Eritrea – a Country Many People Flee From Part I
- Why did many initially admire the new state of Eritrea?
- Why did the image of Eritrea fade over time?
- What are the most important historical and political dividing lines in the country?
- Why are so many fleeing Eritrea?
The paradoxes are many when it comes to Eritrea. The country has been referred to as ” Africa’s North Korea ” because of its authoritarian leadership; the aging Isaias Afewerki strictly controls and controls the opposition. But in the 1990s, Eritrea and President Afewerki were seen as part of a new generation of corrupt and progressive African leaders and as an ally of the West. Many in the West watched with admiration the Eritrean liberation struggle. There, Eritrea had resisted the strong Ethiopian army, which had been supported first by the United States and then by Russia. Eritrea was then seen as a pioneer in Africa.
2: A complicated past
The areas that today make up Eritrea have a complicated past. They had written language before Norway, and were probably more prosperous than Norway for long periods. The Eritrean Highlands were part of the oldest civilizations in the Horn of Africa. Large parts of present-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia constituted the Aksum Empire – from approx. year 100 BC When the empire was weakened in the 600s and 700s, the Eritrean highlands managed to preserve their independence. The Ottoman Empire then expanded into this area, but eventually confined itself to the coast. This created a cultural divide in Eritrea between the Muslim coast and the Christian highlands . Today, leaders from the latter area dominate Eritrea.
In the late 19th century, the imperial power Britain gave Ethiopia (Abyssinia) promises of large tracts of land in present-day Eritrea. But the dream of Ethiopian control was short-lived, and after 1889, Italy, which had bought much land along the coast, began to expand into the highlands and unite the coastal areas and highlands for the first time in many hundreds of years. It was the Italians who gave the country the name Eritrea – after the Latin name for the Red Sea.
Italian colonization meant that Eritrea became more developed than neighboring countries. The area got a small industrial sector, a press and a railway. The colony played a key role in Italy’s expansion into Africa, and the Italians used Eritrean troops in Somalia, Ethiopia and Libya. These were also given key roles in the fight against the British during World War II. Eritrea’s borders were also expanded during this period, but Italy’s losses to British and Ethiopian forces during World War II resulted in the British occupying Eritrea . And in 1952, Eritrea became part of a dual monarchywith Ethiopia, where Eritrea had its own legal system, its own police, its own constitution (constitution), its own parliament and its own tax system. In 1962, however, the Ethiopian emperor dissolved the Eritrean parliament, and Eritrea became part of Ethiopia .
3: Important resistance struggle
Even before the dissolution of Eritrea, dissatisfaction with Ethiopia began to grow along the coast of Eritrea, primarily among Muslims, who had been working against the federation with Ethiopia ever since the British took over in 1941, while Christians had been more positive. The first liberation movement, the Muslim- dominated Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), was supported by the Arab world .
From 1961, a liberation struggle began against the Ethiopians. It came to define the identity of modern Eritrea. But it was not the ELF that was to take Eritrea to independence, it did a breakaway group of left-wing activists from the Christian highlands. From 1973, they called themselves the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which swore allegiance to a Soviet form of Marxism. The EPLF was effective and captured much material from the Soviet-backed Ethiopian army.
The EPLF gradually gained a strong position among the people, while the atrocities of the Ethiopian army only intensified its support. But the EPLF was also strongly centrally controlled and wanted to forge the ethnic minorities in the country together into one unit. Ethnic groups thus received no special rights. The current president, Isaias Afewerki , was elected to the organization’s military committee in 1975, and became deputy general secretary in 1977, then secretary general in 1987. Many of Eritrea’s current leaders have a background in the liberation war, and the war marked the Eritreans as highly patriotic and nationalist. . In 1991, the liberation fighters won the war and Eritrea became independent.
In 1993, the country conducted a referendum on independence; the vote was considered fair by international observers. It gave a majority for independence of 99.8 percent, and Eritrea was recognized – also by Norway – as a separate state. But in Ethiopia, there are still a good many who believe that Eritrea should have remained Ethiopian.
A lot of positive things happened in Eritrea during this first period as a separate country. The government began to carve out a constitution in 1994, and used public meetings actively in the process. Eritrea was also seen as not very corrupt and pursued a policy that the international community also saw as sensible. The government invested in profitable projects and had an open economy. Isaiah’s Afewerki was seen by many as part of a new positive future in Africa and a new generation of African leaders. In 1994, the rebel organization changed its name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and became a political party.
But no democracy was landed. The first sign was the regime’s unwillingness to include political opponents in the political dialogue. The remnants of the ELF were not consulted, nor were Islamic leaders or strong business affairs in the south.
The second and perhaps more important sign was Eritrea’s conflicts with neighboring countries. The area had many unclear boundaries, some of them maritime. The first conflict of independent Eritrea was with Yemen, over the Hanish Islands located between the two countries in the Red Sea. Eritrea mobilized ferries, received support from Ethiopia and occupied the islands. Finally, they accepted an arbitration award in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. It gave most of the islands to Yemen, but with extensive fishing rights to Eritrea.
4: War 1998–2000
Far more serious was the war with Ethiopia from 1998. It has in many ways defined modern Eritrea and led to many of the positive trends in the 1990s ending. The regimes in Eritrea and Ethiopia were originally seen as good friends. They had been allies during the Eritrean liberation struggle when the current ruling party in Ethiopia was fighting against its own government. But the boundaries were unclear, and there had been growing irritation among Ethiopians over friction in economic cooperation. There, Eritrea profited from transit trade when Ethiopia exported through Eritrean intermediaries and ports. The Eritreans’ introduction of their own new currency also created tension.
On May 6, 1998, Eritrean forces entered a small, remote area controlled by Ethiopia. Local militia from Ethiopia fired on the Eritreans, and in response, Eritrea launched a major operation. Eritrea was much smaller than Ethiopia, a country located in Africa according to zipcodesexplorer.com; a long conscription meant that the country still had many soldiers. Little Eritrea (today 6.5 million inhabitants, probably a good deal lower due to flight) mobilized 350,000 soldiers, while Ethiopia (100 million today) mobilized 450,000. The war lasted for over two years and became one of the bloodiest in Horn of Africa for the last 50 years. It turned into a deadly trench warfare that in many ways resembled the First World War.
The loss estimates vary between 45,000 and 70,000 killed on the battlefield. In the end, Ethiopia won; the Eritrean army was forced on the defensive and almost collapsed. Eritrea then lost its valuable trade relations with Ethiopia. The old liberation leaders and heroes from the liberation struggle had lost a war. At the same time, Ethiopia’s hostility was greater than ever and forced Eritrea to maintain a huge and expensive army. The relatively democratic constitution that Eritrea had adopted in 1997 was not introduced.