Brief Background History of Eritrea

Eritrea is a country mostly defined by its 30-year armed struggle against the Ethiopian occupation.  Tens of thousands of young Eritrean fighters and civilians died during the liberation struggle.  Many villages were scorched, hundreds of thousands of civilians were severely affected by the conflict and many of them fled to neighbouring countries.  Eventually, in 1991, Eritrean freedom fighters defeated the Ethiopian forces and made the country’s independence official via the UN-monitored referendum of 1993. What was Eritrea like before the armed struggle? A large part of what is called Eritrea today was a land that was conquered by successive rulers.  It was under the Ottoman Empire during the sixteenth century.  Gradually the Egyptians replaced the Turks in 1863. Two decades later the Italians began to arrive at the Eritrean coastline and occupied the ports of Assab (1882) and Massawa (1885).  In 1889 they occupied the city of Asmara which led to the formal creation of a colony (1890).  The Italians ruled Eritrea for five decades during which they left their long-lasting imprints and influenced various local cultures.  In 1941 the British defeated the Italians and administered it until 1952 during which the United Nations decided that Eritrea should be federated with its neighbouring country, Ethiopia. However, 10 years later Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor, decided to annex it, triggering a 30-year armed struggle.

After all that blood was shed during the liberation struggle, Eritrea, rather inexplicably, could not stay clear of further conflicts. In 1995 it clashed with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea.  Three years later Eritrea went to war against Ethiopia over Badme, a small border town which became the focus of territorial dispute – a dispute that terribly went out of hand.  Once again, in 2008, Eritrea went to war against Djibouti around Ras Doumeira  - a tiny strip of land at their border. Out of the three post-independence conflicts the Eritrea- Ethiopia war of 1998 was most devastating. Although the boundaries have been delimited by the UN ruling and Badme, the hot spot for the dispute, was awarded to Eritrea, Ethiopia still refuses to abide by the ruling. In any case, the aftermath of the conflict has not been brought to closure yet.  And ever since the incident the overall situation in Eritrea has been on the decline – politically, economically and socially. 

Here Eritrea is characterised not by its good-natured people but its heavy-handed government that has blocked social developments that usher in people’s participation in governing themselves.  The Eritrean public, one needs to acknowledge, played a crucial role during the revolutionary period when the freedom fighters were in pitched battles against the Ethiopian forces (1961-1991).  In the face of their sacrifices and unrestrained support to the liberation forces, the Eritrean people were betrayed, and later relegated to assume a mere spectator’s role as the leaders of the former liberation struggle gradually turned into brutes.  In point of fact, Eritrea turned into one of the most secretive, undemocratic and closed societies in the world.  

Eritrea did not only snub and rebuke the public but it also turned against its reform-minded, most prominent veteran fighters who sacrificed their youth to liberate the country from Ethiopian occupation.  In May 2001 a group of government officials that was made up of 14 men and one woman and included several high-profile government officials (dubbed the G-15), wrote an open letter to members of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the government’s party.  Their letter exposed the absence of accountability and transparency in the regime led by President Isaias Afwerki.  The group demanded the constitution which was ratified in 1997, be implemented and national elections be held in Dec 2001.  President Afwerki reacted to the criticism with cruelty and brutality.  In order to preserve his power he put an end to the efforts of his reform-minded former colleagues and shut down all forms of pro-democracy channels by jailing eleven of the signatories.  The president made his former colleagues disappear off the face of the earth. The prisoners are presumed to be held incommunicado without charge for 14 years.  That scandalous chapter showed the true nature of the Eritrean government as home-grown dictatorship set in. Consequently, Eritrea ended up isolating itself from the international community

Since the G-15 incident, numerous country reports have been published about Eritrea by international institutions which depicted the dark side of the nation.  Basically, agencies such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, UNHCR, the BBC and many more elaborated on the fact that Eritrea has become a country with poor human rights record; a country that does not disclose the fate of its prisoners; a highly secretive and closed society.  Moreover, they described Eritrea as country where forced conscription is practised rigidly – a factor that is taxing and driving the youth to flee. 

In May 2014, after hundreds of damning reports were issued by the international community over the decade, four Catholic bishops of Eritrea wrote a critical account of life in Eritrea.  The bishops, quite audaciously, described Eritrea as a desolate country.   Eritrea is not only a country without a constitution, it is also a country where individual freedoms are severely limited, a producer of refugees, a giant prison, a country adulterated with corruption and more. 

The story of the Lampedusa Tragedy (Oct 2013), for instance, epitomises the fact that thousands of Eritreans are resorting to perilous journeys to escape the stifling economic, social and political situations in the country.  Desertions and defections of high-level government officials and prominent citizens accentuate the true nature of life in Eritrea. The situation on the ground is so bad that in Jan 2013 a group of soldiers attempted a coup d’état which indicates Eritrea is heading towards uncharted territory.