State Fromation in Eritrea

By Fesseha Nair

Some Readings from EFDMS Strategic studeis on state formation-

Eritrea is the last independent state recognized by the international community as soverign state nominally but not practically.State organizations will be the main conflict issue after the post dictatorial period. I will hereby stick to the issue of state formation in Eritrea because as I follow it in the different academic and non-academic discussions, the Eritrean political elites and academics/scholars never dare what form of state can accommodate the Eritrean diversity. The aim of this article is to clarify the issue of conflict and the wrong path of problem solving in a state buiding after independence and its consequences that the Eritrean people experiences today.


Eritrea is not a nation- state whose people share a strong linguistic, religious and symbolic identity ( Hade Libi Hade Hizbi- PFDJs designation of state formation) but is inhabited by diverse multicultural and multireligious society composed of several ethnic and religious identities with different languages and cultures and different origins. Eritrea is not nationa –state but national state state with diverse people with different identities.Eritrea is made up of these identities. Those who deny these  national components and call themselves nationalists are not the true nationalists but opportunists who want to monopolise the national political and economic power. It is this attitude of  monopolization of political power that is the origin of dictatorship that we expereince today. I would like argue further that Eritrea is not one people but different peoples with different territorial and ethnic identities( Hirui Tedla-Strategy Adi) As the Eritrean history shows us from the “organization of Adi” one must first refer the past history of the country before colonialism. Over 1000 years inhabitants of today’s Eritrea have been suffered by  foreign armed conquerors raided and slaughterd but survived by organizing themselves in the villages. Can’t we organize ourselves now at the state level? Let us re-study the past level of village organizastion than copying the western style of state formation by coercion and power concentration using destrctive methods of violence.


 I would like to put some points below- on the origins of the Eritrean people and their natural habitat in the so called Eritrea of today.



Eritrea is inhabited by three main origins – nilotic , cushitic and semitic. Historical studies shows us that the earliest inhabitants were the Nara and Kunama which today inhabit the Gash Barka region. The Cushitic linguistic groups are composed of Bejas, Belain, Saho, and the Afar. The Semitic linguistic groups are the Tigre and Tigrinya. These various people  come from different places occupied  and still live in special territories they first come to live. The Eritrean plateau or the highlands is occupied by the Tigrinya and Saho speaking people. The western and eastern lowland was inhabited by various communities of Nara, Kunama, Belain, Beni Amr, Elit and the various tribes of the tigre speaking groups of the Eritrean people. These various people have their own traditional economic lives. The traditional mode of economic lives were settled agricultural which was practiced by the Eritrean highlanders.Agro- Pastoral and semi –nomadic economic life practiced in both the western and eastern lowlands.


Prior to the Italian colonialism, the social and political organization of these various people depended on their mode of socio –economic conditions. Before the Italian colonialism, the Eritrean social political adminstration was divided in three regions- the western and eastern region, Dankalia and the Kebesa. The Danakil or Afar people inhabiting the Assab Region lived on pastorlism and fishing. They were socially organized into small clans or families. The important political unit in the Afar people was the clan. They were practicing a decentralized system of governance identified by three levels of power the Sheiks and sultanates. Prior to the Italian colonialism,The various people of Western and Eastern lowland Eritrea were under the Ottoman empire and the Egyptians but they had have more decentralized system of living at the village level. The Kebesa people were ruled by Axumite governors under military and centralized system of governance. It was the Italian rule from 1891-1941 that gave today’s Eritrea its territorial borders and declared it as its colony. It was the 59 years old clonialism that gave Eritrea its internationally recognized borders established bureaucratic governance, laid socio-economic structure and pacified the region from bandit intruders from Abysinaian.


When clonialism ended how was the Eruitrean people’s self-determination, how was the Eritrean case treated, while the other Italian colonies of Somalia and Libya were given their rights as independent  Eritrea’s case was decided that Eritrea will remain under the UN adminstered by the Brittish Miltary rule. ( 1942-1952) Under the British Military rule, education and freedom of speech and media were introduced. This opportunities has made the people aware of political life and nationalism.It was at this time Eritrean political elite was born. During the 59 years’ of Italian colonialism has no freedom but tranquility of economic life without education. Italy has left the Eritreans with emty heads but with full stomach. The only thing the Italian rule accomplisehd were national infrastructure, building towns and roads, establishing adminstrative provinces with internal boundaries and made Eritrea as recognized colony. The Italian rule has never touched the traditional rural system of governance. Those who were living in the lowlands have their own local and decentralized system of governance while the Kebesa people were united under one chief and centralized kind of governance.


How were the Eritrean people adminstred during the Brittish period? During the Brittish military admionistration Eritreans started to be aware of nationalism thanks to the liberal democracy introduced by the brittish rule. The Brittish system of governance gave birth to human rights and freedoms like freedom of speech and press and organization. It was at this time Eritreans began to organize political parties. The first national party was the so called the Eritrean Patriotic Party composed by the Eritrean diversity. This party was splitted due to the divisive interventions of the Ethiopian Emperor. The succeeding political parties  could not agree on the Eritrean self determination and their parties were based on relgion and language in Eritrea. The main conflict issues were the elements of identity like religion, language and culture not if the Eritrean have the capacity  and competence to govern itself politically, economically and socially.The Eritrean parties( ML and Unionists) couldnot reach common understanding on the self determination of Eritrea and the people’s voices were not given consideration at last it was replaced by the federal act and Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia under the Ethiopian sovereignty.


During the period of federation from 1952-1963  Eritrea had has an autonomy where it has a constitution, national assembly and government with its national flag. At that time Eritrea was divided in eight provinces. ( Barka, Senhit, Semhar, Assab, Hamasien, akeleguzay, Seraye and Sahel) After ten years the federal act was violated by the Ethiopian emperor HaileSelassie in cooperation with the Unionist party and Eritrea become 14th  province of Ethiopia. During the Ethiopian occupation one more administrative zone was created called Gash – Setit with its capital Tesennei.


During the Ethiopian occupation under the Emperor Haile Selassie those who opposed the violation of the federal act were  Moslem League. The Eritrean resistant movements first were peaceful protests organized by the student unions and labour organizations later on an underground political resistance strated in Sudan by Eritrean refugees and spread to Eritrea. These movements were the starting or the initiatives that gave inspiration and birth to the later armed struggle led by Eritrean Liberation Front.


If we see the experience of the Eritrean political and armed struggle still those issues of conflict that appeared during the Eritrean self determination period lack of trust and common understanding reappeared and become obstacle to national unity during the armed liberation struggle. The Armed struggle which was started by the Eritrean Liberation Front was seen as an arab and moslem front by the Eritrean Unionist party and its collaborators who preferd the unity with Ethiopia believing that their culture and religion can only preserved under Ethioipan rule. When the Ethiopian colonialism was become more oppressive against them they gradually started to join the liberation front. The disputes that were seen during the pre- federation and federation period among the Unionst and Moslem league reappaered during the armed struggle, the liberation front was splitted in many groups. The Eritrean Liberation field was transformed to internecine wars and conflicts where the winner takes all. All armed one against the other and violence was the method to dominate the battle field. All these disputes were based in hate and suspicion tendencies. Yet, the legacy of violence still exist between Eritrean rivals and practiced as the only method of resolving conflicts. When Eritrea was liberated in 1991 after thrity years’ of struggle and declared its independence in 1993 by referedum, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and later called Eritrean Peolpes Front for Democracy and Justice( PFDJ) boasted and forbid all other political organizations to participate in the post liberation politics in Eritrea. It has imprisoned all those who seek for reconciliation and peace inside Eritrea. It has propagated its hate politics against its critics the moslems in particular and later other nationals. When all possibilites were closed, then the other Eritrean political forced who were excluded from participation formed an umbrella organization in 1999 called  the Allliance of Eritrean National Forces/ ENAF in diaspora. Later this umbrella organization was broadened in 2005 and taken the name Ertitrean Democratic Alliance( EDA). The formation of the alliances in the Eritrean opposition did not succeed to unite all the opposition forces because of mistrust and suspicion.


Today, we see this trend of fear and hate exists both in the opposition camp and the ruling regime in Eritrea. The political leadership when asked what kind of state structure and government will they build  they have no respond but they shortly say democratic state. When asked what form of national unity, they have no idea except emotional feelings. The Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement adopted the only form of unity is the federal method. This idea was misinterpret by the Eritrean elites as divisive and can lead to secessation. Today, there are about 50% of the world nations are governed by the federal democratic system. The federal system never lead to cessation but unity. Those who interpret the federal idea wrongly and mislead the people are those who want to dominate power and dictatorship.


Federal democracy accommodates the Eritrean diversity in equality and helps to resolve their internal conflicts peacefully and gives them the opprtunity to self-rule and shared rule under one nation. It gives them rights to decide their political, economic and cultural in their living localities. The Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement sees democracy beyond electing leadership but on decision making power sharing in national politics and resources and that is the best method of organizing state in Eritrea to accommodate the Eritrean diversity. The Eritrean Oppositions task is not only to topple the dictatorship but what alternative have they for state formation or state structure after the post dictatorial period.


The issue is not to implement the drafted constitution of the 1997 but it is the issue of power devolution and state formation Let the political and and academia of political science discuss and search for the best formula that can create peaceful co-existence in Eritrea.

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Posted by on Nov 16 2012 Filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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