Eritrea: Cutting It Both Ways across the Mereb River
by Zekre Lebona
All nationalist Eritrean historians stipulate that the Unionist Parity in the 1950s had the strong support of Ethiopia from headquarters located in Tigray, resulting in its dominance among the kebesa Christians. What they forget oddly, however, is the parallel phenomenon of the larger political and military input from the same place that was essential in the making of the nation-state Eritrea. Specifically, the cross-border ethnic/cultural influence that existed in the pre-colonial history of the region had undue influence in the road to “liberation”, particularly in the latter part of the war led by the EPLF. Why did Eritrean nationalism not limit itself and depend on the diverse tribes within the colonial state constructed by Italy?
The reasons are as straight forward as Eritrea’s inability to depend on its own resources, necessitating it to close the deficit from Ethiopia, legally or otherwise. The Ethiopian historian, Alemseged Abbay, has dealt with this subject matter in his article, Not with them, Not without them: the Staggering of Eritrea to Nationhood, in which the border issue has no relevance. This paper will attempt to explain Eritrea’s equally tottering and uncertain attempt to clench victory during the war for its independence.
What happened during the invasion of the region known as Eritrea at the twilight of the nineteenth century may be equally relevant for what transpired during the subsequent rebellion for a separate state from Ethiopia:
“The beginning of the Italian colonial presence in Eritrea has to be set against the background of ecological and social devastation, of food crises and a high degree of social and political instability. The demographic collapse caused by the “Great Famine” (1888-92), together with the political fragmentation of those years, hindered the establishment of enduring and effective political systems and undermined the possibilities for strong and cohesive anti-colonial opposition.” 
In the same manner, the strategy of the long and protracted war of the liberation of Eritrea imposed by the modern Eritrean elite in the early 60s was beyond the means, material resources and political commitment of the tribes in whom the vestiges of political strife of the 50s was still robust and alive. We must not forget that there were also elements of hostility and suspicion triggered by religion and the competition for agricultural and grazing land. As the political sector, the agriculture economy was less productive and highly fragmented, except for the few Italian owned commercial farms. Hence, the peasants and pastoralists were not ready to shoulder the war burden with an economy based on a semi-subsistence level.
The EPLF ghedli entrepreneurs, therefore, understood the need for a close collaboration and mobilization with the cross-border densely populated Tigrinya speakers from Tigray, just as the ELF did with the Beja community across the border in the Sudan, and by extension with the Arab world. This decision to shift the war into the kebesa, and later to the south of the Mereb, was not noticed by some of the scholars who supported the war for separation.
Without exception, almost all of the nations in Africa, including some in South America and Asia, were the products of colonial powers that in the process of grandiose imperial projects arbitrarily put together many tribes, including some that comprise same ethnic groups across the artificially made borders. The attempt of many post-colonial African states since the 60s to make a nation out of the former colonial entities was dismal and disappointing. Difficult as this was, Eritrean nationalism embarked to re-create the prior Italian colonial state from the new Ethiopian empire with war, in complete ignorance of the local politics and the huge human and material costs.
All of the scholars tend to agree on the explanation articulated by Redie Bereketeab, to whom Eritrea is an exception story, the end-result of years of a colonial experience and a struggle around a-supra-ethnic nationalism. Bereketeab argues that, “ Eritrea combines the primordial/modernist, the ethnic/civic and ethno-linguistic distinctions. Its nationalism is, thus, based on the unity of these diversities and is by definition supra ethnic.” 
Is this a tenable argument in the face of the internecine conflict within the variegated tribes in the land? Including the Kunama, who allied with Ethiopia and remained mostly hostile to the Eritrean nationalism until their fate of defeat. The scholar omits this remarkable history; he likewise fails to discuss the Rashaida Arab tribe, who completely ignored the celebrated cause, lest it leaves a dark stain on what is largely considered a “sacred” independence war.
The Kunama, according to historians, are the original inhabitants of the region known as Eritrea; but pushed and evicted by waves of migrants such as the Semitic and Cushitic races, they presently live in the south-west lowlands. A minority, they still endure despise and oppression in the hands of the other major tribes in present day Eritrea. In comparison to their lot, the political and economic circumstance of the other tribes was better; yet, the modern Eritrean nationalism did not start in their abode.
It begun, instead, among their neighboring tribes of the Beni-amir Tigre, involving gradually the rest of different Muslim tribes, and securing the solidarity of the people across the border in the Sudan and the Arabs, with whom they happen to share some religious/cultural affinities. The rebellion against Ethiopia, which started in 1961, flickered for many years without a major presence of the people from the Kebesa Christians until the mid-70s, a fact that is still bitterly resented by the lowland/Muslim elites. It explains the glaring absence of the “supra-ethnic” nationalism; that is, the solidarity among the rest of ethnic groups in the land and, most importantly, the open hostility to the cause by the Kunama people.
Under this scenario, the likelihood of the viability and victory of the armed struggle was bleak, but the hegemony of the kebesa Christians and the rebellion of their kin in Tigray-proper played a crucial role in the fortunes of the war. In other words, the Muslim tribe’s power and mobilization was supplanted by the trans-border solidarity of the Kebesa Christians in Eritrea proper and the people in Tigray. This state of affairs, although it was not always amicable and did even deteriorate later into a full scale war with the new regime in Ethiopia, endured many military pressures from the Ethiopian regimes until the very demise of the Mengistu regime.
What brought down the Derg regime is the trans-border ethnic solidarity, a phenomenon which is in contra-distinction to the elements necessary for the formation of the typical nation-state in Africa. What made happen the creation of an independent Eritrea, and the emergence of the Tigray elite as the new power-holders in Ethiopia, was the regional rebellion. It was more than a military alliance, a facile explanation often put forward by some experts of the region. Rather, it was the common religion and culture shared by the rebellion that determined the course of the war, and the source of liability for a sector of the Eritrean population.
The trans-border solidarity that played a significant role in the evicting out of EPLF’s rival organization, ELF, and later in the making of Eritrea has been a major source of friction and contention with the elite of Tigray. It led to a war with Ethiopia in 1998, which puzzled the Tigrayan mother from Gerhu Sernay, to make the following statement: “Our children and the Eritrean fighters were covered with the same shroud.”  The trans-border solidarity has stopped on the state level since the last border war, but has not prevented the exodus of tens of thousands of young kebesa Eritreans from fleeing to Tigray, and the strong link of the regime in Eritrea with the Demhit opposition rebels from Tigray, Ethiopia, who we are told has become its last card.  The strong obsession of the Eritrean public with real or imagined role of the cousins across the border in the past and in its various twists and turns in the present has yet to end. Clearly, the weakness or strength of the political structure of the state of Eritrea is not trans-sovereignty alone as argued by a scholar recently, who pointed out the presence of the regime in the diaspora communities located in Europe, and North America.
It has equally been dependent on the manpower and resources of people inhabiting borders outside its claims for nationhood, which earned the regime extreme suspicion by both the people in the lowlands of Eritrea and rest of the polity, such as the Amhara in Ethiopia. Advancing the theory of “trans-national” mobilization in the different phases of the armed struggle history and in the making of a nation-state such as Eritrea may seem implausible and incomprehensible. Proposing the concept of revanchist or irredentist politics in Eritrea without a revanchist state for a proof is understandably an arduous task too. Etched in the history of the war for a separate nation-hood, however, had always been present the collusion with the rebels across the Mereb in order to defeat either an internal rival as the ELF or the Derg. More broadly then, the defeat of Derg and the independence of Eritrea was disproportionately the handmaiden of the Mereb children. That is what makes Eritrea, “exceptional”.
We have noted that the rebellion in Eritrea, which begun in the Muslim western lowlands, staggered for many years before the people from the kebesa Eritrea joined it. In the meantime, people in the Kunama lands, whose political and economic conditions were by far the worse, refused to embrace the war for a separate Eritrea. They considered it a threat to their existence and instead stood with Ethiopia. Why did the tribe, whose legitimacy for a rebellion was solid, chose to ally itself with the Ethiopian state and not with the rest of the different ethnic groups in Eritrea? If the Kunama polity had fought for a local autonomy, would the rest of the tribes in the country have remained neutral or supported them? Both scenarios are unthinkable. Victims of predations from both Tigrians of the Mereb, weak and derided, and without some trans-border religious and cultural solidarity as the Tigres and Tigrinyas had, what was the likelihood of a sustainable rebellion, let alone victory in Eritrea for them?
Most likely, none of the Tigrinyas and the Tigres in Eritrea (who are the major population groups in Eritrea), who were throughout the history of the region preying on them and their resources, would have come to their aid. The imagined Kunama rebellion would have been quickly quashed for lack of solidarity from both the other “sisterly” tribes in proper Eritrea and the deficiency of trans-border solidarity. Defeat would certainly have been the outcome.
In the annals of the war of nationalism, the battle of Barentu is described from the two fronts’ perspectives, relegating and dismissing the desperate but stubborn resistance of the local people. Under a long siege, first by the ELF, and then by a joint offensive with the EPLF, Barentu, remained impregnable for many years. Its misfortune and final submission resulted from the merger of the Mereb theatre of war, which cut their link from the Ethiopian army; leaving the defenders to fend for their live.
Is this resistance still cherished among the Kunama elite who oppose the regime in Eritrea now? It does not seem so. Ironically, the scant literature of the Kunama elite selectively dwells about their less important role in the war of nationalism, brushing aside the more resilient and obdurate resistance made against the appearance of the new political configuration of the nation-state, Eritrea. The controversy in the meeting at Addis Ababa about Idris Awate is an example. Their undue emphasis about the reputation of the “founder” of the ELF, with little discussion about the cause championed by him, is regrettable.
In light of the actual historical and hypothetical experience of the Kunama people in Eritrea described above, is the “supra-ethnic” nationalism theory for the building of the Eritrean nationalism and the nation-state still tenable and defensible? It does not seem so. This article is only a starter; hence the need for other writers, particularly from the Kunama, to examine the construct of the Eritrean nationalism of both its past and its contemporary ordeals.
Dirar, U. Chelati. Colonialism and the Construction of National Identities: the Case of Eritrea, Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol, 1, No. 2, 256-276, July 2007.
Breketeab, Redie. Supra-Ethnic Nationalism: the Case of Eritrea, African Sociological Review. 6 (2). 2002, pp.137-152.
Awate.com. A Mercenary Army: Isaias Afwerki’s Last Stand.
An account made by a person familiar with the frequent political discussions of the Fronts operating in the border areas with Tigray.