The war in Eritrea is one of the least studied contemporary conflicts. Only the recurrence of massive drought and famine in the region has prompted the cursory media attention now given to this 24-year-old national liberation struggle. These two books add significantly to the sparse literature on the region. Nationalism and Self-Determination is the first work since Bereket Selassie’s Conflict and Intervention in the Horn of Africa (Monthly Review Press, 1980) to discuss the self-determination struggle there within a theoretical framework. The book, a collection of essays from a workshop funded by the Ford Foundation and the Anti-Slavery Society, is worthwhile reading for persons interested in contemporary practical and theoretical aspects of self-determination, even if their focus is not the Horn. These essays, for the most part, will not interest the general reader. With titles such as “Language, National Consciousness and Identity” (Hussein Adam) and “The Changing Idiom of Self-Determination in the Horn of Africa” (Sally Healy), most are dense and scholarly. There are three exceptions: Patrick Gilkes on “Centralism and the Ethiopian PMAC,” Paul Baxter on “The Problem of the Oromo” and David Pool on “Eritrean Nationalism.” The contributions of Baxter and Pool were not presented at the conference, but were solicited afterwards to balance the “vigour and comprehensiveness” of Gilkes’ essay (p. ix). While I would disagree with most of Gilkes’’interpretations, he does offer a more sophisticated argument against Eritrean self-determination than any of the Ethiopian regime, and the contributions of Baxter and Pool are two of the more lively essays in the collection.
Conscription into the army or other government service for years on end, fear of detention and torture for real or imagined transgressions with no legal recourse, no prospect of schooling or meaningful work, and no personal freedom: The reasons Afar refugees in eastern Ethiopia gave for fleeing their homeland often echoed those I had heard from their countrymen in interviews I conducted in 19 countries over the last two years. But most I spoke with had another grievance—disempowerment and discrimination based on their ethnicity and culture.
Ahmed, a 25-year old Afar who served eight years in the Eritrean infantry, fled his country in 2006. He went first to Djibouti, and then to neighboring Ethiopia but, finding no work and fearing the risks of crossing the Mediterranean Sea, he went back to his first place of refuge. I met him in Djibouti Ville—the country’s bustling deepwater port and only city—where he now struggles to carve out a life.
TAPACHULA, MEXICO—It is not hard to find the Eritreans in this low-key town near the Pacific coast a few miles north of the Guatemalan border. They gather on the front steps of the Palafox Hotel with the only other Africans here—Somalis, Ethiopians, a handful of Ghanaians, all of them migrants—or they crowd into the bustling Internet café across the street.
Abinet spent six years completing her national service in one of Eritrea’s ministries, but when she joined a banned Pentecostal church, she was arrested, interrogated, threatened, released and then shadowed in a clumsy attempt to identify other congregants. She arranged to be smuggled out of the country in 2013 and is now in a graduate program in human rights in Oslo.
Like Abinet, hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers are landing on the shores of Italy. Eritreans are second only to Syrians in the number of boat arrivals, though the country is a fraction of Syria’s size and there’s no live civil war there.
Two human tragedies will forever scar Eritreans’ memories of the past decade, during which hundreds of thousands fled repression and despair in their homeland to seek sanctuary in more open, democratic societies: the brutal kidnapping, torture and ransom of refugees in the Egyptian Sinai and the drowning of hundreds more in the Mediterranean Sea when their criminally unseaworthy and overcrowded boats went down, a running disaster epitomized by the October 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck.
When Sheikh Muhammad ‘Ali Hasan ‘Awad learned that nine kidnapped “Africans” — eight Eritreans and one Ethiopian — were being beaten, raped and starved in a compound in Sheikh Zuwayd, a Sinai village near the Israeli border, he wasted little time. Firing AK-47s in the air, the sheikh and his Bedouin posse burst in to free the victims and threaten their three torturers with death if they did not immediately tell all. The captors’ accounts — and the raid itself — were recorded in high-definition video with an iPad.
Filmon, a 28-year-old computer engineer, fled Eritrea in March 2012 to escape political repression. Several weeks later, he was kidnapped from Sudan’s Shagara refugee camp, taken with a truckload of others to a Bedouin outpost in the Sinai, not far from Egypt’s border with Israel, and ordered to call relatives to raise $3,500 for his release. “The beatings started the first day to make us pay faster,” he told me. 
Last week, soldiers in one of Africa’s most closed and repressive nations — Eritrea — occupied the country’s Ministry of Information and issued demands. The pattern was a familiar one. News spread quickly that a coup was underway.
But feisty little Eritrea, which got its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after defeating successive US- and Soviet-backed armies in a 30-year war, has never fit the mold of post-colonial African states, and it was not doing so now.
Said Ibrahim, 21, orphaned and blind, was making a living as a singer in Adi Quala bars when a member of Eritrea’s national security force claimed one of his songs had “political” content and detained him at the Adi Abieto prison. After a month Said was released, but he was stripped of his monthly disability payments for two years when he refused to identify the lyricist. “I went back to my village and reflected about it,” he told me over tea at an open-air café in the Adi Harush camp in northern Ethiopia. “If the system could do this to a blind orphan, something was very wrong.” After appealing to his neighbors for help, two boys, aged 10 and 11, sneaked him into Ethiopia and all three asked for asylum.
Michela Wrong, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (New York: Harper Collins, 2005).
When I first encountered Eritrea in 1976, I was deeply impressed with the movement heading up the former Italian colony’s 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. During those years, most foreign visitors to Eritrea were.
The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission set up a year and a half ago to adjudicate a border dispute that left tens of thousands dead and the entire region on edge will issue its verdict on April 13. Both countries have pledged to abide by the outcome.
Two months after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a pact to end their two-year border war, an agreement to move ahead with its implementation has finally been ironed out. The 4,000 UN troops brought here to monitor the truce are preparing for deployment to the contested frontier. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of war-displaced civilians remain in camps behind the lines, waiting to see if the truce will hold.
Shortly before Eritrea's declaration of independence from Ethiopia in May 1993, members of the Eritrean security forces arrived on the doorstep of the Regional Center for Human Rights and Development (RCHRD) in downtown Asmara, the capital. The center's director knew precisely why they had come — to shut down Eritrea's first postwar NGO.
A second round of fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia in February found the political positions of the former allies little changed from their opening salvos the previous June, but overwhelming Ethiopian numbers — troops and arms — finally forced the Eritreans to accept an American-backed “peace plan” on Ethiopian terms. Meanwhile, not only had the levels of firepower intensified, but also the stakes, in a bitter dispute that has already had a profound impact on regional alignments and development prospects. Tragically, it appears to be a repeat performance of earlier battles in the 30-year contest over Eritrea’s independence, which ended in 1991.
In the arid, mountainous, north-eastern corner of Africa, two of the world&’s poorest but best armed states — Eritrea and Ethiopia, allies until a short while ago — are on the brink of all-out war. Shuttle diplomacy by a succession of would-be mediators has failed to provide an exit from potential catastrophe for both sides, though it has temporarily halted the fighting that wracked the area last spring. Since then, the two countries have mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops and a staggering arsenal of Cold War arms to do battle over less than 100 square miles of disputed scrub farmland and desert. Far more is at stake than a petty border dispute, however.
Dan Connell, Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution (Red Sea, 1994).
Over the past several years, the perception has become widespread that the world has entered a period of profound change. A main feature of this change has been some erosion of the principle of state sovereignty as a major structural feature of international relations. The new activism of the United Nations and the trend toward selective military intervention for humanitarian purposes and as a means of international crisis management have been the most prominent features of this development.
Gayle Smith coordinates the Africa program at the Washington-based Development Group for Alternative Policies. In the past ten years she has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa on relief and development issues. Her most recent trip to Ethiopia and Sudan was in June 1990. She spoke with Joe Stork in Washington.
Compared to the famine of 1984-1985, what is the scope of the problem in the Horn today?
In terms of numbers, the famine is somewhat less severe than it was five years ago. There are an estimated 5 million in need as opposed to 7-9 million in 1984-1985. Just over 1 million of these people are in Eritrea; another 2.2 million live in Tigray. The rest live elsewhere in the north of Ethiopia, areas now also affected by the war.
I.M. Lewis, ed., Nationalism and Self-Determination in the Horn of Africa, (London: Ithaca Press, 1983).
James Firebrace with Stuart Holland, Never Kneel Down: Drought, Development and Liberation in Eritrea, (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1985).