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Eritrea - History

The Eritrean highlands were part of the Abyssinian Kingdom for many centuries, during which time Orthodox Christianity was introduced. The coastal lowlands have seen the influx of a variety of different influences, mainly from the Arabic-speaking countries and the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in the spread of Islam.

Eritrea was an Italian colony between 1890 and 1941. Italy’s original aim was to colonise all of Abyssinia, but after losing the Battle of Adwa against the Abyssinian army in 1896 it had to content itself with the northernmost extremities of Abyssinia and the Eritrean lowlands. In 1935, Italy invaded and occupied all of Abyssinia, together with British Somaliland, and incorporated it in what it termed Italian East Africa. Following the outbreak of World War II, the British army invaded Abyssinia in 1941 and drove the Italians out of the country, setting up a British Military Administration in Eritrea. Once World War II ended, the four Great Powers and the United Nations sent several delegations to decide on the future status of Eritrea.

Ethiopia called for the former Italian colony to be brought within its territory, whereas many Eritreans, in particular those in the Muslim lowlands, demanded independence, partly because Eritrea was economically more advanced than Ethiopia and had developed its own identity. The Great Powers were also undecided, but in 1950 the United Nations reached a compromise promoted by Ethiopia’s ally, the United States; on 15 September 1952, Eritrea became part of a federation with Ethiopia, yet retained a large degree of autonomy with its own government, parliament, flag and constitution.

Ethiopia, however, gradually limited Eritrea’s autonomy and eventually abolished it entirely on 15 November 1962, officially by decision of the Eritrean Parliament. Eritrea was henceforth considered an Ethiopian province and armed Eritrean groups took up the fight for independence. The Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was founded by Muslims and communists in 1958 but was rapidly supplanted by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF, Jebha in Arabic) which was set up in 1960, and ultimately disintegrated in 1970. The ELF’s activities had been mainly confined to the Muslim lowlands but also mobilised ever more Christian highlanders, which heightened tensions within the ELF.

In the early 1970s, three ELF splinter groups led by highlanders founded the Marxist-inspired Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF, Shaebia or Hizbawi Ginbar in Tigrinya). Christians and Muslims fought side by side in the EPLF but the leadership was dominated by Christian highlanders. Eritrea’s struggle for independence was hampered from 1972 onwards by a civil war between the ELF and the EPLF, which was halted by a truce in 1974 that held until 1980 when fighting between them erupted again. In 1981 the ELF was driven into Sudan where it broke up into numerous splinter groups.

In 1971, like-minded fighters of the EPLF founded a secret Marxist-Leninist party known as the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Their goal was to build a national movement on a more unified and radical social and political basis. This secretive core elite took all major decisions for the EPLF and defined its ideology. While the EPLF was officially led by Romedan Mohamed Nur since its first congress in 1977, Isaias Afewerki was the head of the more influential EPRP. In 1987, Isaias was appointed leader of the EPLF.

In spite of Ethiopia’s military pre-eminence, the loosely allied EPLF and ELF succeeded in gaining control over almost the entire country by 1977, with the exception of the cities of Asmara and Assab. After the Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled in 1974, the socialist Derg regime was established in Addis Abeba under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. Military assistance provided by the Soviet Union allowed the Derg to launch a successful offensive from 1978 onwards, and the EPLF were forced to withdraw to the Sahel mountains around the city of Nakfa, while the ELF suffered major losses from which it never recovered. The EPLF started a counter-offensive in the mid-1980s and won key victories at battles in Afabet and Massawa by the end of the decade, finally taking control of the entire country after the capital of Asmara was captured on 24 May 1991. About 65,000 Eritrean soldiers and up to 50,000 civilians were killed during the 30-year conflict.

In a referendum in 1993 supervised by the United Nations, 99.8 % of Eritreans voted in favor of independence and the country was recognised by the international community. The EPLF leader Isaias Afewerki became head of state, and in February 1994 the EPLF transformed itself into a political party named People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The secret EPRP had been formally dissolved in 1989 but the ‘inner circle’ continued to take important decisions until the establishment of the PFDJ, when the existence of the EPRP was publicly acknowledged for the first time. Relations with Ethiopia began well and no restrictions were imposed on the movement of people or goods across the shared border.

The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was never officially demarcated, however, and tensions rose in the western, central and eastern border regions of Badme, Tsorona-Zalambessa and Bure respectively. Fighting broke out in May 1998 around Badme and rapidly escalated into a border war (46). Between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed in several rounds of combat, as many people as had perished in the independence war, and about 155,000 of the Eritreans living in Ethiopia and of the Ethiopians living in Eritrea were deported back to their home countries. A ceasefire was finally declared in June 2000. A peace agreement signed in December 2000 obliged both parties to the conflict to recognize the demarcation of the common border by a UN Commission. When the borderline was announced in April, 2002, however, it was recognised only by Eritrea and not by Ethiopia, which continues to control territory (such as Badme) granted to Eritrea. Eritrea therefore regards the border conflict as unresolved and believes that it is still under threat from its larger neighbor.

Criticism of President Isaias’ increasingly autocratic style of government grew in the aftermath of the border war. Student protests were suppressed in July 2001. In September 2001, the government imprisoned scores of anti-regime activists, and the entire free press was shut down. The country has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards anti-government activities ever since, with criticism of the regime not being heard again in public until January 2013, when renegade soldiers occupied the Ministry of Information and demanded the release of political prisoners. The army suppressed the mutiny swiftly and large numbers of arrests ensued. In June 2014, the bishops of the Catholic Church of Eritrea published an open letter criticising the government.

In 2009 and 2011 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea, due in part to Eritrea’s alleged support of Al-Shabaab in the Somali Civil War and violations of its border with Djibouti. Small-scale skirmishes are a regular occurrence along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.





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Page last modified: 29-06-2015 20:56:39 ZULU