A week of conversations: Are they all really criminal and ‘useful idiots’?

…How many of the 32 people that are listed at meskerem.net were past members of the barbaric ghedli? What I see in the list are ghedli era criminals, the pitiful "useful idiots" and religious extremists.

Here is the truth in case Selam hasn't heard it from others. The Eritrean war for independence was solely fought by the Eritrean peasants who were recruited by force called indiscriminate ግፋ….

Hi Bohashem

The above is an extract from a comment in reaction to our last conversation… and it triggered memories of another conversation that went on over several years (mainly between SAAY and YG): Romanticising v De-romanticising Ghedli… I found that conversation interesting then and I find its reverberations very interesting now… are we only ever destined to discuss Ghedli and its tegadelti as crooks and victims on the one hand or infallible and untouchable minor deities on the other hand?

BOHASHEM: First let me make it clear that i have no problem with revisiting history or questions the conventional wisdom behind the armed struggle for Eritrean liberation from Ethiopian occupation (1961 - 1991). I believe in and advocate for the freedom of expression as long as we are not inciting hate and violence. In this context i welcome debates and critical analysis of the armed struggle with all its ups and downs.

With regard to the role of peasants, it's important to first recognise that about 80% of the Eritrean population is Agro-Pastoralist and lives not in urban centres like cities and towns but in rural areas, which was the main base of the liberation fronts. Hence it was not unusual for the bulk of the liberation fighters to have come from this particular segment of the Eritrean society. It is true that liberation fronts were practising forced conscription not only of peasants but also of children and urbanites trying to cross the Eritrean-Sudanese border on their way to the oil rich Gulf states, Europe and America.

Although this practice was un-revolutionay and inhumane and did result in occasional violent confrontations between the peasants and the liberation, especially when it came to forcefully drafting young women, this could not be taken as a factor for deligitimising the Eritrean people's just cause for liberation from Ethiopia's colonial occupation.

In 1958 a truly popular movement was created by the name Eritrean Liberation Movement - ELM - (aka "mahber shawAtte"/"Haraka"). This movement believed in the total liberation and independence of Eritrea through popular participation. Armed struggle was not the chosen strategic means for the ELM. Instead it pursued a strategy of raising the masses political awareness through its cells of 7 members (from where its popular name "mahber shawAtte" was derived) with ultimate aim of widespread uprising of the people against the Ethiopian occupation. I believe the ELM did manage to unite Eritreans for a common cause and could have achieved its goal without the need for a protracted armed struggle and the associated damages done to Eritrean lives, properties, and social capital. I am of the opinion that in the presence of such a popular movement that managed to reach out to all Eritreans, including civil servants, the creation of the ELF in 1960 in Cairo and the launch of the "armed struggle" in Mount Adal in 1961, were strategic errors that subsequently led to power struggle, violent rivalry and conflicts between the very leaders who founded ELF, which later on spread to the rank and file of the armed front.

The founders of ELF could have joined ELM and strengthened it. However, they chose to violently crush ELM in 1965. The ELF was later outsmarted by its rival EPLF in the use of the same tactics of violent liquidation of opponents. In terms of cost-benefit analysis it can be said that the armed struggle caused our nation damages that will another generation to heal from. I believe allowing for political awareness and political mobilisation to spread before adopting any means of struggle would have saved us from the tribalised political violence and the many abuses of human rights that was committed by leaders of the armed fronts.

This is how I read the issue of the armed fronts i.e seeing the practice separately from the popular and just cause for liberation. I also believe that had Ethiopian regimes accepted to resolve the Eritrean question through referendum there would have been no justification for the armed struggle. Mr. Osman Saleh Sabbe (one of the founders of ELF and later PLF) had challenged Ethiopia to accept free referendum in early 1980s. This was later adopted by EPLF and implemented in 1993. This made Eritrean struggle for liberation more legitimate irrespective of crimes and human rights abuse committed by the liberation fronts. Where does Selamina stand on this issue?

SELAM: I have a problem with the way that the Eritrean revolution is often discussed in generalised terms using terms like: all freedom fighters, all leaders of EPLF/ELF  all of the low landers etc…. Eritrea’s independence was a political concept and as with all political concepts the population had divergent views. As such those that were convinced of the justness of the cause had their job cut out for them as the task was convincing the Eritrean public and then going on to convince the world out there (not necessarily in that chronological order). This was a long, arduous and near impossible task, the whole initiative being orchestrated by ill-equipped young people carrying out a task that was hitherto totally uncharted. The odds were stacked against them and infact there was no template to follow…. Whilst I don’t condone the human rights violations that went on there… I equally think it is a bit harsh to judge the whole thing using today’s sensibilities. I think (like you said) we should revisit the historical accounts of that period… bring it out of the realms of unquestionable…’holy-grail’ status and analyse it properly. What was the rate of forced conscription? Which periods saw the prevalence of this approach what options were considered/available? And that also goes for the rest of the historical milestones mentioned. Hindsight is a good thing but a worthy analysis needs to take a holistic approach to the whole thing and we shouldn’t be enticed by lazy generalisations.

The fact that the history of our independence struggle remains largely undocumented (thoroughly researched historical works) makes objective analysis impossible, most things are anecdotal and/or observational makeing it easy only to make saints or villains of those who participated in the history. Analysis needs to be broken down we need to identify what really happened research and document our history and follow this with critical analysis of the available data and then we can judge whether the course of action selected was an honest mistake, a desperate action or callous barbarism and banditry…

People are disappointed about the status of current day Eritrea and they are justified in wondering if the way the revolution was conducted was responsible for the prevalent outcome… and even a cursory analysis can point to that being a significant contributory factor but a conclusive enough understanding can only come from a thorough analysis of our history… and to do that we should first insist on proper documentation.

Maybe you should tell me if you know of parallels from a different revolution in a different country and we could use that to understand the dynamics a bit more?

I will add one more sentence to the above.... even taking what you described in your response I can see that your analysis is also based on a number of anecdotes and observations and too dependent on variables that weren't part of the prevalent context: if the Ethiopians had agreed to the peaceful resolution suggested ofcourse things would have been different but they didn't....

BOHASHEM: Ofcourse, and i deliberately brought here the Ethiopian factor to suggest that root cause for the armed struggle or violence was Ethiopia's military occupation of Eritrea. This is covered by Dawit Woldegiorgis' book "Red Tears" and later on by the successive military offensives waged by the 'Dergue' junta. Here i emphasise that Ethiopian approach to Eritrea was violent from the beginning to the end of the liberation war in 1991. As i said above criticising violation of human rights by our liberation fronts should not be understood as deligitimising the just cause of the liberation struggle whichever means was pursued. I do agree with you on the need to research the liberation struggle for proper documentation and historical reference.

For most liberation struggles the end result was independence. In most cases the issues were between European colonisers and local movements seeking indepence. In our Eritrean case it was slightly different. The interests of Ethiopia and geopolitics interfered against securing outright independence by 1941 or 1952. This added with Ethiopian mishandling of the federal union contributed to the subsequent wars of liberation. I must also mention here the efforts General Aman Andom (an Ethiopian president of Eritrean origin) made in 1974 to find a peaceful resolution to the Ethio-Eritrean conflict and how that was rejected by the Dergue who willingly killed General Andom only a couple of months after he took office. The situation that was therefore imposed on the Eritrean people needs to be looked at from this premise.

Today's situation can only be better explained when we trace back the roots to Ethio-Eritrean violence. I believe we are living the legacy of that terrible era where the power of gun had to prevail over reason and rationale. Had it not been for this legacy of violence we could have initiated our post liberation era with national reconciliation and a process of nation building based on justice and equity.

In conclusion, the liberation struggle be it political or armed was for a just cause. However, that does not justify any violations of human rights then or now. This also not about judging the recent past with today's measurements. The violations by the liberation fronts were condemned then and many who stood up against it paid with their precious lives.

SELAM: I just thought drawing parallels would help us put things into the wider context and also enable us to envision a way out of our situation by learning from the experiences of others.

Saleh Younis once drew a parallel with the Algerian revolution and the legacy of ‘one million martyrs’ and the post independence generation of disaffected youth who were condemned to spend their days leaning against walls and lamenting the shortcomings of the previous generation (and that revolution) they came to derisively be called "Hettists." The ‘one million martyrs’ narrative gave Algeria an accolade on the international scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s and gave the post-independence FLN regime an heroic status. But by the 1980s the high hopes of independence gave way to bitterness as the country was wracked by an economic crisis that hit the young, post-independence generation very hard and the era known as the ‘Black Decade’ ensued, younger Algerians, blighted by unemployment, became cynical, lost confidence in the system and the struggle that created the system including the generation that created the struggle. However the situation only led to a civil conflict that fragmented the country into nationalists, secularists, liberals, and Islamists who distrusted each other as much as they distrusted the regime (this is a crude abbreviation of the situation only to give a general outline of a picture)… and this I think is our lesson unless we learn to trust each other a little bit and avoid wholesale categorisations such as ‘all tegadelti’…’all moslems’…’all highlanders’ etc we would end up being a nation of small fragments that would never amount to a vibrant nation with deep roots in history, culture and viability. I think I will conclude here unless you have something to say.

BOHASHEM: It is a bit tricky to draw parallels as each liberation movement has its own unique features that may not necessarily be similar to others. Algerians are almost homogeneous in terms of religious identity. They fought against one colonial power - the French. Had the Moroccans annexed Algeria after the French left as they did with Western Sahara after the Spaniards left the case would have probably been similar to that of Eritrea in which an artificial nation brought together by European colonialism had to face a protracted conflict against a local power with each there are more commonalities than differences. However, one thing common is that most liberation movements' failure in managing their liberated states.

Thank you Selamina for shading light on this interesting topic.

SELAM: ofcourse it is very difficult to get an identical match; all I am drawing parallel to is the dangers of gross generalisations and compartmentalisation where we end up with a totally fragmented society and no overall consensus and always play into the hands of brutes often military brutes.

BOHASHEM: I agree generalisation is not right. That is the main reason i was keen to make the difference between criticising the liberation fronts' excesses and the just cause of the liberation struggle.

SELAM: And I guess I am saying the only way out of a culture of trashing all of our history and legacy is insisting on proper documentation and insisting on critiquing Ghedli on that basis as opposed to the wholesale veneration on the one hand and utter disdain on the other. I totally agree with differentiating between the cause itself and then looking at the implementation.

Shall we call this a good note to stop at? 

BOHASHEM: Sure...we may do that. 

SELAM: Thanks for the chat.... and I guess we should thank all those who have been reading our conversations and particularly the person whose comments inspired this week's conversation.

BOHASHEM: Indeed, all readers and those enriching the discussion with their comments deserve our appreciation and thanks.