Alemseged Tesfai’s Trilogy of Books, A Must Read for All Eritreans
A slight version of this has been published in the Journal of the African Literature
Association: (JALA), Vol 12, No. 2 (August 2018)
1. Political History Based on Meticulous Research
Alemseged Tesfai, a renowned Eritrean writer, has authored three history books in the Tigrinya language. In this review, I refer to the three publications collectively as his trilogy in the sense that the three, though separate, are interrelated. The content of the trilogy is primarily political history of Eritrea, covering 1941 to 1962, the formative decades of Eritrean political consciousness and nationalism. The first book is aptly titled, Aynfalale 1941-1950 (loose translation, “No Disunity”) , 611 pages. The second is Federation Ertra ms EtioPia …, 1951-1955 (Federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia), 600 pages, and the third one, Ertra kab Federation nab gobeTan Sewran, 1956-1962 (Eritrea: from Federation to Annexation and Revolution), 743 pages. They are published by Hdri Publishers, Asmara, Eritrea in 2002, 2005 and 2016, respectively.1
The trilogy, the result of years’ research using multiple sources, is political history at its best. The writer’s sources of information include: colonial government documents (the British Military Administration, Imperial Ethiopian Government, and Eritrean Government and Administration), court documents, minutes and reports of the Eritrean Assembly, correspondence between embassy personnel and their respective home governments, reports, books and other publications of scholars, newspapers and periodicals of the period, interviews with main political actors, dignitaries and ordinary Eritreans of the time who were alive during the writing of the books.
Relying on information gathered from such extensive sources, the writer objectively and dispassionately weaves a narrative that is compelling. That, of course, is the Eritrean narrative, which at the risk of oversimplification, can be summarized as follows: Having been colonized by Italy for over fifty years, starting in 1890, the people of Eritrea should have been entitled to self-determination and national independence following the defeat of colonizer Italy in World War II, as was the typical outcome with colonized African and other peoples. Instead, the Western powers imposed an ill-conceived, faulty federation with neighboring Ethiopia which did not reflect the wishes of the Eritreans. Once Ethiopia gained this foothold, it gradually and systematically eroded Eritrean political rights, abrogated the federation and annexed Eritrea in 1962. The people of Eritrea were left with no option but to conduct an armed struggle that resulted in winning independence and establishing national sovereignty in 1991. This narrative is consistent with the doctrine of African uti possidetis.2 The Eritrean narrative is in contrast to that of “Greater Ethiopia” which asserts that Eritrea was an integral part of Ethiopia before being colonized by Italy, and that the federation and eventual full union with Ethiopia in 1962 comprised the restoration of a lost territory.
Alemseged’s trilogy is special, and is distinguishable in several aspects from other publications on the political history of Eritrea covering the same period3: (1) It is written in Tigrinya, the major language in Eritrea, thus, making it accessible to ordinary Eritreans, (2) its extensiveness, depth and quality of analysis; (3) the multiplicity of sources of information consulted, and (4) its tendency to be an objective and dispassionate rather than polemical story. The writer presents a well-balanced, compelling narrative supported by meticulously and objectively researched information from multiple sources. That is why the trilogy is a must read for all Eritreans.
The Right Person for the Right Project
Alemseged was the right person with the right qualifications to undertake such a massive project. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law from then Haile Sellassie University in Addis Ababa and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA, in 1969 and 1972, respectively. He pursued a doctorate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, completed all course requirements, and went back to Eritrea and Ethiopia to collect data for his dissertation. Thus, he had the level of academic preparation needed to make him a competent scholar capable of undertaking such a massive research-based study.
Reading Alemseged’s trilogy reminded me of Professor Harvey Goldberg, the great historian and political activist who taught at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s and 1980s, the timeframe within which the author attended that university. Harvey Goldberg was a dynamic, charismatic professor whose areas of expertise included political history of 18th and 19th century Europe including the French Revolution. He delivered his lectures in a large hall, standing-room only, in a dramatic fashion without the aid of any notes. He was a great story-teller. When he lectured on the French Revolution, for example, he placed emphasis on the people and the communes. His reputation on campus was so widespread that attendants at his lectures included not only history majors taking his course for credit, but also others, both undergraduate and graduate students. He was particularly admired by students from Third-World countries for his progressive stance. Alemseged was his student, took some of his courses, and had him on his dissertation committee. The professor occasionally held out-of-class informal discussions on current political affairs. Several African graduate students at the university, including the reviewer, were regular attendant of his lectures and discussions. Little did we know at that time that four decades later, Alemseged will produce a great scholarly work that tells the story of his own people.
In 1974, Alemseged Tesfai went back to Eritrea and Ethiopia to gather data for his dissertation. Instead of coming back to Wisconsin to complete his doctorate program, he made the unselfish decision to join the Eritrean armed struggle for independence.4 For the next seventeen years, he participated in the different aspects of the struggle leading a simple life under harsh conditions with fellow Eritrean combatants. His contributions were mainly in the areas of information, education and training, and publication. And it was during the armed struggle that he started to write reports, short stories and dramas about life as a freedom fighter and his observations of lives of ordinary Eritreans. Thus, this humbling experience and closeness to his people when combined with his academic preparedness made Alemseged a well-rounded scholar to undertake such a major study.
The author states in his brief bio on the cover of Ertra kab Federation that after serving in post-independence Eritrean government in various capacities, he spent the following decades in writing the trilogy. It was indeed a worthwhile undertaking, as the trilogy of books, is a compelling story of the people of Eritrea eloquently told by one of their own.5
Aynfalale 1941-1950 (loose translation, “No Disunity”)
2.1 Major Themes That Emerge from the Trilogy
It is beneficial to extract the major themes that emerge from the trilogy of books not only as a means of summarizing the essence of the narrative but also as points of reference and from which to draw lessons for current and future generations of Eritreans.
3.1. Persistent Struggle to Preserve the Unity of Eritrea and Its People. Right from the beginning (1941), when the British Military Administration (BMA) was established following the defeat of the Italians, the British design was to partition Eritrea into two, based on religious and ethnic factors. The western, lowland region (Metahit) to join with the Sudan, then a British colony; and the highland region (Kebesa) with Ethiopia. Reading Aynfalale and Federation Ertra, one is struck with the incessant intrigues and machinations perpetrated by the BMA officials, aided by their scholars, to divide the country along religious and/or ethnic lines to convince the people themselves, Western powers and the international community at large that partition was the only solution for Eritrea. The height of that effort was reflected in the Bevin-Sforza plan of 1949 that was presented to the UN but, was rejected. Even more impressive in the accounts in the books is the diligence of the people and their political leaders in rejecting the British design and in preserving the unity of the country. Their activities and actions at different points in time attest to this effort.
The Association of Love of Country (Mahber FiQri Hager) was established as a semi-political organization in May 1941 to advocate for rights of Eritreans in the face of continuing mistreatment by Italians who were still in positions of economic and political power. The convening of the Biet Giorgis conference in November 1946 was an attempt by the members of that association (some inclined to support independence, others varying degrees of union with Ethiopia) to arrive at a unified compromise position, rather than diverge into two or more political camps. That attempt, unfortunately, was thwarted by Ethiopia’s interference (Anfalale, pp 173-184).
In February 1950, following the assassination of a prominent pro-independence person (Nesredin) by unionist elements, a peaceful rally was conducted in conjunction with the burial ceremony on the streets of Asmara. That rally escalated into an out-of-control major violence assuming political and religious overtones resulting in about 50 deaths and over 200 injuries. Realizing the failure of the BMA police to control the situation, prominent citizens comprised of 31 Christians and 31 Muslims, headed by their respective religious heads (Abun and Mufti) congregated and formed a peace and reconciliation committee. The joint committee organized a peace rally at which emphasis was placed on unity, rather than allowing political differences to morph into religious conflicts. Thus, averting a potentially greater explosive confrontation (Aynfalale, pp. 437-449 and Ertra kab Federation, pp. 44-48).
When the Muslim League of Eritrea (al rabiTa al Islamia) party was formed in January 1947, the “Muslin” designation was just a rallying cry to counter the emphasis on Orthodox Christianity on the part of the Unionist Party. Otherwise, the goal of the League was full independence of Eritrea as a whole (Aynefalale pp. 185-207). Similarly, the goal of the Unionist Party remained primarily union with Ethiopia of Eritrea as a whole. Even at the height of the political division into two major camps in the late 1950s – the Eritrean Independence Block (Quetsri Natsenet Ertra) and the Unionist Party—the respective goals of the two camps, in the face of the persistent British campaign to partition the country, were focused on Eritrea as a whole.6
During the initial contacts to form the Liberal Progressive Party (LPP) (maHber natsnetn Ebyetn ertra: ertra n’ertrawyan) in1944, the initiators reported that they first fed at a Muslim’s home on chicken slaughtered by a Muslim, and then went to a Christian’s home and fed on chicken slaughtered by a Christian. The significance becomes clear when one considers the fact that at the time it was considered a taboo to feed on an animal slaughtered by a member of the other faith. That means, the initiators overcame this taboo in the interest of unity. When the party was officially announced in February 1947, with independence of Eritrea as its goal, the president-elect of the party (Raesi Tessema Asberom), emphasized the importance of unity between the Christian and Muslim populations of Eritrea and the need to struggle in unity (Aynfalale, pp. 224-230). Representatives of the Muslim League were in attendance. Given the same goal -- Eritrean independence -- the two parties subsequently merged their activities to form the Eritrean Independence Block (Quetsri Natsnet).
When the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka or Mahber ShowAte) was established towards the end of 1958, its constitution emphasized that unity is a precondition for independence; that the people of Eritrea should reject religious division and work in unity and brotherhood towards the independence and liberation of the whole of Eritrea (Ertra kab Federation, p. 410).
3.2 Acceptance of the Federal Act by All Parties, albeit with Reluctance. One of the main strengths of the trilogy is perhaps the amount of evidence the author presents which clearly shows that the disposition of former Italian-colony of Eritrea was reflective of outside interests, notably those of the United States, Great Britain and their client Ethiopia, and not the wishes and aspirations of the people of Eritrea themselves. The UN Federal Act of 1950 was billed as a compromise between the demands for independence and complete union with Ethiopia. In addition to the lack of Eritrean input, the Act was defective in that it was a federation of Eritrea under Ethiopia, not a federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Stated differently, the Act federated Eritrea under the crown of Ethiopia rather than as a party in a normal federation of two autonomous units.
Once the federation was enacted, however, all political parties had grudgingly accepted it as a compromise between their respective ultimate goals. The Unionists viewed it as a stepping stone towards the goal of complete union with Ethiopia; the Independentists (the Block) saw it as the minima to the ultimate goal of independence. In fact, the Block formally changed its name from The Eritrean Block for the Independence of Eritrea to Eritrean Democratic Party to reflect the changed reality (Aynefalale, p. 522). Both parties reveled in the defeat of the sinister British design to partition Eritrea and thought the fact that Eritrea will remain intact was in and of itself a victory. Thus, they pledged unity and cooperation in implementing the federation in good faith (Federation Ertra, pp. 20-30).
Of course, overzealous Ethiopian government officials, including the Emperor, and his representatives in Eritrea undermined the federation right from the beginning, employed bribery, intimidation, and other tactics to abrogate the federation and make Eritrea as just one of the units comprising Ethiopia in 1962.
Next part II.