Ghedli’s legacy of anti-intellectualism

The ELF started with a wrong footing, with a renowned shifta with a bloody history of tribal sectarianism as its head. When a group of Muslim elite congregated in Cairo to start the armed struggle, they were seeking a tribal footing in mieda, even though their aspirations were entirely driven by the pan-Arabism of the land from which they were launching their revolution. The contradictions that were to define the ELF for the rest of its duration in mieda were set. Even though nationalism was the last thing in their mind, the trans-national aspirations of its absentee founders – Islam and pan-Arabism – shouldn’t be confused for cosmopolitanism. Even when some of them came up with some sort of “socialism” at their liberal best or “ethnic federalism” of the mieda sort at their pluralistic best, both had to necessarily come from the Arab world in the form of Baathism and “Algerian experience” respectively; that is, they couldn’t conceive anything outside the Arab world. So whatever inspiration they drew from or whatever solidarity they made with had nothing to do with internationalism or cosmopolitanism; nothing at all about self-liberation. And more tellingly, their mieda history testifies that they never managed to come out of their tribal and religious squabbles. Jebha was born into a sectarian world, lived its entire life in a sectarian strife, and died as a result of it.

Similarly, when the well dressed peasants of Asmara – the Isaias generation – struck on their own to create the EPLF, there was little intellectual base to guide them in their ill conceived revolution. Besides, their young age, with little life experience from their urban upbringing to guide them, worked against them. The “urban” or the “Asmara” or the “modern” they carried with them wherever they moved around the Eritrean landscape made it impossible for them to see the Others, be it the peasants and pastoralists from within the confines of the nation or the “oppressed masses” of the outside world; they had to carry the walls of their city wherever they ventured. Even their adherence to communism had nothing international about it; their understanding of communism was rudimentary and hence ill understood. Communism to Asmarino was as superficial as his modernity; neither has left its mark in his/her psyche. And the few that had a better grasp of Marxism (mostly from Haile Selassie University) were quickly eliminated.

Despite its allegiance to leftist traditions, the Eritrean revolution has remained inarticulate from the start to end; it probably is the least intellectual of all the best known revolutions in Africa. While leftist leaders like Julies Nyrere, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Cabral have been very articulate in their vision for their respective nation states, in particular, and for Africa, in general, the Eritrean leaders have been mumbling, at best, and mute, at worst. The revolution started from a mute shifta that had no inkling of the greater world outside of his tribal setting and ended with an intellectually challenged leader who cannot conduct a single interview without being a laughing stock of the world. And in between, there has been nothing articulate except endless guayla (festivals) and nationalistic rhetoric that come in half sentences (“Awet nhafash!” “Kibri niswuatna!” Etc). That Eritreans often refer to their singers rather than their writers whenever they want to quote something intelligible about the revolution says it all; it is as if the whole revolution took place in feudal era, and the watta is our best chronicler. Thus, the revolution had nothing self-liberating or cosmopolitan about it; the provincial minds that led it were incapable of seeing beyond their limited world of tribal, regional, religious and urban settings – as it still remains to this day. The dearth of vision has been nothing short of astounding.

Until recently, there was not a single memorable quote, let alone a visionary book, that came out from 30 years of mieda experience. It is no surprise then that all the “memorable” books about ghedli came from those who were distanced from mieda Eritrea twice over: Dan Connell (“Against All Odds”), Roy Pateman (“Even the Stones Are Burning”), Thomas Keneally (“To Asmara”), James Firebrace and Stuart Holland (“Eritrea: Never Kneel Down”), etc. Not only did the writers had to be thousands away from the ground, but they also had to be from foreign extract. That kind of safe distance was necessarily needed to romanticize the revolution, and endow it with all kinds of virtues it never possessed. To the contrary, able national writers that experienced it all have been dead silent. Alemseghed Tesfay, a gifted writer from Shaebia, has yet to write a single article, let alone a book, on the history of the revolution while he writes volumes on past history, always making sure to bypass the ghedli era. And I don’t blame him, for there is no way he could retain his objectivity in doing the latter and survive it.

Thus, the whole ghedli literature can be summed up in one word: propaganda. If we dare go back and examine all the literature produced by Shaebia in mieda, it would look as dreary and as devoid of content as those written in and all the other mass media of the regime. It was only that, enamored as we were with the revolution, we read content into it that it never had.

But there probably is no better way to show the anti-intellectualism of ghedli than the deep seated hatred and hostility that both ELF and EPLF showed towards the student population, in general, and dissenters, in particular – a precursor to today’s all out inquisition against students in Eritrea.

How students fared in ghedli era

The way both liberation movements treated the student body is the best measure of the anti-intellectualism in mieda. The two most prominent dissent movements within ELF and EPLF – Falul and Menqae – happened to be mainly student rebellions. Both of them were completely obliterated. With their obliteration, not only were thousands of students’ lives were lost, but an entirely intolerant climate was born that was to last for the rest of ghedli duration.

From the very beginning, ELF’s feudal and Islamic roots were set against the students, for in those times the latter had two characteristics that made them alien to this world: better education and Kebessa identity. In its numerous purges against the highlanders – from Suriyet Addis to Falul – the dilemma that Jebha faced had always been the same: how to garner the support of Kebessa without its “intellectual” input. And whenever this balance seemed to be threatened, brutal force had to be used to set it right. And, at times – as in the case of Falul uprising – it required a purge of thousands.

Shaebia’s virulent anti-intellectualism has a long history, one that goes all the way back to its formative years. It took formative shape in its violent response against the Menqae movement. The movement was almost entirely made up of students and led by prominent figures from Haile Selassie University. Isaias successfully galvanized the peasants and pastoralists against them. From that time onward, whenever Shaebia felt threatened by an internal enemy, the students have been its primary suspects. So much so that, in mieda, any university student who joined the movement was an immediate suspect upon arrival, and was put under special scrutiny from h’alewa sewra. Many of those students had to play dumb – play the role of a peasant – for years to deflect scrutiny. Any proclivity of intellectual curiosity or any effort at dialog or criticism was met with utmost severity. Showing the slightest bit of doubt on what was decreed from above was a sure ticket to the dungeons; and in many instances, to the gallows.

Sahel thus evolved into a closed ecosystem where the ear became an endangered organ. In a landscape where listening to the other was nowhere to be found, the ear lost its ability to listen. A whole tribe was born without ears – the Shaebia tribe. It was this deaf tribe that was to haunt Eritrea for years to come, to give us nothing but 20 years of horror.

As the students were to modern knowledge, the peasants were to traditional knowledge in zemene ghedli (the revolutionary era). Since the Fronts’ anti-intellectualism was directed at both modern and traditional knowledge, it would only be appropriate to briefly look at how the peasants and their institutions fared in the anti-intellectual witch hunt of the revolutionary era.

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