Prof. I. M. Lewis
ITHACA PRESS LONDON,
13 Southwark Street, London SE1
(Printed and Bound in Great Britain by Biddles Ltd. Guildford and King’s Lynn)
ISBN O 903 729 938
The political roots of the Eritrean struggle for independence from Ethiopia can be traced back to the formation of parties and organizations which sprang up during the period of British military administration which lasted from 1941 to 1952.
Although there were localized rebellions during the preceding Italian colonial rule (1889-1941), there was no co-ordinated political movement or activity that could be identified as nationalist. Nevertheless, the evolution and vicissitudes of Eritrean nationalism - its ideological expression and organizational form - have been linked with patterns of external domination - Italian, British and Ethiopian - and with internal social and economic changes. The division between the nationalist parties of the 1940s, the establishment of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1961 and the emergence of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front in the early 1970s are founded on the differential transformation of a society divided between pastoralist and peasant.
To detail the interaction between nationalist movements and Eritrean society this essay will examine four processes: colonial Eritrea and its transformation; Eritrean nationalist politics in the 1940s; the establishment of the ELF; the crisis which brought about the formation of the EPLF and the consequences of these developments. The argument presented is that Italian colonial rule began a process of social, economic and political integration and thereby forged the basis of Eritrean nationalism but the expansion of colonial capital initiated different transitions on two precapitalist forms of production. Parts of the settled peasantry of the highlands and eastern coastal area were transformed into a proletariat, subproletariat and petty bourgeoisie and other parts linked directly and indirectly to the new urban markets and the export trade. Sections of the pastoralists of the west, north east and south became settled and some clans established themselves as traders in grain and livestock. The majority, however, remained untouched by the deep changes occurring in the highlands and east. It is this historically different transition and its effect on the nationalist parties and the fronts which lie at the root of the political divisions and varying forms of nationalism rather than a division between
Muslim and Christian or Tigrinya and Tigre-speaker, as has often been argued. At the same time, because social and political changes occurred with differential regional effects, and because there was a regional distribution of Muslim pastoralists on the one hand and Christian peasants on the other, political conflict has been conceived of as fundamentally sectarian or regional. To clarify the inter-relationship between social change, religion, region and language it is essential to present a brief account of the geography and regional distribution of the Eritrean communities.
Eritrea is a relatively small country with a varied terrain and climate: savannah and desert in the west, temperate highlands in the centre and a long desert coastal plain. This mainly arid coast, stretching for about a thousand kilometres along the Red Sea, gives Eritrea its strategic significance for, at the southern tip, the coastal strip extends to the straits of Bab al-Mandab. Located on this coast are the ports of Massawa and Assab without which Ethiopia would be landlocked.
The coastal area is dominated by the Plateau, the northern extension of the Ethiopian highlands, and comprises the provinces of Hamasin, Serai and Akalai Guzai. With altitudes of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, the Plateau is cut by both deep and shallow fertile valleys. It stretches northwards to the Northern Highlands of Sahel province, more stark and arid than those of the centre. It is these highland areas which have provided sanctuary for bandits in the past and now provide excellent guerrilla country and terrain for base areas.
To the west are the Barka lowlands which stretch to the Sudan border. The seasonally flowing Barka river brings strips of fertile land to this area of scrub and semi-desert. In the south west is an agriculturally richer area lying between the Gash and Setit rivers, the latter, with the Mareb, forming the south western border with Ethiopia.
The variety of terrain is matched in variety by linguistic groups. In the highlands live the bulk of Eritrea's settled peasantry the majority of whom are adherents of Christianity. The Red Sea coast is inhabited by Afar (Danakil) speaking pastoralists to the south of Massawa and Tigre speaking pastoralists to the north. Both Tigre and Afar are adherents of Islam. The western lowlands are populated by nomads, semi-nomads and recently settled cultivators. All of these are Muslim and speak Tigre although there are pockets of Beja or mixed Beja-Tigre speakers. In the Gash-Setit delta are the settled Kunama and Baria peasant communities speaking their separate versions of Nilotic.
Although the bulk of the population is rural, Eritrea is quite highly urbanised with about 20 per cent of an estimated population of three million living in cities and towns.
The major linguistic groups are:
Most of the Tigrinya-speakers live on the Plateau, are Christian and live in villages or towns. A significant proportion of the merchants in the highlands, the JIBARTI, are Muslim and speak Tigrinya, as do Tigre speaking Muslims who have been long resident in the towns of the Plateau.
Most of the Tigre-speakers are Muslim and inhabit the north eastern coastal plains and western lowlands. Most are nomads and seminomads but the original inhabitants of Massawa and its village hinterland are also Tigre speakers. It is the language of the Bani Amir, the dominant confederation of the west and the Sahel tribes of the north and north west. The Mensa clan are, however, Christian.
The Saho live on the eastern edge of the Plateau and the foothills of the coastal plain of Akalai Guzai province. The majority are Muslim and pastoralists but there are also pockets of settled peasants and adherents of Christianity.
4. Afar (Danakil)
All Muslim and a majority nomadic; they inhabit the harsh Dankalia Red Sea coast. Some Afar have settled in the ports of Massawa and Assab.
Spoken by Beja pastoralists in the north west, the majority of whom live in the Sudan.
Spoken by the Kunama who are settled village dwellers and adherents of traditional religion, Christianity and Islam. They live in the area between the Gash and Setit rivers.
Spoken by the Baria of the eastern Gash in the western lowlands, they are settled agriculturalists and mainly Muslim but with some converts to Christianity.
Spoken by the people of Keren, an important market town, and its environs. They are equally divided between Christian and Muslim.
Most of these linguistic groups have their distinct cultural forms particularly in their songs and dances. Some Eritreans also speak Arabic, particularly those from areas which have had contact with the Arabs of the Sudan and Arabian peninsula.
Linguistic Groups in Eritrea
Danakil (Afar) 33,000
The Uneven Transformation of Eritrean Society
Until 1890 Eritrea was a contested area. The Ottoman Empire, and later Egypt, its successor to the Ottoman positions on the coast, the Sudanese empires in the west and the Ethiopian empires to the south fought with each other for tribute. With the waxing of European power the contest was for territorial control, a battle which ended when Italy, with the encouragement of Britain, established its colony on the Red Sea and named it Eritrea.
The colony was divided into two main types of societies: settled peasants and pastoral nomads. The peasantry was concentrated in the highlands and semi-lowlands of the Keren region, the coastal area of Massawa and Harkiko and the southern part of the western region. It was formed of different nationalities and included Muslims and Christians although the latter predominated. The pastoral nomads, Muslim with varying knowledge of and interest in Islam, inhabited the western lowlands, the northern environs of Keren up to the Sudan border, and the Red Sea coast as far as the border with Djibouti.
The impact of colonial rule brought about two transitions: the creation of manufacturing industry and a service sector in the highlands and coastal area around Massawa, increasing trade between the pastoral nomads of the west and north east and a tendency toward settlement by some sections in predominantly pastoral areas. The level of urbanization in the west in 1940 is indicative of the relatively slow transition. The settlements that existed were large villages: Tessenei, a market town close to the Sudan border, had a population of 5,000: Agordat 4,000: Barentu 1,000. Of a western province population of about 334,000 in 1950, only 254,000 were pastoralists. ',In the north, small towns like Afabat and Naqfa were then seasonal camps for pastoralists. In contrast, the estimated population of Asmara was 126,000 and Massawa 26,000. While the Plateau and coastal plains were drawn into
the modern economic sector created by the Italians, only a limited process of settlement occured in the west and north, although a shift to casual labour did take place.
Differential dependence on the modern sector developed. The peasantry of the highlands and Massawa became increasingly urbanized and proletarianized. Villages became dependent on income from labour in the Italian-owned factories and on road and railway construction projects. At the same time the limited educational institutions were more available in the highland areas rather than in the pastoral west. Some change occurred during the period of British military administration (1941-52) when the proletarianized peasantry were forced to return to their villages with the end of the war boom, the run down of factories and the dismantling and auctioning of Italian war industry. The peasantry of the highlands and coastal areas thus contains an element of an earlier working class.
In the west, the main change was the settlement of some sections of the pastoralists and their involvement in migrant labour. It has been estimated that some 12,000 of the Habab and Bani Amir worked on the Tokar cotton plantation in Sudan.' The chiefly clans moved into the cattle trade and, in a system of indirect rule, acted as administrators.
Besides an intensification of the differences between societies of pastoral nomads and peasants, historically there had been a conflict between the two.' The Bani Amir had for years feuded with the villages on the western sectors of the highlands and with the settled Kunama, a peasant Nilotic group, of the south west. In the past, the fighting between the settled Kunama and Bani Amir had included raiding for slaves. On the eastern escarpment there had been a similar conflict between the pastoral Saho and the settled peasants of eastern Serai. Seasonal migration, the search for pasture, the historic background of the marauding nomad preying on the settled peasant, searching for spoils of cattle and property underlay the relationship.
The two transitional populations were frequently in competition for land and grazing. Population pressure in the highlands, increased by Italian alienation of land, forced highlanders to pasture their cattle on the lowlands and also resulted in migration to the cities for work. The double change intensified the traditional clash between sedentary and nomad, on the one hand, and, on the other, brought a closer inter-relationship between peasant and the new capitalist sector. For the nomads, failure of rains and pressure on grazing with its attendant loss of livestock brought either increasing settlement, migrant labour or the continuing clash between nomad and settled in the peripheries of the highlands.
This different pattern of social and economic change underpinned the division of the Eritrean liberation movement into two wings in the late
1960s. It was also at the root of the divisions between the Eritrean political parties in the 1940s and 1950s compounded at that time by differing conceptions of Eritrean independence.
Eritrean Nationalism and British Military Administration 1941-52
The British defeat of the Italian army in 1941 changed the nature of Eritrean politics. The British were to rule temporarily - until the Allied powers agreed on the disposition of the former Italian colonies. In the event of a disagreement, the decision would be left to the United Nations. While the Italian colonial administration brought about the integration and restructuring of an Eritrean national society, the British administration created the framework for the political expression of Eritrean nationalism. During the period from 1941 to 19510 there was a complex interaction of internal class and political conflicts fuelled by competing external influences. The guiding hand of Britain, the strategic interests of the United States, the claims of Italy and Ethiopia exerted an influence on a population which was 80 per cent illiterate and had been deprived of political participation during the fifty years of Italian rule. The new focus of political activity was the investigatory commissions of the Four Powers (1948) and the United Nations (1950) whose brief was to consult Eritrean opinion on the future of Eritrea. The British authorities allowed Eritrean groups to organize politically, the result of which was a bifurcated national movement shaped by the interplay of internal social change and external pressures. The major division was on the alternatives of union with Ethiopia or independence.
In 1949, those supporting an independent Eritrea coalesced into the Independence Bloc which became the Eritrean Democratic Front in 195 1, after the UN decision to incorporate Eritrea into a federation with Ethiopia. It was formed of the Muslim League of Western Eritrea, the Independent Eritrea party and varyingly titled Italian settler parties.
The movement for independence had its origins in the `serf emancipation movement' formed in 1942 to organize for liberation of the ogre from the rule of the nabeab and shumagulle, the aristocratic clans of the west and north. The movement was encouraged by the British and was a reaction to the blocked process of change during the Italian period. In brief, the pastoralists in the west and north (the Bani Amir and Habab being the most numerous) were divided into `aristocrats' and `serfs' with the dominant position of the former based on an historic claim of conquest over the indigenous peoples.fi The aristocratic clan livied tax on their conquered subjects who payed a range of dues and provided services in return for protection. The sedentarization of nabtab and tigre in the vicinity of market towns or at seasonal encampments broke down the distinction
between the two particularly where the tigre settled peasants developed wealth in produce, animals or through trade equal to the nabtab. In areas where settlement did occur the payment of dues and the provision of services were less onerous.
Although differences in wealth between nabtab and Tigre began to change during the Italian periods, the Italian colonial administration perpetuated the political subjection of the serf through a pyramidal `native' administration system. It was during British rule, however, that the `rebellion of the serfs' took place and a restructuring of tribal organization which ended nubtab dominance. The former ruling clans considered that their position would be better assured through a political association between Eritrea and an Ethiopia ruled by an Emperor and aristocratic hierarchy. The mass of the emancipation movement, organized in the Muslim League, favoured independence. Thus in northern and western Eritrea, there was a division along class lines underpinning the divergent movements. Although the main bloc in the independence movement was the Muslim League, and the Islamic nomenclature did serve to emphasize religion, the core was the serf movement with the goal of national independence as an instrument for freeing themselves from semi-feudal domination. Also favouring independence were the Liberal Progressive Party comprising a group of highlanders with a prominent bloc from Akalai Guzai, the province bordering Ethiopia.
The forces which favoured union with Ethiopia originated in the Society for Love of Country, the leadership of which argued that only union with Ethiopia would ensure the end of colonial rule. Organized as the Unionist Party, it encouraged an understandable chauvinism against the remaining Italian settlers. It did also mobilize sentiment on an anti-Muslim basis, a TREND INITIALLLY DIRECT AGAINST THE JIBARTI, the Tigrinya-speaking Muslims of the highlands predominant in trade and commerce, as a consequence of their disbarment from land ownership.
It was generally agreed by most contemporary observers that in the early 1940s the overwhelming majority of Eritreans favoured independence. Two processes significantly affected this position so that the Unionist solution to the problem of Eritrea received widening support. Firstly the organizations of Italian settlers and those of mixed Italian and Eritrean parentage, the Italo-Eritrean Association subsequently named the New Eritrea party, favoured an Italian trusteeship followed by independence and was thus a member of the independence movement. The Unionists' strong opposition to the Italian settlers and the return of Italy was an important factor in generating support among the urban and rural population of the Plateau, where the exploitative and racist nature of Italian colonial rule, particularly during the fascist period, had been most deeply felt. The economic and social transformation of the peasantry had
gone along with expropriation of land, child labour and discriminatory racial laws establishing separate `native quarters' and low wages in the factories. Nor did the British military administration change the advantageous social, economic and administrative positions which the Italians occupied. Indeed, land expropriation continued and commercial concessions were allocated in favour of the Italian community. Furthermore, in the early period of the occupation Italians were retained in key local positions in the gendarmerie and municipalities. Interim solutions like a British or Italian trusteeship were viewed as vehicles for the continuation of Italian power within Eritrea. Independence, likewise, was conceived as an Italian conspiracy.
A second and equally important factor was the role of Ethiopia in giving direction and assistance to the Unionist movement and the part played by the church hierarchy in influencing the Christian community. Kennedy Trevaskis, a British official, has depicted the role of the priesthood under the direction of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:
By 1942 every priest had become a propagandist in the Ethiopian cause, every village had become a centre of Ethiopian nationalism and popular religious festivals such as Maskal (the Feast of the Cross) had become occasions for open displays of Ethiopian patriotism. The cathedrals, the monasteries and village churches would be festooned with Ethiopian flags and the sermons and prayers would be delivered in unequivocal language."
Religious propaganda went along with religious pressure. In 1949, before the arrival of the UN Commission, the church announced in the newspaper Ethiopia that those who supported independence would not be baptised, married or buried and would be given neither communion nor absolution. The effect of what was a declaration of excommunication on a traditionally religious society was considerable.
The Unionist party was also linked to Ethiopia through the Ethiopian liaison officer in Asmara, Colonel Nega Selassie. It used less spiritual influence to further its goals: assassinations, bombs and grenades were used against supporters of independence."
In general, Eritrean `opinion' as expressed by political leaders was divided. It was not so much divided on religious grounds as on other factors. Local rivalries played their part but Muslims and Christians were members of the Unionists although a combination of fear of the return of Italian rule and Ethiopian-sponsored religious and political coercion had a weightier influence on the latter. Those who favoured independence were equally heterogeneous and differently influenced. The majority of…
westerners and northerners feared a restoration of the powers of the ruling clans; the Italian and those of mixed Eritrean-Italian parentage saw an independent Eritrea as a means of ensuring their social and economic prestige and power; the intellectuals and trade unionists of the towns, largely Christian but uninfluenced by religion, opposed a union under the aegis of the autocratic Ethiopian empire.
The regional security interests of the western powers and the polarized political situation resulted in a compromise: autonomy for Eritrea within an Ethiopian-Eritrean Federation. The United States of America was influential in securing this solution because of its control in the United Nations in the immediate post-war period. Ethiopian guarantees of the use of a telecommunications complex near Asmara seem to have been crucial.'"
Although the compromise solution was to prove unworkable, it was an addition to the proposed solutions to the Eritrean problem which have remained current to the present: independence, unconditional unity or some form of autonomous association with Ethiopia.
The Federation 1952-62 and the Establishment of the ELF''
It was on the basis of United Nations Resolution 390 (V) A, of December 1950, that Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. The first part of the resolution read that
1. Eritrea shall constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown.
2. The Eritrean government shall possess legislative, executive and judicial powers in the field of domestic affairs.
The federation lasted until 1962 when the autonomy arrangement was dissolved and Eritrea was declared a province of Ethiopia. Between 1952 and 1961, the year when the ELF was founded, a combination of Ethiopian repression and poor co-ordination between nationalist groups considerably weakened the Eritrean nationalist movement. At the same time, Ethiopian repression and the concerted subversion of Eritrean autonomy alienated both those who had accepted the compromise and many of those who believed in the viability of the union. Political parties and trade unions, recognized in the Federal constitution, were dissolved. Newspapers were suspended. Eritreans were brought before Ethiopian courts, the jurisdiction of which were extended by imperial decree to Eritrea. In 1956 Tigrinya, one of the main national languages, was replaced by Amharic which was declared the only language for government and business documents, educational institutions and the law. Opposition to such developments crystallized in 1958 when a general strike was declared following a series of demonstrations in Asmara, Massawa and Keren.
The power of the police and the army was considerably enhanced, and the nationalist movement formed clandestine organizations which provided the bridge between the nationalist activity of the 1940s and the armed struggle of the 1960s.
The Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was formed in 1958 and had its origin in networks of exiled workers, students and small traders. Another loosely connected organization which emerged from the towns of the Plateau was the Mahaber Showat (Association of Seven) based on cells of seven members. These movements were poorly co-ordinated and badly led and generally accepted the tactic of peaceful struggle. Nevertheless, they provided the focus for opposition to Ethiopian policies and formed the nucleus for the subsequent secret organizations linked to the liberation fronts. The experience of clandestine political activity under a vigilant Ethiopian security system was to prove invaluable in the later decades.
The lack of success of the nationalist movement of the 1950s and particularly the disenchantment with peaceful means were the major factors in the establishment of the ELF in 1961. Contributory was the Ethiopian shift towards the dissolution of the federation y and the annexation of Eritrea and the inability of Eritrean politicians to engage the concern of the United Nations. Furthermore, an attempted coup in Ethiopia by young officers in 1960 suggested that the imperial dynasty was not so omnipotent.
The ELF was formed by a group of political exiles in Cairo led by ldris Muhammad Adam, a nationalist and former speaker of the Eritrean Assembly, Ibrahim Sultan, former secretary-general of the Muslim League, and Woldab Wolde Mariam, former head of the General Union of Eritrean Workers. Its expansion into Eritrea was a result of Idris Muhammad Adam's kinship connection to Hamid ldris Awate, a nationalist with a history of banditry and resistance to the British. It is not clear whether the first shots were fired as a result of ldris Muhammad's political direction or whether the armed struggle began independently of the exiles in Cairo and became linked to them subsequently. Whatever the sequence of events, both Idris and Hamid were from the Bani Amir and related and this connection was crucial in shaping the relationship between the external leadership of political exiles and students abroad and the fighters within Eritrea, the core of whom were from Bani Amir clans.
Initiallv, the ELF comprised only a handful of fighters and its military activities reflected its size and social base: sporadic attacks on isolated army and police posts. With the growth of armed resistance came increased Ethiopian concern reflected in a strengthening of the army in Eritrea. This growing Ethiopian presence, however, brought an increase in the number
of armed bands and clandestine organizations in the towns. In 1965 the burgeoning ELF was reorganized by the external leadership into four zones under relatively autonomous regional commanders. The basis of this new zonal organization was the tribal or ethnic groups. A sectarian tinge was added to the zonal organization when a fifth zone was carved out for the central highlands in 1966, a Christian commander appointed and Christians redistributed to it from other zones. Although there was a central military training camp, fighters were distributed on the basis of region, religion and tribe.
Opposition to the zonal form of organization began in 1967 when a heterogeneous group of dissidents raised the demand for `Unity of the Forces', aimed to correct the contradiction between a national movement with national goals and a military structure which recognized and perpetuated the narrowest of social divisions. The demand grew as much out of military necessity as out of political principle. The regional commands were given carte blanche to generate their own sources of finance and to conduct military operations. There was no overarching internal political leadership with the result that not only was there an absence of military co-ordination but even competition and rivalry between the different units. Furthermore, the lack of co-ordination facilitated the Ethiopian `pacification programme' of 1967 when a largescale Ethiopian offensive was planned against the ELF. Modelled in part on United States' military tactics in Vietnam, the Ethiopian army and security services established fortified villages and population-free zones. The offensive was organized on a zonal basis capitalizing on the weak links between the military commanders.
The introduction of zonal organization was a more advanced form of struggle: the ELF had expanded from the peripheral west to the industrial and population centres; it was national in scope and recruitment; and it had increased its military capacity bringing a large-scale Ethiopian counteroffensive. But, its structure was anti-national: it heightened social and cultural divisions rather than minimizing or transforming them. The ELF embedded and reflected a traditional consciousness in its political and military structures. Now national in military scope, the reorganized front was simply the early armed bands writ large. The call for unification of the zones reflected a new political and military consciousness and marked the beginning of an internal crisis which lasted from 1966 to 1970 resulting in the formation of the EPLF. Key slogans were: `Unity of Forces', `Leadership in the Field' and `The Problem of the Peasantry'. The issues, then, included not only military strategy but also the internal structure of the front, the relationship between the fighters and the leadership and the relationship between the front and the peasantry. The coalescing of such a broad range of fundamental issues was a mark both of the depth of the crisis and of the failure of the ELF to transform as it expanded.
`Democracy for the Fighters' and `Leadership in the Field' concerned political organization. This was partly a reaction against the external leadership, partly a reaction against the tight relationship between the external leadership and the military command of western Eritrea (controlling supply lines from Sudan), and partly a call for greater participation for the rank and file fighters in shaping a national political strategy for the front. The demand for leadership in the field was not simply the traditional conflict between besuited cocktail-sipping diplomats and those who bear the hardships and shed their blood in guerrilla warfare, but a reaction against the external propaganda of the Supreme Council." Eritrea was portrayed as a predominantly Arab and Muslim society and the Eritrean liberation struggle as a fight for Islam and Arabism. Such propaganda served to raise finance and political support in Arab capitals but did little to portray the reality of the struggle or of Eritrean history and society. Furthermore, it only served to entrench hostility between Christians and Muslims within the ELF - hostility which had already begun to take a savage turn in the mid-1960s. In the Asmara region, the problem of the relationship between the fighters and peasants involved not only issues of peasant and pastoralist, of Muslim and Christian, but brought into question the total political and military strategy of the ELF.
The expansion of the ELF into the highlands in the 1960s introduced there an element of coercion which had already been a characteristic of the ELF's politics in the west. The early armed bands of Bani Amir and the zonal organization of the Barka regions had continued to prey on the settled Kunama, rustling cattle and attacking villages. It was a perpetuation of the traditional rivalry of the Bani Amir and their settled neighbours under the auspices of the front. Because of the early dominance of the Bani Amir in the ELF, few Kunama joined and the problem was not confronted.
The beginning of military activities in the highlands went along with pressure on the population to supply food, water, intelligence and other assistance to the Front. 'there had also been instances of cattle rustling by the Saho group from villages on the eastern escarpment and by the western zonal unit from the valleys which stretched westwards into the highlands. A further problem resulting from the military expansion of the ELF was increased Ethiopian army reprisals against villages co-operating with the ELF and, in classical fashion, the peasants were pinched between the two. The Front was not strong enough to provide military protection and the possibility of clandestine co-operation between it and peasants was constrained by the coercive practice of some of the ELF commanders. Many villages were either neutralized or alienated and ceased providing
p. 185- 186
assistance. Because the villages around Asmara were crucial for clandestine night-time attacks into Asmara, the issue became central for the dissidents and particularly for fighters within the Hamasin group. The problem of the Asmara villages had a religious tinge insofar as the villages around Asmara were Christian.
These, then, were the major dimensions of the internal crisis of 1966-70. The playing out of the crisis itself took on the dimensions of a Christian-Muslim struggle in that a significant proportion of the early dissidents in the first period were Christian Tigrinya -speaking highlanders. Initially, the conflict was managed within the military zones: the demand that if the Saho, Tigre and Bani Amir had their military zones, why not the Tigrinya-speakers. The political demands that have been mentioned were far broader in scope and demanded a wholesale change of the internal nature and external relations of the front, its tactics and strategy. The pressure of change did not come from Christian Tigrinya-speakers alone: of the three groups which formed the EPLF in 1970 only one was wholly Tigrinya-speaking and of Christian highland origin. Yet from the mid1960s onward, there had been an increasing number of recruits from the urban centres and the villages of the highlands and Massawa-Harkiko areas, of students, peasants and workers. These demands reflected not simply their higher level of political consciousness but the impact of a movement based on a backward social core expanding into a more highly developed region.
The process of the crisis was prolonged and bloody and from 1966 onward the ELF leadership characterized demands for change as sectarian. Opposition was identified with the Christian highlanders. Tensions, personal and political, exploded - Christians were assassinated and many deserted. It has been estimated that between 1966 and 1969 about 400 to 450 were either killed, surrendered to the Ethiopian authorities, or fled to the Sudan.
A pamphlet distributed widely in the Eritrean field shortly after the formation of the EPLF was an attempt to counteract the sectarian depiction of the dissidents. A key section entitled `We Are Freedom Fighters And Not Prophets of Christianity' stated their position:
It is an incontestable fact that besides a few who do not espouse any religion, the Eritrean population is about equally divided between Christianity and Islam. Instead of promoting our national cause, the leaders of `Jebha' (ELF) declare that the population is 80 per cent Muslim and the remaining 20 per cent Christian. We also very well know that they rally in the name of Islam rather than in the name of the Eritrean people.
Our conviction is that the Eritrean people were and still are
oppressed . . . How many Christians or Muslims exist in Eritrea is of no importance or concern to us. Let this be the worry of those whose interest is to spread the Bible or Koran . . . We do not recognize that oppression discriminates on the basis of religion.
Should there be any struggle in Eritrea whose aim is to liberate only those who are Muslims we will oppose it. We are also opposed to any effort made by the `Jebha' to oppress or exploit Christians. We are unequivocally opposed to all forms of oppression. We will not close our eyes and remain silent when we see Christians being oppressed for fear that we may be labelled as the defenders of Christians. We will actively oppose it not because we are advocates of any religion but because it is oppression. We are freedom fighters who will not forget our revolutionary responsibility for fear of what might be said about us."
This pamphlet is quoted at some length because it is relatively contemporaneous with the split and, although now outdated, gives a flavour of the conflict. It is illustrative of the way in which sectarianism was utilized by the ELF leadership to quell demands for transformation and also of the intertwining of two factors: the expansion of the ELF and the crisis generated by that expansion. Unlike FRELIMO, for example, where internal crises were temporally spaced, all the crises came together and the reaction of ELF leadership was not simply that of tactical responses but of physical liquidation and the mobilization of sentiments which found an echo in the breasts of its core group: the pastoral nomads and their recently settled