It was Hamid Idris Awate who, after decades of colonial injustice, decided enough was enough and shot the first bullet to declare the beginning of the Eritrean armed struggle for Independence.
The shot heralded the absolute determination of the people of Eritrea to wage an armed struggle against whomever and whatever stands in their way for their legitimate and inalienable right to pursue a politically independent and self-governing political existence they had been denied. The shot sent shockwaves around the African continent and the world.
Hamid Idris Awate was an uncommon man. By the time he was involved in the struggle that he became famous for, September 1, 1961, he was already 50 years old. This is to say that he had established a long history of resistance against injustice — whether it was the British administration, or random bandits, or the regime of Haile Selasse.
In 1961, when Hamid Idris Awate initiated Eritrea’s armed struggle, he was already 50 years old. This is not an age when people decide to rebel, this is the time people get into retirement. So how did this come about?
A group of Eritrean exiles in Cairo, Egypt — the most senior of whom was Idris Mohammed Adem (who had been the president of Eritrea’s parliament during the federation era) — had been appealing to Hamid Idris Awate to initiate the armed struggle since 1960. It should be recalled that in 1960, seventeen African countries –including Somalia, which, like Eritrea, had been an Italian colony as well as the object of Haile Selasse’s claim — achieved their independence, and the Eritrean exiles who founded the Eritrean Liberation Front–law students, school headmaster and politicians–were keenly aware of this fact and sought the same freedom for their homeland. Awate, who had some experience leading a group of armed men against the British Administration, had replied that he would consider it but only when the time was right and that he had to have the resources to do it right. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian army — which was aware of Awate’s administrative and leadership skills, military training and rebelliousness — had been monitoring Awate and deployed a police unit to arrest or kill him in August 1961. He escaped to Mt.Adal.
After 20 years of peaceful means to Eritrea’s legitimate quest for national independence had failed and fell on the deaf ears of the international community, the gallant Awate, leading a group of 15 valiant Eritreans, risked life and limb and decided to respond forcefully to Ethiopia’s forceful occupation of Eritrea and engaged them in a battle at the mountainside of Adal (Western Eritrea). Thus Bahti Meskerem, September 1st, became the birthday of Eritrea’s armed struggle for national independence. It is the day when Eritrea was conceived to be born on May 24, 1991.
In 1890, Italy declared Eritrea its territory. From 1890 to 1941, Italy ruled Eritrea. During the 1930s, approximately 100,000 Italian colonists settled in Eritrea. The Italians considered Eritrea their first and most important colony. Under the Italian rule, Eritrea enjoyed industrialization and modern infrastructure. The Italians remained the colonial power in Eritrea until they were defeated by the Allied forces in 1941. Consequently, Eritrea came under British administration after the Second World War. Under the British trusteeship, it was decided by the United Nations that Eritrea was to be federated with Ethiopia in 1950.
Almost 10 years into the federation with Ethiopia, the 30-year Eritrean struggle for Independence began in 1961. The momentum of the struggle grew every year with many young Eritreans joining the struggle, eventually becoming a formidable army that could annihilate the biggest army in Sub-Sahara Africa.
Countries that stood with the Ethiopian regimes, especially those that stood with the Derg regime, did their level best to arm the regime with sophisticated military hardware including heavy artillery, modern fighter jets, and navy vessels. Above all they did everything in their capacity to train the Ethiopian army in the hope they would be able to kill the Eritrean revolution and the aspiration of its people.
Like all counties in Africa, Eritrea was first established as a distinct colonial territory as a result of the 19th century colonialist “Scramble for Africa”, but unlike all such colonial territories, which became self governing and politically independent Sovereign States at the end of colonialism, Eritrea was denied national Independence for 50 years simply because its enviable geopolitical and strategic location was coveted by regional and global forces and Ethiopia’s expansionist dreams. For a small country with a population of barely over 3.5 million, Eritrea’s national independence was attained the hard way and with no precedence and parallel in the annals of colonial history.
Eritrea’s struggle for national independence bears emotional significance that is cumulatively expressed by the following historical dates: Eritrea’s rightful struggle for national independence had a decisive beginning (September 1, 1961), a happy victorious ending (May, 24, 1991) and tragic human consequences (Martyrs day, June 20). Those three national holidays are inextricably bound to each other and cannot be considered in isolation: there is no end without the beginning, and there is no gain without pain, as they say! People make history; and the people of Eritrea did!
In its 30 years of armed struggle for self determination against both the Western and Eastern superpowers, the people of Eritrea were able to nurture social justice-based golden values. Besides, the Eritrean revolutionary struggle was able to create a popular state of mind which values a sense of Eritreanism that centers on religious, tribal, gender, lingual and cultural equality and social harmony. Hence, it is such national values that enabled the Eritrean people to stand triumphantly against the conspiracies waged by super-powers. The people of Eritrea accepted these values as their culture and paid heavy prices to achieve their right to self-determination.
Not only has the values acquired during the long years of revolutionary struggle rendered independence, but they have also been passed on to the young generation to build a new and independent Eritrea based on those values. By far, the multi-faceted economic and social growth registered in post-independence Eritrea is attributed to the national values accumulated over the years of the revolutionary struggle. Bahti Meskerem is an inextricable part of the history of Eritrea.