British Administration (1941-1950)
In 1941, British-led forces defeated the Italian regular army and colonial troops in the battle of Keren, fought from 5 February to 1 April. This victory was of huge strategic importance as it opened the road and railway routes to Asmara and Massawa, both of which surrendered to Allied forces in the aftermath of the battle. The administration of Italy's African Territories after their occupation by the allies was undertaken by the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, who was responsible for Eritrea, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and the Dodecanese; and by the General Officer Commanding in Chief, East Africa, who was responsible for Somalia, reserved areas of Ethiopia, and British Somililand (which had been occupied for a short while by the Italians).
Eritrea fell under British military administration, which proceeded to dismantle many industries and most of the infrastructure as war compensation. At the same time, the British set the foundations for Eritrean political engagement and organizations by allowing trade unions, political parties and publications.
In April 1941, a group of Eritreans formed the Mahber Feqri Hager (the Patriotic Society), with the original aim of ending the Italian domination of Eritrean public life. With the victory of the Allies and the definitive loss by Italy of its African colonies, the Mahber Feqri Hager split into two factions. A first one, led by Mr. Ibrahim Sultan and representing a group of Muslims, called for independence of the country or for a UN trusteeship. The second one, led by Tigrinya intellectual Mr. Tedla Bairu, advocated for a union with Ethiopia. In between them were other figures, like Mr. Wolde-Ab Wolde-Mariam, representing both Muslim and Christian groups who called for some form of autonomous federation with Ethiopia.
By 1946, these three currents had turned into three distinct political parties: Mr. Sultan became the leader of the Muslim League, Mr. Bairu of the Unionist party and Mr. Wolde-Mariam of the pro-independence party known as “Eritrea for Eritreans.” These political organizations aimed at lobbying the Allies on the future status of the country but the Allies refused.
Immediately following the end of World War II, the British proposed to divide Eritrea along religious lines and parcel it off between Ethiopia and Sudan. The Soviet Union, anticipating a victory of communists in the Italian elections, initially supported the return of Eritrea to Italian trusteeship, while Arab states, eager to protect the Muslim population in the country, sought the establishment of an independent state. Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian Emperor, lobbied the United States for the handover of most of Eritrea to Ethiopia.
The Four Power Inquiry Commission established by the World War II Allies (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) had failed to agree in its September 1948 report on a future course for Eritrea. Several countries had displayed an active interest in the area. In the immediate postwar years, Italy had requested that Eritrea be returned as a colony or as a trusteeship. This bid was supported initially by the Soviet Union, which anticipated a communist victory at the Italian polls. The Arab states, seeing Eritrea and its large Muslim population as an extension of the Arab world, sought the establishment of an independent state.
In 1948, following its inability to find a solution acceptable to all the parties, the “Four Powers” (the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union) turned the matter over to the United Nations. The organization also failed to find a solution, although they got close to partitioning Eritrea along religious lines according to the “Bevin-Sforza Plan” proposed by the United Kingdom and Italy in 1949.
Some Britons favored a division of the territory, with the Christian areas and the coast from Mitsiwa southward going to Ethiopia and the northwest area going to Sudan. The plan negotiated between the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and his Italian counterpart, Count Sforza, proposed the partitioning of Libya and Eritrea, with Eritrea to be divided between Ethiopia and Sudan. Ethiopia would have gained the highlands and eastern lowlands, and Sudan the western lowlands.
In response, some Eritrean pro-independence parties gathered in the “Independence Bloc” [formed in June 1949 between the Liberal Progressive Party and “Eritreans for Eritrea”] to advocate for the organization of a referendum on self-determination. The same month, the United Nations dispatched a Commission to explore possible solutions. The Commission proposed a way forward between the United States, keen to keep control over the former Italian military bases in Asmara, and Ethiopia, which was fearful of losing Eritrea altogether.
On 2 December 1950, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 390 A (V) creating a loose federation that saw Eritrea being placed under Emperor Haile Selassie’s control but keeping its own administrative and judicial structures, its own flag, two official languages (Tigrinya and Arabic), and control over its domestic affairs, including police, local administration and taxation.
The British, who were asked to leave Eritrea no later than 15 September 1952, organised legislative elections on 25 and 26 March 1952 to form a National Assembly of 68 members. On 10 July 1952, this new body accepted a constitution put forward by the United Nations and ratified by Emperor Haile Selassie on 11 September 1952.
The British Military Administration in Eritrea was temporary and short-term in nature and thus, has a limited legacy. Although the BMA expanded educational opportunities and allowed political activities and freedom of expression, through "divide and rule" tactics, it strove to create division among the people of Eritrea. The British Administration also destroyed several Eritrean economic establishments and some infrastructure.
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