A link with Ethiopia: 5th century BC – 16th century AD
The early kingdom of Aksum, in Tigre in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, is a part of both Eritrean as Ethiopian history. Its founders, crossing from Saba in Arabia, make their way through the coastal plain of Eritrea before reaching the highlands. Through much of history Tigre remains linked more closely with the coast than with Ethiopia.
As a more extensive Ethiopia develops, from about the 10th century AD, Eritrea becomes its northern province – administered by a governor, known as bahr nagash. But in the 16th century this valuable stretch of Red Sea coast falls to the strongest empire of the day, that of the Ottoman Turks. From 1557 the Turks occupy the important island and harbour of Massawa.
Arrival of the Italians: AD 1869-1885
For three centuries Massawa remains either directly in the hands of the Turks or in the possession of their vassal states (at various times it is ruled from Mecca and from Egypt). But from 1869 there is a new kind of visitor seeking a presence on this coast. With the opening of the Suez Canal in that year the Red Sea is directly accessible to Mediterranean traffic. The passing ships need secure ports of call.
1869 and 1880 an Italian line, the Rubattino Navigation Company, acquires from the local sultan stretches of coastline near the small town of Aseb. In 1882 these holdings are transferred to the Italian state. Three years later Italian troops land at Aseb and Massawa.
They meet little resistance as they move inland towards the Ethiopian highlands. The Ethiopian emperor, John IV, has been confronted in recent years by many enemies. Armies have marched against him from Egypt and from the Sudan, while in the south of the country an Ethiopian rival, Menelik, is biding his time to claim the throne.
The Italians are therefore able to settle into Eritrea without much difficulty. John IV may be expected to move against them soon, but he dies in 1889 fighting against an army pressing in from the Sudan. Menelik wins the throne and is crowned emperor of Ethiopia. It is he whom the Italians will have to confront over their usurping of Eritrea.
Ethiopia and Italy: AD 1889-1897
Menelik’s first response to the Italian presence on the coast is to make an alliance to his own advantage. In the treaty of Uccialli, signed in 1889, he accepts their right to Eritrea and cedes to them territories in the north of Ethiopia around Keren, Massawa and Asmera. In return he receives money and weapons (30,000 muskets and 28 cannon).
However the treaty, whether by accident or by Italian design, contains a discrepancy which guarantees future conflict. One of its articles states, in the Amharic version, that when dealing with international powers the Ethiopian emperor may use the assistance of the Italian government. The Italian text of the treaty says that he must do so.
On this basis Italy declares to the world that Ethiopia is now an Italian protectorate. In 1890 Menelik dismisses this claim. In 1893 he repudiates the entire treaty. The Italians respond with an attempt to impose their protectorate by force. The Italian commander in Eritrea, instructed to win a decisive victory over Menelik, begins his campaign by declaring that he will return with the Ethiopian ruler in a cage. The actual result is strikingly different.
Menelik leads some 70,000 men on the long journey north from Addis Ababa. When the armies meet, at Aduwa on 1 March 1896, the Italians suffer the most humiliating and bloody defeat ever experienced by a colonial power in Africa.
By the end of the day more than 4000 Italian soldiers are dead or missing. Another 2000 have been captured, to be taken on an agonizing march back to Addis Ababa. 4000 Eritrean troops in the Italian army are also dead or captured.
Before the end of the year Italy climbs down on the supposed protectorate, accepting the full independence of Menelik’s Ethiopia. But Menelik, though demanding territorial concessions elsewhere on his frontiers, continues to accept the Italian presence in the northern region around Asmera, ceded in 1889. The peace treaty signed in Addis Ababa in 1896 confirms the Mareb river as the border Ethiopia and Eritrea.
An Italian colony: AD 1897-1941
Italy cherishes its Red Sea colony, in the sense of sending out tens of thousands of Italian settlers, developing road and rail transport, and turning Asmara (the capital from 1900) into a charming town. But as with all European colonies in Africa at this period, little is done to improve the conditions or education of the Eritreans.
The Italian presence in Eritrea increases rapidly from 1935, when Massawa is the main point of entry for the forces assembling for the invasion of Ethiopia. When that has been completed, Eritrea takes its place as one part of the new Italian East Africa.
When Italy enters World War II as one of the Axis powers, in 1940, Italian East Africa becomes a target for the allies. Early in 1941 British forces move from the Sudan into western Eritrea. The Italians are defeated in a battle for the strategic town of Keren, commanding the route south into the Ethiopian highlands. Asmara is occupied on 1 April 1941.
British and Ethiopian forces accomplish the final defeat of Italian East Africa when they enter Addis Ababa in May. Ethiopia is thus brought back under the legitimate rule of Haile Selassie, while the British provide a temporary administration in Eritrea. But this is also a region for which Haile Selassie has plans.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: AD 1945-1974
During the first half of the century, with the Italians in possession of Eritrea, Ethiopia has been landlocked. The defeat of Italy in World War II gives Haile Selassie the chance to redress this deficiency. In a meeting with President Roosevelt in 1945 he stresses his need for access to the sea through the possession of Eritrea, an area loosely linked with Ethiopia at various periods in the past.
The USA, seeing the chance of a naval base in the Red Sea at Massawa, shares an interest in this development. When the United Nations considers the future of Eritrea, in 1948-50, Washington applies pressure for its annexation by Ethiopia.
The UN decision, given in 1950, is that Eritrea shall become part of Ethiopia from 1952, as an autonomous federal province with its own constitution and elected government. In that year an Eritrean administration duly takes control, bringing to an end the temporary British rule in the region.
Within Eritrea opinion has been divided, largely along Christian versus Muslim lines, on the question of union with Christian Ethiopia. On one side is the Unionist party, founded in 1946 with financial assistance from Addis Ababa. On the other is the Muslim League, set up a year later to campaign for Eritrean independence. In the election the Unionists fail to win an outright majority. The Eritrean government is therefore at first a coalition.
Aware that there will be continuing agitation for independence, Haile Selassie shamelessly interferes to secure his aim of union. With his help the Unionists remove Muslims from government jobs, put an end to teaching in Arabic, ban all other political parties (1958) and trade unions (1959), introduce Ethiopian law and even give the Eritrean government a new name. It becomes merely the Eritrean administration.
In these circumstances, and with the persecuted leaders of the independence movement now abroad, the result is a foregone conclusion when the Ethiopian and Eritrean parliaments debate the question of union in November 1962.
On a unanimous vote in both Addis Ababa and Asmara it is agreed that Eritrea’s federal status within Ethiopia shall be abolished. The area is now to become a province like any other in the Ethiopian empire.
By the same token this degree of unanimity also exists by now on the opposing side. In 1960 Eritrea’s Muslim leaders, living in exile, form the ELF or Eritrean Liberation Front to fight for independence. By the mid-1960s they have a guerrilla force operating in western Eritrea. And in a few years they cease to be a purely Muslim movement. Soon after the union of 1962 Haile Selassie interferes in Tigre’s schools, banning Tigrinya, the local language, and replacing it with Amharic. This converts many Tigre Christians to the cause of independence.
Eventually, after bitter disputes and even outright warfare rival factions in the Eritrean independence movement, a single powerful group emerges as a distant offshoot of the original ELF. This is the EPLF, or Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Dedicated to a religion as demanding and intolerant as either Christianity or Islam (in their most radical forms), the EPLF is a highly efficient Marxist enterprise.
The EPLF is offered an unexpected chance to achieve its aims in 1974, when Ethiopia is convulsed by a major upheaval.
Undermining the Dergue: AD 1977-1991
The toppling of Haile Selassie’s imperial regime in Ethiopia, and the subsequent three years of conflict rival groups competing for power, gives the EPLF a welcome breathing space. All the major towns of Eritrea are freed from Ethiopian control. And when it becomes clear by 1977 that the winning group in Addis Ababa is the Dergue, led by the Marxist Mengistu, the EPLF might reasonably expect a friendly ally.
Far from it. The USSR rushes in to claim Ethiopia (previously a client state of the USA) for its own side in the Cold War. And it suits the USSR, just as it had previously suited the USA, that its new ally should control the valuable Red Sea port of Massawa.
With a plentiful supply of Soviet arms, it is easy for Mengistu to recover the towns of Eritrea. All are back in Ethiopian hands by the end of 1978. But it is difficult for a conventional army, however well supplied, to suppress entirely a dedicated group of guerrillas.
The EPLF, controlling much of the countryside, are able to keep Ethiopia in a continuous and costly state of warfare on its northern border. This fact, combined with the unpopularity of Mengistu’s rigidly socialist policies (exacerbated by the appalling famine of 1984), means that by the mid-1980s the Ethiopian regime looks increasingly insecure.
The toppling of Mengistu: AD 1987-1991
The beginning of the end for Mengistu and the Dergue is in 1987, when the Eritrean guerrillas, the EPLF, are strong enough to move south past Nakfa into the highlands of Ethiopia. In 1988 they join forces with another Marxist group fighting for regional independence, the TPLF or Tigre People’s Liberation Front. In 1990, in the most crucial step of all, they capture Massawa, cutting off Ethiopia’s link with the sea.
Meanwhile the TPLF have merged with yet another guerrilla organization to form the EPRDF or Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Together they move south through Gondar and into the province of Welo.
Confronted with this seemingly inexorable advance, Mengistu announces a drastic change of policy. Socialism is to be abandoned. Resettled peasants return to their old territories. Goods belonging to the state are seized in a mood of anarchy. Local officials lose all authority. The army becomes demoralized. Mengistu’s predicament is markedly worse.
By May 1991 it is clear that there is nothing to prevent the rebels reaching Addis Ababa. Mengistu flees the country. The EPRDF takes power, under its chairman Meles Zenawi. He promises a new form of government guaranteeing rights (even to the point of secession) to regional minorities. Implicitly included is Eritrea’s claim to independence.
Independence: from AD 1993
In a referendum, held in April 1993, the votes cast for Eritrean independence are more than 99% of the total. The following month the long dream becomes a reality. The secretary-general of the EPLF, Isaias Afwerki, becomes president of a transitional government.
In 1994 the EPLF completes its transformation from a guerrilla organizaton to a political party. It is to be known now as the PFDJ or People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. This remains for the rest of the decade the only political party in Eritrea. There is much talk of allowing other parties to function, but the PFDJ – determined to avoid reopening old wounds – bans any party with a purely ethnic or religious base (which seems to cover all the candidates).
The most pressing political problem is to organize the return from the Sudan of some 500,000 refugees from the years of war in Eritrea. The problem is exacerbated by extremely bad relations with the Sudanese government (each side accuses the other of harbouring exiled subversives).
By contrast Eritrea maintains unprecedently good relations with Ethiopia, in the continuing spirit of the easy path to independence. Trade flourishes the two countries, particularly after customs duties are abolished in 1995 on their mutual border. But in 1998 this situation is drastically reversed. Conflict with Ethiopia becomes, once again, the central fact of Etritrean life.
The return of war: AD 1998
Relations Ethiopia and Eritrea begin to turn sour after Eritrea introduces its own currency, the nakfa, in November 1997. Until this time it has continued to use the Ethiopian birr. Eritrea declares the nakfa to be of equal value to the birr and expects its trade with Ethiopia (70% of its total exports) to continue uninterrupted.
Ethiopia insists, instead, that all transactions the two nations shall henceforth be in hard foreign currency. Although this restriction harms both nations’ economies, it is far from being a cause for renewed war. Nor, on the face of it, is the small incident which actually reignites the long but apparently resolved conflict the two countries.
In May 1998 there is an incident in the town of Badme, in Tigre just on the Ethiopian side of a disputed section of the border. Gunfire is exchanged Ethiopian policemen and a group of armed intruders from Eritrea. In spite of international mediation, the conflict escalates into full-scale war.
Being a war along a border, it develops a World War I quality. Trenches are dug, mines are laid, the bodies of dead soldiers rot the lines, the unimportant desert town of Badme is taken and retaken like a symbolic trophy. By mid-1999 it is calculated that the confronting armies number some 400,000 men and that 50,000 soldiers have died. Just as in World War I, it seems hard to understand why.
The costly stalemate continues until May 2000, when Ethiopia wins large tracts of land in a sudden push. Peace talks begin in Algeria in June. But apart from the appalling death toll at the front, the futile border war has grievously aggravated conditions of famine in both the belligerent countries.