The Eritrean Oblomov: Loving Asmara the Superfluous Way

Yosief  Ghebrehiwet


[This article should be taken as my second installment in response to critical questions raised by a brilliant commentator by the penname of "Serray" at in regard to the Cause and Nature of the Eritrean Revolution. The first installment, "Eritrea: The Federal Arrangement Farce" was posted at on 12/14/2013]

There is this one archetypal character that shows up repeatedly in Russian literature that would aptly describe the urban elite in Africa: the superfluous man.1 Strangely enough, it is modern education that has rendered the African elite superfluous, incapacitated as they have become to act in a way that is relevant to the masses they happen to lead. Their fascination with the superfluous aspects of modernity has turned them into a burden of the respective societies they happen be embedded into. And whenever they find themselves at the helm of the leadership, as they often do, usually their “modern” programs are precursors to national tragedies soon to follow. And if an opportunity like a revolution comes along their way to provide them a clean slate to experiment their superfluous modernity unfettered, as has been in the Eritrean case, the tragedy turns out to be of epic proportion.

Since the time Ivan Goncharov invented the Russian character “Oblomov”2, the term (Oblomovism) has become synonymous to a chronic inability to act, as the inertness of the invoked character becomes almost metaphysical in its nature. As the novel came out in the mid 19th century, Russians came to recognize the character as representative of the Russian gentry that came to be increasingly irrelevant, both economically and socially, in the emerging modern era. Even though highly cultured, the new era found no use of them; that is, whatever they valued most in themselves was rendered superfluous by the changing times. We cannot imagine a superfluous peasant because nature would quickly take care of him: he wouldn’t survive two winters in a row. To imagine a peasant with superfluous characteristics is to imagine a rabbit with wings: both would be rendered extinct at no time. But superfluous gentry, because of their inherited riches or their privileged positions and connections, or both, would be able to survive it, even though the ominous clouds in the horizon (the Russian Revolution) meant that, as a generation, they were also on their way to extinction.

Given the 50 years of hell that they have gone through, it may seem odd to attribute to the ghedli generation the Oblomov syndrome – as I am about to do in the rest of the article. But looks are deceiving, for the defining characteristic we have to look at, one that renders them superfluous to the society, is their adamant refusal to adapt to the emerging reality. So what seems to be activity under superfluous description remains to be total inactivity under relevant description. That is, they were willing to go through hell in order to stay “relevant” through irrelevant attributes only. The more one refuses to meet the demands of the emerging new environment, the more tantrums he/she throws. And as we all know, tantrums happen to display a lot of bodily activity – but activity that lacks meaning. The five decades of tantrum in Eritrea comes from this elite’s adamant refusal to adapt to the new realty brought by a generational encounter with colonial modernity.

The fundamentalists are the laziest people that one could possibly imagine. Again, to attribute laziness to the Taliban of Afghanistan or to the Al Shabaab of Somalia or to the Boco Haram of Nigeria seems to be uncalled for since these groups’ hyperactivity can in no way be characterized as laziness, taken at its face value. But if we realize that these are people who have outsourced all their thinking to the Book, then we could understand that their entire hyperactivity is a tantrum triggered by modernity’s quest for them to think for themselves as individuals and adapt to the emerging reality accordingly – mental laziness at its best!

Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon in the sense that it is a reaction to modernity itself; it is only that the fundamentalists have taken the opposite course to adaptation. But the past is not there to give them refuge, only its ghost – hence, its superfluity. So is it with the post-colonial generation in Eritrea that kept hanging on to the superfluous aspects of modernity: that of the colonial nation state itself, and whatever aspectual modernity it entails. They too outsourced all their thinking to the map; the Colonial Map, a creature of modernity par excellence, was supposed to have all the answers to their existential questions. Don’t be fooled by the opposite temporal directions that the religious and ghedli fundamentalists seem to take. They are joined at a deeper level: in their attempt to run away from modernity’s quest to think for themselves as individuals, they find themselves hanging on to the superfluous past and the superfluous present respectively. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that in seeking “modernity”, the ghedli generation was looking back to the colonial past. Thus, both belong to the Oblomov family whose defining mark is superfluity.

Wings on a rabbit, flapping or not, wouldn’t make it soar high up in the sky; to the contrary, it would mercilessly pin it down to the ground that it wouldn’t even be able to move, let alone run. Education has provided the African elite with such superfluous wings; yet, whenever the occasion arises, they love to show them off by flapping them while rendered immobile by the sheer weight of those epiphenomenal wings. And when a nation is taken under their wings, a whole population finds itself pinned down to the ground – as Eritrea finds itself now.

Staying relevant

The Russian gentry wanted to remain relevant by holding on to their privileged values that modernity had rendered obsolete. Their fascination with anything Western, deprived of its human aspect, failed to bring the desired changes on the ground, be it in democracy or in development. Their unwillingness to fully emancipate the peasant, while relishing Westernization within their privileged circles, was untenable. We often see this inherent contradiction depicted in Russian novels, where we encounter the gentry conversing with one another in fluent French in endless visits within the confines of their circles, with the background of poorly managed estates or factories ever negating that “fluency”; and, predictably, throughout such conversations, the peasant or the serf remains invisible in the background. Soon, this mismatch was to give birth to all kinds of social misfits – anarchists, nihilists and all types of revolutionaries – that took it upon themselves to emancipate the peasants, even as those very peasants remained invisible to their eyes. What is interesting is that the superfluity persisted across the oppressor-emancipator divide. Thus, in both instances, the elite had to remain relevant by rendering the peasant invisible through sheer brutality; in the former case, by blatantly exploiting them (ex: serfdom) and, in the latter case, by experimenting on them (ex: collectivization). So had it been with the ghedli generation, for whom the peasants and pastoralists remained invisible be it when they were ensconced in their urban settings, or in their ghedli sojourn (by using them as fodder through giffa) and when they reentered their citadel, Asmara (the national service).

In a rather haunting déjà vou scenario, the going away and the coming back of the ghedli generation had the same structural similarity in their superfluity that makes us question the relevance of the time in between. When they went to Sahel, they went armed with their urban elite experiences (that “modern” attribute they thought essentially distinguishes them from the Other) but found no use for it in the new environment; instead, they had to do everything through sheer brutality to stay relevant. In the process, whatever “modern values” they had cherished before gave way to new values acquired at mieda. That is, temekro muhur had lethally metamorphosed into temekro mieda, with superfluity as the enduring common characteristic that ties them both in their deep family resemblance. Thus, when they reentered Asmara in triumph, they came back armed with the most superfluous attribute that would find no currency at all in modern day Eritrea: temekro mieda. And here is the crux of the matter: both temekros could be sustained only by rendering the ghebar invisible – a precondition for the brutalities to follow.

As in the case of the Russian gentry, the “liberators” adamantly refused to adapt to the new reality because it would require giving up their privileged status. Instead, not only had they been trying to do everything through temekro mieda, they went as far as attempting to recreate it nationally in the form of national service. The sheer incompatibility of temekro mieda to modern day Eritrea, one that has brought the nation nothing but one monumental disaster after another, is a result of this strange belief that this epiphenomenal experience could accomplish miracles on its own. But temekro mieda to modern day Eritrea is as superfluous as wings are to a rabbit. Nevertheless, the ghedli romantics have never stopped flapping those epiphenomenal wings whenever they want to display their nationalism.

Once armed with temekro mieda, the only way the ghedli generation would remain relevant is the same way the colonists remained relevant in their colonies: through sheer brutality. It is this frame of mind that has necessitated the extractive economy that characterizes modern day Eritrea. This is a nation with a huge army that doubles as a huge slave labor force paid only token-wise (for one cannot even call the $10 a month they get “minimal salary”), and with an income that mainly comes as remittance from diaspora. Even the mining industry would be part of that extractive economy that would require doing nothing from those endowed with temekro mieda. Anywhere else in the world, governing elite that depend on the welfare system from internal (the endless slavery within) and external (the diaspora help) sources would be described as burden to society; that is, as a governing body with superfluous wings – but then again, this wouldn’t be a surprise if we look at it as being the end result of a superfluous revolution.

Superfluous revolution

In the article, (II) The Circular Journey in Search of Asmara, I tried to depict the futility of the ghedli journey by pointing to its circularity.3 If at the end of the ghedli journey Eritrea would resemble strikingly similar to the Habesha world it desperately wanted to escape from, then the questions that needed to be asked are: What for was all the sacrifice paid if one is to end up with the same world one had prior to the struggle, albeit a piece of that world? Why did a whole generation embark on such a long and difficult journey, with all the sacrifices that such a journey entailed, in search of what they already had in their possession? If 30 years of struggle were to get you, at most, whatever you had before, it would definitely be called a superfluous revolution. Below is an example I gave in that article to show how that superfluity goes:

“Think of a whole cake that someone holds on a tray, and asks you to taste it. You dip in your forefinger into the cake and put it in your mouth. You wince – obviously you don’t like the taste. Then, surprisingly, you say, ‘Please cut a piece for me, that might do the trick.’ If the cake doesn’t taste good while it was whole, to expect that its taste will change for the better by cutting it would be attributing the taste not to its ingredients and the baking (the deeper qualities) but to the cutting (the separation). Such was the Eritrean case. The ghedli generation, given their misguided modernist misgivings, didn’t like the taste of the Habesha world in its totality. So they thought that if they could get a cut of it, its taste would change for the better. That Eritrea would remain a piece of that Habesha world they were attempting to escape from, with all the additional problems such a ‘smallness’ entails, was totally lost on them. …”

The cutting is the superfluous part as it adds nothing to the taste of cake, for there are many ways the cake could have been cut while the taste remaining the same. But the superfluous generation was impressed by the cutting, as if it was the only way that it could have been cut: that is why the nationalists made a fetish out of the shape of Eritrea, as if its essence was to be found in its shape. They absolutely adored the way it had been cut. That is why many Eritreans act confused now, when they find out that the cutting hasn’t done the miracle it was supposed to do. The fact that all the problems that they associated with the big cake (Ethiopia) – identity, economy, security, democracy, federalism, religion, etc – have not only still remained with them but also tend to be more recalcitrant than before has left them totally disoriented. So are the rulers.

The lashing out of teghadelti against the ghebar can be similarly explained, among others, by the former’s dazed surprise that the cutting is not delivering what it was supposed to deliver. After all, they did accomplish this great feat of cutting exactly as ordained by the Colonial Map – it is in this sense that they are the True Believers of the map. No wonder that everything that they do presupposes the work that the cutting ought to have done. The ghedli inertia, the sheer incompetence of temekro mieda symptomatic of the chronic inactivity of the Oblomov generation, comes from this simple fact. When they find out the huge deficit between the realty and the dream, they don’t give up their worship of the Colonial Map but try to make up for that loss from the masses, similar to what the Russian gentry did with their serfs. They can never bring themselves to believe that the cutting has nothing to contribute; for to do that would require acknowledgement of the circularity, and hence the futility, of their 50 years long ghedli journey.

The peasants had no problem with Ethiopia until ghedli showed up in their villages uninvited, simply because they couldn’t grasp the superfluous aspects of Eritrea that the urban elite were so obsessed with: neither the image of bella Asmara nor that of wodebatna frequented their minds as to create dissonance in their heads and derail them from leading the normal lives that generations of peasants before them had been leading in their villages. And the map fetish that drove many students to a tantrum that lasted for 50 years had no hold over them simply because they were mercifully denied the “mass literacy” that modernity brought about.

Modernity by itself is not a problem. It is only when people react to its superfluous aspects that it becomes a problem. The fundamentalists are, for instance, a good example that used a modern amenity, mass literacy, to look at the superfluous aspects of life. For them, their fascination with reading had this magic quality that they ended up inverting the whole natural process: instead of the written reflecting the realty, they wanted reality to reflect what is written. As the religious fundamentalists want the world to reflect what is written in their Holy Books, the ghedli fundamentalists want the nation to reflect the literal interpretation of the Map. That is why both of them are up in arms if you challenge the content of the Book or the Map. The peasants, unable to read the map, were mercifully spared from this insanity; unlike the Oblomov family, they were only interested in what was relevant to their lives.

In (I) Eritrea’s Drive to Modernity: In Search of Asmara, I talked about the sapeur phenomenon in post-colonial Africa, where the city sleeker seeks the essence of his being in his dressing.4 When this state of mind is carried over to the nation, the nation becomes something that they wear as a dress; they get their essence from the nation’s cartographic existence – superfluity at its best. No wonder, it was only those who can read a map that were afflicted with the malady of superfluity.

The superfluous characteristics of the ghedli generation can best be grasped when looked at in their relationship to Asmara – that is, on how they loved their city the superfluous way. This is doubly important because the colonial modernity that inspired a whole generation to rise up in arms was to be found condensed in Asmara, the capital city, as in no other part of Eritrea. Let’s start with the fathers who loved Asmara in just the opposite way their children did – the relevant way.

Asmara and the fathers

The ghedli generation’s love for Asmara was a superfluous love for a city devoid of its human factor: not as a living city that needs continuous nourishment from near and far to grow and thrive, but as a modern cement-and-bricks city plucked out of its habitat. Anyone who loves the real Asmara would never fight to deny it the various relevant sources that fed its organic growth: demographic, cultural, historical, security-wise, economic, etc. But that is exactly what the ghedli generation set out to do. In contrast, the fathers loved Asmara the relevant way; to them, it was the human factor that was most relevant, hence their attempt to provide Asmara a larger habitat that would give it the necessary continuity to flourish.

The reason why Asmara remained a small town in the colonial era until the early 30s was5:

“After this period of intensive reorganisation and development of urban areas, urban growth in Eritrea slowed down substantially, as the result of the reached balance among demographic growth, urban expansion and economic development. That balance marked the urban history of Eritrea until the beginning of the activities for the preparation of the fascist invasion of Ethiopia of 1935.”

If we are to limit the growth of Asmara to the organic elements that fed its growth (“demographic growth, urban expansion and economic development”), then we get the figure of 18, 000 for the early 30s6. It was only when the Italians decided to invade Ethiopia that Asmara’s rapid growth took place. Within just 6 years, it grew more than five folds to be a city of 98,000 in 1938.7 Had the Italians gone building this latter Asmara without Ethiopia in their mind, it would have remained to be a superfluous city; for given the demographic and economic base of Eritrea, such a rapid growth at that time would have been unsustainable. But that is exactly what took place when the Italians failed in their mission to conquer Ethiopia. The fathers, who instinctively understood the logic of this superfluity, showed their love for their city by doing something the Italians failed to achieve: by uniting with Ethiopia, they gave back their city the lifeline – that is, the lager space – it needed to remain relevant. Not so with the superfluous generation: they wanted their Asmara all for themselves, hence an Asmara without the lifelines that made it a vibrant city.

We can see the love of Asmara that the ghedli generation and their fathers respectively exhibited by comparing three eras through which Asmara has passed: the Italian, Haile Selassie and Ghedli (including Independence) eras. Or, more specifically, let’s ask this question: on which one of these three eras did the golden age of Asmara take place?

The golden age of Asmara

Here is a fact that the nationalists would undoubtedly have a hard time to swallow: the golden age of Asmara happens to be neither in the Italian era nor in the Independence era; those golden years happen to fall exactly on the reign of Haile Selassie, starting to build up in the 50s to reach its apex in the 60s, only to abruptly end in the early 70s when ghedli showed up at the doorsteps of Asmara in full force. What then explains this riddle, since it doesn’t fit at all with the narrative that the nationalists have been telling the masses? This question has special relevance because the ghedli generation’s concept of modernity was entirely shaped from the impressions that this colonial city had left on them. In fact, it was with the saving of “Asmara civilization” in their mind that they went through hell for 50 years. Where from came this perceived threat? Did Asmara have it so bad during the Haile Selassie era to warrant 50 years of insanity?

To begin with, why can’t we say that Asmara’s golden age was during the Italian colonial era, given that it was after all the Italians that built it? There are two major reasons: First and foremost, as pointed above, Asmara remained a small sleepy little town for much of the colonial era; it was only when Italy decided to invade Ethiopia that Asmara abruptly mushroomed five folds in the last six years. If there was no vibrant Asmara for much of the colonial era to begin with, one cannot talk of a “golden age” of a city that was never there. And, second, if we are to confine ourselves to the last six years, there were three things bedsides its brief “age” that would make a mockery out of these perceived golden years. First, that the entire growth was motivated by the invasion of Ethiopia tells us that the lifeline for this growth has nothing to do with Eritrea. That is to say, it wouldn’t have been a sustainable “golden age” if it were to remain confined to Eritrea only. Second, the demography of the city was rapidly turning Italian: while in the early 30s the Italian population in Asmara was about 3,000 out of the city’s total population of 18,000 (about 17 percent), by 1938 it has mushroomed into 53,000 out of the total population of 98,000 (about 53 percent)8. That is, with the increase of the Italian population from 17 percent to 53 percent of the city’s population in those six years, the Italianization of Asmara, per policy of Fascist Italy, had started in earnest at this time. And, third, besides those years being “war years” into which Eritreans were disproportionately conscripted, those also happen to be the years remembered for the severity of the Fascist imposed apartheid system, most strictly enforced in Asmara. While the Italians occupied bella Asmara, the natives were relegated to the shanty towns of Aba-Shawul, Gheza-Berhanu, Haidsh-Adi, etc. That doesn’t mean that all was rosy before Fascism. In fact, the apartheid system in Asmara was already in place in 1909 (in schools) and 1916 (in residential areas), long before the Fascists came to enforce their own harsher versions.9

If so, even though most of the landmarks that were to be associated with the art deco architecture of modernist Asmara were built then, the era can hardly be said to have been “golden” for the natives. After all, segregated Asmara symbolized colonial oppression at its starkest. Not only where the natives living in segregated ghettos, but they were also working in segregated jobs, mainly consisting of the most risky and menial types: askaris, manual workers of the lowest type, maids, prostitutes, etc. Hence, it can hardly be said that our fathers were so proud of colonial Asmara as to tie their identity to it, as their children were about to do when the Italians were gone. The irony is that Asmara turned “golden” for the natives (including the ghedli generation) during the 50s and 60s, when the indigenization of Asmara was made possible. At the end of Italian era, more than 50 percent of the population was Italian. At the end of the Haile Selassie era, the native population had increased more than six folds to reach more than a quarter of a million. That is to say, the natives took over their city in its demographic, economic and cultural sense during Haile Selassie era.

Anyone who lived in Asmara in the 50s and 60s would notice how peaceful and thriving it was. Factories were churning out all kinds of goods, mostly destined for Ethiopia. Construction was at pace with the demand of the city dwellers; even teachers used to afford owning their houses. Thousands of Kebabi residents were commuting everyday with bicycles to work in construction sites and factories. Cottage industries of various sorts were flourishing. Privately owned buses and trucks from near (within Eritrea) and far (all over Ethiopia) made Asmara a hub center of humanity and commerce. Markets were full with all kinds of goods and food products, catering to people from all over the villages, towns and the city itself. Students were attending good schools, with a disproportionately high number of them making it to higher institutions everywhere in Ethiopia – Haile Selassie University, Alemaya College, Polytechnic School, Santa Familia, etc. The cinema houses were always full, with Indian, Italian and American movies as their staple shows. The city was soccer crazy, with great teams making it to the top of the national tournaments. Renaissance in music was to be seen in the great bands the city was graced by. And, for a third world, the services that the people in Asmara used to get – electricity, water supply, health care, education, police protection, transportation, sanitation, etc – were excellent. And in its heydays, the city had a sizable number of foreigners – Italians, Americans, Arabs and Indians (baynan) – that gave it a slight cosmopolitan feel. No wonder Asmara was known then as “the African Gateway to Middle East and Europe”.10 The golden years of Asmara were to suddenly end in the early 70s when ghedli showed up in Kebessa in full force, the same way that normal life in Metahit was interrupted a decade or so earlier.

One of the great ghedli lies frequented to buttress the “We had it so bad with Ethiopia” narrative was that the Haile Selassie government dismantled Eritrean factories and moved them to Shoa. To the contrary, many of the industries associated with colonial Italy were built during Haile Selassie era11:

“Contrary to nationalist rhetoric that Ethiopia left the Eritrean economy to decay, (Tseggai, 1984; Sherman, 1980; Yohannes, 1991) there was in fact a resurgence of commercial and manufacturing activities. According to the documents originating from the Eritrean Chamber of Commerce, the number of firms dealing with industrial activities increased from 395 (1953) to 627 (1959). Likewise there was a dramatic increase of cottage handicraft enterprises from 745 to just over one thousand during the same period.”

And this economic performance was to continue throughout the 60s (except for brief recession triggered by the closure of the Suez Canal), with the two Expositions (Expo ’69 and ’72) as its crowning moments. In the book Asmara Expo,12 the figures of this growth are provided in a tangible way, with impressive gains registered in manufacturing, in mechanized agriculture and in import/export. But since the focus of this article is on Asmara, I will confine myself to the first part only. Regarding manufacturing growth, not only does the book provide us with the dramatic increase in production of the largest industries (in food industry, beverages and cigarettes, textile industry and clothing, shoe factories and tanneries, building industries, chemical industries and others)13, it also mentions 36 new industries built in between January 1964 and August 1968, notable among which are I.T.C.A (cotton hosiery), Ethiotextil (cotton hosiery), Ethiopian Fabrics (cotton dresses), Bini Plastic Shoe Factory (plastic shoes), Eritrea Cement Factory (cement), Ethiopian Industry and Commerce (nails), Sporal (canned meat), National Soft Drink Corporation (soft drinks), The Steel Company of Ethiopia (corrugated irons), Ethiopian Cotton Ginning Mill ( cotton ginning), National Oil Industries (edible oils), Ethiopian Aluminum Company (household utilities), A.C. Assuad (skin works), etc.14 By the end of Haile Selassie era, in 1974, Eritrea used to have about a third of all factories in Ethiopia, mostly located in Asmara. As for cottage industries (mostly family-run), like shoes and sweater, they were popping up everywhere.

Perhaps a better way of grasping this industrial growth would be by looking at the extent and growth of the industrial capital in that era: “Its manufacturing sector continued to  be well financed, rising from an industrial capital of ETH $16.74 million in 1957 to ETH $154 million in 1969”15 This growth would even be more appreciated if compared with the rest of Ethiopia at that time: “In the rest of Ethiopia, the industrial capital base increased from ETH $44 million to ETH $189 million over the same period.”16 Cut it whichever way, there is no doubt about it that the Haile Selassie government took the development of Eritrea seriously. That doesn’t mean everything was well. The problem of unemployment remained persistent in Eritrea (as it was in the rest of Ethiopia), more of the state an underdeveloped economy in general rather than of a policy of regional imbalance in development.

All of the progress mentioned above couldn’t have been achieved without excellent institutions put on the ground, and Asmara had all kinds of those: education, health, municipality, police, etc. The performance level of the municipality of Asmara under Dej. Haregot Abbay is something that has never been matched ever since. The Chamber of Commerce is another excellent institution that was seeing over the growth of industry and commerce in Eritrea. But let me just mention the police institution since it goes against the very grain of ghedli itself, given all the hoopla surrounding the 1961 “first bullet” has to do with a confrontation with a handful of Police Abbay. There was probably no other institution in Eritrea that would match Police Abbay for its professionalism. Despite their rural background, their soldiery posture, their spotless uniforms and their regimentation were a spectacle to behold. The respect that the police garnered from the public was due both to their no-nonsense attitude and their strict professionalism. Despite their meager salary, corruption among the police was unheard of, service to the public was excellent and their efficiency was legendary. Compared to them, we have now shiftas, known for their sheer incompetence and brutality, administrating police stations all over Eritrea.

The dark days of Asmara were soon to arrive when temekro mieda became the de facto work ethic of the city. All you need to do is compare the above mentioned impressive progress with the economic performance of the ghedli generation now!

Asmara and the ghedli generation

The ghedli generation hated continuity; that is, continuity with its own past, not only in its historical sense, but also with any other kind of precedence – traditional, institutional, professional, ethical, religious, political, etc. And most revealing, even the colonial legacy they were enamored with was valued not as something upon which they had to build, but as a mummified heritage. The idea of continuity, as in building up on what has been already there, was anathema to the ghedli generation. They had to necessarily start from scratch; and the weapon of choice to do both the demolishing and the rebuilding has been none other than temekro mieda; first, Eritrea has to be turned into a clean slate, and then the “new Eritrea” has to be built on that cleared ground.

Interrupting Asmara’s growth

If the ghedli generation did not keep interrupting the organic growth of Asmara, by now the city would have had a population of about 1.5 million – that is, if it is to be compared with the growth of cities like Addis-Ababa, Dire-Dawa, Bahir-Dar, Gondar, Mekelle and Awasa. The city of Dire-Dawa, with a population of more than 600,000, has already surpassed Asmara. Other cities like Bahir-Dar, Gondar, Mekelle and Awasa are quickly catching up. And this growth shouldn’t be seen demographically only. For instance, Mekele is not only catching up with Asmara population-wise, but is doing a better job in providing all kinds of services to its inhabitants (google-earth Mekelle to see how fast it is developing). There is no better sector to see that than in education: while the city has built a first rate university, with tens of thousands of students attending it, Asmara has dismantled the only university it ever had.

To see how the ghedli generation has successfully deprived Asmara of its organic growth, let’s follow their actions in regard to their beloved city: first, in the ghedli era and, second, in the independence era.

First and foremost, with the appearance of ghedli in the vicinity of Asmara in the early 70s, the city’s organic growth was interrupted for good. This interruption was at its most severe point during the siege of Asmara in the mid 70s. During this siege, both Jebha and Shaebia tried to achieve victory that they could not get through their fire power through an unusual means: by starving out the people of Asmara. For more than a year, they prohibited food from entering the city, with severe penalties for peasants who tried to sneak in their food products. Often the adage, “drying out the ocean to catch the fish” was applied to the enemy, in that it targeted the peasants (the ocean) to deny the teghadelti (the fish) the habitat upon which they used to survive. But the “starve out the inhabitants of Asmara” strategy reverses this role. The Fronts were starving the city dwellers for various reasons: (a) to smoke them out of the city, and leave the enemy with as few inhabitants as possible; (b) to make life for the inhabitants so miserable as to be embittered by the Derghi occupation; (c) and to find a stream of recruits from the half-starved fleeing Asmarinos. The remaining few that weathered out the siege of Asmara were because Derghi was able to conduct a successful airlift for a whole year to feed them. If it were up to ghedli, they would have not minded to own an empty city, as the Khmer Rouge did with their Phnom Penh – a defining characteristic of revolutions geared to bring change without the human aspect factored in.

During this siege, ghedli came close to killing the city, its population having shriveled to about 100,000 – the very same population the Italians left it with. Thus, they were able to wipe out all the gains that the city achieved since the Italians left, almost 30 years of organic growth gone down the drain. As soon as they were driven to their strongholds in Barka and Sahel, the city’s population surged back to where it was before in few years.17 But the fate of the city was to be sealed when the ghedli generation entered Asmara in triumph, 13 years after their ’78 retreat. The Asmarinos who partied day and night for weeks straight like no time before didn’t realize that with the triumphant return of deqina, the city was condemned to wither out and die – the “victory of the masses” was a defeat for Asmara.

Here is a paradox: When the “liberators” came to the full ownership of their city, they never comprehended that they had plucked it out of its natural habitat. They never grasped how much this city depended on the larger habitat to survive and flourish than the confined colonial land they claimed. Oblivious of the crime the liberators had committed, as in the old days, people began to build factories with Ethiopia in their mind – exactly as the Italians did in the ’30s. They failed to realize that with the triumphant entrance of deqina to their beloved city, a similar phenomenon as the failure of the Italian invasion that would have killed the organic growth of Asmara had taken place. This severance of all the life sources that fed the city was soon to be brought to its logical conclusion when the border war erupted.

Now, this superfluous generation has come to own a superfluous city; not only have the liberators stunted its growth, they have also been unable to sustain whatever  is left of it – Bana’s articles and photographs of Asmara, with its art-deco buildings falling apart, tell it all18. For a generation that dreamed of creating a wall to their city, this is indeed a tragic but befitting end. If so, who could honestly claim that this generation loved their city? True to the appearance modernity they adhered to, it was the city’s “appearance” (modernity independent of its human factor) that appealed to them – hence the superfluity.

What kind of Asmara was the ghedli generation then visualizing coming with independence? I don’t think they had any clear vision, except for the fact that they wanted their modern Asmara exclusively for themselves; it was ownership, with all its exclusive rights, that was at the bottom of it. All they could imagine was Asmara minus the undesirable elements – the Ethiopians. The way to safeguard the “Asmara civilization” was not by adding anything to it, but by “purifying” it. Driven to its logical point, this would lead to purifying the city of all its vibrant human elements.

Purifying Asmara

No government has done a better job of the displacement policy than the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. The total empting of the capital city – with more than two million inhabitants – within a day or so after their arrival was mainly motivated by the fierce hatred and resentment the Khmer Rouge guerrillas had developed for ghebar while they were “struggling against the oppressor” in the bush. In a draconian social experiment that was to kill close to two million people within a short span of time of their four years rule, they drove entire inhabitants of cities and towns across Cambodia to the wilderness to make “new citizens” or “new Khmer” out of them. They believed that it is only by making their hands work on the soil that they could make true revolutionaries out of them, a prescription that they found necessary to create their “self sufficient” socialist agrarian paradise. As a result of this draconian experiment that involved massive displacement and forced labor, many died of disease, many others of starvation and many more from torture and outright execution.

The Eritrean situation has never gotten as bad as the Khmer Rouge’s mainly because of the country’s porous borders19, but the anti-intellectual drive, and the venomous spite against ghebar that goes with it, that sent the Khmer guerrillas on a rampage to empty entire towns and cities of their inhabitants is the very same drive that made Shaebia empty the cities and towns of their youth. The entire youth population has been systematically emptied from the cities and towns and cordoned off in “mieda” under the name of national service; and, in due time, defending the nation and developing a “self-reliant” economy are meant to turn these internal exiles into the next generation of “Shaebia men” – all trademarks of the Khmer Rouge. There is no doubt that Shaebia’s venomous anti-ghebar spite has also played a great role in this drive. Thus, understandably, the first step of this purification process is to take out these undesirables out of the city, lest they contaminate the rest with their unorthodox ideas. And, like a water treatment system built in the outskirts of a city, it is only after they are treated with the anti-toxicant temekro mieda that they would be declared pure enough to reenter the city, perhaps a decade or so later. The problem is that this “recycled water” is not making it back to Asmara, but flooding out to the refugee camps in the neighboring countries.

The question of purity doesn’t only deal with those targeted to be evicted, but also with those selected to remain in the city. Looking into this purification process, it would be revealing to check the inhabitants of North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, for that is what Asmara is increasingly looking like. Two of the demographic groups that mainly make up the population of Pyongyang are party members and women. The similarities with Asmara are rather striking. Here is what the data on party members living in Pyongyang says20:

“About 830,000 or more than one-third are party members -- a very high ratio considering that the total number of party members across North Korea is about 2 million. The remaining 1.28 million seem to be either prospective members or family of members. They are said to be working mainly in party-affiliated organizations.”

If data on Asmara residents were to be collected now, it would not be surprising if most of the former teghadelti of the urban type were to be found congregated in this city, thus making loyalty one of the factors for residence. But loyalty is not the main one; rather, as loyalty is to Pyongyang, helplessness is to Asmara. If we are to look at the demographics of Asmara, we can see that it is mainly made up of helpless population groups: women, underage and overage.

But the most striking similarity has to do with the gender component21:

“[In Pyongyang] the most remarkable aspect of the data is the shortage of men. There are a mere 870,000 men on the list compared to 1.22 million women. What caused the imbalance is not known but it is possible that many men are soldiers and therefore not counted. Another guess is that there are more women in the capital because they are shipped there for mass rallies.”

Similarly, let’s ask: where are the adult men of Asmara to be found? They are either in the national service serving the army or outside the country, in refugee camps and beyond. As for the women, after rampant sexual abuse by higher officers in the army, Shaebia was forced to quietly withdraw most of them from the trenches. In addition, they are more likely to serve relatively shorter national service terms, as compared with indefinite service for most male conscripts. Besides, given the less opportunity to mobility across the land (because there are relatively few of them active in the army) and the aversion to risk they have, they are less likely to venture across the treacherous border. This has created a condition of acute scarcity of men of similar age group in Eritrea; and since most of the deserters happen to be from the educated sector, the shortage of men tend to be most acute in urban areas. With the mass exodus never letting up, this problem is getting worse by the day.

By now, hundreds of thousands of youth have already escaped Eritrea, and the overwhelming majority of those who make it to neighboring countries are male. And the further they venture from the refugee camps, the more skewed the male to female ratio gets with the thinning out of the female population. In its extreme form, we see this discrepancy in Israel. All that the reader has to do is look at the pictures of thousands of Eritreans that have been protesting in Tel Aviv: one spots few female faces scattered here and there in a sea of male faces. Even though a little bit better, a similar phenomenon is also taking place with those who make it to the West: again, if you take a look at the list of names of those drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, it happens to be overwhelmingly male. All this means that the male to female ratio in cities like Asmara is skewed by that much, only this time in the opposite direction. If we add to this, the almost all male army of about 200, 000, then we can see that Asmara has turned into a female city, especially within that age group between 18 and 45 years. If so, Asmara might even be worse than Pyongyang in this regard.

What is more striking though is the demographic similarity, and its underlying logic, that Asmara has now with the Sahel of 80’s. After having “purified” the revolution in one purge after another against the students and after the dearth of student participation in the aftermath of the retreat of ’78, Shaebia was left with similar helpless demographic groups on its hands: child soldiers, peasants and women – almost all “conscripted” through giffa. And it is on the back of these helpless groups that the much-lauded nation’s independence came to materialize. No wonder then that Shaebia is following the same script to defend the new dejen, Asmara, only this time it has included the overage in the group. If its anti-intellectualism served it well then, so should it now – so goes Shaebia’s logic.

This is, indeed, how the ghedli generation loves Asmara: devoid of its human factor, as it is being continuously drained both from inside and outside.

Temekro mieda at work

There is no doubt that the ghedli identity that the Shaebia tribe wants to graft on the city has become Asmara’s undoing. All that one needs to do is ask anyone who has been to the city recently to realize that Asmara has fallen on the worst of times. All the services that Asmara was known for are gone for good: electricity, water, sanitation, police, education, hospitals, markets, entertainment – you name it. The Asmara modernity that was thin-crust to begin with has dissipated into thin air. And it is none other than the ghedli generation’s temekro mieda (a category for every attribute acquired while on the ghedli journey) that is causing havoc at every level of the society.

Shaebia’s legendary incompetence comes from temekro mieda’s abhorrence for any kind of specialization or professionalism; as a “journey” characteristic par excellence (perseverance, sacrifice, self-reliance, etc), it lacks any content.22 Temekro mieda is a one-fits-all job description qualified to do any job; but, of course, it has to create space for itself by first displacing the professionals. And since it is those with temekro mieda as their qualification that have come to occupy the important positions in every department, no wonder that things have simply fallen apart. Thus, the exclusionary task that the ghedli generation was involved to purify their city of its undesirable elements is mirrored in temekro mieda, whose exclusionary task is to be seen in its disdain for any and every thing that has content: profession, institution, education, talent, religion, culture, etc.

Those who belong to the ghedli generation, in particular, and the ghedli romantics, in general, have been notorious in defaming their fathers as “sell-outs” and “andnet”. Yet the tale of Asmara tells that the true love for Asmara was rather displayed by these fathers, even though they never fanatically attached their identity to it as their sons and daughters were to do.

Anyone who wants to take out an animal out of its habitat and put it in a zoo can hardly be said to love that animal. The ghedli generation loved Asmara in a similar way a child loves an animal caged in a zoo. They wanted their city in a zoo – for their eyes only. In stark contrast, their fathers went out in search of a larger habitat that would sustain their city. Of course, the ghedli generation won – now they have their stunted Asmara and equally stunted wedebatna caged in Eritrea Zoo. Yet, oblivious of what they have done, the ghedli romantics never stop from defaming their fathers. They comfort one another by saying that the objective of netsanet was the zoo; now that that has been achieved, wait till harnet completes the task; they don’t know that the zoo will remain a zoo with or without Isaias; even more – with or without democracy, for democracy is no replacement to a habitat.

The colonial mind of the urban elite

Let me, at this point, remind the reader that I am writing this series of articles in response to some excellent questions raised by Serray, this one trying to address a question regarding the colonial mentality of the ghedli generation.

Serray says that attributing a colonial mentality to the Asmarinos is “insanity” [by the way, when I point my fingers at “Asmarinos” in regard to colonial mentality, I have in mind students, in general, and the urban elite, in particular]. But even by sticking to the Asmara story related above, it wouldn’t be that hard for us to see how that colonial mentality emerged. For instance, I have always been asking myself what would have happened if Italian colonialism had left Asmara the small town it was just before the Italians decided to invade Ethiopia in the early ’30s (at its peak, around 18,000 of population)? In an odd way then, it required colonial violence of the supreme kind – the invasion of Ethiopia – to create the colonial mentality of the ghedli generation. I honestly wonder if the Kebessa elite would have ever entertained to secede under that counterfactual situation (intay hizom?), given that their entire inspiration came from the “modernity” they attribute to that city. Sometimes I think that Asmara has done more psychological damage than good to the Eritrean elite, given that all their sense of betterment came from owning that city and all their revolutionary zeal from wanting to be the sole owners of that city. If so, that by itself would have been enough to trace the colonial mind of the ghedli generation.

Serray rightly castigates the regime supporters’ obsession with “infrastructural development” of the regime (what he refers to as DS); yet, he is reluctant to make a connection with a similar phenomenon in the past: that an entire generation rose up in arms inspired by the infrastructural development of Italian colonialism, with Asmara as its crowning achievement. Both of them happen to be interested in development irrespective of its human cost. That is why the fathers who went through the colonial experience never felt the kind of obsession with Asmara their children displayed; the blood and sweat lost on that “development” was all theirs, with all the ownership going to the colonial masters – not incidentally, the same way Warsai feel in regard to the “infrastructural development” of independent Eritrea. Neither of these population groups felt the need to own that development, let alone to own it solely – the desire for a sole ownership under these circumstances being another mark of a colonial mind.

The family resemblance is rather striking: while the Italians wanted the full ownership of Asmara (relegating the natives to the shanty areas), so did the ghedli generation; unthinkable as it was for them to share it with Ethiopians, and unthinkable as it is now for them to share it with the Warsai generation – colonial displacement at its best. At the bottom of it all is that this kind of sole ownership cannot be attempted without disowning those who sweated for it. The Italians had to disown the native, on whose blood and sweat the city was built. And that happens to be the very reason why the ghedli generation disowned their fathers, for romanticizing the Italian era (for instance, as Aklilu Zere is prone to do23) couldn’t have been done without justifying the enslavement of their fathers.

As Serray again strictly looks at the temporal order, he wonders how come the children who were never under colonial Italy got the “colonial bug” while the fathers who went through it all didn’t.24 How do we account for this temporal oddity? How can we explain this delayed reaction?

The response is: the temporal gap in between is not a problem that requires an explanation, but the explanation itself. It is the necessary distance in time between the colonizer and the inheritor wherein the pain of the fathers has to get erased for the colonial inheritors to look back at the Italian era nostalgically. As in all kinds of romanticism, it required a certain distance to idealize it. In an ironic way then, the true Warsai are those who belong to the ghedli generation; it is only that what they wanted to inherit desperately, so much so that they went through hell for 50 years, was the colonial heritage. If so, that temporal distance happens to be the very distance the ghedli generation put in between themselves and their fathers; for if they were to own the colonial past, they would have to factor out the pain their fathers had gone through in that era. It is easy to see how that colonial mind that wants to be primarily identified through its colonial heritage would act under similar circumstances. When the time arrived, the same generation came to put that same distance between themselves and the Eritrean masses after independence – here too, the pain of the masses, in general, and Warsai, in particular, has to be factored out for the full ownership of Eritrea under Yikealo to materialize. If so, we can easily see how getting fascinated with development without factoring in the human aspect is the true mark of a colonial mind. It is in this sense that the ghedli generation became the true Warsai of the Italian colonists.


It would not be difficult to do a similar analysis on rural Eritrea as I have done above on Asmara. To see that the peasants of Eritrea were not suffering under any special oppression (colonial or otherwise) under Haile Selassie rule prior to the emergence of ghedli in their midst, all that we have to do is ask these rhetorical questions: Did the Haile Selassie government impose an alien identity on the peasant or pastoralist? Did it interfere in their old way of life? Did it interfere with their land possession? Did it claim a share of their farm products? Did it prevent the peasants from selling their food products from any market they chose? Did it constrain their movements in any way? Were there any Amhara noblemen that made serfs out of the peasants? Were the Ethiopian colonels forcing women to be their concubines? Did it interfere with their families? Did it enact forceful conscription? Did it conduct giffa? Did it interfere with their tradition or religion? Did it render highi enda’ba obsolete? And, in general, did it interfere in their daily lives in any other way before ghedli appeared on the scene? And the answer to all these questions is an emphatic NO! You can see where I am heading to since all of these and more have been what the peasants of Eritrea have been subjected to under the unbearable heavy presence of ghedli in their daily lives.

I know what kind of response I will get: how about all the violence of the Ethiopian army? That is why I am so far careful in putting emphasis on the period: “prior to the emergence of ghedli in their midst” or “before ghedli appeared on the scene”. With the appearance of ghedli on the rural scene, the normal world of the peasants was lost for good.

All that I have been trying do in this posting is to remind readers that life in both urban and rural Eritrea was normal before it was interrupted by ghedli, thereby attempting to debunk the great lie that the ghedli romantics have been feeding the masses: that the case of Eritrea is that of colonial oppression. Paradoxically, it is the ghedli generation that has been displaying all the characteristics of colonists – that is, starting from the very Cause itself, not as caused by colonial oppression but by colonial inspiration. If there is anything that could define colonialism as it occurred in Africa and elsewhere, it is the fact that it was an unparalleled interruption in the way of life of the colonized people. Similarly, ghedli has been and still is nothing but a continuous interruption. That is why even after its victory, all it has been doing for more than two decades is interrupt the normal lives of the masses. And the point is this: that it requires a thorough colonial mind to sustain an interruption this deep and for this long.

The role of the Ethiopian army’s violence in the Eritrean revolution still remains unaddressed in this posting. I will do that in another installment.


[1] Among others, Ivan Turgenev’s The Diary of the Superfulous Man; 1850.

[2] Ivan Goncharove; Oblomov; 1859 (trans. 1862)

[3] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; (II) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea; Oct 23, 2012;

[4] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; (I) Eritrea’s Drive for Modernity: In Search of Asmara; Jan 03, 2013;

[5] Dirar, Uoldelul Chelati; From Warriors to Urban Dwellers: Ascari and the Military Factor in the Urban Development of Colonial Eritrea; Jan 2004, d’Etudes africaines..

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Punkharst; Racism in the Service of Fascism, Empire-Building and War; 2007;

[10] Wrong, Michela; Is Africa’s hermit kingdom heading towards a military coup; Feb 21, 2014, FAP.

[11] Negash, Tekeste; Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience; 1997; pp 141.

[12] The Executive Committee of Asmara Expo 69; Asmara Expo; Il Poligrafico P.L. C., Asmara (The Introduction was written by Tesfayohannes Berhe, the chairman of the committee).

[13] Ibid, pp 32-33.

[14] Ibid, pp 34-35.

[15] Biziouras, Nikolaos; The Genesis of the Modern Eritrean Struggle (1942-1961); The Journal of Middle East and Africa; p 38; Apr 14, 2013. Biziouras refers to Ayele, Negussay; The Eritrean Problem Revisted”; Journal of Ethiopian Studies; Vol 22; Nov 1989; pp 149-50 for these figures.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Woldegiorigis, Dawit; Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia; 1988, Red Sea Press.

[18] Bana from Asmara; Asmara’s Crumbling Buildings I, II & III;; Nov – Dec 2012.

[19] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Sealing Off Eritre: Domestic Terrorism; Nov 03, 2009;

[20] Official Data Show New Light on Pyongyang Population; Chosun Media; Oct 22, 2011.

[21] Ibid.

[22] For further elaboration on temekro mieda, please look at Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; The Incuriosity that Killed a Nation: Anti-Intellectualism and the Eritrean Revolution;; May 22, 2011.

[23] Zere, Aklilu; What (Italian) Colonialism Did To My People of (Eritrean) Kebessa; January 13, 2013;

[24] The comment section on Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea: The Federal Arrangement Farce; Dec 14, 2013;