The struggle of the Eritrean people against the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia more than 30 years ago developed into a liberation movement which defeated the strongest army in Africa, an army which was first supplied by U.S. imperialism and later by the Soviet Union. In May 1991, the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia gave up after 30 years of war. That opened the way for Eritrea, annexed by Ethiopia, to develop into an independent, democratic state. The 14-year Mengistu regime was characterized by brutal terror against any political opposition. The political chief of the 330,000-man army, the strongest in Africa, fled abroad to Zimbabwe in 1991. Although during his rule more than 60% of the nation's budget had been spent on the military, the army was unable to achieve any notable victories over the various liberation movements.
The liberation struggle was a war against a far stronger enemy. The Eritreans not only defeated Africa's most powerful army, they also began to build a new and more just society in their own country.
A Short History Of Eritrea
Eritrea, in its precolonial form, was neither an independent state nor part of the Ethiopian empire. Eritrea, the way it is on today's maps, was created at the end of the 19th century as a territorial-administrative unit by Italian colonialists. Its name, given by the Italians, is taken from the Greek description of the Red Sea.
In past centuries, the peoples of the Eritrea region were subjected to the political power struggles of rival foreign powers. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks occupied the coastal regions of Eritrea. At the same time, the Ethiopians tried to push into the area to gain access to the Red Sea. In 1869, Italians bought the coastal region of Assab. This purchase laid the foundations for the later colony of Eritrea. In the following years, the Italians pushed onward into Massawa and from there they tried to take over the central highlands. Here they met resistance from Ethiopian troops. In 1896, Ethiopia was forced to recognize all areas north of the Mareb River as the colony of Eritrea. From 1890-1941, Eritrea was an Italian colony, and from 1941-52 it was a British colony. This was in contrast to Ethiopia, which was only an Italian colony for a short time (1935-1941).
The decades of colonial-capitalist domination by Italy and later Britain meant that a different social, economic, and political development took place in Eritrea than in Ethiopia. For example, in 1940, one-fifth of Eritrea's population lived in cities. Eritrea, a land with a mild climate, was to be a settlement for unemployed southern Italians. Thus the number of Italian settlers jumped from 5,000 in 1930 to more than 50,000 in 1935. Eritrea not only served as a settlement area for Italian colonists, it also provided raw materials and a launching point for the seizure of Ethiopia.
The British required the labor forces and industrial potential of Eritrea to supply the Allied forces during World War II. At the end of the war, many factories were closed and moved to other countries. The resulting mass unemployment forced many Eritreans to go to neighboring countries in search of work.
The future of Eritrea after World War II lay in the hands of four victorious powers (USA, USSR, Great Britain, France). When they couldn't come to agreement as to Eritrea's future, the matter was handed over to the UN General Assembly. In December 1952, the UN decided on a federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia, against the wishes of the majority of Eritreans who wanted an independent state.
In November 1962, Ethiopia declared an end to the federation and illegally annexed Eritrea as its 14th province. All capital, industries, and plantations were left in Italian hands. Later, capitalist investment was sought from Israel, America, and Japan, from which the pro-Ethiopian feudal classes, who collaborated with the Ethiopian colonialists, profited. There were no international protests against Ethiopia's illegal annexation of Eritrea.
Until 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie I ruled Ethiopia, and with British and later American aid he built up the largest army in Africa. The emperor system was overthrown in a putsch, in which Mengistu Haile Mariam played a major role. Mengistu became chairman of the 'Derg' (military council) in February 1977, and later he became general secretary of the ruling party, head of the politburo, and President.
Resistance to Ethiopia's colonial rule over Eritrea increased after the annexation. In 1958, the nationalist clandestine organization Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was formed in the Sudan. In 1960, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was founded in Cairo, and this group launched its armed struggle against Ethiopia on September 1, 1961.
The "Thirty Year War" (1961-1991)
The annexation of Eritrea was a clear violation of international law. But this act also sowed the seeds of the Eritrean liberation movement. Ever since the annexation by Ethiopia, Eritrea waged a struggle for national independence. For three decades, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) fought for Eritrea's independence - the longest civil war (1961-1991) in Africa's history.
One of the characteristics of the Eritrean liberation struggle was organizational splits and political disunity. This was partially due to the ethnic and social heterogeneity of the country (Muslims and Christians, urban dwellers and nomads). Therefore, rival organizations were established and often clashed with one another. In particular, there was armed clashes between the ELF and the EPLF, which had split off in the 1970s. The ELF was mainly comprised of Muslim nomads. In the 1980s, the EPLF emerged as the dominant political and military force in Eritrea. In contrast to the ELF, the EPLF had a social-revolutionary profile. The EPLF saw itself not only as a national liberation movement, but also as a movement for social change. From 1972-74 and from 1980-81, there was heavy fighting between the ELF and the EPLF. In 1981, the ELF was finally defeated and driven to the Sudan.
From 1974 onwards, the clandestine guerrilla struggle transformed into open people's warfare, reaching a highpoint in 1977 with the liberation of several cities. But in 1978, with the aid of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia launched a counter-offensive against the liberated cities. In the face of modern weaponry, the EPLF responded with a tactical retreat and prolonged people's war. During Ethiopia's counter-offensive, however, the EPLF was able to confiscate heavy weapons (tanks, artillery). These allowed the EPLF to score great victories in its 1987/88 offensive. In February 1990, after many heavy battles, the EPLF took over the strategic port city of Massawa on the Red Sea. When the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia collapsed in the Spring of 1991, the Ethiopian occupation army in Eritrea gave up and left the capital city of Asmara without a fight.
It was the civilian population of Eritrea which suffered the most during the decades of war, especially from the air bombardments by the Ethiopian air force. Many Eritreans grew up knowing only war. Hundreds of thousands fled to the Sudan. The "Thirty Years War" in Eritrea had hundreds of thousands of victims.
But the cause of Eritrean liberation enjoyed almost no international support, although no one disputed the fact that Emperor Haile Selassie had illegally annexed the region in 1962. But the strategic importance of Ethiopia was too great to risk a conflict with the Addis Abeba government over the issue of Eritrea. And the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and the UN were worried that allowing the creation of an independent state would unleash questions about borders all across the African continent, leading to bloody conflicts. Israel supported Ethiopia to prevent the creation of an independent Eritrea, and both the USA (1953-1977) and the Soviet Union (after 1977) supplied Ethiopia with modern weaponry to suppress the Eritreans by force.
Both super powers were concerned about the territorial integrity of Ethiopia and its access to the Red Sea. Control of Eritrea meant control over the entrance to the Suez Canal as well as the Indian Ocean. And near the region as well were the oil fields of Arabia. Only a few Arab and Islamic states gave limited support to the Eritreans, mostly to the ELF, to support the creation of an Islamic state in Eritrea.
An entire generation of Eritreans grew up during the war, which became their "normal daily life". There was little protection for civilians from the air bombardments. The war brought fear and suffering to the people: repression, abuse of human rights, murder, mass executions, torture, prison, robbery, forced relocation, flight, death...
The Principle Of "Self-Reliance"
The EPLF, right from the very beginning, was not simply interested in national independence from Ethiopia, but also in a social revolution which would lay the political, social, and economic foundations for a sovereign Eritrea. In liberated territories during the war, schools were set up and parts of the destroyed infrastructure were rebuilt. According to one EPLF slogan: "With one hand we fight, and with the other we work."
In contrast to many other liberation movements during the Cold War, the EPLF had to rely on its own resources. Therefore, it concentrated on work which met the needs of the people in the territories it liberated. The EPLF was not only militarily efficient, its was also competent to carry out social development. Even during the liberation struggle, the EPLF introduced great democratization and instilled a sense of "self- reliance", a trust in your own strength, in the people. In small workshops (often underground to escape air attacks), local raw materials were transformed into a variety of goods, in line with this principle of self-reliance. These helped meet the daily needs of both the fighters and the population, as everything from textiles to medical supplies were produced.
In addition to their own hospitals, Eritreans also relied on hundreds of "barefoot doctors". The education system introduced by the EPLF, in addition to political instruction, gave formal instruction in the languages of Tigrinya, Arabic, and English. A broad literacy campaign was carried out. The EPLF also worked for the emancipation of women.
The political and military destabilization of the Mengistu regime at the end of the 1980s was partly due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. The Soviet Union cut back and then eliminated military aid to Ethiopia. Economic misery, high defense expenditures, a population exhausted by war, and a demoralized army all combined to bring down the Mengistu regime. After Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991, a united front comprised of the TPLF (Tigrian People's Liberation Front) and the EPDM (Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement) - the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) - seized power in Ethiopia. Eritrea, no longer under the Addis Abeba government since 1991, gained independence following a referendum in 1993. An overwhelming majority of the population (99.8%) voted for independence. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea was proclaimed a sovereign state, the 52nd in Africa and the 192nd in the world. There was then a close and cordial relationship with the new transitional government in Ethiopia.
In the meantime, a new Constitution was drafted to guarantee democracy and freedom of the press, equality between men and women, and an end to ethnic and religious discrimination. The government saw its role as creating a democratically legitimate and socially just political, social, and economic order, and to pursue foreign relations which would allow Eritrea to avoid future hostilities. In terms of economic policy, a "mixed economy" was to be practiced, a combination of free market forces and a planned economy. The EPLF in 1987 abandoned Marxism-Leninism in its political program and has since adopted a mixture of planned and market systems.
The EPLF has solid support among the population. The bloody civil war brought the Eritrean people together; there is hardly a family in Eritrea which did not lose a member during the conflict. The political territory of Eritrea, as in Ethiopia, is made up of many national groupings. Some ethnic groups living in Eritrea extend beyond the nation's borders.
There are nine ethnic groups among Eritrea's ca. 3.5 million people. The largest group are the Tigrinya (ca. 50% of the population; many are farmers) who live in the highlands, followed by the Tigre (mostly nomadic), the Afar, the Bilen, the Hadareb, the Kunama, the Nara, the Rashida, and the Saho. In the cities, there are many Indians, Arabs, and Italians. As for religion, about half are Muslim and the other half Christian (95% Coptic- Orthodox, 5% Catholic or Protestant), while about 1% practice traditional African religions.
Despite the great variety of groups in the country, the period following the 1961 annexation created a sense of national belonging as the struggle for Eritrean independence developed. During its 1994 Congress, the EPLF transformed itself into the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Step by step, the party and the government will become separate. President Issayas Afeworki was elected with 99 out of 104 votes during the May 21, 1993 National Assembly. Afeworki is also Chair of the State Council, President of the National Assembly, and Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The one-chamber parliament, the National Assembly, consists of 150 representatives (75 freely elected, 75 from the central council of the PFDJ, the latter including at least 10 women). Independent Eritrea's first elections are planned for 1997.
Eritrea is divided into 10 provinces. Each is headed by a Governor appointed by the President, and all Governors are members of the State Council.
"The Liberation Of Women Is The Foundation Of Our Revolution"
The emancipation of Eritrean women was greatly increased by their participation in the liberation struggle. From the very beginning, the EPLF assigned a central role to the question of women. Now in Eritrea, women can attend normal schools. The acceptance of women by men in the society has grown. Women enjoy the benefits of training and education (whereas before they were expected to stay at home). Women in rural areas have benefitted from literacy campaigns and the building of schools. 40% of the EPLA (Eritrean People's Liberation Army) were women fighters. Neither the achievements of the EPLF nor the building up of the country nor the military successes of the liberation struggle would have been possible without the active participation of women.
In free Eritrea, women occupy all possible functions and positions, from Central Committee members to military commanders, from heads of villages to mechanics. In the EPLA, women were found at all levels of the leadership. Women occupy 11% of the positions in the Central Committee.
The liberation of women has also changed the lives of men in Eritrean society. The NUEW (National Union of Eritrean Women) demands that women have free choice of their life partners, access to birth control, and better child care. Women play active roles in all sectors of society. Within the EPLF, a process of emancipation took place which prepared women to take on all functions in the society. This process may take longer within the general population, and it won't be easy. But the consciousness which has been created up until today is a great step forward for women.
There are good signs that Eritrea could be a "model for Africa". The liberation movement, through its decades of struggle, produced "good cadres", for example in the health sector, who under better conditions could make even more use of their skills. Around 600,000 Eritreans received higher education in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. Such qualified experience will be of great benefit when it comes to rebuilding the country.
The primary goal of the government is to make use of existing industrial traditions, the already existing production sectors, and to expand the already rooted crafts trades. The major difficulty in the reconstruction will be food production and the rehabilitation of the agricultural sector. But there are hopeful signs. Food prices have already come down, and the roads, heavily damaged during the war, can now be traveled safely once again. Education and medical care are free in Eritrea. In order to facilitate land reform, at the present time only the state may own land tracts.
There are several social and economic problems which remained to be solved. Hundreds of thousands of refugees need to be brought back home and reintegrated into the society. Tens of thousands of war veterans and former guerrilla fighters need to find new types of employment.
When the Eritreans fought for independence, there were about 2.5 million people in the country. Another 500,000 had fled to fundamentalist Sudan. Hundreds of thousands more were in other African countries and on other continents. At the present time, the Sudan is causing problems for Eritrea. The fundamentalist state is trying to win influence over the Eritrean refugees. Islamic Jihad fighters are recruited from the refugee camps and small armed units are trained for terrorist attacks inside Eritrea. In response, Eritrea has broken off diplomatic ties with the Sudan.
Many former guerrilla fighters have since become farmers in the new Eritrea. They no longer carry weapons. All men and women are required to give two years of national service, repairing roads and building schools and hospitals. There is no resistance to this plan by the government. "Many of us feel guilty for not having fought in the liberation struggle," say many Eritreans who live abroad.
Born in 1991, Eritrea is a new hope for Africa, as is the new Ethiopia. Both deserve our full support.
(Translated by Arm The Spirit from 'Kurdistan Report' Nr. 9/10 -1996)
Arm The Spirit
1 Nov 1997
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