Eritrea Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Eritrea is a country located in Eastern Africa. With the capital city of Asmara, Eritrea has a population of 3,546,432 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. 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 feudal Ethiopia.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: 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. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Eritrea.

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 border dispute.

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 government.

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 and Rights).

Eritrea Modern History