Eritrea: The Alliance between the Rashaida and the EPLF, Then and Now

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Aug 20th, 2014

The Alliance between the Rashaida and the EPLF, Then and Now

Many political observers of all stripes on Eritrea agree that the Badme war and the resultant no-war no-peace situation which has persisted to this day is the result of the alleged fierce nationalism prevailing in Eritrea. They attribute the stubborn nature of the fronts’ leaders and the society to the total mobilization and the long war of “liberation” from Ethiopia. There is one ethnic group known as Rashaida though that completely contradicts this narrative, by openly boycotting the war and making itself rare throughout the liberation and independence eras. The irony in this is that the Rashaida Bedouin has lately shouldered the task of capturing and even worse ransoming/selling the multitude of mainly Eritrean draft dodgers and others for the state of Eritrea, completely disregarding the fact that they were neither willing to fight for the independence war nor for the war policies of the current state (the front and the state had, to put it bluntly, exempted the community from military duties.) What the mass of Eritrean refugees want is to be left alone! (just like the tribe); what they receive is the most repulsive treatment.

For the purpose of this article, the report on the role of some of the Rashaida tribe in the corridor between the Eritrea-Sudan borders by the International Crisis Group is an eye opener, but leaves out the camaraderie of the fronts with the tribe in the past armed rebellion in Eritrea. The Rashaidas’ policy of abstaining themselves from the war for independence, including sabotaging it in some situations objectively, through the provision of smuggling services for people avoiding being drafted by the fronts and simply wishing to escape the war in Eritrea did not adversely affect them. The Rashaida unlike the other tribes in Eritrea, did not curtail their movements because of the border of the states of the Sudan, Ethiopia and now Eritrea.

Conversely, other tribes found traditional grazing areas turning into contested military areas and markets becoming inaccessible, leaving them with little coping mechanisms to fight famine. It is safe to assume that the phenomenon of a war-torn society may not apply to the Bedouin community, for it emerged more cohesive and stronger in the opinion of this writer. Considered as exotic for quite a while among some naïve journalists, the Rashaida tribe has now earned the notoriety for being a formidable organization operating human smuggling, contraband in arms and goods, money wiring and, even worse, human trafficking similar to other notorious Bedouin operatives in the Sahara and Sinai.

Here is what the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported recently:

“In the face of growing desertions, Manjus allegedly sub-contracted border policing to remnants of the Rashaida paramilitary groups active in eastern Sudan that were previously trained by Eritrean forces and were backed by Asmara before the (2006 Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement.) They reportedly deployed on both sides of the border to fire at deserters. ‘Unlike the conscripts, they had little compunction in killing deserters. But soon, they started detaining them, and ordering [them] to contact families inside [Eritrea, asking] for a ransom to avoid execution”. The money was reportedly paid in Eritrea to Manjus’s representatives, mostly members of the Eritrean Defense Forces”. [1]

Manjus is the nickname for a senior veteran general of the government in Eritrea in charge of policing the border areas.

The recent elevation of some of the Rashaida communities as sub-contractors for the job of border patrolling in the borders with Sudan is not an abrupt and desperate decision of the regime in crisis, or a sudden symptom of bad governance as some Eritrean nationalists wish to describe it. Over the long duration of the ghedli, some of the Rashaida and the EPLF had close connection; the tradition of dealing with clandestine business activities did not stop even after Eritrea became a nation-state. In other words, both groups were into the same trade, with the EPLF hiding behind its “liberation” legitimacy.

The decision of the Eritrean government to reward the Bedouin tribe with the task of stopping tens and thousands of the nationalist veterans and many of their children from escaping the new nation-state and, worse, keeping them as goods for ransom and slavery within its camps is nothing but a mockery of Eritrean nationalism, and a direct continuation of its soft-handed policy and contraband work with same tribe in the past. It evokes the migration scene of the wildebeest, zebras and others in the continent, who in search of a greener pasture had to cross dangerous rivers and ambushes, only to fall victims to the ferocious beasts, patiently waiting for them. It also evokes the role of some of the Tuareg tribe during the fall of Libyan regime, the only difference here being that the people of Arab origin are taking the job of “defending” an African nation-state.

Do members of the Rashaida patrolling the border spaces carry the flag of Eritrea, which they had chosen not to fight for? Or, do they simply operate with the ubiquitous Toyota pickups unmarked for the secretive purpose of hunting human beings for slavery and other business? Chances are, it is the latter. The concession of power to the ethnic group that is a very small percentage of the population of Eritrea (estimated around 50,000) [1] is without doubt exceptional in Eritrea; for the greed for political power is second nature to the totalitarian state. What explains the survival and growing political and economic influence of this Arab-Rashaida tribe in Eritrea?


Nomadic livelihood is certainly not the exclusive practice of the Rashaida in Eritrea. The Afar and the Tigre had also been pastoralists with minimal contact with the European colonial powers and the Ethiopian government after them. For instance, the Habab in Sahel were famous for being elusive and keeping themselves isolated from bureaucracies of the powers in the region until their decline in the early 60s. The Rashaida, however, had identity, trade and cultural connection with the Arab world across the Red Sea and the Sinai that few of the other tribes in Eritrea could exploit.

The Rashaida, who migrated from Saudi Arabia circa.1860 to the African side of the Red Sea coast, did relatively well than those Africans who willingly or not moved to the Middle East in the centuries. They kept their dignity, tradition and economic livelihood with a notable success in Eritrea, their new home land. They also enforced a strict segregation with neighboring tribes in Eritrea, resorting only to marrying first cousins and second cousins. A 50-year-old chief said, “We try to make them marry at 15, so they are not tempted to get pregnant…If a daughter gets pregnant in the bush, we kill her. If we meet a Tigrayan man playing with our women, we take a knife and kill him…He was referring to a member of a neighboring tribe.” [2]

If the sands are running out for the Rashaidas, it is not from the violence of the mosaic type of tribes in their new homeland or the regime in power, but rather from the genetic mutations that result from their inbreeding. “The loss of their culture and social structure is not the only obstacle facing the Bedouins today. Another threat to their unity is caused by their close bonds to their individual tribes. Over many centuries, the different Bedouin groups have become more inbred due to the lack of fresh, unrelated bloodlines among their own clans and those of allied tribes.”, a study said. [3] Other than this custom, the coastal societies the Rashaidas met in the mid of the 19th century were accommodating or not a threat to them. In contrast, the African diaspora in Saudi Arabia and Yemen did not fare well. For instance, the people of African origin in Saudi Arabia and the Tihama coast of Yemen have been ignored and kept at the lower rungs of the society.

When the era of decolonization arrived in Africa, the Rashaida were probably little influenced by it, given their little contact with both the European colonial powers and the governments of the new Sudan and the Ethiopian Empire. Nor did the race policies of the French and British powers, which administered a swath of the Middle East affected them, for they had left the region during the Ottoman Empire. In short, they weren’t captured by the nation-states. Oddly, the Eritrean fronts who shared the arid and little governed spaces with the Rashaidas in the northernmost parts of the then Ethiopia, notorious for regimenting any societies under their control, chose to leave the Arab tribe free and unmolested. The Derg followed a similar policy but for a different reason. It knew they had little to do with the rebellion. Why did the fronts not opt to capture them? There could be many reasons for their reluctance.

Pro-Arab policy

The pro-Arab nationalism adopted by the ELF, which was influenced by the Nasserite and Baathist revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Iraq respectively, was probably the most significant factor. The political, diplomatic and military support in the aspect of arms supply had undue influence on the elite of the front, including EPLF’s, in their behavior with the Rashaida tribe. In addition, the rising economic and cultural power of Saudi Arabia and other oil states in the second half of the last century may have played a secondary role. The weak and isolated fronts had therefore conceded a political and economic space that no other ethnic group could dream of in the Eritrean political space. Did race have a factor in it?

The fronts, who professed a fierce nationalism would categorically disagree to any notion of inferiority towards the Arab race. Although half of the population in Eritrea shares the same religion, Islam, with the rest of the Arab world, it has not saved it the disdain and contempt of some of the Arabs in the Middle East, who often call them abid (slave). For an illustration, the experience of the tens of thousands of migrant workers from Eritrea and elsewhere from Africa is adequate. Probably, the fronts who knew of this racist phenomenon were, their radicalism notwithstanding, not free from internalizing some of prejudice.

An assertion such as this may anger some of the elite in diaspora Eritrea who love to mention the “Cosmopolitan Society” that occurred in the Massawa islands at the end of the nineteenth century. They have yet to explain the arrogant attitude of the seb-medinat, that is, Massawans (mostly of Arab background from the Middle East) towards the seb bar, the large majority of the Tigre-speaking polity during the brief occupation of the Egyptian power. A telling example is what a Massawan proudly said to the author of the recent book on Massawa and its suburbs under Egypt’s Mehmet Ali, “ ‘Massawans are mutahaddirin…[C]ivilization came to [Eritrea] from the Red Sea through Massawans. Beforehand the people of the inland did not know how to behave in a civilized way…they gradually learned from us the Massawans.’ ” [4] The term mutahaddir in Arabic literally means the civilized. [5] Not surprisingly, the Italian colonial power, which followed their footsteps, had the same mission.

The alleged civilization, economic and civic power under the tutelage of Egyptians was very brief and located to a small enclave within the political spaces of the times. Contrasting it with what happened in Zanzibar may provide us with a better understanding of the relationship between the Africans and the political and merchant elite from across the Red Sea and beyond. The islands of Zanzibar, which were under the direct rule of the Omani rulers for some time and the local rulers of Omani princes until the late 19th century, was a hub of trade in the Indian Ocean. Clove plantation and slavery were the mainstay of the economy, whose backbone were the slaves, that is, the Africans from the mainland.

The mass ill treatments of the Africans in the plantations and in domestic slavery weren’t significantly lessened by the religion shared. The Zanzibar revolution, which occurred in the 1960s, is a powerful testament to it. Nationalist African Zanzibaris rose in revolt and killed many of their fellow Zanzibari-Arabs. In complete opposition to this, and around the same period, the fronts’ elite in Eritrea, who had lesser experience with the Arab world, endorsed and embraced the nationalist Arab cause. The subject of slavery and racism in the Arab world, unlike its counter-part in the West, hasn’t yet been well studied; nor is Ethiopia’s, for that matter. Scholars must therefore pay their attention to it. In the absence of scholarly material to study the behavior of the Eritrean fronts and the present government in Eritrea, a close inspection of the Eritrean insurgency is valuable to understand the present existential crisis of the nation-state.

The claim of unanimous support for the cause of independence as claimed by the fronts and some historians is unfounded and shaky. It was a complex civil war with Ethiopia with many mini civil-wars between the fronts and other ethnic groups within Eritrea. The Afars in Denakalia, the Tigrinyas in the highlands of Dembelas and Kohayin, and certainly the Kunamas in Eritrea were fighting the fronts for their identity and to protect their resources. While these wars were raging throughout the thirty-year war, the Rashaida abstained themselves and only co-operated in doing some services for the fronts for a fee, and on their own terms.

For the fronts, who were allegedly also influenced by the revolutions in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau in Africa, the expectation would be a policy which respects the identity, traditions and properties of African masses in Eritrea. But none of the ethnic groups in Eritrea were allowed the privilege of being left alone; they were instead brutally crushed one after another throughout the war of “liberation”.

What the ICG stated about the role of some of the Rashaida tribe as a posse for the Eritrean regime in its report was quite true and remarkable. Many of the Eritrean writers in the cyber world opposing the government didn’t connect the dots as they did. What dots were left out in the insurgency period to identify (ghedli) must be the task of all of us, who chose a fair narration of the road to the nation-state of Eritrea. The practice of wearing veils, long chadors and child marriage aside, the Rashaida are the most versatile, well-armed, motorized, telephone equipped, and money laundering communities in the region between Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. The Red Sea Lions, the name of the armed insurgency they chose once during their fight with the Sudan, regime reflects their newly gained strength and prowess; enabling them blissfully to ignore the borders of the new nation state, including Eritrea’s, long before the age of globalization appeared.

The intent of this article is not to accuse the Rashaida community for not participating or mobilizing in the war of secession from Ethiopia. Nor is to criticize them for ignoring the borders of the nation-states they live in, for they were colonial constructs. It is rather to indicate the contraband trade, human smuggling, human trafficking (another name for modern slavery) that some of the Rashaida community practiced singly or jointly with the EPLF and the present regime.

The emergency of slavery that was abolished in the 19th century in Europe and in the 20th century in Ethiopia ironically re-surfaced on the back of the modern history for national “liberation” in Eritrea. This scenario has an eerie resemblance to the Kingdom of the Congo; [6] the elite of the Congo having succumbed to the Portuguese powers zealously joined the slave trade and emptied out its population. The public should be advised to take into consideration the shallow understanding of the Eritrean fronts’ about European modernization and its deference to the Arab race and politics.

The link between the fronts’ policy and practice described briefly above and the frightening scenario of slave caravans and a possible demographic collapse in Eritrea is quite solid. Deep in trauma, confused and brain washed, the masses of victims from Eritrea do not even carry with them the arms they had in their possession. Conversely, their grandfathers and fathers, who switched sides from the Italian Fascist administration to Ethiopia in the last century, were clear eyed, sure of themselves and the identity of their enemy. Clearly, the last fifty years of modern Eritrea played a big role in breaking-down and degrading the ethos of the people.

Thus, recognizing the enduring practitioners of this policy as mainly the architects of ghedli, the nation-state of Eritrea, some of the Rashaida tribes (exotic as they may be) and a few other operatives by the public and the international community is therefore critical and urgent in “Ending the Exodus.” Engaging the same is, however, a futile exercise.


[1] International Crisis Group, Eritrea: Ending the Exodus, 8 August 2014, p.7.

[2] Harris, Angel. The Bedouin and the Arab-Khaldun and the Assimilation of a Great People, American Military University (APUS), p.8.

[3] Miran, Jonathan. Red Sea Citizens, Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa, p.22, 2009.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Perlez, Jane. Sheeb Journal, For Bedouins of Africa, Sands Are Running Out, New York Times, March 5, 1992.

[6] Fikru, Gebrekidan. Ethiopia and the Congo: A Tale of Two Medieval Kingdoms, Callaloo, 33, 1, 2010.

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