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The Deluge: A Personal View Of The End Of Empire Print E-mailT
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By Jelal Y. Aberra (Presenter) - Jun 12, 2010   

With a foreword by

9. The Christian Abyssinians and Ethiopia’s Claims to Eritrea

The Senior Political Officer of the Serae district whom I was to relieve was a schoolmasterly type called Crawford. Clear skinned, bright eyed and crisp of speech, he was the public school Spirit incarnate: a living memorial to cold baths on frosty mornings and six of the best for slacking. To him, everything was black or white. Gray areas never bothered him. When asked a question, he expected a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. ‘Buts’ he treated as impertinences. Loyalty to one’s team was the cardinal duty in his schoolboy code; disloyalty the unforgiveable sin. In his distict he expected loyalty from the Eritreans and he made sure that everyone knew it.

He had no real trouble from the Bishop and his pro- Ethiopian scallywags, he told me. There had been a bit of tomfoolery at first – Ethiopian flags going up in schools, pro- Ethiopian speeches at Church festivals and nonsense of that sort – but he had put a stop to it pretty damned quick. A tail twisted here and a good wigging there had very soon put matters right. And what about young malcontents from Asmara? Had they been stirring up any trouble in the villages? None whatsoever, he replied, for the very reason that the chiefs were under orders to deport them on sight.  He could assure me that I was unlikely to see any of their ugly faces in the district. Say what you like about them. Everyone knew precisely where he stood.

Over dinner at Adi Ugri, the District Headquarters, on Crawford’s last night I asked whether there much support for the Ethiopian cause in the district.   “None worth mentioning”, he replied. “A few smart Alecs talking nonsense in the bars and coffee shops, a mad monk or two, no one of importance.”  The chiefs, he explained, were all a hundred per cent anti- Ethiopian. Why was that? That was simply explained. He had gone over to the Italians as a young man at the time when they invaded Eritrea and he had fought on their side against the Emperor Menelik at Adowa in 1896. The old Ras was no fool. He knew that the Ethiopians had long memories and that he would be for the high jump if they ever got their hands on him.

I set off to see this pillar of the Adi Ugri Establishment soon after Crawford’s departure. He lived in a little castle on the top of a steep hill where I found him waiting for me outside his front swaying in the light breeze. One look was enough to tell me that he was as drunk as a sailor on shore leave. He was a frail wisp of a man topped by a head of fluffy white curls. Under him were two quivering skeletal legs, long overdue for retirement. On seeing me, the rickety old creature gurgled an incoherent salutation and then dived gently into my arms. This unusual reception was followed by a further surprise. Over the castle entrance there were two flags: one Ethiopian, the other a Union Jack.

I received an explanation for this unexpected Anglo-Ethiopian display from my host’s son, Laine, in the dyspeptic aftermath of a luncheon of richly red-peppered stew and hair-curling mead. To look at his father now, he said, it was hard to believe that he had once been an outstanding warrior. Did I know that he had fought at the side of the Emperor Menelik against the Italians on that glorious day at Adowa? I knew something very different but let carry on. After Adowa, the young mountebank continued, I could imagine his father’s anguish on discovering that he had been left on what had rewarded the old devil royally for standing by them.  The fairy story ended appropriately with a happy ending: his liberation from Italian tyranny by ourselves.  “And so”, the sly young man concluded, “he can now go to the grave in peace under the protection of his mother and father.” Who? Mother Ethiopia and Father Great Britain! The Ras was playing it both ways. So here was Crawford’s loyalist who would never have any truck with Ethiopia!

With me at the time was my assistant, a portly young man called Yohannes who had carefully groomed to be Crawford’s most obedient servant. He had trotted pug-like along behind Crawford with a look of canine awe in his large, expressionless eyes.

He knew Crawford’s rule as well as Crawford himself. Laine had broken them and he was clearly upset that I had not given him a good slap across the wrist for his impudent talk about Mother Ethiopia. “Forgive me, sir”, he said, with a different little cough as we plodded home. “ If you don’t give him a good lesson, he might tell everyone to follow Ethiopia and that would be very dangerous.” I didn’t like disappointing him but I was no Crawford. If there were agitators around stirring up trouble, I was more than ready to give them a bit of stick; but twisting the tails of poor, soft-headed old fools who wanted to unite with Ethiopia was definitely not my job. Johannes gaped with disbelief: I had condoned what he could call disloyalty.

Disloyal or not, the Ras and Laine had my sympathy. These were awkward times for the unfortunate chiefs and, watching them looking this way and that for the sight of some straw in the wind, it was easy to see what was going on in their poor, tortured minds. If they turned their backs on the Bishop and Haile Selassie later took over, it would be off to the scrap heap for them. If they signed up with the Bishop and we in fact stayed put. It could mean incurring the wrath of some tail-twisting Crawford. They could try and play it both ways, of course, and despite their protestations of loyalty to Crawford, I had no doubt that was what most of them had been doing. The difficulty of playing the Two-faced Game however is that there comes the time when one must jump one or the other. The secret of success is to know when that has come: which is why, at the time of my arrival in Adi Ugri, the chiefs, their kinsmen and courtiers were hopping around in a state of high agitation. What with Longrigg slapping down the mutinous police and sending the Bishop and his friends scurrying for cover, everyone was telling everyone else that the British meant to keep Ethiopia out. Would Longrigg now issue a proclamation declaring Eritrea British? Would he perhaps float a pro-British party first to convince Britain’s allies that a British solution had popular support? Or would the British Government simply hand Eritrea back to the Italians to please the apparently Italophil Americans? With questions such as these buzzing about in their heads. Every chief was waiting to see what would happen next. Something did indeed happen but never in a life time could any of them have foreseen it. To put it simply, Longrigg took leave of his senses and acted completely out of character.

The bizarre development which ensued took place in the third of the Plateau’s three districts, the

Akele Guzai and its author was Fitarouri Abraha, son of the district’s equivalent to Ras Kidanemariam, another fluffy-headed ancient called Degjazmatch Tesemma. Unlike Laine, Abraha was a man of the twentieth century with an education in metropolitan Italy at his back. Balding donnish and with the appealing look of well travelled suitcase, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a philosophical discussion. So, too as it happened, did the district’s Senior Political Officer, a meditative, pipe-puffing product of the Sudan Education Department called Basil Lee. They talked particularly about the future of Eritrea and, on this they were both agreed: come what may, Ethiopia had to be kept out. Having labored diligently bringing schools, clinics, Native Courts and Advisory Councils to life, Lee for his part could not bear to think of some Ethiopian barbarian destroying all his good work. Like most of us, he wanted to stay on until some responsible Eritreans were ready to carry on our good work. Abraha had other, more compelling, reasons for keeping Ethiopia out. For him, as for his father, it was a matter of political life or death.

This was because they were kinsmen of Ras Seyum, hereditary ruler of Haile Selassie’s ever-rebellious province of the Tigrai (1), and grandson of his eminent predecessor, the Emperor John. In contemporary Ethiopia, as in mediaeval Europe, men of such menacing eminence could not safely be allowed to go free; and true to his country’s traditions, Haile Selassie had taken the precaution of putting Ras Seyum and a clutch of his kinsmen away. Since Abraha and his father were outspoken protagonists as well as kinsmen of this Bonnie Prince Charlie, and were moreover believed to have had in a recent Tigrinyan revolt which had all but cut the Tigrai loose from imperial rule, there was no doubt what would happen to them if Haile Selassie were to get his hands on Eritrea. Abraha saw only one sure answer. That was excise the Tigrai from Ethiopia, merge it with Eritrea and so create a Greater Tigrai which would become independent and free. Not independent and free immediately, Lee would explain. Abraha was not one of those empty-headed ninnies who thought a country could be run without training and experience; and he knew only too well that his Tigrinya kinsmen would be starting from scratch. Thus an essential postulate to his plan for a greater Tigrai would be an initial period of, say, ten years’ British Trusteeship. The great thing about this splendid fellow, Abraha, Lee would say. Was that he really understood and appreciated what we were trying to do. No doubt, either, that Abraha also understood and appreciated the need to get the British involved if this bright idea of his was to stand a chance.

Fanciful nonsense though I thought it, the Greater Tigrai plan was an instant success. Lee raved about it Longrigg’s advisers drooled over it and, finally, Longrigg himself swallowed it, it had, one most say, compelling attractions. The Abyssinian inhabitants of Eritrea’s Plateau district were ethnically Tigrinyans and historically the district had been a part, albeit a special part, of the Tigrai. On its own, neither Eritrea nor the Tigrai was economically viable; together they would add up to a good going concern. Lastly, the plan could be sure of the Tigrinyans’ fervent support. That said, the idea was moonshine –pure pie in the sky. This was 1944, not 1884 and to imagine that any British Government would contemplate annexing Ethiopia’s most ancient province or that Ethiopia would ever agree to letting the Tigrai secede fantasy. Of all people, a wise old bird like Longrigg should have known this. As it was, he not only backed Abraha’s folly, he let the whole of Eritrea know it.

To be continued …

Note: emphases are mine

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