Eritrean Revolution

Jeremy Harding

When the Emperor Haile Selassie was removed from the palace in Addis Ababa 13 years ago, the Ethiopian revolutionaries chose to drive him away in a Volkswagen. It was in some sense an eye for an eye – a humiliation of the man whose lavish style at court, maintained while thousands of peasants died in the famine of the early Seventies, had shamed the country. It was also a gesture of studied indifference. Henceforth it was of no concern what clothes the Emperor might or might not be wearing. The new regime would be pursuing a tough Marxist agenda in which the King of Kings had no place beside the agricultural collective, the village assembly and the literacy campaign.

There was much, if not everything, to hope for from the overthrow of Haile Selassie. ‘It would, of course, be unrealistic to expect that the poverty of centuries could be eradicated in a few years,’ writes Keith Griffin in World Hunger and the World Economy, ‘but it would be reasonable to hope that a decade after the revolution some progress would have been made in increasing the appallingly low standard of living of the mass of the population. Alas, it was not to be.’[*] In part this was due to the persistence of armed national and ethnic movements within Ethiopia, to which the new government responded with drastic military expenditure. The Provisional Military Administrative Committee – often referred to by the Amharic word dergue, meaning ‘committee’ – hammered away at the bulwarks of the ancien regime. It abolished the land tenancy system which had long been a source of peasant exploitation and embarked on a campaign that soon reduced illiteracy by about 20 per cent. However, where the national movements were concerned, the PMAC, itself a Christian Amharic élite like the regime it superseded, stuck to the old imperial line.

Along the northern marches of the empire, between the Sudanese frontier and the Red Sea coast, the revolutionaries were confronted by one of Selassie’s most intractable problems. The Emperor had annexed Eritrea outright in 1962. It was an act of force which failed to lay the problem to rest. Whatever Eritrea’s status in relation to the dim and sometimes fabulous past of pre-19th-century Abyssinia, its inhabitants were arguing that it was a modern African nation by the end of the Second World War. They saw no valid Ethiopian claim over the territory. The Shoan emperor Menelik, whose conquests unified much of present-day Ethiopia, did not include the Eritrean highlands in the territorial claims he submitted to the European powers in 1891. More important, Eritrea had become an Italian colony in 1890. When the Italians sought to enlarge their African acquisitions by moving inland from Eritrea, they were roundly defeated by Menelik at Adowa in 1896. In the subsequent Italian-Abyssinian treaty, Menelik was unable to lay any claim to Eritrea. It remained under Italian jurisdiction until 1941, when the defeat of Mussolini’s armies in East Africa led to a transfer of power to the British. The Eritreans maintain that the period of Italian and British rule gave a distinct identity to the territory which shook it free of any claims derived from pre-colonial Abyssinian history.

In 1952, Ethiopia and Eritrea were federated under the auspices of the United Nations. The Eritreans were not consulted. The United States, which had found a formidable ally in Haile Selassie, was not going to brook an independent state on the Red Sea coast whose allegiances were unpredictable. Selassie, for his part, had every interest in securing a hold on Eritrea, which offered landlocked Ethiopia access to the sea. Federation was hardly likely to be popular with the Eritreans, however. Amharic domination, which became increasingly marked, was a bitter pill to swallow. In 1961, a year before annexation, a number of Eritreans pledged themselves to armed struggle for independence. The ensuing conflict has turned out to be the longest in post-colonial Africa.

When the PMAC came to power, an intermittent but full-scale war was under way in Eritrea. It was being waged between a mass of ill-trained Ethiopian conscripts with few incentives to fight and a tenacious independence movement whose guerrilla army marched very largely on its politics. In the Horn, that was a dependable diet at least, but it was corrosive too: while the infant PMAC was busy installing itself in Addis Ababa, the Eritreans were caught up in a savage internecine conflict. In the meantime, other armed national movements were gathering momentum. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged at the head of the revolution in February 1977. In the same year, with neighbouring Somalia directly involved in the Ogaden alongside the Western Somali Liberation Front, the Soviet Union and its allies rallied to Ethiopia. A massive airlift brought Cuban troops from Angola to the Ogaden at the end of the year. By mid-1978 arms and equipment were pouring in from the Soviet Union; the PMAC had mastered the situation in the Ogaden and could now afford to turn its attention to Eritrea.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Macmillan, 274 pp., £27.50 and £9.95, 0 333 41993 6.