By Sami Mehari
This week marks the 56th anniversary of an important conference that was convened in the outskirts of Asmara on Sunday 24 November 1946 on Eritrea’s emerging political trends of that period. The conference, better known as Waala Biet Giorgis, was the brainchild of the independence-minded patriots like Woldeab Woldemariam who wanted to reconcile differences among the various trends by agreeing on middle ground. The elite of the time expected much from that early Eritrean political gathering. Unfortunately, Ethiopia, working through Eritrean collaborators, sabotaged it. In short, the Waala forgot its main agenda on the future of the country and, instead, was diverted to a none-issue when Tedla Bairu, totally a newcomer to the group, provoked discussion on the ‘origin’ of Woldeab Woldemariam and questioned Woldeab’s right to talk for Eritrea. Believe it or not, that was all what the Waala discussed before it was disrupted by unionist hooligans armed with knives and pistols.
Thanks to two valuable sources - Alemseged Tesfai’s Aynfelale and Jordan Ghebremdhin’s Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea - we have some historical record on that sad, yet important, event in modern Eritrean history. Based on those sources, I will try to give readers a summary of Waala Biet Giorgis, which acquires added significance today as we read about the recent meeting of the Alliance in Addis Ababa and also as we think of the proposed National Conference for the Eritrean opposition.
In 1941, i.e. soon after the defeat of Italy and the establishment of the British in the territory, Eritrean elite of the day formed the [Eritrean] Patriotic Association (some writers prefer to call it ‘Party of Love of Country’). At the start, people were in genuine search for their destiny. The question: ‘what should the future of Eritrea be?’ was in the minds of all politically conscious Eritreans. A moderate intellectual called Gebre-Meskel Woldu chaired the [Eritrean] Patriotic Association. Abdulkadir Kebire was his deputy.
By 1946, the group consisted of two major contending political trends that needed reconciliation. One was a faction calling for Eritrea’s association with Ethiopia and another faction advocating a separate status. Those who wanted ‘association’ with Ethiopia were led by Gebre-Meskel Woldu and the ‘separatists’ by Abdulkadir Kebire.
The differences between the two factions were sharpened following a number of domestic and international events and incidents that can be summed as follows:
1. Ethiopian Liaison Office in Eritrea: In March 1946, Ethiopia appointed a Liaison Officer in Eritrea by the name of Col. Nega Haile Selassie. His duty was to instigate differences among Eritreans, mainly on religious lines, and create a unionist movement like the ‘Society for the Unification of Eritrea with Ethiopia’ that the Emperor’s government created in Addis Ababa a year earlier. During May-July 1946, anti-Arab, anti-Islam and anti-Italy demonstrations were staged in Eritrea. Lives of individuals became under big threat by Ethiopian agents. The British tried to maintain public security in Eritrea through what was called Sudanese Defense Force (SDF). While doing its job, the force was projected by Col. Nega and his team as “enemy of Christian Eritreans”.
2. Tor’a-Tsenadegle Conflict: On 15 August 1946, the Tor’a and Tsenadegle conflict erupted in Akele-Guzai; 11 Tor’as were killed and 40 wounded. Another three were killed from the side of Tsenaldegle. Land dispute was the cause of the conflict although people did not stop associating it with religion.
3. The 28 August 1946 massacre in Asmara: It was Eid day, and members of the SDF were playing cards near Aba Shawl. A simple scuffle with a young Eritrean “Christian” resulted in the death of one Sudanese soldier. The SDF interpreted it as an open attack on the SDF by the unionists. A few hours later, 70-armed Sudanese soldiers went down town Asmara and massacred people in “Christian” quarters of the city; 46 persons were killed and 70 wounded. Col. Nega capitalized on the incident. The Coptic Church found a rallying cry for immediate union with Ethiopia, then claiming to be “protector of Christian Eritreans”. Eritrean Moslems had nothing to do with the SDF and that incident but the massacre was taken as a “Moslem-Christian” conflict.
4. Paris Peace Treaty: On 25 September 1946, the Paris Peace Treaty of the major powers agreed to dispossess Italy of its former colonies. The peoples in the former Italian territories would be asked their future preferences. Soon after the Paris meeting, the British authorities allowed Eritreans to form political movements and parties.
5. Assassination Attempts: During September 1946, bombs were lobbed at leading ‘separatist’ figures in Asmara. Bombs missed Degiat Hassen Ali and Haj Imam Mussa, both prominent leaders of the independentist faction.
Woldeab Woldemariam and his friends saw the looming danger. Many members of the Patriotic Association (which was still Eritrean in aim) thought that there was still time for them to iron out differences within the group by adopting a common platform that they can be reached through political compromises. The factions accepted the slogan of ‘dialogue, unity and democracy’. Even Fit. Gebre-Meskel Woldu agreed with Woldeab and others on putting conditions on Ethiopia before any association was entered to. The first meeting for adopting an agenda was held on 16 November 1946. It is said that a 12-point item agenda was accepted for the Waala suggesting the idea of an autonomous Eritrea, which would enjoy civil liberties like freedom of press, religion, association, formation of parties and settle the issue of languages. The British authorities were advised on the matter, and granted permission for the main Waala to take place in Biet Giorgis as scheduled.
Ethiopia, which knew what was going on in the [Eritrean] Patriotic Association, was angered. Col. Nega, who was in Addis on reporting mission after the August massacre, hurriedly returned to Asmara together with a representative of the unionist society in Addis Ababa. It was claimed that they returned to Asmara carrying bags of “money and bombs”.
Meet, Tedla Bairu
Upon his return to Asmara in the eve of the Waala, Col. Nega held an emergency meeting with supporters in which Fit. Gebre-Meskel was harangued to humiliation and suspended from leadership of the unionist faction within the [Eritrean] Patriotic Association. He was asked to renounce his agreement with the ‘separatists’. The meeting with Col.Nega agreed to stop the Waala from taking place. But if convened, it was no more Gebre-Meskel Woldu but Tedla Bairu who was asked by Col. Nega to lead the team. Many observers, including Kennedy Trevaskis, recorded that even the meeting of the two factions for formulating the agenda might not have taken place if Col. Nega were in Asmara on 16 November 1946.
Waala, 24 November
By 10 a.m. of the fixed date, some 30 delegates from the faction of the supporter of independence arrived at the meeting place led by Degiat Hassen Ali of Meraguz. Other key figures included Woldeab Woldemariam, Ibrahim Sultan and Berhanu Ahmedin. The bigger delegation of the unionist faction in the Patriotic Association, which included many youth, arrived late. Beside the new star, Tedla Bairu, other key figures in the delegation included Degiat Beyene Beraki, Blatta Demsas W/Michael and the humiliated Fit. Gebre-Meskel Woldu.
The atmosphere of the gathering was so tense that no one could take it for what it was originally planned: a meeting for peace, unity and reconciliation. It was far from that.
First to speak
was Bl. Demsas W/Michael who said: “You callers for independence, you are
mistaken. When one talks to parents, one does not pose conditions. We
Eritreans cannot make conditions to be united with Ethiopia. We just
unite”. The subdued Fit. Gebre-Meskel also spoke against “conditional
union” and against all what he previously agreed in the 12-point agenda
for the Waala. The independentist then knew that the whole thing
has been reversed and that there was little do be done at this
The other speaker was Tedla Bairu who eloquently presented the unionist version but with threats of action against those who would dare to try to stop them. He immediately diverted the attention of the meeting to the ethnic origin of Woldeab, and finger-pointing at Woldeab said: “You are from Tigrai; why do you meddle in Eritrean affairs by sometimes calling for trusteeship and at other times talking about conditional union with Ethiopia”. Woldeab retorted in the strongest terms possible. He expressed pride for his advocacy of a better solution for Eritrea to which he said he belonged through long and joint history. During those heated exchanges, the unionist hooligans started to physically harass the ‘separatists’. Woldeab was taken away in a car to Adi Nefas where he spent the whole day to avoid any head-on coalition with the thugs.
Moves for reconciliation and dialogue between the two factions were stopped. This was the end of the [Eritrean] Patriotic Association. It was replaced by the Patriotic Association for the Union of Eritrea with Ethiopia, and members of the latter name became literal agents of the state of Ethiopia. It was time for the independentists to start establishing their own political parties.
The visible humiliation reflected in the face of the once great leader Fit. Gebre-Meskel Woldu was a sad surprise at the Waala. The other major surprise was the sudden emergence of Tedla as a leader. He was a British civil servant until only a few weeks before the convening of the Waala. Woldeab himself wrote: “No one knew how and from where this Tedla came to the unionist side”. But Tedla retorted defending his past service to Ethiopia: “May the Lord reward me and my children for all what I have done for Ethiopia”. Jordan Gebremedhin wrote in his 1989 book:” Tedla Bairu made his entry into unionist politics preceding Waala Biet Giorgis and acquired fame in his zealous sabotage of the Waala’s efforts at peace and reconciliation”. Col. Nega thought that Tedla was a lightweight politician in Eritrea of the day because of his lack of domestic support. ‘Not a full-blooded [Habesha] neither a Copt nor a Moslem, Ato Tedla Bairu found himself in a weak and precarious position’, Col. Nega thought.
Waala Beit Giorgis was the first failed attempt by Eritreans of different viewpoints to solve political problems through dialogue. However, that first attempt was thwarted by Ethiopia’s interference in Eritrean affairs. That interference would not have succeeded without the collaboration of some Eritreans, especially the intellectuals of the day.