The Failed Eritrean Experiment and Its Exonerations

December 27, 2009

On December 23, 2009, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) put sanctions of arms embargo, travel restrictions, and asset freezes on Eritrea for its political leadership’s destabilizing activities in Somalia. Perhaps, this country is the only one in the history of the world that faced such sanctions while its first and only president since its independence is still in office.

Granted that this is a historically unprecedented case, the movement by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF,) which was formed and led by Isaias Afewerki who is a college drop out from the Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia’s capital, to break Eritrea away from Ethiopia may well be called the Failed Eritrean Experiment.

Eritrea as a region fell victim to Italy’s invasion and colonization, which became official on January 1, 1890. This colonization venture by Italy set in motion the historical division between the various groups of people in Ethiopia and Eritrea in to two countries. Notable among these are the Tigrigna speaking people who were part of the Aksumite Civilization in Ethiopia and the Afar people that inhabit a sizable part of Ethiopia and a major part of the Red Sea coast in present day Eritrea. Arguably, there is more organic bond between the Tigrigna speaking people in Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as between the Afar people in both countries than there is any among Eritrea’s various groups of constituents.

Italy’s advancing colonial army inland was defeated at Adwa in 1896 by Ethiopia even though its rule in Eritrea persisted until 1941 when its army was routed out from East Africa with the assistance of British forces due to World War II. Emperor Haile Selassie I is believed to have played a great role in federating Eritrea with Ethiopia in 1951 as per United Nations Resolution 390(A). The federation reportedly became official on September 15, 1952.

UN Resolution 390(A) reportedly came about after a lengthy inquiry on the status of Eritrea. Dividing it between Ethiopia and Sudan was another suggested alternative at the time, but was reportedly rejected outright by all Eritrean political parties. The United States favored its federation with Ethiopia based on considerations of security and world peace in the aftermath of World War II and at the onset of the Cold War.

The position of the U.S. on the issue of Eritreas federation was reportedly expressed by its then chief foreign policy advisor, John Foster Dulles, as follows: “From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] be linked with our ally, Ethiopia.”

Ten years after the federation, Eritrea was unified with Ethiopia according to those who favored it, or annexed by Ethiopia according to those who opposed it. Emperor Haile Selassie I is believed by many to be the leader behind this arrangement while Eritrean citizens are known to have stood on both sides of the divide.

This disagreement between Eritreans led to the opposition faction to the unification raising arms to fight for the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, much of it under the leadership of Isaias Afewerki.

The armies of both Emperor Haile Selassie I and Lieutenant Colonel Menghistu Hailemariam, Ethiopia’s long-time leaders, fought against the secessionist movements of Eritrea although the EPLF became successful in overtaking Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, during the opportune time that the downfall of communism and the end of the Cold War era brought about. Its army entered Asmara in 1991 and it conducted a U.N. sanctioned referendum in 1993, which led to Eritrea’s official independence. Meles Zenawi, whose army entered the Ethiopian capital at the same opportune time, not only recognized Eritrea’s independence venture early on but also evidently gave support to it. As a result, Ethiopia became by far the most populous landlocked country in the world.

Under the watch of Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought an orchestrated war between 1998 and 2000. According to many sources, nearly 100,000 soldiers died on both sides. During the same time, Eritreans who had been residing in Ethiopia were also expelled and deported to Eritrea under the watch of Meles Zenawi, who is reported to have uttered that it would be worth spending a little while discussing with Isaias Afewerki than reading multiple books.

Following the ceasefire between the two countries, a United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) spent considerable number of years protecting the undemarcated border between the two countries. The UN reportedly spent millions of dollars for these operations before Eritrea expelled it.

Since its independence, Eritrea has entered into conflicts with all countries that border it, including Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, and Yemen. Its destabilizing activities in Somalia, and by extension in East Africa, led to its collision courses with the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, the East African regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD,) the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM,) the African Union (AU,) and the United Nations.

If Emperor Haile Selassie I’s leadership, UN’s Resolution 390(A,) Mr. John Foster Dulles’s prophetic foresight, the Unionist Party of Eritrea’s judgment to be united with Ethiopia, and Lieutenant Colonel Menghistu Hailemariam’s long-time fight against the EPLF were wrong, the EPLF's political leadership of Eritrea had the opportunity to prove to itself, the Eritrean citizenry, the African Union, and the world at large that it is a responsible member of sovereign nations that takes the quest for regional and international security responsibly and seriously. Unfortunately, it acted otherwise and in the process exonerated all the above leaders and organizations their convictions about Eritrea. The UNSC’s Resolution 1907 (2009) that put the sanctions appears to have become the remedy to the Failed Eritrean Experiment. In Meles Zenawi’s own words in reaction to the resolution, the sanctions are appropriate to the current Eritrean government’s leadership’s behavior of gatte-wett, which roughly means vagabond.

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