agree to outlaw slavery in Ethiopia as a pre-condition for British help. And this particular king, Haile Selasse, was part of the Shoa elite who built his wealth based on the subjugation of Southern Ethiopia (the Mussulmans and pagans), the empire’s latest addition—a wealth based on export of slaves in earlier years. And how was the new king going to deal with dissent? Dejiat Belai Zelleke, the one Ethiopian who rebelled against Haile Selasse accusing him of deserting his country while it was under fascist attack was publicly executed; the original Weyin movement of 1943-44 that stood up to Haile Selasse’s autocratic rule was brutally suppressed and bombed by the Britsh Royal Airforce. How visionary would one have to be to forecast how Haile Selasse would behave with annexation of a new part, Eritrea, to his empire?

The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea looks at Ethiopia now and says that there is nothing the Eritreans wouldn’t have gotten if they had chosen to remain with Ethiopia. If we are going to create alternate universes, it is much more likely that an Ethiopia without Eritrean uprising of the 1960s would now have been a monarchical absolutist state ruled by the grandson of Haile Selassie clutching his kibre negest. There may have been a rebellion by a Ras here and there (suppressed by the United States) but the trajectory was certainly not headed to where Ethiopia is now, absent Eritrea’s revolution and the Tigray revolution that it inspired.

The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea quotes this author (disapprovingly) for saying the following: “Ethiopia was more feudal, more primitive, less industrialized, less developed, and less democratic than Eritrea and it would slow down Eritrea’s progress.” True enough (if an incomplete quote.) What do I have to say about that? Well, I winced a bit the way I always do when I am forced to read something I read that has already been published. In the words of Tolstoy: “I scarcely ever reread my published writings, if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: all this must be rewritten!” So, if I had to rewrite that passage I would substitute “medieval” for “feudal”: the Ethiopian state was medieval state with an elect-of-God warrior king who owns everything in Ethiopia (people were subjects; land belonged to him); he assigns favors on his chosen by giving them a fief (“gult” in Amharic, “gulti” in Tigrinya); they in turn lease land to peasants who own nothing but a usufruct to a piece of land they call rst. 2 That was the medieval Ethiopia that was calling Eritreans home. No offense and there is no superiority complex implied here but if you are, say, a “Gedli Generation” revolutionary who comes from Massawa, one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan towns, and you are a school principal—I am describing Osman Saleh Sabbe–how appealing is a medieval and xenophobic country like Ethiopia going to be to you? Not. So. Much.

B. Envisioning A New Eritrean Social Order

As I mentioned, in addition to being repulsed by the permanently medieval society promised by Ethiopia, the “Ghedli Generation” was heavily influenced by the revolutionary zeal around the world at the end of the World War. I will give you three examples: two are excerpts from books; and one is something even better: the Eritrean version of The Emancipation Act of the 1940s.

B.1. Visionary Statement from One Gedli Generation Eritrean hero – in his own words: 3

“After the end of the Second World War, we lived in a different climate, which encompassed the three continents, Asia, Africa and Latin America. There was a direct influence from this climate on our thinking and national ambitions. In Asia there was Mahatma Gandhi and his associate and deputy Jawaharlal Nehru, leading the Indian people through the Congress Party on a chain of different battles against the presence of the British and for the independence of India and they achieved it. Close to them, there was Mohammed Ali Jinnah leading the Pakistani people to independence. And further in the Asian continent, there was the Chinese Revolution led by Mao Tse Dong. It was a great revolution, which took a liberation path against the Japanese, and social path against poverty, corruption and feudalism and against drugs… mainly Opium that was imposed by the colonizers on the Chinese people. That revolution achieved a decisive victory against the Kuomintang, which was led by Shiang Kai Shek, who was encircled in the Island of Formosa after establishing its power all over the Chinese region. And in Indonesia there was the exceptional leader, Sukarno who led his country to independence. And there was the battle of Dien Pien Phu under the leadership of General Giap who badly defeated the French Forces in Vietnam.

“Beside those great incidents in Asia, there were not less great incidents happening in the African continent. There was the Mau-Mau in Kenya and its symbol Jomo Kenyatta. And Kwamo Nkrumah the symbol of independence in his country, Ghana. And the resistance of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and their daring operations in the Suez Canal against the British presence. The revolution of the Army in Egypt in July 1952 by the Liberal Officers under the leadership of General Mohammed Negib and Corporal Gemal Abdel Nasser and their colleagues from the petty officers that demolished the throne of the Mohammed Ali family by deposing King Farouq, and announcing the formation of the republic for the first time in the history of Egypt. That revolution had its radical and emancipating social agenda represented by the abolishing of the feudal system, access to education and, finally, nationalizing the Suez Canal. This revolution had a far-reaching influence on the whole of Africa when it made Cairo the center and starting point for all the independence movements of Africa. And when the colonizers became uneasy and felt the risks from the Egyptian revolution and failed in containing it, they intervened and made the famous tripartite aggression on the Sues Canal in 1956, which was led by Britain, France and Israel.

“The Egyptian people stood up to that [the attack]. And Gemal Abdel Nasser imprinted the defiance in his famous call, which he set out from inside the Al Azhar Al Sheriff: We will resist…we will fight. The aggression failed from achieving its goals, which was the dismantling of the Egyptian Revolution. Then there was the One Million Martyr revolution in Algeria against the French occupation, which the world population supported. Then there was the famous Bandong Congress which was a gathering of all the Third World Countries that had newly achieved independence and in the forefront were giants like Chou En Lai, the Prime Minister of China; Ahmed Sukarno, President of the Republic of Indonesia; Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister; Joseph Bros Titto, President of the Yugoslav Republic; and the young and rebellious Gemal Abdel Nasser, President of the Republic of Egypt. There was a singular mark adapted in this congress, which was that of positive neutrality and non-alliance; neither to the Eastern camp, nor the Western camp.

“In spite of its remoteness, we were following developments and reading about the Latin American continent. We were reading the books of George Amado, mainly the book titled ‘The Knight of Hope’. We were also watching movies about Zapata, leader of the Mexican revolution. We were following the Cuban revolution and the attack of Castro on the Moncada Fort in the center of Havana and his arrest and his magnificent defense of himself in court and his escape from prison and his leading of his famous revolution from the mountains of Sierra Madre which was crowned with his victory over the system of Battista and his triumphant entry to Havana. There was also the revolutionary Guevara who became an example and a model, in content and in shape, to all the young revolutionaries of the world.

“We were not limited to following the struggles and news of the three continents only, but we depended on many who were more knowledgeable and more experienced and exposed [than us]. They were directing us to read select books. After reading them, we were meeting to discuss and expose what we had learned from them. As far as we were concerned, the book was a close friend that put us on a continuous state of thirst and hunger for more exposure and knowledge. Many of what we read is engraved on our memories. We read a lot about the Paris Commune and stories about the French revolution and its destroying of the Bastille Prison. We read about the Egyptian peasant battle in [the book] “Donshway’ and from what the memory still holds of our readings, ‘The Battle of the River’ by Winston Churchill when he was a young war-reporter, accompanying General Kitchener on his campaign to occupy Sudan, and witnessed the famous Battle of Kerreri near Um Durman and recorded the courageous resistance of the Mahdist State Army. And the fiction books from the writing of Wales about space-wars, and the travel to the stars, which, with knowledge, has become a reality whereas it used to be only a fantasy. … and the new democracy of Mao Tse Dong…and from the Revolutionary and Classical Russian Arts, the books,’ The Mother’, ‘The Steel’, ‘The Quite Don’ ‘War And Peace’. And from the American revolutionary books written by writers like Richard Wright….

“All that reading and following developments made us feel that we were not alone, but that we were part of a bigger camp of rebelling people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Our slogan was: The victory of a revolution in any place is the victory of revolutions everywhere.”

B. 2. Visionary Statement from another Ghedli Generation Eritrean hero 4

“…but on the general level, our hopes hanged on the values of civilization, the basics of development and prosperity; we were aspiring for a day in which we will destroy the tools of oppression and terror, and throwing away all laws that curtail freedoms to the dustbin of history, so that the banner of freedom and human rights will wave on our skies, instead of the nightmares of injustice, dictatorship and tyranny. We aspired to see that all nationalities and sects will enjoy equality under the shadow of justice and brotherhood. [Where] none will be limited for benefit of the other repression, and no one will be excluded for the benefit of the other. And we were aspiring to be able after independence to provide a job for all workers, guarantee a seat in a school for every student and guaranteeing a bed in the hospital for every sick person, and to continue our struggle thereafter as long as the need was there.”

B.3 . The Eritrean Emancipation Act.

Ibrahim Sultan was born a “Tigre.” Now, given that some of the readers may be Ethiopians, some young Eritreans and some Ferenj (foreigners), a definition may be helpful since “Tigre” is a word that has multiple usages. To an Ethiopian of my generation, Tigre was a reference to anybody who lived in Ethiopia’s state of Tigray and anybody who lived in Eritrea. Ante Tigre! They used to call us affectionately. To a Fernji, Tigre is the name of Ethiopia’s northernmost province. To an Eritrean of the new generation, Tigre is just one of 9 state-sanctioned nationalities that make up the happy Hade hzbi Hade lbi unicorn ranch. But, to the society that Ibrahim Sultan was born to, “Tigre” meant a serf who spoke Tigre and lived in Eritrea’s coastal areas of Sahel and Semhar and parts of Senhit, Gash and Barka. The upper-crust Tigre speakers did not call themselves Tigre but Diglel, Naib and Shemaglle. So a “Tigre” was a serf to a “Diglel”, a “Naib”, and a “Shmaglle”, depending on his locality. A Tigre performed all the labor mostly (but not exclusively) associated with agro-pastoral societies: milking cows, camels, and farming for example. He paid tributes to the upper-crust. He provided free labor. He, well, this is a family website so I won’t say what else he had to endure: let’s just say a Tigre was exploited by the upper-crust.

Shortly after the end of World War II, when the Brits were administering Eritrea, Ibrahim Sultan organized the movement to flatten this structure into a classless society. It was no less than a popular uprising: an emancipation movement. He succeeded. Then, he leveraged the organizational experience from this movement to create the “Muslim League”—named after Pakistan’s movement (refer to the vision of one of “visionless Ghedli generation” regarding the importance of Pakistan above.) Not surprisingly, all the upper-crust Tigre who were upset by Ibrahim Sultan’s new social order embraced Haile Selassie who, of course, displayed them to the world to show that all of Eritrea, Christians and Muslims, accept him as their king.

So for Ibrahim Sultan the steps were: emancipate the Tigre, organize the Eritrean Muslims, build a coalition with Eritrean Christians, call for Eritrea’s independence. His focus was entirely national and the proof is: he made zero attempt to organize Ethiopian Muslims and he spoke constantly of how Eritrean Christians are joining the independence movement in increasing numbers even as the Ethiopian representatives to the UN (most of whom, he enjoyed reminding them, were of Eritrean ancestry) ridiculed his notion that Eritreans who were proud of their Ethiopian identity would ever join the independence movement.5 Now, who had a clearer vision: the Ethiopian diplomats with their elite education or the revolutionary Ibrahim Sultan?

III. “Identity By Subtraction” vs “Identity By Consolidation”

Before we go to the merits and demerits of subnational, national and supranational identities, let’s address the phrase “Identity By Subtraction”, a lexicon best articulated in Eritrea’s political discourse by Yosief Gebrehiwet. Mainly it is this: Eritrea had no identity of its own; so, to create an artificial one, it had to do it by stripping itself of all the cultural identities it shares with Ethiopia, Habeshaness, its “center of gravity”; that the whole Eritrean identity is based on denying (subtracting) Ethiopian identity. The question is: is this true? And, if it is true, is this something unique to Eritrea?

First of all, conflicts homogenize a populace and demonize the other and it is for that particular reason that they are used by the rulers. It is a universal phenomenon in statecraft. 6 The “Identity by subtraction” accusation can be applied to every country in the world including, of course, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s entire appeal and charm to the West was that it was a Christian island surrounded by the Mussulman and the Pagan. In other words, Ethiopia, to differentiate itself from the Arab/Muslim world, had to deny that its own identity included a large segment of the “Mussulman”, the pagan and the Arab man who, to this day, has a large role on the designation of the Ethiopian Patriarch. If you want to see to what degree the “Mussulman” is “the other” which had to be subtracted from the Ethiopian psyche, all you have to do is read the biographies of any of the “great” Ethiopian rulers: Menelik II, Yohannes IV, Tedros. If you are into old rare books and you just don’t want to fork out rare money, go to the Guttenberg Project ( (you are welcome) and you will find marvels like this: 7 “By his power (of God) I drove away the Gallas. But for the Turks, I have told them to leave the land of my ancestors. They refuse!… I have exterminated those enemies (those who killed Bell and Plowden), that I may get, by the power of God, your friendship….See how the Islam oppress the Christian!

Now, the Eritrean visionaries could embrace this history and hope that seventy years later perhaps a man named Demeke Mekonnen Hussein could become the deputy prime minister of a country whose history forced Hussein to name his son Mekonnen and for Mekonnen to name his son Demeke. Or, they could offer a better alternative, which they did. It was the Grand Bargain, the Eritrean Covenant, that has been chipped away ever since.

IV. The Eritrean Covenant

The Ghedli Generation of the 1940s saw the same thing that Yosief now sees: that Eritrea is a “formidable six-decked divide” (agrarian/pastoralist; lowland/highland; Muslim/Christian; multiple languages: Tigrinya/Arabic; non-Habesha/habesha) but whereas Yosief saw nothing but a terrifying combination, for them, it was a neat formula for peaceful co-existence. A basis for a grand bargain: an Eritrean Covenant. This is what they said to each other: You can have Tigrinya as official language; but you must allow me to name Arabic as my official language without giving me lectures about how it is alien and would I really prefer English, said one side. Fine, said the other. We can have this thing we are calling Eritrea, but I have no intention of giving up my Habesha identity because I am very proud of it, said the other. Fine. You can develop all sorts of land policies but it cannot treat agrarian society as culturally or economically more superior to the pastoral, said one. Fine, said the other. You can be as proud as you want of the Habesha heritage but you cannot wave its green, yellow and red tri-colors: we will have our own, said one. Fine, said the other.

In other words, what the Ghedli Generation of the 1940s created was a formula for a multi-cultural society, a distinct alternative to the medieval Christian monarch absolutism that Ethiopia offered. This is what they negotiated with UN Representative Matienzo in the 1940s after Matienzo had a series of public meetings throughout Eritrea. This is what Matienzo instituted in the Federation agreement with Ethiopia. So it wasn’t an identity by subtraction; it was actually an identity by consolidation. And it carried them through to the Armed Struggle—because Ethiopia unilaterally violated this agreement, this Eritrean Covenant–until people discovered Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and, of course, Isaias Afwerki’s Nehnan Elamanan. And then, that compromise was blown to smithereens.

The Circular Journey is proposing that Eritreans embrace their Habesha/habesha identity for their salvation. It describes “Habesha” with big H as the identity applying to all who are citizens of Ethiopia and Eritrea, regardless of their ethnicity while retaining “habesha” with small “h” to Eritreans and Ethiopias who speak Tigrinya or Amharic. It is an interesting delineation but spectacularly unworkable and an explicit rejection of the Eritrean Covenant. For one thing, there are millions of Ethiopians and Eritreans who, while appreciating Yosief Gebrehiwet’s generosity to bestow on them the supra-nationality of “Habesha” are not interested in it, and all the baggage it brings with it. Without going too far, there was an Ethiopian website called (now closed) which had chosen its name with good intentions was forced to admit “we have learned that many in Ethiopia do not associate with the term h/abesha, as it excludes groups such as Oromo’s, Somale’s, and the many Southern Nationalities And Peoples. We have also learned that there are a number of Eritreans who do not refer to themselves as “habesha” such as Rashaidas, Kunamas and others.”8 The website could have added Tigre, Nara, Saho, Afar to the list of people that do not consider themselves Habesha (small h or big h thank you.) It is just a non-starter for many. This is NOT the result of Italian, English, or Ghedli indoctrination: identity is felt at a gut level and if it is not felt, it just is not felt. That dog won’t hunt, let it go.

More pragmatically, Habeshaism is a supra-nationality: an identity that transcends borders. It is, ironically, the same as Pan Arabism. Or Kurdistanism. Or Pan Africanism. Supra-nationalism and, its younger sibling, sub-nationalism are really identities of blood and heritage and history. They are static. Nationalism, as formulated by Eritrea’s visionaries, is identity based on IDEA. An idea of equality, justice and mutual respect. It is dynamic. And the reason this idea is flailing in Eritrea right now has a LOT to do with the fact that the PFDJ has reneged on the Eritrean Covenant that our Founders negotiated in the 1940s and has essentially embraced the worst aspects of the Habesha (big H) value system. And, if Habeshaism is your solution, I argue (and I will elaborate further below) that the Isaias Afwerki regime is the perfect system for you.

The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea also argues that the fact that Eritrean elite insist on identifying with the “alien” Arabic culture is also one of Eritrea’s ailments. This is furtherance of egostry: “I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t know any Eritrean who speaks Arabic; therefore, those who are trying to identify themselves with Arabic culture are trying to import something alien to substitute for Habesha culture.”

Now we are talking about identity and I am going to do something really bad: I am going to recommend a book. This one is by Jonathan Miran and it is called “Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa.” For centuries, to the Massawaeen, being from Massawa (Bade in Beja; Batsie in Tigrinya and Tigre) meant: “possessing a strong sense awareness of one’s Muslim identity as a basis of solidarity and ethics, a sense of attachment to the wider umma, and a sense of connectedness to Arab history and Arab culture.9 The most prominent families of Massawa, the Hayutis, Batuqs are all of Hadramaut origin. Massawa was for centuries a melting pot of the Hadramaut, the Turks, Arabs (Jeddah), as well as Tigre and Saho speakers. And, for centuries, the conversational language was Tigre, Saho and Arabic but the “official” language (marriage certificates, death certificates, announcements, court proceedings, in short how the “State” spoke to the “citizen”) was all in Arabic. With the same vehemence that Ethiopia considered itself a “Christian island”, the residents of Massawa considered their city a “Muslim island” and, in 1841, when the French wanted to establish a Catholic Church in the city there was wide indignation. The history of the city is tied with Islam (as a route to Mecca pilgrimage) and Arabs (trade, specially after the opening of the Suez Canal.) And this city was no remote land: it is Eritrea’s first capital city before the Italians decided to establish Asmara as the capital.

Similar arguments can be made of the Eritreans in the Sahel, in Gash, in Barka, in Senhit and indeed in the highlands where Muslims insist that their children learn the Quran in its original Arabic (whether they understand the language or not) so that, when they grow up, they can participate in Islamic Endowments (awqaf), Islamic education (scholarship), in business (trade) and the entire Islamic rituals. In The Eritrean Covenant (the original Eritrean constitution) when the Independence Bloc insisted on having Arabic as co-official language, it was to preserve this identity. Just as the Habesha supra-nationalism has a strong appeal for half of Eritrea and should be respected, so does this Arab affinity have a strong appeal for half of Eritrea and should be respected. Simply because it was in the original Eritrean Covenant. And ignorance is not a great defense.

V. Honoring and Dishonoring The Eritrean Covenant

Many things that are written by aggressively ignorant people make me laugh but none more so than the claim that because the intellectual force behind the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Front was located in Egypt then, by definition, the ELF must have been Arabist and Islamist. Some of them attended Al Azhar! They had Muslim names!

First of all, for some Eritreans to be swept up in the Pan Arab movement was no more ridiculous than for Eritreans to talk endlessly about “MaHber Sheqalo” (when we had had no Sheqalo, (working class) to speak of) in the 1970s. It is also to completely miss the point about what Pan Arabism meant in the 1960s when nations like Algeria were waging a war of liberation: it was a decolonization movement. When Jemal Abdel Nasser (a devout secularist) made his nationalist call to liberate the Suez Canal, he made it from Al Azhar University, a symbol of Egyptian civilization.

How about the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt? Was Eritreans enlisting with them to fight colonialists (as one founder of the ELF did) a case of Islamism or comparable to Englishmen and Americans fighting in the Spanish Civil War against fascism? Look at how a then-22 year old Eritrean member of Sudan’s Communist Party10 describes the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt: “Beside those great incidents in Asia, there were not less great incidents happening in the African continent. There was the Mau-Mau in Kenya and its symbol Jamo Kenyatta. And Kwamo Nkrumah the symbol of independence in his country Ghana. And the resistance of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and their daring operations in the Suez Canal against the British presence.”

Now what is Arabism? What is Islamism? And who are these Eritrean Islamists and Arabists in Egypt who founded the ELF (or made up its leadership, according to Nehnan Elamanan)? They have no names, do they? Once again, it is always easy to collectively stigmatize, but when you go individual by individual, it is harder to do it.

One of them, the oldest, Idris Mohammed Adem, was head of the Eritrean Assembly in the 1950s during the Federation. Elected to membership by the people and to his post by his peers. He was part of the original Great Compromise Architects that I mentioned above so when did he become Arabist and Islamist?

Another, Dr. Taha Mohammed Nur, returned to Eritrea after independence, served in both the Referendum and the Constitutional Commissions, was arrested in November 2005 and died in PFDJ prison in 2008. Was he an Islamist too? Maybe a Jihadist?

The authors of these sloppy pieces have now aimed their target at Hamid Idris Awate. After years of trying to paint him as a parochial figure and an illiterate tribalist, after years of trying to paint him as an Islamist (never mind that he was waving an Eritrean flag) he has now become, according to Yosief Gebrehiwet, a “genocidal criminal.” It is beyond surreal. A Somali author of a great book about Eritrea in the 1940s affectionately gives one of her characters in Gerset the name awate11 and here we have our own people trashing the man based on hearsay. The image of Hamid Idris Awate adorns the home of every dispossessed Beni Amer and Nara refugee in Sudan. These are people who are, square inch per square inch, the most brutalized by the revolution their son started and now, very casually, they are being told their son was a “genocidal criminal” based on, wait for it, the propaganda of those against whom he stood up and those who allied with them. These are people whose lands are being expropriated if not by the government then by Nevsun which is poisoning it with cyanide which will affect their water and their land for generations to come, but, by all means, find one more reason to add insult to their injury.

Anyway, for the first 10 years of its existence, the Armed Struggle honored the Great Compromise, the Eritrean Covenant mentioned above, then it discovered communism. Now Yosief and I can agree that communism was a terrible vision—but we can’t deny it was a vision. The communist system was not interested in compromises between Muslims and Christians, lowlanders and highlanders, agrarian society and pastoralist. It was all about having the oppressed people, particularly those who were doubly oppressed, rise up against the oppressors. “Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” It taught one to be more sympathetic to the oppressed Ethiopian farmer than it was to the opportunistic Eritrean bourgeoisie. It spent more time talking about the October Revolution (Russia’s) than its own September Revolution12. The Eritrean, just like his ideological counterparts throughout the world, was, to borrow Herui T. Bairou’s words “lost in the mist.”

Around the same time, Isaias & Co began their assault on the Great Compromise by issuing their critique of the Armed Struggle in a manifesto entitled Nehnan Elamanan, which accused the Revolutionaries of attempting to impose Arabism and Islamism on Eritrea. It played up the stereotype of the Mussulman as an anarchic and unjust creature addicted to random slaughter and an insatiable sexual appetite. It rejected the duality of Eritrea (Christian Muslim, highland lowland, etc) in favor of an arbitrary system whose organizing principle is languages. It denied the need for dual official languages opting for the “equality of all languages” which miraculously resulted in everybody being fluent in one language: Tigrinya.

But the vision still remained and animated all Eritrean lovers of justice: post independence, Eritrea will be a democratic Eritrea, we said. Remember, Eritrea was based on an idea and not on bloodlines and myth. So who cares what the Fronts believe: post-independence power will be returned to the people and they decide, democratically, whatever arrangement they want. They may re-institute The Great Compromise, and here, there are encouraging developments in that even the EPDP, a remnant of Nehnan Elamanan, accepted—however grudgingly—that Eritrea will have Tigrinya and Arabic as official languages. In the future, the people may say that that was a design suited for a past time and tell us, hey, come on, be like Turkey and Indonesia: you don’t need Arabic to be Muslims. The people may institute ethnic federations. They may reinstate the old provinces and have a decentralized but unitary state. It is really all up to the people. But whatever it is, it will not be imposed by a warrior king claiming divine inspiration: it will be negotiated between the people.

VI. The March of Folly (Same March, Different Drummer)

Given the myopic and ego-historic view of The Circular Journey In Search Of Eritrea, it is unsurprising that the author would apply the March of Folly label to the Eritrean Revolution when, more precisely, it should be applied to Ethiopia’s futile, expensive, disastrous, 50-year campaign (1941-1991) to maintain Eritrea as part of Ethiopia. The “March of Folly” applies more to super powers and super power wanna be states who exert great effort to latch on to a bygone era.13 What did they have to show for it? What did they get in 1991 that they couldn’t have gotten in 1941?

Right around the time I was reading Yosief Gebrehiwet’s article I was alerted to an article written by Eritrea’s own Jeff Foxworthy, Amanuel Biedemariam.14 The article is, as usual, incoherent and worthy of being ignored. It refers to as “flying goats.” A flying goat is based on the old Eritrean adage of two friends debating whether a distant object is a bird or a goat and in the middle of their discussion the bird flies and the loser says, “I don’t care if it flies; it is still a goat.” It was quite funny when we first thought of it 7 years ago and applied it to the writers who were having conniptions when we reported that USAid has been expelled from Eritrea and when the news was confirmed, the true believers said, “nope its not true.” We liked it so much we even created a flying goat graphic for it15. And they will continue to have conniptions and nervous breakdown as all the lies they believe crumble and all their heroes finally, at long last, leave the brutal dictator one at a time.

So why do I bring it up? Because the hero of Amanuel Biedemariam, Isaias Afwerki, is a cult figure, an autocratic warrior-king, a relic exemplifying the worst aspects of the ancient Habesha value system, the same ones that Eritrea’s founding fathers rejected in the 1940s and 1960s. Now, Yosief Gebrhiwet argues that the solution for what ails Eritrea is for it to embrace its Habeshaness. But, I would argue, Isaias Afwerki has created the epitome of Habesha land. It is not a coincidence that all the Great Ethiopia advocates who, in theory should hate him because he played a large role in severing Eritrea from the motherland, actually love him. Wend new ebakeh! Why? Because he has replicated the Habesha Land of history:

a country where a warrior-king reigns supreme defeating an enemy here and an enemy there;
a country where the king, an Elect of God, rules over his subjects;
a country where the king owns all land and gives fiefs (gulti) to his chosen servants which he can take back at will;
a country which stamps out all “heretical” new religions;
a country that revels in being ignorant—actually celebrates it and counts progress not by new inventions but by how many enemies have been vanquished;
a country which promotes agrarian values at the expense of pastoralist;
a xenophobic country which considers Arab as “alien” and Islam as something that has to be tolerated;
a country that has reduced all of Eritrea’s Muslim heroes to tribalists, Jihadists, sectarians.
a country that practices frontierism (grabbing “undeveloped” land) at will.
a country waving its version of the Green, Yellow and Red flag, arbitrarily designed by Isaias Afwerki, to replace the one that Eritrea’s founders negotiated (and voted on) with Anze Matienzo.

All of these, and many more, are the luggage of the Habesha identity. Seventy years ago, we said we will take the best parts of Habesha identity, the best parts of Arab identity, we will be governed by ideas and not by blood. Then, we took the best of both and the best values of humanity and created a culture of volunteerism, sacrifice, honor, valor— i.e., the Ghedli. This is our heritage, and this is our salvation. And part of the reason that our movement to save Eritrea is delayed is that many people are either ignorant of or want to abrogate The Grand Bargain that Eritreans negotiated and settled on in the 1940s. They do this by dismissing the 1952 constitution as “Matienzo’s constitution.” They do this by calling the Eritrean flag “Matienzo’s flag.” They do this by unilaterally calling Arabic “alien”; by having no awareness of Eritrea’s history; by spouting off the offensive propaganda of Haile Selasse. They do this by defining the Eritrean Ghedli by its excesses. These terms of co-existence which were negotiated in the 1940s are not set in stone and they can be negotiated: but they cannot be done unilaterally and they can’t be done with a dismissive, condescending attitude that is all too common in Eritrean literature.

Finally, The Circular Journey In Search Of Eritrea argues that the author is not calling for unity with Ethiopia. Yes, but, as the author also admits, this is for purely pragmatic reasons: he doesn’t think that it could be done easily and he doesn’t think that there is a willingness by Ethiopians to do it. But, if he could just snap his fingers and make it happen, would he? If yes, why isn’t a Neo-Andnet or Neo-Ethiopian an accurate label?


1 Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. California: University of California Press; 2002

2 Markakis, John; Ayele, Nega. Class And Revolution In Ethiopia. New Jersey: The Red Sea Press; 1986

3 Naud, Mahmoud. Hareket Tahreer Eritrea Alhaqiqa Weltarikh (Eritrean Liberation Movement: The Truth And The History). Self published in Arabic. Excerpts translated by Awate Team in 2001.

4 Berhatu, Mohammed Saeed. Haza Huwa AlHal (Arabic for “This is the solution.”) Self published in Arabic. 2002.

5 Reta, Zewde. Ye Ertra Guday (Amharic for “The Eritrean Case.”).

6 Tronvoll, Kjetil. War & the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia. New York: Boydell & Brewer Inc. 2009.

7 Blanc, Henry. A Narrative Of Captivity In Abyssinia With Some Account Of The Late Emperor Theodore. Published 1868. Published in e-book 2005.


9 Miran, Jonathan. Red Sea Citzens – Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2009.

10 Naud, Mahmoud. Hareket Tahreer Eritrea Alhaqiqa Weltarikh (Eritrean Liberation Movement: The Truth And The History). Self published in Arabic. Excerpts translated by Awate Team in 2001.

11 Mohamed, Nadifa. Black Mamba Boy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2010.

12 EPLF. Mahta (in Tigrinya): “No revolutionary movement without a revolutionary ideology.” 1980.

13 Tuchman, Barbara. The March of Folly: From Troy To Vietnam. New York; Random House Publishing. 1985.

14 Biedemariam, Amanuel. Mr.Twgahmo,Wegiha-do? The Dawning of Eritrean Politics. retrieved October 31, 2012.

15 “ and the flying goat.” Awate Team, August 27, 2005



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