History of Eritrea

Eritrea is one of the newest and most promising nations in Africa -- and containts remnants of some of its oldest civilizations. One of the earliest known references to Eritrea is from Aeschylus (Fragment 67) in which he refers to the "Mare Erythreum" (Red Sea) as "the lake that is the jewel of Ethiopia." Eritrea recently fought and won one of the longest wars in the world. After thirty years of bitter strugle, Eritrea achieve total independence and the right to self-determination. The Eritrean people acheived their goals in 1991 in a stunning defeat of the occupying Ethiopian forces which also helped liberate Ethiopia from the Soviet-backed Dergue (Menguistu Hailemariam) regime.

Early History

Between 1000 and 400 BC, a semitic group of people known as the Sabeans crossed the Red Sea into the region known as present Eritrea, and intermingled with the Hamitic inhabitants who had migrated from the northern Sudan. The region was then controlled by various foreign invaders such as the Axumite kingdom, the Funji Sultans of Sudan, the Egyptians, the Portugese and the Turks. Each of these foreign occupiers had a distinct impact on the development of present day Eritrea as a nation and in the formation of an Eritrean identity.

Colonisation; ITALY

None, however, was quite as significant as the Italian colonial period from 1880 - 1941. This was the era during which Eritrea emerged as a distinct society and territory. In the late 1880's Italy purchased the port of Assab from a commercial company that was administering it. Encouraged by the British, who were then attempting to contain France's colonial asspirations in the Horn, Italy proceeded to colonize the region. Italy moved to transform Eritrea, with its access to sea and agricultural potential, into a permanent colony. The king of Italy issued a decree that formally established Eritrea on 1 January 1890. Eritrea was defined as a Nation State, and a colony of Italy. Italian immigration began at the turn of the century. At the twilight of of the Italian colonial era (late 1930s) about 70,000 Italians had settled in Eritrea. Italian agricultural policy for Eritrea was designed to primarily benefit the settlement population and to sustain Italian exports to Europe and East Africa. The development of a market- based economy required that the Italians upgrade Eritrea's infrastructure. The extensive communications and transportation facilities that were established were among the best in Africa during this era. The Italians built railway lines between Asmara and Keren and Agordat. The port of Massawa was linked by rail to the interior. All-weather roads were constructed through the mountains of Eritrea and the lowlands. Two modern airports were built. An export-based industrial sector was created and Eritrea forged new links with the international economy. National Identity and, gradually, a national consciousness developed during this era. People from diverse economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds were structurally linked within the colonial borders. Their experiences differed sharply from those of their neighbors in Ethiopia. Ethiopia remained dominated by a feudal economic system managed by imperial rule. By the 1940s, Eritrea had evolved a substantial working class as well as a distinct urban- based intelligentsia. Neverthless Italian colonial rule was not benign. The Italian administration reflected the views and aspirations of a fascist government. Eritrea's people were seen as little more than a source of cheap labour to fuel the aims of Rome. Eritreans played only subsidiary roles in their country's economic and political development.

Colonialism; GREAT BRITAIN

With the defeat of Italy in 1941, the great powers (France, Soviet Union, UK and the US) decided that Great Britain would then govern Eritrea as a protectorate. The British Military Administration (BMA) ruled Eritrea as "Occupied Enemy Territory." The Eritrean people viewed the British as a welcome respite from Italian fascist rule. Nonethless, Eritrean society was by then experiencing the first stirrings of the desire for self determination. Peasant resistance had increased during the final years of Italian governance. The economic hardships suffered because of the dominance of foreign agendas began to make Eritreans conscious of the need to chart their own economic future. Until this period, Ethiopian involvement in Eritrea was quite limited. From the turn of the century through the onset of British military rule, Eritrea and Ethiopia moved on separate economic and political tracks. Eritrea developed a colonial-based market economy while Ethiopia maintained feudalism. By the 1940's, however, Ethiopian designs on Eritrea clearly emerged. The newly-reinstated Emperor of Ethiopia began his effort to gain influence and control over Eritrea. Ethiopia employed three primary tactics to acheive its goal of increasing influence and domination. These were interference in the religious affairs of Eritrea, manipulation of political parties and organizations, and terrorism. The British responce to Ethiopia's increasingly interventionist stance was largely ineffectual. They were unable to counter the growing disruption generated from Addis Ababa.

UN Decides Eritrea's Fate

The end of World War II resulted in UN oversight of Eritrea. By this time the BMA was finding it difficult to govern Eritrea. Ethiopia was staking a claim through intervention and diplomatic efforts. The US, which had maintained a presence in British-administered Eritrea, was showing increasing interest in obtaining a strategic presence on the Red Sea coast. The discussions that were to define Eritrea's future for the coming forty years began in April 1949 in New York. Various proposals - partition, annexation and independence - were debated. According to the British, 75 percent of the population suported Independence. On 2 December 1950, the UN passed a resolution that formally federated Eritrea to Ethiopia. In September 1952, the agreement was put into practice and Ethiopians replaced the British. The international decision regarding the fate of Eritrea had little to do with the aspirations of the Eritrean people themselves.

Liberation Struggle: 1961-1991

Although there was organized resistance throughout the British Military Administration and federation with Ethiopia, the first act of armed resistance by Eritreans against Ethiopian rule was September 1, 1961. The event became a pretext for total annexation by Ethiopia on November 14, 1962. Scattered resistance groups formed links with pro-independence movements outside the country, and the first organized military front, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was formed. By 1965 the ELF had about 1,000 fighters in the field.

In an effort to deal with the cultural and geographic challenges of waging a national campaign for liberation, the ELF established semi-autonomous zones. This led eventually to "balkanization" of the resistance movement into Muslim and Christian factions, with some key defections over to the Ethiopian side. Following a concerted attack on the ELF by the Ethiopians, there were calls for unity within the liberation movement, matched by more defections and splinter movements. During this same period (late 1960s and early 1970s) Emperor Haile Selassie was also losing his grip on internal affairs throughout Ethiopia. Large numbers of Christian highlanders joined the ELF, and a second military force, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) was formed. By 1976 the ELF and EPLF had a combined force of 20,000, and were making signficant advances in controlling the rural and less-populated regions of the country.

The EPLF quickly became the more powerful of the two forces, and was more effective when meeting Ethiopian troops. In 1980, angered by an attack in which the ELF left their flanks exposed, the EPLF drove their rivals from the field, and faced the enemy alone for the remainder of the war.
Despite increased Soviet support for the Dergue (Menguistu Hailemariam) regime, amounting to more than $16 billion, the EPLF succeeded in meeting its better-equipped enemy head-on in a series of eight offenses, where the odds favored the Ethiopians by 10:1 in most cases. Using a strategy of strategic retreats and lightning counter-attacks, the EPLF was able to re-capture 90% of Eritreans from a demoralized Ethiopian army by 1990.

The infrastructure created for support of EPLF troops and their civilian charges was just as significant in bringing about eventual liberation as was the military skill and bravery of the outnumbered soldiers. The EPLF established networks of underground hospitals, factories, schools, and libraries for the benefit of the people in liberated zones. Literacy and public health campaigns significantly improved the daily lives of peasant farmers, despite the war being fought on all sides. The EPLF insituted innovative civil administration, legal and social codes that transformed the traditional and colonial structures that preceded them. Marriage, property and inheritance customs were re-vamped to provide equality for historically oppressed Eritrean women. More than 30% of the EPLF's combatants were women, and their contribution was too significant for the society to willingly turn its back, and return to the old ways.

The Birth of a Nation

The 24th of May 1993, brought in the dawn of a new era for the Eritrean people. Having won the right to define their own future, they voted for Independence in a referendum held from the 23rd-25th of April 1993. On the 27th of April 1993, the Independent Eritrean Referendum Commission, the United Nations Observer Mission for the Eritrean Referendum (UNOVER), the OAU, the Arab League, the Non - Aligned Movement, the National Citizens Monitoring Group and numerous individual observers were unanimous in their conclusion, that the referendum had been unequivocally free and fair. In the words of the then Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) Secretary General; Issaias Afwerki; the referendum was " a delightful and sacrosanct historical conclusion to the choice of the Eritrean people. And although it has been decided that formal independence will be declared on 24 May 1993, Eritrea is a soverign country as of today." (27 April 1993). The Independence of Eritrea and its territorial sovereignity was immediately recognised by the world.


The people The people of Eritrea, are known as Eritreans. They are a resilient group of people who thrive on hope and a deep tradition of comradeship among each other. The fact that most of the population spent many years in Diaspora or on the war front, has helped in establishing a deep bond between them that trancends mere ethnic or religious divisions.

POPULATION: 3,467,087 (July 1993 est.)
GROWTH RATE: 3.46% (1993 est.)
ETHNIC GROUPS: Bilen, Nara, Afar, Tigre, Kunama, Hadareb, Saho, Rashaida, Tigrinya
RELIGIONS: Christianity, Islam, Animist

Geography Today; Eritrea occupies a strategic position along the worlds busiest shipping lanes and the Middl East oil fields, and is also an oasis of stability in the volaitaile regions of the Horn of Africa. Eritrea retained its entire coast line along the Red Sea, upon its independence on 27 April 1993; leaving Ethiopia landlocked.

LOCATION: Horn of Africa; bordered to the North and West by Sudan; South by Ethiopia; South-East by Djibouti and to the North -East by the Red Sea.

AREA SIZE: Total land area is 121,320 km sq. Eritrea is slightly larger than either England or Pennsylvania.

LAND BOUNDARIES: Total 1,630 km. Boundaries with neighbouring countries is 113 km with Djibouti; 912 km with Ethiopia and 605 km with the Sudan.

COAST LINE: Coast line by the Red Sea is 1,151 km; together with the Dahlack Archipelagos is 2,234 km.

MARITIME CLAIMS: Teritorial claims on the Red Sea; 12 nautical miles.

1889- Eritrea defined as a Nation State/ colonised by Italy.
1941- World War II/ Italy defeated in Africa/ Eritrea is now governed by the British.
1952- Eritrea federated as an autonomous state with Ethiopia.
1961- The beginning of the Independence war by the ELF (the Eritrean Liberation Front).
1962- Ethiopia annexes Eritrea as it's 14th province.
1970- EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) formed.
1976-8 Liberation movements take control over most of the towns and countryside.
1991- Eritrea liberated from Ethiopia by the EPLF. Transitional govt. set up with Secretary - General of the EPLF, Issaias Afwerki as leader.
1993- UN sponsored referendum for Independence of Eritrea held on APRIL 23rd - 25th. 99% of the votes cast are pro Independence. On April 27th Eritrea becomes an Independent and recognised nation. MAY 24 is proclaimed National Day in Eritrea.