Eritrean War of Independence
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|Eritrean War of Independence|
|Part of Conflicts in Africa|
Map of Eritrea
|| Ethiopian Empire (until 1974)
Ethiopia under Derg/PDRE (from 1974)
Soviet Union (1974-1990)
|Commanders and leaders|
| Hamid Idris Awate
|| Haile Selassie
Mengistu Haile Mariam
|Casualties and losses|
1 killed, 3 captured
The Eritrean War of Independence (1 September 1961 – 29 May 1991) was a conflict fought between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean separatists, both before and during the Ethiopian Civil War. The war started when Eritrea’s autonomy within Ethiopia, where troops were already stationed, was unilaterally revoked. Eritrea had become part of Ethiopia after World War II, when both territories were liberated from Italian occupation. Ethiopia claimed that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. Following the Marxist-Leninist coup in Ethiopia in 1974 which toppled its ancient monarchy, the Ethiopians enjoyed Soviet Union support until the end of the 1980s, when glasnost and perestroika started to impact Moscow’s foreign policies, resulting in a withdrawal of help. The war went on for 30 years until 1991 when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), having defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, took control of the country. In April 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favor of independence. Formal international recognition of an independent and sovereign Eritrea followed later the same year. The two main rebel groups, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) fought two Eritrean civil wars during the war of liberation.
The Italians colonised Eritrea in 1890. In 1935, Ethiopia was added to their colonial empire, which they called Italian East Africa. Italian Somaliland was also part of that entity. There was a unified administration. Liberated by Allied troops in 1941, Italian East Africa was sub-divided. Ethiopia regained independence. Italian Somaliland remained under Italian rule until 1960 but as a United Nations protectorate, not a colony, when it united with British Somaliland, also granted independence in 1960, 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 proposed that Eritrea be divided along religious lines with the Christians to Ethiopia and the Muslims to Sudan. This however caused great controversy.
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. 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 organization 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 organization.
The war started on 1 September 1961 when Hamid Idris Awate and his companions fired the first shots against the occupying Ethiopian Army and police. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia 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 organizations 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. With this change of government, Ethiopia came 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 Nur, 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 17 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.
By 1977, the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea, by utilizing a predetermined, simultaneous invasion from the east by Somalia to siphon off Ethiopian military resources. But in a dramatic turnaround, the Derg managed to repulse the Somalian incursion, thanks mainly to a massive airlift of Soviet arms. 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 to the bush. 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, and 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.
At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union informed Mengistu that it would not be renewing its defense 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.
After the end of the Cold War, the United States 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 U.S. delegation also was present in Addis Ababa for the 1–5 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 helped in April 1993 when the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence and this was 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. Below are the results from the referendum:
|Region||Do you want Eritrea to be an independent and sovereign country?||Total|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Eritrean War of Independence|
- Country profile: Eritrea BBC 4 November 2005
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