Comparing the Geneva Demo of June 2015 With the Asmara Demo of March 1965

2015-07-08 21:54:40 Written by  By Woldeyesus Ammar Published in English Articles Read 8515 times
Soon after the historic Geneva demonstration of 26 June 2015, many Eritreans started exchanging viewpoints about how each of them thought of this particular Geneva event. Like many others, I was approached for similar exchange of opinion on the subject and had lively chats with old and young friends. I now wish to share my reactions in trying to answer the question of how significant the Geneva demo was and what positive contribution it can make to the current struggle for democratic change.

But I confessed to every inquirer that, while I was at the midst of the Geneva demo on 26 June, I was also thinking of a similar event that took place in Asmara 50 years earlier. Therefore, my responses to friends were based on new thoughts and old memories that led me to the conclusion that the two events were strikingly similar in many ways, although separated by a time span of half a century!!

Needless to say, the Geneva demonstration was historic and will prove to be a hugely important turning point in the current struggle for democratic change. Similarly, to me and to some members of my generation, the demonstration of 8 March 1965 in the Eritrean capital did positively influence developments in the Eritrean struggle for national independence.  



Two related historic events of Asmara 1965 and Geneva 2015 separated only by span of time.

Youth-Initiated, Inspiring Occurrences

As we have witnessed, the 26 June demo in Geneva was the biggest such event ever organized by the Eritrean opposition camp. It was mainly organized and dominated by young Eritreans in exile who helped bring in one place such a huge number of freedom fighters. Participants willingly availed themselves for jointly expressing their utter frustration with the sad condition prevailing at home. The event was inspiring. For many, it indeed was a birth of a new activism for doing something to change a very bad situation. Almost every demonstrator was being heard vowing to never again be silent observer of what is happening to the country and its people.  To say it in other words, even the ones who were there simply to see and, for the first time ever as demonstrators, will never again remain the same. They are enthused to climb and ride the bandwagon of justice seekers.

Likewise, the March 1965 demonstration in Asmara was conducted by teen-age students who became aware of the worsening condition of the Eritrean people under alien rule. Before that time, Asmara witnessed a number of student demonstrations in 1957 and later continued student activism between 1961 and 1964. But no student demonstration was like the one of March 1965. It inspired so many young people to join the then growing armed struggle. Even the elementary and middle school children of the day (like EPDP’s Menghesteab Asmerom and Tesfai Degiga who also were with us in Geneva demo on 26 June) could not escape from being much, much influenced by the events of the time.  

Also like the Geneva demonstration of last month, which was organized by the full participation of all activists in the camp of justice seekers, the event in Asmara 50 years ago was also organized in an inclusive manner - all the then existing secondary schools of the day in Asmara took part in its preparation although the Prince Makonnen Secondary School was the usual initiator..

As we know, the Geneva demo was organized both to give support to the UN report on Eritrea and at the same time demand for more from the international community to help change the intolerable Eritrea situation.

Likewise, the Asmara demo of March 1965 was partly a call on the UN “to be seized” of what was happening in Eritrea; condemn the abuses of the occupation authorities, and then take concrete measures to help the release of political prisoners and give moral and political support to Eritreans fighting for freedom.

Change of Political Climate

After March 1965, the political climate in Asmara was changed. The key words that can characterize the period that followed the 1965 demo were: mobilization and active participation. Students were organized in effective cells, and people in and around the national capital wanted to know more about the armed struggle and to find ways of helping it in any way possible. This writer and a few other compatriots were forced by fate to attend both the Asmara and Geneva demonstrations can be taken as good witnesses.  

Building Momentum

It was only a week after the 8 March 1965 Asmara demo that the then youthful Seyoum Ogbamichael (Harestai) and Dawit Temesghen left Asmara to join the freedom fighters in the field (Meda). The now notorious Isayas Afeworki, his victims Haile Woldetensae (DuruE) and Mussie Tesfamichael, as well as Ahmed Nasser, Tesfai Tecle and many others who followed them in 1966. Many of the nearly 3,000 students who were imprisoned for about two days without food at Sembel after the 1965 demonstration either joined the armed wing of the struggle in due course of time or remained active mobilizes and organizers of the struggle. The Asmara demo of 1965 was, therefore, a momentum builder to the then nascent national awakening for independence.

The 26 June 2015 event in Geneva now appears to have created a rare opportunity that should not be missed in closing the ranks of the existing forces of change both inside the homeland and abroad. It is a gold momentum for mobilization of the youth, and uncommon opportunity to be seized in order for us to realize a much needed national salvation. The youth of the 1960s and 70s joined the then existing organization(s) and built upon it. Our youth in 2015 can do the same. Why not!

Printed below for the benefit of those readers who might not have seen it is an article on student activism of the 60s that appeared in the Journal of Eritrean Studies in 1997. Good reading




Woldeyesus Ammar

An Overview

Due to Italian colonial policy on education,[i] there was a discernible absence of students and student activism during the 1940s when the fate of Eritrea was being discussed at international forums. That lack of sufficient educated elders and students let the political stage be dominated by traditional leaders and their type of sectarian politics. However, the situation changed during the phase of the liberation struggle.

The British care-taker administration (1941-1952) promoted education.[ii] This policy was continued by the Eritrean Government formed under the federal arrangement voted by the United Nations. Within a decade, Eritrea had a sizable intelligentsia with intermediate education as the number of students beyond the elementary level grew considerably.[iii] A few more were studying outside Eritrea. During the 1960s, there were more than 300 Eritrean students pursuing higher studies in Cairo.[iv] Another 800 or so Eritreans were enrolled in institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia.[v] School children who were subjected to parading and singing propaganda for a pro-Ethiopian party during 1946-56, had by late 1950s become reluctant to respond to non-Eritrean sentiments.[vi] Developments in Eritrea and the surrounding region inspired many students to take up politics as their extra-curricular activity. Thus, Eritrean students were destined to make a remarkable contribution in the growth of the nationalist movement. As Tahir Fadab, an active leadership cadre of the Eritrean Liberation Movement, affirmed in his recent book on the history of the ELM (or "Mahber Showate") covering the period 1958-1966,

We are obliged to record for history that Eritrean students, both those inside and outside the country, merit a lion's share of the credit for having kept momentum of the nationalist movement until the final liberation.[vii]

It is argued that the movement for Eritrean independence was in a relative decline after the installation of the Federation, but that it was revived in the late 1950s mainly as an idea promoted by students - "fikra tulabia".[viii] An Eritrean student of history confirmed that "be it in Asmara, in Addis or in Cairo, those who propagated to keep the spirit [of Eritrean independence] alive were mainly young students".[ix]

The fact that the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was established with an overwhelming participation of students in Cairo[x] further attests their overall contribution in the rebirth of the nationalist movement.

Asmara students followed in the footsteps of those in Cairo and from the start played an important role in instilling nationalist feeling among the population. Between 1961 and 1965, in particular, they organized demonstrations almost yearly in the Eritrean capital and helped create awareness about the struggle for independence in part of the country where Eritreanism was initially weak.

The same generation of Asmara students continued to contribute immensely in the growth and eventual victory of the liberation movement. Some of those students are easily identifiable and still active either with the government in Asmara or with the main opposition group so far kept in exile. The then Prince Makonnen Secondary School (PMSS) produced the most militant group of students in the 1960s, among whom was Issayas Afeworqi, the founder-leader of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and incumbent President of the State of Eritrea. The other centre of student politics was the Haile Selassie I Secondary School (HSISS) where Ahmed Mohammed Nasser, Chairman of the mainstream ELF between 1975-95, was among the agitators.

This article is intended to initiate discussion on the role of Asmara students in rousing nationalist sentiments during 1958-1968.[xi] It will review the general political environment that influenced students to act as they did during that period; outline the major activities undertaken by Asmara students in the 1960s, and summarize under a few points the significance of those early student activities in the growth of nationalist awareness, especially among the population in the Eritrean highlands.

                                                                     PART I

                                                     INFLUENCING FACTORS

There wouldn't have been a student movement or an Eritrean liberation movement, for that matter, without the right political environment on local, regional and international levels. Ethiopia's social, economic and political backwardness and its systematic policies to erode Eritrea's special status were among the central causes that helped nurture a nationalist feeling in the territory. The modern forces, among them the students and their teachers, started to feel unhappy of the link with feudal Ethiopia when former colonial territories in Africa - many of them at least as small and as "unviable" as Eritrea - started to emerge as independent states. Other factors that influenced the political thinking of Asmara students included the emergence of Arab and other national liberation movements in the Third World; activities of Cairo students; memories of the March 1958 general workers' strike and activities of the ELM. How those developments influenced Asmara students merit further explanation.

1)         Ethiopia's Contributions

Ethiopia's encroachments on the UN-installed federal arrangement for Eritrea were excessively blatant from the very beginning. Trade unions and political parties were banned, journalists were incarcerated arbitrarily and the local press muzzled. Elections to the Eritrean Assembly were rigged, and Ethiopian laws introduced in violation of the Federal Act. The Eritrean flag, a strong emotional symbol of Eritrea's national aspirations, was discarded and Amharic was introduced as the language of instruction replacing Tigrigna and Arabic.     

As Eritrea became more closely tied to Addis Ababa after 1952, it became clear to many who had hitherto favoured some sort of union with Haile Selassie's government that the fears of those who opposed union were well founded.[xii]

The political suppression, which bred general frustration, was compounded by economic distress. The Unionist[xiii] propaganda of the 1940s had presented Ethiopia as the Promised Land of milk and honey. But when the Federation was put into effect, there was little that Ethiopia could contribute to the well-being of the Eritrean people. To the contrary, concerted action was taken to kill the new political arrangement both politically and economically. Many economic establishments were shut down and told to reopen in Addis Ababa. Number of industrial workers went down from 32,400 in 1947 to 10,350 in 1962.[xiv] Jobless Eritreans thus had to migrate to Ethiopia and to neighbouring countries.

As years went by, Eritreans observed all social and economic indicators revealing that Ethiopia was lagging far behind the young states in Africa. In 1960, for instance, about 62% of school age children in neighbouring Kenya went to school while the figure for Ethiopia was only 7%.[xv] Furthermore, Ethiopia's undemocratic governance and its archaic feudal practices disheartened the Eritreans, especially the youth.

A large segment of the population, including former supporters of union with Ethiopia, started talking vehemently against the political and economic measures of the Ethiopian government in Eritrea. Students were imbued with the bitter grumble of elders - and no wonder that they were to become the best agents to articulate a deepening frustration in the society.

In December 1960, a coup attempt in Addis Ababa further reminded Eritreans that the Ethiopian Emperor, who was seen as a stumbling block to Eritrean national aspirations, may soon go away and that they would better prepare for that eventuality without procrastination.

2)         Decolonization and Asmara Students

Decolonization of Africa was another important development that helped steam up a nationalist awakening in Eritrea. Between 1956 and 1966, 33 former colonies in Africa attained independent statehood; of this, 16 became independent during 1960. (Eritreans hastened to declare an armed struggle a year later.)

When Eritrea's case was being debated in the United Nations, economic viability of the colonial territory, the 'right' of access to the sea of landlocked Ethiopia, historical and cultural affinity of neighbouring peoples, and the size of its population were among the issues and arguments considered at reaching a decision on the fate of Eritrea. Eritrean students in 1960 observed that those arguments were not raised against the other former colonial states and resented the fact that their country's case had been brought to the UN General Assembly at a wrong time. An American writer expressed it well when he wrote,

... the political developments in Eritrea during the 1940s foreshadowed the rise of African nationalism across the continent a decade later, but unfortunately for the Eritreans, they were perhaps too early. The international stage was not yet set for decolonization and [that] first skirmish with European colonialism was met with a solid united front of opposition from the colonial powers.[xvi]

3)         Arab Nationalism/Third World Movements

Among the first to be influenced were those Eritrean students who were directly exposed to the Arabic language broadcasts and writings of the Arab nationalist movement awakened by the charismatic Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. Tuning to Cairo became a long-lasting habit to many Eritrean nationalists with some knowledge of Arabic. More Eritrean ears listened to broadcasts from Cairo following Cairo's Tigrigna language programmes for a short period in 1956. The Tigrigna broadcasts had additional significance because the presenter was none other than Woldeab Woldemariam, a leading nationalist who had a great political appeal to many Eritreans.

The Algerian struggle for independence and, in general, the Third World liberation movement, which was building up encouraged by the collapse of colonialism and the vocal support of the Socialist camp, inspired Eritrean youth to join the new wave.

4)         Influence of Cairo Students

Eritrean youth looking for better schooling or jobs were, as of mid-1940s, trekking to Cairo through all possible routes. Most of them travelled without legitimate documents. In 1952, a student association was formed in Cairo.[xvii] By the late 1950s, Cairo became a centre of Eritrean student movement with far-reaching influences. Many of those students were returning to Eritrea on family visits, and some went on missions with political agenda. One such prominent visitor was Saied Hussein, known to some as the 'dynamo' of the student movement in Cairo.[xviii] In one of his visits to Asmara, he tried to carry out a military operation but was arrested.[xix]

Cairo students, whose club became an information desk on developments in Eritrea, organized many anti-Ethiopian demonstrations during the 1950s and early 1960s which influenced the students in Asmara.

5)         The March 1958 General Strike

The workers' strike of March 1958 was the single most defiant reaction in the 1950s to Ethiopian abuses in Eritrea. School children in Massawa, Asmara, Keren and other urban centres watched the massive demonstrations staged by angry adults who forced shops and businesses closed. Some of the demonstrations were quite bloody. Nine persons were reported killed and over 500 wounded.[xx] Students saw blood-letting for the first time. The contributor of this article was a fifth grader in Keren and watched injured persons being rushed towards the hospital.

Before the year 1958 ended, the ELM was founded in Port Sudan by young Eritreans[xxi] who as students in the 1950s "were caught in the rising tide of Sudanese nationalism and the excitement of independence in 1956".[xxii] By 1960, ELM claimed to have established many cells in Asmara. The movement initially concentrated on recruiting Moslem elements because of old fears of Unionist (i.e. Ethiopian) tendencies in the highlands. But its organizers were "caught by surprise" when students and workers in Asmara responded to ELM's call with great enthusiasm.[xxiii]

                                                                     PART II

                                POLITICAL ACTIVITIES OF ASMARA STUDENTS

The period under consideration can be divided into two distinct phases of the student movement in Asmara. The formative stage, extending between 1958 to mid-1965, could be termed as the period of spontaneous action.[xxiv] It was followed by a period of organized activities lasting between late 1965 to mid-1967. By 1968, the student movement inside the country was in a state of utter collapse paradoxically at a time when global student militancy was at its peak. (Eritrean students in the Middle East and Europe fared better than their compatriot students in Asmara and Addis Ababa.[xxv])

a)         Spontaneous Action

As noted, the general discontent of the population was gradually impacting on young school children in the country. Despite lack of organization, students in Asmara were engaged in political activities starting in the late 1950s. Some were acting on their own - some writing graffiti wherever they could lay their hands, others mailing letters to government officials accusing them of sell-out to Ethiopia.[xxvi] Individual efforts developed to group, but still spontaneous, action. Among well remembered incidents of the second half of the 1950s include a student strike at Benevolente school, popularly known as Islamia,[xxvii] and an 'uprising' at the HSISS in which students destroyed their dormitory and damaged school furniture opposing, among other administrative complaints, a suggested introduction of Amharic as the language of instruction in Eritrea.[xxviii]

Those events were given political significance by succeeding generation of students.[xxix] It is also claimed that workers' demonstrations of March 1958 had as many student participants as workers.[xxx]

In September 1961, the two major high schools in Asmara received a larger number of 9th graders than at any time before. PMSS alone doubled its total population to about 350 by accommodating six new classes in grade nine from among whom cropped up a nucleus of a militant group. This new numerical strength of high school students helped increase the frequency of spontaneous activities.

The declaration of the armed struggle was not immediately known to many people in Asmara. Most parents and relatives learned about it when their children were detained or beaten by the police while demonstrating or writing wall slogans in support of the armed struggle for independence. As of early 1962, PMSS became the origin of anti-Ethiopian graffiti and leaflets distributed in the city.[xxxi] At one point, the Eritrean Police Commissioner, Tedla Ogbit,[xxxii] had to come to PMSS to harangue the students on this problem. Written in bold characters on the gate of PMSS was the slogan: "Long Live Hamid Awate!".[xxxiii] In his address the Police Commissioner furiously mentioned what he read at the gate and warned that stern measures would be taken against those engaged in 'subversive' activities.

During the early 1960s, Asmara students staged demonstrations whose political significance and mobilizational effect in reviving Eritrean nationalist feeling was quite high. Ethiopian authorities who foresaw the possible long-term consequences were deeply frightened. PMSS was again the organizer of this form of agitation.[xxxiv]    

The most significant demonstrations of that early period were the ones staged in May 1962 and in March 1965. A brief description of those two events can help shed light not only on the spontaneity of the activities and the relatively advanced degree of political consciousness of the high school students in that early period but also the direct and indirect effect of those demonstrations on the general population.

i) The May 1962 Demonstration

The May 1962 demonstration, which marked the debut of student activism following the declaration of the armed struggle, was incited by a handful students at PMSS[xxxv]. The Eritrean Assembly was scheduled to meet for a controversial debate on the budget. During previous debates in the Assembly, outspoken legislators questioned the Ethiopian Emperor's "generous grant" of 1 million Ethiopian birr to help the Eritrean Government correct a budget deficit in its 1960/61 total expenditures of 18 million birr[xxxvi]. It was felt that a group of students demonstrating in front of the Eritrean Assembly would sway the 68 Eritrean legislators. The students hoped, genuinely but quite naively, that their action would bring about an overnight change on the status of Eritrea!

To that end, a circular was passed to all classes in PMSS informing that a demonstration would be held on 22 May 1962, the day the Assembly was scheduled to meet, and that every student was expected to participate. A spontaneous student assembly inside PMSS was informed that every student would have to write "something about Eritrea" in several copies for distribution during the demonstration. This writer was the sole speaker at that short meeting. That was all. There was no group discussion to organize it nor any participation from outside PMSS. After spending most of the morning hours in utter confusion, the PMSS students went in large groups to incite HSISS students, where the majority were still reluctant to join the demonstration. Finally, a mob action prevailed and students of the two schools started to march (rather, run!) through the main road towards the Eritrean Assembly building in the centre of the city. By then, policemen and security agents were posted in every corner. Thus, no peaceful demonstration could be pursued, nor could the students gather near the Assembly (parliament) building. However, they managed to run past it singing:

Natsinet Delina!


This simple phrase reverberated in the heart of Asmara and undoubtedly roused high emotions. Many by-standers joined the singing and running students.[xxxviii] Horse-mounted policemen chased many of the 'demonstrators' across the Grand Mosque and St. Mary's Church towards Biet Ghiorgis on the way to Massawa. Many students were beaten and detained at several police centres including at Caserma Mussolini.[xxxix] Disturbances continued for a week by students demanding the release of detained students. A defiant student assembly was organized at Mai Anbessa, north of Asmara, and added resolve to the continuation of the demonstrations. Primary and middle school students in Asmara and the other Eritrean towns also boycotted classes in solidarity with those arrested during the demonstrations.

Many parents, whose political stance was undecided, found the action of their children and the general direction of political developments quite disconcerting. They were unhappy of Ethiopia's violations of the Federal Act but continued to think that it was too late to fight for Eritrean autonomy let alone total independence. It seemed difficult to challenge the King of Kings of Ethiopia and to ignore the influence of the Orthodox Church. Majority of the elders wondered whether a small country like Eritrea would exist without a "king". The young students did not share the worries and fears of their parents.

Ethiopian authorities dreaded the prospect of a nationalist awakening among Christian Eritreans. Now they saw it coming true. Their security apparatus thus resorted to all sorts of physical and psychological torture and intimidation to suppress any opposition.[xl] Students and school teachers were among many who were jailed or ordered to report to security offices for finger printing and photographing. As one member of the American Consulate in Asmara reported,

A number of those who participated in demonstrations were severely treated by the police and stories of police brutality were being more widespread. [xli]

The suppressive measures served the Eritrean cause by breeding more anti-Ethiopian sentiments. The May 1962 student demonstrations and the 7 July 1962 attack on government officials in Agordat were important political events of the year. Those two incidents might even have contributed in hastening Ethiopia's decision to dissolve the Federation on 14 November 1992.

ii)         The March 1965 Demonstration

The other most important demonstration of the 1960s in Asmara took place between 8-12 March 1965. Again there was no student union organizing action nor did the ELF or ELM take any part in its preparation.[xlii] It was a semi-organized action started when a few politically conscious elements at PMSS felt that it was time for Asmara demonstrations to be reported on the BBC like the February 1965 "Land to the Tiller" demonstration of the Ethiopian university students in Addis Ababa. This time it was decided to broaden participation by inviting other schools. A meeting was called in which representatives from HSISS and the Point Four Technical School attended.[xliii] The representatives agreed on points that had to be propagated through placards and pamphlets. The main student demands were the following:

1) That the UN should forcefully condemn the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea and the General Assembly be 'seized of the matter' as it promised on October 17,1952; 2) that the UN should hold a referendum on the future status of Eritrea; 3) closure of the American base of Kagnew Station in Asmara; 4) expulsion of Israeli military personnel; 5) release of all political prisoners, and 6) [that Ethiopia should] stop closing schools and industrial establishments in Eritrea.[xliv]

The government was better prepared to deal with the 1965 demonstration than in the past. Rubber-stick wielding police and trainees of commando units filled the streets of Asmara from early morning. Police vans were deployed at many places in the city. Students came out of their schools lined up for a "peaceful demonstration" and pleaded to be left alone to exercise their right to demonstrate as that right was enshrined in the Eritrean Constitution. However, the police started beating them towards the prepared trucks. About 2,000 students were beaten and forcefully transported for detention at an anti-ELF Commando training centre at Sembel in the outskirts of Asmara. The students spent about 40 hours at the detention centre without any food supply.[xlv] All schools in Eritrea boycotted classes in solidarity with Asmara students. As this writer noted it elsewhere,

That student activism had a more lasting effect on the Eritrean armed struggle than a number of other undertakings by the nationalists at that difficult epoch. This was because: (a) a political action in the heart of the Eritrean capital was seen as a serious challenge to the locally awed and respected person of Emperor Haile Selassie; (b) news of the students' activities were easily carried to every part of the country by scared relatives; and, above all, (c) Asmara students rallying behind the Eritrean nationalist movement signified that the Kabassan population, the most important other half of the Eritrean people, will not for long lag far behind the other segments of the society in the nationalist cause. Those in Cairo and Kassala fully appreciated its far reaching significance.[xlvi]

This viewpoint is entertained by many student militants of the period.[xlvii] Ahmed Nasser described Asmara students of 1960s as "the generation that made a generous contribution to help create the present realities in Eritrea".[xlviii] Seyoum Ogbamichael sees that one cannot think of increased nationalist reawakening among the population in Asmara without the important contribution by students in the early 1960s.[xlix] To Gherezghiher Tewelde, another student actor during the second half of the 1960s, the demonstrations initially had more influence on the students themselves than on the general population. However, taking into consideration the fact that many of those students became fighters, political cadres and front leaders, "one can comfortably say that the demonstrations indeed played a significant role" in the nationalist movement.[l]

2)         Organized Action

The student militancy of 1961-65 recounted above was conducted without formal structure. Real organization started in August 1965 by two ELF envoys sent from Kassala to create cells of mass organizations in Asmara. The two were Woldedawit Temesghen and Seyoum Ogbamichael of PMSS who joined the ELF in the Sudan soon after the March 1965 demonstrations in Asmara.[li]            

During their two-week meetings in Asmara until their arrest on 30 August 1965,[lii] Woldedawit and Seyoum discussed with friends and trusted nationalists a general plan of establishing mass organizations for students, teachers and others on the basis of occupation and location. In the fall of 1965, Siraj Ibrahim, another ELF envoy was in Asmara organizing a student union. Meetings were held in Biet Ghiorghis for students from various secondary schools in the city.[liii]

During 1966, the system was improved by another ELF envoy, Ghilai Ghirmai,[liv] who entrusted the PMSS student committee[lv] with the task of centralizing activities of other committees in Asmara. According to the new structure, every school with an ELF cell appointed a representative to liaise activities with the PMSS committee. The PMSS committee was reporting directly to the Revolutionary Command of the ELF headquartered in Kassala, Sudan

The newly organized student movement, still led by PMSS, took quick action and within 1966 formed branch unions in the provinces.[lvi] Student cells thus flourished in groups of five members throughout the high schools in the country. Truck and bus drivers were recruited to facilitate communication between the different towns. The organized student movement in Asmara called itself "the General Union of Eritrean Students". An organization of the same name was to be established in Damascus in late 1968.[lvii]

Other normal everyday activities included distribution of pamphlets, gathering basic information for the ELF as required, recruiting cell members, and agitating in the city through various forms. Among memorable feats of the young union was a sabotage work which succeeded to partly weaken public attendance at a major government preparation in 1966 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Haile Selassie's return to his throne and to inaugurate a new title of 'Ras' for Prince Asrate Kassa, the Emperor's Representative in Eritrea.[lviii] The ELF student cells posted their members at key junctions in the city and misinformed their schoolmates to return home because the day's ceremonies were cancelled until further notice.[lix]

The union rented three houses where it accommodated ELF fighters coming for military operations inside Asmara. Activities of student cells were progressing well until March 1967 when Gherezghiher Tewelde and other PMSS committee members either joined the ELF or were arrested.[lx] Those who replaced them in the committee were also arrested or went underground. Some joined the ELF army in the semi-liberated areas.

Similarly the pioneer group of PMSS student militants of the period were instrumental in forming cells for the ELF in the university campuses in Addis Ababa. For practical reasons and purposes of this article, the student cells in the Ethiopian capital can be treated as continuation in an organized form of student activism in Asmara. Based on the organizational guidelines discussed with Woldedawit and Seyoum during the summer of 1965, the cells in Addis created a central committee to run activities inside the Haile Selassie I University. And as in Asmara, former PMSS students centralized university cells in the Ethiopian capital.[lxi] Several groups were formed although the majority of university students were kept as sympathizers. Some students who volunteered to


[i] In 1939, there were only 4,117 primary school pupils in Eritrea and Tigray, then treated as one administrative unit. Between 1894 and 1940, missionaries in Eritrea taught a grand total of only 20,000 pupils in Italian and native languages (see Report of the UN Commissioner for Eritrea, Vol.1, Beirut: ELF-PLF reproduction,1977), p.74.

[ii].          In 1952, there were 14,897 students in 100 primary, 14 intermediate and 2 secondary schools, and 30 students were pursuing higher studies abroad (see G.K.N. Trevaskis, Eritrea: A Colony in Transition, 1941-52; London: Oxford University Press, 1960) p.34.

[iii].         During academic year 1961/62, total number of students reached 38,000 of which 1,372 were in academic high schools and vocational institutions (see Statistical Abstract, Addis Ababa, 1963) p.106.

[iv].         John Markakis, National and Class Struggle in the Horn of Africa ,(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) p.109. Jaffar Ali Assad (interview, 24.9.95) affirmed that by mid-1965 there were 700 students in Cairo. By 1980, the figure reached 2,000 (see Markakis, Ibid, p.283, footnote 13).

[v].         Markakis, Ibid, footnote 37, p. 285.

6.         Mewail Mebrahtu (letter dated 15.1.96).

[vii].        Tahir Ibrahim Fadab, Al-Haraka Al-Eritria Wa Masirataha Al-Tarikiya, (Beirut: Al-Shiruq Printing Press, 1994) p.212. The movement was known as "Haraka" in Arabic and "Mahber Showate" or association of seven in Tigrigna because it proliferated in cells of seven members.

[viii].       Jaffar (1995) called it "a student idea" without denying the fact that students were articulating a general discontent of the population.

[ix].         Ismail Ali (letter dated 17.7.95).

x..        The following students were among the key founders of the ELF in Cairo during the spring of 1960: Abdulkerim Ahmed, Adem Akte, Hamid Turki, Ibrahim Idris (Blenai), Idris Osman Ghelaidos, Mohammed Saleh Hummed, Mohammed Ali Omaro, Mohammed Ali Afarora, Mohammed Saied Omar (Antata), Ramadan Mohammed Nur, Saied Hussein and Taha Mohammed Nur. (sources: Mohammed Saleh Hummed to author in Beirut, 1978; many other informants confirmed, including Jaffar, 1995).

[xi].         Due to shortage of printed material on the subject, this writer had to depend mainly on memories of participants in the events and his own recollections.

xii.        Lloyd Ellingson, "The Emergence of Political Parties in Eritrea, 1941-50", Journal of African History, Vol.28 (2) 1977, p.261.

[xiii].       The Unionist Party of the 1940s was financed and manipulated by the Ethiopian Government. Its main platform was religion backed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

[xiv].       Dimtsi Serahtegna Vol. 1(3), Asmara, August 1995.

[xv].        Aristide Zolberg et al, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (London: Oxford UP, 1989) p.108.

16.        Don Connell,"The Birth of the Eritrean Nation", Horn of Africa Journal, vol. 3(1), Jan/March 1980, p.18.

[xvii].      Fajir Al-Wihda No.37, 1990. The student grouping in Cairo had changed its name several times - Eritrean Students Club, League, Union - until it became a branch of the General Union of Eritrean Students (GUES) created in Damascus in late 1968 and early 1969.

[xviii].     Jaffar (1995).

[xix].       Jimie Ahmed (Kassel, Germany, 13.8.95). In the early 1960s, Saied Hussein met in Asmara several activists including a few students and members of a little known Eritrean Rehabilitation Party (ERP). A few students including Jimie, at Botego school, Ahmed Karrar of PMSS, and Zahra Jaber of nursing school ran errands for the ERP. In May 1963 (probably his second leg to Asmara), Saied was arrested while trying to carry out a military operation at the Asmara airport. (During the Suez Canal war of 1956, Saied Hussein, a student at Al-Azhar University, joined the Fedayeen Brigades comprised of volunteers deployed near Port Said. It was the same Saied Hussein who headed the "student group" that became ELF in 1960; he is said to have relinquished the chairmanship to Idris Mohammed Adem, former president of the Eritrean Assembly, who was brought from Eritrea in 1959 with the assistance of the Cairo student group (interview with Abdulkerim Ahmed, Rassai, Sudan, 15.3.1982, confirmed by Jaffar, 1995).

[xx].        ELF-PLF, Eritrea: Victim of UN Decision and Ethiopian Aggression (no date) p. 78. The referred document was a reprint of a 1971 Memorandum submitted to the UN in New York, signed Woldeab Woldemariam, Osman Saleh Sabbe and Taha Mohammed Nur.

[xxi].       The founders of ELM were members of the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Sudan, and there were some Sudanese nationals among the original 17 founders, see Tahir Fadab, op.cit. p. 58.

[xxii].      Markakis, op.cit., p.106.

23.        Ibid.

[xxiv].     According to Jimie, Paulos (Degiat) Sebhatu represented an ELM student group. Jimie says an ELF student group was formed before 1965. Its members included Abdulwahab Mohamoud, Mohammed Nur Kekia, Mohammed Ibrahim Hazam and Jimie himself. However, if ELM and ELF student groups ever existed in Asmara before 1995, they had no role whatsoever in the PMSS-organized political activities in the Eritrean capital during 1961-65.

25.        Eritrean student groupings in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Sudan Somalia, Hungary, Poland, and the Federal Republic of Germany were represented in a meeting in Damascus held between 28 December 1968 and 4 January 1969. They established an umbrella organization called the General Union of Eritrean Students (GUES) which claimed to represent also students inside Eritrea ("Eternal Pages in the History of the Eritrean Student Movement", Fajir-al Wihda op.cit., pp. 2-4.

[xxvi].     This writer in 1959 wrote a letter to the then Director of Education, Asfaha Kahsai, naively telling the official to support Eritrean independence or face "liquidation" by a non-existent organization working for Eritrean independence.

[xxvii].    According to Jaffar (1995), the strike started because of administrative problems but was interpreted by the public to have had a political background. Jaffar, a relation of Ibrahim Sultan of the Moslem League, took part in the Benevolente school strike.

[xxviii].    Fissehaye Gherezghiher (Geneva, 6.1.96). Fissehaye was with the graduating class of Point Four Technical School in May 1957 which refused a request to joint HSISS students in the strike because of fear losing final certificates. Also see Fajir Al-Wihda, No.30, 1981.

[xxix].     Dr. Habte Tesfamariam (Kassel, Germany, 14.8.95). He remembers that a group of those Asmara students were brought to Adi Quala where they were detained.

[xxx].      Mohammed Omar Yahya, a student who participated at the March 1958 demonstration in Keren (as quoted by Ismail Ali, letter of 17.7.95).

[xxxi].     Michael Ghaber and this writer had experience of putting on wall posters and graffiti in Keren between 1959-60 and continued the practice in Asmara, 1961-65. The most daring group action in February 1965 involved 8 PMSS students who festooned Asmara with sketches of the Eritrean flag prepared by Seyoum Ogbamichael.

[xxxii].    Six months later on 15 June 1963, Tedla Ogbit allegedly committed suicide, but was most probably killed, in his office. Ethiopia had intended to replace. He refused requested going to USA for training, and soon started defying Ethiopia's unilateral dissolution of the Federation seven months earlier; see Tahir Fadab, op.cit., p.331.

[xxxiii].    Referring to Hamid Idris Awate who started the armed struggle in the western lowlands in September 1961. Awate was martyred in the spring of 1962 but the ELF kept his death secret for a long time.

[xxxiv].   Ring leaders were Mussie Tesfamichael (EPLF/Menka'e, martyred), Woldedawit Temesghen (ELF, martyred), Michael Ghaber (ELF, martyred), Seyoum Ogbamichael (currently responsible for Foreign Relations of ELF-Revolutionary Council), Issayas Afeworqi (President of the State of Eritrea), Haile Woldetinsae (cabinet minister), Bereket Ghebretinsae 'Aket' (EPLF sympathizer in France) and this contributor (member of ELF-RC).

[xxxv].    It was first discussed between Michael Ghaber and this writer, both of whom hailed from Keren, then a hot-bed of Eritrean nationalist politics. Both were friends of shopkeeper Abdulkerim Zeinu, a committed ELM organizer in Keren, and Mohamoud Janjar, a former classmate who by 1962 was ELF activist on frequent visits to Asmara to procure winter needs for fighters. But there was no direct ELM or ELF involvement in the student politics at PMSS.

[xxxvi].   This writer attended an Eritrean Assembly (parliament) session during the summer of 1961 and was stirred by the arguments of Mesghina Ghebrezghi and Stephanos of Decamere (full name not remembered) both of whom claimed that Ethiopia owed 72 million Ethiopian birr to Eritrea in unpaid arrears of customs duties and federal levies.

[xxxvii].   Literal translation: "We want freedom, help us".

[xxxviii].  Ibrahim Siraj was on a visit to Asmara that day. He joined the demonstrators near the Catholic Cathedral. Siraj, who vividly remembers the verse chanted at the demonstration, says the May 1962 demonstration influenced him so much that he became member of a political cell in the early 1960s (Geneva, 16.8,95).

[xxxix].   Many students, including this contributor, were severely beaten and some arrested at Biet Ghiorgis. Those detained at the infamous Caserma Mussolini - ironically, very near the Eritrean Assembly building, planned destination of the day's demonstration - chanted nationalist songs before being silenced by police beatings. The prison cells were drenched with cold water.

[xl].         Eyasu Gaym, The Eritrean Question (Iustus Forlang, Uppsala 1992) pp.471-72.

[xli].        Richard H. Johnson, American Consulate, Asmara, in aerogramme A-41 of 1.5.1963 addressed to State Department, US Archives 775.00/1-56.

[xlii].       In the eve of the demonstration, this writer was taken for interrogation to the police station at night and thence to the residence of Zeremariam Azazi, the Chief Commissioner for Eritrean Police. Zeremariam claimed that armed ELF fighters were hiding inside Asmara ready to take advantage of the demonstrations, and that he also knew about a meeting of the student organizers. (Only the latter claim was true.)

[xliii].      The meeting was held at the residence of Yohannes Naffi, uncle of Michael Ghaber of PMSS and a close friend of Police Commissioner Zeremariam Azazi.

[xliv].      ELF, The National Democratic Revolution Vs Ethiopian Expansionism (Nahal Printing Press, Beirut, 1979) pp.34-35.

[xlv].       Eritrean Police Commissioner Zeremariam slighted the detained students at Sembel saying that they would never be able to "fight in the field" because many could not resist hunger for 36 hours at Sembel. He was referring to a number of students who fainted of hunger and were sent to the hospital (Gherezghiher, 1995).

[xlvi].      Wolde-Yesus Ammar, Eritrea: Root Causes of War and Refugees (Baghdad: Sindbad Printing Press, 1992) pp. 56-57.

[xlvii].     Other participants whose viewpoint could not be solicited due to 'communication' constraints are, among others, Issayas Afeworqi, the Eritrean President, Haile Woldetinsae and Tesfai Woldeselassie, cabinet ministers.

[xlviii].     Telephone interview of 31.12.95.

[xlix].      Interview in Kassel, Germany, 14.08.95.

[l].          Letter of 1.9.95.

[li].          Seyoum Ogbamichael confirmed the absence of any mass organization for students in Asmara until mid-1965 (Kassel, Germany, 14.8.95).

[lii].         Woldedawit and Seyoum, who were sentenced for 10-year prison term each, continued to follow up their organizing activities from behind the prison bars.

[liii].        Siraj Ibrahim currently resides in Cologne, Germany.

[liv].        Ghilai was a political cadre in the 5th Zone. He was killed by an ELF unit leader in 1967.

[lv].         PMSS's committee consisted of Ghirmai Hadgu, chairman; Abdalla Hassan, secretary; Gherezghiher Tewelde, secretary for propaganda, and Gherezghiher Woldu, treasurer (Gherezghiher, 1995).

56.        Gherezghiher Woldu an Abdalla Hassan of PMSS organized student unions in Mendefera and Decamere, respectively. Tesfai Tekle and Bereket Eyoab of HSISS were sent by the coordinating PMSS committee to Keren and Massawa, respectively, where they organized student unions.

[lvii].       Gherezghiher Tewelde (1995) thinks that the Damascus meeting which created the international GUES might not have known the existence of an organization of that name in Asmara.

[lviii].      Gherezghiher (1995).

[lix].        Consulates represented in Asmara were instantly informed through letters, carrying an ELF seal improvised by the students, that the scheduled celebrations were partly sabotaged by Eritrean nationalists (Gherezghiher, 1995).

[lx].         Gherezghiher Tewelde was accused of complicity in ELF operations inside Asmara and was sentenced to 20 years. A standby or "shadow committee" took over the functions of the PMSS centralizing committee. Among the shadow committee members were Tsegai Yosief, Saleh Ismail, Habteselassie Ghebremedhin and Berhane Redda. Berhane was arrested by mid-1967 and the others went hiding (interview with Berhane Redda, Vevey, Switzerland, 27.8.1994).

[lxi].        The centralizing committee in Addis Ababa consisted of Andom and/or Habtom Ghebremichael (the PMSS twins), Bereket Ghebretinsae, Haile Woldetinsae (Diru'e),Issayas Afeworqi, Tesfai Woldeselassie (the only non-PMSS member) and this writer who was the focal point. Initially, Mohamoud Mohammed Suleiman, an Eritrean employee of UAR (EgyptAir) linked the group with Khartoum. But as of mid-1966, Kidane Kiflu, alias Kebbede Kiflu, a loner law student who had no cell of his own in the university, was indirectly affiliated to the committee per advice of ELF envoy Ghilai Ghirmai. Hence force, most communication and liaison outside Addis was handled via his connections through ELF cells in the Ethiopian Airlines.

Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 09:45