Sunday, 1 March 2015

The British plan to partition Eritrea and the situation and position of the Eritrean Muslim movement in the 1940s



The British plan to partition Eritrea and the situation and position of the Eritrean Muslim movement in the 1940s

During the occupation, the British opinion had been coming round the view that the best solution for Eritrea would be its partition between Ethiopia and the Sudan in such a way as to allow the Eritrean Abyssinians to join their kinsmen in Ethiopia and the Moslem tribes of western Eritrea to be incorporated into the Sudan; Sir Douglas Newbold, the Civil Secretary of the Sudan, visited Eritrea during 1943 and came to the conclusion that;

“It would be happier for them (the Moslem tribes of Western Eritrea) and no trouble for us (the Sudan Government) to take these two or three districts into Sudan, and let the Christian and Tigrinya speaking districts be reunited to their kinsfolk in Ethiopia.”

Brigadier Longrigg held that

“Moslem tribal areas adjoining the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan should be included into that country. The Central Highlands with the Port of Massawa and the Semher and Saho tribes should form part of a united Tigrai State or province, which should be placed under the nominal sovereignty of the Emperor and administered in (The Emperor’s name) by a European power for either a stated or unstated term of years. The Danakil country with Assab should be assigned unconditionally to the emperor.”

Views of this kind were expressed by many others. The partition of Eritrea was also formally proposed by the British representatives at the London and Paris in 1945 and 1946.

The weakness of the partitionist argument was that there was no evidence of what Moslem opinion was. Unlike the Christian Abyssinians most Moslems lived tolerably well after the Italian defeat. On the plateau the Jeberti traders had prospered, and elsewhere rising prices had been offset by the better opportunities in the pastoral tribesmen had found for marketing their livestock and milk. And although there was some unemployment in Massawa after the Royal Navy’s base and a cement factory had closed down in 1945, the Moslems in the other towns were little affected by the changing economic climate. Comparative contentment had bred a political apathy which was  furthered favoured by the isolation in which the scattered nomadic tribal groups mostly lived, their obsession with parochial tribal affairs, and their lack of educated leaders.

No significant Moslem movement could develop without the Tigre tribes (meaning Tigrait speaking), who accounted for three-fifths of Eritrea’s 520,000 Moslems, then. Before 1946, they had been too preoccupied with their own affairs to take any interest in territorial politics. The Beni Amer of the Barka Lowlands have been engaged in a bitter conflict with the neighbouring Hadendewa of the Sudan and in fighting on a less serious scale with the Nilotic tribes of the Gash-Setit. The Semhar clans near Massawa had been concerned to resist claims that the Na’ibs (A family in Masswa had been charged with the administration of the Semhar by the Turks. Its two senior members had been given the title of Na’ib or agent. The Italians had limited their authority to Masswa), or traditional chiefs of Massawa had raised since the British occupation to regain authority over them. In the Northern Highlands, the Shumagulle families were threatened by an uprising of their serfs. The peculiar feudal structure of the Tigre tribes, was anachronism which began to disintegrate in the climate of Italian defeat and British liberalism. The standard of the revolt was first raised by the Tigre serfs of a small tribe called Ad Taklais. Parochial though these questions were, it was through them and their interplay that the Tigre tribes acquired political consciousness and an Eritrean Moslem movement emerged.

It was under such circumstances that the Muslim League was formed. Though the Moslems were firmly opposed to the union with Ethiopia, opinion amongst the various Moslem groups was otherwise divided. The Tigre and Baria favoured some form of British administration as the best insurance of their interests. The few chiefs and Shumagulle of the Tigre tribes who had entered the Muslim League had no reason to favour a British regime.

The Jiberti and the townsfolk of Massawa, who at this time were suffering from acute unemployment, looked back with frank regret to the golden days of the Italian regime. The Saho grumbled that the British had done nothing to restrain Abyssinian aggression,  and the Kunama complained that they had never suffered such damage and injury as during the British Occupation. And finally, the Danakil, who felt aggrieved that the British had done nothing to save their traditional though unofficial leader Muhammed Yahya, the Sultan of Ausa, from arrest by the Ethiopian during 1944 and subsequent death in Addis Abeba, spoke quite in favour of the Italian Regime.

And so while the Tigre serfs favoured some form of British regime, the others did not. Some hankered after a restoration of Italian authority, though at this stage it was doubted whether Italy, having renounced all right and title to her colonies, could return to Eritrea. The majority vaguely favoured independence after a limited period of international trusteeship. Partition found no supporters. The Beni Amer clans opposed it believing the Sudan Government would favour the Hadendewa; and the Saho, Danakil, Semhar, and  Jiberti followed suit, because it would include them within Ethiopia.


In the event it was unanimously resolved at the Muslim League Congress that "the territorial unity of Eritrea, as it was was before 1935, be maintained," since the League 'does not accept nor adhere to any decision aiming to partition Eritrea.' The resolution added 'that the independence of Eritrea should be recognized or, in case this is held to be impossible,...that she should be placed under an international trusteeship ... for 10 years... with British control or such control as may be directed by the trusteeship Council of the U.N.O.' 

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Source: ERITREA - A COLONY IN TRANSITION: 1941 – 52 By
G. K. N. TREVASKIS, pp. 69 - 75

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