Historic Scenes on the Streets of Addis Ababa: Hopes Renewed for Eritrean Freedom

July’s historic meeting between Eritrean President¬†Isaias Afwerki and his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa has raised hopes of a normalisation in relations between these two troubled states.

Afwerki (l) strolls with Abiy (r)

Since securing independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has found itself in an almost constant state of near-war with its larger and more powerful neighbour. This latest breakthrough – accompanied by a resumption of cross-border flights and diplomatic exchanges – offers the tantalising prospect of lasting peace after centuries of subjugation.

Strategically located on the Red Sea coast – with only a very short crossing to war-torn Yemen – Eritrea has long been coveted by the great powers. Having been a significant port in the Aksumite Empire, the region came under Ottoman control in the 16th century. Two centuries of vassalage – albeit periodically challenged by the Ethiopians – has left Eritrea with a religious makeup part Christian and part Muslim.

It became an Italian colony in 1890 and served as a base for Rome’s invasions of Ethiopia in 1896 and, under international scrutiny at the height of fascism, in 1935-36.

Eritrean troops support the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1935

When British forces wrested control of Eritrea from the Italians in 1941, none of the Allies seemed to know what to do with this long-depressed province. The decision was left until after World War Two had finished and even then it remained somewhat of a conundrum. As John Franklin Campbell notes:

Three years of discussion at the United Nations produced more than one hundred draft resolutions and another commission of inquiry before a compromise solution was reached. The four main proposals, none of which commanded majority support in the General Assembly, were the following: (1) Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea; (2) Eritrean independence; (3) partition of the territory, giving Ethiopia the eastern (largely Christian) portion including the two main seaports, and ceding the western (largely Moslem and nomadic) half to the Sudan, then a British territory; (4) award of a U.N. trusteeship to Italy or another European power (Foreign Affairs, April 1970).

As it transpired, none of these proposals played out. In 1952 Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia with UN support and by 1962, when the international community had seemingly grown tired of the long-term future of Asmara and its people, it became a province of its neighbour.

Naturally this state of affairs angered many Eritreans – particularly Muslims who disavowed allegiance to the Coptic Christians in Addis Ababa – and a bloody insurgency broke out. Over the next 30 years the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the splinter Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) embarked on a guerrilla war that highlighted the shortcomings of the Ethiopian government to protect its people. It also served as one of the many proxy battlegrounds of the Cold War.

EPLF fighters

An amalgam of Marxist-Leninist and social conservative groups – buoyed by a fierce religious nationalism – the ELF and EPLF eventually secured Eritrea’s independence, if not its freedom. A border war essentially persisted from the mid-1990s until 2000, its intensity raised during periods of famine and economic strife. People were displaced, brutalised and murdered.

The treaty that ended the conflict was on a ‘no war, no peace’ basis, and both sides threatened to resume military action if provoked. Asmara and Addis Ababa have also tended to take very different views on regional events, the Eritreans often accused of siding with Islamist parties over the allies of the West (with whom Ethiopia often sides).

UN peacekeepers at the Eritrean-Ethiopian border

The international community may well breath a sigh of relief that the end of conflict now appears in sight. For it was the great powers, and their colonial precursors, that sold Eritrea short, turning their back on a post-WWII settlement that may have averted the bloodshed of the late 20th century.

Why does it matter though? Well, firstly it is nothing less than the people deserve, and this applies also to people in Ethiopia who have long been separated from their loved ones across the border.

More cynically it corrects one of the geopolitical annoyances in the Horn of Africa, a region of destitution and insecurity. Sudan and Somalia remain unstable, whilst Yemen slips further into devastation across the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Djibouti has become the site of China’s first overseas military base despite it being home to Camp Lemonnier, an American joint task force station, adding a local element of great power competition.

Ethiopia and Eritrea getting on is one less problem to be solved, not to mention a potential source of cooperation and support in a hostile region.

After several hundred years suffering under the boot of the conqueror, now is Eritrea’s chance to forge a century of its own making.

Ethiopian and Eritrean flags fly side-by-side in Addis Ababa


Campbell, J. F. ‘Rumblings Along the Red Sea: The Eritrean Question (Foreign Affairs,¬†April 1970)


The Upheaval of Economy: Artificial Intelligence and the Highland Clearances

One of the biggest challenges facing the next few generations is how to respond to the increasing sophistication and proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics in their daily lives. Most significantly, how this will impact on employment.

Advanced AI offers up wonderful opportunities for development and efficiency, eradicating human error to enable perfect production and services. Yet it will inevitably lead to – and already has – widespread job losses, as workers get replaced by robots capable of performing their tasks better and for a cheaper price.

Many production lines are already populated with robots

How these workers will be absorbed into the economy – indeed whether they even can be – is a conundrum that few leaders are willing to face up to. Will paternalism win the day? Or cold-blooded capitalism?

A striking example of a similar situation in history is provided by the Highland Clearances. This process saw the gradual eviction of the Scottish Highland peasantry from their communal lands, as estate owners sought increased rents from new sheep farming tenants. For the majority of castaways, there was no ready replacement to resurrect their lives.

Although it received significant public attention and sympathy in the mid-19th century, the Clearances were a gradual process that had begun more than 100 years before. Traditionally, cottars and crofters had lived in small hamlets on the estates of their landlords, tending crops and rearing cattle.

By the early 1700s, however, it was realised that sheep (particularly the Cheviot breed) were well-suited to the Highland climate. As demand for wool rose across Britain, and new textile mills sprung up in industrial towns, a potentially lucrative source of income made itself apparent to the lairds.

Sheep farmers with ready capital could pay far higher rents than the peasants who had traditionally lived on their lands. By enforcing their removal, they were increasing profitability for themselves; a simple commercial calculation.

The arrival of black-faced and Cheviot sheep spelled doom for the Highland peasantry

The main misery stemmed from the lack of sympathy the majority of landowners had for their lowly tenants. Many were simply turfed out of their homes – often forcefully with the help of the local militia – and sent off into the wilderness with little money, few possessions, and no prospects.

Unfortunately, the Clearances coincided with a period of rapid population growth which had made the precarious position of the peasantry even more perilous. With more mouths to feed and no upsurge in productivity, food was being imported from the south. Times had to change.

Compounding matters was the Highland geography. Rural, mountainous and remote, it had little chance of becoming a manufacturing centre. Whereas tenants evicted from estates in the Lowlands had been absorbed into the factories and industry along the River Clyde or in Edinburgh, there really was little else the Highlanders could do.

The remains of a crofters dwelling

Many chose to emigrate to North America and Australia. Some chanced their arms on other estates, where the occasional benevolent landlord took pity on their plight. Others eked out a living on the fringes of society, often through fishing the rugged coastline or establishing cottage industries like kelp processing. Several families simply succumbed to destitution, poverty and famine in what was one of Europe’s biggest social dislocations.

So what will the CEOs of the future decide? And how will redundant workers – both in terms of their employment and skill set – survive the radical changes likely to come?

Plans must be formulated now, raised awareness and training provided to the school-leavers and apprentices whose futures look most bleak. With a rampant press and inescapable social media, there will be support for the downtrodden.

A robotic conductor at the Verdi Theater in Pisa. It’s not just production line jobs at risk

But what will this look like in practice? Profit trumps all and business is nasty. A competent and compliant robot shines brighter than an argumentative and reluctant worker.

As with the Highland Clearances, the probability of emigration is high, the likelihood of families relying on charity or meagre subsistence in fringe industries strong. It will strike everywhere, coming down harder on the poor and uneducated, but certainly not exclusively on these people alone.

So, what will the year 2070 look like?