Eritrea in 125 Years: Listing a Few Good and Bad Legacies and Memorable Events

2014-12-31 18:23:16 Written by  Woldeyesus Ammar Published in EPDP News Read 6245 times

By Woldeyesus Ammar

Today, 1st of January 2015, Eritrea completes its 125th year of existence under that name. According to the earliest available figures, the population of the colony in 1893 counted only 191,127 followed by the 1900 estimate of 300,000 residents that included this writer’s father. We can assume that no one of those “first Eritreans” is still alive to celebrate this anniversary with the distressed 5 or 6 million of us today, whose gross inadequacies include being unable to know even the real count of the population at home and the figure for our shamefully increasing number in exile after quarter of a century of independence.   

Anyway, it is an occasion to say Happy 125th Anniversary to our (إرترياኤርትራ) Eritrea and then proceed to mention a few lasting legacies and notable events in the ups and downs of our past since the issuance of the Royal Decree of King Umberto the First on 1 January 1890 that put us on the world map.

Understandably, the figure of 125 years is reached by adding the:

  • 51 years of Italian colonial rule;
  • 11 years of the British ‘caretaker’ administration;
  • 10 years of Eritrea-Ethiopia ‘federation’;
  • 30 years of armed struggle, and
  • The past 23 years under a home-grown repression that replaced alien rule.

Anyone of us may have his/her take in listing only two topmost legacies of our modern history, and add a few memorable events within each of these periods. I am taking today’s occasion to list mine.  I will start with what I term the two topmost legacies – one positive, and the other negative.

  1. One People

Before the Italian advent, we belonged to our separate linguistic and small geographic entities and sub-entities. After common suffering under numerous hardships and humiliations, we have become one people – the Eritreans. To cut a long story short, our unity as one people with manageable diversities is the topmost legacy - achievement - of the past 125 years.

  1. One Military Mindset 

The second enduring legacy in us is what one can call a military mindset.  This is a legacy, a ‘philosophy’ in our lives, a social behaviour  built - or at least further solidified - through the countless armed conflicts we participated at or conducted by ourselves in the past 12.5 decades of our modern history. Although the pieces of territorial units that became Eritrea were not at peace locally even before 1890, it is sufficient to mention here only the wars we fought as one people: wars that unfortunately bequeathed us an unwanted behavioural infection – the military mindset - that highly values wars and the bravado in violence. We are all part of it because of our past history briefly mentioned below.

The Unwanted Wars Fought for Italy

The Battle of Adwa:

Take the skirmishes with Ethiopia before the Battle of Adwa, like the one at Debre-Ayla, in which over 8,000 Eritrean militias (bandas) took part. Then the Battle of Adwa of 1896 in which almost every young man in the new colony was required to partake. In that single battle, over 2,000 Eritreans died; unaccounted number were left disabled, and selected 500 elite askaris (soldiers) of the numerous prisoners of war suffered the amputation of their  right arms and left legs.

Campaign to colonize/pacify Somalia:

Between 1907 and 1910, well over 5,000 Eritrean askaris (soldiers) were recruited and sent to fight in Somalia. This was not a small number compared to the population of the territory. Although Italian Somaliland was declared Italian by 1908, Eritreans continued to be frontline fighters in the conflict that continued till 1920 against the Somali rebellion led by Sheikh Said Mohammed (‘Mad Mullah’).

Italy’s wars in Libya (‘Zemen Trubli’):

Between 1911 and 1932, an estimated 60,000 Eritreans were recruited and sent to fight Italy’s wars in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Libya). After the defeat of Turkey in Libya, fierce conflicts continued to rage against the patriotic rebels led by Omar Mukhtar that claimed untold number of Eritrean casualties. Some of those Eritreans who perished then included the Setimo battalion that sunk and disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea - and remember what is happening to Eritrean youth of today in the same sea!! 

The Battle of 1935-36 (Trenta Cinque):

Fascist Italy’s preparations for war against Ethiopia further militarized the entire Eritrean population. Eritrean askaris ranged in 28 battalions were the usual cannon folder at war frontlines in the battles that opened in October 1935 and continued till Mussolini’s declaration of his “East African Empire” in June 1936. An estimated 75,000 Eritrean askaris fought Italy’s conflicts in Ethiopia and in the pacification of the country till the end of Italian rule in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia in 1941.

The so-called period of ‘peaceful’ struggle: 1941-1961

We usually wish to believe that the duration of British care-taker administration (1941-1952) and the federal period (1952-1962) was somewhat peaceful. However, taking into account the absence of security and the killings organized by Ethiopia-supported unionists and the various banditries/Shifta of the time, those two decades can hardly be called a period of peace.

The 30-year war for national liberation:

This was the only period that Eritreans saw logic in conducting the war for their freedom. It was not only very costly but it also further militarized the society and its mindset. This prolonged war that was hoped to be the war that would end all wars did not prove to be so.

Other unwanted wars with Yemen, Ethiopia and Djbouti:

After its independence, Eritrea continued to suffer of the military mindset of its leaders and in the society. There was little logic to fight all these painful armed conflicts with neighbours after 1991, but they occurred. The main cause was not only the leadership but also the general society’s acquired belief in solving conflicts through the barrel of the gun.

The military campaigns and conscriptions introduced after independence; the 28 Sawa military camp training rounds, the regular army and militia formations etc have deepened militarization of the entire society.  

The net outcome has been a negative mindset that denies space to moderation, dialogue, to tolerance and to the rule of law. In a word, the belief in the use of force/violence to solve differences is a collective madness. But it can be cured. It can be changed through steadfast struggle of the conscious segments in the society. For this reason, the struggle to fight and conquer this 125-year old negative legacy in us shall continue for quite some time to come – even in post-PFDJ years.

 Notable Occurrences (other than wars) During the Italian Period

  1. Italy’s settlement project in Eritrea: One of the primary interests of Italy in creating colonies was the objective of finding suitable land for the resettlement of Italians who were facing economic/land problems at home. Between 1876 and 1889 alone, some 2.2 million Italians migrated to the Americas.  hat is why a few months after declaring Eritrean an Italian colony, the Italian parliament and government passed laws that aimed to seize large tracts of land in Eritrea (terra domeniale). Pilot projects of the resettlement programme were started in a number of places. Extensive land confiscations deprived many peasants and herdsmen of their land. Eventually, all land below 850m altitude was declared state land and land concessions for up to 99 years were granted to Italians. However, the growing protests by the affected people, like the resistance led by Bahta Hagos of Segeneiti, and the unsuitability of many parts of the country for European settlement partly aborted the resettlement programme in Eritrea. Therefore, instead of going to Eritrea, 7.1 million Italian emigrants, mainly from southern Italy, settled in the United States (4.1m), in Argentina (1.8m) and in Brazil (1.2m) till the start of the First World War in 1914.
  1. Transport and communication Networks

Construction of the railway, the ropeway, and 3,400 km stretch of primary and second roads throughout the colony helped transform the life of the people who became “different” from the same peoples across the new frontier lines.

  1.  Industrialization, urbanization

In its war efforts, Italy established nearly 2,200 industrial enterprises and built modern urban centers in the colony.  The labour force in industries, mines, transport and modern agriculture reached nearly 40,000. Modernization was quick to spread in the colony, especially during the second half of Italian rule.

Notable/Memorable Occurrences during the British Administration

  1. The spread of education was the most important occurrence during the British care-taker administration from 1941 till 1952.
  2. The second most memorable event of this period is the emancipation of serfs in western Eritrea under the leadership of Ibrahim Sultan. It was estimated that up to 93% of the social groups in Barka and Sahel regions were, until the mid-1940s, subjected to serfdom that required them to provide heavy feudal payments and services to landlords. Vast majority of the emancipated serfs later rallied behind Ibrahim Sultan who led the largest pro-independence party and a block that helped create the symbolisms for Eritrean national awareness.
  3. The 2 December 1950 Resolution of the UN General Assembly on Eritrea.

Notable/Memorable Occurrences during the Federal Period

  1. This period was marked by succession of violations of the Federal Act decided by the UN General Assembly. Those unwarranted violations by Ethiopia and its local agents in Eritrea increased political consciousness among the urban population in all parts of Eritrea.
  2. The lowering of the Blue Eritrean Flag in late 1958 angered the general population, especially the young generation.
  3. The formation of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM/Mahber Shewate) in Port Sudan in 1958 and the establishment of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in Cairo in1960 were the other major events of this period.

Notable/Memorable Occurrences during 1961-1991

  1. The massacre of about 1,000 innocent civilians at Ona and Besik-Dira in December 1970 created renewed anger against the Ethiopian occupation among Eritreans at home and in diaspora (including students in the Middle East, Europe and North America). The student (youth) movements in turn rekindled the forces in the liberation struggle.
  2. The ELF-EPLF civil war of 1980-81 changed the direction of the liberation struggle at many levels, and planted seeds for power control and polarization in the society.
  3. The victory at Afabet in March 1988 reassured Eritreans of a final victory in the liberation war.

Notable/Memorable Occurrences during the Past 23 Years

  1. The final defeat of the Ethiopian army, 24 May 1991.
  2. The crackdown of the PFDJ regime on the G15 reform movement in September 2001.
  3. The Lampedusa tragedy of 3 October 2013 that symbolized all the suffering being inflicted upon the entire nation in recent years.
Last modified on Wednesday, 31 December 2014 19:25