The earliest hominid remains in Eritrea date from two million years ago, placing the land near the dawn of humankind on the planet. Stone tools from Abdur – at 125,000 years old – are the earliest, best-dated evidence for human occupation of a coastal marine environment.
Tools found in the Barka Valley from 8000 BC are the first evidence of human settlement here. Rock paintings have been found in several sites dating from 2000 BC. So far, fifty- one prehistoric sites have been identified across Eritrea, from Karora in the north to Beylul in the southeast, but many more are expected to be explored in the coming years.
The earliest inhabitants of Eritrea were probably related to the Central African Pygmies. They later co-mingled with Nilotic, Cushitic and Semitic peoples who migrated here from as far away as the Nubian low-lands and the Arabian peninsula. The legendary Land of Punt referred to by the Egyptian Pharaohs and the object of major expeditions from the First and Second Dynasties (2920-2649 BC) may have been here, for the area was rich in gold, frankincense, myrrh, ostrich feathers, ebony, ivory and other precious commodities.
The Adulite Era (9th century BC-5th century AD): For nearly 1,400 years, the Red Sea coastal city-state of Adulis functioned as a major regional center for commerce and trade. Other important cultural centers also arose during this period in the Eritrean interior, linked by trade with each other and the African hinterland and only now coming under archeological scrutiny. Among them were extensive settlements circumscribing modern-day Asmara and large sites at Qohaito, Tekhonda’e and keskese (near Adi Keih), at Metera (near Senafe) and at Der’s (near Halhal), with more discovered each year.
Greek and Egyptian hunting and trading posts were established in coastal and highland Eritrea in the 3rd century BC and later. Obsidian (volcanic glass) taken from the coastal waters and Red Sea tortoise shell were among the most highly valued items in regional commerce, which also included rhino horn, elephant tusk, frankincense and hippopotamus hides from the interior.
The Axumite Empire (1st -9th century AD): The Axumite Empire, centered in the Eritrean highlands and what is now northern Ethiopia, flourished for nearly a thousand years. At its height in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Axum’s domains stretched across the Red Sea to include much of modern Yemen.
This kingdom, at times allied with the Byzantine Empire, was the avenue through which Christianity penetrated northeast Africa in the 4th century. In 615, prior to his victory at Mecca. The prophet Mohammed also sent fifteen of his followers to Adulis in an attempt to counter Byzantine power in the region, making Eritrea one of the earliest non-Arabian sites for contact with Islam.
Axum began to decline in the 7th century and collapsed under the strain of internal and external pressures over the next 200 years. Much of its territory in Eritrea was conquered by the Bejas, who were expanding southward from Sudan. An independent Islamic kingdom also arose in the Dahlak islands during this period. As Axum’s authority disintegrated, its main language, Ge’ez, evolved into two of the widest spoken languages in Eritrea, Tigre and Tigrinya.
The Five Beja Kingdoms (8th -13th centuries): Starting as early as the 4th century, the Bejas, a Cushitic people originating in Sudan, began making incursions into Axumite territory along the sea coast and in the highlands of northwestern Eritrea. Five distinct but interrelated Beja kingdoms at their height stretched from southern Egypt to north-central Eritrea. An offshot, known as the Bellou Kingdom, flourished from the 13th to 16th century in parts of western Eritrea and eastern Sudan. The descendants of another, the Hedareb (also known by their language, T’bdawe), inhabit northern Eritrea today.
The Bahre Negash 14th -18th centuries: The Kingdom of the Sea-Lands (Bahre Negash) arose in the highland Eritrea in the 14th century and stretched from the Mereb River to the seacoast, encompassing the core of modern Eritrea. Its ruler, confirmed by a Council of Elders, presided over a loose federation of chieftains and paid tribute to the Abyssinian king to the south.
The authority of the Bahre Negash declined in the 18th century, as the region descended into clan warfare that lasted more than 100 years. Abyssinian kings from neighboring Tigray brought sections of the Eritrean highlands under their sway during the last half of the 19th century, but their dominion ended with the entry of the Italians in the 1880s.
The Ottoman Turks (15th -19th centuries): The Ottomans arrived on the Eritrean coast at the start of the 16th century, carving out an enclave from the realm of the Bahre Negash. For the next 300 years, they controlled large sections of the northern Eritrean shoreline, including the port of Massawa, which became the capital of what they called Habesh province, but they failed to sustain control of lands in the interior, despite several attempts to penetrate the plateau.
Egypt (1846- 85): In 1846, Mohammed Aliâ€™s forces took control of Ottoman Habesh and enlarged it by annexing adjacent independently-ruled Eritrean regions in Bogos and Danakil. Egyptian forces also expanded into western Eritrea from the Sudanese town of Kassala, though they suffered major losses when they tried to drive further inland. After Egyptian rule was toppled in Sudan during the Mahdist uprising of 1888, Cairoâ€™s authority in Eritrea collapsed.
MODERN COLONIAL RULE
Italian colonization (1881-1941): The Italians established an outpost at Assab in 1881, which they used as a base to move northward toward Massawa as Egyptian power declined. Four years later, they annexed the province of Habesh. On 1st January 1890, the Italian King proclaimed the colony of Eritrea, with the port of Massawa as its capital.
Italy’s attempts to drive south into Abyssinia were repelled by the Amhara King Menelik II at the 1896 Battle of Adua. Soon after this, Menelik and the king of Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Italian claims on Eritrea up to the Mereb River. A year later, Italy moved Eritrea’s capital to Asmara.
By the early 1930s, Eritrea was crisscrossed with new roads and communications networks. A narrow-gauge railway linked Massawa with Asmara and inland areas west of Agordat. More than 300 small workshops and industries arose around the capital and the two ports, and many large labor-intensive farms and plantations were established in the countryside.
However, the Italians imposed strict color bars that sharply limited the access of all Eritreans, including those of mixed racial backgrounds, to schools, jobs and social services. In doing so, they encouraged a growing anti-colonial sentiment among the restive urban dwellers. In 1935, the Italians conquered Ethiopia and British Somaliland, administering them, together with Eritrea, in an expanded empire they called Italian East Africa.
British Administration (1941-52): Italy’s African empire collapsed quickly in the face of an assault by British led forces in 1941. That April, after returning Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian throne, the British established a Military Administration in Eritrea and redirected the colony’s human and material resources into the Allied war effort.
At first, the new rulers did little to alter Italian administrative structures, though some new clinics and schools were opened and Eritreans were hired into the local police. After the end of World War II, the British allowed new forms of organization that provided an institutional framework for political action and trade unions, publications and political parties. At this point, the deposition of Italy’s former colonies fell to the newly formed United Nations.
Eritrean nationalists organized Muslim and Christian-led independence parties, while some members of the local elite joined by much of the Orthodox clergy promoted union with Ethiopia. Amidst this disarray, Haile Selassie armed paramilitary forces that wreaked havoc across Eritrea while he negotiated with the U.S. to win support for his claims here.
Ethiopian Annexation (1952- 91): When the UN committee charged with recommending a position to the General Assembly failed to reach a common position, the U.S. pushed for a federation between the two states under the authority of the Ethiopian crown. On 2nd December 1950, the UN voted to accept this proposal, which went into effect on 15 September 1952.
The deeply flawed UN plan granted Eritrea the right of self-administration with authority over the police, local taxes and other domestic affairs, but it gave Ethiopia control of Eritrea’s defense, foreign affairs, currency and finance and international commerce and communications.
Eritrea was given a constitution, a separate parliament, a national flag and two official languages (Tigrinya and Arabic), but the new state lacked the power to defend these externally imposed institutions.
Soon after the federation’s impositions, Washington signed a treaty with Addis Ababa that gave the U.S. military bases in Asmara and access to naval facilities in Massawa in exchange for equipping and training Ethiopia’s armed forces. Newly strengthened, the emperor quickly moved to dismantle Eritrea’s limited autonomy.
Over the next decade, Ethiopia decreed a preventive detention law, arrested newspaper editors, shut down independent publications, drove prominent nationalists into exile, banned trade unions and political parties, replaced the Eritrean flag with that of Ethiopia, forbid the use of indigenous languages in official transactions and in the schools, and seized Eritrea’s share of the lucrative customs duties. Whole industries were relocated from Asmara to Addis Ababa. On 14 November 1962, Ethiopian troops forced the Parliament to dissolve itself, as the emperor officially annexed Eritrea as Ethiopia’s fourteenth province.
The Liberation Struggle (1952-91)
Early Resistance: Throughout the 1950s, Eritreans protested Ethiopia’s abrogation of the Federation and its harsh repression of nationalist sentiment. However, there was no reaction from the international community. In 1957 students mounted mass demonstration. In 1958 the trade unions launched a general strike. Ethiopian troops fired on the protesters, killing several and wounding hundreds. This convinced most Eritreans that peaceful public protest was no longer viable.
In the late1950s, after the crackdown, a group of exiles launched the underground Eritrean Liberation Movement to challenge Ethiopian rule. The ELM became a popular, clandestine national movement in towns and cities across Eritrea, but it lacked a strategy for armed resistance
Armed Struggle: In July 1960, an exile group met in Cairo to establish the Eritrean Liberation Front, which declared the armed struggle to be the sole means to achieve independence. On 1 September 1961, a small band of ELF guerrillas, armed with antiquated Italian rifles, fired the revolution’s first shots on police units at Mount Adal in western Eritrea.
At the outset, there was little discussion within the ELF of transforming Eritrean society only of freeing it from Ethiopian control. Some ELF leaders hoped that a symbolic armed uprising would provoke the UN to intervene. However, Eritrea’s annexation generated little international notice.
The ELF grew steadily through the 1960s, but ethnic and religious sectarianism and internal rivalries severely weakened it. Though the Front disrupted civil order in much of rural Eritrea, it failed to consolidate its gains. When Ethiopian forces counterattacked, massacring civilians and burning rural villages, thousands of people fled to neighboring Sudan where some remained as refuges for decades. These setbacks nurtured a rising tide of discontent within ELF. In 1968-69, the Front imploded as democratic forces fought to restructure the movement from within.
The Birth of EPLF: Three factions split off from the crumbling ELF with a few hundred fighters among them and began a dialogue that later produced the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The new movement’s program placed strong emphasis on overcoming ethnic and religious differences and achieving greater social equality. In doing so, it committed the liberation movement to social transformation along with national self-determination. However, ELF attacks on the new EPLF at first constrained the new fronts ability to develop and grow.
After the collapse of Ethiopia’s feudal order in September 1974, when a military committee, the Derg, overthrew the eighty-two-year-old Emperor, the two Eritrean Fronts reached a truce and turned their guns on the occupying army. By the end of 1977, they controlled most of rural Eritrea and all but a handful of the colony’s major towns and cities. Only the large-scale intervention of the Soviet Union on Ethiopia’s behalf prevented the liberation forces from achieving a final victory
Ethiopia and Superpowers: Despite its early weakness, the Eritrean revolution generated an escalating response from Ethiopia’s global backers, starting with the U.S. whose strategic interests included a spy base at Kagnew Station in Asmara set up to intercept communications across Africa, the Middle East and southern Soviet Union. As late as 1976, over two-thirds of all U.S., aid to Africa went to Ethiopia, including the first jet fighters on the continent.
However, once the Derg, headed by Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, was fully in control, the new regime ousted the U.S. and realigned Ethiopia with the Soviet Union. Moscow quickly adopted Ethiopia as its pre-eminent ally in Africa, sending in military and political advisors and billions of dollars in new arms.
In 1978 Ethiopia launched a massive military campaign to reoccupy Eritrea. More than 100, 000 heavily armed troops attacked EPLF and ELF positions from bases in Ethiopia, from government-controlled enclaves in Eritrea, and from amphibious landings along the Red Sea coast. Soviet advisers played a key role in planning and executing four large offensives over the next six months before the EPLF halted the advance outside the town of Nakfa in the Sahel Mountains. A fifth offensive in July 1979 was beaten back at Nakfa with heavy Ethiopian losses
Stalemate: As Ethiopia prepared for new rounds of fighting, disunity weakened the liberation movement. EPLF attempts to revive the unity talks with ELF were unsuccessful. When renewed civil war broke out in 1981, the EPLF drove ELF units into Sudan where they splintered into competing factions. Some ELF members later reconciled with EPLF and rejoined the war with Ethiopia. Others remained in Sudan or migrated elsewhere as refuges.
Huge but largely unreported battles took place in Eritrea during the early 1980s, involving hundreds of thousands of troops in campaigns that went on for months at a time. Ethiopia’s Sixth Offensive dubbed Red Star-lasted more than four months in early 1982 and involved round-the-clock-bombing of military and civilian targets, more than 120,000 troops engaged in repeated human wave attacks on EPLF positions and extensive use of napalm and chemical weapons before it was finally repulsed.
EPLF fighters, dug into a network of heavily fortified bunkers and trenches, inflicted over 31,000 casualties on the attacking forces while minimizing their own. They also captured large quantities of Soviet arms and equipment. At the same time, mobile units operated behind enemy lines, not only launching military attack but also organizing the people and providing badly needed social services.
Famine: In the mid -1980, war and famine combined to create a human crisis of horrific proportions. Persistent drought seared the brittle land until the population of much of Eritrea teetered on the brink of starvation. But politics played a central role in the size and scope of this disaster, as Ethiopia prevented aid from reaching hungry farmers in EPLF-controlled villages. Much of the donated food ended up in the hands of Ethiopian army, while international community stood by (again) in silence.
By 1985, 360,000 Eritrean refugees had fled to Sudan, most due to the war, but a growing number due to hunger. Several hundred thousand more were internally displaced, most subsisting with help from the EPLF, whose humanitarian arm, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), mounted an under-resourced but highly efficient relief operation.
Liberation: Throughout the1980s, the EPLF gained parity with Ethiopia on the battlefield. In March 1988, EPLF units hit the Ethiopians at their strongest point near Afabet, smashing the Nadew Command and, in doing so, shattering the ten-year stalemate and reversing the encirclement. In one 48-hour battle, Eritrean fighters wiped out three Ethiopian divisions and over-ran the largest supply depot in the country, taking enough heavy weapons, ammunition and equipment to supply it for the next year. In February 1990, using small but speedy motor boats to surprise the Ethiopians from the rear, the EPLF captured the port of Massawa and sealed off Ethiopia’s land forces from all but air borne supplies.
The final battle of the war took place near Dekamare in May 1991, in the midst of which Ethiopia’s mercurial dictator fled Ethiopia to Zimbabwe. When the Ethiopian army in Eritrea collapsed, the EPLF marched into Asmara and began the process of constructing the new state. Four days later, the Addis Ababa government surrendered to Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-government groups controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and assisted by the EPLF.
Independence (1991- present)
De Facto Independence: With the end of the 30-year liberation war on 24 May 1991, Eritrea achieved its independence in practice, if not yet in law. At once, the newly formed Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) set about reconstructing the country’s devastated infrastructure, while building a rudimentary state apparatus to manage the transition to internationally recognized sovereignty.
The war had left Eritrea in ruins. Water and sewage systems in the towns barely functioned. The few asphalt roads had been torn up by heavy military vehicles. Port facilities in Massawa were badly damaged by heavy bombing after the city was liberated in February 1990. And the rail system was entirely dismantled, its iron rails used to make bunkers.
What remained of Eritrea’s light industry had not been maintained or modernized in a quarter century, and urban unemployment exceeded 30 percent of the economically- active population. Meanwhile, persistent drought had kept the rural population on the brink of famine. At the end of the fighting, fully 85 percent of Eritrea’s three million people depended on donated food aid. The World Bank estimated Eritrea’s per capita income at only $70-150, compared to $330 for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
Referendum & Recognition: On 21-23 April 1993, following a year of extensive popular education, organization and logistical preparations in which nearly 1,125,000 potential voters were registered, an independent Referendum Commission staffed by prominent Eritreans from wide-ranging backgrounds conducted a national referendum on Eritrea’s political status. More than 98.5% of those eligible participated at polling stations throughout Eritrea, in Ethiopia and Sudan, and as far as the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia.
The balloting was monitored by the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement and representatives of more than a dozen countries, including Ethiopia. When the results were tallied, 99.8% of the voters chose sovereignty. Sudan, Ethiopia, Italy, the U.S. and other countries with local diplomatic representation immediately recognized the State of Eritrea. On 24 May, the PGE officially declared Eritrea’s independence. Soon afterward, Eritrea joined the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations.
State Building: Once achieving international recognition, the Government of Eritrea was reorganized to manage the transition to constitutional government. Distinct responsibilities were assigned to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the new government, and a fifty-member Constitution Commission was created to oversee the constitution-making process.
Eritrea’s ten colonial-era provinces were restructured into six co-equal regions, which held elections for zonal legislatures. The new regional governments took on many of the responsibilities for administration and reconstruction and development in their areas, developmental ministries (all but the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, Finance and Information) developed their operational functions to the zonal level.
The civil service was also streamlined and reformed. Its management structure was decentralized, and personnel were re-deployed to offices in the administrative regions. During this time, the public sector workforce was reduced by 30 percent.
In the midst of this reorganization, the new state had to design everything from passports, driverse licenses and postage stamps to telecommunication systems, school curricula, road and rail networks, and tax, trade and investment policies. In effect, it had the task of creating a new country from scratch.
EPLF/PFDJ: In February1994, the EPLF convened its third congress and voted to dissolve the Liberation Front, as it had achieved its basic mandate-the liberation of Eritrea. At this time, the delegates launched a new postwar political movement, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice to build on the EPLF’s legacy and to lead the country through the postwar transition to constitutional government.
The PFDJ’s basic goals, as summarized in the National Charter adopted there, were: national harmony, political democracy, economic and social development, social justice (economic and social democracy), cultural revival and regional and international cooperation.
At the core of its mandate was a commitment to engage the population in national reconstruction and to facilitate its full and active participation in the unfolding political process. In some communities, up to 80 percent of the adult population signed up in the year after the Front was launched. By 1996 there were 6,000 branches at the local level, with approximately 100 members in each.
The new organization began by holding monthly group seminars and later shifted to an organizing mode focused on generating community-based development projects. Local organizers went through basic training courses where representatives of government ministries explained the support they could get for local development initiatives and asked them to serve as channels for communicating people’s concerns back to the state.
Continuing the economic activities developed during the liberation struggle, the PFDJ became an important catalyst for growth in the postwar economy. PDFJ enterprises inherited from the war for independence included construction, well-drilling, land transport, shipping, metalworks, export-import concerns, foreign exchange operations and a housing bank. PFDJ companies took on many local projects which other private contractors declined, such as the construction of hospital and schools in remote areas
Self-Reliance: Eritrea is committed to self-development with dignity, relying first and foremost on its own people to set the pace, direction and character of the country’s passage from subjugation to full economic sovereignty, as well as political independence.
The three main elements of the country’s development strategy, as articulated in the 1994 Macro-Policy Paper, are:
Inducing widely-shared, sustained economic growth by establishing a competitive environment in which efficient, export-oriented private firms thrive.
Raising the skills and well-being of people by investing in education, nutrition, health care and water and sanitation systems. Reducing rural poverty by investing in rural infrastructure, agriculture, management of livestock and pastures, and development of fisheries.
In 1995 the government ended food relief in favour of public works program that enabled impoverished Eritreans to meet their basic needs while rebuilding the country. A National Service program was enacted to bring young people into nation building process. International aid agencies were asked to integrate their activities into national development plans, under Eritrean leadership. And major investments were made in human resource development-especially in the fields of education and public health.
The results were stunning. In the first ten years after independence, the infant mortality rate was cut in half, child malnutrition rates dropped by nearly two thirds, and life expectancy at birth rose from forty-six to fifty-five years. At the same time, the number of schools in Eritrea more than doubled, while attendance, particularly among girls, rose dramatically.
High levels of popular participation in the country’s reconstruction and development are the hallmark of Eritrea’s post-independence growth. At the same time, instances of crime or corruption have remained lower than anywhere else in Africa-perhaps the world. This speaks to high levels of social cohesion and civic pride that undergird the development process.
Constitution Buildings: The fifty members of Eritrea’s Constitution Commission, set up after independence, were drawn from a wide spectrum of the society. They included representatives of nearly all nine nationalities, as well as veteran leaders of the ELF. Nearly half were women.
In mid-1994, commissioners traveled across the country and abroad to convene discussions among Eritreans on key debating points. Among them were: the role of the state in promoting equity and social justice; how the new government could lead the nation in sustainable development; how governmental powers should be separated and what would be their relationship; whether to have a presidential or a parliamentary government or a form that combined both; which officials should be appointed and which elected; what form the legislative body should take; what place the military would have; what role parties would play; what civil and political rights should be enshrined in the document; how the rights of minorities should be safeguarded; and how the rights of women should be protected. In early 1995 the commission hosted an international symposium on constitution-making with participants from many countries.
The constitution-building process was constructed to strengthen the existing national consensus on Eritrea’s identity and to deepen the unity among its diverse constituents. Entire villages gathered under shade trees to debate fundamental rights and freedoms. Theater and music groups staged performances on these motifs, radio programs were broadcast in several languages, and highly publicized contests on constitutional themes were held for students to stimulate public interest and heighten participation.
After a draft was produced in 1996, there was another round of public seminars to give people the opportunity to respond to it. On 23 May 1997, a Constituent Assembly comprised of 527 members from the provisional National Assembly, all six Regional Assemblies and representatives from the diaspora formally ratified the document, which became the legal framework for governing the country once national elections could be organized under its terms and provisions.
Renewed War: Throughout 1996 and 1997, tensions arose between Eritrea and Ethiopia over seemingly minor economic and political issues. However, they were aggravated by a series of armed incursions into Eritrean territory from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. The significance of these incidents was made clear by the publication in Tigray in November 1997 of new maps that for the first time claimed significant areas of Eritrea.
When discrete diplomatic efforts failed to diffuse this deepening crisis, and after a series of armed incidents during which several Eritrean officials were murdered near the disputed village of Badme, Ethiopia declared total war as on 13 May and mobilized its armed forces for a full-scale assault on Eritrea. On 5 June, Ethiopian aircraft bombed the airport in Asmara. International mediation efforts failed to halt the race toward war, and ground fighting soon broke out at several points along the border.
Three rounds of combat in 1998-2000 produced hundreds of thousands of casualties and displaced nearly 1 million Eritreans. Another 76,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were forcibly expelled from Ethiopia. When Ethiopia invaded western Eritrea during the last round in May 2000, Eritrean Defense Forces carried out a strategic withdrawal to more defensible positions around the plateau and halted the intrusion.
Steps toward Peace: With the war stalemated, Ethiopia agreed to ceasefire in mid-June, and fighting ended. On 12 December 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Algiers, assisted by mediators from U.S., the European Union and the Organization of African Unity. Under its terms, a 25-kilometer wide Temporary Security Zone was established within Eritrea that was patrolled by UN peacekeeping forces, while in international Boundary Commission, whose members were approved in advance by both sides, delimited the contested border. A separate commission investigated civilians compensation claims.
Once the Commission issued its findings in April 2002 and both parties accepted the outcome, Eritrea turned its attention to the reintegration of the many war-displaced civilians, expellees from Ethiopia and returning refugees from Sudan and to the phased demobilization of combatants within a comprehensive, community-based reconstruction and development program.