When, in 1962, Ethiopia finally abolished the
former Italian colony of Eritrea its autonomy, an armed
struggle for independence began. In 1991, the EPLF rebel
group captured the capital Asmara, while other
resistance groups overthrew the military regime in
Ethiopia. The Eritreans were able to proclaim their own
state in 1993, with the support of the new government in
Ethiopia. In 1998–2000, a border war was fought between
the two countries. A peace agreement could only be
concluded in 2018. All attempts to develop democracy in
Eritrea have stopped. Instead, the country has become a
state of oppression.
Already in the 1940s, nationalist trends emerged in
Eritrea, which was then part of a federation with
Ethiopia under a UN decision (see Older History). The
area was relatively industrialized, the infrastructure
was good and political openness was greater than in
Ethiopia. The Eritreans felt little communion with
List of most commonly used acronyms containing Eritrea. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.
The liberation movement that emerged over time was
transformed in 1961 into the guerrilla group Eritrea's
Liberation Front (ELF), whose goal was Eritrean
independence. In connection with Ethiopia's annexation
in 1962, the struggle intensified.
ELF was dominated by Muslims in the coastal areas and
received support from the Arab world. Because of
ideological contradictions, a group broke out of the ELF
in 1970 and formed a rival guerrilla, the People's
Liberation Front (PLF) with both Muslims and Christians
from the highlands as members. Soon, the two groups
ended up in civil war against each other.
Eritrea becomes independent
PLF changed its name to the Eritrean People's
Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1977. Throughout the 1980s,
the EPLF successfully pushed back the Ethiopian forces
on all fronts, while fighting the ELF and gaining less
and less importance. In May 1991, EPLF marched into
Asmara. At the same time, an Ethiopian guerrilla
alliance overthrew the military regime in Ethiopia (see
Ethiopia: Modern History). Thus, Eritrea's war of
liberation was over.
The leadership of the victorious Ethiopian alliance
EPRDF has long been close to the EPLF and sympathized
with the war of freedom. The new leaders in Ethiopia
allowed the EPLF to form a provisional government in
Eritrea. In a UN-supervised referendum in April 1993,
99.8 percent of the 1.1 million Eritreans who
participated agreed to independence, which was
proclaimed the following month.
A transitional parliament was formed that would run
until general elections. Parliament elected EPLF leader
Isaias Afwerki as president. He appointed a transitional
government consisting of EPLF members only. In February
1994, the EPLF was formally transformed from a military
front into a political movement called the People's
Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
A national assembly would be formed consisting of 75
members of the PFDJ's Central Committee and 75 directly
elected members. But how they were chosen was unclear.
War on Ethiopia
The new nation was facing major challenges. After
several decades of war, production was largely down,
dependence on food aid was great and hundreds of
thousands of Eritreans had fled the country. The
reconstruction was led by the PFDJ and the money came
mainly from Eritreans in exile and from foreign aid.
Growth started and the development looked promising.
Foreign private investment was encouraged and a
privatization of state industries was initiated.
The transition period would be for four years. After
some delay, in 1997 a constitution was adopted according
to which Eritrea would become a democracy with
multi-party systems. But the PFDJ retained all power and
soon attention was directed elsewhere. The general
elections that would have been held in 1998 were
postponed when a conflict with Ethiopia erupted.
Relations with Ethiopia cut off when Eritrea tried to
reduce its dependence on the neighboring country by
introducing its own currency. Ethiopia responded by
insisting on trading US dollars. It brought to life an
unresolved dispute about where the border between the
countries went in a sparsely populated and mountainous
area that both claimed. In May 1998, Eritrea occupied
the small border community Badme and the war was a fact.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers took part in the
conflict, which set two well-equipped and modern armies
against each other. The fighting lasted for two years,
with violent clashes between longer periods of
relatively calm. Both sides bombarded cities far in
their neighboring countries and forcibly expelled tens
of thousands of residents to the opposite side. Up to
100,000 people are estimated to have been killed.
Mass escape out of the country
When Ethiopia, after an unexpected offensive,
recaptured all the captured territories, Eritrea was
forced to surrender in June 2000. The UN Mission for
Ethiopia and Eritrea (Unmee) was commissioned to guard a
buffer zone along the border and the International Court
of Justice in The Hague was tasked with determining the
The war had devastating consequences for young
Eritrea. Huge resources were spent, tens of thousands of
people were killed and injured and up to one million
Eritreans fled. The cautious development stopped
completely. Drought and food shortages worsened the
situation, and around 850,000 Eritreans were in need of
relief after the war.
When the UN Court reached its final decision on the
2003 border issue, Eritrea was awarded the disputed
Badme. In theory, Ethiopia accepted the ruling but did
not leave the city. The tense situation continued.
After the war, many believed that the work of
developing democracy under the 1997 Constitution would
resume. But instead, President Isaias appeared more and
more authoritarian. In May 2001, 15 high-ranking PFDJ
members demanded that the promised election be announced
and that comprehensive reform be implemented. They
accused Isaias of acting "illegal and unconstitutional".
The so-called G15 group included several leading war
veterans and ministers.
The G15 group was held for a few months, but suddenly
most of them were arrested. It happened a week after the
terrorist attack on the United States on September 11,
2001, when the world's attention was directed elsewhere.
A number of leading journalists were also arrested, and
all privately owned newspapers were closed. None of the
arrested were charged with anything and 15 years later
it is unclear how many of them are still alive.
From 2001 came reports of major human rights
violations. Freedom of speech, movement and religion
were severely curtailed. Arbitrary arrests, torture and
extrajudicial executions became common phenomena.
During 2005 and 2006, the war against Ethiopia seemed
to be on its way to flare up again. Reports came at the
same time that Eritrea supported Islamist rebels in
Somalia, while Ethiopia intervened with troops in
Somalia in support of the so-called transitional
The intervention in Somalia contributed to sharper
criticism of Eritrea from the outside world. When Asmara
in 2008 was accused of infringement across the Djibouti
border, criticism increased. In December 2009, the UN
adopted sanctions on Eritrea (see Foreign Policy and
Defense). That same year, Eritrea was named the world's
second most militarized society (after North Korea), by
the independent security organization International
Institute of Strategic Studies.
Crimes against humanity?
Two years later, in December 2011, the UN Security
Council tightened sanctions on Eritrea following reports
that the country continued to support Islamist rebels in
Somalia. The resolution required foreign companies in
the mining industry in Eritrea to ensure that money from
this sector is not used to "destabilize the region".
In January 2013, what was described as a poorly
prepared coup attempt was carried out. A few hundred
soldiers must have been involved when two tanks
surrounded the Ministry of Information in Asmara and
radio and TV broadcasts were temporarily suspended. At
least 50 of those involved were arrested afterwards, and
their further fate is unknown.
In the summer of 2014, in a long letter, four
Catholic bishops expressed concern over the state of the
country, which they described as "devastating."
In a 2015 report, the UN concluded that the
government's handling of its own citizens could
constitute crimes against humanity (see also Democracy