#Eritrea: The Phenomenon

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“In one of the CIA briefings in the White House Situation Room the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was getting, Kissinger discloses: ‘The President asked me this morning what Eritrea is. I said from what I knew it was mostly a phenomenon of history'”

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By Sam B.

It is astonishing, despite the pervasive afro-pessimism, the gloom and doom, which permeate nearly every discourse of the “dark” or “hopeless” continent to still find Africans hopeful and confident of their ability to determine and effectuate their own future. This is especially more so remarkable of Eritrea, given the amount of propaganda that is directed on it in order to at least inculcate self-doubt and make the Eritrean abandon all hope.

Every Eritrean, to this very moment, to some degree at least, believes that Eritrea is unique, to a point of exceptionality, not only as an African state or as a global entity but also in its social and individual makeup. It also appears that the notion Eritrea is destined for some greatness is woven into the fabric of our fathers, the society and in the makeup of every Eritrean nationalist. Moreover, few, worthy of the designation Eritrean, doubt that Eritrea is destined to be the torch bearer for Africa. The one that is bound to lead the way forward into a truly emancipatory path: the liberated and independent African future designed and implemented by its sons and daughters – The New Africa and the New African. If you are inclined to dismiss this as hubris or hyperbole you are urged to have a not too guarded heart to heart with as many Eritreans from every walk of life. Sooner or later all will betray such confidence, except of course the few that succumbed to Afro-Pessimism and the fatalist few, who are too few to matter anyway. As the case for Eritrea’s exceptionality and justification of its self-image is made here you are invited to keep an open mind.

Naturally, this belief is not unique to Eritreans, the sustenance of it, despite setbacks and difficulties and its triumph is what makes it additionally more unique. Many extraordinary Africans have had this undying conviction in themselves and in Africa’s capacity for self-emancipation. Basil Davidson, in his book, Black Star, believed, Kwame Nkrumah had that confidence in himself. But unfortunately for Nkrumah, Basil Davidson believed, most in his party, and just as importantly the opposing elites, lacked that consciousness and confidence. Many of them worked to undermine that confidence and desire to liberate one self through one’s own efforts – politically and economically. With collaboration of the neoimperial agents Nkrumah and others that shared his principles were ousted from power in Ghana. This sad outcome was replicated all over Africa. Failing the deposition of such leaders and parties from power the neoimperial agents and order made life difficult for the people in order to use them as agents of upheaval and revolt. What followed was Africa’s immersion into the sad state that produced the deplorable state for afro-pessimism to take hold.

None of this will come as surprise or news to anyone much less so to Eritreans. In the absolute majority of the Eritrean masses this confidence in their collective will is self-evident. However, it is debatable whether this is as evident in those classes that consider themselves the educated elites of Eritrea, with the exception of what can be called the ‘progressive inteligencia.’ The progressive inteligencia in Eritrea appears to share the same confidence as the masses. However, this progressive group, which ought to have played a vanguard role, outside of the government, in education and culture, does not appear to have an effective organized and/or a cohesive articulation of its position. Despite its stated position and commitment for social and communal growth and justice it has not shown a robust organization to propagate its vision. It seems to be affected by the same malaise that afflicts all “progressive” forces the world over. And if Eritrean history is to take note of this group time is of the essence. But for now that is neither here nor there.

For now, as the title indicates: Why Eritrea the Phenomenon?

But first, the online Merriam Webster dictionary Definition of PHENOMENON:

  1. an observable fact or event
  2. A) an object or aspect known through the senses rather than by thought or intuition
    B) a temporal or spatiotemporal object of sensory experience as distinguished from a nomenon
    C) a fact or event of scientific interest susceptible to scientific description and explanation
  3. A) a rare or significant fact or event
    B) plural phenomenons : an exceptional, unusual, or abnormal person, thing, or occurrence

The title is intended to highlight the significant, exceptional and unique. However, the credit for the term, in highlighting the uniqueness of Eritrea, although, perhaps, not the first but the most vivid description of Eritrea as a phenomenon comes from a recently declassified US State Department, “Top Secret/Sensitive”, February 1975 documents. The documents are transcriptions of a White House Situation Room meeting chaired by none other than Henry A. Kissinger. Kissinger, along with President Richard Nixon, was instrumental in charting some of the US policy in the Red Sea Basin, especially its relation with Ethiopia. And as a result of US military base in Eritrea, Kagnew Station, also in directing US policy towards Eritrea. Although Kissinger was not instrumental in the early stage of setting the trajectory of these policies he nonetheless served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon since January 1969 and had intimately dealt with Ethiopia and Eritrea issues of that time. He also grappled with the many requests for aid, both humanitarian and military, by the Emperor’s and the Derg’s governments in Ethiopia, as well as the implications to the future of US interest in the region, while the region was undergoing a transition and transformation.

In 1974, as Ethiopia was in upheaval and while the Derg was deposing the Emperor, which essentially overlapped with Richard Nixon resignation following “Water Gate”, Gerald Ford became President. Kissinger remained on as a Secretary of State, insuring continuity and influence on US policy in the region. Conceivably this was fortunate for the State Department as it turned out Gerald Ford was not well versed on the situation in the Horn of Africa.

In one of the CIA briefings in the White House Situation Room the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was getting, interrupting the briefing Kissinger discloses:

“The President [Gerald Ford] asked me this morning what Eritrea is. I said from what I knew it was mostly a phenomenon of history”

And shortly after that statement he returned to the briefing. At first glace one can wonder if Kissinger meant “phenomenon” as in temporal? However, further exploration into Kissinger’s position and thoughts on Eritrea, it becomes evident while some in the State Department and the CIA estimated that Ethiopia will either eradicate the Eritrean “radicals” or come to a stalemate, Kissinger, on the other hand, predating his Eritrea “a phenomenon of history” statement, as an earlier documents reveal, believed (in his words):

“I don’t assume that this war is going to end – I think it is going to end with Eritrean independence.”

Perhaps the Americans and Kissinger ought to have relied more on his perspicacity to buttress his teachings of realpolitik. A lost opportunity for the US then, as it appears is also the case today. The preceding is underscored to make the point; given Kissinger’s understanding that it was all going to “end with Eritrean independence”, his later reference to Eritrea, as a phenomenon, could not have meant transience. Contextually, it could only be deduced to have entailed exceptional or unusual. However, as there is nothing unusual of an African state coming to existence as a result of colonial experience, but could be considered exceptional as a result of its unique characteristics, it leaves little room for any other interpretation.

The notion of Eritrea’s exceptionality, not including Eritrean’s sentiments, is hardly Kissinger’s only. The notion itself is a persistent phenonmenon that merits careful examination. Some of the most remarkable comments on the issue come from Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, a truly incredible revolutionary intellectual. Amrit Wilson in the paper “Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu: Politician, Scholar and Revolutionary”, in detailing Babu’s “ideas on economic development, Pan Africanism, and imperialist strategies of control” and their “enormous relevance today”, writes:

“Abdul Rahman Babu was one of Africa’s foremost thinkers and analysts. A leader of the anti-colonial struggle in Zanzibar and of the Zanzibar revolution, Babu was seen as a threat by the US government who feared that Zanzibar might become the ‘Cuba of Africa’ and spread revolution across East and Central Africa. With the help of the CIA and various ‘sources’ it had established in the countries of East Africa, the US succeeded in ‘neutralizing’ Zanzibar by engineering its union with Tanganyika which was known to have a pro-western government. After the union, Babu became a cabinet minister in Tanzania where he came into conflict with the policies of ‘African socialism’ espoused by President Julius Nyerere. Imprisoned for six years under the Nyerere regime, Babu was released after an international campaign. He continued to write and lecture and support progressive struggles in Africa and elsewhere.”

The African Event Magazine in its editorial note introducing Babu’s article, “Eritrea: Its Present is the Remote Future of Others” writes:

“Ethiopia has spent billions in arms and led thousands of men to their deaths to bomb Eritrean liberation fighters into submission, and when it failed, into extinction. However, where the ravages of war should be, a nation has arisen vibrantly confident, unbowed despite overwhelming odds and successful beyond words. Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu’s verdict is that in progress, resourcefulness and sheer independence, Eritrea is the stuff miracles are made of.”

After spending sometime in Eritrea, in the same article Babu himself writes:

“I am not ashamed to admit that I have been overwhelmed by what I saw. Living, working and eating with these staunch revolutionaries I am tempted to echo the famous quote: “I have seen the future of Africa and it works”.

It is even more astonishing that this was inspired and written at perhaps in one of the bleakest moments in Eritrea’s history. Babu’s statements do not come from some green, inexperienced optimist or idealist. He had seen many setbacks and disappointments. As he puts it:

“This is not an easy statement to make after so many political, social and economic shocks that we went through in the post-independence Africa. Who can be enthusiastic in the midst of the political chaos of military coups and counter-coups and the economic pains of bankrupted and heavily indebted nations? Of the humiliating and degrading experience of dependence on the very imperialism that cost Africa’s lives and hardships to be rid of? Of the pathetic call of despair for a dream-world of failed politicians known as the New International Economic order? But experiences with liberated Eritreans give you confidence in the capacity of the African masses to take history in their own hands during the challenging journey from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.”

Again, Babu is not the only one to observe or hold the notion that Eritrea inspires confidence, is confident, unique, revolutionary, the future of Africa or having a transformative influence on it. Many before and after him have made similar claims. However, his opinion carries a great deal of weight and we should not be faulted for valuing a hands on progressive intellectual’s judgment above others. For instance, Thomas Keneally, the author of ‘To Asmara’ and ‘Schindler’s List’, in his book ‘To Asmara’, makes similar observations:

“Eritrea was not the present. It was the future in terms of theories – military and revolutionary – which hung in its fiery air.”

In recalling these testaments caution is necessitated against being bogged down in Eritrea’s transformative potential in its military, revolutionary, development strategy and/or political organization only. As important as these are, we must also keep in mind that it has also gone some ways in being transformative in Archaeology, History and Literature. As the foresight and research of the likes of the late Professor Richard Greenfield attests this is only the beginning. Professor Greenfield – who was eulogized by Roy Patman as having “had an unparalleled grasp of the history and politics of the countries of the Horn of Africa” – was from 1999 until 2007 a Professor of History at the University of Asmara. In his article “New Discoveries in Africa Change Face of History”, Professor Greenfield states:

“The early history of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia will have to be rewritten in the light of dramatic new discoveries. And they have relevance to the worldwide demand for balanced historical and cultural studies freed from arrogance, prejudice and racism. …. Up on the mountainous plateau of northeastern Africa, Eritrean scholars and their international colleagues at the University of Asmara have been conducting new excavations and utilising the latest carbon-dating techniques to revolutionary effect. This research has already revealed incontrovertible evidence of settled pastoral and agricultural communities dating way back to 800 BC — earlier by far than heretofore envisaged. …. Together with revised linguistic evidence, it seriously and probably finally challenges assumptions, dating from the colonial era and earlier, that it must have been immigration of Sabaens crossing the Red Sea into Africa, that introduced Semitic and related languages and gave rise to the emergence of complex societies and cultures such as that of Aksum. In noting this, we must now set this revision in context and also ask why it has not occurred earlier.“

The world although thus far reticent has quietly started to take note of Eritrea’s transformative nature, not only for its “revolutionary effect” but also in its effect and role on history and archeology as well. By the day research and work coming out of Eritrea is demolishing the racist notion that civilization was imported into Africa. And it is indeed poised to “change face of history”. The emphasis on the preceding in not meant to minimize the just as important developmental strategy and principles of self-reliance, and its potential effect on the rest of Africa. Although few would like to admit it, Eritrea, today, after kicking out the NGO’s in 2005, is the only African state that has shunned food aid and managed to feed and secure its food security solely on its own toil and ingenuity, without the need for any handouts and dictates from alm givers and their conditionality.

As noted by Professor Greenfield the evidence for Eritrea’s transformative-ness and “revolutionary effect” on Africa and beyond, in the field Archaeology and History is undoubtedly in its early stage, but it does not stop there.

The compilation of this short note was partly inspired by Charles Cantalupo, the Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University. In his most recent article (December 2012), “Hearing the Horn”, Cantalupo asked:

“what is a source for such an abiding sense of security, confidence, resolve, and self-sufficiency? In the case of Eritrea, it is commonly attributed to that nation’s revolutionary fervor: its indomitable nationalism and its unprecedented struggle to triumph in winning independence. But surely that does not come out of a vacuum. The “winds of change” sweeping other African nations in the third quarter of the 20th century towards independence as well as popular Marxist insurgencies and revolutions worldwide certainly provide some context and inspiration for the Eritrean struggle. But what else?”

“But what else” appears a key question worth exploring? Professor Cantalupo is quite right in pointing out that Eritrea’s sense of security, confidence, resolve, and self-sufficiency was buttressed by overcoming its challenging journey to independence. It undoubtedly also gained inspiration along the way from “the “winds of change” sweeping other African nations” at that time. However, Eritrea’s desire and struggle to rid itself from colonialist of all stripe, and its confidence it maybe able to carry it out predates most of Africa’s independent states. This is exemplified by Bahta Hagos’ attempt to rout out the Italians from Eritrea. Thus, the “what else?”, has yet to be explored adequately to reveal that something (s) at the core of Eritrea that make it so. And “surely that does not come out of a vacuum.”

In Literature, Professor Cantalupo, in reviewing a recent translation of “The Conscript,” a novel written in Tigrinya by Ghebreyesus Hailu, in 1927 (now translated by Ghirmai Negash) states:

“The book is a postcolonial novella avant la lettre and written in an indigenous African language – two colossal firsts in light of modern African literature history. This cannot be stressed enough. How many times has Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), written in English, been called the first modern African novel? This is one of the most basic premises of 20th and 21st-century African literary study. No more. Hailu writes The Conscript in Tigrinya over thirty years before, predating the publication of Things Fall Apart by almost a decade. Time to replace inaccurate old knowledge with more accurate new knowledge.”

Again, yet in another field, Literature, the transformative-ness of Eritrea is taking its rightful place, the center stage in African literature. Consider the fact that, The Conscript, Eritrea’s so far first recorded novel, was not only written thirty years before what is now called the first book in modern African Novel -which was written in a colonial language, English – but it was also written in an indigenous African language, Tigrigna, and in an indigenous African alphabets (Tigrigna, Geez). This obviously takes nothing away for the seminal work Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is. But it is indeed “time to replace inaccurate old knowledge with more accurate new knowledge.” More importantly, to acknowledge Africa’s fist novel was written in an African language and in Africa’s own Alphabets.

In saying this, we must highlight, especially for those that would like to hang on to the notion of civilization and the text being imported to Africa by others, in Professor Richard Greenfield’s words:

“… seriously and probably finally challenges assumptions, dating from the colonial era and earlier, that it must have been immigration of Sabaens crossing the Red Sea into Africa, that introduced Semitic and related languages and gave rise to the emergence of complex societies and cultures such as that of Aksum. In noting this, we must now set this revision in context and also ask why it has not occurred earlier.”

The evidence especially archeological is mounting by the day in Eritrea. Again! It is indeed “time to replace inaccurate old knowledge with more accurate new knowledge.” And put Eritrea’s and Africa’s rightful place where it belongs.

Although, some of this [or none of it] may adequately address why every Eritrean, to some degree, believes that Eritrea is unique, to a point being exceptional, in its social and individual makeup. Or where “such an abiding sense of security, confidence, resolve, and self-sufficiency” come from.

One nevertheless can glean, why the notion, despite many attempts to discount it and to rob Eritreans of their confidence, persists. “Surely that does not come out of a vacuum”, and at some point it has to be properly explored.

Perhaps, Eritrea is destined for some greatness, not only as a result of its current confidence but also actually as a result of this being intimately woven into the fabric, or DNA, of its being, through its history, literature, archeology, oral tradition – i.e historic memory. There is no doubt also that this “abiding sense of security, confidence, resolve, and self-sufficiency” is enhanced through the dialectic of “its indomitable nationalism” and its unprecedented struggle to triumph over a challenging journey to independence. Today too as it overcomes every roadblock to its destiny its confidence in itself is being enhanced.

Regardless of the causes, Eritrea so far has turned out to be a phenomenal phenomenon that is and will continue to challenge every assumption about Africa and it surely is well on its way to fulfill its destiny as a torch bearer for Africa. The one that is bound to lead the way forward into a truly emancipatory path.

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