and Khartoum Meeting of the
Woldeyesus Ammar, 18 January, 2005
The prolific writer and
courageous debater Antonio Tesfai recently hinted in passing his
observation of a similarity between the Eritrean Independence Bloc (Blocco
Indipendenza) of 1949 and the expected birth of a new, and hopefully
more dynamic, umbrella for the present-day Eritrean opposition forces.
Antonio wished this Khartoum meeting to establish Eritrea’s second
Blocco Indipendenza. Also a couple of days ago, a friend asked me if one
could indeed strike some kind of resemblance between the two. I was not
sure what the correct answer would be but I promised to come back to the
friend with some historical facts on the matter: the creation of the
Independence Bloc 55 years and 6 months ago, and the much expected
birth of another Bloc in Khartoum these days for change and
democratization in Eritrea.
In a quick search for
sources on the subject regarding the Independence Bloc (Blocco), I
re-read relevant sections from: a) Lloyd Ellingson’s article on
The Emergence of Political Parties in Eritrea, 1941-1950,
published in the Journal of African History, XVIII.2 of 1977 (pp.
261-281); b) Alemseged Tesfai’s 2001 book, Aynfelale,
narrating party formations during 1941-50, and c) Dr Mismai
Ghebrehiwet’s Ageb published in 2002. The paragraphs
below are what I could glean from those sources about the Independence
Bloc (Blocco) in a way of response to my friend, and why not, also to
The sources tell that the
Eritrean political parties that supported eventual independence were put
to a big commotion and serious test in the spring of 1949 when the
Bevin-Sforza project for possible partition of Eritrea between Ethiopia
and the Sudan was tabled by the United Kingdom and Italy. Those
independentist/patriotic parties were seized by the fear that Eritrea
may never continue to exist as they knew it.
On 27 March 1949, the
Unionists killed Abdulkader Kebire, two days before his departure to
Lake Success city in USA to attend the Third UN General Assembly session
which had Eritrea in its agenda. The assassination of Patriot Kebire in
Asmara’s via Cagliari was a shocking incident to the patriotic camp. At
that time, the unionists were relatively solid and their terrorist acts,
supported from across the Mereb River, were on the increase.
The Bevin-Sforza package
plan that proposed the political end of Eritrea after its parceling to
its neighbours was made public on 6 April and brought to vote on 17 May
1949 (read separate story below). The Bevin-Sforza package was foiled
and Eritrea saved from partition by a single vote – that of small Haiti.
The case of Eritrea and of the rest of Italy’s former colonies was thus
rescheduled to be debated as of September 1949 in the start of the
Fourth UN General Assembly session.
We have seen that Eritrea’s
planned partition between Ethiopia and the Sudan was not foiled by
Eritrean efforts, but by a simple luck and one vote of a small state.
However, those patriotic parties that were until then bickering among
themselves saw a real danger coming to the fate of the territory and its
people and decided to think and act wisely.
A few days before the vote
over the partition plan, Ibrahim Sultan of the Moslem League, Mohammed
Omar Baduri of Pro-Italy party, and Signor Derossi of the Italo-Eritrean
Association met on 13 May 1949 in Lake Success and agreed to form a
united front. On that same day, the three parties sent a telegram to
Asmara addressed to members of four parties (the League, the Liberal
Progressive Party also known as Eritrea for Eritreans, Pro-Italia and
Veterans Association) informing them about their plan to create a
patriotic umbrella organization in the face of the impending danger.
Also on that day, 13 May, Asmara witnessed a massive demonstration
organized by the Moslem League opposing the Bevin-Sforza plan.
On his way back from the UN
meetings at Lake Success in the USA, Ibrahim Sultan passed through Rome,
a visit that was to be played effectively against him and his movement
by the Unionists and Ethiopia.
On 19 June 1949, the
parties met in Asmara and made pressure on the Pro-Italia party to drop
its support for Italian mandate over Eritrea, which it did. On 4 July
1949, the League, the Liberal Progressive Party, the New Eritrea Party
(i.e. the renamed Pro-Italia Party), the Italo-Eritrean Association and
the Veteran Soldiers’ Association met in Asmara and declared that they
formed a Council based on consensus.
The National Party (Hizbel
watan) of Massawa decided to join the united front. Former unionists
broke away from their party and formed a new party called Independent
Eritrea Party and expressed wish to join the patriotic umbrella under
On 22 July 1949, the
patriotic/independentist parties met in Asmara and declared their united
front to be named Blocco Eritreo per l’ Indipendenza or the Eritrean
Independence Bloc. Their main objective was: 1. Direct Independence, 2.
Formation of Democratic Government, 3. Preservation of Eritrea’s
colonial borders based on international agreements, 4. Continue the
struggle against the UK-supported partition plan.
The political leaders and
the parties that signed the document on 22 July 1949 were:
Ibrahim Sultan Ali,
for the Moslem League.
for the Liberal Progressive Party.
for the New Eritrea Party.
Ali Ibrahim, for the
Veteran Soldiers’ Association.
Association, Michele Pollera.
Beshir for Hizbel watan/National Party of Massawa.
Party, Tesfazion Deres.
Association of Eritrean
Intellectuals was formed that summer with the encouragement and support
of Woldeab Woldemariam and later joined the patriotic umbrella as its 8th
Rotating posts for
leadership were agreed upon. Ras Tessema Asberom was named the first
President of the Bloc for Independence, Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan Ali was
elected the Secretary General, and Woldeab Woldemariam became the Deputy
Secretary General and editor of the newspaper for the umbrella
Immediately after its
formation, the leaders of Blocco dared to ask to meet Colonel Nega Haile
Selassie, Ethiopia’s liaison officer who was also in charge of Unionist
activities in Asmara, in order to inform him of what they stand for. He
had to meet them because they were by then becoming the Eritrean force
to be reckoned with. The Blocco leaders also met Italy’s liaison officer
in Asmara, Signor Di Gropiero, and informed him that Eritrean patriots
are united in their demand for direct independence as opposed to
partition or mandate under Italy or other states.
By end of August 1949,
Blocco Indipendenza became a formidable force. It was then that the
British officials in Asmara reported back to London confirming that 75%
of Eritreans were in support of independence. American embassy sources
said two-thirds of Eritreans were in support of independence.
Whatever the figures, the
Unionist party and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia were in serious trouble.
Even Bekri Al Murghani, the president of the Moslem League who switched
side to the Unionists in November 1948, declared in the summer of 1949
that he was withdrawing support to the Unionists and rejoining the
patriotic Bloc for Independence.
The frightened Unionists
and their backers prepared themselves for a major counter attack.
Terrorist acts were intensified, and old Shifta leaders armed and let
loose to kill and plunder lives and property of Eritrean patriots and
Italians. To use the divide and rule tactic effectively, they
concentrated the killings and arson on lives and property of innocent
Italians and Moslem elders and businessmen. They alleged that Ibrahim
Sultan and his Blocco Indipendenza were “selling out Eritrea to Italy
under the guise of independence instead of letting Eritrea join its
mother, Ethiopia”. On 28 August 1949, Ibrahim Sultan organized his first
public gathering to refute this allegation by Unioniss and Ethiopia of
Blocco’s “sellout to Italy”. But to no avail.
Emperor Haile Selassie’s
arms, funds and his personnel flooded Eritrea. Soon after the formation
of the Bloc, many high ranking officials who visited Asmara under
excuses of tourism and health reasons included: Aklilu Habte Wold,
Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Yilma Deresa, Trade Minister, Eritrean
Ephrem Tewolde Medhin, the Agriculture Minister, Jude Kiflezghi Yidego,
Vice Minister for Health Kidane Mariam Abera and many high Ethiopian
officials of Eritrean origin. Throughout the rest of 1949 and the whole
of 1950, the Unionist Party and Ethiopia were determined to gain ground
at any cost.
onslaught on Blocco Indipendenza was too heavy to remain without an
adverse effect. And as a result, patriotic parties started to fall
apart. Two splinter groups left Ibrahim Sultan’s Moslem League. These
were the Independent Moslem League composed of former League members
from central and eastern provinces who accepted union with Ethiopia, and
the Moslem League of Western Eritrea led by Ali Mussa Radai, leader of
former serfs who did not want the perceived return of Italy and instead
made relations with the unionists on certain conditions. The Liberal
Progressive Party (i.e. Eritrea for Eritreans) also broke in two, the
splinter group renaming itself Liberal Unionist Party. The Independent
Eritrea Party formed in the summer of 1949 also suffered split when a
faction was formed calling itself Independent Eritrea United with
Ethiopia Party. The Association of Eritrean Intellectuals on its part
said it would not object union with Ethiopia if, after independence, an
elected Eritrean parlaiment approved such a union.
It was after considering
these developments that Lloyd Ellingson, in his 1977 article referred
above, concluded as follows:
and continued violence, coupled with the [alleged] distrust of Ibrahim
Sultan’s Italian connections...., brought final disintegration to the
Bloc and the unity necessary to bring about an independent Eritrea [in
This is about enough for
today regarding our old Blocco Indipendenza. And if there were
similarities between the situation preceding the formation of the Bloc
and the situation preceding the Khartoum meeting, let it be interpreted
by the reader out of the few facts presented here about the old Bloc.
A New Credible Bloc from Khartoum for
Change and Democratization in Eritrea?
We have just made a quick
glimpse into how the patriotic/independence forces of the late 1940s
gained ground when they formed a united umbrella but gradually failed to
make it because of the weight of pressure on them and of
Since the demise of Blocco
Indipendenza, the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF) formed in
1999 was the only second partially successful attempt to bring Eritrean
forces together for an effective joint struggle. The AENF that became
ENA as of October 2002 could not win the support of Eritreans abroad and
inside the homeland because of its structure and other factors. The
Alliance even failed to make serious effort to keep itself intact let
alone to become attractive and acceptable to Eritrean intellectuals and
other forces that are indispensable partners in a united struggle to
create a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Eritrea after replacing the
homegrown petty dictator.
The Sudan, that cradle of
our liberation struggle and a generous neighbour, last December hosted
in its capital, Khartoum, an important meeting of the Eritrean
opposition forces that have been in disarray and endless bickering among
One should not, at this
particular moment, say much about the gathering except praying, as many
of us are doing these days, and wishing Eritrea and Eritreans a better
future starting with the Khartoum meeting which can, hopefully, end its
sessions by announcing both reconciliation among us all and the birth
of a more dynamic, popularly credible and eventually successful Eritrean
Bloc for Change and Democracy.
God Bless Eritrea.
reading below, first posted in Nharnet.com in May 2004, is about
the Bevin-Sforza Plan which has been lightly mentioned in the above
The 17 May 1949 Vote on the Fate of Eritrea
Potsdam, Germany, summit meeting of the World War II victors in August
1945 and the 2 December 1950 UN General Assembly vote to federate
Eritrea with Ethiopia, countless proposals and recommendations drafted
by various countries, sub-committees, committees and commissions were
discussed about the future of our country. Each one of those proposals
is an interesting reading in how ‘the game of nations’ is played in the
international forums. The Bevin-Sforza Plan was only one of those
proposals that did not work out. The plan, named after the foreign
ministers of Britain and Italy, proposed , inter alia, the partition
of Eritrea between Ethiopia and the Sudan. Ethiopia was for the
partition plan with some initial ‘reluctance’. Eritrean delegations
representing parties opposed to unity with Ethiopia were present at the
UN corridors to foil the plan. But Eritrean opposition was not counting
much. It was mainly due to other factors that the partition of Eritrea
was averted. The paragraphs below will briefly recount what that project
was and how it was not put to effect.
Starting on 6
April 1949, the already hot debate in the UN on the future of former
Italian possessions in Africa intensified when the American delegate,
John Foster Dulles, proposed on 9 May 1949 that a 15-Nation
sub-committee should restart reviewing all the proposals tabled on the
question of Eritrea and other Italian colonies. His proposal was
accepted and the 15-Nation sub-committee started its deliberations to
finally submit an acceptable project for further review by the First
Committee of the General Assembly. The First Committee was a powerful
body that included a representative from each member state.
sub-committee reviewed all the proposals but preferred the Bevin-Sforza
plan for the former Italian colonies. Vote on the Bevin-Sforza plan was
10 for, with 4 against and 1 abstention. Then the plan was submitted as
a package to the First Committee.
On 17 May, the
First Committee introduced a few changes and presented the plan to the
UN General Assembly as follows:
except the western province, to be incorporated to Ethiopia, with the
cities of Asmara and Massawa to be granted a special status with
municipal charters. The incorporation of the rest of Eritrea to the
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan would be open for further discussion.
to be placed under Italian trusteeship for a period left to be defined
by the General Assembly.
to be granted independence after 10 years. But during those 10 years,
the provinces, of Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripolitania would be under the
trusteeship of Britain, France and Italy, respectively.
The UN General
Assembly reviewed the plan and was highly expected to adopt without any
problem the recommendation of the First Committee because every UN
member state had a representative in that important committee and it
seemed little would change. It went as follows:
partition plan of Eritrea was passed in the General Assembly by 37 votes
in favour of the Bevin-Sforza plan, 11 against and 10 abstentions. It
thus seemed that the fate of the “former Italian colony of Eritrea” was
Libyan issue had a number of sub-proposals. The General Assembly voted
for reunited Libya’s independence after 10 years with 48 votes for, 8
against and 1 abstention. However, what was important was who should
rule the three parts of Libya during the 10-year trusteeship period. It
went as follows:
trusteeship over Cyrenaica was adopted 36 in favour, 17 against and 6
over Fezzan was adopted by 36 in favour, 15 against and 7 abstentions;
but, the proposal of
Italian trusteeship over Tripolitania was short of one vote to obtain
the required two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. Haiti, which
was NOT expected to vote against the Bevin –Sforza package on former
Italian colonies voted AGAINST plan.
when the question of Italian trusteeship over Somalia was put to voting,
the Haitian delegate to the United Nations, Senator St. Lot, voted
St. Lot had direct instructions from the Haitian president of the day to
vote for the Bevin-Sforza Plan, but the man opposed his head of state
and voted as he saw it right. (He later justified his voting to had
been based on his anti-colonialist feeling - against the return of Italy
to Somalia and part of Libya. Others alleged that he was ‘bribed’ by
Arab delegates who opposed the delay to grant independence to Libya.).
This was a big
shock to USA, to UK and to Italy with its large Latin American bloc.
Under this situation, many countries which until then supported the plan
did not see it feasible and asked that it be put to new voting as one
package – the Bevin-Sforza package. This meant that the General Assembly
would not go ahead with its decision already reached regarding Eritrea
and the two provinces of Libya (Cyrenaica and Fezzan) because the fate
of Tripolitania was left pending. In a final vote on the package, the
Bevin-Sforza plan was, ironically, rejected by 37 votes against, 14 in
favour and 7 abstentions.
Thus, because of
the decisive Haitian vote, the already reached decision of the General
Assembly on the partition of Eritrea became null and void and the
question of Eritrea was to be subjected to another review. Ethiopia was
not happy that the partition ended that way but it was too late for her
and her allies to save it. On the other hand, Sheikh Ibrahim Sultan Ali
and his delegation rejoiced at the defeat of the partition plan, and
started preparing themselves for the next round of ‘fact findings’ and
‘inquiries’ on the fate of this his country – i.e. this Eritrea of ours
which is not yet in peace with itself and with its same old neighbours.