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)


Robert Mugabe Resigns: Zimbabwe celebrates despite missed opportunities

So, it’s finally happened. At the age of 93, almost four decades after taking power, the geriatric and despotic President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe has resigned.

Mugabe’s resignation has prompted wild celebrations on the streets of Harare

He had little choice. Facing impeachment for allowing his wife Grace to ‘usurp’ control as his body failed him, the country in the midst of an uneasy military takeover following the sacking of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the writing was on the wall for the Zanu-PF strongman.

I mused in these pages back in 2014 about whether the military would stand for a Grace Mugabe succession, shortly after her ascent to the leadership of the Zanu-PF Women’s League had indicated that this was what her husband desired. 

Robert and Grace Mugabe in garish Zanu-PF attire

Despite overseeing the precipitous decline of what had been one of sub-Saharan Africa’s strongest economies – his opponents and critics silenced by methods ranging from coercion to violence – Robert Mugabe retained a degree of reverence from the population.

For many Zimbabweans, he remains the father of the nation. After all, it was he who was at the forefront of the revolutionary struggle against the Ian Smith government of Rhodesia, a white minority regime on a par with Apartheid South Africa.

Viciously staving off fellow militant challengers on the fall of the Smith government, Mugabe took the presidency and, with it, the affection of millions. His failure to successfully mutate from a freedom fighter to an effective political leader was offset by the gratitude so many ordinary people felt towards him.

Mugabe with Joshua Nkomo whose Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU) played a big part in the struggle for freedom only to be engulfed by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF post-independence

When times grew tougher and the economy stagnated, Mugabe took an approach followed by so many post-colonial leaders; he blamed it on the imperialists. Openly ordering the seizure of white-owned farms – which had for years ensured a thriving commercial agricultural sector – by poor black citizens, Mugabe unleashed bloodshed that overnight increased his detractors tenfold. 

With a critical sector of the economy suddenly bereft of expertise, and many ordinary black citizens inclined to seize more of what was not theirs on the behest of their master, Zimbabwe collapsed into hyperinflation. 

Many Zimbabweans became destitute millionaires

That Mugabe survived for so long is testament to the loyalty many people perceived to owe him, not to mention a fragmented opposition undermined by corruption and Zanu-PF scare tactics.

Tonight people party on the streets of Harare and MPs cheer, dance and share passionate hugs on the news of their longtime ruler’s exit. To think, as he mounted the podium of the defeated Rhodesia, Mugabe could have been forgiven for thinking that he was about to usher in a new Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe – the Kingdom’s astonishing stone capital – from which Mugabe’s nation took its name

Unlike his medieval Iron Age predecessors – who opened their borders to a prosperous trade with foreigners, oversaw a flourishing of culture and architecture, and created a stable dynasty – Mugabe fostered an often brutal kleptocracy more in keeping with recent African rulers.

His more positive contributions – particularly his encouragement of a sophisticated African education system that has seen Zimbabwe achieve high literacy rates – have been crushed under the weight of his many indiscretions. Trying to orchestrate a power transfer to his 52-year old wife was not going to wash with the burgeoning generation of politically aware Zimbabweans who were born after the revolutionary war.

It is these youngsters that the new government – likely to be led by Mnangagwa – need to engage with. They need to be given a better stake in Zimbabwean society and the economy, just as the few remaining whites do.

Mnangagwa is another former revolutionary who was Mugabe’s Minister of State Security in the 1980s at a time when his rivals were being massacred

Tonight Zimbabwe celebrates but in the days to come some may begin to mourn. They will mourn a missed opportunity, a failure to build on a strong foundation to create a truly prosperous, multicultural African state. Such a dream may still be possible but the transition must start immediately and it must start with intent.

Great revolutionaries seldom make great leaders. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe lived up to this adage to the detriment of his own people.