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