Eritrea was officially recognised as an independent state in 1993 after the collapse of the Ethiopia regime under The Dergue, and consequently the rule over its mountainous Eastern Province. This came as the culmination of 30 years of war against the Ethiopian imperial master – a federation which had occurred in 1951 under UN resolution 390.
A former Italian colony (until its defeat in WWII) Eritrea was considered to be a strategically important territory both for the Ethiopian government - due to its Red Sea coastline and mineral resources – and also to the United States, which located its important Cold War listening station ‘Kagnew’ in the capital, Asmara.
The war between Eritrea and the Ethiopian government - backed by both the US and Soviet Union – was a long and brutal one. The conflict precipitated an internecine struggle within Eritrea itself – broadly speaking between the Eritrean Liberation Front (originally based on a lowland Muslim population) and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front. The EPLF prevailed in the early 1980s, and was transformed into a resourceful and effective fighting force able to withstand the superior weaponry, numbers and international support of the Ethiopian army.
The EPLF forged what became a romanticised liberation society – proselytising for literacy and women’s rights (a significant proportion of the combat forces were also women) and appeared to be building what many outside observers saw as the ideal model for a modern African society.
When The Dergue's conscript army of Ethiopian peasants was finally defeated in 1991 it was at the hands of the twin forces of the Eritreans and their neighbouring rebels the Tigreyans. However, this alliance was relatively short lived. In 1998 the Eritreans and Ethiopians went to war again. Ostensibly a border dispute, the month of fighting did irreversible damage to relations between Asmara and Addis. More fighting occurred in 1999, but before the conflict was adjourned (involving the deployment of a UN Peacekeeping force) between 80,000 and 100,000 combatants from both sides had been killed.
The EPLF now runs Eritrea with an autocratic rod of iron. Oppostion splinter groups – mainly remnants of the defeated ELF - remain. Eritrea remains a One Party State under President Isaias Aferwerki and his People's Front for Democracy and Justice. Presidential elections (originally planned for 1997) have never taken place, and the new constitution of the country (finished in 1997 and made with provision for multi-party politics) was never implemented. In 2001 the government closed down all privately owned print media, and many outspoken critics of the government have been arrested and imprisoned without trial.
In 2009, Eritrea was also accused by US Secretary general Hilary Clinton of supplying weapons to the Somali militant Islamic group Al-Shabaab.
Eritrea has a population roughly divided in half between Christians and Sunni Muslims. Most of the foreign influences in the country come from the short-lived colonial occupation by Italy – the capital Asmara being noted for its Italian style architecture and coffee shops. The country is also geographically divided between rugged mountain range and coastal plain with the capital being 2,400 meters above sea level.
- I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation By Michela Wrong
- Unfinished Business: Ethiopia and Eritrea at War [Paperback] Dominique Jacquin-Berdal (Editor), Martin Plaut (Editor)
- Surrender or Starve: Travels in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea (Vintage Departures) By Robert D Kaplan