Modern Education Development, Challenges and Current State in Eritrea (1839 to 2016)


Pt. 4b. The birth of Eritrean youth resistance.

Compiled and researched by Resoum Kidane


The first student political organizations were organized around the anti-Ethiopian " Young Federalist" movement in Asmara, Agordat, Keren, and Massawa in 1957. On 9 May, students at Haile Selassie I Secondary School in Asmara, led by Tuku'e Ihadogo and others, went on strike against the imposition of Amharic as a language of instruction. Their imprisonment produced a national student strike on 22 May, and led to the first student contacts with labour organizations. Students supported the 1958 General strike in Asmara. (Connell, 2011, page 482)

The brutal crash of the general strike in 1958 and the violation of civil rights the 1950s led to the rebirth of the Eritrean nationalism and resistance against the Ethiopian government. In 1959 Tuku'e was recruited to the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraket), which played a role in organizing anti- Ethiopian student protests in 1960-1962. As Ethiopian plan for annexation progressed, high school students marched in large numbered to protest at the Eritrean Assembly in September 1960, and again in May 1962, when student strikes and demonstrations spread across the country, and were broken with brutal police repression. Further demonstrations followed annexation in early 1962, and in March 1965, over 2000 high school students were arrested in Asmara and detained at Sembel camp (Connell, 2011 p 483)

In the 1950s a considerable number of women students were also involved in these strikes and demonstrations, but unlike their male comrades they were in general not arrested .

Worku one of the first women in the EPLF explained the role of women in the fifties:

In the 1950s there were Eritrean police and guards and they did not mistreat women in the same way as the Ethiopians were to do later. Actually the policemen were in a dilemma because when the Eritrean students sang patriotic songs, the policemen identified with them. But they attacked demonstrators with tear gas. They didn't want to arrest women and they would say to them. "You go home, you are women". But the women refused to leave their male comrades Asmara, women had participated all through, side by side with men, in strike, but in the fifties soldiers were not arresting women. The women would refuse to part from their male comrades and sometimes when they were arrested and their parents came to see them, the police would ask them to go and they would refuse to leave. Wilson p 25

By and large the Eritrean people struggle for independence from Ethiopia has history goes back to the1950s when political rights and civil liberties came to an end in violation of the of UN 390(AV) Resolution     

The students protest against the violation of political rights in the 1950s  continued throughout the armed struggle, and thousands student and other professionals actively participated in the national liberation struggle who greatly contributed   for the achievement victory in 1991. Regarding this Nunu Kidane  states that the Eritrean diasporic community was highly supportive of the struggle at home, financially and in policy advocacy in the US, Europe and the Middle East. It was the most mobilized of all African immigrant communities in the world, sending millions of dollars each year, from remittances of the hard working members of its population eager to return home after liberation .

Prof. Araya Debessay who was a high school student in the 1950s and graduated from Haile Selassie I University in 1965 also said "We were fund-raising, collecting medical supplies from all the hospitals in the area to send to Eritrea, developing political education programs, getting information from the EPLF (Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front) office in Washington, deciding which faction to support." In 1984-85, when he was chairperson, the Relief Committee raised $15 million for famine relief in Eritrea.

History of young Eritrean resistance in the 1950s and 1960s

The second generation of Eritreans who came of age after the demise of European colonial rule in 1941 increased their resistance against the violations of the Federal Constitution in the 1950s.

The movement for Eritrean independence was in a relative decline after the installation of the Federation, but was revived in the late 1950s mainly as an idea promoted by students . An Eritrean student of history confirmed that "be it in Asmara, in Addis or in Cairo, those who propagated to keep the spirit [of Eritrean independence] alive were mainly young students".[i Bereketeab (2000:176) also pointed out that by 1953 “the more fanatic of the young Unionists, formerly of a ‘union or die’ attitude, have now changed their cry to ‘Federation or die’, this was also reported by British Police Commissioner of Eritrea, Colonel Cracknell...

The main cause for the rise of youth protest in the 1950s, was due to political suppression, which bred general frustration compounded by economic distress. The Unionist propaganda of the 1940s had presented Ethiopia as the Promised Land of milk and honey. But when the Federation was put into effect, there was little that Ethiopia could contribute to the wellbeing of the Eritrean people. To the contrary, concerted action was taken to kill the new political arrangement both politically and economically. Many economic establishments were shut down and told to reopen in Addis Ababa. The number of industrial workers decreased from 32,400 in 1947 to 10,350 in 1962.[xiv] Jobless Eritreans thus had to migrate to Ethiopia and to neighbouring countries. ([Source Woldeyesus Ammar, 2016 )

Regarding the youth’s resistance in Eritrea, a British advisor to the Department of Education in Eritrea  observing the behaviour of the students in 1954  , at the time of federation, predicted that if an adequate number of jobs was not created for students leaving school within five years, the country would be troubled by political agitation that could later develop into revolution.  The advisor was not a prophet sent from God, but he spoke from experience, and what he said came true. The government neglected the political importance of the young, no jobs were provided and, consequently, the young aware of the right to live a decent life started, in 1958, an underground political movement known as Group Seven (Mikael Hasama Raka 1984

As a consequence of the political suppression and economic distress, in the early 1950s, three anti-Ethiopian youth organizations were founded. One commonly called simply Shabab was the Moslem Youth League. The second, Partite Giovanile Federalists Eritrea (The Young Federalists). The third youth organization was the Eritrean Youth Peace Council which was an amalgamation of the Youth wing of the Moslem League and the Unionist Party

In 1954  Imam Musa Adem one of  the Muslim Youth League (Shabab) leaders  was arrested along with Haji Suleiman Ahmed for anti-government actions.  The  leader  of the Young Federalists,  Tesfai Redda,  was also repeatedly imprisoned and tortured in the 1950s. [source from note 50 Killion (1997:50,51)  In the 1950s the student political organization was  also organized around the anti-Ethiopian, Young Federalist movement in Asmara, Agordat, Keren, and Massawa.

Other of student activism, in 1950s,  was  an Eritrean students  union in Cario which was formed  by students  who had left Eritrea for the Arab world to study after Arabic had been banned in the schools and replaced by Amharic(Connell483).  The students union was led by Seid Hussein.

Seid Hussein.

Seid Hussein was murdered by the ELF[ጀብሃ ዓባይ. JEBHA ABAY] in 1978

Regarding  the Eritrean students union in Cairo, Woldeyesus Amma states that in the 1950s  the  Eritrean youth looking for better schooling or jobs were, as of mid-1940s, trekking to Cairo through all possible routes. Most of them travelled without legitimate documents. In 1952, a student association was formed in Cairo.[xvii] By the late 1950s, Cairo became a centre of the Eritrean student movement with far-reaching influences. The Cairo Eritrean students union  club that  became an information desk on developments in Eritrea, organized many anti-Ethiopian demonstrations during the 1950s and early 1960s which influenced students in Asmara. Cairo was at this time at the heart of secular Arab nationalism and Nasserism at its height after the defeat of British and French efforts to regain control of the Suez Canal.
Many of those students returned to Eritrea on family visits, and some went on missions with a political agenda. One such prominent visitor was Saied Hussein, known to some as the 'dynamo' of the student movement in Cairo.[xviii] In one of his visits to Asmara, he tried to carry out a military operation but was arrested.[xix]   Woldeysus Amma in his article does not mention why Saied Hussein was murdered by his organisation the ELF in 1978 (Woldeyesus, 2016).

The youth resistance against the violations of the Federal Constitution  intensified when Amharic   became the official language in violation of the Eritrea Constitution which declared Tigrinya and Arabic to use  as the medium for primary education up to grade four, with English. Initially, in 1956, Emperor Haile Selassie began to undermine Eritrean education during the federal period when Amharic was proclaimed as the only language for public offices, schools, law courts and business documents . Concerning this Spencer(1984:303) mentioned that 1955 saw ominous developments threatening the future of the federation with Eritrea. Bitwoded Andargatchew, the representative of the Crown, told the Eritreans in his first public appearance that since their future was now bound up with Ethiopia, they must all learn to use the national language Amharic.  Certainly, he could not have read the Eritrean constitution just then put in force which stipulated that Tigrinya and Arabic would be the official languages of Eritrea.

Andemichael Kahsay

Andemichael Kahsay was murdered by the PFDJ in 2003

After 1957, Amharic became the most hated subject in all school in Eritrea.  Ande Michael Kahassa in his interview recalls when we went to high school in 1959; there was resistance to Amharic in our group. Our favourite method was to eat dried chickpea during class. It was very noisy. We were known as the chickpea market. We were notorious. The Ethiopian teachers were also transferred to Eritrea to teach Amharic.  Teachers wearing army uniforms (apparently to intimidate students) were met with open hostility.

Ande Michael Kahassa  in his interview explains:  ‘I was 14 and in the sixth grade when we had our first Amharic class. By then Wolde-Ab was broadcasting from Cairo. You could hear the grown-ups talking about it. We did not have a radio at home, but in the tea-shops and so on, people listened to Wolde-Ab. At that time we did not even speak Amharic. One day this Ethiopian teacher came to our class. Eritrean teachers at that time had a starting salary the equivalent of $20, later it became $80, whereas the starting salary of the Ethiopian teachers was $250, because all the revenues from the port and so on from Eritrea were going to the Ethiopian Federal Government. So our Eritrean teachers were dressed in Khaki, the same Khaki that they wore the year through. But this teacher came in a three-piece suit and a neck tie. It made quite an impression. Of course he was not simply a teacher who came to teach language but an intelligence officer responsible for indoctrination. He went to the blackboard and wrote "Haile Selassie" on one side" Wolde-Ab Wolde Mariam" on the other. This was the first Amharic class and he asked. "Who is better?".  One of our classmates stood up and said "Wolde-Ab Wolde Mariam", so a kind of confrontation was created. It was unconscious resistance but it was there.’

Woldeyesus Ammar also points out that in the 1950s more Eritreans listened to broadcasts from Cairo following Cairo's Tigrigna language programmes. The Tigrigna broadcasts had additional significance because the presenter was none other than Woldeab Woldemariam, a leading nationalist who had a great political appeal to many Eritreans.

Consequently sporadic student strikes became common, especially in Asmara.  The first student strike occurred at the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Asmara (now the Red Sea Secondary School) where Amharic was made compulsory in 1957.  During the student demonstration in 1957,  Tuku head butted a police captain and was arrested. He and 300 other students who participate in the strike against the imposition of Amharic as the language of instruction in schools, were jailed for a month. Their imprisonment produced a national student strike on 22  May.

Worku Zerai  in her interview recalls:  In the 1950s, thepolicemen did not want to arrest women and they would say to them."You go home, you are women".  But the women refused to leave their male comrade...  The policemen were also in a dilemma because when the Eritrean students sang patriotic songs, the policemen identified with them. But they attacked the demonstrations with tear gas (Wilson 2). The imprisonment and torture of the students and workers, artists and musicians forced them to  join the underground to form a conglomerate of radical nationalists, the Eritrean Liberation Movement(Harakat; Minkisikas Harenet EritreaHaraket contributed considerable to the revival of the Eritrean nationalism in 1950s

The movement initially concentrated on recruiting Moslem elements because of the old fears of Unionist (i.e. Ethiopian) tendencies in the highlands. But its organizers were "caught by surprise" when students and workers in Asmara responded to ELM's call with great enthusiasm [ ( Woldeyesus Ammar, 2016)

Tuku'e Yehadego

Tuku'e Yehadego was murdered by the EPLF Shabia in 1971

Tuku'e later helped to organize the ELM in Asmara  He was  a soccer star player, after graduation he played with the Adulis Football Club and, in December 1959, when the team was playing in Port-Sudan, he was recruited into the Eritrea Liberation Movement (Haraka).  According Iyob (1995, 101)  the Eritrean team, Adulis, travelled to the Sudan for national matches, and three ELM members mobilized and recruited members for the new organisation. (Killion, 1997, 53) .

Team members, like Tuku'e, played key roles in spreading the network among the youth in Asmara. In 1959, he became a key ELM organizer in Asmara where he worked for the Civil Aviation Authority. Ruth Iyob (1995:103) describes the role of the ELM in the following words: “The ELM’s ideal of a secular pan-Eritrean nationalism, activated through its politics of protest and reconciliation, set the foundation for a rich nationalist culture.” Soon, ELM’s network spread throughout major cities of Eritrea through artists and student groups who were operating in distinct cells called Mahber Showate (group of seven).

In 1961 The Mahber Teatre Asmara (MTA), a cultural association, was established by singers, composers, poets, and university students returning from the Haile Selassie I university in Addis Ababa. Plays, singers, and stand-up comics satirized the federal scheme and warned against the evils of "alien" cultures. Shigey Habuni, a popular song of the mid-1960s, is an example of the creative nationalism resonating within the population Iyob (1995: 102)

By 1960, ELM claimed to have established many cells in Asmara and, the sporadic student demonstrations of resistance in the main urban centers continued. In September 1960,  about 400 students staged an open demonstration in Asmara opposing the removal of the  Eritrean flag  and the institutionalization of Amharic as the official language.  In retribution, most of the students ended up in jail and others were moved to Ethiopia to serve out their prison terms. 

Furthermore in May 1962 student strikes and demonstrations spread across the country but were broken with brutal police repression. Tuku  was also arrested  for the second time for organising a demonstration against Eritrea’s ANNEXATION in late 1962 and  he was released by Police General Tedla Ogbit. This  may have been following the Eritrean Chief Police General Tedla Ogbit being recruited by the ELM. In the late 1950s, Tedla Ogbit had been active intimidating members of the Eritrean Assembly and interrogating ELM (Haraka) members.
Other team members of Haraket, such as Kidane Kiflu, also  played a key role in organizing anti-Ethiopian student protest in 1960-62. 

Kidane Kiflu

Kidane Kiflu was murdered by the ELF ጀብሃ ዓባይ. JEBHA ABAY] in 1969

Evidence of it can be seen from the May 1962 student strike. Further another big and well organized demonstration was staged by hundreds of high school students in Asmara denouncing Ethiopia’s open defiance of the Federation.  Meanwhile, the student activists formed an interim organization called “Association of Eritrean Intellectuals” and submitted a leaflet to the UN committee, which was holding a meeting in Addis Ababa the same week. In the leaflet, the student association condemned Ethiopia’s breach of the terms of the Federation, and demanded UN’s intervention in Eritrean matters.

Kidane Kiflu  prepared a document describing the illegal annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia and that the Eritrean people facing brutal suppression by the Haile Selassie government and had launched an armed struggle to make their country free. Many copies were printed and made ready for distribution.  “At that time, African Foreign ministers were meeting at Africa Hall (ECA) and Kidane’s Plan was to distribute the document there. Mr. Grady, a radical American academic who also was a teacher of Kidane at the university drove us to the Conference hall and we carried the documents from the car and placed them at the entrance of the hall where the diplomats were to meet. All those who saw thought we were employees of the ECA engaged in preparation of the conference. After placing the documents on the tables of the conference hall we returned to the car and drove out of the building. We were neither stopped by the guards nor by the employees: mission accomplished.”

The end of federated Eritrea came with a “vote” in the Eritrean Assembly in 1962, in favour of annexation by Ethiopia and became the main cause for the 30 years conflict which contributed to the decline of Eritrean education.  Sadly,  the name of Kidane Kiflue  who was brutally murdered by the ELF in the late 1969 is not mentioned  in the organisation’s articles, websites and facebook.  On the other hand,  we read often  the names Said Saleh, Woldedawit Temesgen, Idris Hangela, ... etc. who were murderedby the EPLF in the 1980s and,  Melka Tekele who was murdered by the Abdella Idris during the 1982 coup.

The most significant demonstrations of that early period were the ones staged in May 1962 and in March 1965. A brief description of those two events can help shed light not only on the spontaneity of the activities and the relatively advanced degree of political consciousness of the high school students in that early period but also the direct and indirect effect of those demonstrations on the general population

Influence of Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) within the Eritrean students in the Campuses.Excerpt from Herui Tedla Bairu's book ( 2016, page 84)

According to the author, during his third year(1963?), Tekie Mebrahtu, Tsige Asfaha, and Herui(the author) from the University College, Girmay Gebremeskel from the Engineering College, established a clandestine ELM cell in prorest to the Emperor's policy of annexation of Eritrea. Their early meetings were held in Dr Nerayo Tesfamichael's room, who later graduated in medicine, and joined the EPLF. During the same year, they organized cells in the Building and Engineering and Agricultural colleges. In 1963, they merged the cells in the mentioned colleges into one organizations; at which point we were joined by Naizghi Kiflu and Girmay Bekhit, who functioned as contact persons with other cells in Addis Ababa. The aim of the university cell was to write leaflets and distribute them in Addis Ababa and Asmara during their vacation period.

The May 1962 Demonstration [excerpt from [An Eritrean Perspective]

The May 1962 demonstration, which marked the debut of student activism following the declaration of the armed struggle, was incited by a handful students at PMSS[xxxv] . The Eritrean Assembly was scheduled to meet for a controversial debate on the budget. During previous debates in the Assembly, outspoken legislators questioned the Ethiopian Emperor's "generous grant" of 1 million Ethiopian birr to help the Eritrean Government correct a budget deficit in its 1960/61 total expenditures of 18 million birr[xxxvi] . It was felt that a group of students demonstrating in front of the Eritrean Assembly would sway the 68 Eritrean legislators. The students hoped, genuinely but quite naively, that their action would bring about an overnight change on the status of Eritrea!

To that end, a circular was passed to all classes in PMSS informing them that a demonstration would be held on 22 May 1962, the day the Assembly was scheduled to meet, and that every student was expected to participate. A spontaneous student assembly inside PMSS was informed that every student would have to write "something about Eritrea" in several copies for distribution during the demonstration. This writer was the sole speaker at that short meeting. That was all. There was no group discussion to organize it nor any participation from outside PMSS. After spending most of the morning hours in utter confusion, the PMSS students went in large groups to incite HSISS students, where the majority were still reluctant to join the demonstration. Finally, a mob action prevailed and students of the two schools started to march (rather, run!) through the main road towards the Eritrean Assembly building in the centre of the city. By then, policemen and security agents were posted in every corner. Thus, no peaceful demonstration could be pursued, nor could the students gather near the Assembly (parliament) building. However, they managed to run past it singing:

Natsinet Delina!

This simple phrase reverberated in the heart of Asmara and undoubtedly roused high emotions. Many by-standers joined the singing and running students.[xxxviii] Horse mounted policemen chased many of the 'demonstrators' across the Grand Mosque and St. Mary's Church towards Biet Ghiorgis on the way to Massawa. Many students were beaten and detained at several police centres including at Caserma Mussolini.[xxxix] Disturbances continued for a week by students demanding the release of detained students. A defiant student assembly was organized at Mai Anbessa, north of Asmara, and added resolve to the continuation of the demonstrations. Primary and middle school students in Asmara and the other Eritrean towns also boycotted classes in solidarity with those arrested during the demonstrations.
Many parents, whose political stance was undecided, found the action of their children and the general direction of political developments quite disconcerting. They were unhappy of Ethiopia's violations of the Federal Act but continued to think that it was too late to fight for Eritrean autonomy let alone total independence. It seemed difficult to challenge the King of Kings of Ethiopia and to ignore the influence of the Orthodox Church. Majority of the elders wondered whether a small country like Eritrea would exist without a "king". The young students did not share the worries and fears of their parents.

Ethiopian authorities dreaded the prospect of a nationalist awakening among Christian Eritreans. Now they saw it coming true. Their security apparatus thus resorted to all sorts of physical and psychological torture and intimidation to suppress any opposition.[xl] Students and school teachers were among many who were jailed or ordered to report to security offices for finger printing and photographing. As one member of the American Consulate in Asmara reported,
A number of those who participated in demonstrations were severely treated by the police and stories of police brutality were being more widespread. [xli]

ii)The March 1965 Demonstration [excerpt from [An Eritrean Perspective]

The other most important demonstration of the 1960s in Asmara took place between 8-12 March 1965. Again there was no student union organizing action nor did the ELF or ELM take any part in its preparation.[xlii] It was a semi-organized action started when a few politically conscious elements at PMSS felt that it was time for Asmara demonstrations to be reported on the BBC like the February 1965 "Land to the Tiller" demonstration of the Ethiopian university students in Addis Ababa. This time it was decided to broaden participation by inviting other schools. A meeting was called in which representatives from HSISS and the Point Four Technical School attended.[xliii] The representatives agreed on points that had to be propagated through placards and pamphlets. The main student demands were the following:
1) That the UN should forcefully condemn the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea and the General Assembly be 'seized of the matter' as it promised on October 17,1952; 2) that the UN should hold a referendum on the future status of Eritrea; 3) closure of the American base of Kagnew Station in Asmara; 4) expulsion of Israeli military personnel; 5) release of all political prisoners, and 6) [that Ethiopia should] stop closing schools and industrial establishments in Eritrea.[xliv]

The government was better prepared to deal with the 1965 demonstration than in the past. Rubber-stick wielding police and trainees of commando units filled the streets of Asmara from early morning. Police vans were deployed at many places in the city. Students came out of their schools lined up for a "peaceful demonstration" and pleaded to be left alone to exercise their right to demonstrate as that right was enshrined in the Eritrean Constitution. However, the police started beating them towards the prepared trucks. About 2,000 students were beaten and forcefully transported for detention at an anti-ELF Commando training centre at Sembel in the outskirts of Asmara. The students spent about 40 hours at the detention centre without any food supply.[xlv] All schools in Eritrea boycotted classes in solidarity with Asmara students. As this writer noted it elsewhere,

That student activism had a more lasting effect on the Eritrean armed struggle than a number of other undertakings by the nationalists at that difficult epoch. This was because: (a) a political action in the heart of the Eritrean capital was seen as a serious challenge to the locally awed and respected person of Emperor Haile Selassie; (b) news of the students' activities were easily carried to every part of the country by scared relatives; and, above all, (c) Asmara students rallying behind the Eritrean nationalist movement signified that the Kabassan population, the most important other half of the Eritrean people, will not for long lag far behind the other segments of the society in the nationalist cause. Those in Cairo and Kassala fully appreciated its far reaching significance.[xlvi]

This viewpoint is entertained by many student militants of the period.[xlvii] Ahmed Nasser described Asmara students of 1960s as "the generation that made a generous contribution to help create the present realities in Eritrea".[xlviii] Seyoum Ogbamichael sees that one cannot think of increased nationalist reawakening among the population in Asmara without the important contribution by students in the early 1960s.[xlix] To Gherezghiher Tewelde, another student actor during the second half of the 1960s, the demonstrations initially had more influence on the students themselves than on the general population..[l]

After the March 1965  demonstration, many students jointed the Front,  among them, Seyoum Ogbamichael (Harestai) and Dawit Temesghen left Asmara to join the freedom fighters in the field (Meda) after March 8, 1965.   Isayas Afeworki, Haile Woldetensae (DuruE) and Mussie Tesfamichael, as well as Ahmed Nasser, Tesfai Tecle and many others joined the revolution in 1966.

Woldeyesus Ammar in his article "Yohannes Naffe Passes Away in Eritrea, But No One Was Around to Tell His Tale" published in 2008 at http://togoruba.org states that All the demo placards intended to be used in the March 1965 demonstration – as well as all placards used in the other 1961-65 mammoth student demos in Asmara - were supplied by Yohannes Naffee from his carpentry shop in his house; all the used and unused placards of that period were prepared in his house and with his personal support and encouragement.

Yohannes Naffe

Yohannes Naffe was born in Musha in November 1912 and went to school in Gheleb under an Italian missionary, Maestro Coisson, whose family remained friends to Yohannes and family till the end. Yeba, who mostly preferred to talk in Tigre whenever possible, was at one time school director of the Evangelical School of Asmara. But for the rest of his life, he worked as constructor. His family members recall that he built 33 churches of various denominations throughout Eritrea in addition to two major reservoirs, numerous water wells, schools and clinics. After liberation, he built, among other premises, the three-story Yohannes Hotel in Keren. Yohannes Naffe (NaffiE) Mindal passaway source http://togoruba.org



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