A Death in Eritrea

Jeremy Harding

Not many people have the good fortune to die well, and fewer still to live well, but by all accounts Wolde-ab Wolde Mariam managed the first as respectably as he had the second. He died in May at the age of 87 in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, which became the 52nd sovereign state in Africa two years ago. Wolde-ab was buried in the cemetery of Tsetserat and a day of national mourning was declared. Hadas Ertra, the main newspaper, ran a long eulogy and published a photo of this frail old man taken forty years earlier or more – a mugshot posted by the Agordat police with the offer of a reward for news of Wolde-ab’s whereabouts. The face is robust and solid, suggesting a resilient physique, which must have been the case, for he survived four very close calls – there were seven assassination attempts in all – during the first phase of his life as a militant for Eritrean independence.

Wolde-ab might have stood beside any of the famous anti-colonial figures but the differences were immense. Some were personal. He was not by temperament a theoretician or a grand polemicist, although he could hold a crowd. He lacked the elegance and anger of Lumumba, the brilliance of Agostinho Neto, the vanity of Nkrumah. He had no stomach for leadership quarrels and, as a rule, he did not fare well in the factional rivalries that prolonged Eritrea’s struggle for independence. He never had to govern and was spared the disgraces that tainted most anti-colonialisms in Africa. Unlike Fanon, he did not leave a body of work at the mercy of history. Unlike Lumumba, he survived the attentions of his enemies, which were incessant.

The real difference, however, had to do with Eritrea’s status in post-war Africa. Wolde-ab was in his late thirties when the Second World War ended. The territory had been ruled for half a century by Italy; the success of the Allied campaign in the Horn and East Africa brought it under British administration in 1941. Haile Selassie, who had been crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was determined to have it as part of the post-war settlement but many of Eritrea’s notables and intellectuals were opposed to anything short of full independence.

To a great extent it was his feeling for his native language that led Wolde-ab to the same conclusions. Under the Italians, Tigrinya had taken second place to Italian; it was marginalised by the colonial administration, yet it was widely spoken in Eritrea; it could be written and was derived, like Amharic, the language of the Ethiopian court, from the ancient scriptural language of Ge’ez. It was something that Orthodox Christians, mainly in the highlands of Eritrea, felt strongly about. Wolde-ab was born into this community, and educated at a Lutheran mission in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. By the time the British Military Administration (BMA) came into effect, he had gone on to teach at the mission school, distinguished himself greatly, and been appointed director.

The British presence was largely a louse-up for Eritrea. The BMA demolished warehouses and factories and sold the scrap; Britain did little to rectify the Italian ascendancy in civil and commercial life, in spite of demands by Eritreans that it do so; for five years it banned political parties; towards the end of the British term, Bevin put his name to a disastrous partition plan which would have dumped half the territory in Sudan. But ideologically and culturally this was a crucial period for the growth of the nationalist cause. In the years of clandestine politics, Wolde-ab was at first a member of a broad-based coalition and, later, the founder of an illegal group which advanced the idea of a 15-year UN trusteeship for the territory, to be followed by independence.

To begin with, Wolde-ab’s position was delicate. Shortly after the Italian defeat, the British had suggested that there should be a Tigrinya newspaper and that he was the man to serve as editor. The first issue of the Eritrean Weekly News appeared, under BMA sponsorship, towards the end of 1942. The paper found an eager readership in the capital, the main Red Sea port and the handful of highland towns where literacy was prevalent. In the rural highlands, its contents could be read aloud to gatherings of non-literate people, and they were. Wolde-ab remained in one or another editorial position for a decade. Neither he nor the paper was supposed to advocate a political position, but he was embroiled in nationalist politics and used its columns to answer critics among his former anti-colonial allies who were in favour of unconditional union with Ethiopia.

Wolde-ab’s involvement with the Eritrean Weekly News, and the success of a Tigrinya primer which he had prepared for schools, linked his name indissolubly with the rise of Tigrinya as an anti-colonial language. But the religious and ethnic composition of Eritrea made matters in the anti-colonial movement extremely complex. For one thing, Orthodox Christian Tigrinya speakers were not all anti-union. There were those who argued that the end of colonial rule should entail incorporation into Ethiopia and they were bitterly opposed to Wolde-ab’s idea of trusteeship. For another, the lowlands of Eritrea were predominantly Muslim; here, the main language was not Tigrinya but Tigre. Many Eritrean Muslims were strong anti-colonialists, but their relationship with their counterparts in the highlands, who had strong cultural affinities with Ethiopia’s Amhara rulers, was uneasy. As Wolde-ab’s stature in the pro-independence movement grew, he found himself facing hostility from Addis Ababa and the pro-union faction in Eritrea, and suspicion on the part of Eritrean lowland chiefs.

In 1947 Wolde-ab was injured by a bomb blast. It was one of the many attempts on his life organised by pro-unionists or Ethiopian agents. Another bomb, he recalled years later – and this he could no longer date – was thrown through his window, but lodged behind the blinds and failed to detonate; it was defused by British military police. In 1949, the UN announced that it would send a commission of inquiry to Eritrea. It was not long before Wolde-ab, a crucial witness at the hearings, was injured again – this time a bomb exploded as he stepped from a car outside his house. He was in hospital for three months. Wolde-ab was relatively fortunate. By the end of 1950, when the UN resolved to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia, several advocates of independence were dead.

In September 1952, the federation came into effect and anyone who was known to oppose it was at greater risk than ever. Like scores of African activists in the post-war period, Wolde-ab was destined for exile. In the run-up to federation his opponents tried twice to gun him down. With his family at risk he had moved to a hotel and pursued his work as a journalist and party activist, but he was sending down for his meals and in due course he was poisoned. In the final assassination attempt, prior to his departure, he was shot in the back and the bullet left by his throat. Once again he was struggling for his life. In 1954, barely recovered, he set out for Cairo and began a series of famous pro-independence broadcasts into Eritrea and Ethiopia, authorised by Nasser, whose sympathy for the nationalist cause was won by its Muslim adherents. The broadcasts were short-lived, however. Haile Selassie’s intervention in the Suez crisis on behalf of Egypt came with the proviso that Wolde-ab be silenced.

In 1960 Ethiopia annexed Eritrea outright. The Eritrean Liberation Front took up the gun. Wolde-ab had declined to be part of a younger, radical grouping in 1958 on the grounds that it was ‘too Communist’ but he looked well on the ELF, which was more conservative and, in terms of its leadership, more Muslim – he was sensitive to the dangers of a Christian-dominated movement. From now on, his life was an exile within exile, as he toured the Arab states in search of funds for the cause. To a Christian, with very strong feelings for locality and language, it was an inimical, lonely business. Wolde-ab was nonetheless intent on the creation of a broad, secular front for Eritrean independence and he remained a very influential figure, despite his absence from the territory.

Much of the subsequent history of Eritrea is well known. Through the Sixties, the ELF fought a long and often needlessly sacrificial war against Haile Selassie; its tactics and habits were less than democratic and in the early Seventies it was challenged by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Still in exile, Wolde-ab threw in his lot with the EPLF but, in the mid-Seventies, when he tried to effect a reconciliation between the two groups in Khartoum, the EPLF – the militarists in particular – were furious, claiming that he had acted without proper authority. He threw in the towel and returned to Cairo.

Exile, which had spared him the horrors of the factional killings in the Seventies, kept him from the enormity of the next ten years, when Eritrea became a wilderness of starvation and aerial bombardment under the direction of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the little golpista who took Ethiopia into Soviet cliency. What Eritrea withstood in those years – and what it managed to do – is in no sense to its advantage now. Military discipline and a ruthless resolve, imposed on civilians by the liberation movement in return for the most efficient emergency feeding and security scheme in any modern African war, have not made for an easy transition to civilian democracy.

In 1987, Wolde-ab returned to the barren wasteland of rock which the EPLF called a ‘liberated area’ for a congress which brought most of the rival front into the fold. It was a grand occasion for him. The threat was still there – sophisticated air attack had replaced bomb throwers and hitmen – but clandestinity was now a mass expression of political will, rather than a set of solitary routines. A photo at the time shows a gaunt, unshaven man with spectacles and a hint of cataract, one arm raised against the glare of the sun. Perhaps it was taken during an address to the congress. It is a powerful thing to look at now. The war was turning in Eritrea’s favour; Wolde-ab was on his way home.

When Asmara fell, in 1991, he left New Jersey, where he had been staying with one of his children, and returned to the city for his last days. He counted 34 years since he had last set foot there, but it was longer. He was now in his mid-eighties, immensely frail, the wit still obvious in discourse and argument, but the memory blurred, as though coming back had dealt him an overpowering emotional blow.

This was one of the most memorable men you could encounter in his old age, with the great turmoil of the independence struggle quelled but audible in the pauses for reflection, the elegant, slightly rhetorical English, the impatient gasps for breath, drawn with an effort that was no longer required of the life itself. His death is scarcely a bitter occasion. He returned to the town he loved; he cast his vote for independence; he was honoured for his pains, and saw the thing he had lived for come about.

But it is painful because Wolde-ab embodied many of the virtues of national liberation in Africa and very few of the vices. Eritrean independence was not simply a secession from Ethiopia that signalled the weakness of Africa’s boundaries. For Wolde-ab especially, it was a democratic project, driven by the idea of full citizenship, and of sovereignty as the founding framework for institutional guarantees of human, legal and national rights. Not much to do with blood, but a lot to do with belonging. There was also the question of language – ‘through language we feel sure we exist,’ he used to say – and the status of Tigrinya in a country where it was dominant but not common to all inhabitants. ‘Now that we are free,’ Wolde-ab remarked a few years ago, ‘we find we are a nation of nine languages. But we do not suppress the others as the Ethiopians did.’ To date, in Eritrea, this remains the case.

Wolde-ab spent the last years of his life working on a memoir, which he did not complete. Often, too, he was on the phone to relatives overseas, inquiring about the war in Bosnia, another lost cause, as his own had once appeared to be.