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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

Alemseged Tesfai’s Trilogy of Books, A Must Read for All Eritreans. Part II

3.3 Loose Organization, Lack of Strong Leadership and Conviction. The time frame covered by the trilogy, 1941 to 1962, was the period the political struggle of the people of Eritrea for their democratic rights and self-determination assumed organized forms. The author shows that a few political parties were established over the period. But, they were loose organizations with vaguely defined, and at times, changing goals. Membership tended to be based on loyalty and allegiance to traditional leaders rather than understanding of and conviction to the ideas and goals of the parties.

People in leadership positions, by and large, lacked effective organization skills and ability to provide needed strategies. They were rather deficient in clarifying the goals of their respective parties and in inspiring the membership to advance party causes. Many of those who assumed leadership positions had limited educational opportunities, but as traditional leaders, they wielded strong influence on their followers. Many of the leaders were tempted by bribes and other personal gains and did not hesitate to switch parties or change allegiance when it suited them. For example, at the height of political activities in the late 1940s when the political parties converged into two distinct camps -- The Unionist Party and the Independence Block (comprised of Independent Muslim League, Liberal Progressive Party and Pro-Italy Party) -- the majority of Eritreans (about 75%) supported independence, the goal pursued by the Block. But, the Block was not able to take advantage of this fact due to splits and switching of sides. In fact, desertions from both the League and LPP paved the way for the federal act and eventual march to annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia (Ertra kab Federation, pp. 380-384).

In addition to bribes and other personal gains that tempted leaders, there were, of course, those highly coveted titles of nobility.[1] The emperor of Ethiopia, and his surrogates, dangled those titles in front of the political leaders and nobility of the period, and he generously bestowed those titles upon those who could be persuaded, or were already willing, to do Ethiopia’s bidding. For example, in June 1962, 112 Eritreans were granted nobility titles and 24 police officers were granted military titles ranging from major to general (Ertra kab Federation, p. 573 and 576).

It took the emergence of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka) in 1958 operating in secret cells, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1961, and the Eritrea Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) in the early 1970s, to conduct the struggle of the Eritrean people at higher organizational forms, with better leadership and conviction to eventually realize the goals of independence and sovereignty of Eritrea.

3.4 Heroes with Human Frailties, Villains with Misguided Goals (Labels are the reviewer’s, not writer’s). From the detailed accounts on the pages of the trilogy emerge heroes and villains in the long drama of the struggle of the people of Eritrea for self-determination and independence. One of the heroes is Hamed Idris Awate, who is credited with the firing of the first shot that heralded the commencement of the armed struggle. As a former member of the Italian colonial army, he had some military experience. He already had a band of armed men inside Eritrea when a group of nationalists residing in the Middle East announced the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The group contacted Awate, and his rug-tug army became the starting block for the eventual development of a formidable fighting force. The second hero is Woldeab Woldemariam (affectionately known as Wol-Wol), a great writer and labor leader, and a devoted politician whose essays and political activities were directed at defending Eritrea’s unity and advocating for its independence. He survived seven attempts on his life by opponents of independence and supporters of Ethiopia, was forced into exile, but continued his struggle from abroad. The third hero is Ibrahim SulTan who started his political activities as an advocate for the emancipation of the serfs (Tigre) in the feudal social structure of the lowlands (MetaHit). He successfully linked their emancipation with the goal of independence for Eritrea. He was a skillful and astute politician, a defender of Eritrea’s unity and a consistent advocate of Eritrea’s independence both inside Eritrea and in the halls of the United Nations. He too was forced into exile and continued his struggle from abroad.

From the pages of the trilogy, as much as one learns of the various activities of these individuals that made them heroes, one also learns of some of their shortcomings. For example, Idris M. Awate started out as a regular shifta (bandit) engaging in raids and counter-raids for animals and property against rival ethnic groups. Woldeab Woldemariam, as a candidate for the first Eritrean Assembly surprisingly lost by a wide margin. He also initially flirted with the concept of Tigrai-Tigrinyi (independence for the Tigrinya-speakers of Eritrea and Ethiopia combined) and at times for Eritrea’s conditional association with Ethiopia. Ibrahim SulTan, in his first appearance at the UN (Third Session), somehow bangled his presentation by making exaggerated claims and cited unrealistic statistics.[2] In the contest for the office of Chief Executive of Eritrea in 1955, it was his party, the Muslim League, that nominated Asfaha Woldemicael, an avowed Unionist who shepherded Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea (Ertra kab Federation… p. 17). These shortcomings, however, should in no way diminish the trio’s heroism and contribution to Eritrean nationalism and struggle for independence in the eyes current and future generations of Eritreans. They merely show that they were after all humans.

From the pages of the trilogy, also emerge villains in the drama of Eritrean politics during the decades covered. The most prominent ones are Asfaha Woldemicael, Dimetros Gebremariam and Tedla Ogbit. Asfaha Woldemicael was the second Chief Executive (later changed to Chief Administrator) of Eritrea, and Dimetros Gebremariam was the deputy president of the Eritrean Assembly, starting in September 1955.The duo are perhaps the chief architects of the gradual erosion of Eritrean autonomy and final annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia. Tedla Ogbit, as head of the police and the security apparatus, was the enforcer and ruthless suppressor of political activists.

The detailed background information provided by the author helps understand why the two architects were dedicated unionists and ready to do Ethiopia’s bidding right from the beginning. Asfaha Woldemicael started his relationship with Ethiopian notables early in his life, in the 1930s, while serving Fascist Italy as an interpreter and official during its invasion of Ethiopia. He essentially served as a double agent passing critical information to Ethiopian resistance forces. He was so endeared by Ethiopian notables, including the emperor, for his services that he was later awarded a nobility title and sent to Eritrea as deputy representative of the emperor during the initial federation period. He became the Chief Executive of Eritrea, following the resignation of Tedla Bairu, the first Chief Executive. Asfaha throughout his political life laser-focused on the goal of complete union of Eritrea with Ethiopia and led the effort to achieve it (Ertra kab Federation … pp. 4-21).

Dimetros Gebremariam also had deep roots in Ethiopia. He received his religious education starting from his childhood at several monasteries in Ethiopia. To him, the Orthodox church was a strong pull to Ethiopia. Further, he served as secretary and chief advisor of the then aging Eritrean notable, Raesi Kidanemariam of Areza, one of the noted supporters of Ethiopian cause and actually the first honorary president of the Unionist Party. With the aid of the office of the Emperor’s representative in Eritrea, Dimetros maneuvered his way to become the deputy president of the Eritrean Assembly, a position that enabled him to become a formidable force in the process of Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea (Ertra kab Federation, pp.83-86). Details on Tedla Ogbit, the third villain, are in the next section.

3.5 Unhappy Endings of Supporters of, and Collaborators with, Ethiopia. The accounts in the trilogy indicate that several Eritrean individuals who either by conviction or for personal gains sided with Ethiopia and provided invaluable services to Ethiopian rulers ended up at best discarded and at worst disgraced or even facing tragic ends, once their service was rendered or simply fell out of favor with the emperor. Examples abound.

Lorenzo Teazaz was one of the Eritreans the emperor of Ethiopia cultivated early on. He went to Ethiopia in 1922 after completing Italian education in Eritrea. The emperor sent him to France to study law, and upon his return, became the emperor’s confidant. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, he followed the emperor into exile and became his chief political and legal adviser. He was a strong advocate of the “Ethiopianness” of Eritreans. In the 1940s he was a frequent visitor to Eritrea advocating union with Ethiopia and consulting unionist elements in Eritrea. He held some ministerial positions in Ethiopia, including minister of foreign affairs. An Eritrean in a position of power and influence did not sit well with Ethiopian aristocrats, and his popularity waned overtime. He was removed from his ministerial positions and designated Ethiopia’s ambassador to Moscow. He was a member of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris Conference of the Four Powers in May 1946 that presented Ethiopia’s claim to Eritrea. He was sick at the time and died in Stokholm shortly after under mysterious circumstances (Aynfalale, pp. 85-88).

Another ardent supporter of Ethiopia’s cause, Gebremeskel Woldu, was a highly effective writer and debater, and president of the Association of Love of Country (MaHber FiQri Hager), the first semi-political association established in 1941. He played a leading role in eventually “converting” the Association into the Unionist Party. Nevertheless, he, along with Woldeab Woldemariam and Omer Qadi, was the core organizer of the Biet Giorgis conference. The intent was to reconcile differences, in the interest of unity, among supporters of the varying political positions within the Association (ranging from immediate independence to immediate union with Ethiopia). Ethiopia’s representatives and other unionists saw Gebremeskel’s efforts as an unacceptable compromise and started to undermine his leadership position. They pushed him aside as their main spokesman and replaced him with Tedla Bairu. From that occasion onward, Gebremeskel Woldu’s position of leadership among the unionists faded (Aynfalale pp. 173-184). When the Unionist Party was formally announced in December 1946 and the list of the leaders selected was announced, his name was nowhere to be found. Isolated, frustrated, and rejected by the Unionist Party, he withdrew from any political activity altogether (Aynfalale p. 231-234).

Tedla Bairu, the first Chief Executive of Eritrea, as will be detailed in Section 4.2 below, loyally and effectively served Ethiopian and unionist causes before and following his election to that position. In the mid-1950s, however, either due to not moving fast enough towards annexation of Eritrea or his resistance in favor of preserving the federation, was isolated, sabotaged and pressured to resign his CE position. After moving to Addis Ababa with no discernible political position and a brief service as the emperor’s ambassador to Sweden, he was politically abandoned, humiliated and went into exile in 1966 from where he joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (Federation Ertra, pp. 574-585).

The case of Tedla Ogbit, a general and commander of the police force of Eritrea, represented perhaps the most tragic end of an ardent supporter of Ethiopia’s cause. As the chief of police and head of the security apparatus, he was the enforcer in all the events that led to Eritrea’s annexation. A stern disciplinarian, he acquired the reputation of a strict enforcer of the frequent state of emergencies declared by the CE. His actions, especially during the late 1950s, earned him notoriety in ruthlessly suppressing opposition groups and imprisoning individuals upon mere suspicion of political activities.

Once the annexation was complete and Eritrea became one of the provinces of Ethiopia, directives started to flow from Addis Ababa requiring changes in governmental policies and operations, including those of the police, in order to conform with those of Ethiopia. That didn’t bode well with Tedla Ogbit and he started to show defiance. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he learned that he was to be transferred to Addis Ababa on the emperor’s order. It suddenly dawned on him that the abrogation of the federation and annexation of Eritrea was wrong. He sent a telegram to his lieutenants in the districts declaring that “the federation is still in effect,” and to their astonishment, urging them to be on alert. At a hastily arranged meeting of officers at the police headquarter in Asmara, he expressed regrets on past police actions, declared that the federation is still in effect, and instructed the attendants to be on “attention.” All indications were that he was about to lead an insurrection.

Word immediately reached the office of the emperor’s representative about Tedla Ogbit’s actions and intentions. A contingency of Ethiopian army was dispatched to surround his office. His head undoubtedly was on the chopping block. Unlike the popular belief that Tedla Ogbit was assassinated, Alemseged’s account, based on forensic evidence and interviews with relatives and associates including the general’s own secretary, indicates that the general actually pulled the trigger of his own pistol on his head when the Ethiopian army closed in on him. A tragic ending! (Ertra kab Federation, pp. 646-661).

Even the two individuals considered to be the most ardent supporters of union with Ethiopia and the chief architects of the effort that led to annexation, Asfaha Woldemicael and Dimetros Gebremariam (see Section 3.4 above), were removed to Ethiopia, contrary to their expectation of executive positions in Eritrea itself, once the goal of annexation was accomplished. They led an unhappy life inside Ethiopia moving from one insignificant government position to another.

[1] The titles of nobility (such as, blata, grazmatch, Quegnazmatch, fitewrari, azmatch, dejazmatch, and raesi), though military in origin, gradually became symbols of civilian stature that distinguished the nobility from the ordinary.

[2] Ibrahim SulTan’s presentations at subsequent UN appearances, especially that of December 1950, however, were superb (Aynefalale, pp. 495-505).

Next Part III

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