Home / Articles / WOLDEAB WOLDEMARIAM: A Biography of a Visionary Eritrean Patriot, by Dawit Mesfin

WOLDEAB WOLDEMARIAM: A Biography of a Visionary Eritrean Patriot, by Dawit Mesfin

Review by Bereket Habte Selassie

He spent a major part of his adult life fighting for freedom and human dignity, in a passionate struggle on behalf of his people, the forgotten people of Eritrea. His struggle was frequently a lonely one under bitterly disappointing circumstances—under conditions of mortal danger to his life and amid continued betrayals. Friends and fellow Christian comrades, who had broken bread and worshipped with him to the same God, abandoned him. His fellow Christians accused him of betraying them in favour of Muslims, and Muslims suspected him of being a crypto-Unionist favouring union with Ethiopia. Yet he carried on in the struggle undaunted, advocating unity among his fellow Eritrean compatriots—Christians and Muslims—and holding the Liberty torch aloft preaching the “Gospel” of national self determination and independence.

We are talking about Woldeab Woldemariam, a national leader of Eritrea who was subjected to seven assassination attempts on his life over a period of six years (1947-1953) a fact that makes him unique among historic figures. As Dawit Mesfin, has noted in his newly published biography:

 “History is littered with assassination attempts on prominent political leaders. Many have met violent ends—and many others have escaped with little or no harm. Woldeab, who must hold the record on attempted assassinations, miraculously narrowly escaped all of them.” (p.168).

This reviewer has the privilege of having been one of Woldeab’s young students at the Geza Kenisha School in Asmara, which he co-founded and directed. He was my mentor for the major part of my adult life, and I am one of few Eritreans who visited him in 1956 in Cairo during the early years of his exile. That was a few months before his famous Tigrigna broadcast from Cairo was stopped as a result of the pressure brought to bear on Egypt by Western powers favourable to Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s demand to stop the broadcast was made because Woldeab’s daily broadcast in Tigrigna had aroused enormous public support for his demand for Eritrea’s independence, much to Emperor Haile Selassie’s worries.

When I first heard that Dawit Mesfin was thinking of researching and writing about Woldeab, I was extremely pleased and encouraged him to go ahead and wished him well. A little over a decade ago, Dawit came all the way from London to interview me, as he also planned to interview others including some members of Woldeab’s family who live in America. There has been considerable delay in the book’s publication; but I say, better late than never, particularly now that I have read it.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the review of this book, let me indulge for a moment in memories of my youth at the Geza Kenisha school as a student of Aya Woldeab, as we referred to him. Looking at the two sets of pictures on page 30 of the book—one of his wedding (1943), and the other with a group of family members and friends taken in Asmara in 1991. Comparing the two pictures, I am at once struck by the huge difference between the two and became painfully aware of the human condition under which we are all are subject to the passage of time and its effect on life. In the wedding picture at the bottom half of the page, Woldeab was in the prime of his life, handsome and elegant as well as commanding. I will be forgiven for the use of a hyperbole and say that no one I know deserves the word “charismatic” than Woldeab does. And to one who knew him closely, and was taught by Woldeab, the word conveys not only physical qualities of grace and charm, but also a mental and spiritual quality, especially when one is a member of an audience that had heard him teach in class or preach in church. While I did not see him in action in political meetings that the biographer describes (I had left Eritrea by then), the writer does a good job of conveying Woldeab’s intellectual and spiritual qualities and his skill and eloquence in the use of the Tigrigna language. The wedding of picture with Woldeab and his bride took me back to 1943 when the newly-weds came from Addis Ababa and the school community gave them a warm reception.

The school authorities urged us students to make modest contributions for a gift of flowers to the bride and groom. Each class sent a representative to visit the couple in the home of Aya Woldeab in the center of the school ground. I was honoured to represent grade two and we were given sweets by the bride and groom. I remember taking the sweet to my class and giving it to our class teacher, Mr. Seare Kahsai, who happened to be Woldeab’s childhood friend. Seare distributed the sweets to those sitting in front of the class.

The next time I saw Aya Woldeab was thirteen years later in Cairo when I was returning from study in England and on my way home. He had changed considerably; he was older and thinner and I noticed a scar on his neck, the mark of a bullet that tore from his shoulder and entered his neck and had nearly killed him. I could not help being very emotional and teary-eyed upon seeing him thus, a seemingly broken man, living as an exile in a foreign land. Stoic that he was, he smiled at my emotional reaction to our meeting and said something to the effect that life is full of struggle and that we have to face such things with courage. That put an end to my emotional reaction and we went on to speak about him, his life, work and so forth. Before our parting, he gave me an envelope to deliver personally to his wife, Aberash. He said there was some money in the envelope. He asked me to give her his warm greetings—no less!—and impressed upon me and through me all Eritreans to think of his children as their own and pay them visits. Upon arrival in Asmara where the family was still living, I went to visit them and gave the envelope to Aberash who received me graciously with her beautiful smile…

Then, nineteen years later, Aya Woldeab and I met in Beirut in 1975. After that I saw him several times in Italy and in America. This time we met as fellow freedom fighters; for by then, I had become active in the Eritrean liberation struggle. I say fellow freedom fighters, but he was still my esteemed mentor and exalted national father figure respected by everybody, except a handful of self-aggrandizing power hungry people who resented his rightful place in Eritrean history.

 A Biography as a Labour of Love

When Dawit Mesfin first told me he was interested in writing about Woldeab, my impression was of an earnest young Eritrean activist, smitten by the glorious tale of a legendary figure and driven by the need to share his story with fellow Eritreans thus paying a well-deserved homage to a man whom he and his generation admired and knew only from the distance. All I expected was a rather lengthy article to be published in one of the burgeoning websites like Assenna, Asmarino or Awate. I had gained an inkling of Dawit’s intellectual qualities for the first time when we met in Berlin in 2000, as members of what came to be known as G-13, and we became close friends and corresponded continually thereafter.

To my pleasant surprise, what came out as Woldeab’s biography is a thoroughly researched and carefully written piece of work deserving serious appraisal, which is what I hope to do in this review. To that end, I will offer brief descriptions of the structure and content of the book accompanied by summary evaluation. Then there will be a short conclusion at the end.

Structure and Content

Following a six page Introduction, the book’s content is divided into the first three chapters dealing with a summary of Woldeab’s life of struggle and unshakable faith in his liberationist mission as expressed in the various stages of his advent into political struggle, with its many ups and downs involving bitter disappointments with people.

This is followed by eight chapters divided thematically into Woldeab as teacher, journalist, “wordsmith,” activist, trade unionist and exiled nationalist continuing to espouse the cause of Eritrean independence and the freedom of its people. The book ends with the eleventh chapter, under the title “The Revenant.”  It is a stirring chapter filled with informative and deeply revealing anecdotes.

In the interest of brevity—economy of space—and due to the fact that all of the aforementioned attributes of Woldeab were deployed in the service of the cause of his beloved Eritrea, I consider them in groups of two or three, for example Woldeab as teacher, journalist and activist can be dealt with together. To these may also be added his linguistic skill, though I would personally add Woldeab as poet instead of only “wordsmith.” [With regard to Woldeab’s poetic gifts, the late Ethiopian Professor Tamrat Amanuel once compared him to Kebede saying Woldeab is to Tigrigna what Kebede Michael is to Amharic].

Teacher, Journalist, Activist

Woldeab always believed in the power of teaching, the biographer opines, and this reviewer readily agrees. His attitude about teaching and teachers lived with him as a significant attribute even in old age, and certainly while he was engaged as fighter for freedom and human dignity, as a journalist as well as trade union leader. In the segment on Woldeab as teacher, the biographer writes that those who knew Woldeab well “bear witness to his skills in debate circles.” He adds an appreciation of his “beautifully composed articles, in Tigrigna, in the Eritrean Weekly News (EWN), the newspaper he would later run…” As to the source of these skills, the author states that Woldeab gave credit for this to his father and the village gatherings that he used to attend as a young boy, spending hours listening to the speeches of the village elders. He jokingly called the village gathering (the Baito Adi) his university.

Just as Muslims had their education system based on teachings of the Koran (Qur’an) with the aim of raising Muslim students with the basic tenets of Islam, among Eritrean Christians, the Orthodox Church and its traditional schools provided education, which survived for centuries. This traditional church-based education was designed not only to prepare a clerical class to teach religious doctrine, but also to preserve and pass on the social and cultural heritage of the church. The method depended on oral recitation and memorization. This traditional and religious education maintained the social structure, whereas education under colonial rule as well as European missionary education, conducted mainly in towns, was often “the catalyst for social change.” So as far as Woldeab is concerned, over and above the village assembly that provided him his linguistic and cultural base, his education at the hands of missionaries gave him the impetus for a different kind of development. Being born in the household of Aboy Woldemariam who had converted to become a Lutheran protestant, Woldeab’s life took an entirely different course than those of his fellow village boys in Adi Zarna, Seraye. Evangelical Protestant Christianity had become the anchor not only of his spiritual growth but also as the wellspring of his intellectual development.

It should be remembered that the Swedish protestant missionaries who spread the Gospel in Eritrea did so under Italian colonial rule, which meant that Italian was the working language of the colony and the missionaries needed Italian speaking teachers. This fact impelled the Swedish missionaries to call upon Italian Protestants to join their missionary project. That was how a joint operation between the Swedish Evangelical Mission (SEM) and members of Waldesian Church began to work in Eritrea. The Waldesian Evangelical Church (Chiesa Evangelica Valdese) is an Italian Protestant denomination, found in the north of Italy. That was how Woldeab became immersed in Italian language and culture. He left his village of Adi Zarna at age 18 and joined the Swedish Mission School in Asmara. The teacher quickly learned Italian. He became proficient in the use of Italian both spoken and written. Eventually he entered the four-year Teacher Training Program in Beleza, the school run by Italian missionary teacher pastor Tron. After four years in the teachers training school Woldeab came out as a full-fledge teacher. It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Pastor Tron’s influence on Woldeab in terms of intellectual development and his immersion in Italian language and culture.

Woldeab as Teacher      

He was assigned by SEM to teach in Asmara for a short period, after which he was assigned to teach in Kunama land, where he used the opportunity to study the Bible, tutored for three years by a Swedish woman missionary called Emebet Signe Berg until 1935 when she was expelled with the rest of Swedish missionaries by Italian fascist authorities. Signe Berg, a nurse by profession who had lived in Asmara, became Woldeab’s mentor and, over a period of three years, she taught him the Swedish language.

Woldeab’s insight into the empowering role of education was expressed by him in various circumstances, both as teachers as well as political activist and trade union leader. The author sums up Woldeab’s  thinking about the role of education as follows:

“One can acquire a better understanding of Woldeab’s demeanor as a teacher and public educator by examining the wide-ranging books he used for class. He used a wide selection that dealt with world history, politics and sociology. Not only did Woldeab teach literacy, the Bible, languages, history and sociology, he also taught music to his students. Considering the state of Eritrea during the first half of the 20th century, the early stage of the establishment of education systems under various colonial governments, and a local structure opposed to change, one can argue that he did magnificently well.”  (p. 57).

Woldeab expressed the impact of teaching on his life and work by saying: “ Being a journalist, even after leaving the teaching profession, also made me feel as if I was teaching .” In other words, once a teacher, always a teacher.

As in other fields, journalism was absent for Eritrean natives during the Italian colonial era, though there were Italian newspapers catering to the needs of the Italian community.  These were specifically written to inform Italians about news of happenings in Eritrea and the rest of the world, and to spread colonial stories and disseminating Fascist propaganda.  All this changed with the advent of the British upon the defeat of Italian occupation. By the end of 1942, the British introduced Eritrean Weekly News (EWN). Woldeab joined the editorial work in EWN and immediately set about the work of influencing national Eritrean sentiments, at first  utilizing the formation of Mahber Fikri Hager (Patriotic Society) before it fell apart with division among the various protagonists. But that did not stop him from advancing his ideas using EWN (or Nai Eritra Semunawi Gazeta inTigrigna).  As he continued writing articles and editorials in his magnificent Tigrigna, his fame and influence spread far and wide among Eritreans.  The core ideas that Woldeab propagated incessantly in EWN were the importance of love, truth, honesty and his faith in God. This represented the manifestation in his journalistic role of the formative ideas and beliefs that he had imbibed in his evangelical church throughout his adult life. According to Dawit, Woldeab’s messages carrying Eritrean nationalist sentiments created tension between those who agreed with him and the others (perhaps the majority) who entertained “Ethiopian nationalist” sentiments.

Woldeab as Journalist and ‘Wordsmith’

Journalism and activism in politics are intimately connected. One is, or can be, the means for the other’s ends. Good politicians use journalism to communicate with people whose opinions matter, who can help in the attainment of aims. This is elementary and Woldeab instinctively knew it and used it effectively. His linguistic skills and effective use of folklore and apt proverbs and popular stories and anecdotes made him the best communicator of the times. Dawit Mesfin notes some of the problems facing Woldeab and his independence cohorts . He notes, for example that the EWN and in general the newspapers established by the British were conceivably intended “to provide a window for Eritreans to the outside world, to introduce foreign concepts such as self-determination and democracy in the country.” However, he observes that this happened at a time of growing economic distress, divisions among social groups and unrest. And he speculates that perhaps Eritrea was not ready for the “street politics” that EWN introduced. Woldeab himself later admitted that his own views as well as those of others were unclear regarding Eritrea’s future. Dawit contends that the views of Eritreans were “muddled” by the “sudden collapse of Italian rule, the institution of British rule, and systematic Ethiopian meddling in Eritrean affairs….”

In the context of this muddle, it is possible, Dawit argues, that Woldeab possibly thought he could help give clarity and influence Eritreans to adopt a unified approach. He seems to have thought that the newspapers that he edited and practically controlled (EWN, and later Hanti Eritra) would give him access to, and perhaps impact on, a much larger segment of Eritrean society than he could have influence previously. That Woldeab excelled in the use of Tigrigna is beyond question; he mobilised it and sent it to war for his ideas (to use Churchill’s use of English during World War II). The problem was that at the same time there were many who harboured different views about the future of the country who also took advantage of the newspapers, including EWN to advance their competing thoughts.

It is of great interest (and certainly of interest for historians) what the role of the British administration was in the context of the contention between those who sought Eritrea’s  independence and those who fought for union with Ethiopia. Dawit hazards an opinion tentatively thus: “Perhaps the paper (EWN) was established to facilitate social and literary processes. Even if the British envisioned EWN would provide Eritreans with a voice and enable them to participate in their governance one of their main aims was to steer the locals towards supporting their administration…”Dawit continues his opinion in the same vein, “Although Woldeab was not allowed to stray into the overtly political and dialectical, he did not totally shy away from confronting the assumptions and premises of Eritrean society through his articles. He was driven by his instinct, insight and experience. ”

Woldeab’s use of his new-found medium was not limited to politics pure and simple. Donning his teacher’s hat, so to speak, he set out to teach his countrymen (and women!) of the importance of history, morality, truth, discipline and unity. He did this and more in spite of the restrictions that were imposed on him by the British. Dawit gives an example of an essay Woldeab wrote in 1942 about the differences between democracy and dictatorship in which he clearly delineated the power of the people. “by juxtaposing the universal values of democracy with the Eritrean way of life, he emphasized that Eritreans should be steadfast in their quest for democracy. In other words, he was expressing his concerns about Ethiopia’s intentions.”

With respect to Woldeab’s views about imperial Ethiopia, there are stories about what he said about its government after he visited Ethiopia and lived there for a year (1937-1938).In his remarks he was expressing his dedication to the democratic values and against the imperial (dictatorial) values. Obviously his views were not shared by the Eritreans who, at the time, were gung ho for Ethiopia–democracy be damned! And although he was vindicated in the long historical perspective, at the time and for almost half a century he was a tragic figure that suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The Challenges of an Activist  

One of the contentions expressed in this book repeatedly is Woldeab’s contribution to the development of the Tigrigna language, which started with his famous articles and editorials in EWN and Hanti Eritra. This may be regarded by some as consolation prize in view of the suffering that Woldeab and his family went through. To language enthusiasts the consolation prize is no mean achievement. But in terms of Woldeab’s primary objective in his journalistic endeavour was not linguistic excellence, but rather using language for his political aim, namely freedom and the independence of Eritrea. In that respect the forces aligned against his aim turned out to be equally adamant in the pursuit of their objective even to the extreme measure of attempting to physically liquidating him. And they almost did, with Ethiopian government’s considerable power and its agents and minions determined to do its bidding, including hired bandits.

Apart from the challenges posed by Ethiopia and its Unionist supporters, Woldeab was also faced the crisis created in the intra-Muslim feud, which the Unionists seemed to have exploited. The crisis occurred when the Unionists opened an office in Keren in January 1947, and following that they opened more offices in other towns, including Adi KeyiH, SenAfe and Segeneyti. The Unionists falsely claimed that Eritrean Muslims supported their cause and denounced the Muslim League. The Muslim League on its part emphatically denied the Unionist’s claim. Through all these Woldeab worked with other Eritrean nationalists as he continued to edit EWN. In February 1947 he played a key role in setting up an organization, Eritrea for Eritreans with the aim of countering the Unionist’s increasingly aggressive offensive.

The Unionist’s offensive included scare tactics attempting to draw the Christian highlanders toward them by warning them against “misguided Muslim intentions.” Attacks on the Muslim League intensified in publications in EWN still edited by Woldeab, who tried to remain even-handed ignoring the Unionist attacks. It may have been partly his even handed treatment of views that he himself opposed, that some Muslims suspected him of favouring the Unionist cause. As some Muslims allegedly left the Muslim League and joined the Unionists, the battle of the Media escalated raising rhetorical temperature to an all-high level. A few months earlier in late 1946, Woldeab and other Eritrean nationalist leaders grouped under the umbrella of the Patriotic Society (Mahber Fikri Hager) had made an attempt to avoid division and instead to resolve the existing differences simmering below the surface. It was the famous (or infamous) Wa’Ela Biet Giorgis (22-23 November, 1946) that Woldeab attempted to arrive at a reasonable compromise between the two factions of the Patriotic Society members, namely the Unionists and Independentists. The escalating rhetorical violence mentioned above, reached feverish heat when Tedla Bairu (future Chief Executive of Eritrea) questioned Woldeab’s Eritrean citizenship, which became the last straw that broke the Patriotic camel’s back. In response to Tedla’s attack, Woldeab wrote an impassioned response in his article “Who has the right to speak about Eritrea,” published on 28 November 28, 1946(EWN, No.222, 28/11/46).

Woldeab Seems to Falter

After a few heated exchanges in the “Media War” between Unionists and Independentists, the head of Information of the British Administration, Major Lane, intervened to put a halt on the heated controversy between the two main contending forces, the Unionists and the Independentists. He made an announcement that EWN will not be allowed to become the forum for the settlement of personal feuds. The tug of war (as Dawit describes it) between the contending forces subsided and very soon after Lane’s Announcement, the Unionists established their own newspaper called Ityopia (Ethiopa) in April 1947.

The author first notes that Woldeab’s “most controversial series of articles under the title of ‘Eritra Nmen?'(To whom does Eritrea belong?) appeared in early 1947. Then he writes (with puzzlement and perhaps anxiety) the following lines;

“For the first time it appears that Woldeab was faltering in his resolve. He argued that Eritrea and Ethiopia could be reunited under specific conditions. It calls to mind a damning personal letter Woldeab is said to have written to Emperor Haile Selassie in 1947, explaining his position on the Eritrean situation of the time. Some have seen the writing as a weakness of resolve on Woldeab’s part, or even of hypocrisy, but apart from the fact that there are serious doubts about the veracity of the hand-written letter, the episodes should perhaps be taken as evidence of Woldeab’s readiness to negotiate and discuss, rather than hold on to blind ideological inflexibility.”

To these insightful musings, should be added the claim that Tedla Bairu and his Unionist colleagues had demanded unconditional union with Ethiopia. Seeing anxiety and ambiguity in Woldeab’s weakened position, they took advantage of the opportunity to reject any suggestion of compromise. And Dawit concludes that they unleashed a series of attacks on him. It is crucial to remember that 1947 was the year when the Four Power Commission was dispatched to find out the opinions of the Eritrean people on the question of what they wished their future to be—independence or joining with Ethiopia.

In the Shadow of Death

1947 was also the year when the Unionists, with Ethiopia’s encouragement, had begun to use terror as a weapon of choice in their determined efforts to eliminate the principal figure of the Independent Block. They began armed attacks on Woldeab. In chapter eight of the book, titled ‘Woldeab in the Shadow of Death,’ the author gives dramatic narrative of the attempts on Woldeab’s life. Here and in other parts of the book, he paints a picture of a man determined to do whatever it takes to achieve his aim of the independence of Eritrea and the freedom of its people, even if it takes the sacrifice of his life. It is a picture of a “True Believer” who subjects everything for the ideal of Freedom. The Italicized epigraph opens the chapter opens with Woldeab’s statement:

“If there be someone who dares to attempt my assassination in order force me to submit to acting contrary to my beliefs and will, then I also have in me the courage to die for my political ideal, for the cause of liberation of my country, and for the genuine interest of my brothers and sisters.” 

During the mid-forties, the second wave of shifta activities coincided with the turbulence accompanying the debates and “media war” mentioned above. The Unionists, with Ethiopia’s goading and financial support, had resorted to using the shiftas to intimidate supporters of independence both Christian and Muslim. The Unionists believed that the independence cause was supported by Italians and dominated by Muslim communities. In the context of the political turbulence as well as divisions within the ranks of the Independence Block, the attitudes and actions of Woldeab induced a reflection on the part of his devoted biographer. Dawit begins his reflection by noting Woldeab’s character, which he described as aloof, arguing that it was the cause of Woldeab’s failure to foster a network of comrades and devotees. He contends that “whether incapable by character or unwilling by nature, he failed to build bridges with the influential figures who controlled or represented Eritrea’s ‘public sphere.’”Could the cause be the Protestant ethic and the doctrine of “predestination” that led to the reluctance to cultivate “…the educated class, interested in advancing their careers, village elders, largely ignorant about the situation in the country, church leaders, with aspirations of joining their brethren from the south of the border.” Woldeab’s mistake, Dawit argues, was “to believe he needed only to win the minds of leading figures in what was still a traditional society.”

As for Woldeab’s declaration that he was ready to sacrifice his family for the sake of the freedom and wellbeing of his “brothers and sisters,” opinions has always been divided between those who admired his readiness to sacrifice his life and family for his ideal of freedom and independence on the one hand, and those who condemned him as being heartless and unduly ambitious to become Eritrea’s leader.  And here let me inject a personal view as a former student and admirer of a person I considered as my mentor. With the fate of his family in mind, when I met him in Cairo in that Summer of 1956, I had raised the question of the choice between compromise for the sake of family and thereby modify (if not abandon) one’s position on political ideals. I had broached the question with hesitation and due respect.  His response was an unqualified defiance and assurance that he would go the whole hog even unto death. It was the response of what some characterise as that of a fanatic. I did not press it because I had complete sympathy with his ideal; indeed, his courageous attitude and firmness of purpose impressed me and even influenced my own views on the Eritrean question, as I am sure it did that of many other Eritreans, including the goons who lead Eritrea today. [Did I say “lead”?].

On the occasion of one of the several attempts on his life, his friends had come to visit Woldeab in hospital. They begged him to be careful. The noble lady by the name of Aberash who was his wife and mother of his children is reported as saying that his friends were telling him that to struggle for one’s homeland was noble, but they also used to remind him to look after his children. And Woldeab would respond saying, “My children have God on their side; however, before their welfare comes our liberty.” On another occasion, when some of his followers tried to prevail upon him to abandon his project for otherwise he will surely be killed and his family as well as his followers will be orphaned, he is reported to have responded, according to Tsegai Iyassu (a former student and disciple) that though his name is Woldeab, the son of Woldemariam, he considered himself as Wolde-hizb (son of the people). His family falls into that category, and if he is eliminated in the service of his people, then so be it—he would be fulfilling his duty.

Exile, Liberation and Return to the Homeland

As the family and friends desperately tried to persuade Woldeab to give up his struggle due to the imminent danger of death as a result of the assassination attempts, he became even more adamant and determined to go on waging his struggle. In the end, after the seventh and last assassination attempt in March 1953, with his colleagues and fellow combatants in apparent disarray and the Unionist forces seemingly on the ascendance, he felt the need to leave his beloved country and family behind and begin a life of exile. Recalling that fateful day of departure, he said: “Leaving Eritrea freed me from the constant shadow of death, ending fear and flinching, pain and sorrow. The reason why leaving did not make me happy was due to the fact that my heart was weeping as I left my country. In Khartoum, Sudan he felt physically safe, but was in great mental anguish. His heart was filled “with emptiness.”

From Khartoum Woldeab relocated to Cairo from which he made heroic attempts to reach his people through radio broadcast, which lasted for an all too brief but brilliant period during which the “wordsmith” (poet/political philosopher) reached the vast majority of his people. Those broadcasts acted like an earthquake in a nation traumatized by imperial Ethiopian rule with its determined efforts to undermine the modicum of freedoms provided to the people under the UN-arranged “Federal Act.”

Woldeb empowered a new generation of Eritrean nationalists who, after Emperor Haile Selassie’s overreach went to the bush to start a national liberation war. The abolition of the federation by the Emperor reignited the revolutionary fire simmering below the surface for many years. The Emperor was never satisfied with the federal arrangement. One gloomy morning, he summoned this reviewer and asked about the idea of federation and what use it is for Ethiopia, and especially the Eritrea-Ethiopia federation. As I have recorded in my memoir, “The Crown and the Pen,” he asked me pointedly what would happen if the federation was abolished. In a moment of holy madness I told him it would be like arousing the sleeping lions!. To say that he was furious would be a gross understatement. His decision to abolish the federation in 1962 was obviously motivated by a keenly felt need for him to become greater than the great Menelik.

Yes, the lions that had gone to the bush were indeed aroused and emboldened to achieve by force of arms what had been denied Eritrea through diplomacy. And the old lion who had inspired the generation of armed fighters, returned to his homeland in glory and gladness. Upon arrival at the airport, he lied prostrated on the ground, giving thanks to Almighty God.

The rest is history.


The sacrifice of Woldeab was emblematic of the sacrifice of Eritrean freedom fighters across two generations. Eritreans, Christians and Muslims, fought a lonely fight for thirty years. They fought in the plains and hills of Barka and the valleys and mountains of Sahel and brought the fight to the highlands and proclaimed victory in May 1991. Dawit Mesfin’s biography of Woldeab should be read together with Joseph Venosa’s  book, Paths to the Nation: Islam, Community and Early Nationalism in Eritrea (1941-1961). And the two books should be required reading among Eritrean communities the world over. I also issue a personal appeal to Eritrean scholars, particularly Muslim Eritreans, to write biographies of Ibrahim Sultan Ali, Abdulkadir Kebire, Idris Awate and other great leaders who, like Woldeab, led the fight for our independence. In case some have done the job in Arabic, then we need these translated into English.


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  • ghezaehagos

    Selam Honorable Dr. Bereket, Dawit et al,
    I first would like to thank Dr. Bereket for bringing us to our attention the book on WEWEL by Dawit Mesfin. Congrats Dawit for your book and many thanks for that. In the Zeitgeist, the social media landscape of today, scholarship seems to sorely missed. Dawit’s biography on Aboy WeldeAb hence is welcomed to fill serious gap.
    Moreover, the writers mostly focus on people’s history but few on biographies, if any. It is understandable for a communal and egalitarian culture as ours; but biographies are powerful tools to understand the motivations of historical figures and also the times.
    Now: the multi-million dollar question is: who would write Isaias Afewerki’s biography? Wow; that would be something else.
    Back to Aboy WeldeAb; one of the greatest Eritreans ever lived. I so much admire Aboy WeldeAb my passwords are/were wordplay on his name and his village, Adi Zarna. He fascinates me greatly and I am glad we have a book written about him.
    I don’t know if Dawit knew this or included it in his book. One of the people in the know told me many years ago Isaias was envious of Aboy WeldeAb and he worked to marginalize and undermine him. The reason is because he doesn’t want anyone to be remembered except the name Isaias. Even after independence, the head of state rarely met him. It is shocking to me at least; but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense.
    Ghezae Hagos

  • Ismail AA

    Selam Prof. Berekht and Dawit,

    Those of us who are interested in Eritrea’s developing historiography should be grateful for the initiative Dawit had taken and delivered as well as for the fatherly consummate intellectual encouragement and counselling Prof. Berekhet had given to him to persevere and finish the project. I have read this wonderful review as proof of how much the prof. was interested in Dawit’s endeavor for the reasons expounded in the context of this review. After having read the book and this review one cannot miss the fact how knowledge pupil to teacher attachment had inculcated in the memory of the pupil has matched with knowledge an inquisitive rising intellectual’s research had garnered synchronized to paint a lively portrait of one of Eritrean’s great personalities. It is clear from the interview how the prof. has deployed his expertise to enrich the liveliness of the story. It is true that the value and success of any literary work is portrayed by the versatility and status of learning of the reviewer(s) it provokes. In this case, too, Dawit as an author has been blessed to attract a reviewer of Prof. Berekhet’s status and erudition.

    Having jotted these cursory notes, I must add a few sentences on one or more points that always popped up in my mind whenever issues pertaining to the memory of the late Wel Wel arose. I think one or two of the points I am going to state here in the form of questions had also been cited in my rejoinders to Dawit’s introductory articles at this website.

    1. If we look at the pre-1953 (exile) period, what we know about Wel Wel had more to do with pursuit in search of reform, and as I learned now from Prof. Berekhet’s interview, and democracy or even merging Eritrea with Tigray, than straightforward quest for complete independence. But from his initial years in Cairo, we heard him calling for independence through the famous broadcast. Now, the question is could we understand Wel Wel as a politician who started with two-phase plan or plan A and B as we currently put it? Was his disappointment in regard to plan A (democracy and Tigray) that led him to resort to plan B and closed ranks with his other contemporaries who sought independence?

    2. His years in Eritrea before exile was, by and large, marked by a kind of lone struggle with written word through his historic news bulletin. I mean we do not see him organizing a grass roots organization or been involved in what politicians engage in such alliances or use of mechanisms that fit ambitious politicians seeking power and leadership as ultimate objective. Can we consider this as Wel Wel’s weakness that exposed to danger as a lone man trying to accomplish work that demanded a whole nation’s national effort?

    3. Was Wel Wel actually constrained by his own character or religious ethnics that prof. Berekhet has touch in passing to involve himself in evolvement of mass based support base?

    4. Did Wel Wel show in ambivalence at one point or another during his career in regard to national identity (Eritrean vs Ethiopian) perhaps due to the divisions and problems the Eritrean struggle had been facing, which could have warranted the doubting the chances of victory of our struggle amid then existing regional and international balances? At this point, I would like to include a reference I read in Professor Negussay Ayele’s review (published in 2000) of Zewde Retta’s book on Eritrea by my former history teacher, prof. Sven Rubensen, with whom I assume Prof. Berekhet, is very familiar. “In a conversation at his exile domicile in Cairo in 1970, with Professor Sven Rubenson (published in a Swedish paper (Om Varlden, # 7, 1999), Mr. Welde Ab said that he was an Ethiopian, adding “ if I am not an Ethiopian, then who is?””. Considering the time the encounter took place, and the credibility Prof. Rubensen as accomplished scholar and historian had, can this suggest uncertainty or skepticism about the future of our struggle in the mind of Wel Wel?

    5. Assuming that Wel Wel was familiar with character and propensities of the individuals that were leading the struggle, especially the current dictator, do we know in one way or the other why Wel Wel did not put return of Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan and Idris Mohammed Adem as precondition to his return to Eritrea? From his tribute to Sheikh Ibrahim one can sense the sorrow Wel Wel had about the death and burial of his comrade in struggle and mission in exile.

    Finally, I would like to thank Professor Berekhet for his advice for reading Dawit’s book along with J. Venosa’s book as well as his appeal to Eritreans to research and write about the lives of the rest of the founding fathers.

    Thank you prof. Berekhet and Dawit


    • Dawit Mesfin

      Dear Ismail,
      You raise important points in your treatise. I believe one can find answers to your questions in the book. Of course, it would be easier for me to pluck passages out from the book and to present the reader with reasonable answers. If I do that I would de-contextualise the issues and do disservice to the subject matter at hand. Anyway …
      1. Tigray-tigrign: It is important to emphasize that during the early years of the EWN confusion reigned in the Eritrean political landscape. Ethiopia’s infiltration of Mahber fiQri hager, the establishment of the Eritrea for Eritreans group in which Woldeab took part, the Wa’Ela biet giorghis event, the Tigray-Tigrigni movement and the gradual BMA push to divide Eritrea into two parts all made it difficult to establish democratic journalism. Woldeab had to navigate a minefield in order to engage public sentiment while asserting his own nationalist beliefs. It was only possible through his prodigious intellect – an intellect so distinctive it posed threat to the traditionalists, the clergy and the careerist elites influenced by Ethiopia’s campaigns. (Pp 86-87). However, Woldeab’s position on what was known as the Tigray-Tigrigni plan was never made entirely clear. Alemseged Tesfai has also written a few pages regarding this issue – with no conclusion, I am afraid.

      Zewde Retta, an Ethiopian historian, journalist and diplomat who served under Emperor Haile Selassie for a long time, penned a long passage in his book ye’eritra guday, under the title of ‘honorable refugee’, which attempted to make a mockery of Woldeab. Zewde states Woldeab’s secret plan, promoted by the British, was to unite Eritrea and his ancestral home of Tigray. I am not convinced by Zewde’s arguments – he bestowed praise after praise on Tedla, Dimetros, Asfaha and other unionists. However, his assessment of Woldeab was highly negative (that is not difficult to decipher).

      2. “WW was a lone campaigner …”: Yes, he was a loner but somehow he managed connect with public. In Cairo he was isolated. By the time he moved to Europe and the US he was not young anymore – besides, to the young combatants he was ‘the old man’.

      3. “Was WW actually constrained …”: I think he had numerous constraints … he was, primarily, a teacher. The rest was thrust upon him.

      4. WW claiming to be ‘Ethiopian’: I am not sure about this claim, Ismail … knowing WW, having worked on the project for ten years, he was an inflexible man when it came to stating his position. The foreign correspondent do make mistakes. Here is a similar case that might be of interest:
      Two Danish newspapers, Politiken and Berlingske Tidende, ran stories on 18/11/1987 and 19/11/1987 respectively, stating that Woldeab said Eritrea was a Christian country, an issue which had been wrongly exploited by his enemies. Many, especially ELF sympathisers, attacked Woldeab for having claimed that – something he had never said. In fact, four days later, on 22/11/1987, both newspapers issued correction by changing the wrong statement. By apologising for the mistake both newspapers wrote: Mr Woldeab Woldemariam stated that Eritrea is a Muslim and Christian country.

      5. Why didn’t WW push for the return of the remains of Ibrahim Sultan and Idris M Adem to Eritrea?
      This is an interesting question. I haven’t come across any document that addresses this important issue. Let’s assume he did at some stage. Do you think Isaias would have dignified such a demand? I doubt it.


      • Amanuel Hidrat

        Selam Dawit & Ismail,

        A student of history always ask provocative digging questions. Ismail did his training. Notwithstanding, I found your response believable, especially for one who absorb the life history of welwel from his family. I am enjoying your debate.


      • Ismail AA

        Dear Dawit,
        Thank you for your time to deal with the question point by point. I concur with some of them project a broader focus which makes the sense of your last sentence in this introductory paragraph reasonable. As I tried to tell brother Haile S. above it was my attempt to get comments from you and quite remotely Prof BH on the issue raised by Prof. Rubensen. Moreover, you are right about the Danish papers, as I remember, though I tend to distinguish between inquisitive journalists and an accomplished professor of political history with prolonged experience.

    • Haile S.

      Dear Ismail,
      Coming out of my comfort zone on staying on generalities, let me interject in your discussion with Pr Bereket and Dawit on one point and try to give another possible alterative explanation to yours, assuming WelWel said those words to Pr Rubenson. Pr Rubenson was one of the well known high caliber Ethiopianist. It is possible for people (WW in this case) to take some latitude proportional to their interlocutor. In addition such expressions are context driven to which we are now completely blind. Imagine WW an induividual close to Ethiopian culture and society talking to a professor coming from the extreme north albeit knowlegeable of all ins and outs of Ethiopian history, there could be temptations to prove what one says or knows is close to the core.

      • Ismail AA

        Dear Haile S.,
        It was the same thinking you project through this comments that pinched my curiosity to pose that issue to the two men who know much more about Wel Wel due the points I stressed in my opening paragraph just to generate their comments. The one thing that interested me in this matter is the credibility and knowledge of the late Prof. Rubensen who was my teacher in college. Any report from him should be taken with due seriousnes for academic credentials he held as well as his personal and deep involvement in the study of Ethiopia’s affairs, especially since 1935.
        Thank you for engaging.

        • Some communist guy

          Dear Ismail,

          Although I found your remarks interesting and a good start for a collective discussion on Woldeab,
          I have, as an academic (as i teach in an European university) I have to tell you that Rubenson’s work
          is considered today as unacademic by most scholars. In the last ten or fifteen years, no serious PHD dissertations, article or book quoted or mentioned Rubenson.

          Best regards

          • Ismail AA

            Dear Some communist guy,

            Good that you expressed good will towards collective discussion not only on Wel Wel but I suggest on other common concern areas, too. As to the information you shared on late Prof. S. Rubensen, this is maiden news to me. I do not know in which European university you lecture, but it is probable the focus and orientation of interest may vary from university to university. The area of Prof. Rubensen’s specialization could perhaps be less relevant to an European university save in quite circumscribed discourses areas on departmental levels. I have yet to see academic experts level evaluation of the professor’s voluminous publications extended through decades since he played active role in the establishment of the history department at the former HSI University which won praise for its academic competence and standard according to appraisals of famed university staffs, including from the USA. Under the auspices of Prof.Rubensen and names like the late Profs. Segew Hable Sillassie, Taddesse Tamrat, Dr D. Crummey, Merid W/ Woldegebriel and many others who had left their imprint the academic advancement of the department the history department attained prominence. It was the first department that started post graduate studies in Ethiopia. I am sure intellectuals like Prof. Berekhet do know the contributions of the Professor.

            The last time I visited Addis Ababa was in 2011 and whenever I happen to be there I visit my first campus at Sidst Kilo especially the library and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. I found a lot of works authored or edited by the Professor, and athough he had returned to his place of birth in Sweden, his traces were every on shelves of the college libraries or book shops. Anyway, perhaps you might have baded your point on valid assessments which I should respect for the moment, but I am looking at the issue through the prism of academic credentials and attainments neutral to political perspectives.

          • Mez

            Der Some Communist Guy,

            1) (In the last couple of days), I checked (in big professional subject-matter databases) your statement:

            …..that Rubenson’s work
            is considered today as unacademic by most scholars….

            Your statement is wrong; no evidence supporting your proposition.

            2) Regarding the quote of his work by contemporary researchers, your observation may be valid to a greater extent.

            In my subject area the predominant literature resources shall come from no more than five years old research publications. Hence, the less citation of a person who was in the subject area since mid 1930ies is not unusual.

            This is, of course, unless you study and teach theology–which is time invariant.

            Thanks Comrade

  • Brhan

    Thank you Dr. Bereket,

    In addition to your call to have biographies of other Eritrean icons, I also call to produce movies, including documentary movies as well as stage plays about these icons.


  • Yossef Kesete

    selamat seb-Awate

    Thank you Dr Bereket for the excellent review and Dawit Mesfin for a beautiful biography of one of Eritrea’s Founding Fathers. I hope others come up with biographies of Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan, Abdelkadir Kebire, Ra’esi Tessema Asberom, Hamid Idris Awate and others.

    On a different note, dear Dr, do you think the 1997 Consitution can be used a rally point to unite the diverse set of opposition parties and movements and perhaps help in forming a broad coalition for positive change in Eritrea?


    • Peace!

      Selam YK,

      Well said. And while waiting for reply to your question, if you allow me to chime in, the 1997 constitution is a public asset (choice), and is the best option for kick off start given the fall of PFDJ will likely to make the transition extremely complicated and the situation volatile as well. I am afraid we will not have a luxury time to write a new one.


      • Yossef Kesete

        selam Peace

        Yes! In the absence of an alternative that is agreed by the opposition, it’s my conviction that those who value the 1997 constitution should double our efforts to increase its visibility in both cyberspace and published media. As it currently stands, most of the debates and discussions hardly mention it. And that’s a sad reality that needs to be changed sooner rather than later.


  • Dawit Mesfin

    Dear Memhr,

    I was totally (and of course, nicely) surprised to read your review of my WW book. Frankly, I did not see this coming … it has come in such a breathtaking format it rendered me speechless for an hour after reading.

    I found the points you highlighted heartwarming and your delivery thoroughly astounding. The notes regarding your personal dealings with WW were exquisite. What does one say when praised by a prominent scholar like you? I am actually very introverted. I am having difficulty handling acknowledgement.

    Memhr, writing the WW book was a journey, an exploration of sorts and as you said, ‘a labour of love’ – the costly kind. I started from nothing and then learned more as I dug in. I am glad all that is behind me now. I remember the day I flew in to Chapel Hill to confer with you on how to handle the project. I recorded our conversation which I will share with the public one day – you were not only supportive but inspirational. I do not think I would have proceeded with the project had I failed to secure your encouragement.

    Let me stop here for now to gather my thoughts. Thank you.

  • MS

    Dear Dr.
    Thank you for the magnificent review. You have just reminded me to order the book, it is available on Amazon. Thank you too for your service.
    I don’t know how the book addresses the following areas, but I’m interested to see if:
    (a) Welwel showed any changes in his political thinking after leaving Eritrea and if we have found the archives of his broadcast from Cairo
    (b) his relation with the pioneers of the armed struggle and with the declaration of the armed struggle itself, was he of the opinion that an armed struggle should be waged
    (c) his relation with the field leadership of both organizations
    (d)his role in stopping the “civil war”
    (e) There is a period of “silence” of Aboy Woldeab early seventies to late eighties, any reason, or he was active in some way?
    Aboy Welwel is perhaps one of the founding fathers of the idea of independent Eritrea, and one of the few who paid dearly for that idea.
    The author of the book (of course without divulging too much), IsmailAA, SGJ, Emma and anyone is invited to pitch in.

    • Dawit Mesfin

      Dear MS,
      I see that you have invited me to address the questions you have raised in your piece.
      a) radio broadcast: I have spoken to some who were listening to his broadcasts. I wish I had copies of the transcripts. I tried to get hold of them but I was simply given the run-around. I am sure they are there buried in a dusty room within the Radio Cairo building.
      b) this is clearly explained in the book – he had an on and off relationship with Nawud and a difficult one with Adem.
      c) Woldeab worked well with Sabbe at one point.
      d) His role in stopping the civil role? I have addressed that in the book. Summary on page 266.
      e) Period of silence: Woldeab is again isolated during the war of attrition between the ELF and EPLF mid 70s.
      I hope this helps,

  • Kebessa

    Thank you Dr. Bereket. Great article!
    The lions and the lionesses went to the bush to reclaim what Ethiopia had taken away from them, and reclaim they accomplished heroically. Unfortunately the going to the bush to reclaim what’s taken is still around albeit in a different form. Most important among the taken is your own work, perhaps your greatest work, our constitution, the constitution of the nation of Eritrea. This document is shelved but never dead. It will be pulled out and put to work when its time arrives. There is no other option.
    God bless Doc! Niberelna.