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Cutting It Both Ways across the Mereb River

Supra-ethnic yarn

Under this scenario, the likelihood of the viability and victory of the armed struggle was bleak, but the hegemony of the kebesa Christians and the rebellion of their kin in Tigray-proper played a crucial role in the fortunes of the war. In other words, the Muslim tribe’s power and mobilization was supplanted by the trans-border solidarity of the Kebesa Christians in Eritrea proper and the people in Tigray. This state of affairs, although it was not always amicable and did even deteriorate later into a full scale war with the new regime in Ethiopia, endured many military pressures from the Ethiopian regimes until the very demise of the Mengistu regime.

What brought down the Derg regime is the trans-border ethnic solidarity, a phenomenon which is in contra-distinction to the elements necessary for the formation of the typical nation-state in Africa. What made happen the creation of an independent Eritrea, and the emergence of the Tigray elite as the new power-holders in Ethiopia, was the regional rebellion. It was more than a military alliance, a facile explanation often put forward by some experts of the region. Rather, it was the common religion and culture shared by the rebellion that determined the course of the war, and the source of liability for a sector of the Eritrean population.

The trans-border solidarity that played a significant role in the evicting out of EPLF’s rival organization, ELF, and later in the making of Eritrea has been a major source of friction and contention with the elite of Tigray. It led to a war with Ethiopia in 1998, which puzzled the Tigrayan mother from Gerhu Sernay, to make the following statement: “Our children and the Eritrean fighters were covered with the same shroud.” [3] The trans-border solidarity has stopped on the state level since the last border war, but has not prevented the exodus of tens of thousands of young kebesa Eritreans from fleeing to Tigray, and the strong link of the regime in Eritrea with the Demhit opposition rebels from Tigray, Ethiopia, who we are told has become its last card. [4] The strong obsession of the Eritrean public with real or imagined role of the cousins across the border in the past and in its various twists and turns in the present has yet to end. Clearly, the weakness or strength of the political structure of the state of Eritrea is not trans-sovereignty alone as argued by a scholar recently, who pointed out the presence of the regime in the diaspora communities located in Europe, and North America.

It has equally been dependent on the manpower and resources of people inhabiting borders outside its claims for nationhood, which earned the regime extreme suspicion by both the people in the lowlands of Eritrea and rest of the polity, such as the Amhara in Ethiopia. Advancing the theory of “trans-national” mobilization in the different phases of the armed struggle history and in the making of a nation-state such as Eritrea may seem implausible and incomprehensible. Proposing the concept of revanchist or irredentist politics in Eritrea without a revanchist state for a proof is understandably an arduous task too. Etched in the history of the war for a separate nation-hood, however, had always been present the collusion with the rebels across the Mereb in order to defeat either an internal rival as the ELF or the Derg. More broadly then, the defeat of Derg and the independence of Eritrea was disproportionately the handmaiden of the Mereb children. That is what makes Eritrea, “exceptional”.

Barentu’s saga

We have noted that the rebellion in Eritrea, which begun in the Muslim western lowlands, staggered for many years before the people from the kebesa Eritrea joined it. In the meantime, people in the Kunama lands, whose political and economic conditions were by far the worse, refused to embrace the war for a separate Eritrea. They considered it a threat to their existence and instead stood with Ethiopia. Why did the tribe, whose legitimacy for a rebellion was solid, chose to ally itself with the Ethiopian state and not with the rest of the different ethnic groups in Eritrea? If the Kunama polity had fought for a local autonomy, would the rest of the tribes in the country have remained neutral or supported them? Both scenarios are unthinkable. Victims of predations from both Tigrians of the Mereb, weak and derided, and without some trans-border religious and cultural solidarity as the Tigres and Tigrinyas had, what was the likelihood of a sustainable rebellion, let alone victory in Eritrea for them?

Most likely, none of the Tigrinyas and the Tigres in Eritrea (who are the major population groups in Eritrea), who were throughout the history of the region preying on them and their resources, would have come to their aid. The imagined Kunama rebellion would have been quickly quashed for lack of solidarity from both the other “sisterly” tribes in proper Eritrea and the deficiency of trans-border solidarity. Defeat would certainly have been the outcome.

In the annals of the war of nationalism, the battle of Barentu is described from the two fronts’ perspectives, relegating and dismissing the desperate but stubborn resistance of the local people. Under a long siege, first by the ELF, and then by a joint offensive with the EPLF, Barentu, remained impregnable for many years. Its misfortune and final submission resulted from the merger of the Mereb theatre of war, which cut their link from the Ethiopian army; leaving the defenders to fend for their live.


Is this resistance still cherished among the Kunama elite who oppose the regime in Eritrea now? It does not seem so. Ironically, the scant literature of the Kunama elite selectively dwells about their less important role in the war of nationalism, brushing aside the more resilient and obdurate resistance made against the appearance of the new political configuration of the nation-state, Eritrea. The controversy in the meeting at Addis Ababa about Idris Awate is an example. Their undue emphasis about the reputation of the “founder” of the ELF, with little discussion about the cause championed by him, is regrettable.

In light of the actual historical and hypothetical experience of the Kunama people in Eritrea described above, is the “supra-ethnic” nationalism theory for the building of the Eritrean nationalism and the nation-state still tenable and defensible? It does not seem so. This article is only a starter; hence the need for other writers, particularly from the Kunama, to examine the construct of the Eritrean nationalism of both its past and its contemporary ordeals.

Source : Asmarino (article first published on Asmarino)

[1]Dirar, U. Chelati. Colonialism and the Construction of National Identities: the Case of Eritrea, Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol, 1, No. 2, 256-276, July 2007.
[2]Breketeab, Redie. Supra-Ethnic Nationalism: the Case of Eritrea, African Sociological Review. 6 (2). 2002, pp.137-152.
[3] A Mercenary Army: Isaias Afwerki’s Last Stand.
[4]An account made by a person familiar with the frequent political discussions of the Fronts operating in the border areas with Tigray.



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