The Eritrean War of Independence was a conflict fought between successive Ethiopian governments and Eritrean independence fighters from 01 September 1961 to 24 May 1991.
After the defeat of the Italians from Eritrea by the Allies in 1941, Eritrea became a British protectorate until 1951. The General Assembly of the United Nations held a meeting about the fate of Eritrea, in which the majority of the delegates voted for the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia, and Eritrea became a constituent state of the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1952. The Federation was supposed to last for ten years in which Eritreans could have mini sovereign decisions such as a parliament and some autonomy, but under the Ethiopian crown for further ones. The Assembly also assigned commissioner Anzio Mattienzo to supervise the process. Eritreans were supposed to claim Eritrea as an independent sovereign state after the ten years of federation. However, Eritrea’s declining autonomy and growing discontent with Ethiopian rule caused an independence movement led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1961. Hamid Idris Awate officially began the Eritrean armed struggle for independence on 01 September 1961 on the mountain of Adal, near the town of Agordat in south western Eritrea. Ethiopia annexed Eritrea the next year.
Following the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974, the Derg abolished the Ethiopian Empire and established a Marxist-Leninist communist state. The Derg enjoyed support from the Soviet Union and other communist nations in fighting against the Eritreans supported by the United States and various other nations. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) became the main liberation group in 1977, expelling the ELF from Eritrea, then exploiting the Ogaden War (1977-1978) to launch a war of attrition against Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government under the Workers Party of Ethiopia lost Soviet support at the end of the 1980s and were overwhelmed by Ethiopian anti-government groups, allowing the EPLF to defeat Ethiopian forces in Eritrea in May 1991.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), with the help of the EPLF, defeated the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) when it took control of the capital Addis Ababa a month later. In April 1993, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence in the Eritrean independence referendum, with formal international recognition of an independent, sovereign Eritrea in the same year.
The Italians colonised Eritrea in 1890. In 1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia and declared it part of their colonial empire, which they called Italian East Africa. Italian Somaliland was also part of that entity. There was a unified Italian administration.
Conquered by the Allies in 1941, Italian East Africa was sub-divided. Ethiopia reoccupied its formerly Italian occupied lands in 1941. Italian Somaliland remained under Italian rule, but as a United Nations protectorate not a colony, until 1960 when it united with British Somaliland, to form the independent state of Somalia.
Eritrea was made a British protectorate from the end of World War II until 1951. However, there was debate as to what should happen with Eritrea after the British left. The British delegation to the United Nations proposed that Eritrea be divided along religious lines with the Christians to Ethiopia and the Muslims to Sudan. In 1952, the United Nations decided to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia, hoping to reconcile Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. About nine years later, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering a thirty-year armed struggle in Eritrea.
During the 1960s, the Eritrean independence struggle was led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The independence struggle can properly be understood as the resistance to the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia long after the Italians left the territory. Additionally, one may consider the actions of the Ethiopian Monarchy against Muslims in the Eritrean government as a contributing factor to the revolution. At first, this group factionalized the liberation movement along ethnic and geographic lines. The initial four zonal commands of the ELF were all lowland areas and primarily Muslim. Few Christians joined the organisation in the beginning, fearing Muslim domination.
After growing disenfranchisement with Ethiopian occupation, highland Christians began joining the ELF. Typically these Christians were part of the upper class or university-educated. This growing influx of Christian volunteers prompted the opening of the fifth (highland Christian) command. Internal struggles within the ELF command coupled with sectarian violence among the various zonal groups splintered the organisation.
The war started on 01 September 1961 with the Battle of Adal, when Hamid Idris Awate and his companions fired the first shots against the occupying Ethiopian Army and police. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the federation and the Eritrean parliament and annexed the country.
In 1970 members of the group had a falling out, and several different groups broke away from the ELF. During this time, the ELF and the groups that later joined together to form the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) fought a bitter civil war. The two organisations were forced by popular will to reconcile in 1974 and participated in joint operations against Ethiopia.
In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted in a coup. The new Ethiopian government, called the Derg, was a Marxist military junta, which eventually came to be controlled by strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam. The new Derg regime took an additional three to four years to get complete control of both Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Somalia. With this change of government and eventually widely known recognition, Ethiopia became directly under the influence of the Soviet Union.
Many of the groups that splintered from the ELF joined together in 1977 and formed the EPLF. By the late 1970s, the EPLF had become the dominant armed Eritrean group fighting against the Ethiopian government. The leader of the umbrella organization was Secretary-General of the EPLF Ramadan Mohammed Nour, while the Assistant Secretary-General was Isaias Afewerki. Much of the equipment used to combat Ethiopia was captured from the Ethiopian Army.
During this time, the Derg could not control the population by force alone. To supplement its garrisons, forces were sent on missions to instill fear in the population. An illustrative example of this policy was the village of Basik Dera in northern Eritrea. On 30 November 1970, the entire village was rounded up into the local mosque and the mosque’s doors were locked. The building was then razed and the survivors were shot. Similar massacres took place in primarily Muslim parts of Eritrea, including the villages of She’eb, Hirgigo, Elabared, and the town of Om Hajer; massacres also took place in predominately Christian areas as well. The advent of these brutal killings of civilians regardless of race, religion, or class was the final straw for many Eritreans who were not involved in the war, and at this point many either fled the country or went to the front lines.
From 1975 to 1977, the ELF and EPLF outnumbered the Ethiopian army and overran all of Eritrea except Asmara, Massawa, and Barentu. By 1977, the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea, by utilising a simultaneous military invasion from the east by Somalia in the Ogaden to siphon off Ethiopian military resources. The Somali invasion surprised many experts in the west due to the initial successes, however the Soviet Union, Cuba and Yemen came to the government’s aid allowing them to prevent the Somalis from coming to the capital. This turnaround was possible thanks mainly to a massive airlift of Soviet arms, the deployment of 18,000 Cubans and two Yemeni brigades to reinforce Harar. After that, using the considerable manpower and military hardware available from the Somali campaign, the Ethiopian Army regained the initiative and forced the EPLF to retreat. This was most notable in the Battle of Barentu and the Battle of Massawa.
Between 1978 and 1986, the Derg launched eight major offensives against the independence movements, but all failed to crush the guerrilla movement. In 1988, with the Battle of Afabet, the EPLF captured Afabet and its surroundings, then headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea, prompting the Ethiopian Army to withdraw from its garrisons in Eritrea’s western lowlands. EPLF fighters then moved into position around Keren, Eritrea’s second-largest city. Meanwhile, other dissident movements were making headway throughout Ethiopia.
Throughout the conflict Ethiopia used “anti-personnel gas”, napalm, and other incendiary devices.
At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union informed Mengistu that it would not be renewing its defence and cooperation agreement. With the cessation of Soviet support and supplies, the Ethiopian Army’s morale plummeted, and the EPLF, along with other Ethiopian rebel forces, began to advance on Ethiopian positions. The joint effort to overthrow the Mengistu, Marxist regime was a joint effort of mostly EPLF forces, united with other Ethiopian faction groups primarily consisting of tribal liberation fronts (for example: the Oromo Liberation Front, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front – who were jointly in battles against the ELF and other key battles where many Tigrayans were lost in the Eritrean Civil Wars – and the EPRDF, a conglomerate of the current TPLF regime and the marxist Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation who became prominent for recruiting Derg defectors as the EPLF and EPRDF occupied parts of the provinces of Wollo and Shewa in Ethiopia).
The former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, with the help of some US government officials and United Nation officials, attempted to mediate in peace talks with the EPLF, hosted by the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia in September 1989. Ashagre Yigletu, Deputy Prime Minister of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE), helped negotiate and signed a November 1989 peace deal with the EPLF in Nairobi, along with Jimmy Carter and Al-Amin Mohamed Seid. However, soon after the deal was signed, hostilities resumed. Yigletu also led the Ethiopian government delegations in peace talks with the TPLF leader Meles Zenawi in November 1989 and March 1990 in Rome. He also attempted again to lead the Ethiopian delegation in peace talks with the EPLF in Washington, D.C. until March 1991.
After the end of the Cold War, the US played a facilitative role in the peace talks in Washington, D.C. during the months leading up to the May 1991 fall of the Mengistu regime. In mid-May, Mengistu resigned as head of the Ethiopian government and went into exile in Zimbabwe, leaving a caretaker government in Addis Ababa. A high-level US delegation was present in Addis Ababa for the 01-05 July 1991 conference that established a transitional government in Ethiopia. Having defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, the EPLF attended as an observer and held talks with the new transitional government regarding Eritrea’s relationship to Ethiopia. The outcome of those talks was an agreement in which the Ethiopians recognized the right of the Eritreans to hold a referendum on independence. The referendum was held in April 1993 and the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence, with the integrity of the referendum being verified by the UN Observer Mission to Verify the Referendum in Eritrea (UNOVER). On 28 May 1993, the United Nations formally admitted Eritrea to its membership.
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