Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interview with Dr. Nicole Saulsberry

Last week I stopped in Chicago on my way back from Springfield, Illinois to California. I visited my good friends Dr. Nicole Saulsberry and Merhawie Woldezion. I interviewed Nicole for a short time. It must be recalled that I interviewed Nicole a while back. And here are some of the excerpts:

Issayas: First, thank you for your time. It is nice seeing you after all these years.

Dr. Saulsberry: Don’t mention it. It’s my pleasure.

Issayas: Can you briefly tell my readers about yourself?

Nicole: I was born in Chicago, Illinois. I graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And then I went to Stanford University and got my Ph.D in history. After graduation, I moved back to Chicago, Illinois. Now I'm a Special Assistant to the President of Cook County. Cook county is the second largest in the country after Los Angeles County.

Issayas: Have you forgotten the fidel? Can you still read Tigrigna?

Nicole: No, I haven't forgotten to read ,but I need to speak the language frequently. Therefore, I need to practice the language with Eritrean people.

Issayas: How did you get interested in Eritrea in general and Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam in particular?

Nicole: Well, when I first entered graduate school I wanted to study South Africa, since it was the “in” thing to do at that time in 1993. But after I thought about it a lot more, I soon realized that South Africa was over-researched and had plenty of historians in that area. So I switched to Ethiopia because I had a familiarity with Ethiopian history as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was taught by Bahru Zewde, a well-known Ethiopian historian. My advisor, Professor Kennell Jackson suggested that I study Eritrea since it was a newly independent country. The name rang a bell because of the course I had taken in undergrad. I started reading books on Eritrean history. The first book I read was Amrit Wilson’s book on Women in the Eritrean Revolution. I was hooked!

In the summer of 1994, I went to Eritrea on a Foreign Languages and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) to study Tigrinya. My tutor was Tuqabo Arresi, who wrote the English-Tigrinya dictionary. It was such a wonderful experience for me because the Eritreans were so hospitable and thought of me as an Eritrean. Eritrea was the first African country that I visited. As an African-American that is very rare and odd because, generally, most of us visit Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and other places in West Africa, primarily because of the historical transcontinental connections. But I wanted to study something that was cutting-edge, and Eritrea definitely fit the mold. Not many people had heard about Eritrea. Whenever I told people that I conducted research in Eritrea, they would say, “Who? Where?”. I thank God that I chose Eritrean history as my major field of specialty.

With respect to Woldeab Woldemariam, his name was just mentioned incidentally in the literature on Eritrea. I just figured that if he is revered as the Father of Eritrea, why hasn’t someone written about him? So I decided to take it up as a dissertation project.

Issayas: What kind of resources did you use for your dissertation?

Nicole: There were tons of interviews at the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Eritrea, such as interviews with Aboi Woldeab, his journal/newspaper articles, speeches, radio broadcasts from Cairo and Syria, secret Ethiopian documents, telegrams and British sources. I conducted research in Rome but I didn’t find too much there, just several documents to contextualize the time period. There were tons of sources at the London Public Records Office (PRO) about the British period.

Issayas: What kind of information were you able to find, especially in the British archives, about Aboi Woldeab?

Nicole: I found documents pertaining to his role in the political parties. The British made note of all of the political parties and their stand on Eritrean independence and domestic issues, who the leaders were, how various leaders from different parties felt about each other and their motives. There was mention of Woldeab specifically in some of the documents, but mainly I wanted to use the British archives to contextualize the period from 1941-1952.

Issayas: From your research on Aboi Woldeab, can one also understand Eritrea’s political history of the era of the 1940s through the 1960s? Can you give me an example?

Nicole: Most definitely. The period of the 1940s was very tumultuous for Eritrea. Eritrea was at that time thrown into the midst of a political whirlwind in terms of deciding for its future. There were several options on the table during the 1940s, i.e. total independence of Eritrea, union with Ethiopia, the Bevin-Sforza plan which would have partitioned Eritrea between Ethiopia and the Sudan, Italian trusteeship, Eritrean union with Tigray, etc. It is in studying this period that one can gain an understanding of international politics and how the West and Ethiopia determined Eritrea’s political future. Geopolitical interests were the primary factor in deciding the fate of Eritrea. One can also gain an insight as to the strategies that Ethiopia used to try to eradicate Eritrean self-determination, such as terrorism throughout the 1940s to the 1960s, and the illegal annexation of Eritrea in 1962 with the acquiescence of the UN. Moreover, in reading Woldeab’s newspaper articles, you get an understanding of how he operated within the context of Eritrean nationalism. He not only expressed his political concerns, but articulated his opinions about changing Eritrean society. He addressed the need for Eritreans to uphold values such as love, honesty, hard work, perseverance, education, and discipline. Woldeab had a heart for all Eritreans, especially the youth.

Issayas: I understand that there was a special Ethiopian intelligence/surveillance unit called “Mereb” whose assignment was to track down Aboi Woldeab, in places like Cairo, Marseilles and other places. Could you tell us about that?

Nicole: Sure. Ethiopian authorities had their own intelligence unit called Mereb that infiltrated Eritrean organizations and spied on the whereabouts of Woldeab and other Eritrean nationalists. The intelligence unit even reported quarreling amongst Ibrahim Sultan, Idris Mohammed Adem and Woldeab Woldemariam in Cairo. There were also rumors in Asmara that Woldeab would ask for pardon from Haile Selassie and return to Eritrea. People who were in contact with Woldeab through letters feared for their lives. As an example of Ethiopia’s sinister-like capacity to inculcate fear, this specific intelligence report ended by stating: “We have let the rumor spread widely.”

Ethiopia’s subversive strategies were exemplified in a top-secret letter to the Emperor from an Ethiopian intelligence member. It read: “I bow and kiss the land and wish God the Savior to elongate your age and bestow health to you. So as to spy on the Eritrean rebels abroad, we had devised a means by which we could take pictures of them and capture their worthless agents here in Asmara. So as we and the Ministry of National Administration could work jointly on this matter, I have sent the copy of the documents to Dejazmatch Kiflie. These documents not only are useful here in Asmara where they helped to capture the agents, but also in our intelligence work abroad. Most of all is the documents’ importance. It is a great thing to have infiltrated the Eritrean rebels.”

The government’s repressive activities forced Woldeab and others to develop code names in Tigrinya for Eritrean nationalist exiles, Ethiopian authorities and their sympathizers, various cities and Ethiopian and Eritrean political parties. This tactic permitted effective communication amongst the Eritreans in exile. For example, the code name for Haile Selassie was teKula (the wolf); Tedla Bairu’s code name was wo’Ag (the monkey), Governor Asfaha Woldemichael, Hasema (the pig), etc. Woldeab’s code name was Letezghi, and Tsehaye Abraha, another Eritrean exile in Cairo had the code name of kokeb (star). The list goes on and on. Woldeab and his associates were very shrewd in this respect.

Issayas: Was he such a threat for Ethiopia that they had to follow his activities in exile?

Nicole: Most definitely. Ethiopia considered Woldeab a threat because of his previous support base that had been built on his career as an educator and journalist and editor. According to one spy report, Woldeab was bent towards peaceful protests and political discourse and could, therefore, spark student and labor strikes and “threaten the status quo.”

Issayas: Did you find any intelligence information (Ethiopian or otherwise) that would reveal about the assassination attempts on his life?

Nicole: In terms of assassination attempts, I found the evidence mainly in Woldeab’s interviews and in the British records. Woldeab was able to vividly recall what happened with each attempt. For example, after the fourth assassination attempt, he was relocated to the Milano Pensione in Asmara. Since he was confined to his hotel room, two members of the Independence Bloc were assigned as his bodyguards and were responsible for twenty-four hour protection. However, eventually Woldeab was betrayed when they tried to poison him. Woldeab stated: “The assassins were so worried about where to get me. They were wandering around my hotel. Even the police knew, but they didn’t want to be involved in this case. At last, they wanted to bribe my guards by giving them 40 genae [pounds] each and promised to take them out of the city to join with the bandits if they helped them in the assassination. So when the guards brought me my meal they put poison in the food … I didn’t feel hungry. I just tasted the food. I only ate a morsel…Right after I ate the food my body… stopped moving. Tsehaye and others called a taxi [and took me] to the hospital.” This is really telling because here you have 2 bodyguards from the Independence Bloc who were supposed to be protecting Woldeab and yet he couldn’t trust them! This says two things: 1. the extreme length that Ethiopia went through to subvert the Eritrean independence movement, and 2. there were enemies within the Eritrean movement for liberation who conspired with Ethiopia in the 1940s.

Issayas: What can one learn from the life of Aboi Woldeab?

Nicole: By analyzing Woldeab’s life, one can trace the evolution of Eritrean protest politics. Woldeab was a pragmatic nationalist and one of the very few open-minded Eritreans who were prepared to try different political routes. This point shows that nationalists did not take a clear-cut line or linear road, and that the process of nation building is complicated and messy, oftentimes requiring compromises.

Furthermore, Woldeab is a fascinating figure because he served not only as a political figure, but also as a public intellectual who was interested in creating a new kind of Eritrean citizen. Woldeab is unique in that he is considered the Father of Eritrea, and yet he was not the leader of a political organization with significant power and control over international and local forces that were shaping Eritrea’s destiny. Most nationalistic father figures were presidents with direct access to the political power that was necessary to shape the outcome of events. Although Woldeab remained politically active throughout the armed struggle, he was in exile; and for the most part, he was unable to exert much authority on the ground.

All in all, what made Woldeab Woldemariam a father figure was his dedication and perseverance to the Eritrean armed struggle, and his constant encouragement to Eritreans at home and abroad that left an indelible mark on the memory of so many Eritreans. Moreover, his impact as a teacher, his newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and the seven assassination attempts he survived each played a crucial role in his reverence as a political figure.

Issayas: How can one get to read your dissertation?

Nicole: Well it is in the library at Stanford University. But I have plans to publish the dissertation, preferably by a well-respected publisher. I pray that all will go well.

Issayas: I hope you transform your dissertation into book format soon so that it will be more available to people who would like to know more about this extraordinary man. Nicole, again thank you for your time.

Nicole: You are quite welcome. And thank you.


  1. Very informative i learned some thing new, I knew there where assassination attempt at Woldeable Weldemarime but i didn't know there where seven attempts and i hope Dr. Nicole publish this ,in a book. and Issayas keep the good work Yohannes from Oakland, CA

  2. Selam Issayas,
    I always enjoy your post, they are all informative and eloquently written. I really admire your contribution.
    Ato Weldeab was one of kind, I am glad some one researched his history.
    keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Issayas

    I apprciate your participation in enlighting us in different ways, as you did by interviewing Dr. Saulsberry. I am very impressed by this distingushed scolar on his interest on Ato WelWel. Does he has any connection with the Eritreans community in Chicago? If so, is there any way to contact him and he can give presentation to the Eritrean community in Chicago? Please post us his contact address so we can reach him.Thanks.

  4. Monday March 15, 2010
    Congratulations Nicole!!!! I really admire you and your strength. I am a well known friend of you, who happened to discus about black history with you. In fact, I was there in Asmara when you did your dissertation. I would be having dinner with you at the ambasoira Hotel and hear about your great desire to graduate for your Ph.D.

    Unfortunately I when back to Holland and lost contact with you. never mind, you are a great girl. You preserve trough the pressure and got what you where looking for.

    I have great respect for woman’s like you Nicole. I also want to tanks Issaya for this great interview.
    I hope that you will be able to put your dissertation in book form.

    I also would like to receive your dissertation if you do not mind. g.plak@kajo-consultancy.com

    God Bless and thank you for inspiring others.

    Your Sincerely,
    Ing. G.E. Plak