History of Eritrea
Eritrea is a name given by the Italians from the Greek word “Erythrean”, meaning red, as they colonized a region located on the Horn of Africa with 1200-Kms extended coastlines in 1890. Even though Eritrea like most of the other African countries was the result of the 19th century European colonization, the history of Eritrea can be traced back to ancient times.
As the archeological evidences illustrate, it is the home of the earliest civilizations and a region where human kind originated. This region was identified as the Land of Punt by Egyptians who were sending trade expeditions by the second millennium B.C. According to linguistic evidences, the original inhabitants of present-day Eritrea were Nilotic people who eventually intermingled with the Hamitic tribes of North Africa as they expanded southwards. By 1200 B.C., Semetic people from southern Arabia began to trade along the Eritrean coast, gradually settling on the Eritrean highlands.
The Semetic then mixed with the existing tribe—Kushitic in origin—giving birth to a distinct civilization that arose into a new political and economic power. The Axumite Kingdom, which ranked third from the powerful empires that existed at that time, flourished in 4th century B.C. It expanded as far as the South Arabian Peninsula until it began to decline, ending in breakup in the seventh century.
History between the 16th Century and the Second World War
In the 16th century, the region was divided into different political entities. The highlands, called the Medri Bahri (The Land of Sea), were under the nominal rule of Abyssinia. Massawa and the coastal areas were under the Ottoman Turks and the western lowlands were under the Funj Empire of the Sudan. In the early eighteenth century, the Abyssinian domination of the highlands was challenged by the rise of two Christian Tigrinya-speaking clans. This takeover was short-lived as it came to an end when lords from northern Abyssinia reestablished their control over the highlands while the western lowlands and the coastal areas were under the loose control of Turks. The Funj Empire came under the Egyptian occupation from 1820 to 1885.
In the scramble for Africa, there was a conflict between the two great powers—the French and the British—over this increasingly strategic territory of the Red Sea coast. Because of this, the British, in order to block the French, supported the Egyptians and later the Italians to have possession over the area. The Italians for the first time set their feet in Assab (Eritrea’s second largest port) in 1882. They gradually occupied the highlands and the lowlands by driving out the Egyptians and the Abyssinians. By the first of January 1890, Italy officially declared Eritrea as its colony subsequently defining its territory by signing peace treaties with Menelik II (King of Ethiopia) and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Since Italy’s primary target in possessing a colony was to get settlement land for its unemployed population, unlike the other African colonies, the Italians built ports, railroads, roads, telecommunications and administrative centers. In the 1930s, Fascist Italy planned to invade Ethiopia by using Eritrea as a stepping-stone. As a matter of fact, so many Italian military personals were deployed that Eritrea was converted into a military supply base. The Italian colony collapsed in 1941 when the British defeated Italy at Keren and as Asmara, the capital city, was over taken.
History between the Second World War and Independence
Since it was acting only as a protectorate, the British Military Administration (BMA) retained the Italian administration—an act that discouraged Eritreans who were expecting to gain autonomy. During the Second World War, Eritrea being far from the battlefield was used as a military base. Consequently, Eritrea experienced an economic boom until the end of the Great War. The period of British Military Administration (BMA) was also marked by the rise of nationalist movements.
In the discussions for the disposal of Italian colonies, the winners of the war failed to agree on what to do with Eritrea and subsequently the issue was brought to the newly formed organization, the United Nations, which decided to federally link Eritrea with Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Ethiopia started to violate the terms of the federation from the outset, totally annexing Eritrea in 1962. As repeated appeals to the international community about Ethiopia’s violations did not bear fruit, an armed struggle became the only option left for Eritreans. After the abolition of the federation, the armed struggle was launched by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1961.
The ELF’s lack of defined political stand created fear and dissatisfaction among the fighters. Consequently, some fighters were induced to organize a reform movement called the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), a front that defeated and pushed out ELF. Though the Ethiopian government, with the assistance of the Soviet Union and other communist countries, launched major offensives to destroy the Eritrean front and to terrorize the people, the EPLF won the war because of the Eritrean masses and a very disciplined army that captured huge amounts of weapons from the Ethiopian forces. The armed struggle was culminated with the liberation of the capital city Asmara on May 24, 1991, the day that is now celebrated as Independence Day. To legitimize the victory of liberation, the new provisional government proposed to undertake a referendum. In the referendum that was observed by the international community and conducted on April 1993, 99.8% of the people voted ‘YES’ for independence. At last, Eritrea officially declared its independence on 24 May 1993, becoming legitimate country approved by the UN as its 183rd member.