(II) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: A “World Distance” that Never Was

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

What makes the revolutionary journey that Eritreans have embarked on in the past 50 years a March of Folly is that, after all the prohibitive human cost it required to reach the destination, it turned out to be a circular one that ends exactly at the very point where it all started – and that is, under best scenario. If not, the desperate attempt not go back to the starting point, by prolonging the ghedli detour indefinitely, will be the end of Eritrea as a nation. Already that quixotic fight against gravity has been the main cause for all the major disasters that has befallen Eritrea in the last five decades. And the latest attempt by Shaebia to do just that (as in the ghedli detour enforced in the National Service) is unraveling the nation at a dizzying pace, as it is being hollowed out demographically, militarily, educationally, economically and socially.

In Part I of this article,1 [(I) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: Journey Identity], in the process of describing the nature of the ghedli journey as escape route, I only glossed over the nature of the circularity of that very route – which will be the subject matter of this part (Part II) of the article.

When an escape route eventually takes one back to the very place that he/she has escaped from, the futility of that journey is symbolized in its circularity; and the longer the circular route happens to be, the greater the loss. And when there has been nothing to escape from in the first place, the return to the starting point ought nevertheless to be celebrated; that is, even as the entire circular journey has to be written off as a total loss. But if, unwilling to write off the ghedli journey, one keeps marching on the escape route, away from the starting point, the forward-looking road that one encounters in front is but an illusion; it simply being a segmented linear stretch of a bigger circular route. Thus, the longer the circular journey, the more one is convinced of its forward-looking nature – such is the power of the ghedli illusion that has held most Eritreans captive up to this date. Pushed to its limit, the over-stretched journey may reach a breaking point somewhere in the circle, where things would simply fall apart – as it is currently taking place in Eritrea. If so, understanding the circular nature of the ghedli journey is essential to understanding the Eritrean predicament at many levels.

There are two ways the circularity of the ghedli journey can be described:

  • Carried over problems: One way of looking at the futility of the ghedli journey is by asking whether all the problems the ghedli generation associated with the “occupying enemy” were actually their own too, given that both societies happened to have the same underlying structure. What would make this circular is when, at the end of the journey (independence), they end up owning all those problems they encountered at the starting point.
  • Robust similarities: At a deeper level, the circularity would hold if the “new world” – the way of living as practiced in the Eritrean people’s daily lives – that independence ushered would look similar to the Habesha world the ghedli generation desperately wanted to distance from in all robust ways imaginable; that is, if the similarity holds even in the tseghatat (social capital as found in one’s language, culture, history, religion, society, family, etc.) they wanted to preserve as a nation as its distinguishing marks.

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?  And if it is this ever-stretched ghedli journey that is causing havoc to the nation, what is to be done to stop it once and for all? We need to look at the two circularities mentioned above extensively to grasp the gravity of these two questions; for the first question deals with that critical meeting place of the circle (where the starting and ending points meet), and the second question deals with a potential rapture of that circle, denying the convergence. But before I do that let me say a few words on one concept – the term “Habesha” – that I am using in this article since some readers, deliberately or not, have come with distorted versions of it.

I am using the term “Habesha” as a rough category for the various peoples that live in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is meant to exclude neither the Tigre of Eritrea nor the Agew of Ethiopia, neither the Muslim nor the Christian. As such, like the categories of “Arab” and “Latin”, it is a property ascribed to a larger community that is not confined to a single nation. I know that, in its traditional sense, it is sometimes restrictively applied to certain populations within these two nations, and whenever I have such a distinction in mind I will use “habesha” with the lower “h” to distinguish it from the more encompassing “Habesha”. If we accept this categorization, in the Eritrean case, if one was a Habesha under Ethiopian rule, one still remains a Habesha under Eritrean rule – that has been my starting premise.

Given the above, when I am saying people should go back to the starting point, I am simply advising Eritreans to reject the alien identities imposed on them by ghedli, and to be themselves instead. If a Metahit elite is pining for Arabic identity and a Kebessa elite for ghedli identity, then these alien identities will be the end of Eritrea as we know it; for both are defensive identities created with permanent enemies primarily in their creators’ minds.  If they were meant to serve as bulwarks against Ethiopians, once the “occupying enemy” is gone, they could easily be turned against one another – they are that multivariable! These alien aspirations have been the main reason for the unnecessary detour taken by the ghedli generation for the last five decades, with all its dire consequences; and, if not realized for what they are, people will keep on living in the ghedli quagmire until the final demise arrives. So when I am referring to the starting point, I am not advising people to go back to Ethiopia, but to claim back their culture  (call it “indigenous” culture if you don’t like the term “Habesha”) that was stolen from them through a wanton revolution, devoid of any content. Neither Eritreans nor Ethiopians want to revisit the past – case closed – but that doesn’t mean they cannot coexist based on that rich common culture. So the worry is not that Eritrea will be swallowed up by a bigger entity, but that it will simply disintegrate into irretrievable pieces that the ghedli journey logically demands.

Having hopefully cleared this misunderstanding, if it was one to begin with, let me now go back to explaining the circular nature of the ghedli journey – both in regard to attainable and inherent attributes that the starting and ending points carry.

Carried over problems

Think of parents moving to a distant city for the sake of their son, whose allergy problem has gone out of hand, believing that a different residence might do the trick. But if the place they have moved to happens to have similar environmental condition to the one they have just left behind, then they are in for bad lack. The problem is that they have confused a change in city for a change in environment – of course, all said in regard to their son’s allergy. They fail to realize that they have been carrying over the problems they have had in their old residence to their new residence simply because they have been unable to make such an important distinction. And if the parents have sacrificed a lot – selling their house, leaving life time friends and family members behind, making difficult career changes, etc – to move to the new city, then the choice would be catastrophic. The case of Eritrea is similar one. If so, one way of looking at the circularity of the ghedli journey is by looking at the similarity of the problems at the starting and ending points.

Given the enormity of the revolutionary task, with all the prohibitive sacrifice that was to be paid, the right thing for the ghedli generation to ask would have been: If we succeed to separate and have our own nation, would the problems that we associate with Ethiopia be carried over to our new Eritrea? And if carried over, would they get better or worse? I don’t think that the urban elite have ever entertained such troubling questions, given that such awareness could have potentially aborted the revolutionary journey itself. In their naivety, all that they dreamed of was acquiring their new map; after that, everything that was associated with Ethiopia was supposed to miraculously disappear from the Eritrean scene. If so, let’s ask the question now: what was the problem Eritreans had with Ethiopia, so much so that they ended up clamoring for separation? We are trying to find out the “allergy” they had while remaining part of Ethiopia.

Let us start with the usual complaints: “It dissolved federation”; “It aborted our democratic system”; “It kept us backward”; etc. Or, to put it in the words of Saleh Younis, who approvingly refers to the Eritrean Cause as propagated by the “founding fathers”: “… The other half (Ibrhaim Sultan/Adulkadir Kebire at the UN and Woldeab Woldemariam in his writings) argued that  Ethiopia was more feudal, more primitive, less industrialized, less developed, and less democratic than Eritrea and it would slow down Eritrea’s progress.”2 (emphasis mine) These “modernizing” aspects that the Independence Bloc made its rallying points are properties that could either dissipate into thin air with time and stupidity, as has been the case with Eritrea now (if they were ever there in the first place), or could be progressively gained through time and hard work (currently, Ethiopia beats us in every category). Only a generation that had a very poor understanding of what modernity was all about would go to such a length to preserve remnants of modernity from its colonial legacy that was crust-thin to begin with. The irony of it is that it is this very generation that, through years of wanton armed struggle, destroyed that colonial legacy which it thought was part and parcel of its “modern identity”. Thus, it is this “surface modernity” of the ghedli generation that lies behind much of the undoing of Eritrea.

Well, it seems that now neither democratic nor developmental progress is to be found in independent Eritrea. If so, these “problems of progress” the ghedli generation associated with Ethiopia were problems that could be easily carried over to the new Eritrea. And the fact that Ethiopia seems to be doing a better job on both counts, we can see that these problems were also inherently surmountable. Given whatever colonial advantage we have had then, it doesn’t seem that we were more disposed to democracy or progress than Ethiopians, even though the ghedli generation used to exploit the “feudal card” to argue to the opposite effect. As in the above mentioned example, where a change in city was taken for a change in environment, the ghedli generation also thought that a change in nation would solve all their problems; given their delusions of colonial grandeur, that the essentials of the underlying environment would remain the same, or even get worse, was totally lost on them.

Only a revolution devoid of intellectual input, and with no vision whatsoever, would fail to ask the hard questions that such a costly separation would demand. Anyone who would dare ask any of these questions was taken as doubting the Cause – as doubting the very viability of Eritrea as a nation – and hence his action taken akin to treasonous heresy never to be trespassed. Among the many questions that the ghedli generation failed to ask regarding easily transferable problems that could even get worse after separation are:

(a) On the logic of independence

Given the striking structural similarities between the two societies, would the logic of our revolution – that is, the colonial question – come to haunt us after independence? For instance, would any one ethnic group use the same argument for purposes of seceding from the nation?

If the logic of independence was based on various deprivations attributed to the enemy – that of democracy, progress, prosperity, identity, peace, etc – what prevents an ethnic group in Eritrea from basing its quest for separation on similar deprivations under Shaebia’s rule, everything else being more or less equal? I know that Eritrean nationalists love to remind us that Shaebia is an equal opportunity oppressor. But so were Haile Selassie’s and Menghistu Hailemariam’s rules. Whoever said that Gojjam or Tigray fared better than Eritrea under their rule? To put it this way is to erase the colonial distance invoked by Eritreans to justify their revolution to an inconsequential point. One need only turn the table on Eritrea to see what exactly went wrong in the colonial argument. The case of Afar, where the insistence of “self-determination up to secession” is the loudest, would be a good example of this faulty logic carried to its unsettling conclusion. For Afars of Danakil, Eritrea and Ethiopia (with their habesha component) stand equidistant to their world, and hence the decision they want to reach would be made through pragmatic reasons only; the border in between would have little significance for them in reaching that decision. The ghedli generation, enamored as they were with their newly acquired map, never imagined that their logic of independence could be appropriated by an ethnic group from within to violate the sanctity of that very map they died for in their tens of thousands. The logic is rather simple to understand: if the Afar case is that of colonial dominance (vis-à-vis Eritrea), so was Eritrea’s (vis-à-vis Ethiopia); and if not (and I happen to concur with this), logic demands of us that we be consistent enough to admit that Eritrea’s case too was not a colonial question. In the ghedli generation’s eyes though, logic retains its consistency so far as it respects colonial drawn lines only. – as in everything else in the Eritrean cause, the map subverts the reality on the ground!

(b) On ethnic problems

Would the ethnic problem we have within Ethiopia be carried over to independent Eritrea, given that it too has nine ethnic groups squeezed into that small space? Absent a common enemy, would it even get worse?

All that we have to look at is the number of opposition movements – Afar, Saho, Kunama, Jeberti, Islamic, regional, wudib, etc – to see how this hydra’s head of a problem has come back to haunt Eritrea with vengeance. There is not a single viable opposition movement whose base is not ethnic, religious, regional or wudib (Jebha- and Shaebia-based opposition camps, with their various splinter groups). The common but nebulous objective they had while fighting the enemy, secondary as it was to their main identity goals (alien ones for that), is now gone for good. What has remained resilient is identity, pure and simple. Even when it takes the form of wudib, the followers have no ideology that distinguishes them from one another; rather, it is their Jebha and Shaebia filial loyalties (doubled or tripled with other loyalties – religious, ethnic, regional, etc) that determine their following. That is to say, as in the thought experiment and religious example I provided in Part I, the most determinant factor why one is a follower of one movement than another is not ideology, but his/her belonging – where he/she hails from. In the end, the revolutionary journey has gotten this atavistic! Given these deep-seated sub-national loyalties, one wonders where this “Eritrea” that all rhetorically pay allegiance to is to be found in post-independence era. Thus, the sad story of Eritrea is that Eritreans either adopt alien identities (when they seek “hadinetna”, be it of half or whole nation) or fall back to sub-national identities whenever an external or internal threat is felt; what is invariably bypassed is Eritrean identity – ah, the irony of misguided nationalism! The claustrophobia that independence brought into tiny Eritrea, and the defensive identities it brought along to the surface, was something that the ghedli generation never paid any attention to when they launched their much-vaunted revolution. Thus, the idea that in absence of Ethiopian rule, all the ethnicities would live in harmony was unwarranted. That is, whatever ethnic problems Eritreans had with the larger Habesha world, and the kind of misrule that went with it, has been easily carried over to a piece of that very world; and for that, at intensified level.

(c) On preserving one’s identity

Will the different groups in Eritrea be able to maintain their respective identities in independent Eritrea?

If one of the main grievances of the ghedli generation was that Ethiopia had been threatening their identity, one would expect the preservation of local identities would be their primary mission. But the fact that ghedli identity and Arab identity are still commanding a great allegiance among the Tigrigna and Muslim elite respectively means that whatever mission these alien identities were meant to accomplish in the fight against Ethiopia are not given up after independence. The “enemy” that motivated the emergence of these alien identities is now to be found inside Eritrea. Given the defensive nature of these alien identities, they can be easily wielded against the “inside enemy” as they have been against the “outside enemy”. Since these alien identities are worn as armor that would protect them from the other's world, they don’t want to give them up as that world is still to be found within Eritrea. Neither the Muslim elite, who feel that it is only under Islam and Arabism that various Muslim population groups could be united as separate and distinct group, nor the Kebessa elite, who think that it is only under a brand-new ghedli identity that the nation could be held together, are willing to give them up and replace them with Eritrean identity. The former want to adopt an alien identity (Arab identity) for its unifying value against the other, and in the process are willing to give up their various local identities. The latter too wants to adopt an alien identity (ghedli identity) for its unifying value, only this time all other local identities are to give way for this mieda manufactured identity. Notice that in both instances the aspiration is not simply for “unity”, but for “unity against”; that is, such unities are sought with internal enemies in mind. And the result has been predictably catastrophic. A good example of this would be how the ghedli identity that emerged in mieda in 30 years of fighting is now being used to victimize ghebar, in general, and the young generation in particular.

(d) On religious grievances

Would the religious grievance that the Muslim elite had with Ethiopia be carried over to independent Eritrea? And given the dual nature of the society, would it even get worse?

The main reason why the Muslim elite wanted separation was because they felt as Muslims they would fare badly under “Christian dominated Ethiopia”. That was a legitimate grievance; the problem was in the proposed solution. How did they arrive to the idea that the religious problem had a better chance of being resolved within Eritrea than within Ethiopia? With separation, that grievance still remains, and the divide between the two societies seems to have grown larger. What, indeed, happened? With independence, that Eritrea is moving towards a dual society, squaring off with one another, is being witnessed from the way the Great Divide between Muslim and Christian Eritrea is emerging, as displayed in the recalcitrant “lowlander-highlander” politics of the opposition that goes all the way back to the 40s. This religious divide is buttressed by the fact that ethnic (Tigrigna vs the rest), geographic (highland vs lowland), linguistic (Tigrigna vs the rest/Arabic), cultural (sedentary peasantry vs pastoral) and historical (habesha vs the rest) divides neatly fall along it to render it a formidable six-decked divide. Given this, the idea that it would be easier to solve the religious problem within Eritrea than within Ethiopia was unwarranted. Defensive identities do not aspire for resolution, but for domination. Such drives for domination are less likely to take place in larger societies because of the various alliance possibilities that the larger space provides; that is, within a plural society, defensive identities lose their appeal for lack of a singular enemy. That the religious problem associated with Ethiopia would remain with Eritrea because of similar demographics, or that it could even get worse because of the conflicting alien identities the two societies were seeking, was entirely lost on the ghedli generation.

(e) On language grievance

Would the grievance of language dominance come to an end with independent Eritrea?

Undeniably, the Amharization program has been one of the main grievances in Eritrea, as it has been in many parts of Ethiopia. The question is: how do you resolve it? Would it have been resolved short of independence, as the rest of Ethiopia has done? And what is more: has the new Eritrea resolved it? To the contrary, the language issue in Eritrea has never been this loud. The fact that “Arabic” and “Tigrigna” have been perceived as a threat to each others’ identities tells us the language problem has less chance of being resolved in a dual society rather than in a plural society, simply because in a larger society the burden of identity comes in its diffused form. This too was lost on the ghedli generation, which was incapable of imagining possible scenarios. When languages are needed for “defensive” purposes, even one’s mother tongue is to be looked at through that lens; if one feels his/her language is not powerful enough to accomplish its designed defensive task, then he/she will be willing to give it up for a more robust alien language. Even among foreign languages, the one quality sought is not progress but defense. For instance, even though English as a national language, as it is the case in many African nations, would have a tremendous value in regional regroupings (with East Africa and the Horn in mind) and in catapulting the nation into the post-modern world of the 21st century, it has never been entertained as choice simply because it lacks the defensive quality sought within Eritrea. That tells us that the language squabble in Eritrea had nothing to do with progress, but with defensive identity.

(f) On security and peace

Given the internal divisions and the geopolitical position of the nation, would we ever be able to defend ourselves? Would the conflicting loyalties of various population groups within Eritrea be a cause for perpetual insecurity? Would we ever feel secure, wedged as we are in between the giants of the neighborhood? Would independent Eritrea ever be able to protect its weak?

If “security” or “peace” of the Eritrean people was one of the main goals of the revolution, one of the great disappointments is that the insecurity the ghedli generation used to associate with Ethiopia still persists with Shaebia’s occupation, and at a much worse level. Eritrea happens to be a land entirely patched up of peripheries: Kebessa is the periphery of the Tigrigna domain (or habesha domain); Danakil is at the periphery of the Afar domain; Metahit is the periphery of East Sudan Beja domain. This peripheral nature of the nation has been a reason for various cross-border loyalties witnessed in its short history. This is exacerbated by the fact that the geopolitical fault line between the Arab and African (or Habesha) world passes right along its borders. Now if we add the Great Divide mentioned above which wants to drag that regional fault line inside Eritrea, we can easily see how deep this national anxiety could turn out to be. The ghedli generation, obsessed as they were with internal variables only, never took outside variables into consideration; but it is when internal variables fall on the same tectonic plates with external variables that they cause deep rifts hard to bridge. Typical of their shortsightedness, the ghedli generation never imagined that with independence cross border loyalties would increase (as the Afar case clearly shows) and the Great Divide would solidify by drawing the regional geopolitical divide within Eritrea. As for ghedli identity, which was meant to be a remedy for all these divided loyalties, has not only been the primary reason for all the confrontations with the neighborhood, but also for all the pain inflicted on the Eritrean masses. Eritrea is literally falling apart in the process of “protecting itself”. The internal and external insecurity of Eritreans had never been this bad; all that we need is look at the horrors that the young are facing in Era-Ero and Sinai to see how independent Eritrea has failed dismally in protecting its most vulnerable citizens from inside and outside vultures. Thus, that the Eritrean people will feel more secure within tiny Eritrea than larger Ethiopia had no foundation whatsoever.

(g) On economic progress

Would the economic problem we associate with Ethiopia be overcome in independent Eritrea? Or would it even get worse?

There is often this naïve idea that had it not been for Isaias, Eritrea would have prospered. But Isaias went to war with Ethiopia precisely because he saw no such prospect without the cooperation of Ethiopia; it is only that he wanted to enforce that “cooperation” with guns. As the EPRDF became more entrenched in its power in Ethiopia, it began to slowly but surely withdraw its “economic cooperation”. Isaias knew where this trajectory was heading to and meant to quickly abort it through armed pressure. Given that for market, resources and even employment (given the large number of Eritreans that resided in Ethiopia then) Eritrea was disproportionately dependent on Ethiopia, he realized that the Eritrean economy would collapse in absence of that support. And more importantly, he also realized that if Ethiopia as a market was to be rendered off limits to Eritrea, future economic development in the nation would be drastically curtailed. It is those hundreds of thousands of youth who would have found no employment in independent Eritrea that are now to be found either in National Service or in refugee camps and beyond, thereby effectively solving the unemployment problem Shaebia-style. Ironically, Isaias has kept the “Eritrean dream” alive by postponing the reality the Eritreans would have faced soon after independence. Having attributed all the ills of the nation to Isaias, the nationalists don’t want to face the fact that the economy problem, given its inherent weaknesses, is going to stay with us after Isaias is gone. That the economic prospect of Eritrea was very much interlinked with that of Ethiopia was lost on the ghedli generation that confused political independence for economic independence.

(h) On democratic grievances

Would it be easier for democracy to take roots in Eritrean rather than Ethiopian soil?

Since one of the major grievances registered by the ghedli generation was that Ethiopia had dismantled their democratic system, one would expect it would have been a question they would have entertained the most. But, besides having shown not a trace of democracy in their movements, the new Eritrea has turned out to be a nightmare for human rights. But what bodes ill for future Eritrea is its dual nature, and the claustrophobic world it has created, hardly allows tolerance towards one another. Democracy doesn’t thrive in a dual society with defensive identities, because the primary concern in such societies is their collective identities and not individual rights. Besides the fact that democracy could be had short of independence, the idea that democracy had a better chance to thrive in Eritrea than in Ethiopia had no evidence whatsoever to support it. Entirely confined to their urban enclaves, the Eritrean elite failed to notice that the “backward, feudal system” they attributed to Ethiopia was also typical of Eritrea. In Kebessa, except for few urban enclaves the Italians built, the rural area remained the same habesha world of the old. As for Metahit, with its entrenched Shimaghile/Tigre caste system only abolished by the British latecomers, it was even more feudal than Kebessa. Typical of this generation, whatever was grafted on them from outside (be it the appearance of modernity inherited from colonial Italy or the constitution provided by the UN) was taken as something inherent in them. Eritrea’s “democratic heritage” boils down to that brief federal experience, and Eritreans had nothing to show for it throughout its duration. During its brief stay on Eritrean soil, democracy was propped up more by the supervision of the British Military Administration and the vigilance of the Supreme Court that was led by a British judge than by anything that Eritreans did on their own.3 Left on their own, as independent nation, they would have regressed into the dictatorial form typical of other African nations; the present case in Eritrea is but the belated realization of that fact.

(i) On federal grievances

Would it be easier to introduce federalism in Eritrea than in Ethiopia?

Since another one of the major grievances registered by the ghedli generation was that Ethiopia had violated the federal arrangement, one would also expect this would have been the question they would seriously look at in regard to Eritrea itself. As it turned out though, federalism happens to be a double edged sword. For many Eritreans, that the federal question they made a rallying point to separate from Ethiopia would come to haunt them after independence from inside Eritrea is totally unexpected. And as for those ethnic groups now clamoring for federalism, they don’t realize that there are certain things that only large nations can afford. Given the shortsightedness of the Eritrean movements, that the logic of their quest for independence as applied to federalism could easily be appropriated by sectors of the society within the nation was totally lost on them. For instance, one can imagine that the Ras Ghez (self-administration) for Metahit and Danakil entertained under the Derg, and getting traction among their elite, would have been carried out to its logical conclusion under federal Ethiopia. It is almost impossible to entertain this kind of neat division within independent Eritrea, without raising the specter of dominance or separatism; for it is in smaller nations that opposing regional forces tend to disproportionately influence inside variables. This collective amnesia on the federal question is not without rationale, for to begin with neither of the two major camps – the Unionists and Muslim League followers – saw federalism in its progressive, democratic aspect. While the Unionists saw federalism as an obstacle that prevented them from coming closer to Ethiopia,4 the Muslim League followers saw it as a means of keeping Ethiopia at a safe distance. That is both of them saw it only in terms of distance from Ethiopia; and if that distance could be bridged (as the Unionists wanted) or could be maintained (as the Muslim League wanted) short of democracy, none of them would care.

So far, we have been examining a number of carried over problems so as to look at the striking similarities between the starting and ending points of the ghedli journey, thereby exploring the circularity phenomenon under one particular perspective. In the process, we have found out that not only are all the major problems that the ghedli generation associated with Ethiopia happen to be Eritrea’s too, as the aftermath of independence has clearly shown, but also that there was more probability of resolving most of these problems within larger Ethiopia than within tiny Eritrea. And what bodes ill for future Eritrea is that, in absence of any willingness to give up defensive identities, many of these problems will stay with us and possibly lead to the disintegration of the nation.

Back to the starting point

Above, degradable or upgradable qualities like democracy, peace, economy and development have been mentioned to show similarities that hold between the two societies. But these are qualities that can be appropriated by any society; and, hence, neither separation nor unity could be justified based on them only. They matter so far as their prospects depend on deeper structural similarities. And it is when we see these similarities at this deeper level – identified through robust characteristics like culture, language, history, religion, family, race, way of life, etc – that we notice how circular the revolutionary journey has been. Already, we have seen how some of these deeper problems have been carried over to the new Eritrea – religious, ethnic and language problems, for instance. But deeper similarities are also required on their own merit, not only as markers of one’s identity but also as determinants of the way of life that the masses lead. That is, we want to see the similarities in positive rather than in negative terms only. In that regard, the more important question that ought to have been asked by the ghedli generation is: how distant will the new Eritrean world we want to usher through the struggle be from the Habesha world that we desperately want to dissociate from? This, and only this, should have been the measurement by which the generation’s political decision ought to be made. But this was not meant to be. As a result, not only did the ghedli generation carry over all the problems it had with Ethiopia to the new Eritrea, but it also ended its circular journey exactly where it started from in this deeper sense.

Let me now provide an example to elucidate this similarity phenomenon at a deeper level:

Searching for “Eritrea” in the cutting

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. And worse, they were unable to see that the cutting logic would, in time, be easily driven to its logical conclusion by some population groups from inside the new nation, that may not like the taste of the whole Eritrea and predictably decide all their problems would go away only if they could get their cut from that piece of cake, and so on – eventually leading to total disintegration. Such an infinite regress could be stopped only with the realization that the cutting logic was wrong in the first place; that is, only if they realize that they have embarked on a circular journey will they save themselves from additional problems – that is, from additional “cuttings”.

For the nationalists though this is a hard fact to swallow; their search for “Eritrea” (for “the real taste”) from the “cutting” still goes on, with all the dire consequences that such a suicidal search for alien identities entails. They know that only if they superimpose alien ingredients on that piece of cake would it be made to taste different from the former whole cake, thereby justifying the revolution by a fabricated difference that were never there in the first place. How did this foolish circular journey actually start?  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?

The problem with the ghedli generation was that, when they set out in search of their “Eritrea”, they had no clue what it stood for; all the essence they attributed to their “Eritrea” derived from a superficial modernist reading. Running away as they were from “backward, feudal Habesha”, they thought that Eritrea would be the modernist haven that they were seeking. But modernity that sees one’s culture as hindrance can never get off the ground, let alone thrive. What their ghedli experience shows is that, hard as they tried, they were never able to fully escape their Habesha roots. And even after independence, to their surprise, they found out that Habesha (or indigenous) identity is the default position from which everything starts, even their much vaunted modernity. With that, the realization sinks in that the whole ghedli journey might in fact have been a circular journey that takes them back to the starting point; that, in fact, the ghedli journey has all been about running away from themselves. Let me invoke the concept of “world distance” to show how circular the ghedli journey has been in terms of measurable “content”.

World distance that never was

What is most notable about the Eritrean Revolution is that, unlike many African revolutions that struggled against colonial rule, it lacked a clear vision of what it set out to achieve. And this is not because of lack of visionaries; there were none because the nature of the revolution itself won’t allow any vision. When a whole generation embarks on a difficult and long journey without realizing that it was mainly motivated by running away from itself, what kind of vision could possibly be extracted from such a futile mission? That genocidal criminals like Awate and Isaias led the revolution is but a natural consequence of a movement devoid of any content, and not the other way round. Thus, to be a visionary at that time would require that one totally rejects the revolution itself, but not many in that conformist society were willing to take that road.

The ghedli generation always, and rather instinctively, avoided asking questions that might reveal to them the absurd nature of their mission. The level and scope of the self-deception was astounding. The most critical question that they totally avoided was: With ‘Eritrea’, what kind of world are we trying to bring into existence? And how different will it be from the Habesha world that we are distancing from? “World distance”, as I am using it here, is a distance that is found between two peoples in robust ways – culture, religion, language, race, history, family, etc – such that one people would claim their way of life is so distant as to be totally unbridgeable, so much so as to warrant complete separation from the other. And such a separation is meant to eventually redress the discrepancy in the quality of life caused by that distance. And, accordingly, the sacrifice that has to be paid will have to be proportional to that distance: the greater the world distance, the higher the price that one is willing to pay.

A clear example of such instance would be the independence movements in Africa. If, at the time of uprisings, a black kid in South Africa was to be asked what was the aim of the revolution, he would have a clear vision of a post-apartheid South Africa; for he was fully aware what apartheid meant in his everyday life. The distance between Apartheid South Africa and Post-Apartheid Africa was as clear to him as the difference between day and night. Even as a small kid, given the gaping distance between the worlds of the dominators and dominated, he would realize that his people were ready to pay any price to achieve freedom. Such transparency was gained not because the kid was a genius, but because the world distance was so huge that even a fool would not miss it. So was it with all the other colonial cases – Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Guinea Bissau, etc. – however they turned out to be after independence. How about the Eritrean case? What was the distance between the world they wanted to escape from and the world they wanted to bring into existence? And was the sacrifice they were willing to pay proportional to that distance?

If we look at the robust attributes that differentiate Eritreans from the rest of the Habesha world, one would be hard pressed to find enough distance in between to warrant the kind of sacrifice the revolution demanded. In its societal make up – be it historical, cultural, religious, ethnic, linguistic, racial, geographic, etc – Eritrea happens to be a good sample of the rest of the Habesha world. One need only look at Kebessa Eritrea and Tigray (or the Afars on both sides of the border) to bring that perceived difference (that world distance) to a disappearing point. Even for those population groups that do not consider themselves part of the habesha world, everything has remained the same. Their ethnic and religious grievances still persist because Eritrea happens to be a piece of that world. That is, the chances of resolving their grievances would more or less remain the same; and that is at best. At worst, the very size of the piece of cake makes it even more difficult to resolve those issues.

One of the marks of colonialism is that the world distance between the colonizer and the colonized is to be seen not only in the world distance in between the two, but also in the in the huge discrepancy in the quality life brought by that distance. For instance, the Italians were not only different in all the robust attributes – history, culture, language, religion, bloodline, color, geography, etc – to render their world distant to the colonized, they also meant to keep that distance unbridgeable by denying the natives the rich quality of life reserved only for themselves. While the Italian masters built their “bella Asmara” for their living quarters, the natives were confined to the ghettos at the periphery (Aba-Shawul, Gheza-Berhanu, Hadish-Adi, etc.); while all the respectable jobs were reserved for the Italian settlers, the natives were confined to do all the dirty jobs: ascaris, low-level clerks, menial jobs, maids, prostitutes, etc; while the white children of the new masters could get all the education available in their new colony, the natives were allowed only up to 4th grade of education; and so on. This was indeed the typical picture of the colonial era as enacted throughout the colonized world. In regard to those colonizers that practiced democracy in their motherland (Ex: England and France), the denial to the native included that of democratic institution. A good example of that would be Apartheid South Africa where democracy was allowed to be practiced among the whites only. Thus, the rule of thumb of the colonial policy would be: deny the natives not only their own riches (land, minerals, culture, etc), but also whatever riches the colonizers brought to the colonized land for themselves (progress, education, democracy, etc). What is sad about the ghedli generation is that they inverted this colonial logic on its head to justify their revolution. How so?

The Eritrean elite were mad not because there was a large gap in quality of life between Ethiopians and Eritreans caused by an unbridgeable world distance, as in between the colonizer and the colonized noted above, but precisely because they could find none. What caught them off surprise when they met the Ethiopians was that Ethiopia was for most a backward feudal nation. Instead of seeing at the robust legacies that both cultures shared and the vast potential for resources, market and place to work, all they saw was, in the famous words of Saleh Younis, “that Ethiopia was more feudal, more primitive, less industrialized, less developed, and less democratic than Eritrea and it would slow down Eritrea’s progress.” The idea that they would be administrated by a nation less advanced than Eritrea, even though the vantaggio they claimed to be having was crust-thin, was unbearable to the ghedli generation. The colonial legacy of such a state of mind is obvious; it was as if they were looking for a better master, and the closest they could come to emulating the Italian past was by anointing themselves for that job. Offended that they were led by “backward Ethiopians”, all the Eritrean urban elite could think of was how they would do a better job of administrating the masses. Notice what they felt sorry for was not the masses, but themselves. That the Yikealo’s reign took a colonial turn now is not an accident, but a logical conclusion of a generation’s dream to be at the position where other masters had been – they had no other models.

As for the world distance itself, the ghedli generation was repelled because the Ethiopian world was too close for comfort. Running away as they were from the habesha in them, they were unwilling to take any more of it; and for that, in large doses. It reminded them too much of the haghereseb, the whole past and their fathers that they did their best to disown throughout their ghedli journey.5 [look at my article Eritrea: Fathers and Sons and the Grammar of Independence for more on this subject matter]

Let’s now revisit the critical question: when the ghedli generation embarked on its revolutionary journey, what was the vision they had regarding the new Eritrea – all said and done in terms of its distance from the Habesha world? Of course, when one has the “future Eritrea” in mind, one also has to have a view of “future Ethiopia” to compare it with, or the comparison wouldn’t be fair. And that is exactly where they failed because they confused attainable attributes for inherent ones, and totally ignored the inherent ones upon which the attainable ones could only be built. That is why in fact that, when it comes to “world distance”, it is what remains constant (not the surface modernity that disappeared so easily) that is important: the robust identifiers. Given that modernity requires a solid culture to flourish, the similarity of robust attributes would in fact signify equal chance of progress; thereby taking away the only reason on which the ghedli generation based its revolution.


Let me now resort to the geometric parlance of circularity and linearity adopted in this article to sum up what I have been trying to do so far. In the first part of this article, I tried to describe the nature of the “escape route” of the ghedli journey. As an escape route, all that it matters is that it takes the ghedli generation away from the starting point. To serve as an escape route, it doesn’t have to take any particular shape or form, so far as it doesn’t lead them back to the starting point. Nor does it have to be an only route; one can imagine various escape routes serving the same purpose – again, so far as none of them leads back to the starting point. But that is exactly what all of these routes do; and, hence, the utter futility of it all.

In the second part, I have tried to describe the nature of the circularity of the escape route. Whatever the alien identity seekers do, the gravity on the ground keeps pulling them back to the starting point. That is why, both in its weaknesses and its strengths Eritrea remains the same Habesha world it desperately wanted to escape from. Despite Shaebia’s effort to impose ghedli identity on the nation, the masses are clinging to the normal world of theirs and their forefathers’ making. That doesn’t mean though that Shaebia hasn’t made some headway; in its relentless assault against their history, culture, religion, education, economy, family, ‘adi, etc – that is, against their entire way of living – its attempt to break the circle and replace it with a linear form so as to stretch the ghedli journey indefinitely has borne some fruits. But these are bitter fruits; even though they happen to stretch Shaebia’s political life, they are coming at a huge cost to the masses and, as a result, the nation is unraveling at a dizzying pace.

If there was no world distance to justify a revolution to begin with, the Fronts had to invent it; and therein lies Eritrea’s predicament. The alien identities that they made their goal were meant to create that distance. In Part III, we will see how that distance was invented and its consequences. This primordial battle against gravity is now being fought everywhere in Eritrea. The choice is simple and stark: The people will be saved if the journey takes them back to the starting point; and the sooner, the better, long before a point of no return is reached. Shaebia, as an entity, can only exist if the ghedli journey is stretched indefinitely in its linear form; giving in to the circular nature of this journey would be tantamount to its death. That is why we are now witnessing Shaebia locked in a deathbed struggle against the people; it instinctively knows that is either them or it. There is no doubt that Shaebia’s death is imminent. The question is: will it take the nation down the drain with it? If the attempt to stretch the ghedli journey even for a few more years succeeds, then it will be the end of Eritrea as we know it – hence, the need for sense of urgency now!

In the end, let me say a few words regarding those who, predictably, will keep howling, “andnet!” First, even if I wanted to, given the reality on the ground, it would be a quixotic venture to attempt that; and I don’t think I am that stupid to attempt it. Second, Eritreans should stop flattering themselves that the Ethiopians still want them. Except for some from the old generation who still have a vision of the old map intact and are more than anything fighting for their memories, the rest of Ethiopia has gotten over Eritrea. True, there are some Ethiopian elite that are still eying Assab, but that is about all; they don’t want to deal with the rest of Eritrea. So, whether we like it or not, the mess called Eritrea is our own, and it will be entirely up to us to deal with that mess.

Put in terms of the geometric parlance, there is even a more substantive reason why I wouldn’t venture the “andnet” road. To go back to Ethiopia would require another circular journey: if the journey from the starting point to the ending point has been considered futile, so would be the converse – that is, given the prohibitive price it would take to again venture through that circular journey. Given the similarity of the two worlds, whatever we do from now on should be done through pragmatic means only. Eritrea has gone through horrendous 50 years journey, paying an unnecessary sacrifice along the way, to reach a strikingly similar world it wanted desperately to escape from. Now, there is no need to pay a bloody price to reverse all this to reach to a similar end. But there have been additional problems that come with the “smallness” of our piece of cake, and those have to be pragmatically addressed. For instance, defusing the tension within Eritrea and addressing its security and economic problems won’t be possible by manipulating internal variables only. The region, in general, and Ethiopia, in particular, will have to play a great role in “stabilizing” Eritrea based on mutual interest that our “world proximity” demands – but this is a subject matter for another time.


[1] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; (I) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: Journey Identity; Sep 29, 2012. [(I) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: Journey Identity]

[2] Younis, Saleh; De-Romanticizing Ghedli: Serving A Toxic Brew To The Young And The Disillusioned; June 24, 2009

[3] Negash, Tekeste; Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience; 1997; esp. pp 115-119 and pp143-147.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Fathers and Sons and the Grammar of Independence, May 25, 2010. [Eritrea: Fathers and Sons and the Grammar of Independence]

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