Eritrea is engaged alongside Ethiopia in a war against the Tigray rebels. To understand this hostility to the Tigrayan elites, take a look back at the history of this independent country since 1993 and closed to the foreign press since then.
Before Italian colonization, Eritrea was only a province of the great Ethiopian empire. The Suez Canal, inaugurated in 1869, will open a new sea route that can only be used by steamships which will need stopovers to load coal. The English will settle in Aden in Yemen, the French in Djibouti, the Italians in Somalia and then on the coasts of present-day Eritrea.
Italy then embarked on a massive colonization enterprise, halted in 1896 by a major battle won in the Tigray region by the troops of the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. When Mussolini took power in Italy in 1922, wanting to wash away the affront of yesteryear, he favored the arrival in Eritrea of thousands of soldiers and poor peasants from southern Italy to colonize the country again.
As the coastal region was inhospitable and not very productive, the Italians moved inland to the highlands, where there was good agricultural land and water. They build the city of Asmara, the current capital which has kept this classic Italian or Mussolinian architecture. A deadly flash war will scare away Emperor Haile Selassie and the Duce will create in May 1936, Italian East Africa (AOI).
In 1941, an independence movement drove out the Italians. The Ethiopian emperor resuming his throne then annexes Eritrea. But the idea of an independent Eritrea is gaining ground. Young intellectuals created the Eritrean Liberation Front to fight Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian army and then the military junta that succeeded him in 1974. In Ethiopia, the dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu fell in 1991, which paved the way independence of Eritrea a few years later.
The war of independence which lasted twenty-five years was that of an entire people – some 6 million inhabitants – against the powerful Ethiopian army. Eritrea officially became independent on May 24, 1993, and regained control of the ports of Massawa and Assab, causing Ethiopia to lose its only seafront on the Red Sea. The neighboring country is then led by the Tigrayan minority from which the Prime Minister comes Meles Zenawi who will remain in power until his death in 2012.
In May 1998, Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war again over a few hundred km² of desert located along their common border. Addis Ababa accuses Asmara of having violated its territory, the Ethiopian forces launch a vast offensive, breaking down the Eritrean lines. This is where the hostile relations between Tigrayans and Eritreans date from.
A peace agreement, signed in December 2000 in Algiers, put an end to the conflict which caused some 80,000 deaths. A temporary security zone – a buffer zone 25 km wide along the border – is established, monitored by UN blue helmets. But the resentment will persist.
Eritrea, under the cane of its “commander” Isaias Aferwerki, and Ethiopia, led by Meles Zenawi, multiply bellicose declarations and accuse each other of having committed attacks and of supporting rebels in each country . Periodic clashes raise fears of a resumption of large-scale conflict, but the arrival of a new prime minister in Addis Ababa will change the situation.
At the beginning of June 2018, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed − Amhara by his mother and Oromo by his father − announces its desire to put an end to the border dispute. After decades of war, peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia was finally signed on July 9, 2018. “A new air line immediately connects the two capitals Asmara and Addis Ababa. For its part, Ethiopia can find new access to the Red Sea and could free itself from the distant ports of Djibouti and Berbera (Somaliland). This opening is welcomed with great joy in both countries, families have reunited”, explains to Franceinfo Africa a specialist in the region who wanted to remain anonymous.
And for a few months Eritrea has been committing its soldiers alongside the Ethiopian army against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a historic enemy of the Eritrean president. The rapprochement between the two countries is largely explained by the desire to remove the Tigrayan elite in power in Ethiopia, which is very present in the army. Tigrayans who have a language in common with the Eritreans but who monopolized power for too long and, it seems, exasperated the other ethnic groups in the region. “Lhe first Christians and Orthodoxy shaped Tigray, an anchor linked to tradition, pride, singularity, a feeling of distinction or even superiority”, analyzes our expert.
Another explanation for this peace signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea: “President Isaias Aferwerki’s regime seemed out of breath. It needed peace with its powerful Ethiopian neighbor to emerge from its isolation.” However, “probably because of this obsessive distrust of its big neighbor of 110 million inhabitants, the Eritrean government has become paranoid but remains pragmatic in order to stay in power at all costs. Moreover, Eritreans are fundamentally attached to their independence, dearly won.”
Years of conflict left a poisonous gift for young Eritreans. Even today, compulsory military service lasts for several years in the country, sometimes even a decade. A military obligation which largely explains the mass departures of young people from the country.