Student Activism: The Powerhouse of Eritrean Liberation Struggle; the Biggest Threat to the PFDJ

by Amanuel Yosief Beyin on 21 October 2009
Despite the vital role that student activism1 played in stimulating the Eritrean liberation struggle and current civic movements, there has not been proportional publicity of the topic in mainstream Eritrean Media. Most current public discourses seem to concentrate on the political rhetoric of the PFDJ regime and/or the opposition groups. This is by no means to undermine the works of several outstanding writers who wisely portrayed the patriotic role of Eritrean student activists in challenging oppressive regimes during liberation and post-independence scenarios of Eritrea2,3,10. Nonetheless, many of such accounts are often placed under the rubric of a vast political/historical literature. As such, it is usually not easy to encounter them in a standalone format. Stimulated by the remarkable testimonies of Eritrean student movements in the past, the writer offers a cursory review of the major episodes in which Eritrean Student Activism thrived. In doing so, the article aims at challenging the existing policies of the PFDJ Government towards free press, constitutional rights and higher learning education.

For the sake of expediency, I recognize three major phases during when Eritrean Student Activism has taken distinctive forms: early 1940s- early 1960s, mid 1960s-Independence, 2001-present. Student activism in Eritrea traces its origin back to the early 1940s. In 1941 the first generation of anti-colonial Eritreans -Mahber Fikri Hager Eritra (MFHE) formed a coalition demanding Eritrean freedom, mainly from the Italian fascist rule4. The masterminds of the MFHE consisted of young intellectuals and self made individuals notable among them Woldeab Woldemariam, Gebremeskel Woldu and Ibrahim Sultan4. Although limited to clandestine activities, the MFHE was successful in sending a shock wave to the British Administration prior to which organized parties were not allowed in Eritrea. The Italian colonial rule was particularly indifferent to Eritrean identity. After sensing the growing political consciousness of Eritreans, in 1946, the British Administration allowed the formation of political parties to which the subsequent fates of Eritrea owes a lot.

While less is written about student activism in the brief years after Federation (1952-56), student movements intensified in major cities of Eritrea in the early 1960s in an opposition to the imperial regime of Ethiopia. For example, in September 1960, about 400 students staged an open demonstration in Asmara opposing the removal of the Eritrean flag and institutionalization of Amharic as an official language5. In retribution, most of the students ended up in jail and others moved to Ethiopia to serve their prison terms. In May 1962, another big and well organized demonstration was staged by hundreds of high school students in Asmara denouncing Ethiopia’s open defiance of the Federation6. Meanwhile, the student activists formed an interim organization called “Association of Eritrean Intellectuals” and submitted a leaflet to the UN committee which was holding a meeting in Addis Ababa the same week7. In the leaflet, the student-association condemned Ethiopia breach of the terms of the Federation, and demanded UN’s intervention in the Eritrean matter. Although such activities didn’t yield any concrete results, they reflected the deep desire of most Eritreans to have a sovereign country. The other version of student activism during this time was the clandestine mass mobilization and artistic expressions aimed at fostering unity among Eritreans. One notable development in the late 1950s was the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) in 1958 in Sudan by young exiled Eritreans8. Ruth Iyob (1995:103) describes the role of the ELM in the following words, “The ELM’s ideal of a secular Pan-Eritrean nationalism, activated through its politics of protest and reconciliation, set the foundation for a rich nationalist culture.” Soon, ELM’s network spread throughout major cities of Eritrea through artists and student groups who were operating in distinct cells called Mahber Showate (group of seven). Ethiopia finally annexed Eritrea in November 1962 and the situation became extremely hostile for any kind of open youth activism inside Eritrea.

With the inception of the Eritrean armed struggle (in 1961), student activism took two forms: 1) those operating by exiled student chapters in Egypt and the Middle East, who were providing financial support and remote guidance to the struggle, and 2) those operating inside Eritrea and Ethiopia, who were secretly facilitating the flow of urban youths and intelligence to the field. In the successive years, Eritrean student chapters in different parts of the world provided immense material and intellectual support to the maturing liberation struggle. Those who left their studies and joined the struggle became key political figures in the liberation army. As a matter of fact, the masterminds of the current PFDJ regime are all products of the 1960s and 70s student activism. Meanwhile, the same generation who questioned Isayas Afwerki’s vindictive doctrine had degenerated in the process; some of them violently crushed (eg., the Menkae in 1970s), others gradually frozen (the G-15 in 2001), and those who escaped the scene are leading opposition movements in the diaspora today.2,3

In the first ten years after independence, the Eritrean youths played active role in stimulating strong nationalistic mood. Despite the erratic political platform, most of us were optimistic then than any time before or after. One of the important developments in the late 1990s was the emergence of private press/newspapers, most of which were spearheaded by University of Asmara (UoA) students and ex-fighters. In that brief period, the independent media played important role in engaging Eritreans into their best senses of literature and art….I can’t imagine feeling the streets of Asmara now without Wintana (the darling of the youth), Setit , Birhan, Mekalih, Keste Demena, Tsigenai, Zemen…etc. In light of the important contribution of the youth, particularly the UoA students in those initiatives, the few years before 2001 represented a pragmatic form of student activism. During the Eritro-Ethiopian war of 1998-2000, Eritrean youths and students from everywhere bravely defended their country, and many martyred. In May 2000, around 2500 UoA students held a peaceful demonstration condemning Ethiopian invasion. After the Eritro-Ethiopian war concluded with bitter internal animosity in the leadership (in light of the then growing friction between the G-15 and Isayas), soon the PFDJ turned its muscle to its own brood. The arrest of over 2000 university students in summer 2001 should suffice to shed light on PFDJ’s betrayal of Eritrean youths.

Although the Eritrean government initially professed interest in nurturing freedom of expression, that promise didn’t survive long. Unable to defend its addiction to power and conspiracy, in September 2001, the PFDJ resorted to a collective punishment of all private media including the religious ones. Subsequently, the pragmatic student activism which was embedded in those thriving private media outlets came to an end. Shortly, the government intensified its interference in the affairs of the UoA until it finally closed it in 2006. This can be considered (many people agree) a sheer scheme by the PFDJ/Isayas to foil any potential mutiny from students groups affiliated with the UoA. Concurrently, the final year of high school was decided to be offered in Sawa. Again, this is nothing but PFDJ’s brainwashing tactic by robbing the young generations any exposure to adult wisdom in their ideal surroundings. Now, Sawa has become a toll free bridge to Sudan for the desperate youngsters.

The closure of the UoA didn’t stop its former students from becoming leading activists against the escalating abuses of human rights in Eritrea. In December 2003, ex-UoA students in Pretoria (South Africa) formed a non-violent, self-defined civic movement called Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR)9. In part, the EMDHR owes its origin to three concurrent conditions: 1) the intensification of human rights violation in Eritrea since 2001, including involuntary military conscription, 2) repeated intimidations of Eritrean students by the Eritrean Embassy in South Africa, and 3) President Isayas’ demoting response to one particular question asked by a student during July 2002 meeting in Durham…the response goes “[thanks] to globalization, employment opportunities intended for [you] could easily be filled with people imported from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines and elsewhere."10 In the words of Tricia Hepner10, “A core of student leaders responded to these developments by intensifying their organization of a broader movement to challenge the government’s actions concretely.” Such initiative conforms to the long history of political activism by Eritreans in the diaspora before and after independence. These days, we are witnessing a constant increase in the number of civic associations under the rubric of democracy, justice and so on. To my understanding, such initiatives (led by young generation and focused on peaceful civic mobilization) have the potential to lay a neutral foundation for stronger opposition, which is missing among the older parties. Apparently, such developments seem troubling the PFDJ. In response, they are mobilizing young PFDJ squad...What a drama!

In conclusion, by all measures, the PFDJ has now proved to be abhorrent to any kind of activism (social and political) despite the fact that such rights and liberties were granted to all Eritrean citizens by the popular Constitution ratified in199711. As a result of the harsh political situation at home, we are witnessing non-stop exodus of young Eritreans to neighboring countries, persecution of churches and curtailment of all sorts of free press. As one opposition group has stated it correctly, “It has now become obvious to all Eritreans that the present regime in Asmara is determined to dismantle everything positive that has made Eritrea and Eritreans a resilient law abiding and justice loving people.”12 The quote says it all, but what does the future hold for the young generation? I don’t have the answer, but I believe that the PFDJ is actually facilitating its own demise by denying Eritreans their fundamental rights. And that time is not far-away for justice and peace to prevail. The article has briefly highlighted the past and present challenges of Eritrean youth activism in reference to student groups. My brief review shows that the Eritrean youth (those affiliated with academic institutions or self made groups) had been and continued to be vital forces for change on the faces of oppressive regimes. Due to time constrains, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg on the topic. Surely, the subject deserves a different narrative, preferably by more informed individuals. God Bless Eritrea and its People.

Amanuel Yosief Beyin

New York


1  A work done by students to effect political, environmental, economic, or social change:  Fletcher, A. (2005). Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People. Olympia, WA: Common Action.
2  Iyob, R. (1995). The Eritrean Struggle for Independence: Domination, Resistance, Nationalism 1941-1993.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
3  Hepner, T.R. (2009). Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
4  Iyob 1995:65
5 Iyob 1995:91
6 Iyob 1995:92
7  Foreign Service Dispatch, Thomas R. Byrne, Chargé d’Affaires ad Interim, American Embassy Dar es Salaam,   no. 775a. 006-562 (June 5, 1962. cited in Iyob 1995:93, 166).
8  Iyob 1995:98
9  The Constitution of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (March 26, 2006:2).
10  Mekonnen, D. R. and Samuel B. A. (2004) ‘The plight of Eritrean students in South Africa, unpublished paper as cited in Hepner T.R. (2008). Transnational governance and the centralization of state power in Eritrea and exile.
Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 31 No. 3 pp. 493.
Eritrea Constitution (1997). Chapter III, article 19.
11 Press Release: By Eritrean Democratic Alliance North America Zone (EDA-NA Zone), April 10, 2009 (