Cutting It Both Ways across the Mereb River

By Zekre Lebona

All nationalist Eritrean historians stipulate that the Unionist Parity in the 1950s had the strong support of Ethiopia from headquarters located in Tigray, resulting in its dominance among the kebesa Christians. What they forget oddly, however, is the parallel phenomenon of the larger political and military input from the same place that was essential in the making of the nation-state Eritrea. Specifically, the cross-border ethnic/cultural influence that existed in the pre-colonial history of the region had undue influence in the road to “liberation”, particularly in the latter part of the war led by the EPLF. Why did Eritrean nationalism not limit itself and depend on the diverse tribes within the colonial state constructed by Italy?

The reasons are as straight forward as Eritrea’s inability to depend on its own resources, necessitating it to close the deficit from Ethiopia, legally or otherwise. The Ethiopian historian, Alemseged Abbay, has dealt with this subject matter in his article, Not with them, Not without them: the Staggering of Eritrea to Nationhood, in which the border issue has no relevance. This paper will attempt to explain Eritrea’s equally tottering and uncertain attempt to clench victory during the war for its independence.

What happened during the invasion of the region known as Eritrea at the twilight of the nineteenth century may be equally relevant for what transpired during the subsequent rebellion for a separate state from Ethiopia:
“The beginning of the Italian colonial presence in Eritrea has to be set against the background of ecological and social devastation, of food crises and a high degree of social and political instability. The demographic collapse caused by the “Great Famine” (1888-92), together with the political fragmentation of those years, hindered the establishment of enduring and effective political systems and undermined the possibilities for strong and cohesive anti-colonial opposition.” [1]

In the same manner, the strategy of the long and protracted war of the liberation of Eritrea imposed by the modern Eritrean elite in the early 60s was beyond the means, material resources and political commitment of the tribes in whom the vestiges of political strife of the 50s was still robust and alive. We must not forget that there were also elements of hostility and suspicion triggered by religion and the competition for agricultural and grazing land. As the political sector, the agriculture economy was less productive and highly fragmented, except for the few Italian owned commercial farms. Hence, the peasants and pastoralists were not ready to shoulder the war burden with an economy based on a semi-subsistence level.

The EPLF ghedli entrepreneurs, therefore, understood the need for a close collaboration and mobilization with the cross-border densely populated Tigrinya speakers from Tigray, just as the ELF did with the Beja community across the border in the Sudan, and by extension with the Arab world. This decision to shift the war into the kebesa, and later to the south of the Mereb, was not noticed by some of the scholars who supported the war for separation.

Without exception, almost all of the nations in Africa, including some in South America and Asia, were the products of colonial powers that in the process of grandiose imperial projects arbitrarily put together many tribes, including some that comprise same ethnic groups across the artificially made borders. The attempt of many post-colonial African states since the 60s to make a nation out of the former colonial entities was dismal and disappointing. Difficult as this was, Eritrean nationalism embarked to re-create the prior Italian colonial state from the new Ethiopian empire with war, in complete ignorance of the local politics and the huge human and material costs.

All of the scholars tend to agree on the explanation articulated by Redie Bereketeab, to whom Eritrea is an exception story, the end-result of years of a colonial experience and a struggle around a-supra-ethnic nationalism. Bereketeab argues that, “ Eritrea combines the primordial/modernist, the ethnic/civic and ethno-linguistic distinctions. Its nationalism is, thus, based on the unity of these diversities and is by definition supra ethnic.” [2]

Is this a tenable argument in the face of the internecine conflict within the variegated tribes in the land? Including the Kunama, who allied with Ethiopia and remained mostly hostile to the Eritrean nationalism until their fate of defeat. The scholar omits this remarkable history; he likewise fails to discuss the Rashaida Arab tribe, who completely ignored the celebrated cause, lest it leaves a dark stain on what is largely considered a “sacred” independence war.

The Kunama, according to historians, are the original inhabitants of the region known as Eritrea; but pushed and evicted by waves of migrants such as the Semitic and Cushitic races, they presently live in the south-west lowlands. A minority, they still endure despise and oppression in the hands of the other major tribes in present day Eritrea. In comparison to their lot, the political and economic circumstance of the other tribes was better; yet, the modern Eritrean nationalism did not start in their abode.

It begun, instead, among their neighboring tribes of the Beni-amir Tigre, involving gradually the rest of different Muslim tribes, and securing the solidarity of the people across the border in the Sudan and the Arabs, with whom they happen to share some religious/cultural affinities. The rebellion against Ethiopia, which started in 1961, flickered for many years without a major presence of the people from the Kebesa Christians until the mid-70s, a fact that is still bitterly resented by the lowland/Muslim elites. It explains the glaring absence of the “supra-ethnic” nationalism; that is, the solidarity among the rest of ethnic groups in the land and, most importantly, the open hostility to the cause by the Kunama people. [See Next Page]

Pages: 1 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.