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
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
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.