Independence Day is a great national holiday, marking the break of the yoke of colonization. Eritrea was, for centuries, the playing field of colonizers. From the very beginning, Eritreans have always stood for their rights whatever the power of invaders.
The Second World War brought enormous changes to colonial powers and the colonies. European colonial powers drained much of their strength in the fight within and outside Europe. Unable to stand before the tide of the new demand, they found an alternative way to control from afar (Neo colonialism) and gave independence to all of Africa – except Eritrea.
Eritrea was federated with its longtime foe, Ethiopia through a United Nations resolution issued on 2 December 1950 despite the warning of Ibrahim Sultan, who stated “The people of Eritrea do not accept any colonialism, black or white. If the decision you make is to force us to struggle for the protection of our identity and the establishment of our freedom, you the members of UN, shall be held responsible for the war that will rage in east Africa” (Bocresion Haile, 2000: 151).
The US representative at the UN, John Foster Dulles, plainly stated that the interests of the people of Eritrea were sacrificed for the strategic interests of the USA:
From the point of justice, the opinion of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interest of the United States in the Red Sea basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] has to be linked with our ally, Ethiopia.
Haile Slasie attempted to stretch the undersized tight skin of the country to cover the imagined colossal body of “great Ethiopia”. The cunning emperor waited until the right time to end the federal arrangement. His government terrorized active opposition leaders that resisted Ethiopian intrusion. The respected historian, Alemseghed Tesfay, in his book “Federeshne’rtramse’tyopia” quoted Weldeab Woldemariam’s response to Ethiopian terrorization:
No man, the European or African, can force me into the yoke of any kind of bondage. If there be someone who dares to attempt my assassination in order to force me to submit to doing things contrary to my feeling and will, then I also have in me the courage to die for my political beliefs, for the cause of liberty of my country, and for the genuine interest of my brothers and sisters (Tesfay 90-91).
Ethiopia worked vigorously in an effort to destabilize and terrorize Eritrean patriotic leaders. Many leaders like Abdelkadir Kebire in Asmara were killed, Ibrahim Sultan was exiled and Weldeab Weldemariam had survived seven assassination attempts on his life before he was forced to leave Eritrea. Patriot Weldeab Weldemariam expressed courageously that “If I had a hundred lives let alone one I would have happily sacrificed them for the sake of the beloved people of Eritrea”.
The depth of misery inflicted by Ethiopia over Eritrea was rarely seen in history. The Eritrean people suffered bitter pain, more than that they had faced under European colonial rule. When all the political and peaceful means of struggle bare no fruit and had proved difficult to continue, they turned to armed struggle as a last resort. Slowly and gradually, Ethiopia stripped the federal arrangement before annexing Eritrea.Eritreans of the time yearned for liberation, and the first shot of the liberation struggle was fired on Mount Adal by Hamid Idris Awate.
When it came to Eritrea, successive Ethiopian regimes believed that “we need its land, not its people”. The revolutionary vibration of Eritrea dismantled such oppression. History tells us that any Ethiopian regime that waged war against Eritrea ultimately dug its own grave. The inability of successive governments to contain the Eritrean resistance was one of the most important factors leading to their downfall. Recently, the TPLF regime has been on life support, partly due to its misguided approach toward Eritrea.
Under the Ethiopian colonization, villages were burned, killing and disappearance became normal practice, and a climate of fear and uncertainty prevailed. By 1978, seventeen years after the first shot of the armed struggle for independence was fired, the tegadelti liberated almost all of Eritrea except Asmara, Massawa, Assab, Barentu and Adi Keih. However, the massive intervention by the USSR regime, tilted the balance of power toward Ethiopia. The EPLF shifted its tactics, focusing on a people’s struggle and guerrilla warfare, and withdrew from Asmara to Sahel. This is commonly known as strategic withdrawal “mzlaq”.
In the course of the war for liberation, Eritreans received help from the international community. However, the Eritrean revolution made major strides in altering the internal, regional and international system. The Eritrean revolution was great and unique in many ways, including in putting an end to national subjugation in the country. The two opposing superpowers, the USA and USSR, had actually both supported Eritrea is colonial oppressor, Ethiopia. But the Eritrean revolution brought about change in the existing power structure in the Horn of Africa. Being self-reliant in political, economic and cultural fields, it brought about a total change in the social fabric of the Eritrean society. Through its progressive values, it promoted active participation of women. As a result, more than 30% of liberation fighters were women. The revolution can also be described as pragmatic and principled. It was guided by the realities of the country and charted an independent line. It also made a contribution to human civilization by proving the existence of an alternative way of development self-reliance and social justice.
Boasting a true revolutionary line, the EPLF, with its vaunted organizational structure, mobilized Eritreans inside and abroad. After conducting a prolonged war in the remote northeastern part of Eritrea, it grew into a formidable liberation movement that could wage large battles. The tegadelti registered magnificent victories that compare to some of the most impressive in recent military history. The EPLF was also praised by many commentators as one of the best and strongest revolutionary movements, not only in Africa, but also in the world. When the EPLF conducted strategic military operations, such as the Nadew operation (1988) and the subsequent Fenkil operation (1990), the deaf ears of the world began to hear the artillery of freedom fighters that bombed Asmara.
Many evil machinations were used by Ethiopia over the years to subdue the just and right claim of the Eritrean people. Veteran fighter and mother, Zeyneb Yassin, told foreign journalists “You have seen our country. Now you know why we want to be free. The Ethiopians came, they bombed our villages, and they slaughtered our cattle and buried our children. Everything is burning now. Even the stones are burning” (Roy Patman, 179).
Eritrea has strengthened, despite the unspeakable atrocities. After 30 years of struggle we were able to realize our dream and vision – a free, independent Eritrea. To say that the EPLF was the principal backer of the victory of the people of Eritrea is purely to state a historical fact. It was the EPLF that upheld the revolution, accomplished the historic military victory, established the allencompassing national front and established a rock-hard footing for Eritrea’s independence. It is worth mentioning the decisive contribution of the EPLF to the people of Ethiopia in their fight against the Derg. Many precious lives were lost in the battles from Shire to Addis Ababa to overthrow the Derg regime.
The triumph of the Eritrean revolution is proof of the power of persistence, effort, organization, and self-belief. An ant can carry 50 times its own weight. We are also told that little David killed the giant Goliath. Science also provides us with another relevant example- the amount of power generated from the fission of tiny nucleus is beyond imagination. We also learned that the sting of a wasp can kill a lion. Similarly, the Eritrean revolutionary movement vastly outnumbered and with little support, was able to defeat an opponent much larger and far better equipped.
For every Eritrean, Independence Day is a day of rising from the ashes. By 1991, a century of domination and oppression came to an end by a military victory. This opened the chapter for a better future and promised peace, stability, security, prosperity, dignity, hope and confidence. For us, who have paid huge sacrifice for freedom, Independence Day is not only a cheerful and festive day. It is a day when we remember our noble martyrs with great glory for their supreme sacrifices they made for our independence and identity. The historical adversaries of Eritrea continue to weave cheap conspiracies to overturn our independence. However, swimming against the current of all odds, the people and Government of Eritrea remain committed.
Benedict Anderson, in his famous book Imagined Communities, quotes Indonesian nationalist writing: “if I were a Dutchman, I would not organize an independence celebration in a country where the independence of the people has been stolen”. The celebration of Independence Day has become one of the traditional practices of every free country. But it is celebrated by both those who use their independence to snatch the independence of others and by those who use their independence to bring difference.
Eritreans deserve to celebrate their great independence and great revolution. Let’s realize our vision through hard work and sacrifice. We struggle and we succeed. We pause in silence for remembrance and we rejoice for our independence.