The answer as to who has been benefiting from the continuation of Ethio-Eritrean conflict and what would be the enduring social and economic benefit if the two countries agree to stop killing innocent Eritreans and Ethiopians is to examine the socio-economic and political conditions in both countries, writes Alem Asres.
It must be said up-front, that the purpose of this article is not to deny the historical existence of the indigenous people in the area now called Eritrea. It is, however, to trace the origin of the present-day Eritrea and its historical relationship with the rest of the Ethiopian peoples, as well as, to understand the root cause of Ethio-Eritrean conflict. It is not an exaggeration to state that Ethiopians of every ethnicity and Eritreans have more in common than they have been led to believe. Contrary to the political detractors, they share similar history, religion, language, culture and traditions. Students of Ethio-Eritrean conflicts should remain cognizant of these facts and search for ways and means to building bridge for lasting and peaceful coexistence.
With foreign and home-grown enemies of Ethiopia hovering over the country at home and abroad, like vultures hovering over a dying beast, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to discuss objectively the common threads which binds Eritreans and Ethiopians together. If we are to reduce the current tension between the two nations, prevent the distraction of human life in the future, and if we are to begin to build a bridge promoting peaceful coexistence based on their shared values and common interest, it is important to ask essential questions such as: (a) was there a nation called Eritrea before 1890, (b) who has been and is benefiting from the continuation of the conflict, and (c) what would be the enduring social and economic benefit if the two country agree to end the political tensions and focus on strengthening what they have in common.
To that end, it pays to examine critically, as to when and by whom the state was named and the boundaries of the present-day Eritrea were drown. The majority of those who have studied the historical background of the present-day Eritrea, agree that ‘Eritrea was created and so named by Italy in 1890’. A brief examination of the Horn of Africa tells us about the rise and the fall of Axumite Empire and its political influence on the entire country and on the Red Sea coast. It should be noted that the Axumite Empire which grew during the Iron Age is said to have achieved prominence between the first and the second century. Commercially speaking, the ‘Axumites were major players between the Roman Empire and Ancient India’. They established hegemony over the Kingdom of Kush and played active roles in the politics of the Arabian Peninsula. With their capital at Axum, they erected a number of large stelae, many of which are still standing. The name “Ethiopia”, we are told, was used by the Axumites as early as the 4th century and that Massawa was an Ethiopian port until the Ottoman Turks appeared on the Red Sea coast.
History tells us that in 1517 the Ottoman Empire, otherwise known as Ottoman Turks, conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and brought Jeddah and Mecca under their control. The Turks, we are told, began to expand their borders to include the Red Sea coast and occupied the port of Massawa. For the next three hundred or so years, the Red Sea coast, namely Massawa, changed hands and was controlled by various non-indigenous powers. With the European powers bent on colonizing the Middle East and with “the Scramble for Africa” set in motion, the Ottoman Empire halted its expansion and began to retreat from the Red Sea coast.
Between 1881 and 1914, in what is called the “Scramble for Africa” or the “Partition of Africa”, seven super powers of the day, namely Britain, France, German, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium agreed to invade, occupy, and colonize Africa and exploit her human and material resources. By 1914, 90 percent of the continent was under European control. Only Ethiopia remained independent.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 was called to regulate trade as well as the political, economic, and territorial rivalries among the colonial powers during their occupation of Africa. It was during such period that the seed of the ongoing social, economic and political tension, between Ethiopia and the present-day Eritrea, was planted. Bent on colonizing Ethiopia, Italy waited eagerly for favorable conditions to move on the ill-organized and ill-armed Ethiopians.
The decline of Axumite Empire and the retreat of the Ottoman Turks from the Red Sea coast, combined with the death of Emperors Tewodros II at Maqdala in 1868, and that of Yohannes IV in 1876, as well as the struggle for power among Ethiopian war-lords and various princes, left the country divided and without a single ruler to rally behind. This situation provided Italy not only the opportunity she has been waiting for, but also left the northern part of Ethiopia in total chaos and disorder. Historians of national and international origin, continue to remind us that the present-day Eritrea was a non-governed or ill-governed part of the Ethiopian Empire. However, the divisive seed sown by the collective colonizing powers in general, Italy in particular, began to germinate favoring Italy. Seeing the weakening of Ethiopia, Italy took a series of well calculated steps to realize her dream of having Ethiopia as her East African colony by taking the country piece by piece. In 1890, Italy took advantage of the chaos and disorder to occupy the highlands and established a new colony calling, what was then known as Bahr Negash or Ma’ikele Bahr, “Eritrea”. The name “Eritrea”, we are told, is based on the Greek term for the Red Sea. Italy took the following steps to plant her foot in that part to Ethiopia:
1. Between 1869 and 1870, Giuseppe Sapeto, an Italian priest, purchased a plot of land in an area known as Assab on behalf of Rubattino Shipping Company from the ‘local sultan for 6,000 Maria Theresa dollars’ or birr. Italy saw the purchase of Assab not only as a coaling station along the shipping lanes made possible by the opening of Suez Canal, but as launching pad to colonizing the rest of Ethiopia.Thus, during 1880 Assab saw the arrival of ‘large number of Italian settlers’ bent on occupying that part of Ethiopia indefinitely.
2. In 1882, the Italian government purchased Assab from Rubattino Shipping Company and, with no objection from the rest of colonial powers, declared Assab as its East African colony and began to move inland to fulfil her long-held dream of expanding her colony by bringing Ethiopia under Italian control.
3. In 1885, Italy occupied Massawa thus denying Ethiopia access to the sea once again making Ethiopia one of the land-locked nations in Africa. “Had Italians never landed at Massawa” wrote Wilfred Burchett: “Eritrea would today be partly, as always before, the ill-governed and non-governed northernmost province of Ethiopia”.He added: “From time immemorial, the territory which in 1890 the Italy named Eritrea was the cradle of Ethiopian civilization”.
4. In 1889 Italy occupied Keren and Asmara, and a year later she declared her possessions on the Red Sea coast as an Italian East African colony and named it “Eritrea”.The divisive seed sown by Italy finally bore fruit and Italy, for more than 51 years, from 1890 to 1941, ruled the present-day Eritrea. As with all European colonies in Africa and elsewhere, very little was done to improve the social, economic and political conditions of the Eritreans.
Several historians, including G.K.N. Trevaskis, believe that the present-day Eritrea “was created and so named by the Italians, who established their first colony towards the end of the nineteenth century”. According to Trevaskis, “Eritrea had never enjoyed any form of unity, had never had a government of its own, never even had a name…Italy created Eritrea by an act of surgery: by severing its different peoples from those with whom their past had been linked and by grafting the amputated remains to each other under the title of Eritrea”.
From 1941 to 1951, the British played a key role in the political drum of Eritrea. First as occupying forces and then as administrator of the United Nations trust territory. In 1950, the United Nations decided to make Eritrea part of Ethiopia as autonomous federal province with its own constitution and elected government. Ethiopia, under Emperor Haile-Selassie I, was a well-known feudal system ruled by one man with an iron-fist. The UN’s decision totally ignored the political reality of feudal Ethiopia. There was no room for elected government under Haile-Selassie I. It was predicted that the union of the autonomous Eritrea with feudal Ethiopia was destined to fail. With the Emperor imposing more direct rule over Eritrea, the federation not only ‘failed to bring harmonious integration of the two entities’ but resulted in a protracted war that claimed the lives of more than 300,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans combined. After one of the longest civil wars in Africa, and after unbelievable destruction of property and human lives, the prediction became a reality in 1993 with Eritrea seceding from Ethiopia. Even though Eritrea has been an internationally recognized independent state for the last 23 years, the Ethio-Eritrean conflict continues to persist with no end in sight.
The loss of human lives on both sides, which has been witnessed in the past and the continuation of the ongoing tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia, benefits no one but foreign and home-grown merchants of war. “Eritrea” said Haggai Erlich, “was a problem that became a conflict, a conflict that became a local tragedy, and a local tragedy that became a pivotal issue in a regional crisis”. Men have created such tragedy, and reasonable men can end it.
The answer as to who has been benefiting from the continuation of Ethio-Eritrean conflict and what would be the enduring social and economic benefit if the two countries agree to stop killing innocent Eritreans and Ethiopians is to examine the socio-economic and political conditions in both countries. Lack of economic progress is a breeding ground for socio-political conflicts and wars. The Ethiopian Birr and the Eritrean Nakfa spent on purchasing weapons of destruction—weapons which are not produced by Ethiopians or Eritreans, benefits no one but the foreign peddlers of arms and ammunitions. If the money spent to purchase weapons is used to create peaceful environment conducive for economic and social growth and development, the Ethio-Eritrean conflict will have no compelling reason to persist.
In my opinion, this tragic conflict will end only when Ethiopians and Eritreans of good-will and common sense, put their artificial differences aside and focus on what they have in common and what would be in the best interest of both. If this generation fails to end the Ethio-Eritrean conflict, which is a major drain on our human and material resources, the next generation will surely point its accusing finger at all of us. History will have no reason to forgive us. I hope to see the end of the political conflicts and the cause of tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia sooner than later.
Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Social Foundations of Education with emphasis on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his MA degree in Urban Sociology and Urban Planning from Howard University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].