and Khartoum Meeting of the
Opposition: What Similarities?
By Woldeyesus Ammar, 18 January, 2005
cited by Halafi Mengedi
The prolific writer and courageous debater Antonio Tesfai recently hinted in passing his observation of a similarity between the Eritrean Independence Bloc (Blocco Indipendenza) of 1949 and the expected birth of a new, and hopefully more dynamic, umbrella for the present-day Eritrean opposition forces. Antonio wished this Khartoum meeting to establish Eritrea’s second Blocco Indipendenza. Also a couple of days ago, a friend asked me if one could indeed strike some kind of resemblance between the two. I was not sure what the correct answer would be but I promised to come back to the friend with some historical facts on the matter: the creation of the Independence Bloc 55 years and 6 months ago, and the much expected birth of another Bloc in Khartoum these days for change and democratization in Eritrea.
In a quick search for sources on the subject regarding the Independence Bloc (Blocco), I re-read relevant sections from: a) Lloyd Ellingson’s article on The Emergence of Political Parties in Eritrea, 1941-1950, published in the Journal of African History, XVIII.2 of 1977 (pp. 261-281); b) Alemseged Tesfai’s 2001 book, Aynfelale, narrating party formations during 1941-50, and c) Dr Mismai Ghebrehiwet’s Ageb published in 2002. The paragraphs below are what I could glean from those sources about the Independence Bloc (Blocco) in a way of response to my friend, and why not, also to Nharnet.com readers.
The sources tell that the Eritrean political parties that supported eventual independence were put to a big commotion and serious test in the spring of 1949 when the Bevin-Sforza project for possible partition of Eritrea between Ethiopia and the Sudan was tabled by the United Kingdom and Italy. Those independentist/patriotic parties were seized by the fear that Eritrea may never continue to exist as they knew it.
On 27 March 1949, the Unionists killed Abdulkader Kebire, two days before his departure to Lake Success city in USA to attend the Third UN General Assembly session which had Eritrea in its agenda. The assassination of Patriot Kebire in Asmara’s via Cagliari was a shocking incident to the patriotic camp. At that time, the unionists were relatively solid and their terrorist acts, supported from across the Mereb River, were on the increase.
The Bevin-Sforza package plan that proposed the political end of Eritrea after its parceling to its neighbours was made public on 6 April and brought to vote on 17 May 1949 (read separate story below). The Bevin-Sforza package was foiled and Eritrea saved from partition by a single vote – that of small Haiti. The case of Eritrea and of the rest of Italy’s former colonies was thus rescheduled to be debated as of September 1949 in the start of the Fourth UN General Assembly session.
We have seen that Eritrea’s planned partition between Ethiopia and the Sudan was not foiled by Eritrean efforts, but by a simple luck and one vote of a small state. However, those patriotic parties that were until then bickering among themselves saw a real danger coming to the fate of the territory and its people and decided to think and act wisely.
A few days before the vote over the partition plan, Ibrahim Sultan of the Moslem League, Mohammed Omar Baduri of Pro-Italy party, and Signor Derossi of the Italo-Eritrean Association met on 13 May 1949 in Lake Success and agreed to form a united front. On that same day, the three parties sent a telegram to Asmara addressed to members of four parties (the League, the Liberal Progressive Party also known as Eritrea for Eritreans, Pro-Italia and Veterans Association) informing them about their plan to create a patriotic umbrella organization in the face of the impending danger. Also on that day, 13 May, Asmara witnessed a massive demonstration organized by the Moslem League opposing the Bevin-Sforza plan.
On his way back from the UN meetings at Lake Success in the USA, Ibrahim Sultan passed through Rome, a visit that was to be played effectively against him and his movement by the Unionists and Ethiopia.
On 19 June 1949, the parties met in Asmara and made pressure on the Pro-Italia party to drop its support for Italian mandate over Eritrea, which it did. On 4 July 1949, the League, the Liberal Progressive Party, the New Eritrea Party (i.e. the renamed Pro-Italia Party), the Italo-Eritrean Association and the Veteran Soldiers’ Association met in Asmara and declared that they formed a Council based on consensus.
The National Party (Hizbel watan) of Massawa decided to join the united front. Former unionists broke away from their party and formed a new party called Independent Eritrea Party and expressed wish to join the patriotic umbrella under formation.
On 22 July 1949, the patriotic/independentist parties met in Asmara and declared their united front to be named Blocco Eritreo per l’ Indipendenza or the Eritrean Independence Bloc. Their main objective was: 1. Direct Independence, 2. Formation of Democratic Government, 3. Preservation of Eritrea’s colonial borders based on international agreements, 4. Continue the struggle against the UK-supported partition plan.
The political leaders and the parties that signed the document on 22 July 1949 were:
1. Ibrahim Sultan Ali, for the Moslem League.
2. Asmerom Woldeghergis, for the Liberal Progressive Party.
3. Gerenkiel Berakhi, for the New Eritrea Party.
4. Ali Ibrahim, for the Veteran Soldiers’ Association.
5. The Italo-Eritrean Association, Michele Pollera.
6. Ahmed Abdulkader Beshir for Hizbel watan/National Party of Massawa.
7. Independent Eritrea Party, Tesfazion Deres.
Association of Eritrean Intellectuals was formed that summer with the encouragement and support of Woldeab Woldemariam and later joined the patriotic umbrella as its 8th member.
Rotating posts for leadership were agreed upon. Ras Tessema Asberom was named the first President of the Bloc for Independence, Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan Ali was elected the Secretary General, and Woldeab Woldemariam became the Deputy Secretary General and editor of the newspaper for the umbrella organization.
Immediately after its formation, the leaders of Blocco dared to ask to meet Colonel Nega Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s liaison officer who was also in charge of Unionist activities in Asmara, in order to inform him of what they stand for. He had to meet them because they were by then becoming the Eritrean force to be reckoned with. The Blocco leaders also met Italy’s liaison officer in Asmara, Signor Di Gropiero, and informed him that Eritrean patriots are united in their demand for direct independence as opposed to partition or mandate under Italy or other states.
By end of August 1949, Blocco Indipendenza became a formidable force. It was then that the British officials in Asmara reported back to London confirming that 75% of Eritreans were in support of independence. American embassy sources said two-thirds of Eritreans were in support of independence.
Whatever the figures, the Unionist party and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia were in serious trouble. Even Bekri Al Murghani, the president of the Moslem League who switched side to the Unionists in November 1948, declared in the summer of 1949 that he was withdrawing support to the Unionists and rejoining the patriotic Bloc for Independence.
The frightened Unionists and their backers prepared themselves for a major counter attack. Terrorist acts were intensified, and old Shifta leaders armed and let loose to kill and plunder lives and property of Eritrean patriots and Italians. To use the divide and rule tactic effectively, they concentrated the killings and arson on lives and property of innocent Italians and Moslem elders and businessmen. They alleged that Ibrahim Sultan and his Blocco Indipendenza were “selling out Eritrea to Italy under the guise of independence instead of letting Eritrea join its mother, Ethiopia”. On 28 August 1949, Ibrahim Sultan organized his first public gathering to refute this allegation by Unioniss and Ethiopia of Blocco’s “sellout to Italy”. But to no avail.
Emperor Haile Selassie’s arms, funds and his personnel flooded Eritrea. Soon after the formation of the Bloc, many high ranking officials who visited Asmara under excuses of tourism and health reasons included: Aklilu Habte Wold, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Yilma Deresa, Trade Minister, Eritrean Ephrem Tewolde Medhin, the Agriculture Minister, Jude Kiflezghi Yidego, Vice Minister for Health Kidane Mariam Abera and many high Ethiopian officials of Eritrean origin. Throughout the rest of 1949 and the whole of 1950, the Unionist Party and Ethiopia were determined to gain ground at any cost.
Understandably, the onslaught on Blocco Indipendenza was too heavy to remain without an adverse effect. And as a result, patriotic parties started to fall apart. Two splinter groups left Ibrahim Sultan’s Moslem League. These were the Independent Moslem League composed of former League members from central and eastern provinces who accepted union with Ethiopia, and the Moslem League of Western Eritrea led by Ali Mussa Radai, leader of former serfs who did not want the perceived return of Italy and instead made relations with the unionists on certain conditions. The Liberal Progressive Party (i.e. Eritrea for Eritreans) also broke in two, the splinter group renaming itself Liberal Unionist Party. The Independent Eritrea Party formed in the summer of 1949 also suffered split when a faction was formed calling itself Independent Eritrea United with Ethiopia Party. The Association of Eritrean Intellectuals on its part said it would not object union with Ethiopia if, after independence, an elected Eritrean parlaiment approved such a union.
It was after considering these developments that Lloyd Ellingson, in his 1977 article referred above, concluded as follows:
“Threats and continued violence, coupled with the [alleged] distrust of Ibrahim Sultan’s Italian connections...., brought final disintegration to the Bloc and the unity necessary to bring about an independent Eritrea [in 1950].”
This is about enough for today regarding our old Blocco Indipendenza. And if there were similarities between the situation preceding the formation of the Bloc and the situation preceding the Khartoum meeting, let it be interpreted by the reader out of the few facts presented here about the old Bloc.
A New Credible Bloc from Khartoum for
Change and Democratization in Eritrea?
We have just made a quick glimpse into how the patriotic/independence forces of the late 1940s gained ground when they formed a united umbrella but gradually failed to make it because of the weight of pressure on them and of regional/international factors.
Since the demise of Blocco Indipendenza, the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF) formed in 1999 was the only second partially successful attempt to bring Eritrean forces together for an effective joint struggle. The AENF that became ENA as of October 2002 could not win the support of Eritreans abroad and inside the homeland because of its structure and other factors. The Alliance even failed to make serious effort to keep itself intact let alone to become attractive and acceptable to Eritrean intellectuals and other forces that are indispensable partners in a united struggle to create a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Eritrea after replacing the homegrown petty dictator.
The Sudan, that cradle of our liberation struggle and a generous neighbour, last December hosted in its capital, Khartoum, an important meeting of the Eritrean opposition forces that have been in disarray and endless bickering among themselves.
One should not, at this particular moment, say much about the gathering except praying, as many of us are doing these days, and wishing Eritrea and Eritreans a better future starting with the Khartoum meeting which can, hopefully, end its sessions by announcing both reconciliation among us all and the birth of a more dynamic, popularly credible and eventually successful Eritrean Bloc for Change and Democracy.
God Bless Eritrea.
(The reading below, first posted in Nharnet.com in May 2004, is about the Bevin-Sforza Plan which has been lightly mentioned in the above article.)
The 17 May 1949 Vote on the Fate of Eritrea
Between the Potsdam, Germany, summit meeting of the World War II victors in August 1945 and the 2 December 1950 UN General Assembly vote to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia, countless proposals and recommendations drafted by various countries, sub-committees, committees and commissions were discussed about the future of our country. Each one of those proposals is an interesting reading in how ‘the game of nations’ is played in the international forums. The Bevin-Sforza Plan was only one of those proposals that did not work out. The plan, named after the foreign ministers of Britain and Italy, proposed , inter alia, the partition of Eritrea between Ethiopia and the Sudan. Ethiopia was for the partition plan with some initial ‘reluctance’. Eritrean delegations representing parties opposed to unity with Ethiopia were present at the UN corridors to foil the plan. But Eritrean opposition was not counting much. It was mainly due to other factors that the partition of Eritrea was averted. The paragraphs below will briefly recount what that project was and how it was not put to effect.
Starting on 6 April 1949, the already hot debate in the UN on the future of former Italian possessions in Africa intensified when the American delegate, John Foster Dulles, proposed on 9 May 1949 that a 15-Nation sub-committee should restart reviewing all the proposals tabled on the question of Eritrea and other Italian colonies. His proposal was accepted and the 15-Nation sub-committee started its deliberations to finally submit an acceptable project for further review by the First Committee of the General Assembly. The First Committee was a powerful body that included a representative from each member state.
The 15-Nation sub-committee reviewed all the proposals but preferred the Bevin-Sforza plan for the former Italian colonies. Vote on the Bevin-Sforza plan was 10 for, with 4 against and 1 abstention. Then the plan was submitted as a package to the First Committee.
On 17 May, the First Committee introduced a few changes and presented the plan to the UN General Assembly as follows:
1. Eritrea, except the western province, to be incorporated to Ethiopia, with the cities of Asmara and Massawa to be granted a special status with municipal charters. The incorporation of the rest of Eritrea to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan would be open for further discussion.
2. Somalia to be placed under Italian trusteeship for a period left to be defined by the General Assembly.
3. Libya to be granted independence after 10 years. But during those 10 years, the provinces, of Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripolitania would be under the trusteeship of Britain, France and Italy, respectively.
The UN General Assembly reviewed the plan and was highly expected to adopt without any problem the recommendation of the First Committee because every UN member state had a representative in that important committee and it seemed little would change. It went as follows:
1. The partition plan of Eritrea was passed in the General Assembly by 37 votes in favour of the Bevin-Sforza plan, 11 against and 10 abstentions. It thus seemed that the fate of the “former Italian colony of Eritrea” was sealed.
2. The Libyan issue had a number of sub-proposals. The General Assembly voted for reunited Libya’s independence after 10 years with 48 votes for, 8 against and 1 abstention. However, what was important was who should rule the three parts of Libya during the 10-year trusteeship period. It went as follows:
a) Britain’s trusteeship over Cyrenaica was adopted 36 in favour, 17 against and 6 abstentions;
b) French trusteeship over Fezzan was adopted by 36 in favour, 15 against and 7 abstentions;
c) but, the proposal of Italian trusteeship over Tripolitania was short of one vote to obtain the required two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. Haiti, which was NOT expected to vote against the Bevin –Sforza package on former Italian colonies voted AGAINST plan.
3. Again when the question of Italian trusteeship over Somalia was put to voting, the Haitian delegate to the United Nations, Senator St. Lot, voted
AGAINST. Senator St. Lot had direct instructions from the Haitian president of the day to vote for the Bevin-Sforza Plan, but the man opposed his head of state and voted as he saw it right. (He later justified his voting to had been based on his anti-colonialist feeling - against the return of Italy to Somalia and part of Libya. Others alleged that he was ‘bribed’ by Arab delegates who opposed the delay to grant independence to Libya.).
This was a big shock to USA, to UK and to Italy with its large Latin American bloc. Under this situation, many countries which until then supported the plan did not see it feasible and asked that it be put to new voting as one package – the Bevin-Sforza package. This meant that the General Assembly would not go ahead with its decision already reached regarding Eritrea and the two provinces of Libya (Cyrenaica and Fezzan) because the fate of Tripolitania was left pending. In a final vote on the package, the Bevin-Sforza plan was, ironically, rejected by 37 votes against, 14 in favour and 7 abstentions.
Thus, because of the decisive Haitian vote, the already reached decision of the General Assembly on the partition of Eritrea became null and void and the question of Eritrea was to be subjected to another review. Ethiopia was not happy that the partition ended that way but it was too late for her and her allies to save it. On the other hand, Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan Ali and his delegation rejoiced at the defeat of the partition plan, and started preparing themselves for the next round of ‘fact findings’ and ‘inquiries’ on the fate of this his country – i.e. this Eritrea of ours which is not yet in peace with itself and with its same old neighbours.
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