As a former #Italian & #British #Colony, #Eritrea was the only #African colony deprived of #RightToSelfDetermination
Defying Logic: An African Nation’s Story of Sacrifice and Resilience
By MYTH 2014
In view of history, one can say that Eritrea is an exception to the rule. For instance, consider that Eritrea was the only African colony denied the right to self-determination as legally stipulated in the 1963 Organization of African Unity Charter. It was the only African state occupied by another African state—Ethiopia. In 1991, it became the only African nation to liberate itself from another African nation even in spite of the fact that not a single government in the world supported Eritrean independence.
This legacy of “being the only one” left an indelible imprint on the nation, molding the national psyche of the Eritrean people and state to this very day. Hence, this begs the question: why and how did Eritrea become the exception to the rule?
When Ghana became the first African colony to declare independence in 1957, other African colonies sought to do the same. This led to the drafting of the internationally accepted 1963 OAU Charter, which called for the right of self-determination and recognition of all African colonies within their colonial boundaries. All former colonies were recognized. All but one, that is.
As a former Italian and British colony, Eritrea was the only African colony deprived of the right to self-determination. Conversely, Eritrea was illegally federated and annexed by Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia with the complicity of the United Nations and international community, sparking a 30 year war for independence—the longest in African history.
On September 1, 1961, Hamid Idris Awate fired the first shot on Mount Adal and the Eritrean armed liberation struggle was born. Hamid and the freedom fighters, endearingly called “tegaldelti” by the Eritrean people, initially organized under the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). There were 13 tegadelti and only 4 rifles. Thus, how was it that Eritreans would take on their Ethiopian colonizers, which had 20 times the population size of Eritrea, the largest and best equipped military in Africa, and the full backing of the United States?
To overcome these seemingly impossible odds, the tegadelti adopted the motto “n’tsela’i b’teetu b’biretu,” which in Tigrinya translates to “advance on the enemy with his own bullets and arms.” The idea was to arm themselves by disarming the enemy. Next, they utilized a revolutionary guerrilla warfare strategy that sought to simultaneously revolutionize, depend on, and assist the Eritrean people.
In time, the ELF grew and became a popular movement. By 1968, another front, known as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was formed. The ELF and EPLF would make tremendous gains and, by 1977, liberation seemed imminent. However, Ethiopia under the new “Derg” leader Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam gained the backing of another superpower: the Soviet Union.
New weapons, East German and Soviet advisers, Yemeni artillerymen, and even 10,000 Cuban fighters flooded Ethiopia and reversed the gains achieved since the start of the struggle. In order to save the struggle and strengthen the liberation movement, the EPLF conducted a “strategic retreat” in 1978, leaving behind every city captured by the blood of countless martyrs and calling all tegadelti to take refuge in the Sahel mountains around the strategic town of Nakfa.
1978 was considered the darkest year in Eritrean history as the world had virtually written off the Eritrean liberation struggle. Alone in the Sahel mountains, however, the tegadelti took advantage of the situation by taking the revolution to a whole new level. Self-reliance became the motto, almost to the point of folly. The fighters lived an egalitarian lifestyle where everything was shared. They eliminated the backwardness of traditional Eritrean society like patriarchy, regionalism, ethnicism, and religious fundamentalism.
Notably, women made up one-third of the Eritrean fighters and, unlike other liberation movements, women fought on the front-lines equally among men. Women were commanders. Men had their equal share of cooking and cleaning duties alongside women. The fighters cultivated a principled trench culture of selflessness, equality, camaraderie, and sacrifice that is often romanticized to this day.
Fighters took on nom de guerres and referred to each other as “bitsot.” Although bitsot means “comrade” in Tigrinya, fighters often taught and spoke each other’s languages (nine ethno-linguistic groups). They adopted principles known as the Nakfa Principles, which include bitsaynet (“camaraderie”), tsinat (“resilence”), agelgulot (“hard work/service”), nih (“toughness”), habbo (“fortitude/perseverance”), tewefainet (“sacrifice/martyrdom”), tetsewarinet (“patience”), and senni menkas (“courageousness”).
The Nakfa Principles have only rough translations as there are no English words that capture the true essence of their meaning. Though these positive cultural traits were, in fact, present in Eritrea prior to the struggle (even dating back to Ancient Egyptian and Greek texts), they were amplified through the revolution and became cultural traits that defined the essence of the struggle.