In Search of the Historical DNA of the Eritrean Problem

Review Article on

The Eritrean Affair (1941-1963) by Ambassador Zewde Retta

Professor Negussay Ayele


Few political conflicts in contemporary Ethiopia have claimed so many lives and limbs, sapped so much resources and continued to be intractable for so many decades, as has the Eritrean problem. During the last sixty years alone, the Eritrean problem has gone through several political/identity cycles. These include 

(i) the period of British Occupation of Eritrea—severed from Ethiopia--while its future status was being decided by the victorious Allies and the United Nations (1941-1952) 

(ii) the period of UN sanctioned federation of the Eritrean ‘unit’ with Ethiopia (1952-1962) 

(iii) the period of Ethiopian-Eritrean union (1962-1991) and 

(iv) the period of Eritrean secession from Ethiopia (1991---)

Today, we are being told by decision-making participants in the armed conflicts that there were more casualties in the Ethiopia-Eritrea “border” battles since 1998 than in the pre-1991 “thirty years” era of Eritrean secessionist armed struggles.

   Why has the Eritrean problem persisted for so long and is still ongoing? Why were the parties to the conflict unable to resolve it in a civil and peaceable manner to date? Have successive generations in Ethiopia-Eritrea learned the correct lessons from the etiology and history of the problem so as not to be doomed to repeat the errors of prior generations? What is the extent, impact and legacy of external involvement in the making, unmaking and remaking of political entities on the Horn? How much have elites of the region contributed to elucidate or obfuscate historical truth with the Eritrean problem?

Is it possible to stem the gushing tide of lies, of tribal hatred, of arrogance and of violence in the region? Where do we go from here and what lies ahead for Ethiopia-Eritrea after so many decades of sibling internecine bloodletting and wanton destruction? Can we come up with scenarios of reasonable, just, tenable and mutually acceptable alternatives for the near and distant just, peaceful and prosperous future for the Ethiopia-Eritrea region? These and related crucial questions hover in the minds of all concerned and reasonable beings who have gone through and survived –for what it is worth—the heretofore violence ridden decades in Ethiopia-Eritrea. Sadly, the youth of today are fated to inherit the sordid past, cope with its tragic consequences at present and negotiate their way to the future.

Given the questions and concerns adumbrated above, one welcomes studied, balanced, and thorough treatments of important segments in the history of Ethiopia-Eritrea by writers who have been in capacities of decision-making and/or in positions of observation in the corridors of power in the region. Such writers are predisposed to monitor and record for posterity critical actions behind the scenes if they so wish. And, it is an added bonus to the mix when such writers also have access to hitherto unpublished source materials in the form of manuscripts, memoirs or via interviews with important actors in the evolution and deterioration of the Eritrean problem in the past sixty years. The book under review herein, The Eritrean Affair (1941-1963)1, is the product of the salutary circumstances just described. Its publication at this juncture of the history of the region gives occasion for all concerned to reflect on the past and ponder on extant traces of truth that have been pummeled and buried for decades by the instruments of war, and drowned by the propaganda barrage of partisans and interlopers.

  It is apropos at this point to take a brief stock of the state of writings on the Eritrean problem over the past decades to place our review in proper context. Much has been committed to paper and bound or stapled together on the Eritrean problem within the temporal scope of our review. Books on the Eritrean problem are basically of three categories. The first category of books comprising about 95% of the total is tendentious and biased propaganda material put out by protagonists to the conflict as well as by, what I once called, expatriate “ball-point mercenaries.” Of the remaining 5% more than half are documentary outputs by international organs such as the United Nations, which at least ventilate two or more sides of given issues. The third and minute category of books that can be deemed as  approximating the truth regarding the Eritrean problem hardly represent 2% of the total heap. Again, looking at the question of publications from another perspective, we find that virtually all books on the Eritrean problem have been produced by people of Eritrean extraction and by expatriates. An armful of books by writers of Eritrean extraction as well as by some foreigners, deal with the subject at hand more objectively and help the reader to attain balanced knowledge on aspects of the Eritrean problem. 

Among such books, one can cite, for example, the works of Dr. Tekeste N., particularly his recent publication, Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience (1997); Tesfatsion M. Eritrea: The Dynamics of a National Question (1986); J. Markakis, National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa (1987); Sylvia and R. Pankhurst, Ethiopia and Eritrea: The Last Phase of the Reunion Struggle, 1941-52 (1953). Incredible as it may be, up to now there is practically no book on the Eritrean problem by Ethiopians, be it of the tendentious or of the objective variety2. It is within this extraordinary context that we begin our discourse on Ambassador Zewde’s book, The Eritrean Affair.

How did this unique volume—for all intents and purposes virtually the only book by an Ethiopian on the Eritrean problem to date, come about? To answer that question we begin with a brief scan on the background and credentials of the author. Ambassador Zewde began his career as a news reporter at a very young age in the Ministry of Information, assigned to the Palace where he was predisposed to observe decision making in Emperor Haile Selassie's court at close range. As destiny would have it, he commenced his assignment in the early 1950’s just as the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation was in the offing. He cultivated positive relations with major actors in the Eritrean drama, including the lead figure, Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister Aklilou Habtewold, the powerful Minister of the Pen WoldeGiorgis Wolde Yohanness, and later on with one of the architects for the breakup of the federation, Eritrean Chief Executive/Administrator Bitwoded Asfaha Woldemikael. He served in various capacities in the Ministry of Information for nearly two decades before he moved on to the Foreign Ministry where he reached the level of Vice-Minister and then Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Italy at the time of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. The author’s calling as journalist at an early age must have helped to acquire important skills in preparation for his impressive literary work, The Eritrean Affair. Such skills include, trained observation, taking and organizing notes, communicative writing, investigative research and personal diplomacy. And he must have saved his notes. But this is only half the story.

Ambassador Zewde devoted seven years (1992-98) to prepare his manuscript. He traveled to parts of Europe, North America and Ethiopia from his base in Rome doing library research, interviewing people and consulting with experts, colleagues and Ethiopian/Eritrean compatriots on the “Eritrean Affair” or what I call the Eritrean problem. The author read relevant publications on the ‘Eritrean Affair’ and combed through United Nations Documents of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. He also waded through contemporary materials available in the national archives of the United States, Britain, Italy and Ethiopia. Although he does not specifically indicate what archival materials he might have accessed in Ethiopia itself, he nevertheless was richly rewarded by acquisition of rare documents and correspondences given to him to publish by the late Prime Minister Aklilou Habtewold as well as by Bitwoded Asfaha Woldemikael. His extensive consultations with the latter before he died also made significant contribution to understanding the intricacies of imperial court politics with respect to Eritrea in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Ambassador Zewde also interviewed or otherwise consulted other individuals who figured in the drama in that period. As a result, the reader is richly rewarded by this carefully and colorfully crafted tapestry of a most critical 20-year period of the ‘Eritrean Affair.’



         The hefty volume, The Eritrean Affair, begins its treatment with the Post WW-II 1945 confabs by the victorious Allies in Yalta, in Potsdam and in London to dictate terms of peace settlement with the vanquished Axis elements, including Italy. If Ethiopia had expected equanimity, justice and fairness on the question of restoration of its severed territories after having been victimized by one of the Axis states, it was in for its first of a series of shocks. In the London Conference of September 1945, of the foreign ministers of the Four Powers—namely, Mr. Byrnes of the United States, Mr. Molotov of the USSR, Mr. Bevin of Britain and Mr. Bidault of France--Ethiopia and Italy had requested to come to the Conference and make their respective cases on the future of Italian colonies. At first, the Four Powers allowed ex-colonial, aggressor and Axis member Italy to send a representative in whose participation in the proceedings was almost indistinguishable from those of the Allies. However, according to the late Ethiopian Prime Minister (then Foreign Minster) Aklilou Habtewold’s memo reproduced in Senkesar (Vol.2/85) submitted to an Enquiry Commission in September, 1974, Ethiopia was invited to the second session (1947) but given only two days to make the trip from Addis Ababa to London—in those days—to present its case—which he managed to do with considerable difficulty. Yugoslavia was also invited to send its representative and make its case on Trieste. This conference gave a foretaste of things to come with the new East-West alignment of forces in the emerging Cold War international politics. In a move designed to preempt any claim by the Conference participants, mainly the USSR, the United States representative said that all three ex-Italian colonies—Libya, Eritrea and Somalia—should attain independence after ten years of United Nations Trusteeship. France called for the return of Italy to all its colonies, and the USSR asked that Tripolitania in Libya be awarded to Russian trusteeship.

Emperor Haile Selassie Conferring with Mayor Osman from the Sahel Region.

The British at this time virtually controlled all three ex-colonies, and in their opening move at the conference, they proposed that Ethiopia relinquish “voluntarily” the Ogaden area in the east of the country so that Britain could form and administer a Greater Somaliland in the Horn of Africa. The Italian representative at the conference had said that there was no connection historically between Ethiopia and Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia, and that only Italy which created and nurtured these colonies should be returned to administer them forthwith. After listening to his claims, France, the USA and the USSR called for not considering Ethiopia’s claim for the return of these territories. In response to that the British representative advised that because Eritrea is inextricably linked with Ethiopia, the matter required careful consideration before a decision is reached. After seven months of lobbying and jockeying, it was decided to study the issues more and meet in Paris later.

The international political situation was becoming fluid rapidly, and the former Italian colonies in Africa became chess pawns in the evolving Cold War struggle. In this instance, Italy became the focal point of the struggle. The Soviet Union sought to reward post-Mussolini Italy with morsels in Africa, in the expectation that it would go socialist/communist in forthcoming elections. So, the powers were adjusting or changing their positions on the issue, although the USSR kept changing its position more frequently than the others. At the Paris meeting from April to May, 1946. The Italian delegation to the talks called for unconditional return of the colonies to Italy so it could resume its ‘civilizing mission’ and rebuild its domestic economy ruined by the Second World War. The new Italian government had no regrets, no compunctions, no ifs or buts in its shameless colonial claims that was hardly distinguishable from Fascist position heretofore. Italy denied that Eritrea was ever part of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian delegation led by Foreign Minister Aklilou could not conceal its consternation at the audacity of Italy wanting to return back to the Horn after all the carnage and devastation it had visited upon Ethiopia. Supported by letters of Emperor Haile Sellassie to the leaders of the Four Powers, the Ethiopian delegation argued very strongly that whatever else the Four Powers may decide on the future of the ex-colonies, Ethiopia cannot be made to accept the return of Italy (new or old) to the region. The Paris conference did not yield any tangible results on the issue at hand, and now attention turned to the Paris Peace Conference where Axis member Italy was expected to make a formal renunciation of colonial territories and accept terms of peace settlement by the Allied Powers.

Italy tried to exclude Ethiopia from participating in the Paris Peace Conference alleging that the Conference involved the World War II in the European Theatre after 1939, and Ethiopia was no longer in that scenario. But, Foreign Minister Aklilou carried out very successful personal diplomacy among the foreign ministers of the Four Powers (Byrnes, Bideau, Bevin and Molotov), and it was decided that Ethiopia should participate in the Peace Conference. All in all, twenty-one countries participated. The author notes here that although Mr. Aklilou had proposed that the Ethiopian delegation to that Conference be led by one of the surviving Ethiopian heroes in the struggle against Fascism—the highly regarded Ras Abebe Aregay “whose presence is likely to increase Ethiopia’s fighting renown.” The Emperor was not amused by the suggestion which the veteran guerrilla fighter outshine him. Instead, the Emperor selected a ten-man delegation to be headed by Ato Aklilou himself. Three expatriate advisors, Mr. John Spencer, Mr. George Blowers and Professor Bentwich also joined the group.3 The Emperor sent a personally signed short note to Foreign Minister Aklilou which read:

”To Ato Aklilou, how are you? Thanks to the grace of the Holy Trinity, We are well. Having full confidence in your work at the Peace Conference We have picked members of (your) delegation who will be arriving there. May God help you in your endeavors.”

At different stages of the negotiations, the Emperor also sent personal letters explaining Ethiopia’s (his) position on pertinent issues to various heads of states and organizations.

In the event, after seventy five days of cantankerous palaver, the Paris Peace Conference ended on October 15, 1946 with Axis Germany and Italy accepting in toto the terms and conditions of peace laid out by the Allied Powers. Of significance to Ethiopia (as one of the signatories of the peace agreement) and to Italian erstwhile colonies, Italy was unconditionally divested of all its colonies in Africa, namely Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, despite its protestations that these entities should revert back to it. As a token of moral victory for Ethiopia, the Paris Peace Conference determined that Oct. 3, 1935, when Fascist Italian forces first violated Welwel in southeast Ethiopia, was the official date of Italy’s aggressive entry into WW II. Italy was also made to pay war indemnity to victims of its aggression4. Ethiopia was designated as the first victim of Fascist aggression and in 1941 the first victor (or, in British parlance, ‘the first to be freed’) in the Allied camp of World War II. The Paris Peace Conference also determined that within a year from September 15, 1947, the date the Peace Agreement was to take effect, the Four Allied Powers should agree on the disposal of ex-Italian colonies in Africa. If not, the matter would be forwarded to the United Nations for deliberation and decision. Diplomatically speaking, the Paris Peace Conference was a zero-sum game for Italy and a plus for Ethiopia. The members of the Ethiopian delegation--four of whom were of Eritrean extraction--acquitted themselves well. For Foreign Minister Aklilou Habte Wold, this was his shining moment and, although we do not have a report of how the news was received by the Emperor and his court in Addis Ababa, it would be safe to assume that he must have expressed felicitations to his able Foreign Minister and his team.

Prime Minister Aklilou Habte-Wold - Ethiopia's Invaluable Skilled Diplomat who was the Key Player in the Eritrean Issue


After the season of diplomatic civilities and niceties in Paris came the period of political bedlam regarding claims and counter claims over the disposal of ex-Italian colonies of Libya, Eritrea and Somalia. The ink of Italy’s signature of renunciation to its former colonies in Paris was hardly dry, when it started to campaign full-throttle to regain them. For its part, Ethiopia was of the view that the territory of Eritrea was severed from it first by force of arms by Italy and then formally colonized in 1890 under contemporary imperialist duress by Britain, Italy and France in the region. Although the typical colonial treaties were signed and even duly observed by Ethiopia, Mussolini and his Fascist hordes invalidated those treaties and committed brutal aggression in Ethiopia and its environs as of 1935, using Eritrea and Somalia as launching pads for its invasion. Having suffered through Fascist bestiality for five bitter years, Ethiopia was of the view that justice can only be served if the territories taken over from it and then used to obliterate its very existence as an independent state, are restored to it. The corollary to this stand is that under no circumstances should Italy be allowed to come back to the Horn or to Africa. In preparation for the looming political cum diplomatic struggle, the two main protagonists, Italy and Ethiopia, went to work mobilizing internal and international support for their respective claims. From the get-go, it was clear that Italy had an overwhelming advantage in the international arena. It mobilized the Vatican’s considerable global clout among Catholics abroad, especially in Latin America. It had sizable Italian settlers in many parts of Europe and the Americas; there were also relatively sizable Italian half-cast populations in Eritrea. For different reasons, Britain, Russia, America and France—the very Powers empowered to adjudicate the case--had reasons to support Italy, largely for tactical Cold War induced reasons. And, when is all said and done it should be remembered that after all, Italy is an European country and Ethiopia, an old distant African country. So, while Italy was at that point a beneficiary of international leverage, Ethiopia had at best only sympathy vis--vis the 1935-1936 Fascist invasion of the country. It is doubtful that such sympathy would have been sustained by the outside world but for the survival of the person of Emperor Haile Sellassie I, who was a living pang of ‘conscience’ for his contemporaries—particularly those who remember his historic address to the League of Nations in Geneva on 30 June 1936.

G.K.N. Trevaskis, a prominent British official in Eritrea (1941-1950) and also member of the Four Power Inquiry Commission as well as the United Nations Commission, wrote a memoir in which he stated: “Italy created Eritrea by an act of surgery: by severing its different peoples from those with whom their past had been linked and by grafting the amputated remnants to each other under the title of Eritrea.” (Eritrea: A Colony in Transition, 1941-52), 1960. Under the circumstances Eritreans of different hues, who since 1941 were under British tutelage, started to organize themselves in preparation for the Four-Power Inquiry Commission established to study the wishes and political proclivities of the population. During the British Administration Italians had prominent public roles in Eritrea and were quite free to espouse their views and influence events among the population. This was in time to be lubricated by money from Italy and augmented by its propaganda machinery. On the other hand, Ethiopia had no such privileged position or presence in the colony. This seemingly lopsided situation was, however, compensated by a grassroots movement that snowballed and was eventually harnessed by a pro-Ethiopia or Unionist multi-confessional organization better known as Eritrean-Ethiopian Patriotic Association which was established in 1941. It was staffed and led by Eritreans and operated from Addis Ababa and Asmara. Among its early leaders were Dejazmach Beyene Beraki, Ato Tedla Bairu, Ato Ibrahim Sultan, Ato Welde Ab Welde Mariam, Sheikh Suleiman el Din Ahmed, Melake Selam Demetros. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor assigned a liaison officer in the person of Colonel Negga Haile Sellassie (not a sibling of the Emperor) in Eritrea to represent Ethiopian interests and to coordinate the unionist efforts in the region. In short order, other organizations also mushroomed in Eritrea including Islamic League, Liberal Progressive Party, Pro-Italy Party and others. The author provides the reader with a sound analysis of the make-up of the Inquiry Commission, the fluid political dynamics in Eritrea and, in particular the subtle ways that British authorities were swaying opinion especially in Western Eritrea which they wanted to annex to their Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Condominium. To this end, Mr. Ibrahim Sultan had been lured from being a founding member of the Unionist Party to forming the Rabita al Islamiya party which called for Eritrea to continue under British Trusteeship. Needless to say, the Italians also continued to play havoc in trying to win by political chicanery, the Eritrean region which they had lost through their failed aggression against Ethiopia and had renounced any claims to it in the Peace Treaty they had just signed. 

Minister of Pen, Tsehafi-Tezaz Welde Giorgis Welde Yohannes - the Most Powerful Man in the Empire after the Emperor and a strong supporter of F.M. Aklilou's Diplomatic Effort.

The Four Power Inquiry Commission spent seven months in Eritrea and consulted extensively with parties, groups, elders and community representatives to ascertain the wishes of the people of Eritrea for their political future. At the end of it all, the consensus seemed to be that at least half of the population favored union with Ethiopia and the majority did not want Italy to return to Eritrea. Still, the Commission could not arrive at an agreement on the future of the region for reasons that had more to do with what was happening in Italy than in Eritrea itself. The Christian Democrats won in the Italian elections, and this pleased some (the British and the Americans) but not the USSR. France reacted its prima donna or maverick manner--a stance which continued to characterize its overall international politics to this day. And so, the question of the disposal of ex-Italian colonies was forwarded to the UN. Author Zewde notes in his concluding remarks here that the way the Four Power Inquiry Commission handled (or mishandled) the whole matter illustrates how

adjudication and politics do not go hand in hand, because in adjudication two plus two is four whereas in politics two plus two can be three and a half. Thus, the Four Powers could have made some kind of political decision on the ex-Italian colonies in 1945 when their sense of unity was much better. But, they failed to reach an agreement (by the end of 1948) as they dragged the whole thing around trying to decide by means of ‘ostensibly democratic’ political adjudication in which their respective national political interests were more crucial in their deliberations than the needs and wishes of the peoples in the ex-colonies. Instead, the Commission passed the buck to the UN and handed over piles of documents.”

Thus, once more the disposal of the ex-Italian colonies was thrust upon another body, the nascent United Nations, to handle it. The second session of the Third General Assembly, which opened on April 6, 1949, took up the matter. In opening statements the representatives of the Four Powers advanced their respective positions on how to dispose of the said colonies. The American and British plans on Eritrea were almost identical in that they favored annexing Western and largely Muslim Eritrea, to their Sudan colony and the rest was to be united with Ethiopia. But, the British added that Ethiopia deserves to get the eastern region of Eritrea as compensation for sustaining war damages. Foreign Minister Aklilou took umbrage to this patronizing statement by the British representative, Mr. Hector MacNeil. As far as Ethiopia was concerned, the issue at hand was how to reunite territories severed from it by colonial cabal in the first place. But, this minor pedestrian incident was framed as a diplomatic faux pas by the British and mar, at least temporarily, Ato Aklilou’s favor with the Emperor.

There were strains in his relations with Britain in the early years after the Emperor regained his throne in Addis Ababa. This was due to  residual British interest in exercising colonial sovereignty over parts or all of the country for some time. Despite that, however, the Emperor remained grateful for his exile sojourn in Bath, England from 1936 to 1941, for British help to Ethiopian patriots in final mopping up operations to rid his country of Fascist invaders and for escorting him back to his capital in 1941. There was also another factor into play during those heady days of discussions in Europe and in New York on the future of Eritrea when getting information on what was happening was vital to the Emperor. Whereas his own foreign minister could not transmit to him current reports of what transpired in New York quickly due to slow dispatching and decoding telegraphic procedures, the British Ambassador in Addis Ababa had direct and fast communications. Often, the British Ambassador made some of the information (properly edited or vetted, of course) available to the Emperor before Foreign Minister Aklilou. The Emperor was appreciative of this service. In this instance, the Emperor gets the British version or spin on the diplomatic sparring between Foreign Minister Aklilou and the British representative in the UN General Assembly, before Mr. Aklilou’s own report reached him. While the deliberations were going on in New York, royal crisis management session was taking place in Addis Ababa over the perceived diplomatic flap between the Ethiopian and the British representatives. The author’s detailed narrative of deliberations in the Emperor’s royal council is fascinating and educational. It gives the reader a rare glimpse into how the Ethiopian monarch, shrouded by so much pomp, ceremony and secrecy, operated behind the scenes.

The palace deliberations saw the Minister of Pen, Ato Wolde Giorgis Welde Yohannes who was a strong supporter of the Foreign Minister pitted against Ato Tefera Worq, the Emperor’s Private Secretary , who was reputed to be an Anglophile and who had verbally suggested to the Emperor that the Foreign Minister should apologize to the British UN representative for daring to criticize British policy on Eritrea. The Minister of the Pen defended the actions of the Foreign Minister at the UN very strongly in response to the Private Secretary's call for an apology. After hearing the two sides, the Emperor sent a note to Foreign Minster Aklilou assuring him that he approved of the way he was discharging his duties in the UN on behalf of the country (and, of course, the Emperor) and that he did not cross the line of authority vested in him. He should continue on that path assured that he has the royal confidence to make appropriate decisions. Then the Emperor added that while doing so: …

“ You should make sure that while you make representations on behalf of Ethiopia’s national interest, it is important that you make it known to the British that We and our government view them with favor. Inasmuch as the responsibilities we repose on you are awesome, we pray that God will enable you to fulfill Our wishes.”  

Mr. Aklilou was elated when he got this royal approval of his endeavors. The Minister of Pen as well as his own brother, Ato Mekonnen Habtewold, also wrote to him even stronger letters of kudos and encouragement.

 While awaiting the response from the Palace in Addis Ababa, the Foreign Minister had his work cut out for him in April, 1949 when the First Committee of the General Assembly carried on its proceedings on the disposal of ex-Italian colonies. Even though Italy was not a member of the United Nations until 1955, it was operating there as if it owned the organization. The Italian representative at this meeting was the colorful raconteur, Count Carlo Sforza, who had an anti-Fascist resume. But to the Ethiopian Foreign Minister and his colleagues, Count Sforza’s opening salvoes on Eritrea and Ethiopia, made him indistinguishable from the Fascists they knew well. Inter alia, the count said that the new Italian republic is not responsible for any damages perpetrated by the erstwhile Fascist government. And, rubbing salt into the wound he declared that “Eritrea had never been part of Ethiopia in history.” He also added that unless Italy is returned to Eritrea, all the “development” launched by Italy there will be in shambles and the fate of “30,000” blue-blooded Italians and half-castes there will be in jeopardy. This was too much for Mr. Aklilou to take, and he retorted with a blistering attack on what the Fascists have wrought in Africa especially in Ethiopia, and on how the new post-Fascist Italian government resembled  its predecessor, in its distortion of the history of the region of the Horn and on the bonds among the Ethiopian people, including those in Eritrea.

 For an instructive historical footnote at this juncture we fast forward our review to the mid-1960’s and cite a passage from a work done by Dr Amare Tekle who became the Eritrean Commissioner for the  ‘freedom-or-slavery’ choice “referendum” of 1993. In an earlier incarnation, he wrote a Ph. D. dissertation for the University of Denver in 1964, entitled “The Creation of the Ethio-Eritrean Federation: A Case Study in Post War International Relations (1945-1950)”. In it he stated:

 Was Eritrea part of Ethiopia? This was the question asked at the outset of the chapter. That it was is evident from the above survey. Those who argued that Eritrea was never part of Ethiopia are either ignorant of the history of the region or simply want to revise it or, even worse, were simply invoking a milder version of Signor Mussolini’s Fascist thesis about the nature of the Ethiopian state.”                

This was indeed the individual and collective view expressed in different tones and nuances by Ethiopian delegates of Eritrean extraction at the United Nations in the 1940’s. Some even exclaimed that ‘if they were not Ethiopians then nobody else is.’ That was why so many Eritreans launched a unionist movement with a resounding clarion call of “Ethiopia or Death” at the time. The shameless Italian government of Digasperi in fact redoubled its campaign to recover its ex-colonies by spending millions of lira buying stooges as well as enlisting international support in the United Nations. It targeted especially Catholic dominated Latin American states and other countries, including the United States, where there were sizable immigrant Italian populations. Needless to say, Ethiopia was handicapped on both scores to put up a challenge to the Italians.

         By this time (1949) the largest bloc of countries in the United Nations was that of Latin America, and virtually all of them supported the Italian position of reclaiming the very colonies it had renounced in the Peace Treaty of 1947. Exasperated by this blind bloc mentality, Foreign Minister Aklilou voiced a stern indictment against the callous and deleterious pro-Italy--and in effect anti-Africa--stance Latin American countries were exhibiting at the United Nations. In the extensive excerpts from his speeches at the UN found in Eritrean Affair, Foreign Minister Aklilou makes the following indignant but also prophetic intervention:

“I should like to take this occasion to seriously convey to my friends, the representatives of Latin American countries--especially the deputy of Argentina--a matter of critical importance. Today, along with Liberia and Egypt my country is carefully observing the cabal that you have formed with Italy to victimize the peoples of Africa. We have no doubt that very soon the three African countries here will multiply by tenfold and taking our rightful seats in the United Nations and I have no doubt that unlike you, we shall have the opportunity to voice our support for world peace and genuine justice.”

A decade after these words were uttered, Africans formed the largest single continental grouping at the United Nations, a fact which—for what it is worth--remains so today. The vagaries of Cold War international politics also necessitated alignment of forces placing African, Asian and Latin American ‘Third World’ and/or Non-aligned --countries in the same camps for at least the next four decades.    

It would be futile to rehash the various proposals, claims and counter claims ventilated in the halls of the United Nations on the disposal of ex-Italian colonies. The repetitions were as nauseating as the position somersaults were dizzying. Then again, in the end, what mattered was not what was purveyed by well-or-ill meaning delegates, but what ultimately passed by roll call majority vote. The object lesson in all this for Ethiopians-Eritreans is the sober realization of how easy nations can play havoc, often with impunity, with the rights, integrity and needs of others. No country would countenance, entertain or accept willingly many of the proposals on territorial settlements bandied around in the United Nations at that time. Given its bitter experience with the defunct League of Nations as well as with individual governments during the Fascist invasion of the 1930’s, Ethiopia—as an African country--had little reason, then or now, to be disillusioned about international law, justice and equity.

That being said, mention may be made of a historical footnote to these UN deliberations. The flashing event in mind here was known as the “Bevin-Sforza” plan or formula on the disposal of ex-Italian colonies. The British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin and the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Sforza met in London and struck a deal which was endorsed by the United States government as well. With respect to Eritrea, the gist of their proposal was to annex Western Eritrea to Sudan and to unite the rest with Ethiopia with a proviso or rider. The rider in this instance was 

(a) to guarantee that the rights of Italians living in Eritrea are protected 

(b) that the towns of Asmara and Metsewa which have the highest concentration of Italian populations, have special chartered status whose provisions were to be drafted by the Italian government and the United Nations with Britain having oversight responsibilities. 

In a related matter, the proposal also called for Italy to return to Somalia as Trustee for ten years. What was immediately discernible to the casual observer was how quickly and how dramatically Italy made a volte-face as per the position it had held all along on Eritrea which shocked its supporters and left them out to dry. The proposal also took Ethiopia by surprise which in effect was a recycled earlier British proposal spiked with certain pet Italian concerns. Ethiopia’s dilemma now was whether it should continue its effort to recover all of Eritrea without conditions or—given the fluidity of international politics observed heretofore--to apply the saying that ‘half a loaf is better than no bread at all’ and prepare to make the best of the Bevin-Sforza plan--in case the plan garnered majority support at the UN. The British-Italian plan was also an intricate package interrelating decisions on Libya, Eritrea and Somalia rather than treating them as discrete entities, thereby complicating voting on it. Foreign Minister Aklilou sent an urgent message to Addis Ababa to get the Emperor’s dispensation on the matter, recommending that Ethiopia provisionally accept the Bevin-Sforza formula and avoid the possibility of not recovering Eritrea. Time was of the essence.

After consultations with his advisors and sober discussions with the British ambassador in Addis, the Emperor sent to his foreign minister a ‘yes, but’ kind of vague response stressing that had it not been for prevailing force of circumstances, it would not have been his pleasure to settle for the Bevin-Sforza plan. While Ato Aklilou was mulling over how to decipher his monarch’s marching orders, he got a more forthright message and interpretation of the Emperor’s letter from his ally, the Minister of Pen. The Emperor, it seems, was more concerned now about Italy returning to Somalia even for a specified period of time, a matter that he took up with the British ambassador. After intense negotiations and considerable excitement generated by it, and after being tossed around from committee to committee, in the end, the author informs the reader that the Bevin-Sforza plan failed to pass by one vote and blipped out from history’s radar screen on May 17, 1949. And, once again the whole matter was then adjourned to be resumed in committee and subcommittee sessions and in the plenary of the Fifth General Assembly due to open in September 1950.

The Italian government launched a full-scale political offensive abroad, especially in Latin America. Even though Ethiopia could not match Italian campaigns, it was nevertheless thought important for an Ethiopian goodwill delegation to touch base in at least some of the Latin American countries on the eve of the imminent General Assembly meeting. Accordingly, Mr. Aklilou and two colleagues—Ato Tesfaye Tegegn and Ato Imru Zelleke—left for a stint in Brazil, Chile and Venezuela with medallions for officials and messages from the Emperor to heads of states. Then Brazilian foreign minister, Mr. Hernandez, informed the Ethiopian envoys that as a young man he was an admirer of Emperor Menelik on account of the Battle of Adwa, and he assured them that Brazil looked with favor to Ethiopia’s position on the disposal of ex-Italian colonies. Fittingly, he was awarded a Menelik medallion which he displayed proudly. However, as it turned out later, all those diplomatic niceties in Rio de Janeiro did not bear the fruit Ethiopia was made to expect, at least in the early debates.

The deliberations in the UN General Assembly were full of high drama, verbal fireworks and spirited rhetoric.  The ringleaders of opposition to Ethiopia’s claim to Eritrea were Argentina’s Jose Arse and Pakistan’s Zafrullah Khan who were seen openly cavorting and huddling with the Italian agent at the UN. The majority members of the Ethiopian delegation to these UN sessions were Ethiopians of Eritrean extraction, including Blatta Ephrem Tewelde Medhin, Blata Dawit Eqube Egzi, Mr Goitom Petros, Blaten geta Lorenzo Taezaz, Ato Gebre Mesqel Kefle Egzi Ato Tedla Bairu and later on, Dr Tesfaye Gebre Egzi. The debate in the UN General Assembly committees was open and democratic and sought to give opportunity to all sides of the issues at hand. Therefore, representatives of Eritrean groups, parties and communities were invited to make their cases in these proceedings along with the Ethiopian and, of course, the Italian sides.

 One of the first speakers at this UN forum was the chameleonic Mr Ibrahim Sultan, who started out as one of the early members of the pro-Ethiopia Unionist Party in Eritrea. He then flipped into a pro Islamic Rabita party and flopped once more to being a front man for a pro-Italia Independence Bloc party—all in a very short period of time. This flip-flopping behavior has been observed on quite a few high profile individuals from Eritrea. He was financed and coached (rather badly, one might add) by Italy at the UN subcommittee deliberations. He mouthed what he did not know but was apparently written for him.  Among other things, he stated that ‘Eritrea was never part of Ethiopia’, and that since the 8th Century (A.D.), it was ruled by the Abbasid Dynasty. But on cross-examination he could not name even one of the khalifs who ruled nor what the name of the territory was then. Likewise, at an earlier meeting Mr Sultan Ibrahim had claimed that the Rabita al Islamia party that he represented then had a membership of 925, 000 members. And now he read figures purporting that the number of registered members of his new pro Italian party were 1,338,000. The trouble was that he claimed more party members than the total number of inhabitants in Eritrea, which at the time was estimated to be about 1, 250, 000. The Eritrean members of the Ethiopian delegation did the job of exposing him to the participants of the discussions. Undaunted, Sultan Ibrahim said something intriguing in the proceedings. A member of the Ethiopian delegation ribbed Mr. Ibrahim Sultan that unlike him who was first a mercenary of the British and then of the Italians, Eritrean members of the Ethiopian delegation would never compromise on Ethiopian history and integrity. He is quoted as having replied: “That is what you think but we know that when it comes to Eritrean independence, their heart is with us.”

 It was during these early deliberations that the idea of Ethiopia-Eritrea federation floated around, not from the peoples of the Horn but from the United States. However, the delegations were apparently not ready for it and it was scotched at a subcommittee level. Instead, the 1949 session of the UN Fourth General Assembly, approved by 47 votes (out of 59 members present). It was approved  that Libya should gain independence forthwith, and that Somalia should be administered by Italy as a UN Trusteeship for ten years, after which it would gain independence. Once more, the future of Eritrea was subject to another scrutiny and delay as the UN resolved that a 5-member Investigating Commission be dispatched to Eritrea to ascertain the wishes and concerns of the folks there and report to it within a year. The members of the Commission were Burma, Norway, South Africa, Guatemala and Pakistan. Of these five, Pakistan’s anti-Ethiopian position was especially loud and clear to everyone, and at the time, Guatemala was perceived as proxy for Italy in the UN. Ethiopia saw this as a double whammy against its rights and vital interests.  Foreign minister Aklilou could not hide his revulsion at this callous blow on his country. He told the Assembly that  the only consolation for Ethiopia is that Italy was not named as one of the members of the Commission. We take your decision with grave reservations.”  As author Zewde points out, by contrast Italians were elated at the outcome. Despite the fact that Italy had just emerged from being one of the criminal culprits of the Second World War and not even a member of the United Nations yet, being a European country and part of a larger confessional world in Euro-America was paying dividends. On the other hand, Ethiopia was sandwiched between Eur-America and some Arab states. And, sure enough, once it clawed back through the UN’s back door to Somalia, ‘post-Fascist’ Italy displayed its true old frustrated small time colonial character on the issue of settling (or rather, not settling) the border between the future Somalia and Ethiopia.5


Foreign minister Aklilou crafted a very terse and melancholy report to the Emperor explaining that just as the case with the League of Nations, world politics was still skewed in favor of the interests of powerful states and blocs. He added that American and French diplomats tried to comfort him by saying that Eritrea’s eventual restoration to Ethiopia in some form is only being delayed by another year. He told the Emperor that his polite reply to these sympathizers was that while they may have the magic wand to foretell what the future holds in this matter, Ethiopia had no choice but to wait for the outcome when it comes. The Emperor immediately convened his high council of state comprising this time of Crown Prince Asfaw Wessen, Prince Mekonnen, His Highness Ras Kassa Hailu, Prime Minister Bitweded Mekonnen Endalkachew, Minister of Interior Ras Abebe Aregay, Minister of Pen and Justice Welde Giorgis Welde Yohannes and his assistant minister, Ato Gebreweld Ingedawerq. Once again author Zewde gives us a rich tapestry of a surprisingly free and frank exchange of views among the faithful on the issues. After he listened to everyone patiently, the Emperor joined in the discussions summarizing what he heard and adding his own take on aspects of his courtiers’ views. He then approved for dispatch to the United Nations a carefully worded conciliatory but firm telegram drawing some parallel between what the United Nations is doing visa-vis Ethiopia in the 1940’s to what the League of Nations did in the 1930’s. He was particularly unhappy about the UN’s callous decision to return Italy back to  Somalia—one of its bases in invading his country in 1935-36. Ethiopians could not understand how the community of nations would send back an aggressor state, which was not even a member of the United Nations, to one of the very place from which it invaded their country barely fifteen years earlier. The Emperor concluded his trenchant message to the United Nations with the following words: “The narrow pursuit of petty interests among (some) members of the United Nations has often been inimical to justice for all. I trust that I shall live long enough to see the day when “truth” will lay bare all the partiality that is concealed now.”


The Making of Ethiopia-Eritrea Federation


The UN deliberations on the disposal of the ex-Italian colony of Eritrea took more time and went through various alternative scenarios and proposals, all of which had their respective up and down floor votes. These options included one resolution for Eritrean independence sponsored by Pakistan and Guatemala and another one by Iraq to reassess the wishes of Eritrean population—both of which failed to pass. The proposal that was ultimately adopted by the United Nations  was the one sponsored by the United States and supported by fourteen member states in draft form. This resolution--better known as UNGA Res. 390 A (V)--called for Eritrea to be federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown6. On 2 December 1950 the 60-member General Assembly adopted the federation formula with a vote tally of 46 for, 10 against and 4 abstentions. Following the vote, Foreign Minister Aklilou gave a forthright appraisal of the significance and potential consequences of the compromise federal solution on Eritrea. He pointed out that while repeatedly, the majority of the Eritrean people had expressed their wish to be reunited with their Ethiopian motherland, the UN decision was not satisfactory to Ethiopians and most Eritreans. Despite this, however, as an upstanding member of the United Nations, Ethiopia will as far as possible do what it can to comply with the will of the international community. Needless to say, notions, institutions and modalities of federation were totally alien to the Ethiopian-Eritrean people. As Ambassodor Zewde points out, “the vast majority of the people of Shewa, Gojjam, Gonder (or for that matter the Hamasen, Beni Amer in Eritrea) could only fathom the notion that Eritrea (or Hamasen as it was called by the locals) has reverted back to the Ethiopian fold. That was what federation meant to the people concerned and they had no clue what legalistic notions like “federation, federal act, chief executive…” meant.

Melake Selam Dimetros G/Mariam - Staunch Pro-Unionist Figure who Helped Effect the Transition from Ethiopia-Eritrea Federation to Union.

It appears that the Emperor decided to reluctantly acquiesce in this latest international diktat (order) on the future of Eritrea’s linkage with Ethiopia out of being tired of endless waiting. It is also likely that he was nudged into it by states he considered friendly to Ethiopia (or, more correctly to him) including the United States and Britain. The swaying point or carrot seems to be the provision of asserting that Eritrea is a “unit” federated with Ethiopia under the Ethiopian Crown.” He might have been persuaded to perceive that for all intents and purposes, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. Secondly, the provision that it is the Ethiopian Emperor—not the UN or any other body--who was empowered to ratify both the Federal Act and the Eritrean federal Constitution, confirmed Ethiopian sovereignty in the federation. More privately and informally, the Emperor might have been led to believe that eventual union of Ethiopia and Eritrea is not foreclosed by this resolution, but only delayed. In a speech to a large Ethiopian-Eritrean crowd gathered at his palace in Addis Ababa three days after the UN vote, the Emperor noted that the resolution did not positively address the expressed needs and wishes of the people concerned. However, he pointed out that after forty-five years of estrangement (the colonial period) and the last ten years of struggle to unite with their motherland, the suffering of the Eritrean people should not be dragged out any longer. The Emperor did not mention the word ‘federation’ in this address to his people, which was well-advised as deciphering it would have been difficult for him and for his audience.


The next order of business for the UN was the appointment of a UN Commissioner for Eritrea. The man chosen for the job was Mr. Edoardo Anze Matienzo of Bolivia. Within not more than two years, he was to consult with Eritrean elders and political groupings, with British functionaries and with Ethiopian officials, notably the Emperor and later on Foreign Minister Aklilou. Commissioner Matienzo was to prepare a federal constitution and to work out the transition from British caretaker administration to an Ethiopian-Eritrean administration. Eritreans were to be primed for elections of their Assembly members who were in turn to name the Eritrean Chief Executive. Mr. Matienzo had reasonably good working relations with the Emperor--the sovereign of the realm--who was represented by his personal deputy in Asmera--and the Eritrean government, as outlined in the Federal Constitution. Pro-union Eritreans, including Melake Selam Dimetros, had appealed to Mr. Matienzo that

(a) the Ethiopian Emperor appoint the Chief Executive for Eritrea
(b) Tigrigna and Amharic be the official working languages in Eritrea and
(c) the flag of the Eritrean component of the federation be the traditional Ethiopian green, yellow and red tricolors.

Others were not supportive of these suggestions and neither was Commissioner Matienzo.

Meanwhile, after a long and arduous stay in New York, punctuated by frequent bouts with illness, exhaustion and stress, Foreign Minister Aklilou and some of his colleagues were headed home,  and to their pleasant surprise, the Ethiopian diplomats were warmly received by their countrymen, particularly those of Eritrean origin. Earlier Ato Aklilou and his co-workers had gotten warm telegrams of support for their efforts at the United Nations from the Emperor, the Empress, ministers Weldegiorgis Welde Yohannes, Yilma Deressa as well as Dejazmach Mekonnen Desta (governor of Wellega) and Ato Tedla Bairu, secretary of the unionist Ethiopia-Eritrea Patriotic Association. The curtain falls on this phase of the making of Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia upon the completion of the constitution for Eritrea’s internal administration, its indirect approval by the people of Eritrea and its ratification by the Emperor on 11 September 1952.




Ambassador Zewde covers meticulously the diplomatic dynamics abroad and the behind the scenes political struggles at home in the making of the Eritrean constitution and the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation. We learn, for example, that Commissioner Matienzo was heavily influenced by pro-Italy elements in crafting the constitution. It is also revealed that in the first draft of the constitution, Mr. Matienzo had two provisions he was about to enact which would have infringed on Ethiopian sovereignty and in effect render not just Eritrea but Ethiopia itself a virtual UN Trusteeship territory. The gist of the two dicey proposals was to have amendments to the federal constitution to be approved by the United Nations and also to divest the Emperor of the power of ratification--or veto as the case may be—of amendments passed by requisite majorities of the members of the Eritrean Assembly. The legally adept and savvy diplomat that he was, Foreign Minister Aklilou immediately foresaw the pitfalls of such provisions. He went to Asmera and confronted Commissioner Matienzo, telling him in so many words that he was overstepping his bounds of strictly following the spirit and letter of the UNGA Res. 390 A (V) of Dec. 2, 1950 in trying to railroad these two offending proposals into the Eritrean Constitution. He made it clear to Mr. Matienzo that Ethiopia is ready to go back to the floor of the United Nations and challenge the legality of these (Italian-instigated) tendentious proposals, if need be. He reminded the Bolivian diplomat that the two of them had gone through some of these issues and had an amicable understanding on them back in New York. It seems that Mr. Aklilou’s timely intervention had succeeded as the final draft presented to the Eritrean Assembly for approval and eventually adopted, was in line with Mr. Aklilou’s version of the way things should be. Accordingly, the Emperor was to ratify the Constitution and the Federal Act. In Articles 91-93 dealing with amendments to the Constitution, it was provided that any amendments adopted by the Assembly shall ”enter into effect after ratification by the Emperor, Sovereign of the Federation.” This is one of the many hardly known facts unearthed and inscribed by the author of The Eritrean Affair. 


         The process of drafting, discussing, revising and finally adopting the Eritrean constitution took more than a year. Mr. Matienzo deferred to the British administration on the matter of constituting the Eritrean Assembly, and the British decided that Eritrea’s internal parliament be divided equally on confessional grounds. Accordingly, the Assembly’s sixty-eight members should be half Christian and half Muslim. It is not certain why this Lebanon-like confessional formula was preferred by the British, but as it happened there was no strong opposition to it from the Ethiopian side. As we shall see later, none other than the chief architect of the transition from federation to outright union, Bitweded Asfaha Welde Mikael, also operated on the same confessional system in the Assembly and in the Cabinet, when he became Chief Executive in the mid-1950’s. September 11, which coincided with the Ethiopian New Year, was christened Ethiopia-Eritrea Day. The Emperor appeared on his palace balcony and announced the verity of the federation. He thanked Mr. Matienzo for his efforts on behalf of the United Nations. He also expressed his gratitude to the United Kingdom, the United States and even France for their part in facilitating the federation. In a rare departure from his practice of not thanking his own subjects for jobs well done, he did name unionist Mr. Tedla Bairu and the vice President of the Assembly Sheikh Ali Muhammad Mussa Radai. However, the Emperor failed to acknowledge and publicly thank at least Mr. Aklilou Habtewold on this (or any other) occasion for his extraordinary and largely successful diplomatic toil on the Eritrean affair against overwhelming odds.

          Instead of flying directly to Asmera, the Emperor decided to  enter Eritrea by crossing the Mereb river. It appears that this was the way he wanted to peacefully and ceremonially exorcise the colonial demons which so many times had crossed the same river violently into Ethiopia. The Emperor cut a symbolic ribbon as he triumphantly crossed the Mereb, and in a tone exuding historic pride, declared; “We stand today on Eritrean soil as your imperial sovereign and the first Emperor of Ethiopia and Eritrea since the era of Emperor Yohannes IV” (1872-1889). He spent the next 25 days traversing the length and breadth of Eritrea and was greeted by jubilant and exhilarated crowds wherever he went.  One may add a historical footnote here that throughout most of his reign, Emperor Haile Sellassie had been better received in Eritrea than perhaps in much of the rest of his Empire. And, of course, his visits to Eritrea involved granting titles, tax amnesty, opening educational, developmental and kindred structures, presiding over naval graduation ceremonies in Mitsewa and, on occasion, meeting visiting heads of states and governments. One recalls that in an interview with Oriana Fallaci who asked him what he considered to be his greatest achievement during his reign, the Emperor had responded that it was achieving the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation--or as he perceived it, the restoration of Eritrea to its motherland. In short order, the Emperor named his son-in-law, Ras Andargachew Messay, as his imperial deputy in Eritrea signaling the importance of the region to himself and his empire. 

Bitweded Asfha Welde Mikael - the Architect and Engineer of Ending the Federation and Attaining Union between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

          The last third portion of The Eritrean Affair is one of the jewels of the book. It narrates, analyzes and synthesizes the period of the federation in the 1950’s including the transition to union. What makes this section of the volume unique in its genre, is the author’s eyewitness accounts from beginning to end of the federation. For the first time, the reader—at the moment limited to Amharic readers—is authoritatively informed about what transpired during the decade (1952-1962) of the federation, how it unraveled and who were the lead figures in the transition drama. On September 13, 1952, the Eritrean Assembly named Ato Tedla Bairu, a veteran of the unionist struggle, to be the first Chief Executive for a term of four years and so, he had the honor of being the first Eritrean leader to host the Emperor’s first visit there7. Chief Executive Tedla Bairu’s tenure was marred by personality clashes with an Aksumite/Asmarino activist named Welde Ab Welde Mariam. The latter also started out as a staunch unionist who revered Emperor Haile Sellassie. But, the two Eritrean veterans of the struggle to unite Ethiopia and Eritrea parted ways as the federation got underway. Suddenly, Mr Welde Ab took a radical stance decrying the federation, declaring that ‘Eritrea was not and should not be part of Ethiopia" and casting aspersions on Mr. Tedla Bairu’s leadership capabilities. Chief Executive Tedla then used his office to nudge his new nemesis, Mr. Welde Ab, to the periphery, if not the precipice of the political turf. Mr. Welde Ab’s by-election to the Eritrean assembly was annulled because of alleged election irregularities. Seeing ‘the handwriting on the wall’, Mr. Welde Ab asked for a visa to leave Eritrea in self-exile. Foreign Minister Aklilou had summed up his perception of Mr. Welde Ab this way: "He is by nature a rebel. People like him will always oppose anything and everything, even their own ideas…” The crisis in Asmera transplanted itself to Addis Ababa where courtiers took sides and tried to influence the Emperor’s intervention on the matter.

Mr Welde Ab’s request for a visa was honored, and he left Eritrea legally. When he left, he is quoted as having said, “I have left honorably, but those Eritreans who are now in power will be trying to sneak out to save themselves.” Did he have some premonition about his rival, Mr. Tedla Bairu? Mr. Welde Ab spent much of the rest of his exile life advocating Eritrea’s right to independence. If we once again fast forward our historical reel to more recent events, we find some interesting developments involving Mr. Welde Ab. In a conversation at his exile domicile in Cairo  in 1970, with Professor Sven Rubenson (published in a Swedish paper (Om Varlden, # 7, 1999), Mr. Welde Ab said that he was an Ethiopian, adding “ if I am not an Ethiopian, then who is?” Mr. Welde Ab returned in 1993 after four decades of exile, and when he landed in Asmera as EPLF’s “father of the nation,” he kissed the ground. In the process he said, “I went into self-exile forty years ago to sacrifice myself for your freedom and I shed my blood(?). Today, forty years later I am shedding my tears on you as I return to independent Eritrea”. His checkered political saga does not end there, either. As we continue to fast forward and update our historical survey of the Eritrean problem towards the mid-1990’s, we find an interesting article in an Eritrean website. In it, Mr. Welde Ab is quoted as having made this ominous statement: “Isaias will destroy himself and might unfortunately take the country with him.” 

The political furor surrounding Welde Ab created an opening to some Eritrean politicians waiting in the wings. One such luminary in the political horizon then biding his time was Mr. Asfaha Welde Mikael with a background that prima facie would have excluded him from the unionist camp. Yet, he ended up playing a pivotal role in applying the coup de grace to the ailing and flailing federation. During the Fascist interregnum, Mr. Asfaha had served as an interpreter for the Italians and even decorated by Mussolini himself as a cavaliere for services rendered and to be rendered. While others would be inclined to either deny such a resume or belittle their role or say that they were forced, Mr. Asfaha did none of that. He never shied away from it, and was always ready to state what exactly his role was during the Italian invasion, often noting that he was strictly translating as a professional from one language to another. But, he could reveal the names of many Ethiopians masquerading as bona fide patriots who were writing letters of allegiance to the Fascist government--including offers to sell secrets. Unlike such characters, Mr. Asfaha said that he did not try to be something else and had no secrets to sell to Italians. In fact, he said that he did what he could to alleviate Fascist atrocities against the Ethiopian people. With the eviction of the Italians in 1941, Mr. Asfaha, like many others in his shoes, quickly came to the Emperor’s attention and, more importantly, his favor. Ato Asfaha became an efficient bureaucrat and a rising star in the unionist movement. He was named deputy to His Majesty’s representative (or Enderassie) in Eritrea thereby gaining an inside track to the Emperor eyes and ears. From the very beginning, Mr. Asfaha had favored outright, undiluted and unconditional union of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and he was determined to achieve it one way or another. In fact, Mr. Asfaha was prepared to do battle with his compatriots in Eritrea and anyone else who would stand in the way of union. Not only did Mr. Asfaha not see eye to eye on this with Mr. Aklilou whom he highly respected; he even had some close shaves with the Emperor himself.

To a world that had been drowned in Eritrean secessionist propaganda that the making and unmaking of the federation was entirely the work of Ethiopian authorities and governments, the material and documentation found in ambassador Zewde’s book is refreshing and convincing. What emerges clearly from a careful reading of the book is that it was Eritreans who overwhelmingly or predominantly determined the rise and demise of the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation. As we shall see, even the all-powerful  Emperor of the realm, was ever so cautious and diffident throughout the drama. His deputies from Addis Ababa were for the most part observers and careful mediators. Throughout the process, Foreign Minister and diplomat par excellence Aklilou Habte Weld kept a principled position of upholding the federation and letting the matter play itself out without premature instigation to terminate it. He often drew fire from some of his colleagues and hardcore Eritrean unionists who had different ideas about the tenure of the federation. The Emperor often bounced other views and suggestions on Eritrean matters, off of his Foreign Minister--and soon to be Prime Minister--before he made a determination one way or another.

Author Zewde Retta sums up succinctly the unenviable precarious position Chief Executive Tedla was in during very early weeks and months of the federation. He points out that Mr. Tedla and the nascent federation were buffeted from all sides including burgeoning opposition elements, fissures within the unionist camps as we have seen above, clumsy activities by the authorities in Addis Ababa, the usual interference and stoking of divisive fires by foreign elements, etc.  We learn that by this time already some of the Emperor’s speeches in and on Eritrea were already being prepared by Fitawrari. Asfaha Welde Mikael, who was in effect the shadow Chief Executive biding his time to take over the reins of government in Eritrea. Nevertheless, as if to help him keep his spirits up, the Emperor bestowed the honorific title of Dejazmach on Mr. Tedla Bairu for services rendered so far and possibly hereafter. During the first two years of the federation alone (September 1952 to 1954) the Ethiopian government had poured some 12 million Ethiopian birr including 7 million birr demanded by the British as severance pay for leaving the region. And, the Emperor kept on putting more and more money in Eritrea. Later studies have shown that Ethiopia’s capital investment on education and development in Eritrea was more than in the rest of Ethiopia put together, save a few urban areas like Addis Ababa where a substantial number of beneficiaries were Eritreans anyway. Instead of presiding over the first anniversary of the federation in Asmera, Chief Executive Dejazmach Tedla decided to do it in Addis Ababa with the Emperor. It turns out that his real purpose in going to Addis Ababa was to implore the Emperor to transfer his Deputy, Ras Andargachew and the real thorn on his side, Dejazmach Asfaha—especially the latter—from Asmera. He was well received in Addis Ababa, but his absence from Asmera at such a crucial occasion elicited some backlash on him, as the realm was left open for his opponents to run amok in Asmera.

The Emperor made more generous pecuniary contributions for Eritrea’s growth as requested by the Chief Executive. On the burning question of removing his two detractors, however, the Emperor told Chief Executive Tedla Bairu to rest assured that as long as We are around, your work will not be hindered and no one will take advantage of you…” With that Dejazmach Bairu kissed the Emperor’s foot and returned to the political frying pan in Asmera. But the anti-federation genie was out of the bottle, and the struggle between those who wanted to stabilize the federation (led by Tedla) and those that sought to undermine and do away with it (led by Asfaha) was joined openly. The struggle reverberated in New York where separatist forces like Ibrahim Sultan, supported by foreign elements, were presenting petitions at the United Nations. Whatever the Emperor’s private wishes might have been with respect to maintaining or dismantling the federation, he was careful not to betray his real wishes. So, he continued to make positive uplifting speeches, to pay the Eritrean administration for amnestied taxes from his imperial coffers, to continue to make extended visits to Eritrea where he remained personally popular by Eritreans of all ages, faiths and regions. Meanwhile, Chief Executive Tedla swayed this way and that trying to please unionists at one time and secessionists another time in an apparent attempt to keep his office and the federation.

The crisis brewing in Asmera within less than a year into the federation, prompted one of those rare in camera palace deliberations presided over by the Emperor in September 1954. The participants who aired their views in this meeting were Prince Mekonnen Haile Sellassie, Prince Ras Kassa Hailu, Prime minister Bitweded Mekonnen Endalkachew, minister of Pen and Justice Welde Giorgis Welde Yohannes and Foreign minister Aklilou Habtewold. The agenda was the future of the federation. In brief, Ras Kassa said that the crisis of the federation showed the difficulty of maintaining a viable national administration under disparate legal systems. In the future Ethiopia should insure that any such association be based on a single streamlined legal regime. The Emperor repeatedly asked Foreign minister Aklilou to respond to other interventions. The gist of what the foreign minister stated eloquently and unambiguously was that inasmuch as Ethiopia has—however reluctantly—accepted the UN mandated federation and the Emperor has endorsed such acceptance by ratifying its legal instruments, it was incumbent on the Ethiopian government to observe it strictly. If the need arises for the federation to be dismantled, that can only be done legally “through majority vote in a referendum monitored by United Nations observers.” Minister Welde Giorgis also supported Ato Aklilou adding that Ethiopia may not be ready for a precipitous break-up of the federation, and that more time was needed to study all aspects and consequences of the problem. In a rare expression of satisfaction, the Emperor made a general comment to his courtiers: “We are pleased with all that has been said at this meeting. What we mean by that is that all of you have expressed what you believe freely and fully.  We have gleaned some nuggets of thought. In particular, Aklilou’s elaborate statements have exposed a lot about the matter.” He then moved on to addressing some of the participants by name starting with Ras Kassa, whom he complemented unconditionally. But, when it came to Welde Giorgis the Emperor rebuked him for intimating that he (the Emperor) was somehow behind some of the rumored shenanigans relating to undermining the federation. He said point blank,

You of all people (as our Minister of Pen) know very well that we have not given instructions to our Representative (Ras Andargachew) or his deputy (Dejazmach Asfaha) to expedite the demise of the federation.” And then the Emperor made this pregnant remark to Mr. Aklilou, We have listened to your remarks, particularly about Tedla and Asfaha, very carefully. Politics is ephemeral, and it is difficult to predict what exactly time will bring hence. Therefore, we shall await what happens tomorrow, and you will be around to witness it.

Author Zewde makes an appropriate comment on the Emperor’s characteristic  modus operandi. In this meeting as in most others, the Emperor revealed his uncanny ability of arrogating other people’s good ideas and then presenting them as though they were his own all along. At the end of the council deliberations, the Emperor issued two directives to all concerned. One was that until and unless the Eritrean people or parliament  appeal to Him willfully that they want to be under a single (Ethiopian) administration, the federation should remain in place and not tampered with. The second was to direct Ato Welde Giorgis to set up a committee of ministers under his chairmanship and follow up his good suggestion to do an exhaustive study on the fate of the federation. Following this meeting, the Emperor ostensibly seemed to take a low profile on the matter, limiting himself to questioning whether given proposals or appeals by protagonists and antagonists on the federation were “legally sound” or whether they have been “studied exhaustively.” While Addis Ababa was catching its breath thusly, Dejazmach Tedla was beleaguered on all fronts in Asmera. And it seemed that every step he took to relieve himself from his woes only led to more woes. His relations with the Parliamentary Speaker, entitled President of the Assembly Sheikh Ali Raddai was still cordial, and they agreed to suspend parliament for twenty days to minimize the jelling of opposition forces in Asmera—an action that was within his legal prerogatives in accordance with Article 48 of the Eritrean constitution. Then in March 1955 Chief Executive Tedla conducted large scale musical chairs in appointments, demotions and transfers of regional governors and authorities, placing those loyal to him in preferential positions. By this time, telltale signs of the widening rift between Dej. Tedla Bairu and his internal opponents on one level, and between his office and that of the Emperor’s representative and his deputy at another level, were now clearly legible for those capable of political reading. Meanwhile, by way of closing the chasm between the Eritrean constitution and his own, the Emperor had the Ethiopian constitution revised in 1955. 

At one point—perhaps alluding to an Aristotelian allegory in his Politics—the Emperor is quoted as having said that “just as it is difficult to walk comfortably unless one’s shoes are made to fit one’s feet, administration is also uncomfortable unless it is made to suit the people it serves.” Although the Emperor himself hardly applied this wisdom to his own administration in Ethiopia at large, it appears that it was applied to Chief Executive Tedla Bairu. In classic imperial style, first came the shocking news in April 1955, of the demotion (euphemistically called promotion) of Minister of Pen Welde Giorgis Welde Yohannes, the country’s most powerful man—next to the Emperor. In the context of the prevailing circumstances with respect to the Eritrean affair, it was a blow to both Foreign minister Aklilou and Chief executive Tedla Bairu, both of whom had benefited from his continued support, advocacy and counsel over the years. As unfolding events were to manifest, this chess move by the Emperor was a harbinger of things to come pertaining to the federation. The office of the Emperor’s Enderassie and his deputy were at this time coordinating efforts in the Eritrean Assembly to hasten the fall from power of both Chief Executive Tedla and his close ally, Sheikh Ali Mussa Radai, president of parliament. They managed to get support for their cause from forty-four deputies who were disgruntled by the suspension of parliament for more than a month. These dissident (but majority) members were encouraged by the office of the Emperor’s representative to write a petition of protest (drafted in the office of His Majesty’s Representative) and hand it to the Emperor in Addis Ababa. So, the cabal to remove Dejazmach Tedla from power picked up momentum in Asmera. In anticipation of the impending petition from the substantial majority of parliament (44 of 68) Chief Executive Tedla and his comrade Sheikh Ali Mussa had come to Addis to make their case to the Emperor. Right after that the Emperor received the parliamentarians petition. He then made a curious extra-juridical ruling, as far as the Federal Act or the Eritrean constitution was concerned. His dictum: “Even We cannot shut down (the Eritrean) parliament this way—let alone Tedla. We therefore hereby order that parliament resume its session, and you are to go back to your work.” Author Zewde rightly notes that in so doing, the Emperor overstepped his federal constitutional bounds, because it was not within his domain to suspend or resume the Eritrean parliament. Sensing that this imperial edict may open a legal Pandora's box internationally, the phrase “Even We, let alone Tedla” was excised in print and radio reports at the time. The days of the federation were now numbered.

The first order of Assembly business of the dissident parliamentarians was to pass a motion dismissing Sheikh Ali Mussa Raddai as their Speaker. They then conferred the honor on Mr. Idris Mohammed Adum (handpicked by Dejazmach Asfaha Welde Mikael), who was thought to be low profile, non-sequitour and innocuous to deal with. Under these circumstances, Chief Executive Tedla concluded that the ring of fire his opponents and rivals had set around him was getting too close for comfort and that it was time to bolt. On 29 July 1955 Dejazmach Tedla went to one of the movie theatres in Asmera and announced his resignation from the office of Chief Executive of Eritrea. He said that "inasmuch as a number of insurmountable obstacles and hurdles have made it impossible for me to shoulder the awesome responsibility of leader of the Eritrean government now and in the future, I am resigning from my post as of this day. It is up to the parliament to name my successor. Long life to Emperor Haile Sellassie; I have no doubt that I shall find some livelihood.”  He packed up his bags and left Addis Ababa the day after uttering those sad words. Once in Addis, the Emperor saw to it that he continued to get his Chief Executive salary; he was to have an automobile with chauffeur and hotel room and board expenses; and he was told to wait for an appropriate appointment.

Now the middle phase of the political chess game shifts to the candidature of the next Chief Executive. Among the lead figures were head of the unionist Patriotic Association Dejazmach Beyene Baraki, Deputy Representative of the Emperor’s office Fitawrari Asfaha Welde Mikael and an assistant of the Chief Executive Haregot Abbay. While others debated and prevaricated on the issue, the Emperor’s mind had been made up early on. Without any equivocation he advised his lieutenants in Asmera that “The selection of Asfaha to be the Eritrean Chief Executive is not only our wish but something we strongly want.” Surprisingly, Fitawrari Asfaha had a better support base among both Christians and Muslims in the parliament than did Dejazmach Tedla Bairu before him. Melake Selam Demetros, one of the undiluted vanguard unionists was virtually the campaign manager behind Fitawrari Asfaha, and he marshaled widespread support for his candidate (and the Emperor’s). Even Ibrahim Sultan who was a member of parliament indicated Asfaha to be his choice for the job. Fitawrari Asfaha garnered forty-eight votes on the first ballot and took over the mantle of Chief Executive on 8 August 1955 to serve out the un-expired term of his predecessor. After the dust settled for a while in Asmera, the Emperor glanced towards former Chief Executive Tedla Bairu and appointed him as Ambassador to Sweden on 9 May 1956 where he later defected. For the record, Foreign minister Aklilou demurred on the appointment saying that it was neither equal to nor above his status as Chief Executive. He respectfully suggested to the Emperor that Tedla Bairu should be either president of the Ethiopian parliament or at least a member of the Ethiopian cabinet.

 Author Zewde narrates how elated the Emperor was when he heard the news at one of his retreats in Dire Dawa. An eyewitness there reported that the Emperor exuded more happiness at the event than when he had crossed the Mereb. Chief Executive Asfaha was to prove that he was a very competent and accomplished politician who knew what he wanted and how to achieve it. Above all, he knew how to stroke the Emperor’s whiskers, and how to read his moods and predict his actions. The difference between him and now ambassador Tedla was sharp and conspicuous. Where Tedla had difficulties reining in his opponents, Asfaha did it with ease. Where Tedla veered to this side and then to the other, Asfaha made his choices and his direction right from the start and then pressed on consistently. He had balanced support among Christians and Muslims. He was both architect and engineer of the transition from federation to union. He knew what buttons to press as well as when to push and when to hold back. Though there were some in high places in Asmera and Addis Ababa who were not enamored of him, he did not polarize people into bitter enemies and blind sycophants. He was not much loved, but he was respected, if not feared –in the Machiavellian sense. In his maiden speech as Chief executive, Fitawrari Asfaha said: Even if Eritrea has a different administration from other regions in Ethiopia, we should not forget that it remains within the Ethiopian family fold. We Eritreans should cherish and cling dearly to the special love that our Emperor Haile Sellassie has for us.”  The Eritrean Affair is the first work to provide a profile of this extraordinary Eritrean figure by and about whom virtually nothing had been written, except for occasional sniping by secessionist propagandists.

 The internecine struggle in Eritrea between those who wanted to  terminate the federation and effect outright union on the one hand, and those who championed outright secession picked up momentum in the mid-1950’s. All kinds of trial balloons were out in the open in the form or proposals to prepare the ground for easing the process of achieving union. Fitawrari Asfaha prepared the ground to pursue his single-minded goal of union by seeing to it that cooperative representatives would be elected to the Eritrean parliament and reliable supporters or sympathizers would be appointed in strategic cabinet and other posts. Among notions favored by Chief Executive Asfaha—who never shied from pushing the envelope to the edge—one was to have the Emperor to appoint the Chief Executive which meant that Eritrea will be virtually a governorate, and it also meant that the office of the Emperor’s Special Representative in Asmera will be redundant. The snag here, however, was the provisions of the Eritrean constitution which did not provide for such procedure. As usual, asked to weigh in on the matter, Foreign minister Aklilou indicated that the proposal would not comport legally with the UN mandated Eritrean constitution. Chagrined by this turn of events, the Chief Executive is quoted as having quipped: ”Why is it that every time we heat the pan, Ato Aklilou ices it?”




While all this was going on, the new parliament opened in September 1956, and lo and behold, the deft politician, Asfaha Welde Mikael, was elected for his first four-year term as Chief Executive by a unanimous vote. In what might have been an experiment to test internal and international reaction to the idea, Dejazmach Asfaha also was Chief Executive and deputy representative of the Emperor and later on even doubled up also as the Acting Representative of the Emperor, until a new one was appointed in December 1959. As author Zewde points out this development had its awkward moments from the standpoint of the Eritrean constitution, because Fitawrari Asfaha was shuffling legislation from one hand to the other as he performed these two related but constitutionally distinct functions. The Emperor sent the Chief Executive a telegraphed message of congratulations on his election that did not exactly bubble with royal ecstasy:

“ …Since it was also Our wish that you continue your administrative responsibilities, the parliamentarians have done the right thing (to repose the office on you). May God help you to accomplish the multitude of responsibilities ahead, just as you have pleased Us in the past by diligently performing your tasks…”

The next three years appeared to be uneventful outwardly, but underneath the surface, the struggles between unionists and the burgeoning ranks of secessionists was simmering. For his part, Chief Executive Asfaha continued chiseling away methodically the federation edifice with a singleness of purpose and with surprising results. Even the Emperor and his court seemed to be watchers than proactive participants in the unfolding Asfaha drama. Towards the end of 1959 he orchestrated a campaign to have only the Ethiopian (and now virtually continental and Diaspora African) tricolor flag to be the sole flag flying in Eritrea doing away with the UN flag symbolizing the federal status. Eritreans had for a long time honored the green-yellow-red Ethiopian flag as a symbol of independence, and they gave it a pride of place in weddings, funerals and holidays. With the determined and skillful floor management of Melake Selam Demetros, the Chief Executive proposed the change by telling the parliamentarians that if they do not wish to adopt his proposal he will submit it to a popular referendum by the Eritrean people at large. Whether he might have been bluffing or not, the parliamentarians including Islamic League members did not call his bluff. They went along and approved the measure. At the end of 1959, the Emperor named a new royal representative in the person of General Abiy Abebe. Five months after the adoption of the Ethiopian flag, Chief Executive Asfaha kept shifting to higher gears with the bold proposition that the designation “Chief Executive” should be supplanted by “Eritrean Administrator”—a term generally used by the Emperor all along. In his extensive interview with ambassador Zewde Bitweded –his last title—Asfaha explained his move at that point this way: There is no double government in Ethiopia. And, in a single Ethiopia there is only one leader and he is His Majesty Haile Sellassie I.” He got his way in parliament and henceforth the nomenclature was adjusted accordingly and his title was now “Administrator of Eritrea.” This Eritrean leader was peeling the federation as though it was an onion. But, it should be noted that he was not doing it blatantly or by force, but by superior methods and political skill, much as an American congressman would to achieve given partisan goals in Congress. It is to be recalled  that while the Emperor was on a state visit in Brazil in December 1960, his Bodyguard Corps had staged an unsuccessful coup. Upon his return home, he first landed in Asmera where he was greeted warmly by the populace-as always--and Fitawrari Asfaha and other Eritrean leaders welcomed him with the traditional kissing of his feet (or boots) at the airport as a reminder of their continued allegiance

The end game was now drawing near and D-Day on the future of the federation was imminent. During the next two years, the triumvirate team of Eritrean Administrator Asfaha, the Emperor’s representative General Abiy, and unionist par excellence deputy speaker Melake Selam Demetros did their homework. They orchestrated not just a majority support but a unanimous support for dismantling the federation by Assembly vote—in effect amending the constitution accordingly. Bitweded Asfaha was to remark later to author Zewde on the Emperor’s role, if any, regarding the ending of the federation “Of course, no one will believe if we say that the Emperor had nothing to do with the breakup of the federation. But, the fact is that while the Emperor was kept informed of what was transpiring in Eritrea at that time, at no point did the Emperor urge us to break up the federation or pass on instructions on our day today activities.”8

Bitweded Asfaha’s articulate and resolute reflection on the ending of the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation may be paraphrased in brief as follows. ‘To begin with, Ethiopians and Eritreans never asked for nor expected a federation—let alone understand it. Largely for extraneous global political reasons that outside powers and the United Nations decided on Ethiopia-Eritrea federation as a compromise among various options. Under the circumstances, the Eritrean and the Ethiopian people accepted it reluctantly. Having accepted and tried the federal arrangement, the Eritrean people found it wanting and not viable. Consequently, the Eritrean people finally rejected it constitutionally and of their own volition. They then restored the age-old Ethiopian-Eritrean union, that the overwhelming majority of the Eritrean people had been fighting for all along. Any final responsibility for the transformation of the federation to union rests with us Eritreans and if you wish, with me personally, for shepherding the process to its ineluctable climax.’

In early November 1962, Bitweded Asfaha and Deputy Speaker Melake Selam Demetros did two things discretely on the Eritrean front and General Abiy was responsible for the liaison work with the Emperor in Addis Ababa. The two Eritrean leaders first managed to get signed pledges of support from all 68 deputies for doing away with the federal arrangement. Having secured that, they asked General Abiy to go to Emperor Haile Sellassie in Addis, armed with the signed affidavits of the 68 Eritrean deputies (virtually all of whom were titled by now), and respectfully request that he (the Emperor) alone-—without convening Crown council deliberations or consulting anyone else (especially Foreign minister Aklilou whose disapproval they could easily predict),  grant his approval of the imminent crucial parliamentary vote on the fate of the federation. It is important to reiterate here that the author of the book, The Eritrean Affair, was in Asmera at that very moment, and the reader stands to benefit from his instant eyewitness accounts and reminiscences--refreshed by his later discussions of surviving actors in the Eritrean drama, including Bitweded Asfaha Welde Mikael.

 General Abiy returned to Asmera having accomplished his mission of getting the Emperor’s approval of the proposal, apparently as the Eritrean leaders wanted. Parliament was to meet on 15 November 1962. Unusually members of foreign consulates and other dignitaries were invited to attend the session without being told why. So, everyone was curious and the air was filled with all kinds of speculation. Surprisingly, it appears that nothing leaked from parliament or the cabinet as to what was about to transpire. The Eritrean parliament was decorated profusely with the Ethiopian tricolor, and the atmosphere was decidedly celebratory. As the meeting was about to commence around 10 am, Deputy Speaker Demetros kept looking at his watch and glancing at the entrance of parliament and was seen to be anxious about something. Sure enough, there was a glitch to the proceedings. While sixty-seven parliamentarians had taken up their seats, the President or parliamentary Speaker Dejazmach Hamid Fereed Hamid did not arrive. But, around 10:30 am a piece of paper was seen circulating among the members of parliament. It was a signed note from the Speaker that said, “Allah is my witness; I am very ill and I have very high fever and so cannot be among you. Still, I am with you today as I was yesterday…” With that, Deputy Speaker Demetros took the Speaker’s seat at 11 o’clock and asked Chief Administrator to address parliament. There was a long applause after which Fitawrari Asfaha spoke on the checkered past of the federation years and on his decision to ask parliament to terminate it forthwith and to declare that ”as of that moment, we (the Eritrean people) have been united with our motherland Ethiopia under one and the same administration.” The resolution was approved by acclamation without objection. Author Zewde, who was in the hall witnessing what was happening, describes vividly the spontaneous unbridled sense of happiness exuding in the hall as the clapping, the kissing and hugging and the cries of joy continued for a long time. Parliament immediately made a formal request to the Emperor to approve its decision to dismantle the federation and opt for outright union. Of course, as indicated above the Emperor had already done so discretely. Now he just had to make a pro forma declaration, which he did promptly. He telegraphed his approval saying in part: “…Taking into account the shortcomings of the federation which operated for the past ten years, We appreciate and approve the decision made by the deputies and submitted to Us; with complete unity, it should be possible to accelerate development of the Eritrean people together with their kith and kin in the rest of Ethiopia.“

 Secessionist and revisionist ‘storiography’ has managed to hoodwink the world and, for that matter even Ethiopians-Eritreans that the act of dismantling the federation just adumbrated above, was done under duress with the parliament having been surrounded by tanks and heavy firepower. Inasmuch as the author was there at the scene since November 14, and he says that “…on that day (15 November 1962) there were not even an inordinate number of local police with pistols, let alone tanks in the vicinity of parliament.” For the next three days Eritreans descended on Asmera from all corners of the region to celebrate the occasion. Likewise, in Addis Ababa, the Emperor received countless accolades and felicitations from his subjects and outsiders.9  One historical footnote worth mentioning here is that Foreign Minister Aklilou did not approve of the development, and he did not even offer perfunctory congratulations to the political engineers in Asmera, nor did he express glee in Addis Ababa. The Emperor, who was reputed to have a phenomenal memory--must have recalled what he had told his Foreign minister earlier on that “…he will be made to witness it…(i.e., the end of the federation).

      The simple, accurate and unadulterated statement on the unmaking of the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation is, for instance, that of Dr. Tekeste Negash who, in his latest book, (Eritrea and Ethiopia:The Federal Experience, 1977) wrote: ”On November 15, 1962 the Eritrean Assembly voted to dissolve the federation and unite Eritrea with the Ethiopian empire.” Oh, but how consternated secessionists and their sycophants have been to say or admit to this verity. In the conclusion to his 1964 thesis cited earlier, Dr Amare Tekle (now one of Eritrea’s ‘trouble shooters’) even went so far as to say that “Ethiopia should not be criticized” for actions related to the dissolution of the federation, “since they were not the products of malevolence.” In what Americans call ‘Monday morning quarterbacking’ style, he adds, “One may even speculate that the solution of the General Assembly might have provided the necessary and relatively smooth transition into inevitable union. Assuming that union had been regarded as inevitable…would it not have been better for the General Assembly to adopt and recommend the Norwegian delegation’s recommendation for an immediate and unconditional union of Eritrea with Ethiopia?” Although we cannot go into such details now, it is instructive to state that despite repeated appeals by some Eritrean dissidents,  secessionists and their fellow-traveling interlopers regarding the end of the federation since the early 1960’s, neither the United Nations nor any other competent body has entertained the idea of debating or revisiting the circumstances and legal proprieties of the act until UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s tenure in the early 1990’s.

         In the aftermath of the end game, the Emperor did something intriguing and in some ways familiar to those who have observed his style of rule closely. Shades of his policies in the wake of Fascist eviction from Ethiopia and his restoration to his throne—his relations with patriots and collaborators with Italy--seemed to reappear in the days following the historic events in Asmera. Five weeks after the end of the federation, the Emperor made an extensive tour of the region and, as usual he was well received. Everyone was now curious as to how he will govern his new governorate-general. In particular, speculation was rife about the future of the triumvirate—Asfaha, Demetros and Abiy—in particular and on the role of veteran Eritrean unionists in the region in general. Author Zewde shares with the reader the perceptions of the unionists who paid high prices for their Ethiopia Or Death struggles for decades. Would such veterans now take leading roles in the development of Eritrea and the strengthening of the union or would they be marginalized, moved to other parts of Ethiopia and the void filled with others not committed to the cause of unity? Was the end of the federation the end of it all or the beginning of something that most Eritreans and their Ethiopian kith and kin wanted. Did the Emperor have concerns about their personal safety? The answers to such pregnant questions did not take long in coming.

At the end of his tour the Emperor made stunning moves. He appointed General Abiy as the new Governor-General of Eritrea. Ato Zewde notes that this was mainly because the Emperor might have thought that other positions commensurate for his profession and experience were already filled up in Addis Ababa. And then, the Emperor removed Chief Administrator Asfaha and Melake Selam Demetros from Asmera. Asfaha was given the honorific title of Bitweded and appointed Minister of Justice, while Melake Selam Demetros was made a mere member of the Senate in the Addis Ababa parliament without even any title as a token of appreciation for his contributions. Apropos to the Ethiopian saying of having “mumps on top of a goitre” the Emperor named a personality by the name of Tesfa Yohannes Berhe who had a checkered past with respect to the struggle for unity, as Deputy Governor of Eritrea. He also named Ali Mussa Raddai, a longtime member of Rabita al-Islamiyya party and who was a close ally of Dejazmach Tedla Bairu, Advisor to the Governor-General with the rank of Minister of State. The question of what the Emperor was trying to do in these puzzling moves was later a subject of the author’s interview with Bitweded Asfaha who summed up his take on the whole development with the expression that what was happening in Eritrea since the end of the federation was a process of “the farmer (in this case one may take some poetic license and say ‘landowner) sows seeds of his liking, not what is fit for the soil.” Asked why the secessionist movement accelerated in the early 1960’s, the former Chief Executive also said, that one has to look at not only what happened in the federation years but the thirty years afterwards. In some ways, what the Emperor did in Eritrea in 1962 may be compared to what Emperor Yohannes did in 1888, after his bungled effort to dislodge Italians near Mitsewa with a force of more than 120, 000 peasant militia from all over the country. He vacated his Mereb Melash (Eritrea) and removed Ras Alula Aba Nega, its governor and founder of Asmera and one who had kept Italian colonialism at bay for so long, from the region. Shortly thereafter, the Italians moved to Asmera and then declared an Italian colony in Mereb Melash. Was the struggle for unity beginning to be betrayed inadvertently by these imperial moves?  We still have more questions than answers, but Ambassador Zewde’s book, The Eritrean Affair, helps the reader to ask the right questions and shows the paths to finding the correct answers.




         The Eritrean problem has gone through three regimes in the last six decades and it is still with us claiming life, limb, time, resources and, psychic energy. It changes colors and styles from era to era, but it is still pervasive, destructive and seemingly intractable. Among the gems in the book at hand one finds so many wise sayings, caveats and honest assessments on aspects of the problem especially by Eritrean elders in the period the book covers. One such insightful comment was by the well-known Eritrean clergyman and activist in the Ethiopia-Eritrea unionist party, Kes (Priest) Habte Sellassie Gulbet. Addressing a large crowd of unionists in Cinema Adwa in Addis Ababa, he said:

What I should counsel to you my Ethiopian brothers and sisters is that Eritreans will feel genuine Ethiopianity only if they are treated normally, just like yourselves. Otherwise, if you try to treat people separated for a time with special treatment different from other Ethiopians—they are likely to feel more like foreigners than Ethiopians…

The venerable Kes Habte Sellassie fell ill and passed away a year later, but he is survived by a son in the person of Dr. Bereket Habte Sellassie. The latter spent most of his life in Ethiopia--with all the differential treatment people of Eritrean extraction enjoyed and exploited--as an Ethiopian and then last twenty-five years as an Eritrean. One wonders what his reaction would be to the thesis propounded so incisively by his father? One wonders broadly why one generation of Eritreans struggled for “Ethiopia or Death” and their descendents struggled for “Death to Ethiopia,” and yet the latter generation benefited more from association with Ethiopia than their ancestors? It takes a good deal of history, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, et. al. combined to try to fathom these questions. To paraphrase Aristotle, ‘some who are unequal in some things, struggle to be equal in all things; others who are unequal in some things, struggle to be unequal in all things.’ Which paradigm is applicable here for the purpose of analysis and understanding of the Eritrean problem? I, for one, am of the view that Eritreans, especially during the time of the Emperor, had benefited more than any other region or group-- especially in certain areas like education and capital investments-- more than the rest of the country put together.10 The Emperor was indulgent to a fault towards Eritrea. Indeed, in his last formal function in the naval graduation ceremonies in mid-1974 in Mitsewa, he was quoted by Addis Zemen newspaper as having said that, “We have done more for Eritrea than for any other region.”


         On 14 May 2000 a book signing ceremony was held in Los Angeles to launch Ambassador Zewde’s The Eritrean Affair. In my remarks then I had said that for Ethiopians of my generation the Eritrean problem has been like gum arabica in the mouth; one cannot chew it, swallow it or even spit it out. One is stuck with it. The other thing I said was that if there is such a thing as historical DNA in the search for truth about the problem, Ambassador Zewde’s book, The Eritrean Affair would certainly qualify as one. Hence, the title of this review article based on it. The bigger the problem tree, the deeper its roots are and this book digs deep into the forgotten or glossed over sources of the problem. While the publication of the book in Amharic is a boon to Amharic readers, the rest of the world does not yet have the benefit of understanding the problem better from a treatment not yet seen heretofore. For some time, Ethiopians have been calling it “The Book,” and everyone seemed to understand that it was Ambassador Zewde’s The Eritrean Affair. One hopes that all Ethiopians who can, will read it. One hopes also that truth seeking Eritreans also read it under whatever circumstances. It was a little over a decade ago that I did my last review article11 on the Eritrean problem. It is refreshing and edifying to read Ambassador Zewde’s book. In the lexicon of book critiques, The Eritrean Affair is truly a tour de force.

This book on the Eritrean problem could not have been published in Ethiopia as is during the era of Emperor Haile Sellassie or during the Derg period. Likewise the book could not have been published  under the current regime before the EPLF incursion into Tigray in 1998. That history may be suppressed for a time but not obliterated for all time, and that "there is a time for everything" is manifested handsomely in the publication of The Eritrean Affair.


Foot Notes:

1The full title of Ambassador Zewde Retta’s book—in Ethiopic—is: The Eritrean Affair (1941-1963) During the Reign of Emperor Haile Sellassie I, Addis Ababa, 1999 (542 pp. including more than 70 quality photographs). Unless stated otherwise, calendar dates referenced in the book and in this review article are Gregorian.

2In 1993, Alemseged B. Adal published a book in Amharic entitled, The Eritrean Puzzle, which dealt mostly with the ELF.

3Professor Spencer has since written his memoir (also translated into Amharic) of his long sojourn as an advisor to the Emperor and to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry since then ( Ethiopia At Bay, 1983). The

4The reparations assessed against Italy were (in millions of $US dollars) to Yugoslavia 125, to Greece 105, to Russia 100, to Ethiopia 25 and to Albania 5.

5For more on this aspect of history of the Horn and especially for a glimpse of Ato Haddis Alemayehu’s diplomatic work with respect to the Ethiopia-Somalia border, see my “The 1952-1959 Ethio-Italian Boundary Negotiations: An Exercise in Futility” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. IX # 2 (1971), pp.127-148.

6For a complete dossier on this resolution and related UN documents pertaining to Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia, the reader may consult Final Report of the United Nations Commissioner in Eritrea, GA Official Records, Seventh Session, Supplement No. 15 (A/2188) New York, 1952.

7Amharic readers may also augment their pursuit of the history of this period by perusing relevant sections of Frekenafer, a multi-volume collection of the Emperor’s speeches and comments from the mid-1920’s to the early 1960’s, compiled mainly by Blatengeta Mersiehazen Welde Qirqos and published in Addis Ababa.

8The last section of the book, The Eritrean Affair, is largely devoted to extensive interviews the author conducted with Bitweded Asfaha on his reminiscences. The author, who was in Asmera in November 1962 when the federation was terminated by the Eritrean parliament, also provides the reader with the first meaningful account encapsulating the momentous event. It is easily the book’s piece de resistance.

9In a later address at a book signing ceremony in Los Angeles, the author has also made an important corroborative statement by noting that as he was researching for the book, he scanned contemporary newspaper and archival documents to see what the foreign residents, consular officers, journalists and others reported from Asmera on the events of 15 November 1962, and he had not found reports of intimidation or show of force. So, Author Zewde concluded that the fiction that the Ethiopian government forced the Eritrean parliament decision by the Ethiopian government to be not just lies, but “the mother of all lies.” The Amharic expression he actually used is “wushet, yeweshet wushet.”

10On education in Eritrea up to 1991, see for instance, the volume, A Historical Survey of State Education in Eritrea, (1991) by an Eritrean educator, Dr. Adane Taye.

11Readers who wish to peruse some of my earlier writings on the Eritrean problem are referred to the following: “Towards a Scenario of Peace on the Horn” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Waterloo (1988), “On the Determinants of Prospects for Peace on the Horn of Africa: The Other Side of the Coin” Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on the Horn of Africa, New York, 1988, “The Eritrean Problem Revisited” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, 1989, See also my recent internet postings on this website  ( on treaties, borders and seacoasts, dated June 17, September 26 and October 1, 2000.

                                                                 18 November 2000

Copyright 2000 Negussay Ayele / EOW. Readers may redistribute this article for noncommercial use as long as the text and this notice remain intact. This article may not be sold, reprinted, translated or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author and EOW.