The Horn of Africa was a major concern of U.S. policy makers only a few years ago, for they viewed Soviet-Cuban military activities in the region as an important aspect of an overall Soviet strategy of military and political expansion. But the Horn could have been the other side of the moon to most Americans when war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998. Very little was understood about the nature of the conflict between these two countries, and coverage of the conflict in the media did little to enlighten.
Indeed, as with Somalia a few years earlier, journalists made little efforts to learn about the peculiarities of the histories and cultures of the nations of the Horn, and substituted glib cliches for analysis – despite the availability of facts. It is true that it was in this region that Evelyn Waugh situated his classic send-up of foreign correspondents, Scoop. At any rate, a number of egregious legends immediately took root in the Western media. As usual – neighboring Somalia being, again, another case in point – the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea does not appear to have incited editors and reporters to go back over their coverage and correct it, and if the war were to start up again today, the chances are that they would take up exactly where they left off. Nonetheless, there are a few large non-facts that deserve to be disposed of.
Chief among these is the supposed thirty-year struggle for Eritrean liberation from Ethipian rule. It is this idea which fueled a marked bias for Eritrea in the leading media, including such highly responsible newspapers as the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post in the U.S. and the Economist in Britain. The reality is that the skirmish between a Muslim group and a small Ethiopian army unit, in 1961, was scarcely the beginning of a « thirty-year struggle ». It was not until the early 1980s that a struggle began in real earnest, and it was a struggle – against a Soviet-supported military regime in Addis Ababa, which had led a « revolution » against the Ethiopian monarchy – that involved Ethiopians as well as Eritreans, against the hated Derg. The war that, off and on, lasted from May 1998 to May 2000 was not the culmination of the Eritrean liberation struggle, as it was often portrayed, but a border dispute in which the facts suggest Eritrea was the aggressor. At any rate, Ethiopia’s leaders have stated they have no territorial ambitions and have accepted international demarcation of the border with a peace-keeping force patrolling a demilitarized border zone. To understand how the « thirty-year struggle » reached this point, it is necessary to know the history of the « Eritrean question ».
Eritrea came onto the map of Africa only at the end of the 19th century. Until then « Eritrean history », as far back as it extends, was Ethiopian history. During the 1980s when it fought the Derg (the name of the regime that was established after the overthrow of the emperor Hailie Selassie), Isaias Afewerki's Marxist Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) encouraged the notion that Eritrea had always been a separate polity. This idea has been spread by EPLF propagandists ever since. It has gained wide acceptance abroad among journalists and others with scant knowledge of the history of the Horn of Africa and has become dogma among many Eritreans in the diaspora. It is, however, a myth.
In the mid-nineteenth century, what are now the Eritrean highlands formed part of the northernmost Ethiopian province of Tigray. The lowlands, however, were literally up for grabs, with Egyptians, Italians, British, French, and even Russians eager to gain a foothold on the Red Sea. Though its authority was more nominal than real, Ethiopia never abandoned its claim to the region.
For a brief time Egypt was a major player on this scene. Its ruler, Khedive Ismail, was eager to expand into Sudan and extend Egyptian control over northern Ethiopia. He recruited Americans, including veterans of the Confederacy, to help him. During the scramble for Africa, the European powers were wary of letting Egypt play a dominant role in a region where they were already competing with each other. Italy bought a base in Assab in 1869. Britain moved into Egypt in 1882 and put an end to the Khedive's adventures in the Horn. As a rival of France, Britain sympathized with the Italian aim of securing a substantial foothold in the Horn. The British made no objections to Italy's occupation of Massawa in 1885. After an initial set-back, the Italians were able to conquer the area to the Mareb River by 1890. This was the year they proclaimed their newly Colonia Eritrea--the Red Sea Colony--and chose Asmara as its capital.
Adwa , a proto-Dien-Bien-Phu
Thus Eritrea came onto the map as a geographic and political entity. Italian imperialists regarded Colonia Eritrea as the first stage in creation of a new Roman Empire. The addition of Ethiopia would follow. They were confident that Ethiopian Emperor Menelik would live to regret his defiance of them. But Menelik mobilized his Shoan forces and moved them north. Regional kings and princes from all parts of Ethiopia responded to his appeal to join in defending the country's independence. Menelik assembled his armies around Adwa, a short distance south of historic Aksum. He set up his headquarters at the ancient Monastery of Abba Gerima, founded by one of the Nine Syrian Saints. Other Ethiopian leaders placed their troops at strategic locations among the spectacular volcanic mountains which extend eastward from Aksum and Adwa for 40 km. – the direction from which the Italians were known to be advancing. Menelik had 100 000 men under his command. With less than a fifth of that number, almost half of them Eritrean auxiliaries of doubtful loyalty, the Italians rushed to attack the Ethiopians. Battle was joined the morning of March 2, 1896. Within hours the Italian army had been literally decimated. Many of the Eritrean troops defected to the Ethiopians.
News of the decisive defeat arrived in Italy a day later and word of the Ethiopian victory--the first of its kind by what is now called a Third World country against a European power--spread around the world. Menelik had secured Ethiopia's independence for another forty years.
Victory at Adwa increased respect for Ethiopia in Europe. For the next three decades sensible Italians concentrated on turning Eritrea into a colony where Italians might profit. The process of colonial evolution, with Christian highlanders retaining close links to Ethiopia, began. Italian imperial aspirations were revived 40 years later when Benito Mussolini launched his scheme to conquer all of East Africa in 1935.
Eritrea's total population was estimated at barely 200 000 in 1890. Seven censuses carried out between 1905 and 1939 recorded steady population growth. Highland Tigrinya-speakers accounted for 35 per cent of the population in 1905. By 1939 their proportion had risen to 54 per cent of a total that had increased more than threefold in fifty years. In contrast to Tigrinya-speaking highlanders who formed a regionally compact group, other indigenous groups in Eritrea, mostly Muslim and pastoralist (except for the Baria and Kunama, animist agriculturalists), were scattered around the western, northern, and eastern periphery of the colony.
Population pressure in the highlands caused land shortage and outflow of settlers into more thinly populated lowland areas. This provoked Muslim resentment. The Italian administration officially observed a policy of complete equality between Islam and Christianity. Muslims were administered through local leaders in the same way as Christians. During the 1930s, however, Mussolini shifted to a more a pro-Arab and pro-Muslim policy.
Ethiopia was a safety valve for anti-colonialist Eritreans. They could migrate there if they became alienated from the colonial regime. The majority of highlanders thought of themselves as Ethiopians from a cultural and religious viewpoint, but their concerns were local and limited. Muslims in Eritrea, on the other hand, though equally oriented toward local concerns, did not share the same feelings toward Ethiopia
By the early 1930s Mussolini was ready to avenge the defeat at Adwa. Fascist propaganda denounced Ethiopia as a primitive country where slavery still flourished. Determined action by Britain and France could have deterred Mussolini, who had no allies, not yet having forged an alliance with Hitler. But while the League of Nations palavered in Geneva, Mussolini concluded Ethiopia would be a pushover. But it took hard fighting, bombing, and poison gas for the Italians to overcome Ethiopian resistance and drive Haile Selassie into exile at the beginning of May 1936. The country was never fully subjugated. Plans for settling millions of Italians in Africa Orientale Italiana did not materialize. Eritrea and Somalia were combined with Ethiopia and the whole Italian African Empire was divided into six regions. As one of them, Eritrea absorbed Tigray.
When Mussolini joined Hitler after France was overrun in June 1940, the fate of the Italian East African empire was sealed. A year later (six months before the United States entered WWII) Ethiopia had been liberated by British and Commonwealth (primarily South African and Kenyan) forces and Eritrea and Somalia were occupied. After the United States joined the Allies, Eritrea became a major American staging area for support of campaigns in the Middle East and the Lend-Lease lifeline through the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. By August 1942 more than 3 000 American soldiers and civilians were stationed in Eritrea. An American consulate in Asmara was opened nearly a year before the legation was reopened in Addis Ababa.
Britain signed an agreement with Haile Selassie in January 1942 recognizing Ethiopia as once again « a free and independent state », but Eritrea, having been internationally recognized as an Italian colony for almost half a century, was considered occupied enemy territory and administered by Britain entirely separate from Ethiopia. British military administration in Eritrea lasted ten years. It was the most vital period of Eritrean development before the final decade of the 20th century.
Allied military installations at Asmara and port facilities at Massawa provided employment with good income for Italians and Eritreans. British officials encouraged labor unions to form, established a press, and let associations of many kinds develop. They expanded education. Wartime prosperity generated expectations of rapid economic expansion. When the war came to an end in 1945, however, Eritrea entered an economic slump that exacerbated political, social, and religious tensions. Britain developed no plan for the colony's future. Haile Selassie wanted Eritrea returned to Ethiopia and the ancient link to the sea restored.
A majority of Christian highlanders favored reunion with Ethiopia. Muslim lowlanders, on the other hand, were divided ethnically and felt little inclination toward Ethiopia, though a few were willing to accept a form of union that guaranteed their interests. Many Muslims favored amalgamation of the northern and western areas of Eritrea with Sudan. Smaller groups advocated a continued British mandate, independence, and even restoration of Italian rule.
Federation appealed to the U.S. and its allies as a way out of a dilemma: how to settle Eritrea's future « according to the wishes of its inhabitants » when no majority could be found? In reality federating a small, economically more developed, politically effervescent, highly factionalized Eritrea with a far larger underdeveloped and autocratically governed Ethiopia was incongruous. Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian ruling classes would have preferred outright annexation, but membership in the UN and the close American relationship ruled this out. The « greater-Ethiopia » party among Eritrean Christians shared this view and advocated a single-chamber assembly. The federalists advocated two chambers that would check and balance each other. The Moslems wanted two regional assemblies which would partition the territory into Muslim and Christian halves, each to be federated separately with Ethiopia.
The Eritrean-Ethiopian Federation never became functional. Haile Selassie and most Ethiopians felt no deep commitment to the spirit or details of the UN arrangement . The UN, busy with crises, took no interest in the working of the federation after it went into effect. No federal institutions were established on the Ethiopian side. Eritrea's autonomy was systematically eroded. In December 1958 the Assembly abolished the Eritrean flag. The next year Ethiopian law was introduced, and in May 1960 the Assembly changed the name of the government to « Eritrean Administration under Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia ». The vote of the Assembly abolishing itself on 14 November 1962 surprised no one. Eritrea became Ethiopia's 14th province, governed like all the rest.
It is pertinent, however, to see these developments in the context of the time. Pan-Arabism and Islamic assertiveness had been on the rise for several years. Nasserist revolutionary fervor was sweeping the Middle East. The Soviet Union was increasingly supportive of all radical Arab movements. Some Arabs claimed Eritrea was an Arab country and Eritrean Muslims saw an advantage in pretending to be Arabs. With Eritrean exiles gathering in Cairo and other Arab capitals and broadcasting rebellion, it was not surprising that Ethiopia felt threatened.
In September 1961 Muslims in western Eritrea clashed with Ethiopian forces and eventually declared themselves to be the Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF). The next year directly across the Red Sea a radical revolution flared up in Yemen and Nasser sent an Egyptian expeditionary force to support it. Though worried, Haile Selassie took comfort from the fact that Ethiopia was calm and his international prestige was high. So great, in fact, that Nasser and the Soviets avoided denouncing him or challenging him directly. At the time, the abolition of the fictional federation arrangement in Eritrea enhanced rather than detracted from the Emperor's standing in the world.
Eritreans had become active throughout Ethiopia as businessmen, officials, teachers, and traders. Eritrea continued to attract investment and foreign aid. The enterprising Italian and half-caste population as well as the majority of highland Christians were pro-Ethiopian. American military installations continued to contribute substantially to the Eritrean economy. Eritrea remained peaceful until the mid-1960s and more prosperous than the rest of Ethiopia.
The great majority of Eritreans during this period remained oriented toward Ethiopia, where many found employment because they had the advantage of skills, experience, and relatives and friends already working there. Eritreans occupied 19% of high positions in the central Ethiopian government, second only to Shoans, during the period 1941-66.
Eritrean politicians and intellectuals who went into exile had sympathy but few active followers at home. Despite efforts to represent themselves as united, exile Eritreans were rent by tensions and rivalries. These were reflected in competition among fighters in the field. Radical Arabs and various Soviet proxies began to provide arms in the late 1960s. Cubans, communist Chinese, and Syrians began taking young Eritreans for guerrilla training. Isaias Afewerki and Ramadan Mohammed Nur were trained in China during this period.
By 1968 the insurgents were fighting pitched battles against Ethiopian military forces and carrying out spectacular acts of sabotage and urban terrorism. Israeli advisers had difficulty countering the tendency of Ethiopian commanders to use brutal search and interrogation methods and tactics which drove civilians to seek rebel protection. Still no more than half of Ethiopia's 45 000-man army was ever deployed in Eritrea.
Serious guerrilla fighters of all factions probably numbered no more than 2,000 at the beginning of the 1970s. In effect, the situation in early 1974 boiled down to a stubborn but unimaginative Addis Ababa government trying to subdue fractious coalitions of insurgents sustained primarily by foreign money and supplies. The population felt victimized by both sides, but most Eritrean highland Christians still remained passively loyal to the Ethiopian state. Meanwhile, applying organizational principles taught in China Isaias Afewerki turned his EPLF into a tightly organized professional guerrilla force and gained dominance over all other factions in Eritrea. Foreign supplies became less important as the EPLF captured more and more Soviet-supplied arms and ammunition from Ethiopian forces.
Stalemate in Eritrea was one of the factors which enabled an improvised military committee that became known as the Derg to gain power and overthrow Haile Selassie on 12 September 1974. Eritrea partly owes the independence to the Derg, and specifically to dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. His decision in the fall of 1974 to bring the province to heel by force eventually propelled the whole population into favoring independence.
The embrace of the Soviet Union, which supplied Derg Ethiopia with $12 billion worth of arms between 1977 and 1990, gave Mengistu hope of triumph over the rebels in Eritrea and Tigray. To please his Soviet beneficiaries he attempted to turn the country into a model of Stalinist "socialism". Most of the economy was nationalized. Peasants were forced into state farms and collective villages. As agricultural production declined and rebellion spread across most of northern Ethiopia, famine developed. When international aid groups began to send in food and medicine, Mengistu tried to keep supplies from reaching rebel-held areas. When the situation was publicized abroad and became an international scandal in late 1984, he was forced to relent.
Foreign aid groups were permitted to operate while Mengistu secured Soviet help to launch a program to haul hundreds of thousands of people from rebellious regions to lowland resettlement sites along the Sudan border. He staged a great celebration in Addis Ababa to inaugurate his communist-type Workers' Party on the 10th anniversary of the revolution in 1984. Three years later, with Soviet and East European hardliners as honored guests, he proclaimed Ethiopia a « People's Democracy ». It was the last example of this kind of state in the world. Nevertheless Mengistu's revolution kept unravelling. Hundreds of thousands of young soldiers and vast quantities of Soviet-supplied equipment were thrown against the Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels. The rebels kept defeating Derg offensives and capturing great quantities of the equipment the Soviets had supplied. By the end of the 1980s the Derg was able to hold onto only Asmara and Massawa and, during daylight, the highway in between.
A group of Tigrayan students who left Addis Ababa University in 1975-6 built a peasant-based movement in Tigray. The Tigrayans, who adopted the name Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF), relied on grass-roots mobilization of the rural population. They neither sought nor received significant foreign aid, and though they professed Marxism, they did not try to force peasants into collective life or interfere with their attachment to religion. In time they, too, benefitted from captured arms and equipment. As the EPLF became more vocally anti-Ethiopian, the TPLF evolved in the opposite direction--capitalizing on Tigrayans' pride as heirs of ancient Ethiopian civilization and feeling a sense of responsibility for the country as a whole.
Soviet operatives refused to give up hope that Mengistu and Isaias could be reconciled. Almost until their own state collapsed, the Soviets kept trying to bring Isaias and Mengistu together to solve their Ethiopian conundrum. Successive meetings in Rome and East Berlin between EPLF and Derg representatives proved futile. But these efforts for a time seem to have maintained Isaias's hope that the Russians might eventually abandon Mengistu and shift to supporting Eritrean independence.
Evolution toward recognition of the consequences of the collapse of Marxist socialism proceeded faster within the TPLF, especially after Meles Zenawi emerged as the leader in 1988. Both northern movements sought contacts with Americans. The stunning defeat of Derg forces at Enda Selassie in early 1989, resulted in withdrawal of Derg forces from Tigray. The Derg's land links to Eritrea were cut. By this time the TPLF had elevated a satellite Amhara organization, the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM), to partnership in the Ethiopian Popular Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This front, which attracted other supporters as well, became the vehicle for defeat of the Derg. Meanwhile the EPLF had decimated a huge Derg force at Afabet in northern Eritrea in March 1988 and captured huge numbers of prisoners, along with supplies of arms, and equipment. Two days after Mengistu slipped away from Addis Ababa and flew to Zimbabwe, Derg armies in Eritrea surrendered unconditionally on 23 May 1991. The EPLF designated itself the Provisional Government of Eritrea on taking over Asmara. Meanwhile, EPRDF forces surrounded Addis Ababa but did not enter it until 28 May, and convened a national conference in the first days of July to establish a Transitional Government for Ethiopia. Isaias refused to participate except as an observer. Many Ethiopian anti-Derg groups as well as exile organizations took part in the conference which involved five days of open debate on many issues, including the status of Eritrea. The conference devised a Charter which served as an interim constitution until 1995.
At heart TPLF leaders would have preferred to see Eritrea enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a component of a new democratic Ethiopia. Only in the final stages of Derg collapse in May 1991 were American diplomats successful in helping Meles Zenawi persuade Isaias Afewerki to defer a declaration of independence. This was needed to counter widespread feeling among Ethiopians that loss of Eritrea should not be accepted lightly.
By the end of the summer of 1991 expulsions from Eritrea ceased and, in the months that followed, practical arrangements were worked out for Ethiopian use of the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, international and internal air service, transit of goods and people across the border, and for continued Eritrean use of Ethiopian currency. The United States did not give Eritrea away in May 1991, as resentful exiles charged. Neither did the TPLF. Neither had ever held or had any means of holding it, and neither was foolish enough to try. EPLF leaders were determined to lead Eritrea to independence.
The EPLF, in June and July 1991 summarily expelled more than 150 000 defeated Derg soldiers across the border into Tigray along with tens of thousands of Ethiopian civilians, including women and children, who had been resident in Eritrea. The EPRDF lacked the means of dealing with this influx of men, women, and children, many of whom were wounded, starving, or sick. International relief organizations came to the rescue and USAID arranged for more than 15 million dollars' worth of food, blankets, and medicine left over from the Gulf War to be flown into northern Ethiopia.
Adhering fully to previous agreements and under conditions approved by the UN with international observers stationed throughout the country, the EPLF held an elaborately organized referendum on independence in the last week of April 1993. 99.8 per cent of the voters approved independence, with fewer than 2 000 negative votes being cast. Nevertheless observers reported no intimidation or obvious illegality. The country was formally declared independent on 23 May 1993. Agitation over Eritrea ceased almost immediately among opposition politicians in Ethiopia and legal aspects of the separation were efficiently accomplished.
The political evolution of Eritrea has been in a much more authoritarian direction than in Ethiopia. The EPLF transformed itself into the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) at the end of 1994 and a constitutional commission was appointed. It engaged in elaborate study and consultation before producing a draft in 1996 which was then presented to the public for lengthy discussion and review. It provides for a unitary state. Eritrea's nine major ethnic groups, in contrast to Ethiopia, were accorded no formal political recognition. As mid-2000, the constitution had not been put into effect.
The EPLF has permitted no political parties or independent newspapers. Thus it has avoided the heated political debates and journalistic ferment that characterized Ethiopia after 1991. It also avoided international criticism for jailing journalists and oppressing politicians.
Eritrea accused Sudan of abetting subversion in 1994 and broke relations in 1995. It provoked a quarrel with Yemen over the Hanish islands soon after and subsequently quarreled with Djibouti. In spite of these problems with its other neighbors, relations with Ethiopia remained close and cooperative through 1997. Eritrea used Ethiopian currency , the Birr, until November 1997 when it replaced it with its own legal tender, the Nakfa. Ethiopia henceforth required that hard currency be used in trade. Ethiopia had already stopped drawing on the Assab refinery for part of its petroleum supply. Tensions over trade, border controls, and ports subsequently developed. In May 1998 Eritrea suddenly occupied several districts along the border which had been under Ethiopian administration. including the confiscation of Ethiopian goods in Eritrean ports, punitive measures against Eritrean citizens living in Ethiopia Residents were evicted and military clashes followed. The Ethiopian government appealed for international assistance in clarifying the situation. Alleging Ethiopian aggressive intentions, Eritrea refused to agree to inspection or negotiation under international supervision until Ethiopia mounted an offensive in the Badme sector in February 1999 and recaptured a portion of the territory Eritrea had seized.
Eritrea then agreed to accept international mediation, but prevaricated and mounted repeated offensives to try to recapture Ethiopian territory. Persistent efforts of OAU, American, and European mediators to persuade EPLF leaders to negotiate led nowhere. When American ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke approached the situation in April 2000, he concentrated on pressing Ethiopia to make concessions to Eritrea. This diplomatic tactic backfired. Ethiopian military leaders had made careful preparations for an offensive in mid-May, and captured several Eritrean cities. After losing tens of thousands of soldiers, Eritrea signed a cease-fire on June 18, agreeing to allow UN peacekeepers to occupy a 25-km.-deep demilitarized strip along its entire border with Ethiopia.
Lessons to learn for U. S. diplomatic strategy
The U.S. involvement in the Ethiopia-Eritrea war was decidedly counterproductive. Most American officials seem to have understood, when the crisis began in May 1998 – with Eritrean forces moving into northern border regions -, that an aggression was being committed, as did the Organization of African Unity, the UN, and the EU. Eritrea never explained why a debate about colonial-era borders justified aggression. Playing its “honest broker” role, the U.S. fell into its habitual pattern of treating both countries as if equally at fault. Some U.S. military officials argued that Eritrea, with its long coastline and its outstanding guerrilla fighters, was more valuable an ally than Ethiopia. It was seen as a bulwark against the Islamic fundamentalism in Khartoum. The process was similar to the long years of making allowances for Saddam Hussein because he was an enemy of an American enemy, Iran.
The U.S. had favored Ethiopian-Eritrean federation in the 1950s, and on balance, despite the conservative nature of Haile Selassie’s rule, the people of Eritrea benefitted from it. While the U.S. sharply condemned the Derg for its repression of Eritrea after 1974, its basic diplomatic principle was Ethiopian territorial integrity.
Marxism poisoned the Horn. Somalia’s Marxist dictator attacked Mengistu’s Marxist Ethiopia in 1977, necessitating a rescue by Soviets and Cubans. Through the 1980s, the Marxist Derg fought Marxist insurgents in Eritrea and other parts of the country. When Marxism receded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and most of the international community took note of the apparently moderate course Isaias Afewerki adopted. American diplomats appreciated that he did not unilaterally declare Eritrea independent, but waited for a UN-supervised referendum in 1993. The U.S. then assumed, with the rest of the international community, that Isaias would have the good sense to lead Eritrea toward democracy.
For a year and a half, everything seemed to be going well. The EPRDF-led government in Addis Ababa, presided by Meles Zenawi, helped Eritrea consolidate its independence and achieve economic viability. Frictions developed slowly. Iasais at first turned to other directions, first breaking with Sudan, even though this country had helped him in his fight against the Derg; then he found quarels with Yemen and Djibouti.
The best way for the U.S. government to repair mistakes in the Horn of Africa is to look at the region realistically. American principles – and interests – are ill-served by treating the two parties to the conflict equally. Since the cease-fire was signed in Algiers on June 18, Eritrea propaganda continues to vilify Ethiopia. Eritrea’s leaders remain in a condition of denial comparable to Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. As long as such illusions prevail and are encouraged by the U.S.-, prospects for reconciliation will be poor.
* Paul Henze was political counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, 1969-72, and has made frequent and prolonged visits to Ethiopia. Henze’s most recent book is Layers of Time : A History of Ethiopia, St Martin’s, 2000.