Role of Young Eritrean Intellectuals in the Nation-Building Process


The late, respected scholar, Edward Said, referring to intellectuals, stated that “There has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without intellectuals” (1994: 11). Likewise, there has been no major development without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major underdevelopment without intellectuals.

When the intellectuals of a country take the same side as the weak and marginalized segment of the society, there is a possibility for the country to develop. And when the intellectuals side with foreigners, the elite, or the few privileged, then the nation becomes a failed state where a few wealthy and powerful individuals, conspiring with outsiders, exploit the country and the majority of the population remains disenfranchised.

Producing and engaging the educated segment of the society in the social and political processes has been a characteristic feature of the People’s Front since the liberation struggle. During the arduous years of our struggle, the People’s Front maintained the revolutionary school to prepare the young for the future task of nation-building and leadership. Our revolution was unique in many respects. The diverse people with diverse social, cultural, and intellectual backgrounds (farmers, workers, university students and graduates, and others) were all placed in one melting pot. Setting aside the many ups and downs of the struggle, the coming of young intellectuals and technocrats to the field transformed the nature of the revolution dramatically. Many members of the current government are among the many brilliant university students and graduates who left their studies to join the struggle for the independence of Eritrea. Independence came after the joint efforts and sacrifices of all Eritreans from the illiterate to the PhD candidates. Similarly, nation-building in Eritrea will succeed only if we coordinate the efforts of all citizens who have different educational and technical levels.

After nearly sixty years of formal independence, Africans continue to struggle to decolonize their mind – that is, to seize back their creative initiative and to control all the means of selfdefinition. Africa cannot escape its subjugation within modernity simply by attempting to climb up through development, as development does not disperse the anti-Africanness of Western modernity. In this case, it’s impossible to articulate the factual narrative of Eritrea simply by relying on the knowledge established by westerners or ex-colonizers of Eritrea. The foundations of Eritrean thought cannot rest on the Western intellectual tradition that was hostile to Eritrean, African, or the Global South interests. The production and dissemination of useful knowledge can only be reached by understanding Eritrean reality and context. Thus, young Eritrean intellectuals have significant roles to play in decolonizing Eritrea from the academy, the media, and the arts produced by westerners and ex-colonizers of Eritrea. Now, more than any time in history, propaganda news and foreign paradigms have flooded us, seeking to overwhelm our perspective and mindsets. Thus, the power of intellectuals to articulate, reproduce and, possibly, change our reality and understanding is needed. Noam Chomsky has said that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” The idea is that we need young intellectuals with the capacity to define, or rather to impose definitions onto, certain aspects of Eritrean reality and to expose lies told against Eritrea.

Unlike other European colonies, in Eritrea the more than 50 years colonization of Italy did not produce Eritrean intelligentsia. Italian colonial education restricted Eritreans to elementary instruction for four years. However, after the defeat of Italy, a few brilliant intellectuals who learned intellect through informal means filled the void to organize and lead Eritreans in the formative struggle for independence. Weldeab Weldemariam and others made an everlasting contribution in documenting the national history and organizing the masses around the national struggle for self-determination. They were considered by our enemies to be wailers and whiners who denounced the evils of colonialism and domination.

Weldeab Weldemariam was, for example, imprisoned, subjected to numerous assassination attempts, and finally exiled from his beloved homeland by the Ethiopian colonial regime.

When the armed struggle started and, more specifically after the formation of the EPLF, university students and graduates from Europe, America, the Middle East and Ethiopia joined the struggle. Intellectual fighters of the EPLF were unique, both in the jobs they did, the manner in which they acted, the way they saw themselves, and the values that they upheld. There is no question that during the struggle for independence the intellectual fighter of Eritrea stood on the side of the weak and the unrepresented.

They revived the forgotten values of the Eritrean society, maintained national tradition and symbols, and practiced an admirable revolutionary culture and ideology. More importantly, they helped maintain and popularize the best practices of the Eritrean society. The intellectual fighters of Eritrea fit perfectly the definition given by Edward Said that an “intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public.” After independence, Eritrea has made significant progress in all levels of education. The government and people have worked hard to expand educational opportunities.

After the Ethiopian invasion, the government established seven colleges to absorb enough students at tertiary level and fulfill the higher education demands of the country. Since the establishment of the new institutions of higher education, thousands have graduated in various fields. The question is to what extent have we fulfilled our intellectual task in the ongoing nation-building process to uncover the forgotten values, to cite alternative courses of action, and to represent the people who have made sacrifices for education. Across the world, there is a widespread belief that public intellectuals have lost much of their relevance and credibility in the contemporary society.

Members of the Eritrean Defense Forces are on line to perform their historical mission of defending Eritrea from external invaders. The general population, despite all difficulties, has also made invaluable contributions toward the development projects of the country. The leadership, have prioritized the national interests of Eritrea. The nationalism of Eritrean leadership is undisputed. How about the thousands of young intellectuals who have graduated from or can be found in the many Eritrean institutions of higher education and those sent abroad for further studies? Are we committed to act as the vanguard of our country and are we shouldering the task of awakening the general population?

As the educated segment of the society, we have the responsibility to explicitly and consciously direct the ideas and the aspirations of the people. The final triumph of the Eritrean struggle, is predicated on the ability of the entire population to express themselves culturally and intellectually. The poor and illiterate population has expectations of the young intellectuals to wage a struggle against hegemonic forms of knowledge and to emancipate our truth from present forms of hegemony. As young intellectuals, blessed with the privilege of access to information and higher education, we have advantages over the rest of the society to think critically and go beyond the horizons.

Some scholars describe modern intellectuals as “the new priesthood of the nation” arguing that the emerging national professionals, made up of administrators, educators and other professional specialists, have gradually replaced the pre-modern clergy. The importance of intellectuals, notably educators, in processes of nation-building, has been also stressed by many scholars. It is their imagination and understanding that gives the nation its contours and much of its emotional content. In this historic juncture, the expectations of intellectuals include legitimizing social action, cementing social cohesion, and strengthening a working tradition. In addition, they have to work to popularize, revive and institutionalize the history and tradition of the Eritrean society. They must recognize themselves as nation-makers and revivers of the culture. As inheritors of trust, we must endeavor to link the people to its glorious past and promising future. To do so we must spread the national message of Eritrea to promote the nation’s welfare and security.

The role of intellectuals in the ongoing nation-building process can easily be described in terms of four functions. First, intellectuals may use discourse to perpetuate and reinforce the national unity and solidarity of Eritrea. This can be done by emphasizing commonalities and popularizing the common sacrifice that we paid for the attainment and preservation of independence. Second, they may attempt to shield, support or rationalize the interpretation of Eritrea in the face of difficulty. In Eritrea, there are certain ideas and institutions like social justice, self-reliance, national service, Sawa, etc., which have played a central role in gaining and preserving our independence, but seem under attack. As intellectuals, we have a responsibility to erect an ideological fortress to defend them, improve them, and build upon them. Third, they may contribute to perpetuating an established idea of Eritrea particularly the culture we developed during the revolution such as self-reliance, self-confidence, determination, love of country and people, ingenuity and inventiveness, and heroism. Fourth, they have to transform – or even destroy – certain elements of the nation that have undermined its functionality. We have to balance our culture through a process of adoption and reinvigoration. We have to destroy the vestiges of all divisiveness, backward and narrow sentiments. A culture cannot exist without a constant stream of ideas and the alert minds of the educated. Culture is the lifeblood of the nation, and a country without intellectuals is like a body without a head.

The intellectual is the eyes, ears and voice of a society. It is their job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the general population. Edward Said, in his “Representation of the Intellectual”, quoted Antonio Gramsci’s “all men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals” (1994: 3). Therefore, every Eritrean graduate has to be a secular prophet who sacrificed him/herself for sins of the society and the country and to stand on the side of the country. In Eritrea, to become an “ivory-tower” thinker who is isolated from the ordinary people, alone, while the entire population is working day and night for the security and prosperity of the country, is inexcusable. Equally terrible is to be a “chameleon like intellectual” that takes color from ones context.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his famous book, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, states, “The location of this great mirror of imagination was necessarily Europe and its history and culture and the rest of the universe was seen from that centre” (1994: 18). As inheritors of the legacy of our martyrs, we have to invent an Eritrean mirror to observe Eritrean history, reality and posterity. We have to advance our people’s freedom and knowledge. Let us be intellectual heroes who live, work, sacrifice, and fight for Eritrea.