This material was originally discussed in my extended article that tried to discuss the social grievances of the Bien speaking people of Eritrea. I extracted this material as a separate topic to highlight the necessity of the topic in today's politics.
Ethnic Based Social Groupings
Postmodern Eritrea signifies the period of local lords that were successful in defending their own people and land by forming tribes and tribal confederations. In modern Eritrea, the then existing tribe-based groupings was thought an obsolete as fierce competitions and identity-based groupings had a negative impact in the then launched armed struggle(1961) against Ethiopian annexation to Eritrea.
Within ten(10) years experiences, Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was unable to overcome the tribal feelings and groupings that favor family based promotions and favors among the freedom fighters. This led to bitter sectarian divisions. Eritreans who belonged to their respective social groupings were unable to develop a conscious mind that can trespass their historical pride. As a result, in 1970 some freedom fighters who had bitter experiences with ELF left the front and succeeded in forming a new revolutionary umbrella called People’s Liberation Forces (PLF – ህዝባዊ ሓይልታት).
PLF wrote a Manifesto, «We and Our Objectives ንሕናን ዕላማናን» that explains who they are and what their objective is. It is within this manifesto that PLF came with new social innovation that grouped Eritreans based on the language they speak. The clustering was motivated by the then famous Communist/Socialist idea of social groupings based on similar trends.
These newly introduced social groupings were sought to be inclusive in its time as it had the potential to eradicate tribal pride and identity-based politics. According to its primary objective, indeed it was a successful social innovation in its time and served its purpose well.
As people started to embrace this new social identity as their own, Eritreans came to understand that it as it has a serious potential to destroy the basic social entity of Eritreans, the family based clan system that has kept all the secrets of Eritrean identity and history. Hence, the spoken language based ethnicity did not take time to be challenged by those who were strongly affiliated with their family. They have witnessed an identity crisis looming in their doorsteps. Not only this, during the revolution era, one language became so dominant and others became in danger. Plus, no matter what language they speak, Eritreans are interrelated. They found themselves divided into three or four ethnic groups.
With time, these politically imposed divisions developed into new social grievances. Gradually, politically conscious started to oppose it and they found themselves in limbo and those at high ranks were exposed to expulsion from their ranks and camouflaged secret assassination. As a result, they were unable to mobilize Eritreans. In addition, the circumstances did not allow open calls to boycott the newly imposed ethnicity. In fact, Eritreans had no say when such system was introduced. Many thought it is based on good intentions and they found it hard to think it was imposed politically in order to suite a specific political purpose that will change their social fabric in the long term.
After independence, social grievances based on the imposed social groupings did not take to emerge. Some do not want to be clustered in one group simply because they speak the same language as had other cultural or traditions which they differ from(Typical example, Jeberti people), others wanted to retain their own historical name and groupings (Example – Asawurta), others had different historical claims that were not reconciling them to be clustered in one(Example – the Tigrait and Bilen speaking communities), others wanted to retain their historical regional based clustering instead of language is spoken (Example – The Kebessa people which were divided into three regions).
The Bilen speaking communities started to oppose the notion of Bilen ethnic group when an official called them to come out and demonstrate for the unity of Blin people. This gave a new phase to post-independence internal politics of the Bilen ethnic group(which is my main topic). The Asawurta people did not accept their groupings under the notion of «Saho ethnic group» and opposed the «form» prepared during the Eritrean referendum (1993) as they were forced to fill «Saho» for their ethnic affiliation. Many were put in prison, some were intimidated, others left the country as they did not want to be called Saho. The Jeberti also opposed being called members of «the Tigrigna ethnic group». Those who tried to demand the then transitional government were put in prison. Many similar circumstances had brought ethnic-based groupings as «discriminatory».
Although Eritreans did not stop from expressing their grievances, ethnic-based social groupings did not stop from evolving into a default new social identity. The ruling regime, PFDJ, who is the successor of the revolutionary front, has invested so much in this endeavor through intensive cultural and traditional activities. All cultural performances and public images are tuned to promote ethnicity. And, they are considered an icon of «unity in diversity».
At a political level, PFDJ has a structure whose sole purpose is to promote ethnic-based cultures and traditions. The investment is intentionally magnified to promote the nine ethnic groups to be the basic entity of uniting national pride and identity.to some degree, PFDJ succeeded in deceiving each ethnic group is unique in its culture, tradition, and history. Many writings are produced that promote the identity based on fabricated historical narrations. Many academic works that are produced after independence are not hesitating to refer the politically charged history of Eritrean ethnic groups as if they existed for thousands of years. Though the majority of Eritreans are Kushitic in origin(more than 90%), simply because of their spoken Semitic language, they are treated as Semitic origin people. Example – the Tigrait and Tigrigna speaking Eritrean communities. In fact, the only ethnic group which is exclusively Semitic is Rashaida. These groups are recent immigrants from the Arab Peninsula who have settled there recently. They speak Arabic and their culture is pure Arab.
To the Eritrean people’s disgrace, some politicians have bought this politically social groupings and included it in their political constitution so that their future democratic Eritrea to be formed by representatives who represent each ethnic group. To impose their political agenda, there are political organizations in the opposition camp which bear their name based on existing ethnicity. Those who consider themselves discriminated have established a political party that secures their demand and at the same time to have a representative position like the rest(Example – the Jeberti. If this objective comes to be true, Eritrea will have a government based Ethnic federalism.
Tribal-based Social Groupings
The other groupings that existed for more than one thousand years unbroken are the Tribal system. Most Eritrean tribes recall their history since the 14thC. This is the time that corresponds with the fall of the Kushite Dynasty that ruled today’s Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and some parts of Somalia. The last Kushite Dynasty, Zagwe Dynasty was successful in uniting all Kushites of the horn of Africa. The Agaws were the ruling class and each Kushite community had a form of «Federal local government». The Zagwe Dynasty emerged after the fall of the Axumite kingdom. It has succeeded in securing the land conquered by Axumite kingdom while protecting itself from the then religious war that played a great role in the destruction of Axum.
Zagwe Dynasty restored rule of law in the Horn of Africa for almost 400 years (AD. 919 – 1270) until another kingdom called «The Solomonic Kingdom of Abyssinia» emerged in Showa. Those former territories of the Zagwe Dynasty changed themselves into small local states. These local stated emerged as the Abyssinian kings were unable to secure rule of law. In fact, former Kushites were exposed to persecution by the newly then fabricated Abyssinian identity – the Solomonic lineage. The Kushites did not welcome this new identity imposed by Abyssinian rulers and the Horn of Africa became a fragmented small local state governed by tribal chiefs/lords/Shums.
These local states are structured on tribal groups. Each tribe is ruled by its Customary law which was coded by mixing their experiences from Axumite and Zagwe kingdom. Today, there are more than 18 Customary laws in Eritrea. Some are 800 years old, while others are less than 60 years. However, all tribal customary laws have some similarity in origin and coding style though they vary in their composition. The customary laws gave tribal groups a power to conduct their own affairs and secure their territories from external invasion by uniting each family(clan) by imposing the rule of law of the land into their own communities. Not only this, they formed an alliance with neighboring tribes through social, cultural, economic and political relationships.
These relationships gave rise to a very strong social lineage, cross-cultural exchanges, economic integration, and political alliance. Though each tribe is formed from uniquely related clans, often direct family links, through time, small tribes started to unite to form a bigger tribal confederation. Typical example are the Bet Tarqe, Bet Tawqe, 12 Neged, Mensae of Senhit, Asawurta, Minifere, Hazo, Irob, of Semhar and Akaleguzay, Beni Amir from Barka, Marya, Habab, etc od Sahel, and the Afar/Adal Sultanate in the Dankalia, Adkeme-Meliga in Seraye, Logo-Chewa from Hamassien, Nara and Kunama from Setit-Gash-Barka region, etc.
These tribes have succeeded in forming a united force, which is now morphed into an identity. For example, A bilen speaking Eritrean who belong to Bet Tarqe(Tarqe tribe), he/she is proud to call himself, «I am from Bet Tarqe» even though he/she knows his/her direct family lineage. Each clan within the tribe knows its lineage but it considers itself as part of the larger unity.
Challenges of Ethnic based Social Groupings
Language had never been an issue among the Eritrean society. In fact, Eritreans were multi-linguistic as they were exposed to their neighboring tribes who happen to speak different languages. If they start to live among other larger tribe, the family integrates fully. This is the reason you find Eritreans who trace their family lineage to a different geographical location but you find them speaking different languages than their claimed family does. Not only language but also most Eritreans did not have a problem in changing their religion. For example, my family[the Author] are living in more than five(5) regions of Eritrea, speak a local language, follow local religion and fully assimilated with the local culture and tradition. What is not missing is their family name. The only difference with the local inhabitants is their family name otherwise, they claim themselves to be part of the local tribe and live according to the local customary law. However, they are also free to follow their family customary law if they wanted too. But, this is not easy to be followed as it becomes the source of conflict whenever some issues arise.
Under the newly imposed ethnic-based social groupings, the aforementioned social system was destroyed. There is no rule of law to be respected, the family name is not retained and people who speak different languages started to live among the local people. The one who started to live among the local dwellers has no interest to integrate. Most importantly, because of war and then massive demobilization, the social demography of Eritrea has changed dramatically for the last sixty(60) years. One language became dominant (the Tigrigna). Hence, the social structure that existed for centuries is put in danger.
Not only this, as the ruling regime is considered as the one dominated by Tigrigna speakers, the family link(clan) lost its importance. Hence, the ruling class is considered from the Tigrigna ethnic group, no matter what is his/her original mother language. This was a new hate based social grievance is raising which is accusing any Tigrigna speaker. As a result, many Eritreans who speak other languages other than Tigrigna are developing the notion of «anyone who speaks Tigrigna is an oppressor». In fact, the truth is different. The ruling regime is composed of all Eritreans who have different mother language but as Tigrigna is now by default an official national language, everyone who works under the ruling regime is obliged to speak Tigrigna.
Another challenge is an identity crisis. Generally speaking, Eritrean people are categorized into three based on their origin. These are Kushitic, Semitic and Nilotic. It is true that Eritreans belong to these three groups. But, who are the Kushites, the Semitic and Nilotic people in Eritrea is? Of course, this is not to classify people based on their origin or identity. Rather, my objective is to show the composition and diversity of Eritrean people. At the same time, it is to expose the politically motivated narration of the origin of Eritrean people.
Eritreans who speak Tigrigna and Tigrait(the majority), are categorized as “Semitic people”. But the truth is, most of them are Kushites. The notion of Semitic came in the political arena when Eritreans were trying to distance themselves from Ethiopia. During the struggle for independence, Ethiopia’s claim for Eritrea was mainly focused on the “ONENESS” of Eritrean and Ethiopian people. As a political argument, the uniqueness of language spoken, its Semitic origin, and the presence of Arabs and Arabic language along the coastal line were some of the strongest defense arguments. Materials written by Eritrean revolutionaries started to change the truth and after independence, no change has been done to correct it. Others followed the same argument to narrate their origin mainly because of the religious affiliations. As a result, the majority of Eritreans nowadays claim that they belong either to the Jews family of Israel, the Arab family of the Arab Peninsula, especially, Yemen.
Identity-based politics can be resolved if each one feels secure in his/her identity. It is in line to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948) which is against discrimination based on origin. And, there is no need to claim other identities as there no human identity superior to the other; We are all born equal and we have equal rights.
Generally speaking, I believe that Eritrean have maintained their identity though they have might have adopted a new language, culture, tradition or religion. In fact, their culture, tradition, language, and religion remained unchanged for thousands of years. Major demographic changes happened for the last 100 – 200 years simply because of external interferences. Among those who have evolved in a dramatic way are the Bilen speaking communities. Bilen speaking communities have preserved their Kushite identity for centuries. However, since 1850, they have gone through unprecedented social progress which has changed the people forever. I think it will be hard to think any intervention can stop this divergence. Some have gone too far to claim that they are Arab descendants and have their mother language and put in the Semitic speaking people category. The truth is, Bilen people belong to the Kushite people of Africa.
Therefore, it will be great if Blin Speaking Communities are fully aware of their Kushites Identity before it became too late to correct it, no matter what language they are speaking or religion they belong too, together they have to write their rich, diverse and ancient history. Blin speaking Kushites have to trace their genealogical line with their brothers in the highland of Eritrea, Barka, and the Sahel as well as their brothers in Semhar and Denkalia. Not only within in Eritrea but also with the Agaws who are living in Ethiopia.
The good thing is their family lineage with Agaw people who are currently living in Seraye and Hammassien is not yet broken. Names of many villages, mountains, rivers, and historical cities are still in their original language.
I belong to the Agaw descendant. It is well documented that in the 14thC, My ancestors migrated from Saqota(Lasta) to the highland of Eritrea via Agame region of Tigray when the Agwe dynasty divided into local states. I am lucky that my family genealogy is well documented. From the highland of Eritrea, my great great grandfather, which I am currently referring as my “Family Name”, with his first name Habtes(Beynu), left his home village Zaul and settled in Shieb – Seleba. Habtes had three sons. I am the 10th generation from Habtes.
Therefore, it would be great if each Eritrean family is able to draw its family lineage so it can help from any kind of identity crisis, be it today or for the coming generations. In addition, it helps in the liberation of each individual from any kind of social oppressions which is carried under the banner of social group or group right. It is only in this manner that we can keep our freedom free from all kinds of group oppressions.