Eritrea and Anti-Imperialism

The American left is unfortunately severely uninformed about the history, and current status, of the anti-imperialist struggles that swept the African continent in the second half of the 20th century. One such example is Eritrea. In a similar way to how recent events thrust Brother Muammar Qaddafi and Thomas Sankara into the popular consciousness, hopefully the recent developments in Eritrea will have the same effect.

Eritrea is a small East African country (just under 120,000 km2), of almost 6 million, on the north-eastern coast of Africa along the Red Sea. It forms the northern border of Ethiopia and is directly to the east of Sudan and to the west, across the Red Sea, is Yemen. Its capital is Asmara, which roughly translates to “they made them unite” in Tigrinya. Eritrea is not ethnically or religiously homogenous. There are over a dozen ethnic groups present, but the largest two are the Tigrayans/Tigrinya (55%) and the Tigre (30%). The country is roughly split between Sunni Muslims (mostly Tigre and rural), and mostly Orthodox Christians (most Tigrayans and urban areas).[i][ii][iii]

The State of Eritrea is defined by anti-imperialism, and maintaining sovereignty is the driving motive behind the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). This manifests itself economically as a centralized command economy.[iv] While not officially socialist, the PFDJ is formerly Marxist-Leninist. This is a double-edged sword as the country has survived this long without being dismantled by the IMF, but is very limited in terms of generating new capital for development. Most of the economy is resource extraction. In 2004, 80% of the people were employed in agriculture, and mining remains one of the most profitable industries.[v] The lack economic opportunities has pushed a lot of the youth to migrate to Europe, and they constitute the second largest group behind Syrians (standing at one out of ten).[vi] In recent years, the government has been loosening the restrictions over foreign investment, and industrial production is making a steady rise at an estimated 5.4% for 2017.[vii]

The second challenge for the Eritrean economy is the political landscape. Eritrea is being sanctioned by the UN Security Council for allegedly providing support for Al-Shabab.[viii] A recent UN report found no evidence of Eritrean support.[ix] The irony is that Al-Shabab is a result of the UN Security Council countries’ economic and military imperialism in Somalia that the group fighting against.

Hopefully, with a recent peace deal with Eritrea’s former occupier, Ethiopia, the vast amount of resources dedicated to the Eritrean military can redirected towards the government’s three priority areas of food security/agriculture, infrastructure, and human resources development.[x]

Reminiscent of the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, over the province of Kashmir, Eritrea has a tumultuous relationship with its neighbor Ethiopia. Historically, the fates of the two countries has usually been tied together. Notably going as far back as the Kingdom of Aksum, founded around 100 AD, which included a large swath of present day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. However, since the collapse of Aksum, Imperial Ethiopia (founded in 1137) has subjugated, to varying degrees, the region of Eritrea (known as Medri Bahri for much of its history).

The Kingdom of Aksum eventually began to be called Ethiopia after King Ezana officially adopted Christianity. It is for this reason that Ethiopia lays claim to the country. Ethiopia’s cultural origins come from the Aksum, primarily Tigrayan, Eritrean highlands, and with the long history of control, combine to create a historical national identity that views Eritrea as an Ethiopian province. For the Ethiopian nationalist, any separation that has happened historically, or presently, is a result of foreign intervention. From early own, Muslims came to the region in the 7th century, and gradually began to dominate the regions of Sudan and the Eritrean lowlands. While the Christian areas remained connected to Imperial Ethiopia, the Muslim areas did not.[xi] For a Christian Ethiopia, the arrival of Muslims, and the eventual Ottoman (and later Italian) annexation of coastal Medri Bahri, validates their rightful claim.

The most recent chapter in this history occurred on July 9th, 2018, when Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace settlement resolving the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000). The peace deal between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, officially ends the perpetual state of war which has defined the two nation’s relationship for the past 20 years.

The source of the war goes back many years. The Ethiopian-Eritrean War, coming shortly after a 30-year Eritrean war for independence, was sparked over a border dispute over the southern Eritrean region around the town of Badme. The border was loosely defined, by the mutual colonial ruler of Italy, in the Ethiopian-Italian Treaty of 1902. The issue was not addressed for many years as Eritrea passed to British control after the Italians were forced out in 1941. The “temporary” administration by the British continued years after the war, and in December, 1950, with pressure from United States, Eritrea was federated under Imperial Ethiopia against local popular opinion.

From 1950 to 1962, Eritrea had relative autonomy. In 1958, the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was founded as an underground movement to agitate against the growing centralization of imperial Ethiopian power. Likely due to fear of complete absorption into a unitary Ethiopia, in 1961, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) began an armed struggle to win independence. In response, in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea and dissolved their autonomous government. In the 1970s, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which would later become the PFDJ, split from the ELM, and took the leading role in the war. The anti-imperialist struggle continued until 1991, when they finally managed to push out the invaders and declare their independence through a popular referendum (99.83% in favor with 98.5% voter turnout) in 1993.

Violent conflict between the two countries did not end with independence, as deeply ingrained distrust and bitterness caused a border dispute, primarily around the south-eastern Eritrean town of Badme, to escalate into full-blown war when Eritrea attacked Ethiopia when they began mobilizing on the border after Eritrea responded to an ethnic Tigray militia insurgency.  By the end of the conflict, Ethiopia occupied the disrupted territory and additional areas. Despite a UN ruling in favor of Eritrea, Ethiopia has continued to occupy the land.

As part of the peace deal, Ethiopia has agreed to withdraw troops from the seized territory, recognizing Eritrean control over the area. In exchange, Ethiopia will be given Red sea port access. In addition, relations between the two countries will begin to normalize with the re-establishment of telecommunication, transport links, and the mutual opening of embassies.[xii]

It is yet to be seen what material effects this deal will bring to the Eritrean people, but peace is always welcomed. For a country that is organized around resisting imperialist advances for the past 57 years, this deal could signal the end of an era.

[i] U.S. State Department.

[ii] CIA World Factbook.

[iii] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” Pew Research. October 2009.

[iv] “2014 Investment Climate Statement”. U.S. Department of State. June 2014.

[v] “Eritrea country profile,” Library of Congress Federal Research Division. September 2005.

[vi] “Why do so many people want to leave Eritrea for Europe?” BBC. November 10, 2015.

[vii] CIA World Factbook.

[viii] Conor Gaffey. “The U.S. and Others May Have Been Wrongly Sanctioning Eritrea for Years Over Alleged Al-Shabab Support,” Newsweek. November, 14, 2017.

[ix] Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 751 (1992) and 1907 (2009) Concerning Somalia and Eritrea. November, 2017.

[x] “Eritrea Overview,” World Bank. Accessed July 20, 2018.

[xi] Wolbert Smidt. “History, Historical Arguments and the Ethio-Eritrean conflict: between xenophobic approaches and an ideology of unity,” Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien. 2012.

[xii] Matina Stevis-Gridneff. “Eritrea, Ethiopia Sign Historic Peace Deal,” The Wall Street Journal. July 9, 2018.

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