History of Eritrea

By | July 2, 2020

The history of Eritrea goes back to the Aksum Empire, which was founded in the fourth century BCE. Later, parts of the land were included in the kingdom of Abyssinia. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire took control of parts of present-day Eritrea, before Egypt took over the regime in 1865.

From 1890, Eritrea was an Italian colony, and from 1950 part of Ethiopia, before the country became independent in 1993 after many years of liberation struggle.

Older history

In early history, Eritrea was divided between several different states, with the kingdom of Punt and the Aksum kingdom among the most important. The Aksum kingdom was founded in the fourth century BCE. and stretched from the highlands of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea down to the coast of the Red Sea which also linked the kingdom to the outside world. The coastal towns of Adulis (near Massawa ) and Assab were important trading stations along the Eritrean coast. The Aksum empire formed the basis for the later Abyssinian empire, which also included parts of modern Eritrea.

There were no clear boundaries between Ethiopia and Eritrea in early history, and after the fall of the Aksum Empire, the Eritrean Highlands were considered part of the Abyssinian Empire. Abyssinia’s influence also extended to Bahr Negash, which extended to the coast of the Red Sea. Abyssinia’s control of the coastal lowlands was only partial, and was balanced in the south by the formation of the Aussa Sultanate in the late 16th century.

Ottoman conquest

During the 16th century, the Ottomans began to settle in the lowlands, and as early as 1517 they had established control over Bahr Negash. In the following decades, they secured control over much of the coastline, which was defined as a separate Ottoman region with Massawa as its capital.

The Ottomans eventually lost control in favor of the Egyptians, who took over the board in 1865, and with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Eritrea gained strategic importance.

Italian colonization

The Eritrean (disputed) borders were finally determined during the Berlin Conference in 1884. The lowlands and important ports had previously fallen under British and Italian control, and Ethiopia had secured control of the highlands. By 1870, however, an Italian shipping company had purchased a small area around the port city of Assab by the local sultan, an area which the Italian state took control of in 1882.

In 1885, the Italians landed in Massawa, and their claim to colonial rule was backed by the British, who saw a danger of strengthening French influence in the area. Italy declared Eritrea a colony in 1890, and in 1896 the Ethiopian emperor Menelik recognized the Italian dominion. Italy attempted to expand south, but was defeated by the Ethiopian army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Ethiopia was occupied by Italy after the invasion of 1935-1936, and Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland were merged into one administrative unit.

Incorporated in Ethiopia

When Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was reinstated with the United Kingdom’s help in 1941, Eritrea was defined as a British protectorate. After World War II, the Eritrea issue became a matter for the UN. In a 1950 resolution, the General Assembly decided that Eritrea should be incorporated into the Empire of Ethiopia as an autonomous entity. Eritrea was supposed to have its own National Assembly and its own flag, but the federation with Ethiopia led to a gradual assimilation of Eritrean culture and uniqueness.

In 1956, the dominant language in Eritrea, Tigrinja, was replaced with Amharic as the only official language, and in 1958 the Eritrean flag was banned. The situation changed dramatically in 1962 when Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia as an Ethiopian province.

liberation War

This development – as well as Eritrea’s fragmented history – caused a nationalist movement to emerge during the 1950s. The question of Eritrea’s history was central to the definition of Eritrea’s uniqueness, where it was emphasized that Eritrea had its own historical identity separate from Ethiopia.

The nationalist movement stood strongest among the Muslim population, was first organized through the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), led by Hamid Idris Awate, before the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was formed in Cairo in 1960 as an armed liberation movement. The guerrilla activity gradually increased in the 1960s, at the same time as contradictions appeared within the resistance movements.

Disagreements led to the establishment of several movements, with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front ( Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, EPLF) formed in 1970 as the most important. In 1972–1974, there was a civil war between the two organizations. In the late 1970s, the ELF suffered significant military defeats and was subsequently reduced in strength. The EPLF had great military progress in 1977-78, and together with the ELF controlled most of Eritrea, including most cities, before an Ethiopian counter-offensive in 1978 led to partial retreat.

From 1978, Ethiopia launched annual offenses against the EPLF. During the 1978 offensive, Soviet officers and advisers participated for the first time on the Eritrea front. While the Ethiopians were equipped with large amounts of Soviet weapons, the EPLF’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA) had no external source of supply and was mainly equipped with material captured by the enemy.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the EPLF demonstrated its military strength by winning several major, regular battles against the Ethiopian army. In 1989–1990, only the capital Asmara remained under Ethiopian control, surrounded by the EPLF.

In parallel with the EPLF’s military progress in 1988–1990, developments in the Soviet Union helped bring the war to an end. When Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam visited Moscow in July 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to support Ethiopian warfare in Eritrea and that military aid would be suspended. At the same time, pressure was put on the Ethiopian government to find a political solution to the conflict. The EPLF had long worked for a political solution and, as early as 1980, presented a seven-point peace proposal; the most important element was that a referendum had to be held under international supervision in Eritrea, where the people were allowed to decide for themselves the future of the country.

The Ethiopian government rejected this possibility, and the negotiations did not proceed, either in 1980 or at a new round of negotiations in 1989. A major reason for the breach was that the Ethiopian side, supported by the United States, considered the conflict as an internal Ethiopian conflict, while the EPLF saw it as a legitimate liberation struggle against a foreign occupant.

The end of the war in Eritrea coincided with the overthrow of the Ethiopian regime in June 1991. At the same time as the EPLF took control of the Eritrean capital Asmara and formed a transitional government there, Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa was captured by the Ethiopian resistance movement EPRDF.

Independent state

Formally, Eritrea remained an Ethiopian province, but in practice the country from May 1991 was ruled as a separate state by the EPLF, pending a referendum. The EPLF Secretary General since 1987, Isaias Afewerki, was appointed to lead the Eritrean government. The referendum was held under the auspices of the United Nations in April 1993, and 99.8 percent of the vote was for full independence. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea became an independent state. Afewerki became head of state, and the country joined the UN and OAU.

After independence, in 1994 the EPLF was transformed into a political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which was scheduled to govern for a transitional period until parliamentary elections could be held. The National Assembly was composed of members of the PFDJ’s Central Committee, local representatives and representatives appointed by the Central Committee. While regional and local elections were held in 1999 and 2004, national elections have never been held, and Parliament met for the last time in 2002. Work on a new constitution, to replace the first one to take effect in 1994-1955, was ratified by the National Assembly in 1997. However, the Constitution has never been implemented.

The absence of a democratic process has meant that Eritrea has developed into an authoritarian state where political parties other than the state-carrying PFDJ are not allowed. Eritrea has thus become a one-party state, and towards the end of the 1990s, further tightening came, with widespread violations of fundamental human rights, including systematic detention on political grounds. This led to growing opposition to the sitting regime – mainly in the diaspora – and in 2001, 15 key members of the PFDJ – called the G15 group – wrote a critical letter to the president and regime, resulting in the imprisonment of 11 of them, as well as extensive arrests of other opposites.

Eritrean opposition is complex, fragmented and to some extent unclear. One category is various fractions sprung from the former ELF; ELF-RC (Revolutionary Council) and ELF-CC (Central Command). Another category is ethnic-based groups; Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) and Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK). A third category is religious groups, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM) being the most important. This movement has subsequently split into a number of factions, and changed its name several times.

In 2002, dissidents within the PFDJ established a new political party in exile, the Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP). In 1999, various opposition parties had formed the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF), which changed its name to the Eritrean National Alliance (ENA) in 2002, and to the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) in 2005. This alliance is headquartered in Ethiopia, and its goal to overthrow Isaias Afewerki’s regime with power.

A large part of the EPLA, which had about 95,000 soldiers at the end of the liberation war, joined the new national defense, but many were also demobilized; compulsory military service was introduced in 1994. In 1995, the military numbered about 55,000 and was further reduced, until the figure again increased in 1998-1999 when Eritrea mobilized in the border war against Ethiopia. The United States assisted the new Eritrean repository with military advisers.

The war against Ethiopia, and the danger of a new war, has been used by the regime as a pretext, both to curtail citizens’ rights and to further militarize the country. Among other things, a national service, first introduced in 1994, was expanded after the war. The scheme, which comes in addition to the mandatory military service, was introduced to contribute to the physical reconstruction after the liberation war, as well as a mechanism for uniting the various ethnic and religious groups in the country. At the same time, the service was intended to strengthen the military repository. The national service was expanded from the original 18 months in 2002, and all adult Eritreans must be prepared to be called to various forms of community service, in principle to the age of 40, in practice even longer.

Human rights violations, national service and economic hardship are all reasons why Eritrea is one of the countries producing the most refugees. The initially difficult political and economic situation is exacerbated by climatic conditions, including temporary droughts on the Horn of Africa that also affects Eritrea.

War on Ethiopia

The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia is especially for historical, political and geographical reasons. During the liberation war, the EPLF established close contact with other groups in Ethiopia who fought against the Ethiopian regime. The regime change in Addis Ababa in 1991 brought an EPLF-friendly government to power, and several cooperation agreements were signed between the two countries. Especially important for Ethiopia was the agreement that continued access to the now Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa ; Eritrea, for its part, was earning revenue from transit trade. It created discontent in Ethiopia when Eritrea in 1997 underlined its independence by introducing its own currency, nakfa, to replace the Ethiopian birr, and demanded that transactions between the countries should be in hard currency.

In the spring of 1998, the relationship between the two states was dramatically changed following a border dispute, and in May a regular war broke out along this disputed part of the border, in the village of Badme. Ethiopia accused Eritrea of ​​sending soldiers into Ethiopian territory; Eritrea claimed the opposite, claiming that they had retaliated only with a previous Ethiopian attack on an Eritrean border patrol. Eritrea then claimed that the land in question was part of the territory of the country according to border boundaries between Ethiopia and the then colonial power of Italy. At Eritrea’s independence, it was established that there were ambiguities associated with the border setting.

During the fighting, the war spread to three fronts; at Badme and Zalambessa in Tigray Province and Bure in Afar region. Following political intervention, including from the US and Rwanda, as well as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), a temporary ceasefire was achieved which both parties used to equip and mobilize larger forces. In February 1999, new fighting broke out on the same three fronts, and Ethiopian forces moved in and occupied Eritrean territory. The OAU re-engaged in an effort to settle the conflict, and Eritrea accepted the terms presented in the OAU plan, while Ethiopia continued to advance.

Even after fighting ceased in the spring of 1999, occasional clashes continued throughout the year and into the turn of the millennium – until the war broke out again, with a major Ethiopian offensive and widespread bombing against the port cities of Massawa and Assab, followed by the conquest of the border town of Zalambessa. The UN Security Council adopted an arms embargo on the two countries. On May 25, Eritrea announced that the country would withdraw its forces from the disputed areas.

The two states finally signed a peace agreement in Algiers in June 2000, negotiated by the OAU. The agreement was in many ways a victory for Ethiopia, and their forces remained in those parts of Eritrea that were under Ethiopian control at the time of the agreement – until a UN peacekeeping force was in place. The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), with up to 4,200 soldiers, was deployed from July 2000 and deployed in a 25-kilometer buffer zone on the Eritrean side of the border. Norwegian observers participated in UNMEE throughout the operation period, 2000–2008.

A final peace agreement was signed in Algiers in December, while the question of border demarcation was left to a border commission, subject to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Both sides undertook to accept its orders. In its 2002 assessment, the Commission found, based on old maps, that Badme – as well as another border area, Irob – belonged to Eritrea; a ruling Ethiopia refused to accept. Consequently, the UN’s work on a physical demarcation of the border was also trained by Ethiopia, while Eritrea made the work of UNMEE more difficult. The mandate of UNMEE expired in 2008, and all the forces were then withdrawn. The buffer zone still exists, and a tense situation where the two countries’ military forces are stationed on each side has led to repeated meetings.

The war was about six disputed lands that are partly suitable for agriculture and partly considered as potentially mineral rich. The war has also been linked to the fact that, by Eritrea’s independence, Ethiopia lost access to the sea and thereby the ports of Assab and Massawa, and that Ethiopia could have a reason to engage Eritrea in a war to regain control of Assab. It is also possible that there are oil reserves in the sea off Assab. As a result of the war, Ethiopia has greatly increased its use of the port of Djibouti, and Eritrea has thus lost significant revenue from transit transport.


Eritreans celebrate their independence after the referendum in 1993. The EPLF’s flag is seen to the right, and to the left is a bit of the old national flag, which was blue with a green olive branch wreath. Today, these are merged to form what is now the flag of Eritrea; EPLF’s yellow star has been replaced with a yellow olive wreath.

It is unclear how many were killed during the war and how many died as a result of it indirectly; Estimates amount to at least 80,000. The fighting in the spring of 2000 coincided with a severe famine on the Horn of Africa, which intensified the humanitarian disaster throughout Eritrea and much of Ethiopia. As a result of the war, around 100,000 people, most of the peasants, were forced away from their homes on both sides of the border. Ethiopia expelled about 40,000 people of Eritrean background; many had Ethiopian citizenship.

After the end of the war, some 130,000 Ethiopians were expelled from Eritrea. In 1998–1999, more than 20,000 chose to leave Eritrea. About 60,000 Eritreans fled to Sudan, where there were already well over 300,000 Eritrean refugees from the liberation war. In 2002, the two countries agreed on a scheme for the exchange of prisoners of war. Even after the end of the war, there was a generally tense situation between the two countries, with respective strength building – and fear of new outbreaks.

Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia were normalized during 2018, after the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared that he was willing to accept the 2000 international Algerian agreement and make peace with neighboring Eritrea. On June 8, 2018, he became the first Ethiopian leader to visit Eritrea in over two decades, announcing the next day a peace declaration with Eritrean President Issaias Afewerki. A final peace agreement was signed in Saudi Arabia on September 17, 2018, and the same month the border between the two countries was first opened since 1998.