The historical orbit of Eritrea's agony.

AuthorAbbay, Alemseged

Their suffering under racist Italian colonialism pushed Eritreans to retreat into their millennia-old Ethiopian identity. However, suffocation under Ethiopian political oppression and cultural chauvinism led them to don a distinct counter identity of Eritrean-ness. Subsequently, the thirty-year war between the forces of chauvinism (Ethiopia) and the forces of secession (Eritrea) has exposed the unimaginativeness of nationalism. Rather than seeking a mere redress to the legitimate grievances upon which it was constructed, Eritrean nationalism veered into a false consciousness of exceptionalism (Eritreanism), which per force became a zero-sum game for secession. When a divorce was finalized in 1991, both Ethiopia and Eritrea ended up being losers--the former lost access to the sea and the latter lost Ethiopia. By failing to deliver peace, democracy, and prosperity, secession has proven to be against the self-interests of the Eritrean people, so much so that now the very idea of Eritrea verges on death. Thus, based on emotion rather than cognition, nationalism can be a dysfunctional project. However powerful it may be, it does not have to lead to secession.


It was at the end of the nineteenth century that Italian colonialism divided off the region north of the River Mareb, mostly from historic Ethiopia, and had named it "Eritrea," which was after the Latin name for the Red Sea, Mare Erythraeum. Since that fateful moment, the people of the region have been thrust into continual agonies, under both European colonialism and oppressive Ethiopian rule. Unfortunately, the independent administration of Isaias Afewerki, which started in 1991, has also been extremely brutal and without vision. Secrecy and routine violations of human rights have earned the country the nickname of "Africa's North Korea." (1) Significantly, limited natural and human resources have made Eritrea's independent life extremely turbulent. Far from enjoying its independence, for which they sacrificed so much for so long, Eritreans find their country so unlivable that they take unimaginable risks to leave it behind. Although colonialism and oppression have led to a successful Eritrean nationalism, peace and prosperity have eluded the country.

Based on archival research, this paper, which is a historical analysis of the agony that the Eritreans have endured for more than a century, shows that regardless of the legitimacy of grievances and irrespective of the price that is paid to redress them, nationalism does not necessarily have to lead to secession. Secession is not a panacea.


Eritreans harbored grievances against both Ethiopia and Italy. Immediately after taking power as emperor of Ethiopia in 1889, Menelik signed the Wutchale Treaty with the Italians who had supplied him with armaments, at a time when he was just king of the central region of Shoa, to challenge their mortal foe, Emperor Yohannes IV, who had been in power between 1872 and 1889. He willfully ceded the region north of the River Mareb to Italy, for monetary and military payoff.

The grudges that Eritreans had against Menelik for "selling" them to the Italians in 1889 were sustained until 1941 by the racist Italian colonial policy. Commonly referred to as the "torrid colony," (2) Eritrea underwent significant modernization when Mussolini in the 1930s decided to use it as a gateway to the temperate and fertile Ethiopian highlands where he aspired to establish a colony to resettle Italy's surplus population--"unwanted men who had left Italy for the good of their political healths [sic], and Fascists who had left Italy for the purpose of lining their pockets." (3) In the process, the small village of Asmara was transformed into Piccola Roma ("little Rome") where around 75,000 Italians made their home, thousands of miles from home, enjoying la dolce vita (the good life) that eluded them back in Italy. Since Eritrea was not a self-supporting colony, la dolce vita was maintained by enormous grants-in-aid from Italy. Slowly, the economy thrived with the appearance of small-scale industries, which manufactured items that supplied local essentials such as buttons, matches, ropes, paper, porcelain, paint, perfumes, cigarettes, brushes, and motorcar batteries. (4) Again, capital and know-how had to come from Italy because Eritrea was just "[one] of the world's less promising deserts which Mussolini had decreed should blossom with at least an imported rose." (5)

The appearance of Piccola Roma in an improbable part of Africa continued to surprise the British, who took trusteeship of Eritrea following the defeat of Italy in 1941, wondering "how this European city of broad boulevards, super-cinemas, super-fascist buildings, cafes, shops, two-way streets, and a first class hotel ever came to get there." (6) The British maintained the imported European culture, but started giving natives access to Western education.

All the while, some 100,000 natives were crowded in quartiere indigeno (native quarter), eking out their age-old life and enjoying none of la dolce vita that colonialism brought into their region. They were crowded into their native Abyssinian quarters, such as the fabled Geza Enda Abba Shawul, which lacked modern toilet systems and sufficient clean drinking water to meet basic needs. Further, natives could not promenade the sidewalks of the main streets of Piccolo Roma; they were unwelcome in Italian cafes; and they would be trespassing if they were in Italian residential neighborhoods. The color line did not allow them to use the same windows in post offices or seats in buses as the settlers. (7) Unlike the Italian children who received a good education, native children had access to little or no education.

Whatever substandard schools existed were meant to introduce children to the fascist doctrine of glorifying Il Duce and encouraging boys to become "Piccolo ascari del Duce" (Il Duces little soldiers). Even the meticci (biracial) children, recognized by their Italian fathers, had no access to Italian schools. (8) Only in 1944 did the British rule make the "decision to admit half-breeds [sic] on the same basis as Italian children." (9) Consequently, because of lack of education, the British could not find trained natives to run Eritrea. Therefore, they had to retain the existing fascist personnel and bring trained colonial subjects from Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Sudan, Rhodesia, Egypt, and Palestine, to operate their state machinery in Asmara. (10)

Socialization between natives and settlers was negligible. Miscegenation was forbidden, as observed by Lillian Schoedler, a friend of the US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. (11) Yet, the young Italian men found the Abyssinian women irresistible despite Mussolini's preaching of the gospel of race purity. Even his own son, Vittorio Mussolini, who was a member of the bombing staff during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36, stated that the Abyssinian women possessed "sex appeal" (12) and "most [Italians] ... kept native mistresses." (13) Thus, when Mussolini decided to resettle a quarter of a million families in Ethiopia, it was feared that miscegenation was going to lead to a "considerable influx of African blood into Italy" whose net effect was dreaded to be not "negligible for the future of Europe." (14) Thus, as unwelcome byproducts of the institution of madamismo, the meticci were not spared the scourge of racism.

Since the highland region of Eritrea, commonly known as Kebessa, was a patrilineal society, mothers raised their meticci children as Italians. Despite being thoroughly assimilated into the Italian culture, though, the meticci could not pass for Italians, similar to the coloured of apartheid South Africa. Assimilated into the Afrikaner social-culture (sharing Afrikaans, Dutch Reformed Church, etc.), the coloured could not pass for Afrikaners because they were not white enough. Similarly, skin pigmentation kept the meticci out of the Italian settler world and the very color line that kept the Italians apart from the meticci even more markedly separated them from the natives. This sort of raw racism fed into the pool of grievances of the native population, yearning for a return to Ethiopia.

The Italians, however, relied upon the natives for labor. Italy's colonial wars in Libya and Ethiopia were fought primarily by Eritreans. It was barefoot natives who labored to construct the streets, such as Viale Mussolini, and the modernist and art deco buildings of Asmara. Also, as domestic servants, messengers, etc., natives rendered all sorts of menial work so that the settlers could enjoy la dolce vita. The social division of labor was reflected in the bifurcation of the legal system. As citizens, the settlers were governed by civic codes, and natives were subjected to customary laws, which condoned slavery. Despite Mussolini's publicly stated Italian civilizing mission of eliminating "cruel despotism ... [and] age-long slavery," (15) the institution of slavery remained intact in Eritrea, elaborately legislated in the customary laws and codified under Italian supervision. (16) The separate legal systems were defended by the Ministry of Colonies: "We do not intend to extend metropolitan legislation and civil equality to natives, which ... they would not understand or desire." (17) In the urban setting, too, residential segregation resembled that of apartheid South Africa. In colonial attitudes and policies, the zone of Geza Enda Abba Shawul was to Piccola Roma what Soweto was to Johannesburg under apartheid. Clearly, settlers and natives lived worlds apart and the Italian language was so arcane that, by 1931, only 1.1 percent of the native population had basic knowledge of it. (18)

Intense alienation and marginalization led Eritreans to firmly keep their Ethiopian identity, despite harboring deep grudges against Menelik, whom they called a "traitor" (19) for giving them away to the Italians. (20)...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT