By Zekre Lebona
So far, the link between the post independence tyranny and the equally terrible terror practiced during the “glorious” period of the ghedli (the revolution) times is getting slowly unveiled. Its flaw, however, is the focus on the internal dynamics of the armed organizations, leaving the rural Eritreans mute and neglected. In a largely semi-literate society, elite sources were privileged at the expense of the mostly involuntary masses who shouldered the burdens of the long and brutal nationalist war.
Hence, an examination of the biased chronicles on the alleged popular support of the ghebar (the peasant) and the assumed mutual dependency with the armed political entrepreneurs is indispensable. This essay will draw some particulars from the book Mai Weini, a Highland Village in Eritrea; for unlike most, it singularly attempts to cast doubt on the alleged peasant nationalist mobilization in Eritrea . It is a rare book on Eritrea, where one hears peasants whisper about their pain in the hands of both the guerrillas and the Ethiopian army. And disappointing too; for understandable reasons, the villagers of Mai Weini have internalized the horror and the trauma, not trusting the complete stranger with their life. The challenge to expose the alleged symbiotic relationship between the peasants and the rebels has, therefore, remained paramount.
The Eritrean Fronts were largely spared the predatory label ascribed to most armed rebels in Africa, and this could be attributed partially to the assumption made about the “reciprocal relationship between peasants and rebels”  by some naïve and unscrupulous writers who chose simply to regurgitate the propaganda of the senior cadres of the fronts in Eritrea, and particularly the EPLF. The mockery of it is that this same claim is being embraced by none other than the mainstream opposition. It is one of the great artifices of ghedli actors, nationalists and gullible scholars and journalists.
According to this construct, the rebels obtained the “mandate” to wage a war of liberation against the Ethiopian state from the people in Eritrea who, having exhausted all peaceful options, had supposedly opted for a separate and sovereign Eritrea. As to when this “mandate” was made and transmitted to the broad public, no credible evidence has yet been available. Nearly all the Eritrean scholars and foreigners have purposely skipped this important and weighty subject as if it was a given fact except for Bereketab, who stated, “A few Eritrean liberation fighters, theoretically and ideologically poorly equipped, yet representing the ’general will”, set out to form the Eritrean nation. ” His deft attempt to give the cause legitimacy is apparent in the quote. Consequently, it is the contention of this essay that the hagereseb (the peasants and pastoralists in the countryside, who made up 90 percent of the population) in Eritrea were not consulted then just as they were not in the constitution-making process of post independent Eritrea. In other words, the masses were imagined.
This salient question does not seem to trouble most of the nationalists who remain infatuated with the nation-state. Unfazed, and armed with this fictitious mandate, the nationalists have chosen to give ghedli a positive shine. For them, the humble peasant, having waited for the “first shot” of the rebellion, had rallied behind the cause until it was consummated. Did such kind of peasants exist in most rebel outfits including Eritrea? In the irrational reasoning of the nationalist elites, however, the ghebar of the peripheral regions of Abyssinia (who customarily say, zibereke tsihayna zinegese nigusna) were nevertheless militant farmers patiently waiting for the vanguard organization. They seem not to be troubled by the sudden militancy of the proverbial Eritrean farmer.
The “mandate” secured, it then made it obligatory for the ghebar to provide all the supplies the guerrillas needed in exchange for their protection from the punitive measures of the Ethiopian authorities. The duplicity in this was that the peasants were provided a “protection” they had not asked for and required to make available all provisions and manpower, including recruits for the war.
Throughout the turbulent times, the imagined agency of the ghebar in the conduct of the rebellion left the nationalist scribes to dwell mostly on the role of regional and foreign powers and commit themselves to cramming Marxist and Arab Baath ideologies and other countries’ masses, leaving their own in the vice-like grip of the armed entrepreneurs. It was not easy, however. For decades, to the exasperation of the political elite, the long simmering war in Eritrea was termed as the “hidden war”. The paradox of this “hidden war” was that in its bosom, a vicious and cruel conflict with the peasants and other minorities was in full swing largely concealed from the outside world. Despite the elite terror on the peasants and pastoralists, Mao’s famous fish-water dictum was found useful for the naïve and clueless sympathizers and even scholars. That most of the political and other writings on Eritrea are suffused with this theory is a good proof. That the whole thing was propaganda only needs a close inspection of the practitioners of the violence as they call it: “bighibri” (“by action”).
The moral economy of the peasants and its uninvited guests
The moral economy of the highlands of Eritrea, which helped its members survive all kinds of adversities such as drought, famine, plague and war, initially provided a favorable climate for the infiltration of the fighters. It was upon this setting that the scores of armed non-state actors arrived, and gradually through threats, intrigues and raw terror cowed the peasant communities, who for ages had a very loose tie with authorities in the capital. As lately, a theory that resembles the latter concept, but with a wider parameter, was advanced to explain factors behind the war for independence. The riddle to the impossible victory of the fronts is attributed in this case to the alleged “national ethos” of the country termed as “social capital”. With this construct, the search for the “economy of liberation” seemed to be laid to rest, but not without controversy.
This essay‘s concept of moral economy and Kibreab’s “social capital ” converge when they emphasize their imminent role to the insurgency in Eritrea. They strongly differ, however, on the “voluntary” nature of its use. This paper assumes that the rebels mined and exploited the social-insurance mechanisms of the villages largely without the ghebar’s consent resulting in the downfall spiral of their living standards. The rebels, by barging themselves into the peasant moral economy gained a temporary foothold outside the reach of the Ethiopian government. In exchange, the ghebar were promised a payment in the future in the form of public goods. Aside this, they had nothing to contribute to the peasants social-insurance schemes. They had other ruses, though.
Descent is crucial in the sedentary and densely populated highland villages. It is an intricate system of entitlement to land and tisha, and the position of social hierarchy that defines the rights and privileges of each inhabitant. Solidarity starts at the enda’s or gezauti of a village, and may also extend to the other gezautis, or the whole village against other entities. In some circumstances a group of villages proximate to each other will also ally against a threat from without. This complex web of relations is also elastic enough for accepting its younger ones,  as deqena (sons and daughters), unlike the nuclear family.
Into this peasant social milieu came the generally young nationalist fighters and approached the villagers to accept them as their sons and daughters; a request that a peasant may refuse at a risk to his life and property. The peasant’s dilemma is understandable: in a rural landscape, government presence in the form of municipality or police is absent, and the true sons of the villagers carry only sticks for both protection and tending their livestock. Once the village societies grudgingly accepted them as “our boys”, as the guerrillas in Zimbabwe had done, it was not long before they exploited the peasant’s social-insurance schemes and values of subsistence level.
For ages, piety and the precarious livelihood of villagers have created the proliferation of many religious feast days, nigdets (patron saint days), and mahbers in most adis of the sedentary highlands. During slack days of the year, likewise, wedding ceremony and mahber events crowd the peasant’s calendar. Village customs also require the observance of death memorial days like tezekar, asur and menfeq, obliging households to prepare food and drinks for the often sizable mourners . As some anthropologists have observed it in other parts of Asia, the preoccupation of the peasants in such seemingly expensive feast has a rational behind it. What is often called reciprocal dependency is a devise of redistributing the assets of a village to limit the damages from the extremely fluctuating and unpredictable crop harvest.
Custom requires that every household, rich or poor, take turns organizing feasts and open its doors to a sizable number of people from both its enda and sometimes even others. It is not rare when complete strangers in distress also show up and help themselves from the food and drinks. In order to distribute the expense of a calamity such as death in a family, every household is required to contribute injera, popularly known as quareta for the wake observing household. The social-insurance events though helpful did not guarantee access to food for the combatants during the rest of the year. For that, much more coercive means were needed.
Exploiting the old tribute system
The enterprising rebels, “progressive” or not, had to recourse to the old customs of the Abyssinian army to forage food for the rest of the year. Their socialistic rhetoric aside, they were even more authoritarian than the old nobles who shared the same belief and religion as their subjects. The fact that the rebels moved mostly on foot, (epitomized in the statue made for the plastic sandal) unlike the Abyssinian feresegna (mounted soldiers), would not diminish the power relation between the ghebar and the ghedli. Tribute to the officials of the Abyssinian nobility commonly known as dirgo was not uncommon in these highland villages located at the periphery of the empire.
The advent of the Italian empire had severed these contact and practice, but it was not completely erased from the memory of the farmers. When a chewa or fighting contingent arrived in the village or its proximity every single household was expected to provide food and drinks. The Abyssinian armies, in comparison to their contemporary centralized polities in the rest of the world, were ill provisioned and largely dependent on the densely populated village communities for food and fodder. While the regime supporters label the Tigrean nobility of the 19th century as dirgogna and deride the policy on the ghebar of Mereb Melash, they have stayed silent about the same practice of the teghadelti (the guerrilla fighters) operators . The fact was that, throughout their sojourn, both fronts primarily depended on the rural folks, and no village was spared.
The task of responsibility for this unpopular job was given to the quadere (corrupted Italian word for “cadre”) of the village. Perpetually in fear of the real political cadres, and worried about the contemptuous and angry look of the women of the village on whose shoulders is the provisioning of billeting army is placed, the quadere’s life was miserable. His circumstances would not have obtained any sympathy, however. In the eyes of the rebels, the corporate village, although levied beyond its means, was not yet a safe and dependable anchorage. The cadres’ nationalistic political agitation was often met by the perturbed, impassive and inscrutable look of the peasants, who humbly call themselves as defa’eti denqul (clod-hoppers). They found the proverbial fight for the “hearts and minds” of the rural folks as impenetrable and difficult.
Posing as land distributors
In order to garner some political support in the economically less stratified villages, ghedli had to fabricate “class struggle” even if it was a totally alien concept to their subjects. Although not egalitarian, the meret shehena or diesa, meret Tselmi, and meret werki practiced in this corner of Eritrea did not produce the kind of land inequality observed in other peasant societies. In contrast, it was rampant in south of Ethiopia. When it happened in Eritrea, it was only in the form of outright land expropriation by the old Italian occupiers and the present regime. This does not seem to deter the revolutionaries.
Looking for a political base in these communities, the insurgents, therefore, chose to invent “class conflict” and a caste of feudal lords and exploited peasants. It was a ploy to open fissures. By doing this, the former urban elite who had subscribed to the left ideology of social mobilization then caused havoc, disharmony, exile and even the loss of numerous lives. To a lesser magnitude, their search for big land lords resembled the Bolsheviks’ treatment of the millions of “kulaks” in the former Soviet Union.
What makes the whole program absurd was that the incumbent regime in Ethiopia was also implementing a land reform program of its own denying the insurgents a political platform. The few attempts made by the Derg in Kebessa of Eritrea were less coercive, half-hearted and constrained by its military priorities. The brief feuds about land instigated by ghedli did cause some harm, but the most lethal effect was its effect on the village power. After this attempt, and subsequent to the 70s retreat of the insurgent armies, village power was deliberately degraded, tampered and transferred to the operatives of the EPLF. While this was in progress in Kebessa, the EPLF, which secured the rural Eritrea for itself, was cynically describing its guerrilla administration in the Sahel as a baito-like administration. This farcical claim was to regrettably make its way to most of the nationalist literature.
It is now customary to hear the demise or end of the isolated and far-flung villages due to the globalization phenomenon. It was an established fact in Eritrea a few decades ago, however. The peasant villages of Eritrea, which were largely left unbothered for decades, except for the occasional tax gathering forays of the old regimes, fell into the complete hold of their “sons and daughters”. These villages, which were mercilessly mined for the long and cruel war of independence, did not obtain any reciprocal benefit except for the brief and random food distributed to them from the international NGOS in the late 80s. A caveat is necessary here.
Ghedli and the politics of food aid
The Eritrean ghebar did not have any control over the food aid that came through the cross-border operations ostensibly to save their lives. True to its behavior, the EPLF forbade any role to the intended beneficiaries, and had the Eritrean Relief Agency do the whole shenanigans. As much as it exploited the social-insurance scheme of the same ghebar, it had equally diverted the food aid and the fees charged for its delivery for its own army and coffers. A few insightful observers working for the Scandinavian NGO had raised their doubts, but as for evidence to their robbing practice the post independence period is adequate.
Had the NGOs identified the insurgency itself as one of the factors, such as the drought, disruption of trade and farming activities that eroded the stock of the peasants, the complete monopoly of the food aid would not have occurred. Had the NGOs also examined the veracity of the “reciprocal dependency” phenomenon purposely made to dupe the foreign public, their experts wound not have made a gross claim. Incredible though it may seem, an assertion was made that the EPLF led war of liberation “calls into question the conventional wisdom on the consequences of war and famine-that war is the antithesis of development” . Without doubt, this statement contradicts the mission of the food donor nations, and sounds nothing but a blanket approval of the politics of the insurgent organization. Notwithstanding all the humanitarian help, the down trend of the food entitlement capacity of the victims was not hard to discern.
For a comparison, the Oromo and Amhara peasants, whose standard of living was not that better off than the Kebessa peasants in the late 70s, prospered thanks to the access to the markets of Djibouti and Somalia for their cash crops such as chat, coffee and other produce . This happened despite the existence of the militarist and command economy of the Derg, which was not averse to micro managing even small economic enterprises. What Doorman called the strong “implementing capacity”  of post liberation regimes such as Eritrea has its origins in the total usurpation of the power of the village baitos, which were later easily converted into village administrations. State presence, and particularly in its military and bureaucratic aspect, has been the main feature of the post independence regime; a feat never achieved by its predecessors thanks to the social experiment done during the ghedli era.
The exclusivist state
On many occasion, the ghedli victors had said this: “Eritrea has nothing except its precious human resources.” Nobody but the gullible would believe this praise of words for the masses from the mostly urban elite who had nothing but contempt for the hagereseb. It is a high sounding phrase from a regime euphemistically confessing to have helped itself from loot of the peasants. The “human resource” here should be interpreted as the assets and labor of the farmers or the “social capital” commandeered during their bush wars. The violence in this frequently quoted phrase has been the deliberately crafted ruse in order to hide the violent and coercive nature of their relationship with the public, both in the ghedli period and its aftermath. In this instance, it is the state reluctantly alluding to the unique role of the social-insurance schemes, or its related resource known as “social capital”, in order to buttress the alleged popular support provided to it.
As previously noted, the ghebar neither adopted them as their “sons” nor offered their assets and services without duress. A claim of this type would not even be made by most of the lords of the medieval past. In the necro politics or the right to kill any subject  of the ghedli era, the notion of voluntary action is simply a mockery, and the equally abused word “power of agency” was likewise flatly absent. In the political scene of the last fifty years in Eritrea nothing has morphed; it was the natural evolution and final climax of a secret and violent project of the non-state actors.
The leviathan that emerged out of it is not something inexplicable, or a betrayal of the cause as tiresomely repeated among some disaffected nationalist circles, but a natural byproduct of the policy of guerrilla political supremacy and the disempowerment of the rural populace. If the non-state actors brag about the regime they constructed before their conquest of Asmera, they were not wrong; for they were relentlessly amassing power by emasculating the baitos of the hundreds of villages. This violent dispossession act may have no comparison in the memory of the peasants. The fact that it happened in the hands of their “sons and daughters” does not have any balm effect on it.
In My Weini, a Highland Village, the author postulated that were it not for the large number of youth who left for the war, the villagers’ diesa land tenure system would not have coped with the growing demand for meret ghebri. Without glamorizing the war, Tronvoll attributed the survival of the traditional land tenure system to the departure of the potential claimants to ghedli. This was, however, an illusion. The ghedli actors, who have already usurped the village power and accorded themselves the authority of the aqwaro (land alloters) in the entire region, had devised other plans. Pre-occupied with the mundane activities of a new government, and to obtain the good will of the West, they had briefly shelved their social-engineering program.
When the Land Decree was announced around 1994, civil disturbance or outright rebellion is what is expected from a peasant worth of his salt. Nothing of the sort happened! For the ghedli had made the ghebar of the land “say uncle” countless times during the long and protracted war. The yikealo princes had, unlike the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union, no peasant revolts to deal with. The benefit of a long and protracted war is not only achieving power from the incumbent regime, but the complete sequestering of the peasants and other sectors of the population.
Conclusion: the emasculated peasants
In contemporary Eritrea, politics has been the private domain of the single party state; the mainly anemic economy has also driven out the already weak and highly fragmented private sector resulting in a command and mafia like business regime. This paper attempts to disclose the depredatory nature of the Fronts, and particularly the EPLF, in how they infiltrated, coerced and finally usurped the old village institutions. If the postulate made convinces some, the positive spin based around the ghedli history may encourage both Eritreans and others to revise the still solid political orthodoxy.
This paper also wishes to mollify the sympathetic public abroad which could not explain the “submission” and “silence” of the subjects in countries such as Eritrea, and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe. There is a simple and straightforward answer for it: the masses of these nations were divested of their traditional institutions, political power, culture, and they had also underwent a long and far cruel form of discipline and punishment  that the philosopher Michel Foucault was credited for. The origin of the “open air prison” that is frequently applied to contemporary Eritrea is the mundane use of the disciplined-kind of terror and violence that left the notice of experts on Eritrea, even the critical types.
The villagers of Mai Weini had a secret kept hidden from the social anthropologist who appeared in their village soon after the end of the revolution. Before it re-baptized itself, its original name was none other than the unromantic name “Mai Hemako” (“Foul Water”). The village had every right to change its name, but doing it without omitting anything from its past, even to a ferengi, would have been good manners. It would have also been a good example for the opposition members in Eritrea and the public in general to acknowledge the violence and abuse on the ghebar and other sectors of the country.
In comparison with the terrible toll of the rural folks of Eritrea under the ghedli, the lot of the harestot that preceded it was less onerous, less burdensome, and less intrusive notwithstanding Yemane Ghebremikael’s song of lament. More ominously, the challenge of emancipating themselves has not been as dimmer as ever. Bahta Hagos the chieftain who resisted colonial Italy’s exorbitant demands on his subjects famously said, “No medicine for the bite of a white snake.” He had no way of knowing that the bite of its following “sons and daughters” would be more lethal.
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