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Poverty and War: The Story of Ethiopia and Eritrea


Ethiopia is a historical beacon of hope for all of Africa. The only nation (other than the bizarre history of Liberia) to survive European colonization is Ethiopia, their flags colours have become famous across the continent and adopted by a huge number of nations. The red, yellow and green have really become a symbol of the unique cultures of Africa. The Horn of Africa is home to one of the most unstable and poverty stricken regions of the world. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea are some of the poorest countries on the planet yet they continue to waste millions of dollars on military ventures instead of aiding the people within their country. In the Second World War both Ethiopia and Eritrea were occupied by Italy. Following the end of the war the two nations were joined under Ethiopia. The deal offered numerous benefits to both nations. Ethiopia gained access to the Red Sea which would hugely increase trade. Eritrea joined a much larger population and a slightly higher GDP per capita offering safety and the economic growth which comes with free trade. In order to minimize calls for independence Eritrea was given a significant amount of autonomy over their own affairs. This had all occurred by 1952 when the United Nations federated Eritrea into Ethiopia.

Just a short nine years later in 1961 long time monarch and “Hero” of Africa Haile Selassie grew tired of dealing with Eritrea and annexed the autonomous region. Haile Selassie was the final monarch of the Ethiopian Empire and is a national hero in Ethiopia and much of Africa. This single action sparked a war which would last 30 years. The first period of the war is between 1961-1974. During this time Ethiopia enjoyed the support of both the United States and Israel. With no official military the forces of Eritrea struggled to co-operate and would fight a short civil war. Eritrean forces fought under the name ELF and EPLF. Eritrea had the backing of many Islamic powers including Somalia who was a US ally at the time. It is most likely that these Muslim powers saw an opportunity to weaken a major power (Ethiopia) in the region. It is crucial to remember that all events from 1945-1991 were strongly influenced by the Cold War. This conflict proved to be no exception when in 1974 a coup in Ethiopia led to a communist leader in power. This naturally resulted in the cessation of US support and the birth of Soviet support. The Soviet Union supplied a huge amount of arms to the new Derg regime in Ethiopia, this event prolonged the war significantly. In the 1980s, as part of Gorbachevs glasnost and perestroika policies, Ethiopia lost military aid from the Soviet Union. This proved to be a crucial blow to the war effort. A joint offensive between Eritrean forces and Somalian forces would capture the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa in 1991, and a referendum would be held on Eritrean independence. Ethiopia was forced to recognize the referendum. The referendum reached over a 99% consensus on independence. These events would leave an estimated 1.5 million dead. Included in these numbers are the one million Ethiopians who died of famine.

Post war relations were defined by significant influence of Eritrea over Ethiopia. However, this balance could not last as Ethiopia is home to nearly a hundred million people and Eritrea is home to under six and a half million. The border between the two nations was constantly under debate and an agreement could not be reached. In 1998, seeing a slipping hold on relations, Eritrea invaded one of the disputed border regions and sparked a new war. The city of Badme is still claimed by both nations. The UN would find Eritrea guilty of breaking international law in the invasion of Ethiopia. In 1998 Eritrea rejected multiple peace deals and war would continue for another two years. The war would be marked by full mobilization and trench warfare comparable to the First World War. Eritrean forces were composed of a quarter woman, an unprecedented percentage. By 2000 it became clear that Eritrea could not continue without complete occupation by Ethiopia. Eritrea granted Ethiopia all disputed regions and roughly a quarter of its territory including significant infrastructure. Most estimates place the loss of life between 70-100 thousand people. Somalia’s sovereignty was violated during this war and remains a crucial nation in the struggle between the two nations. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the war. Although insignificant to a nation like the US this economic burden of nearly continuous war since the 1960s has been a huge factor in the continued poverty of both nations.

Since the second war relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been far from healthy. From 2007-2008 significant clashes of troops between the nations resumed. The UN was forced to remove troops due to restrictions from the Eritrean government. Over the last few days’ tensions have flared up again over the disputed border regions, the Eritrean government has claimed 200 killed Ethiopian troops. The region in question is Tserona. Eritrea has called for the UN to intervene before another full scale war emerges. Ethiopia appears to believe that another war will begin. Any escalations now could result in ten of thousands of dead.

Neither nation offers a good record of human rights. Over the last decade Eritrea has consistently occupied the bottom spot in regards to freedom of press. Eritrea also has compulsory conscription and forced labour. All students in 12th grade have been forced into military training, Eritrea has authorized a “shoot and kill” policy for any student attempting to avoid this program by escape into Ethiopia. Torture and political prisoners have given rise to claims that Eritrea is committing crimes against humanity. Ethiopia has detained and executed members of opposing political parties. Freedom of assembly has also been repressed, especially in regards to political demonstrations.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have had a troubled history. Perhaps the only peaceful resolution would be an agreement on borders. This agreement seems unlikely as the nations have demonstrated a frightful refusal to compromise.

By: Tyler Kattler

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