Conflict In The Horn Of Africa

By Bob Baxter | 1999-10-01 12:00:00

In early 1998 reports began to appear of armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, sometimes with heavy casualties. Although it seems unlikely that either side has the resources to wage prolonged war on the scale that we have seen in the Balkans, the situation is troubling and hard to understand. The following may clarify the circumstances that have led to this tragic development.

The dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for many centuries almost without interruption until 1974 claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Historians are skeptical of this claim, but there is no doubt that Ethiopian civilization is ancient. It was probably established by Semitic-speaking people who came across the Red Sea from southern Arabia during the centuries around the beginning of the present era, and intermarried with indigenous people. The country was converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and old Ethiopic remains the language of the liturgy of the Ethiopian Church.

There are many ethnic groups descended either from the original inhabitants or from peoples like the Oromo who came later, speaking Cushitic and other languages. Muslims now probably outnumber Christians, and the country remains heterogeneous culturally and linguistically. Two groups have been predominant, the Tigreans in the north and the Amharas farther south. Since the time of Emperor Menelik in the latter part of the 19th century, and until very recently, his group, the Amharas, largely controlled the country. Today, Amharic is the official language.


Eritrea never existed as an independent country before 1991. The Italians established trading posts on the Red Sea coast in 1869 and gradually moved inland, with the support of Menelik whom they assisted against his Tigrean rivals. They established a colony, named Eritrea (from Mare Erythraeum, the Red Sea) in 1890. Their right to the colony was conceded by Menelik with a treaty. Unfortunately, the Italian text, but not the Amharic text of the treaty, designated Italy a protectorate over all of Ethiopia. To enforce this, the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1896 but were resoundingly defeated by Menelik at the battle of Adwa, the only pitched battle ever won by an African army over a European army in modern times. Then Italy signed the treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing the full independence of Ethiopia excluding Eritrea.


Eritrea was not a geographic or ethnic unit. Like Ethiopia, it was (and is) ethnically heterogeneous, but the dominant people of the highlands were Tigreans, linguistically and culturally indistinguishable from their neighbors in the Ethiopian province of Tigrai.

The Italians developed their colony in the capital, Asmara, which grew into an attractive city. During the half century that they remained in control, the colony and its people developed an identity distinct from that of Ethiopia. After the conquest of Ethiopia in the 1930s and the flight of Emperor Haile Selassie into exile in England, the whole region was joined with Italian Somaliland into one colony under the name of Italian East Africa.

This colony didn't survive very long. In 1941 British forces gained control of all Italian possessions in East Africa. Ethiopia was restored to Haile Selassie and Italian Somaliland was temporarily restored to Italian administration as a United Nations trust territory. In 1960 it was granted independence and merged with the former British Somaliland to form the present Republic of Somalia.

For some years Eritrea remained under British military administration, and in 1952 it was federated with Ethiopia, but was granted a good deal of autonomy in domestic affairs. This situation was not acceptable to Haile Selassie and his Amhara supporters. In 1962 the Eritrean parliament, popularly believed to be influenced by bribes or threats from the central government, voted to dissolve itself. Eritrea would be an Ethiopian province like any other.


This led to a long war of Eritrean rebels against the central government. A number of resistance movements, some Muslim, some Marxist, sprang up, with occasional in-fighting. They eventually gained control of much of the Eritrean countryside. They established schools and hospitals in the areas they controlled, and gained a good deal of sympathy abroad. At the same time, many Eritreans continued to live in Addis Ababa, some occupying important positions in public life. After the deposition of Haile Selassie in 1974, the government that took control showed some willingness to negotiate a settlement with the rebels, but it was quickly overthrown and control passed into the hands of Mengistu Haile Mariam who proved to be as recalcitrant in this matter as Haile Selassie had been.

The years of Mengistu's rule were among the worst that Ethiopia ever experienced. Severe famine and a particularly repressive government produced intense misery throughout the country. A number of armed resistance groups formed, including the Tigrai Liberation Front led by Meles Zenewi. It, combined with several other revolutionary movements under the name of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), captured Addis Ababa in 1991. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe and a new government was set up under Meles. At about the same time, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), an ally of the EPRDF, gained control of all of Eritrea and the province became effectively independent. This was formalized by a referendum in 1993 in which the people voted overwhelmingly for independence. The vote was accepted by the Ethiopian government. An Eritrean government was set up under Isaias Afwerki, a former leader of the EPLF and an ally of Menes in overthrowing the Mengistu regime.

From Ethiopia's point of view the most important consequence of the secession was that it was now a land-locked country, dependent on Eritrea or Djibouti for all trade by sea. For several years, relations between the two countries remained reasonably friendly. Citizens of both countries could pass freely across the border, and the two countries had a common currency.

Economic Tensions

However, in 1997, Eritrea introduced its own currency. Port fees and other payments could no longer be made in Ethiopian birr. In response, Ethiopia introduced heavy duties on trade across the border, and insisted on payment for purchases by Eritrea in American dollars. Relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate, and a border dispute over an area in Ethiopia called Badame on May 6 of last year led to skirmishing between their armies and eventually to large scale war in which hundreds died. The Eritrean air force bombed the Ethiopian town of Mekele, killing a number of civilians, and Ethiopia made an air attack on the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Attempts by foreign governments and agencies to achieve a settlement were not successful, but the fighting seemed to have stopped temporarily. Meanwhile Ethiopia deported thousands of Eritreans, even people who had lived there since childhood. Thousands of Ethiopians left Eritrea, supposedly voluntarily, although probably their lives were made so hard that they had little choice.

In February of this year fighting broke out again, on an even larger scale. Both sides claimed to have inflicted thousands of casualties on the other. The fighting stopped again after a few days, but was resumed by an attack by the Ethiopian airforce on the Eritrean port of Massawa in May. Attempts to bring about a permanent cease-fire remain unsuccessful.

Why should two poor countries, formerly amiable neighbors, so recklessly squander lives over a small piece of ground of seemingly little or no importance? Some attribute it to personal antipathy between the two former allies, Menes and Isaias, but this scarcely seems possible. Eritrea has accused Ethiopia of seeking to regain control of one of the Red Sea ports.

This is not the only source of tension in Ethiopia today. The Amharas resent losing their previously dominant position to the Tigreans, and accuse the government of developing Tigre at the expense of the Amhara country. There are other liberation movements, especially among the Oromo. It is impossible to be very hopeful about the fate of the country in the next few years.

Ethiopia is an enchanting country. It is tragic that it should now call up only images of tyranny, famine and war.

Bob Baxter is a retired biologist living in Burlington, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Fall 1999

Peace Magazine Fall 1999, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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