• Issayas Tesfamariam

Alemseged Tesfai’s Trilogy of Books, A Must Read for All Eritreans. Part III (final)


4. Though Extensive, By No Means the Definitive Political History of the Period

The trilogy of books is a well-researched comprehensive political history of Eritrea covering 1941 to 1962. However, it should not be considered as the definitive history of the period. There are some gaps and some unanswered questions or issues that require further information and analysis. After reading the three publications, particularly two questions lingered in my mind: one is related to the goals and activities of the Liberal Progressive Party (LPP), and the other related to Tedla Bairu, the first Chief Executive of Eritrea.

4.1 The Liberal Progressive Party (Ertra n’Ertrawian). When established in February 1947, the declared goal of the party was independence of Eritrea. However, a reference was also made to the fact that it was a continuation of the initial movement for the independence of a territory that included Tigrai of Ethiopia (Thus, Tigrai-Tigrinyi) initiated by Raesi Tessema in 1943, perhaps inspired by the first Woyane movement in Tigrai of Ethiopia.[1] This raises a series of questions: Was Tigrai-Tigrinyi defined as the whole of Eritrea plus Tigrai of Ethiopia or just the Tigrinya-speaking peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia? It looks like the goal of the party declared in 1947 was limited to the independence of Eritrea, but was there a clean cut from the initial goal of 1943? Doubts were raised, as one prominent member, none other than Abraha Tessema (son of Raesi Tessema) on occasions reminded his listeners of the concept of Tigrai-Tigrinyi (Aynfalale, pp.224-230).

Following its formation in 1947, what activities did the LPP conduct to further the cause of independence? For example, when all political parties of the time sent their representatives to present their causes at the Third Session of the UN, why was the LPP missing? Later, after the formation of the Independence Block, of course, the activities of the LPP were reflected in those of the Block.

Membership of the party was primarily from the Akeleguzai and Seraye areas. How unified was the membership? In fact, in 1950, apparently persuaded by the BMA, and to the consternation of his father and other members of the party, Abraha Tessema and some followers split from LPP to form a Liberal Unionist Party that advocated conditional union with Ethiopia. That party, however, did not last long.

Unfortunately, the author found little documentation on the goals and activities of the LPP to give a clearer revelation of its essence. The LPP remains an issue needing more information.


4.2 Tedla Bairu, the First Chief Executive of Eritrea: Unionist or Federalist? After serving in the civil service section of the British Military Administration, Tedla Bairu emerged from the Biet Giorgis conference of 1946 as a politician advocating union with Ethiopia. He served the Unionist Party in various capacities: Its General Secretary, its chief spokesman both inside and outside Eritrea, including at UN sessions. He was elected chairman of the constituent assembly that ratified the federation-based Eritrean constitution. When the time came to implement the Federal Act and the Eritrean Constitution, he was elected as Chief Executive (CE) in September 1952. In carrying out his responsibilities as CE, he clearly was advancing Ethiopia’s cause. His initial cordial relationship with Ethiopian authorities including the emperor, his maltreatment of Eritrean individuals on the independence side, and his official statements at political events[2], all indicated that he was still advancing the agenda of the Unionist Party. Eventually, however, he lost grip of his executive power and became increasingly isolated and betrayed by even members of his own party. He lost support of the Eritrean Assembly, was constantly opposed and sabotaged by the office of the emperor’s representative. He was eventually pressured to resign and be replaced by Asfaha Woldemicael, who at the time was serving as the deputy representative of Ethiopia’s emperor. The big questions here are: What led to the demise of Tedla Bairu as the Chief Executive? Is it because he was not moving fast enough towards annexation or was he presenting resistance in the interest of preserving the federation? In other words, towards the end of his tenure as CE, was he a unionist or a federalist?

His son, Hirui Tedla, in his latest book, claims his father was a federalist when he describes the standoff between the CE and the Eritrean Assembly “as a clash between the growing influence of the annexationist caucus in the Assembly and the efforts of CE Tedla [Bairu] to preserve the Federation.” He adds, “Former leaders of the parties of the Independence Block became bedfellows of former unionists to form a coalition directed against Federalist CE Tedla.”[3] Tedla Bairu himself, in a document appended to this same book, states, “My strong determination to uphold my constitutional oath and defend the full autonomy of our beloved homeland, was intensely obstructed by the Emperor, Aklilu Habtewold, Haile Selassie’s son-in-law [Andargachew Messai], Eritrean traitors, and collaborators.” And he adds, “I did not want to be the instrument and tool of betrayal against the rights of the Eritrean people; in 1955, after the last clash with the Emperor’s government, I decided to resign.”[4]

But, these are mere assertions that are hard to take at face value, especially when one considers Tedla Bairu’s speech in September 1954, at the occasion of the second anniversary of the federation. In that speech, he stressed the Ethiopiannes of Eritreans, chastised all anti-union elements and concluded with the following words: “The day the people of Mereb Mlash [his usual reference to Eritrea] choose complete union instead of federation [with Ethiopia], my happiness will be great” (Federation Ertra, p. 502. Translation is the reviewer’s.) Such a statement betrays the assertion and claim that Tedla Bairu was a federalist. Hirui, in his book devotes a chapter (Chapter Three) on the politics of the period in which he contests accounts by Alemseged and three other authors point by point. Unfortunately, he merely makes assertions and claims not supported by evidentiary facts. Alemseged’s account of Tedla Bairu, actually, is fair and balanced. For example, he credits the CE with running a relatively efficient and corrupt-free government.

Had CE Tedla Bairu conducted himself, in words and actions, as a defender of the federation, he would probably have earned the status of a belated hero in the eyes of his countrymen. Unfortunately, the evidence is not there. The fact that he was a very private person and reluctant to share his views and feelings even with his close associates made it harder to find witnesses to corroborate the federalist claim did not help either. Thus, the issue of whether CE Tedla Bairu, towards the end of his tenure, was a unionist or federalist remains an open question.

5. Beyond Political History: Contribution to Eritrean Literature

Beyond the political history of Eritrea of 1941 to 1962, Alemseged’s trilogy makes a great contribution to the development of Eritrean literature in Tigrinya. The word crafting and the eloquence with which the writer narrates the story represents Tigrinya at its best. Reading the Trilogy, one encounters many new Tigrinya terms that did not exist in the past. Some for sure were invented during the days of the armed struggle and have been in use since then. Others may have been invented by the writer himself. These new additions, primarily in the areas of politics, economics and technology, enrich the Tigrinya language and Eritrean literature in general.

As the writer laments at the introductory section of Eritrea kab Federation, there are no established Tigrinya standards to serve as guidelines for writers in that language. In the United States, for example, a writer and/or researcher in English can follow either the APA (American Psychological Association) or the Chicago styles of writing as to punctuation, citing and referencing of sources, etc. No such guidelines exist for Tigrinya. In writing the trilogy, Alemseged seems to have established some on the go. In that respect he is a trail blazer. Whether they were his or somebody else’s, I saw for the first time in the trilogy aHtsrote Qalat for “acronym” and kemahu for “ibid.” I cannot think of better terms for those. There is also egre tsehuf used for “footnote.” I would have preferred egre meglets.[5]

Speakers of Tigrinya, especially the elders, employ parables, hyperboles, allegories and other nuggets of wisdom to effectively express their opinions. Throughout the trilogy, the writer quotes expressions of former government officials and other notables, and ordinary people from interviews and publications of the period. The reader gets a good taste of the eloquence and nuggets of wisdom from the quotations. To give some examples: In addressing the meeting on the formation of the Liberal Progressive Party, one of the leaders is quoted to have stated, “The presence of even one stirrer will deny a herd of cattle from drinking clean water,”[6] to remind attendants of what happened at the Biet Giorgis conference where the presence of spoilers disrupted the meeting. To emphasize the need for “long-lost” Eritrea to unite with Ethiopia, a unionist states, “Water runs to the stream, a baby to his mother.”[7] On the other hand, an independentist states, “They look like your shoes, yet they don’t fit,”[8] to emphasize that in spite of the similarities, union of Eritrea with Ethiopia will not be workable.

During the political debates, following the establishment of political parties in the mid1940s, an independentist makes the following hyperbolic statement criticizing the goal of the unionists: “One who seeks a yoke for himself, mounts it on his neck, and invites others to fasten it on him, will suffer the consequence of his action”[9] (Ertra kab Federation p. 383). When a political activist lamented, “Why are people silent while our rights are trampled?” an elder responded to him with the following parable to remind him of the intimidating situation: The lion killed a deer and invited all his carnivorous subjects for their opinion on how to allocate the kill. The hyena responded by stating that he should get the legs, thighs and other selected parts. The lion asks, “and what do you leave for the rest of us?” The hyena responds, “The internal organs.” The lion was so infuriated that he slapped the hyena so hard that his eye popped out. He turns to the fox and asks her, “what say you, fox?” She replied that the legs, thighs and other selected parts should go to the lion. The lion asks the fox where she discovered such a wisdom. The fox responds, “From the hyena’s eye.” (Ertra kab Federation, pp. 361-362)

6. Matters of Sequence and Consistency

The trilogy is such a well-researched and well-written work that it is hard to find any significant shortcomings. Nevertheless, the reviewer sees room for improvement in three areas that are matters of sequence and consistency.

First, Aynfalale begins with “Some Points about the Second World War” as its introductory chapter. I would have liked it to begin with a brief background on Italian colonialism in Eritrea instead. As the first book of the trilogy, starting with a brief description of the Italian colonial experience would have set a more effective tone for the trilogy. After all, it was the Italian colonial occupation and its rule for more than half a century that gave the various ethnic groups residing in present-day Eritrea a common experience and a common cause for seeking independence and liberation. A background on World War II is also important but, could come as a chapter following the suggested brief introductory chapter on Italian colonial experience.

Second, perhaps one of the most interesting stories in Ertra kab Federation is in Chapter 19 on the formation and initial activities of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka or Mahber ShowAte). Haraka, which was conceived among Eritreans residing in the Sudan and gradually spread to Eritrea, represented the beginning of the struggle of the people of Eritrea for independence on a national footing, emphasizing unity and rejecting religious and other sub-national views. The chapter ends with details on the spread of the movement in Eritrea and its initial activities especially in Asmara, leaving the reader wanting to read more about its activities. The next chapter (20) starts with a section on Ethiopia’s diplomatic strategies followed by a section on the 1960 coup attempt in Addis Ababa. Then, the story on Haraka resumes. I found the said two sections a distraction. I understand their need for context. But, they could have come at the end, that is, after exhausting the story of Haraka, and still provide the intended context without distracting from the main story.

Third, the author’s contribution to enriching the language of Tigrinya and Eritrean literature in general has already been mentioned. However, some inconsistencies are observed in the trilogy. For example, Aynfalale uses endnotes, whereas Federation Ertra and Ertra kab Federation use footnotes. Bibliographical references to Eritrean authors are written last name followed by first name in Aynfalale, but the reverse in the last two books of the trilogy. It is an indication that even in the author’s own mind, the Tigrinya standards have been evolving, and one can safely assume that the standards reflected in Ertra kab Federation, the author’s last book, is the one on which he settled.

7. Suggestions Emerging from the Content of the Trilogy

In the opinion of this reviewer, at least three suggestions logically emerge from the contents of the three books in the trilogy.

7.1 Translation to English and Other Languages. It is not uncommon in African circles to hear people lament about the paucity of stories of African peoples written by Africans themselves. Most history books are written by foreigners, mainly from former colonial powers, and self-declared experts, reflecting their own subjective perspectives. The trilogy of books under review, authored by an Eritrean writer, in a way, addresses that lament. Translation of this exemplary work to English will not only provide wider readership for the author but also provide useful lessons to aspiring African writers.

Translation of the work to English does not necessarily have to be an exact word-for-word translation of the whole trilogy. Perhaps a single consolidated volume might work better. The work in English can best be done by the writer himself for at least two reasons: (1) He is in the best position to choose and/or consolidate the details for inclusion, and (2) It appears the author of the trilogy used significant numbers of source documents that were written in English and carefully translated them to Tigrinya where applicable. He can use those original English documents directly instead of translating back the Tigrinya version to English and “lose a lot in translation” in the process.

I understand translations of one or more of the books to Tigre (another Eritrean language) and Arabic have been completed. Doing so must have expanded readership beyond Tigrinya speakers. Translation to Amharic, the Ethiopian official language, can also be beneficial. Amharic readers of stories on the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia are exposed to the Ethiopian narrative only, for example, Zewde Reta’s YeErtra Gudai, 1990 (The Case of Eritrea). An Amharic translation of Alemseged’s trilogy will enable them to gain a balanced view on the political history of the relationship.

7.2 Need for Tigrinya Standards and Writing Guidelines. Reference has already been made to the contribution of the trilogy to the enrichment of the Tigrinya language and literature. However, there appears to be a need for establishing Tigrinya standards and writing guidelines. This can be done through the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission or if there is an Academy of Eritrean Languages in the higher education institutions. Such a body should include language experts (linguists), writers, publishers and members of the clergy. Given his several years of work on the trilogy of books, having encountered the problem in the process, and having already contributed substantially towards the establishment of guidelines, Alemseged should be involved in some capacity to lead such an effort.

The idea for Tigrinya standards and guidelines is not new. The BMA had established a Tigrinya Language Council in 1942. What its exact mandate was is not clear. However, it is credited with: (1) the borrowing from foreign languages some political and technical terms and adapting them to Tigrinya, and (2) the elimination of three redundant Geez alphabets.[10]

Tigrinya utilizes the Geez alphabet, as do Amharic, Tigre and other Semitic languages prevailing in the Horn region of Africa. Ideally, and despite the current political relationship between the two countries, such an effort should be undertaken jointly by Eritreans (representing Tigrinya and Tigre) and Ethiopians (representing Amharic and Tigrinya).

7.3 Political History of Eritrea after 1962. As repeatedly already noted, the trilogy covers political history of Eritrea 1941 through 1962. That begs the question: How about the history of 1962 and after, that is, the armed struggle and post-independence periods? That potentially important project is perhaps well-suited and better left to members of the new or future generations. In fact, that is the sentiment the author expresses in the concluding chapter of Ertra kab Federation, and adds, “The history of the Eritrean revolution is a fertile ground awaiting future researchers” (p.672). However, we should take solace in the fact that Alemseged has set a high standard for researching and writing political history of Eritrea to which future researchers and writers can look up.

8. Summary and Conclusion

Alemseged Tesfai’s trilogy of books (Aynfalale, Federation Eritra ms EtioPia, and Ertra kab Federation nab GobeTan Sewran), is the outcome of years of research and hardwork by an Eritrean scholar and dedicated freedom fighter. The writer expertly and eloquently weaves the information from multiple sources into a cogent narrative that reflects the Eritrean perspective. The themes that emerge from the narrative provide important lessons for current and future generations of Eritreans. They include: (1) constant struggle to preserve unity of the people in the face of efforts by foreign powers to divide them along religious and ethnic lines; (2) acceptance of a defective federal act by all political parties in good faith in the interest of unity albeit with some reservations; (3) lack of strong organization and effective leadership, as well as, clarity of goals and conviction to advance national interests; (4) emergence of heroes and villains in the political drama of the two decades covered; and (5) unhappy endings of political careers of those who served Ethiopian causes against the interests of their own people.

Beyond political history of the important formative decades of Eritrean nationalism and political activism, the trilogy substantially contributes to the enrichment of the Tigrinya language and Eritrean literature in general. Though by no means a conclusive political history of the period, the trilogy of books is a richly sourced cogent narration of a story that represents the Eritrean narrative so well that it is a must read for all Eritreans. This exemplary work in the language of Tigrinya should be translated to other languages, especially English, for wider readership.

Towards the beginning of this review, I made a reference to a famous University of Wisconsin history professor, Harvey Goldberg, who was a great story-teller. If he were alive today, he would be happy to know that one of his foreign graduate-student admirers, Alemseged Tesfai, has published a great study that tells the story of his own people, and in their own vernacular at that!

*Gebre H. Tesfagiorgis earned his Ph.D. and J.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He held senior administrative positions at the University of Wisconsin and University of Nebraska. He was Director of Institutional Research at Iowa State University when he retired in June 2016. His published works on Eritrea include: “Self-Determination: Its Evolution and Practice by the UN and Its Application to the Case of Eritrea,” Wisconsin International Law Journal, Vol. 6, N0.1, Fall 1987; Eritrea: A Case of Self-Determination (working paper, Jan. 1990); Editor, Emergent Eritrea: Challenges of Economic Development (1993); Co-editor (with Tesfa Gebremedhin), Traditions of Eritrea: Linking the Past to the Future (2008). He was a member of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea, and Exec. Editor of the Eritrean Studies Review.

[He can be reached at: gebretes@charter.net]

[1] Not to be confused with the current Woyane, the alternative name of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading partner in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling party in Ethiopia.

[2] In his official addresses he invariably referred to the country as “Mereb Mlash,” instead of Eritrea, meaning “beyond Mereb,” as if to emphasize the notion of “Ethiopia’s lost territory” beyond the Mereb, the river that demarcates the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

[3] Herui Tedla Bairu, Eritrea and Ethiopia (2016), Red Sea Press, Trenton N.J., p.60.

[4] Ibid. Appendix section, p. 279.

[5] The tsehuf in egre tsehuf translates to “text,” whereas the meglets in egre meglets translates to “notes.” Thus, my preference.

[6] ዘራጊት ዘላተን ኣሓ ጽሩይ ማይ ነይሰትያ (ኣይንፈላለ፡ ገጽ 226)።

[7] ማይ ንሩባኡ፡ ዕንዳይ ናብ እኖኡ (ኣይንፈላለ፥ ገጽ 277)።

[8] ኣሳእንካን ይመስላ፡ ኣብ እግርኻን ዘይ ኣትዋ (ኣይንፋላለ፡ ገጽ 124)።

[9] ባዕሉ ኣርዑት ዝደሊ፡ ቆራቁሮ ጸሪቡ ኣብ ክሳዱ ሰቒሉ ብቁራብዓት ሕነቑኒ ዝብል ፍጡር መወዳእትኡ ኪጸግባ እዩ።

[10] See Hadas Ertra, Eritrean daily in Tigrignya, No. 143, February 14, 2018, page 6. The three redundant alphabets are: ሀ, ሰ, ጸ and their alternatives.


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