Eritrea flag   Eritrea . be We show you Eritrea  

Map of Eritrea
Location and geography
Eritrean history
Border conflict with Ethiopia
Political structure
Eritrean anthem
Economy & currency
Health care
News, links, books and more

Asmara (Asmera)
Agordat (Akordat)
Assab (Asseb)
Dahlak islands
Dekemhare (Decemhare)
Ghinda (Ginda)
Keren (Cheren)
Massawa (Massauwa)
Mendefera (Adi Ugri)
Nakfa (Nacfa)
Semenawi Bahri (Filfil)
Tessenei (Teseney)



African imperialism: Ethiopia and Eritrea

From: The Atlas of African Affairs
Ieuan Ll. Griffits

Ethiopia came to be regarded by the European powers towards the end of the last century as their equal in imperialism. Ethiopian imperialism has outlasted direct European imperialism in Africa and, despite dramatic changes in domestic political ideology, Ethiopia is still a loosely knit empire which has not yet succumbed to the forces of disintegration that have devasted much grander empires elsewhere. The main victim of Ethiopian imperialism is Eritrea but other parts of the country, including Tigray in the north and the Ogaden in the east, have recently fought militarily for greater autonomy if not downright secession.

For thirty years Eritrea fought for its independence from Ethiopia. Eritreans view the long-lasting conflict as a fight for the basic human right of self-determination, denied to them in the past by the UN. Eritrea was seen as a separate political entity which was forced into federation and then union with Ethiopia. Ethiopia has regarded the conflict as a secessionist war waged by a rebellious region which, if successful, would have left Ethiopia landlocked and in danger of further disintegration. The two positions were irreconcilable but, on the fall of the Mengistu regime in Addis Ababa in 1991, Ethiopia ended the war against Eritrea.

Eritrea contains within its colonially drawn boundaries a wide diversity of landscapes, peoples and cultures. It comprises a narrow strip of land along the Red Sea coast, over 600 miles (1000 km) long, which widens in the north to include a high plateau extension of the Ethiopian highlands and beyond that a western lowland bordering on the Sudan. Tigrinya speakers, who live on the plateau. make up about half of the population of Eritrea and are mainly Christian. They share their language and culture with their neighbors in the Tigray province of Ethiopia. Tigre speakers of the western lowland and the northern coastal strip make up about one-third of the population and are Muslim. In the southern coastal strip the Danakil are Muslim nomadic herdsmen, related to the Afar of neighboring Djibouti.

Eritrea knew no unity before Italian colonization. From the sixteenth century the western lowland and the northern coastal strip were part of the Ottoman empire, which was succeeded in the nineteenth century by Egypt and in turn by the Mahdist state. Ethiopia held the allegiance of the plateau area but until the nineteenth century showed little interest in the coast, being for most of recent history a land-locked Christian empire dependent on its highlands for isolated survival from surrounding Islam.

During the European Scramble for Africa the ports of Assab and Massawa became Italian colonies in 1882 and 1885 respectively, and in 1890 the were incorporated into the newly formed Italian colony of Eritrea which included the whole of the coastal strip between British Sudan and French Somaliland. The boundaries of the new colony were, as usual, drawn by the Europeans. Even the name Eritrea (Eritrea) was derived from the classical name for the Red Sea. An Italian attempt to declare a 'protectorate' over Ethiopia was defeated at the battle of Adowa in 1896. The Italians retreated to Eritrea to brood over their defeat for forty years. During that period Eritrea was, for the first time, welded into a single political entity with unified political and social structures which cut across traditional divisions.

Under Mussolini a modern Italian army conquered Ethiopia. Between 1936 and 1941, as part of the Italian East African Empire, Eritrea, along with Italian Somaliland, was ruled together with Ethiopia for the first time.

After the war Eritrea's future status had to be decided, like that of the other Italian colonies Somaliland and Libya but not Ethiopia, by a Four Power Commission of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. The Commissioners could not agree and so passed the issue to the UN, who set up a Commission of Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan and South Africa. Again the Commission was divided. Partion was rejected outright, Guatemala and Pakistan proposed the standard formula of the UN Trusteeship leading to independence, but the majority favored close association with Ethiopia. Burma and South Africa favored federation with some autonomy, Norway wanted full union. The United States backed federation and with only nine votes against (including that of the Soviet Union), UN resolution 390A of December 1950 was passed. From September 1951 Eritrea became an autonomous territory federated with Ethiopia. The preamble to the resolution referred to Ethiopian claims on Eritrea, 'based on geographical, historical, ethnic or economic reasons, including in particular Ethiopia's legitimate need for adequate access to the sea'. It expressed a desire 'to assure the inhabitants of Eritrea the fullest respect and safeguards for their institutions, traditions, religions and languages as well as the widest possible measure of self-government'.

Within Eritrea there emerged a Unionist party, based in the highlands, and an 'Independence Bloc' of parties broadly favoring independence. Ethiopia, allowed great latitude by Britain to influence affairs in Eritrea, financed the Unionists and intimidated the Independence Bloc with a terrorist campaign against its leaders and supporters. An alliance between the United States and Ethiopia, who concluded a joint Defense Pact in 1953 proved decisive. British sources at the time were of the opinion that a majority of Eritreans would have voted for independence, but they were never given opportunity.

Ethiopia consistently abused the terms of the UN Resolution and systematically set about turning federation into full union. Amharic became the official language and the 'autonomous' government was blatantly interfered with. Elections were held without UN supervision and a puppet regime was installed to vote for union with Ethiopia. The absorption of Eritrea excited little outside interest as the matter was considered internal to Ethiopia, which at this time commanded considerable prestige. The feudal emperor's autocratic style impressed in foreign affairs. He became the father figure of the first decade of African independence, an African who had triumphed over colonialism, whose pride and dignity had shamed the conniving politicians of pre-war Britain and France as well as the strutting Mussolini. Haile Selassie secured for Addis Ababa the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (1958) and the OAU (1963) and with them endorsement for his government and all of its works.

The war in Eritrea escalated into fully fledged guerilla warfare on the one hand and massive retaliation on the other. Almost inevitably the Eritreans divided, on the more radical Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) Challenging the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and both indulging in internecine warfare. The Eritreans in general were portrayed as left-wing Muslim dissidents who, by attacking conservative Christian Ethiopia, undermined United States strategy for the whole Middle East, which centered on the survival of Israel. However, in the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, Haile Selassie was overthrown and a neo-Marxist military government was installed in his place. Ethiopia turned to the Soviet Union. With regard to Eritrea, the new government was every bit as imperialistic as the old Emperor and the situation remained essentially the same. By the end of 1977 the Eritreans had gained control of all the territory except for some garrison towns but, instead of negotiating with them, the Mengistu regime, now backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, sought a military solution. In 1978 an Ethiopian army of over 100,000, with Cuban and Soviet support, was launched and retook almost all of Eritrea at considerable cost. Thousands of Eritreans were killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into Sudan. But Ethiopia was unable to deliver coup de grâce. The Eritreans clawed their way back into contention and a 'fluid-stalemate' prevailed.

Ethiopia's position was made worse by a revolt in Tigray province, not for independence as in the case of Eritrea but for greater autonomy within Ethiopia. Both Eritrea and Tigray were devastated by the droughts of 1983-5, Thousands died of starvation but the wars continued relentlessly. The human suffering was appalling. As the 1980s progressed the war took its toll on Ethiopia, Which spent vast sums on the military despite the desperate plight of millions through recurring famine. The government attempted a collectivization of peasant agriculture and tried to resettle up to 1.5 million people in order to overcome the droughts in the north. These were inappropriate, imperialistic, ideological and dictatorial responses to the problems that faced all of the people of Ethiopia and were unsuccessful. In 1991 Mengistu was overthrown.

In May 1993 the people of Eritrea voted in a referendum for full independence from Ethiopia. Eritrea became Africa's fifty-third sovereign state and at the same time Ethiopia became Africa's fifteenth land-locked state. More importantly Eritrea's independence marked the end of the longest running, most destructive wars in post-independence Africa.


        | Home & index | About us | Top of page | Contact us | Guestbook |