Location: Northern Ethiopia
Population: probably 3-4.5 million
% of population: probably 7%-10% of Ethiopian population
Religion: Christian, Muslim
Language: Tigrinya, Danakil, Saho

The Eritreans are the indigenous people of Eritrea, a region of some 128,000 square kilometres situated between the Ethiopian highlands, Sudan and Djibouti. It has two distinct divisions between the mountainous central plateau where the capital, Asmara, is situated and the lowlands in the north and west and along the Red Sea coast. The people of the mountains are Christians and have been a part of mainstream Ethiopian culture for 2,000 years. They speak Tigrinya, a language they share with the people of neighbouring Tigray. The lowland Eritreans are largely Muslim. Although they speak native languages such as Danakil and Saho they also use Arabic in commercial dealings and have long been exposed to foreign influence in the form of traders and explorers from expanding empires such as Egypt, Greece and Persia. In the far west there are peoples from the tribes of northern Sudan.

European colonialism

The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 transformed the Red Sea into a vital trade artery thus making Eritrea economically and strategically important to Ethiopia since, without access to the Eritrean and Somali coastline, it is a landlocked country. The unification of Eritrea and the demarcation of its boundaries did not occur until 1890 when the Italians formally declared the creation of their colony Eritrea; the highlands had previously been part of the Christian province of Tigray, and the lowlands had been penetrated successively by Turks, Egyptians and the Mahdi’s forces from the Sudan.

When Italian settlers arrived they brought technological skills and encouraged economic development. They built the capital, Asmara, and schools, roads and hospitals. Under Italian occupation the borders of Eritrea were altered, and the Tigrinya-speaking peoples and the related ethnic groups of northern Ethiopia were united into one entity for the first time. Italians also helped Eritreans to develop institutions such as political parties and trade unions. While Italian colonialism had a positive impact on Eritrea in some respects it also brought hardship. During the period of colonialism the most fertile highland areas were expropriated for commercial use by Italian settlers and land below 800 metres was declared state land. Living conditions of the poorer peasants deteriorated sharply.

When the British took control in 1941 Eritrea was returned to its pre-war frontiers and placed under military occupation until 1952. A debate on Eritrea’s future was held in the UN General Assembly in 1950 and a resolution was passed calling for Eritrean autonomy and Eritrean legislative, executive and judicial authority over its own domestic affairs, with all other matters falling under federal (i.e. Ethiopian) jurisdiction. In


September 1952 after a two-year interim period during which the details of a Constitution were decided under UN direction, Eritrea became a semi-autonomous, self-governing territory in federation with Ethiopia. The UN added to the agreement the following condition: “... The UN resolution on Eritrea would remain an international instrument and, if violated, the General Assembly could be seized of the matter.”

The first Eritrean Assembly had 68 members, half of whom were Christian and half Muslim. Top government posts were also divided up between the two faiths. Once the Emperor’s representatives arrived in Asmara, separatist leaders began to be harassed. Some were arrested, others went into exile, and in 1956 the Eritrean Assembly passed a resolution accusing Ethiopia of violating political and civil rights in the region. The Chief Executive and the President of the Assembly both resigned and were replaced by men appointed by the Emperor. A campaign favouring total absorption of Eritrea by Ethiopia began, and the existing federal structure collapsed. All parties other than the Unionist Party were banned, as were trade unions and newspapers. In 1962 the Eritrean Assembly decided in favour of full integration into the Ethiopian kingdom.

Growth of Eritrean nationalist organizations

Encouraged by daily broadcasts from Cairo radio by exiled leaders, nationalist forces began to form within Eritrea with the support of students and workers. Trade unions expressed their dissatisfaction with the declining political and economic situation and in 1958 a general strike was called although it was quickly suppressed. In 1960 the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was formed by students and workers in Arab countries. Membership of the ELF increased steadily despite religious and tribal differences within its ranks; however in 1969 three groups split away from the main organization and formed the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF). The ELF was concerned purely with the liberation of Eritrea from foreign control, while the EPLF also wanted to change the exploitative structure of Eritrean society by implementing land reforms and by mobilizing the working classes. Three years of civil war between the ELF and EPLF followed, and a ceasefire was finally agreed in 1975. Despite internal differences the EPLF continued to grow and its field forces were estimated in 1983 to number between 20,000 and 30,000. It had offices throughout the Arab world and also in Rome and New York.

On taking over full power in Ethiopia in 1975 after the fall of the empire, the Marxist military administration, commonly known as the Dergue (Amharic for Committee), found itself faced with a real threat to national unity in the form of Eritrean, Somali, Oromo, Afar and Tigrayan nationalist movements. In an attempt to prevent the collapse of military rule the administration began in 1976 to pursue a policy of conscription and enlisted 40,000 peasants to fight in its campaign against the Eritreans. This offensive proved to be disastrous for the Dergue however, as many conscripts were killed in guerrilla attacks and many more deserted to return to their crops. In late 1976 Eritrean forces launched their own offensive and within a year were in control of 80% of Eritrean territory.

Attempts at a settlement

By now the Ethiopian army was receiving large shipments of Soviet arms including MiG aircraft, gunships and tanks. A suggestion that they were receiving GA nervegas from the same source has never been substantiated although the Ethiopian airforce used napalm. Soviet and other Eastern bloc military advisers were by 1979 actively engaged in planning and executing the Ethiopian offensive. Despite its active role in the conflict however, the USSR supported the idea of a settlement between the two sides. Eager to encourage a Marxist alliance among its Red Sea allies, Moscow tried to promote a federal alliance between the Dergue and the ELF. At the same time, Arab backers of the EPLF were becoming increasingly worried by the mounting Soviet and Cuban presence in the region. They began to press for an end to internecine quarrels and a move towards a federal relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Sudan, which had previously supported the Eritrean movement, now felt the need to improve its relations with Addis Ababa, closed its borders to Eritreans and in 1980 tried to promote an initiative between the EPLF and the Dergue.

Relations between the liberation fronts were by now very tense. ELF relations with the Dergue had become more open following the start of Syrian patronage, since Syria enjoyed good relations with the USSR, Ethiopia’s principal ally. ELF leaders had resolved to eliminate other resistance groups and to start negotiations with Addis Ababa, and in 1980 there were several claims by the EPLF that the ELF had been waging “undeclared war” on EPLF forces.

A major reversal in official EPLF policy was announced in November 1981 at the time of Ethiopia’s sixth offensive into Eritrea. A seven-point programme for a peaceful solution to the conflict was proposed. This included a referendum to determine whether Eritreans wanted independence, a regional autonomy or federation with Ethiopia. It also called for an immediate ceasefire and the holding of free elections, to be supervised by an international commission. The ELF rejected the referendum proposals however, on the grounds that they would nullify the role of the liberation fronts and place Eritreans on an unequal footing with the Ethiopian government. The Islamic Summit of January 1981 was unsuccessful in finding a solution to the deadlock, and an all-party meeting in Tunis in the same year also failed. A trilateral treaty of friendship and co-operation signed by Ethiopia, Libya and South Yemen alienated President Nimeiri of Sudan who was on extremely bad terms with Libya, and at the same time EPLF forces began pushing ELF forces back across the border into Sudan where they were disarmed and joined the 500,000 Ethiopian (mostly Eritrean) refugees in border camps.

At the beginning of 1982 the Ethiopian government launched “Operation Red Star”, a three-pronged campaign comprising military, economic and organizational elements. The military element involved the drafting of some 100,000 troops to join the 30-40,000 troops already in Eritrea in a sixth major military campaign to eradicate the Eritrean guerrillas. The economic plan consisted of a three-part programme of short and long-term reconstruction to repair damaged socio-economic services, and the organizational aspect involved improving general education and production skills by establishing political structures and peasant associations throughout Eritrea. Government troops reported significant victories in their initial campaign, but within months the situation had once again reached an impasse and the EPLF began an offensive to regain territory lost during the massive Ethiopian push from 1978. At the beginning of 1984 the EPLF captured Ethiopian garrisons on vital road links to Asmara. Eritrean forces again held most of the territory.

Drought and military victories

However by this stage it was obvious that Eritrea, like all of northern Ethiopia, was severely affected by drought. The EPLF claimed that 1.2 million people within its area of administration were in urgent need of food aid after the complete failure of the crop, and that a further half million Eritrean refugees in Sudan were also suffering. Most food aid from western governments went through the Addis Ababa regime although some agencies also sent food into EPLF areas. But the continued war, including aerial bombing, made it difficult to ensure that aid would reach into Eritrean territory. Relief operations, including feeding centres and an emergency programme of agricultural development, were largely coordinated by the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA). The famine therefore was not as devastating in most areas of Eritrea as in Tigray or other parts of Ethiopia nor were Eritreans part of the massive resettlement programme which took place in 1985.

In October 1985 the Ethiopian government launched another military offensive — its eighth — which pushed the Eritreans back to the mountainous area in the north of the province. However the government forces could not reach the EPLF mountain fortress at Nakfa and this provided the base from which Eritrean guerrilla forces broke out in December 1987 to again challenge the government forces. In March 1988 they overran the strategic town of Af Abed, claiming in the process to have killed or captured 18,000 government troops. The only areas to remain in government hands were four towns along the Red Sea Coast which could only be supplied by air. The Eritreans waited for yet another offensive at the end of the year — it never came and with the decisive defeats of government forces in Tigray in early 1989, it appeared that the EPLF was at last in a position to force the government to the negotiating table.

Just before the victories of 1984 the EPLF and the ELP and two smaller groups agreed to merge, after pressure from the Arab States. In practice this did not take place, and there followed in the next few years further attempts to bring together the different forces. It was clear that the EPLF was, and remains, the dominant force; it tended to remain apart from these unity efforts and had the least to gain from them. At the same time it wished to maintain good relations with the Arab world although in recent years these have become less important to them. The EPLF had held ten secret “exploratory meetings” with the Dergue between late 1982 and March 1985 but these had failed to conclude with an agreement. The Dergue attempted to hold the referendum of February 1987 to approve the new Constitution of 1986 based on “. . . administrative regions and autonomous regions ...” in some areas of south and central Eritrea, but it was claimed by the EPLF that those who voted had been forced to do so.

As with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (with which it has had strained relations which sometimes broke into open fighting) the EPLF is a nationalist and Marxist group, following radical policies. The issue of access to land and the payment of rent and tribute to feudal landlords has clear priority. There were attempts to redistribute land on an equal basis, to abolish usury and to give women both land and participation in community life. Self-reliance has been vitally important to the survival of the movement over a quarter of a century of almost continuous warfare. In areas under heavy bombing many administrative functions and living quarters have simply moved underground and function in caves.

Prospects for the future

By early 1989 it was clear that the Dergue, by now under pressure from its main backer the USSR to end the war, had suffered a series of military defeats in the north. The EPLF Secretary-General, Isseyas Afeworki, stated that a settlement could only depend on “a democratic alternative and a devolution of power within Ethiopia” which some observers have interpreted as a willingness for Eritrea to maintain some form of linkage with Ethiopia. In June 1989 the Dergue offered to begin talks with the Eritreans without preconditions under neutral auspices. Talks began in early September 1989 under the chairmanship of former US President, Jimmy Carter, but there seemed little chance of an early settlement and it appeared that the first round of talks would concentrate on logistics rather than substantive issues. There is no guarantee that the outcome of the talks will result in peace or Eritrean independence and some insurgent forces within Ethiopia have stated that the talks with the EPLF are merely an opportunity for the Dergue to recover from defeat and prepare for a fresh offensive. The Eritreans have now been involved in one of the longest wars in modern history and it would be surprising if they settled for anything substantially less than independence.

(See also Oromo of Ethiopia; Tigrayans)