In Memoriam Mohammed Omer Akito – Our Own Firebrand
By Alemseged Tesfai
On my third visit to his house in Assab for an interview some five years ago, Mohammed Omer
Akito leveled his eyes on mine in disapproval and shook his head.
“What do you want this time?” he asked me in his distinctive, brassy voice.
“A few more questions that I did not get to ask you the last time around,” I responded, fearing a
“What are you looking for, the truth?” He was teasing me. As I stammered for words, he answered his own question, “You remind me of the man who searches for a needle in a haystack. But truth is elusive,my son. History is full of lies and distortions. You will have to settle for something less…” We were sitting on the front porch of his villa. He got up as he talked, opened the door to his study and came back with an old, yellowed book. Through the opening I could see stacks of books in Arabic and Italian, on shelves, on tops of cupboards and chests and sprawled over a table in the middle.“You still read a lot, don’t you” Iasked him.“Take them away from me,” he pointed to his library, “and I am dead.”
I regret that I do not remember the title of the book that he leafed through to point his finger at
one passage. “Do you know what Massimo D’Azeglio said when Italy was unified?” I had never
heard the name; I shook my head. “He said, ‘L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani.’ Do you
know what it means?”
“Italy is made, what remains is making the Italians,” I translated dutifully.
“Esatamente,” he reverted to Italian, as he often did, “I am full of wonder and admiration at the
way you people have made Eritrea – the hardship, pain and sacrifice. But remember when you
write your history that making Eritreans can be harder and more painful. It is a never-ending
He had a way of disarming people not only with his penetratingly unflinching eyes, but also with
his brilliant wit and unreserved and uncensored opinions on any issue that he tackled. It is little
wonder that his colleagues, friends and even enemies alike, stood in awe of him throughout his
life as an active politician. Remarkably, not one of the dozens of figures from that time with
whom I have spoken had anything negative to say about him. One of his greatest political
enemies, the former Chief Executive of Eritrea, Asfaha Weldemichael, said in an interview in
1996, “Akito? esat, defar, neQax’yu znebere” (“Akito was a firebrand, bold and intractable.”)
Born in 1919 in Assab, Akito went to an Italian school there and finished his studies – 4th Grade
being the highest limit for Eritreans – in 1934. At the age of fifteen, he joined the Commissariato
of Denkalia as a clerk. In 1939, he became an interpreter in the shipping offices of Societa
Anonima Navigazione Eritrea at Sana’a, Yemen. The experience encouraged him to set up his
own commercial activity in 1944, between Eritrea, Yemen and beyond. It was at the beginning of
his lifelong and successful career in business that he entered Eritrean politics in the late 1940’s.
“Almost every young Muslim of your background joined the Moslem League of Eritrea (MLE),
why did you join the Pro-Italy Party instead?” I asked him in one of our series of interviews.
“I did not join Pro Italia. I was one of its founders. I set it up in Denkalia,” he replied, “You see,
the Italians first set foot here in Assab before they moved north to conquer Massawa, Asmara,
Keren and the rest. Assab was the springboard for their conquest of Eritrea and even Somalia.
And what did they do? They totally neglected this area and developed the other places; they
linked them by road and rail, modernized them and all. I wanted Italy back in Eritrea as a trustee
in order to make it dispense with its obligation and rectify the neglect.” I could see that he still
felt strongly about the injustice as he sighed and added, “It did not happen that way…”
In 1952, Akito was unopposed when he succeeded in his bid to become a member of the First
Legislature of the Eritrean Assembly. It did not take him long to establish himself as a fierce
fighter for Eritrea’s rights under its federal status with Ethiopia. Along with several young
dissenters like himself, he became an uncompromising critic of the Unionist plans and
maneuvers of both the Eritrean and Ethiopian authorities. He also had the broadness of mind to
make alliances with fair-minded Unionists starting to harbour doubts about Ethiopian intentions.
The list of his accomplishments and activities inside the Assembly would be too long to detail
here. But when the Tedla Bairu Administration was rocked by a corruption scandal a few months
into its short life, he called for justice and retribution. When the Voice of Eritrea newspaper was
shut down by executive order and its editors imprisoned, he fought for its reinstatement and the
release of the editors. He vehemently opposed Emperor Haileselassie’s consistent interventions
in internal Eritrean affairs and was at the forefront of the resolution to condemn that
highhandedness in 1954. He was, indeed, a thorn on the Ethiopian and Unionist side and they
could not wait for the chance to silence or eliminate him.
That chance came one day in August 1955 when the Assembly convened to elect a new Chief
Executive. The first CE, Tedla Bairu, had resigned earlier in July. When Akito came into the
halls of the Assembly that day, one of the former Unionists, Bemnet Tessema, took him aside.
“Bemnet told me that the Ethiopian Government was putting up its own man, Asfaha
Weldemichael, the Vice Representative of the Emperor, to replace Tedla. ‘If Asfaha is elected
today,’ he said to me, ‘The Federation is lost. I will put Haregot Abbay on the ballot to oppose
Asfaha. Will you second me?’ Frankly, I was never fond of Haregot, never felt comfortable with
him. But for the safety of the Federation, I preferred him over Asfaha. So I agreed.”
As promised, Akito seconded Bemnet’s nomination of Haregot. This move had not been
expected, as the authorities had wanted Asfaha to sail through unopposed. “The Vice President
of the Assembly, the priest Dimetros, was sitting right in front of me,” he reminisced, “He had a
dark complexion and wore a black robe with a black overcoat on top. I saw him getting visibly
angry, even darker in the face. I knew from that moment that my days in the Assembly were
In the 1956 elections for the Second Legislature, Akito was declared the hands down winner over
his government sponsored rival. Before he could resume in his seat, however, CE Asfaha
declared the election null and void for a purported irregularity and called for a special election to
determine a “true winner” in the constituency. Akito immediately took his case to the Supreme
Court of Eritrea where cases involving the Executive were adjudicated. In a landmark decision,
the bench chaired by Chief Justice Sir James Shearer struck down Asfaha’s “null and void”
claim and reinstated Akito as the undisputed winner.
But Asfaha would not abide by the Court’s decision and, in an unconstitutional move, he found a
flimsy procedural excuse to coerce the Assembly members to vote on whether Akito should be
allowed to return to his seat. Seven members supported Akito. The rest voted for his dismissal.
“And you stayed out, end of story?” I asked him.
“I stayed out yes, but not end of story. I had the court order in my hand. I was the lawful
Representative. So I denied Asfaha the opportunity to replace me by his handpicked supporter.”
“First, I refused to seek or accept other employment. I also let other people run my business in
Assab. Second, I refused to leave Asmara. Third, every time that the Assembly was in Session, I
took my court decision with me and attempted to take my seat, only to be blocked at the gate on
each attempt. If I had absented myself from this routine, it would have been interpreted as
submission to their will and they would have gone ahead with a by election to replace me. As it
was, Asfaha did not dare to openly reject a Supreme Court decision. My seat remained empty
Unsalaried, unemployed, living in a little room behind the Great Mosque of Asmara and, above
all, hounded by the Government’s spies, Akito literally “occupied” his Assembly seat from the
streets. By his reckoning, it was the most difficult and most testing period of his life. But, at
least, he won that particular battle against Asfaha and a submissive Assembly that would deny a
fellow member his legitimate seat.
His “term” ended in 1960 when general elections for the Third Legislature were called. This
time, he let it pass by and was ready to return to Assab and his business after four years of a
principled stand-off against the mighty of the day. But Asfaha had not done with him just yet.
Akito in Assab would have been a force to reckon with. He thus appointed him to a minor post at
the Government Printing Press in Asmara, where he languished for many years as a virtual exile.
It was during this period that he uttered one of the most quoted and telling phrases of the time.
I asked him about it.
“I was walking to my office one morning and someone asked me, ‘How are you, Akito?’ I
replied, ‘Sopra i malati, ma sotto I matti,’ meaning, ‘Above the sick, but below the mad.’ You
see, the Printing Press was in the middle of the Forto Hill, right above the hospital Regina Elena
for the physically sick, and below St Mary’s Hospital on top of Forto for the mentally ill – above
the sick, below the mad. People identified their own individual situations with the figurative
meaning of what I said. It became a common answer to a common question.” He laughed
It took more than principle to be an Akito. It also took a high personal moral standard of which
he undoubtedly had quite a reserve. My lasting image of him will always be that day when I saw
him at the Sembel Hospital in Asmara stooping tenderly over his ailing wife of many, many
years. I could see that the fiery Akito had a soft spot deep inside his soul. It was a heart-warming
Farewell Akito, our own Firebrand.