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The Eritrean Question: an Alternative Explanation

  • Mesfin Araya


There has been an armed struggle for independence in Eritrea since the dismantling of its ‘federation’ with Ethiopia in 1962. Particularly since the fall of the imperial régime in 1974, the war has claimed many lives, and continues to cause economic and social dislocation in the region. Despite what has happened during the past three decades, however, the so-called ‘Eritrean question’ remains a widely misunderstood phenomenon, not least because there is no authoritative and scholarly modern political history of this part of Africa.



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1 Despite its pro-British stance, Trevaskis, G. K. N., Eritrea: a colony in transition, 1941–52 (London, 1960), remains highly informative as an historical reference.

2 According to Campbell, John Franklin, ‘Background to the Eritrean Conflict’, in Africa Report (Washington, D.C.), 16, 5, 05 1971. p. 20, Saleh Sabby, one of the leaders of the Eritrean Liberation Front, had repeatedly vowed to establish an Arab Eritrean state.

3 Selassie, Bereket Habte, Conflilct and Intervention in the Horn of Africa (New York, 1980), p. 51.

4 For details, consult the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (E.P.L.F.) memorandum, August 1978, and its joint declaration with the Eritrean Liberation Front (E.L.F.), in The Eritrean Case: Proceedings of the Permanent People's Tribunal (Rome, Research and Information Centre on Eritera, 1982), pp. 17–31.

5 See the collection of articles in ibid. and Basil, Davidson et al. (eds.), Behind the War in Eritrea (Nottingham, 1980).

6 See Ethiopia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eritrea: then and now (Addis Ababa, 1976), and Ethiopian Revolution Information Centre, Class Struggle and the Problem in Eritrea (Addis Ababa, 1979), as well as the joint declaration by the E.P.L.F. and the E.L.F. in The Eritrean Case.

7 Final Report of the United Nations Commissioner in Eritrea (New York, 1952), General Assembly Official Records (G.A.O.R.), 7th Session Supplement No. 15, p. 74. The Commissioner had been appointed by the U.N. in December 1950, to draft an Eritrean constitution.

8 See Lobban, Richard, ‘The Eritrean War: issues and implications’, in Canadian Journal of African Studies (Ottawa), 10, 2, 1976, pp. 335–46.

9 Therborn, Göran, The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (London, 1980), p. 116.

10 The phraseology is derived from ibid. For details on the Unionists, see the Four-Power Commission of Investigation for the Former Italian Colonies (F.P.C.I.), Report on Eritrea, Vol. I (New York, 1948).

11 Ibid. Appendix 121.

12 Ibid. Appendix 101.

13 Quoted in Pankurst, Sylvia, The British Policy in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia (Woodford Green, Essex, 1946), p. 20.

14 ‘Memorandum of the Moslem League’, Asmara, 10 October 1951, p. 12; FO742/23, Public Records Office, London.

15 ‘Statement by the Chairman of the Delegation of the Moslem League of Eritrea made at the 55th Meeting of the Ad Hoc Political Meeting on 24th November 1950’, p. 8; United Nations, A/AC.38/L51, G.A.O.R., New York.

16 F.P.C.I., op. cit. Appendices 159–73.

17 For details, see Final Report of the United Nations Commissioner in Eritrea, pp. 14–16.

18 It was during the British administration of Eritrea, 1941–52, that Tigrinya became prominent as a written language. See Hailu Habtu, ‘Aspects of Tigrinya Literature until 1974’, M.Phil. University of London, June 1981.

19 ‘Memorandum of the Moslem League’, pp. 3–5.

20 Although Tigre is widely spoken in Eritrea, Muslim élites have adopted Arabic as their written language, and this is taught in Islamic schools.

21 The U.N. Commision for Eritrea had been appointed in November 1949 to ascertain the wishes of the local population and make a recommendation to the General Assembly.

22 The New York Times, 22 February 1950.

23 The Guardian (Manchester), 23 February 1950.

24 The Times (London), 23 February 1950.

25 For more Information, see Trevaskis, op. cit. pp. 55 and 109.

26 Ibrahim Sultan, June 1974, Cairo; my translation from the tape-recording, kindly made available by Woldu Yohannes, of an interview conducted by three unnamed Eritrean nationalists.

27 Merrell to the U.S. Secretary of State, 30 August 1949, United States Archives, 884.00/8–2949.

28 Telegram from Brigadier F. G. Drew to the Foreign Office, 7 September 1949; FO 371/73788, P.R.O., London.

29 Report of the United Nations Commission for Eritrea (New York, 1950), G.A.O.R., Supplement No. 8, A/1285, p. 16.

30 For details, see ibid. pp. 17–21.

31 Final Report of the United Nations Commissioner in Eritrea, p. 2.

32 Ibid. pp. 16 and 36–7. For more information, see Trevaskis, op. cit. pp. 118–19.

33 United Nations, Department of Public Information, Shaping a People's Destiny: the story of Eritrea and the U.N. (New York, 1953), p. 24.

34 Information on the rôles of the three countries can be found in Ibrahim Sultan, op. cit.; Ellingson, Lyold, ‘The Emergence of Political Parties in Eritrea, 1941–50’, in Journal of African History (Cambridge), 18, 2, 1977, pp. 261–81; and Trevaskis, op. cit.

35 Letter from Frank Stafford to the Foreign Office, 9 February 1950; FO 371/80872, P.R.O., London.

36 Quoted by Kenneally, Thomas, ‘In Eritrea’, in The New York Times Magazine, 27 09 1987, p. 58.

37 See Taylor, Graham, ‘Ethiopia's Rebellion’, in Africa Report, 14, 8, 12 1969, p. 6, whose report from Asmara mentioned the prevalence of Ethiopian nationalism in the highlands, and Muslim support for the E.L.F.

38 For an English translation of the complete text, ‘Our Struggle and Its Goals’, see Liberation (New York), 2, 3, March 1973, pp. 5–23.

39 ‘Statement by Mr. Wolde Ab Wolde Mariam in His Press Conference in Beirut’, 15 April 1971.

40 For example, see Campbell, loc. cit. pp. 19–20; Halliday, Fred, ‘The Fighting in Eritrea’, in New Left Review (London), 67, 0506 1971, pp. 5767; and Erlich, Haggai, The Struggle over Eritrea, 1962–1978 (Stanford, 1983).

41 See Grimaldi, Fulvio, ‘Unity: calm optimism’, in Sudanow (Khartoum), 12 1977, p. 25;Harnet, Mekalh, ‘Reflections on the Eritrean Revolution’, in Horn of Africa (New York), 6, 3, (19831984), pp. 315; Erlich, op. cit.; and Medhanie, Tesfatsion, Eritrea: dynamics of a national question (Amsterdam, 1986).

42 Harnet, loc. cit. p. 10.

43 Erlich, op. cit. p. 19.

44 Breuilly, John, Nationalism and the State (New York, 1982), p. 344.

45 An apt expression in Connor, Walker, ‘Nation-Building or Nation-Destroying’, in World Politics (Princeton), 24, 3, 04 1972, p. 341.

46 Said Samatar, S., Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: the case of Sayyid Mahammad'Abdille Hasan (London, 1982).

47 Cf. the audio and video tapes of the E.P.L.F., Eritrea, 1988.

48 E.P.L.F., ‘Hezbi Eritrea Degin Ayetaleleen Iyu’, Eritrea, 1986.

49 Longrigg, Stephen H., A Short History of Eritrea (Oxford, 1945), pp. 101–2.

50 For a brief account on the life of Wolde Michael Solomon, see ibid. and Kolmodin, Johannes, Traditions de Tsazzega et Hazzaga, Textes Tigrinya (Rome, 1912).

51 Although the E.P.L.F. has emerged as the only militarily powerful movement, the political history of Eritrea should caution us against what Markakis, John optimistically analyses as ‘The Nationalist Revolution in Eritrea’, in The Journal of Modern African Studies (Cambridge), 26, 1, 03 1985, pp. 5170.

52 ‘Memorandum of the Moslem League’, pp. 12–13.

53 For more information, see The Washington Post, 30 April 1967, and The New York Times, 30 April and 27 August 1967, as well as Erlich, op. cit. pp. 40–1 and 58.

54 The New York Times, 30 April 1967. The number of refugees may have been as many as 30,000 according to Halliday, loc. cit. p. 62.

55 The spectre of Islam had haunted Ethiopian rulers in the past, and given them an effective weapon of propaganda. Emperor Menelik II is said to have defined Ethiopia as ‘an island of Christians in the sea of Muslims’, according to Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Christian Church and Missions in Ethiopia (including Eritrea and the Somalilands) (London, 1950), p. 7.

56 Ehrlich, op. cit. pp. 38–9.

57 Clapham, Christopher, Haile Selassie's Government (New York, 1969), p. 77.

58 Ibid. p. 83.

59 Derived from the Imperial Ethiopian Government, Statistical Abstract (Addis Ababa, 1965).

60 See Imperial Ethiopian Government, Survey of Major Towns in Ethiopia, Statistical Bulletin (Addis Ababa, 1968), for evidence that in 1963, for example, 81 per cent of the population of Asmara were Christians. According to Horowitz, Donald L., Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley, 1985), p. 253, the levels of literacy and quality of housing in the Muslim quarters of Asmara in the 1970s were below the average for the city as a whole.

61 For a brief description of ethnic and religious affiliations in the University, see Balsvik, Randi Rønning, Haile Sellassie's Students: the intellectual and social background to revolution, 1952–1977 (East Lansing, 1985), pp. 43–9.

62 See Marina, and Ottaway, David, Ethiopia: empire in revolution (New York and London, 1978), p. 207, fn. 5.

63 Ethiopia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, op. cit. p. 13.

64 Lefort, René, Ethiopia: an heretical revolution? (London, 1983), p. 147.

65 Erlich, op. cit. p. 16.

66 Workers' Party of Ethiopia, The Sole Truth and Only Solution (Addis Ababa, 1985), p. 36.

67 Cf. Perham, Margery, The Government of Ethiopia (Evanston, 1969).

68 The Constitution of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, 1987).

69 Keller, Edmond J., Revolutionary Ethiopia: from empire to people's republic (Bloomington, 1988), p. 240.

* Part-time Assistant Professor at York College, The City University of New York.

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The Eritrean Question: an Alternative Explanation

  • Mesfin Araya


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