The case for Eritrean federalism

320px-Un-eritreaBy Abdul Sayed

Prior to the Italian occupation in 1890 the present Eritrean territories, as they stand today, never consisted of one entity. The three regions that Italy moulded together as a colony had always been part of other nations from the political, historical or cultural aspects. They were different in their socio-economic and political structures; they were never subdued under one political power and never shared one political or social organisation or common markets. They in fact have had entirely different and conflicting economic modes of productions and of course different climates and topography. These three regions were:

A) The Northern Sahel: (consists of provinces: Barka, Gash-Settit, Sahel, Senhet and Semher). This territory had constituted one inseparable geographical, climatic, political, cultural and economic unit with what is today known as eastern Sudan. The dominant economic mode of production has been pastoral and nomadic, where constant movement of people within this region has resulted in cultural and ethnic intermarriages and the emergence of common identity where different ethnic and religious groups coexist and identify with each other. Islam has also became the dominant faith. The Ottomans occupied the region from 1557 to 1865. The Ottomans used to control the area from their stronghold posts of Massawa and Sawakin both in the Red Sea, and Keren and Kassala in the interiors. When the Ottoman Empire started to crumble the Egyptians emerged as the dominant force and replaced the Ottomans. Egyptian rule of this region continued from 1865 to 1890.

B) The Plateau (Most AkeleGuzai, Hamasien and Seraye provinces). This region is different from the other two regions in many aspects. From the geographical and climatic aspect, it is a natural extension of the Abyssinian central plateau. From the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious characteristics it constituted, together with Tigray in northern Ethiopia the central core of historical Abyssinia. The inhabitants, in their great majority, share Tigrinya language, Abyssinian culture and Coptic Christian faith with the Abyssinians of Tigray. The economic mode of production, like other parts of Abyssinia proper, is peasantry that depends on rain-fed agricultural practices. Depending on the strength or weakness of the centre, the Plateau had always been subjected to direct or indirect rule by Abyssinia.

C) The Southern Sahel, Afar Coast (or Dankalia). This region includes areas of eastern Akele Guzai province exclusively inhibited by the Saho linguistic group. The Afar and Saho ethno-linguistic groups inhabit this region. The region is endowed with ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious homogeneity. In natural geography and climate, the region is a natural extension to the greater Afar land in the Sultanate of Awsa and Djibouti. From the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and historical understanding it was an integral part of the Afar nation or nationality. The Afar and Saho as Moslems (there are few Saho Christians in Eritrea) were influenced by the values of Islam, Arabic language and culture. They interacted, intermarried and traded with their Arab neighbours across the sea for hundreds of years.

Italian colonialism

The Italians in 1890, desperate for colonial territories to elevate them to the level of other European colonial countries, occupied and incorporated the above mentioned three fragments of three nations in the making into their colony Eritrea. Northern Sahel was fragmented from the Beja nation (Bagos, Bejaland), the Plateau from the Abyssinian nation and Southern Sahel from the Afar nation. The fragments of three different nations that were welded together by the Italians had no prior common historical, cultural or any experience of integrated socio-economic practices together.

Identity conflict

The Italians, irreversibly, brought together the above-mentioned three regions in one territorial entity. Doing this, the Italians, consciously or unconsciously, had built the first vital corner stone of Eritrea’s nation building process, territorial unity. They have also tried to incorporate the different economies of their colony into the capitalist market. The Italian rule was short but enough to create the sense of affiliation to one nation, Eritrea. However, by now it is apparent that the time the Italians had stayed in Eritrea and their application of the factors of nation building processes were not enough to facilitate the ones Eritreans wish to have had attained. No sooner had Italian rule, that had bounded them together, ended than Eritreans had disagreed on the very same principles of their existence and coexistence as a nation. They could not agree on common national principles. Still the different three Eritrean segments assign Eritrea their original identity and want to mould the whole nation in that identity’s shape and form. The persistent conflict between Eritreans since the Italians left emanates from the inability to forge a system of coexistence compromised and agreed upon by all the three pre-Italian historical entities. In short, the persistent and complex identity conflict in Eritrea emanates from the fact that the Italians left Eritrea before the entire nation building factors and their effects were completed.

Why a federal system?

The Eritrean people have suffered considerably from internal conflicts since the early 1940s. Federation with, or annexation to, Ethiopia, plunging the nation and the people into thirty years of war and agony, would have not been possible had it not been for the conflict between Eritreans themselves. The war for independence wouldn’t have had dragged on for thirty years had it not been for the mutual mistrust between the different political organisations and their different social bases.

Strong centralism advocated by the current ruling regime in Eritrea and some of its sympathetic intellectuals would never lead to solutions for Eritrea’s internal conflicts. In young countries, such as Eritrea, with highly diversified historical backgrounds, cultural orientations and political aspirations, a highly centralised unitary state would lead to one social segment’s, one party’s, and ultimately to one man’s dictatorship, as the case is in Eritrea.

There is a need for adopting modern conceptions of organising political, economic and social activities that promote mutual understanding and satisfaction. Identifying and diagnosing the problem is a pre-requisite for finding functional and sustainable solutions. So far Eritreans have failed to establish a contract of coexistence that satisfies all its component regions and accommodate its diversities. A federal democratic system is a system of conflict management which would enable us to live under stronger national unity and territorial integrity while harmoniously maintaining our diversity. The Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement, established in December 2002, exists to promote this system of governance, which it believes is most conducive to the State of Eritrea.

Abdul Sayed is a member of the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement, which can be contacted at or The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. March 2004.


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