The Eritrean revolution: A circular Or A Linear Journey?
Dr. Mohammed Kheir
I was in 1952, on the same year that Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia; I am as old as federal arrangement that Haile Sellassie unilaterally dismantled 12 years later. During my sixty years of life I have experienced many things and Eritrea has also grown up with me and affected me all my life. Born and raised in Agordat, I enjoyed a simple and peaceful life. The vivid memories that I miss is the enjoyable scenery of the Barka river, particularly during the rainy season. We adored nature and we used to go to ‘Welet aberg’ with my friends to swim and chase rabbits. We enjoyed life to the most.
It so happened that I was born into a Muslim family and Islam defines part of my identity. I went to a Koranic school, a khalwa, when a “madrassa” was not mistaken for “terrorism.” Arabic was the first letters that I learned followed by Koran. Still, when I went to elementary school, I studied all subjects in Arabic up to the 4th grade. That is because Arabic existed in the region long before Eritrea and Ethiopia were created as entities in modern times–nothing alien. Thus, I do not need any Tigrinya intellectual (who relates Arabic to religion only and who denies the historical roots to Arabia) to lecture me on what language I should use. I decide for myself; and I do not impose on others what language they should choose. The attachment of Eritreans to Arabic is not the creation of the Awate Team, it is the desire of the overwhelming majority of Eritrean Muslims. Period.
I was born to a Tigrait speaking family and I am very proud of my mother language (a rich poetic language that I consider even much richer than Tigrinya) and the Geez scripts; I do not consider myself an Arab, but Arabic defines part of my identity.
When I was ten years old, my childhood was brutally injured, it was taken away from me. Since then, neither me nor my Eritrea that was growing up with me, have known peace or tranquility. When I was a child I did not know that Idris Mohamed Adem, the federal era chairman of the Eritrean parliament and whose house was close to the police station in Agordat, went to exile along with Ibrahim Sultan and Woldeab Woldemariam. But more and more strange soldiers, Tor Serawit, who did not speak our language came to our town. Bars that entertain them flourished. New Amharic teachers appeared on the scene. The calm town was disturbed by the ever increasing number of military vehicles. The Ethiopian soldiers camped close to the only football field in town. In the early years, we used to go the field and during recess, we were freely drinking water from the tap, but gradually, that stopped. They took over the field and they moved the football field to another place. At the same time, before fully annexing Eritrea, Ethiopia waged a concerted campaign to win Eritreans, and the government distributed pamphlets showing the schools, mosques and churches that Haile Sellasie built.
On the 12th of July, 1962 when the representative of the King and several dignitaries were on a visit to my home town; ELF Fedayeen threw grenades at the gathering. It was the first daring military operation of its kind. Several people died, many were injured and many others were imprisoned; since then, I never enjoyed peace as the town was quickly militarized. The Tor Serawit dragging to town dead bodies of civilians they killed. They hanged the dead bodies in town squares to scare people from joining the revolution! This were the brutal acts and savagery of “mother Ethiopia” (imagine a “mother” doing that to her children) helped the ranks of the revolution to swell. Even the Eritrean Komandos who were more brutal in other towns such as Keren, joined the revolution when they knew their constituency was in it. Saleh Gadi’s novel tells it all.
In 1967 the Ethiopian government pursued a scorched earth policy which I experienced closely. People were arrested and killed in groups, many from Agordat disappeared and many left the town. Villages like Ad Ibrahim were burned to the ground and the first mass refugees entered the Sudan. Herds of animals were bombarded from the air, and wells were poisoned.
Recently I asked Abdul Aziz, a close friend who lives in Canada, “Would we have been happier today: if we did not leave Agordat, if we did not know much about this world, if we did not migrate to the West, if we simply looked after our farm animals and enjoyed our simple life?” He emphatically replied, YES. I can not agree more. Even natural development would have been very much welcome. But why am I taking you through my 50 year personal journey?
I have to say this: I was outraged when I read Part I of Yosief Ghebrehiwet’s article where he claims that the Eritrean revolution has never been about ideals, freedom and emancipation. For someone like me who grew up in Agordat, and who bore the brunt since the annexation, the armed struggle was a revolution against injustice, against the imposing of the Amhara language and culture on the whole of Eritrea–as was done on the whole of Ethiopia earlier. It was a revolution against injutice, similar to Tigrai’s Weyane uprising in 1940s and the TPLF revolution in the mid 70s. It was similar to the Mahdi rebellion in Sudan and similar to others uprising against injustice in various forms. The Eritrean revolution can never be regarded as “50 years of madness“, “about creating a new belonging alien to themselves” nor as Habesha and non-habesha issue, as portrayed by Yosief who claims, “their fallacious understanding was: if it was part of Ethiopia, then there was no “Eritrea” to be had; they wanted an “Eritrea” that they, and only they, could own.” The term Habesha, whether he chose it purposely or not, is an improper choice as it excludes chunks of Eritreans.
There are three linguistic groups in Eritrea: Semetic (Tigre and Tigrinya), Kushetic (Affer, Saho, Bilen, Hidareb) and Nilotic (Kunama and Nara). The oldest groups in Eritrea are the Kushetic such as the Affer on whose region was found the fossils of the first human settlers. All those linguistic groups have their extensions in neighboring countries including Ethiopia, where taken together, the Kushetic groups are the majority in both countries.
Hamid Idris Awate who fired the first shots at mount Adal in 1961 against the Ethiopian government to fight injustice cannot be but a great hero, irrespective of how some want to denigrate him. He was simply a historical necessity; he could have been any one. And that is why the first bullets he fired spread like fire not only in Eritrea but also in Ethiopia where it gradually contributed to end the feudal mono-cultural rule of the Amhara elite in Ethiopia (though the Amhara commoners were oppressed) and paved the way for the modern multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural Ethiopia. However, Hamid Awate was human and his actions is not above assessment; and it is rather the freedom of expression that has to be sacred. But no amount of vilification can tarnish the image of Awate. As far as there is injustice, there will always be a revolt as a reaction whether Eritrea is independent Eritrea or not. There can never be peace without justice.
Yosief’s plea to go back to the starting point is not something new, it was actually tried and failed. The late PM of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi, articulated why Eritreans revolted against the rule of Haile Sellasie and Ustaz Mahmoud has summarized Meles’s statements in English. When the majority of Christian Highlanders came to realize that the panacea that was promised actually deprived them of their own language and culture, they gradually started to join the revolution. It was not long before those whose slogan was ‘Ethiopia or Death’, tasted both and so joined the revolution. It did not take long for Tella Ogbit and Tella Bairu to rebel against the Ethiopian rule which they fought hard to enforce on Eritrea. For the record, the majority of Muslims, did not opt to be part of Sudan. They stood fast for independence with the minority of Christians. Things became worse in the highlands when Mengistu took power. The brutal methods of strangulating youth in Asmara with wires drove many youth to the revolution. EPLF’s ‘Nehnan Elamnan’ became more appealing to many Christian Highlanders. It is a pity that many of our human rights organizations are very keen to document crimes committed during the struggle era but seem uninterested in documenting the crimes committed by Ethiopian occupation that we have almost forgotten.
I admire Yosief’s courage for expressing his non-conforming views which provoke us and shake our views; everyone should express their views without any intimidation. Even if there are some who would advocate unity with Ethiopia, it is within their own right, but they should not do it by undermining our revolution–they can simply air their views without provoking others. One cannot dismiss Yosief’s article as ‘Andnet’, etc. I think he makes good points regarding ‘the switching case, which reflects the strong sense of attachment that both members of ELF and EPLF have to their respective organizations and the geographical factors that determined who joined which organization and the fact that most of us are born in the religion we have strong attachment to. Yes, some of us have attachment to the ELF, others to the EPLF, but all of us have attachment to our locality or ethnic group and our religion, but our main political attachment is to the unfinished project we call Eritrea–a free and democratic country that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors.
Following Yosief’s circular journey, I ask: is the Agordat and the Eritrea I knew 60 years ago going to go back to the starting point? Am I or my town and my surrounding and my country better or worse than it was 60 years ago? It is definitely much worse. For example, my town Agordat has changed forever. The demography has changed, most of the old inhabitants still live as refugees in neighboring Sudan. Thanks to the social engineering by the EPLF/PFDJ the new rulers, the haves (not all of them) are Eritreans but they are not from the locality, they come from the Highlands. Most of the have-nots are some of the original inhabitants that have not migrated. The original inhabitants feel like they are alien in their own land. What does a revolution mean to me if I feel I have lost everything: my language, my identity, my land?
A humorous friend from Stockholm once reflected: “Mohamed every revolution is meant to make situations better, this is a strange revolution–we have almost lost everything”. A joke from Haikota goes as follows: a local pastoralist saw the statue of a man and asked whom it represented. His friend replied, “Don’t you know him, this is Awate”. The pastoralist replied, “God gracious, this is the man who started a revolution and brought us all those Habesh to take our land, we would have been much better without him.” To a common person in the lowlands, the term Habesh (be it with Big or small H) represents Christian highlanders. Of course, every Eritrean has the right to live wherever he chooses in Eritrea, but that has to be a natural process, not be promoted or engineered selectively and systematically by the government. There are also some regions in the highlands that feel discriminated against. One can argue that, since Eritreans have sacrificed themselves in all parts of Eritrea, then they have the right to live anywhere. A colleague who is a veteran of the EPLF to went to Eritrea to see development ‘m’ebaletat’ recalls that a camel came to graze in a camouflaged shade used by the fighters. An angry Highlander shouted at the owner telling him to take the camel to hell. The pastoralist murmured, ”You came to the camel, it did not come to you.”
Since 2001, the injustice of the current regime has gradually reached the highlands. Though the regime clandestinely preaches that the Tigrinya have never achieved so much as they did under Isaias and that if he goes it will be the Muslims (as if they are from Mars) who will rule, and though there has not been so much social engineering there, but the reality is that many of the victims of human trafficking and organ theft are young Christian Highlanders. This shows that things has never been this bad there compared to 50 years ago. This is the reality today.
When the EPLF allied with the TPLF and drove the ELF out of the Eritrean field, the ELF (which by the mid-70s was a full-fledged national organization composed of Muslims and Christians) disintegrated into various factions. Far reaching consequences that were not foreseen either by the EPLF and TPLF ensued. As the result of the exclusionist policies of the EPLF, religious and ethnic organizations were formed. Due to that, the Lowlanders still harbor deep suspicions about the TPLF. The late PM of Ethiopia has explained to the participants of the Intellectual seminar in Addis in 2011 that the measure was not a Tigrinya coalition against the ELF, but it was a necessary measure for the existence of the TPLF as the ELF threatened the existence of TPLF by forming an alliance with EDU and EPRP, but he regretted the use of force. Aregawi Berhe in his PhD thesis clarifies the reasons behind this attack and the former ELF-RC’s version of what followed after that is described here.
According to Yosief, we are in a circular journey because we have abandoned our indigenous culture (not very clear if he means Ethiopian culture) and adopted an alien culture (Arabic and the Ghedli’s culture). I believe our indigenous culture as well as the Ghedli culture have good and bad aspects, we have to adopt the best from those cultures. Things have changed so much that there is no original starting point, even Ethiopia has changed. I wish our problems were that simple. I think our biggest problem has always been (and remains) on how we accept and manage our diversity. Many African countries have failed to mange their diversity and are in deep trouble, Sudan is a vivid example. Some other African countries that have achieved independence through armed struggle have also failed to return to democratic civilian rule without the need to go to the starting point. Though homogenous, Somalia could have avoided failure if it had accepted, recognized and managed its tribal and regional diversity. If we fail to manage our diversity, we will continue to have problems and the existence of Eritrea as an entity will be at stake.
I believe we have come a long way in addressing our problems, we have narrowed the gap, we have agreed on basic principles on how to rule the future democratic Eritrea. The ENCDC is a big step in the right direction. The youth movement is another optimistic sign as the youth, though they are not totally free, they carry less old baggage of our ethnic, regional and religious divisions. The mainstream Tigrinya speakers do not support the views of the circular journey. The journey for an independent, free and democratic Eritrea can not be reversed. When the current project is completed, it is up to the Eritrean people to decide whether to live as a separate state or form a confederation– perhaps in a bigger perspective, with both Ethiopia and Sudan.
On part II I will comment on part II of Yosief’s circular journey and on the way forward.
Dr. Mohammed Kheir can be reached at Moh.firstname.lastname@example.org