Correcting Narratives on Eritrean nationalism

Much of the history writing on Eritrea is characterized by ignorance, falsity, and prejudgment. In the past, Expansionist forces of Ethiopia and Ethiopianist writers have used distorted narratives to justify their expansionist political claims and to mobilize the masses for the war against Eritrea. National history contributes to the definition of national identity. Hobsbawm remarked: “I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of, say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can.” Therefore, what and how to remember is a very topical issue.  


Eritrean intellectuals are laboring to correct the wrong narrative nourished by foreign writers and journalists. There exists a general public mood that calls for historical revision. As part of this public worry to defend for and correct the Eritrean history, Hdri Publishers has organized a discussion forum on ‘Eritrean national identity’ on Tuesday 12th, October 2021 in Junior Club. During the event, Alemseghed Tesfay a renowned playwright, novelist, history writer and veteran liberation fighter gave a general briefing on the historical development of Eritrean nationalism and national identity. He has gained a reputation for his stern accuracy in inquiring and bold imagination in describing things. Alemseghed Tesfay has produced three volumes of history that covers from 1941-1962. While writing the history of Eritrea he faced a confused heap of historical distortions. He said “when I was writing the books, all the references are ugly and I feel like I am swimming in sea of hostility.”  


History in the words of E.H Carr “is an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” It is a continuous process of revisiting and reinterpreting what earlier generations once held as truth. Eritrean history is wrongly written and so it needs to be rewrite. In the past, Eritrean History is used in the most inappropriate way by colonizers to justify their expansionist intentions. Since it’s been written by non-Eritreans, the canvas upon which the history of Eritrea is displayed is an aggregate of distorted truths, fables, myths, prejudices and personal narratives. “The challenge of the present generation”, said Alemseghed Tesfay is “to know what has been said about Eritrea, to discover the past wholly and introduce it to the people.”


Eritrean nationalism is a historical construction developed through time, passed various obstacles and finally gave birth to an independent nation. The strength of Eritrean nationalism is manifested in its ability to unite the multi-lingual and multi-religious population and make them willing to die for the “imagined community.” some scholars have tried to trace the genesis of Eritrean nationalism and attempted to fix the birth date of Eritrean nationalism. Alemseghed Tesfay rejected any notion of dating and stressed on the idea that “it’s a process. Its bases and foundation stretches to pre-colonial times.” The people of Eritrea had their own history and civilization, their own laws and administrative systems before colonialism. It can be said that, the pre-colonial resistance against the expansion of Abyssinian hegemony has made a tremendous contribution toward the collective Eritrean national consciousness.


The pre-colonial history of Eritrea continues to become a contested area for research. Ethiopian colonizers had claimed that Eritrea and Ethiopia have identical historical development for thousands of years prior to Italian colonization. This is shaky historical justification for various reasons. Richard Greenfield, in his article, Pre-Colonial and Colonial History argued that the Eritreans were never really a part of Ethiopia prior to its annexation of Eritrea in the early 1960s, and were “only occasionally affected by the authority of that empire-state.”


Like all of third world countries, Eritrea is a colonial creation. However its creation is not like what G. N Trevaskis has said: “Italy created Eritrea by an act of surgery.” Alemseghed Tesfay defied this Eurocentric perception and argued that the people who have made to live on a delineated territory of Eritrea by Italians were not a people without history. Nationalism is basically an ideological and political expression of loyalty and a common identity among the citizens of a nation in order to achieve allegiance to a polity. Therefore, Eritrean nationalism has its roots in the resistance against foreign domination and the common experience shared during the struggle. In this process, the people of Eritrea began to develop a will to live together and create a nation of their own.


In the academic discourse, the history of the struggle for independence of Eritrea has been presented wrongfully as a ‘secessionist insurgency’ or ‘sectarian nationalism’ directed against the so called ‘historic unity’ of ‘greater Ethiopia’. This narrative is purposely perpetuated by Ethiopianist writers to delegitimize and undermine the revolutionary achievements, the dynamics and transformation of Eritrean society.


Nationalism demands unconditional loyalty from its citizens in order to create and to establish national cohesion. The people of Eritrea has showed extraordinary loyalty to their country and paid their tribute without any reservation. Anthony Smith described Eritrea as having one of the “fiercest contemporary expressions of nationalism.” Herbert M’Cleod has once said that “There is a big difference here compared with the rest of Africa . . . . People are much more interested in their country than in themselves. They all made sacrifices.” Despite this fact, many scholars have attempted to present Eritrean nationalism as a baseless emotion. For example, Haggai Erlich, among others opined that “Eritreanism a very young emotion was essentially the negation of Ethiopianism rather than a historically rooted supra-tribal, supra-linguistic, and supra-religious sense of Eritrean affiliation.”

Eritrea as a modern nation is therefore the historical result of a number of facts that have combined and converged over time. Renan described the nation as a “soul” or “spiritual principle” comprised of “a rich legacy of memories” and “present-day consent, the desire to live together.” The psychological bond that joins the people of Eritrea together has always been strong. The uniqueness of Eritrean nationalism and national identity is demonstrated in the desire of Eritreans to be united despite their linguistic, ethnic and religious variety. They have developed unique national features that allow them to distinguish themselves from those labeled as “others.”

Even though the bases of Eritrean nationalism and national identity have been firmly established, it needs scholarly support and fair treatment in history writing. Celebrated writer Alemseghed Tesfay argued that the only way we can understand who we are and how we got to be that way is by studying the past. He strongly recommended encouraging the culture of reading, research and discussion among youth is imperative to correct the wrong narratives on Eritrean history. Finally, he posed interesting questions to, answered questions from and heard opinions of the participants. The organizer and moderator of the program, Mr. Efrem Habtetsion also informed the participants that such discussion forums will continue in the future.


Simon Weldemichael

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