ERITREA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY – MAY 29
by John C. Rude (Ethiopia 1962-64)
This week, on May 29, Eritrea celebrates its 28th anniversary as an independent nation. It will be the first independence celebration since Ethiopia’s reform-minded Prime Minister, Abiy Mohammed, announced a unilateral cessation of hostilities, less than a year ago, on July 9, 2018.
This independence celebration may also mark the end of Eritrea’s long search for legitimacy. I happened to visit the country in 1992, shortly after Eritrea marked its first independence day. I shared the sadness of the people around me who mourned the war’s heavy sacrifices. Even so, I remember the first anniversary as a time of hoped-for new beginnings. I imagined the atmosphere in Eritrea to be comparable to the years after America won its independence from England in 1780. Then I realized that Eritrea came into being (as a colony, not a nation) just a century after the Continental Congress adopted the U.S. Constitution in 1789.
In 1888, a treaty between Ethiopia and Italy defined Eritrea’s boundaries. Italy had established a foothold on the Red Seas coast and was bent on conquering all of the Horn of Africa. Italy’s ambition coincided with Europe’s “scramble” for colonies all over the continent. However, the Italians were blocked from invading Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik’s valiant (yet ill-equipped) soldiers. Italy held on to Eritrea for the next half-century, giving the colony its name. (“Mare Erytreum” is Greek for Red Sea.) In 1935, Benito Mussolini launched a fresh invasion of Ethiopia from a base in Eritrea. Fascist Italy ultimately exerted control over the entire Horn of Africa for six years. In 1941, an allied force led by Britain restored Emperor Haile Selassie to power in Addis Ababa. The British stayed on to administer Eritrea over the next decade, hoping to ensure that the former Fascist colony had a peaceful transition to democracy.
The United Nations ended Eritrea’s status as a British protectorate in 1962, ceding control of the former colony to Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie. For fifty years, Eritreans had developed economically under Italy’s colonial regime, and for another decade they prospered under British control. From the very beginning of forced unification with Ethiopia, the Eritrean populace resisted. Many Eritreans viewed Ethiopia as a new colonial ruler, filling the shoes of the Italians. The Emperor insisted that Eritrea belonged to Ethiopia, but Ethiopian hegemony over Eritrea became even more harsh after a Marxist military dictatorship deposed Haile Selassie in 1974.
Between 1961 and 1991, Eritreans fought to gain their freedom from various forms of Ethiopian oppression. Eritrea’s independence struggle was largely hidden from the outside world, in part because it represented just one of many post-colonial wars conducted in Africa. Due to international pressures beyond its control, Eritrea had become a pawn in the competition among superpowers to control the Horn of Africa—a region that could determine which (the United States, Soviet Union or China) would prevail in the Cold War.
Ertirea’s rebel forces grew spontaneously and had no powerful allies. They fought alone against formidable armies equipped by Russians and led by Soviet advisors. Eritrea’s struggle for independence was rarely noticed or explained by outside observers, except for a few. Like many small African countries, Eritrea was only a bit player in a global political drama.
The scars of war remained fresh, however, among Eritrea’s families and leaders (all of whom were former liberation fighters). Here is one measure of the suffering of Eritrea’s wartime generation: Out of two hundred ninth-grade students I taught at St. George School in 1963, more than half of them (men and women) died on the battlefield, fighting Ethiopians.
From 1992 to 2018, periods of peace punctuated by persistent conflicts with Ethiopia have marked Eritrea’s development. I decided to organize tours to Eritrea during the peaceful summers of 1996, 1997 and 1998. I did this in part to help re-build a national education system that had been crippled by neglect. But I also brought along other Americans to bear witness to the country’s amazing revitalization. Eritreans were using the nation’s peaceful interlude between 1992 and 1999 to work diligently, with virtually no outside aid, to re-build infrastructure, restore sturdy old Italian buildings, and reduce tensions among diverse ethnic populations (an unfortunate legacy of Italian and Ethiopian “divide-and-rule” tactics).
In 1999, unexpected fighting between Ethiopian and Eritrean troops caused the peaceful, 642-mile border between Ethiopia and Eritrea to slam shut. Over the next two years, tension escalated, ultimately claiming the lives of 100,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. High casualties resulted from the trench warfare that resembled World War I combat in Europe. In 2000, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire and newly-defined boundary at a multi-national conference. Eritrea accepted the new boundary, but Ethiopia rejected it. The two nations remained in conflict (“no war, no peace”) for the next 18 years, until Ethiopia’s leader, without outside prompting, surprised everyone by coming to terms with Eritrea in July, 2018.
As Ethiopia and Eritrea inch their way toward rapprochement, serious obstacles remain. Eritrea’s repressive government and compulsory national service caused thousands of talented youths to leave the country. Other Eritreans who lived for years in Ethiopian refugee camps have elected to stay as Ethiopia’s economy springs back to life. By contrast, Eritrea’s economy is in tatters. Ethnic rivalries in both Eritrea and Ethiopia have re-emerged, complicating the search for a more stable political framework. Conditions in neighboring countries remain volatile. Sudan‘s long-term dictator has been removed, and a brutal civil war rages on in Yemen—the costliest war in the world in terms of civilian casualties. These events have shadowy connections to the ancient rivalry between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam which is now increased by Russia’s backing of Shia leaders in Iran, while America provides military support to the Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia. Progress in the Horn of Africa seems inevitably tied to outside power struggles. In the last century, global competition between socialism and capitalism controlled internal affairs within Eritrea and Ethiopia. In this century, the Horn is being drawn into geopolitical, economic and religious conflicts to determine the fate of the Middle East.
Despite these complications, some hopeful signs are emerging. Peace initiated by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy is home-grown—an apparent recognition of the futility of war or outside interference to solve Africa’s problems. The peace initiative also reflects common bonds linking Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures—their capacity to sustain amicable relations among Christians and Muslims, their ties to the Orthodox Church (the largest concentration of Orthodox Christians in the world), their similar languages, foods, and living conditions. Because the two cultures differ only slightly from one another, recent conflicts could be characterized as sibling rivalries, rather than contests for national supremacy. Increased trade from Eritrea’s Red Sea ports to Ethiopia’s populous heartland could benefit both nations. A resurgence in agriculture, manufacturing, exports, and technology seem to be on the horizon. The future of both countries appears to be bright—but they will need continued support from other nations.
Against all odds, this year could, indeed, feature an Eritrean Independence Day that Ethiopians and Eritreans will be able to celebrate together.
John Rude received his B.A. from Whitworth College in Spokane, WA and immediately entered the Peace Corps in 1962. He was a teacher in Eritrea (which was then part of Ethiopia). After his service, John received an M.A.T. degree from Oberlin College, OH in 1966, later enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon, which he completed in 1973. After working for the State of Oregon, John began a long career in fundraising for community colleges. He lived in Salem, OR from 1975-1999, and Los Angeles CA from 2000-2018. John retired in 2016 and now lives in Carmel, CA.