ICE Case Studies

Case Number: 2

Case Identifier: ERITREA

Case Name: Eritrean and Ethiopian Civil War

By Tracey L. Cousin



1. Abstract

The Eritrean-Ethiopian War ended with the Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front (EPLF, which later became the Peoples' Front for Democracy and Justice) capture of the capital city of Asmara on May 24, 1991 (the war lasted for 30 years). The war involved efforts to disrupt agricultural production in Eritrea and resulted in serious habitat changes. Who would have imagined, in 1963, that the few hundred Eritrean freedom fighters would be more than a minor irritant to Ethiopian soldiers? 1 Two years after the liberation of Asmara, Eritrea became a sovereign state (April 23, 1993). This major victory for Eritrea gave its people independence, but at what cost?

2. Description

The after-effects of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War created many problems in Eritrea. By the end of the war, most of the country's physical infrastructure was destroyed, and what was not destroyed during the war is rapidly deteriorating. An even greater tragedy of the war is that even as thousands of people in both countries were killed, thousands more continue to recover from their war wounds.

With this new freedom, Eritrea became an member of the world political economy, which rates it one of the poorest countries in the world. "Its annual per capita income is under $200, well below the sub-Saharan Africa average of $350."2 But Eritrea is not a "lost cause", its President Isais Afewerki plans to transform his new nation. Hagos Ghebrehuwet said to a Newsweek reporter that "If this isn't going to be a country we can be proud of, then it (the war) was all a waste of time."3

In May 24, 1991, Eritrea became a liberated country, but what took so long and what were the costs for this new found freedom? This case study is an informative study on the Eritrea and its' effects in the Horn of Africa. This case will discuss Eritrea's ancient history, its long colonial history, the war of independence against Ethiopia (and its after-effects) and Eritrea's future prospects.

Eritrea's Ancient History

Since its beginnings, Eritrea has long been a region of colonization. The earliest history of Eritrea dates back to 3,000 B.C. Its' history basically started with the trade of goods between the pharaohs of Egypt and the local chiefs of Eritrea. This trade between the two states lasted for many centuries. Around 800-700 B.C. "...the migration of the Sabeans from Yemen, across the Red sea."4 The Yemen immigrants, were "... known as the Habeshat and Ageazians, were the 'Huguenots' of the South Arabian civilization -- masons, metalworkers, and artisans, who fled the persecution of the warlords of the Sabean Kingdom by migrating to Eritrea..."5

The immigrants first settled along the coastline of Eritrea, and then they began to found many towns, like Kohitao, Yeha, Hawulti and Aksum. They made Aksum the main town and their port town was Adulis. (which later became Massawa) This started the famed Aksumite Empire, which lasted until the sixth century A.D. The decline of the Empire was due to the invasion of the Ummayads of Arabia and the Beja takeover around 750 A.D.6

After the end of the Aksumite Empire, five independent kingdoms were created: the Naqis, Baqlin, Bazin, Jarin, and Qata; these kingdoms, stretched from the Northern Sudan to all of present day Tigrai province in Ethiopia.7 But unfortunately these kingdoms, continuously fought each other, which lead to the disintegration of these empires. With these conditions, the Ottoman Turks seized control of the coastline of Eritrea. And by 1557 A.D., the Ottoman empire made Eritrea one of its' colonies. The Ottoman colonial rule of Eritrea lasted for more than 300 years.

During the 19th century many other countries have had their eye on Eritrea. By now, the Turkish empire was slowly declining in power around the 1850s. In 1865, the Egyptian Khedevites formally took over Eritrea from the Turks, and they made the port city of Massawa their local seat of government. In 1869, the Suez Canal was opened and the coastal areas of Eritrea became an important resource and market area not only for Egyptians rulers but also for the European powers interested in expanding their trade to India and the Far East.

With the colonization of Eritrea, the Egyptians invaded other areas of the Horn of Africa including Ethiopia. At two Eritrean towns, Gundet (1875) and Gura (1876) the Ethiopian army (with the help of the Eritreans) defeated the Egyptians. With these defeats, the Egyptians retreated to the lowlands of Eritrea, leaving the highlands under temporary control of the Ethiopian empire.8

Colonial Times and Modern history of Eritrea

Modern Eritrea dates from the establishment of an Italian colony at the end of the 19th century. The Italians extended their control from Assab in 1869 to most of Eritrea in 1889. "In the same year the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik, and the Italian government signed the Treaty of Uccialli, which effectively recognized Italian control over Eritrea (and from which Italy derived its subsequent claim to a protectorate over Ethiopia)."9 The Eritrean colony was formed in an area where the peoples had varying and discontinuous relations with the Ethiopian empire in the South, the Ottoman and Egyptian empires in the North and various Sudanic empires to the west and north west. With these links to other areas, Eritrea became a unique area of ideas and beliefs of many cultures. These links mainly affected religion in Eritrea, as most Eritreans are either Muslim (North) or Christian (South, resulting from the Ethiopian and Ottoman linkages). There were and are religious beliefs and practices that are common to Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians, also, the Ethiopian language Tigrinya was spoken in the highlands of Eritrea. However, large parts of Eritrea, mainly the north and the west, have had, little to no, cultural links to Ethiopia. Nevertheless, history provided the setting for the subsequent political and military struggle between Eritrean nationalists and Ethiopia.

The Italian rule of Eritrea lasted from 1889 to 1941, and in 1941 (to 1952) the British military administration temporary (because of WWII) took control of the colony. Under the Italian and British rule the rudiments of an urban social and economic order were founded, political parties and trade unions were permitted and a free press was established. During the late 1940s, the UN discussed the future of the former Italian colony. Also, during this time Ethiopia pressed its territorial interest and mobilized its support for a political union largely among the Eritrean Christian highlanders. The US, with its strategic interests in Eritrea, and with its powerful influence in the UN, resulted in a compromise in the form of a federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia. (In 1953, Eritrea was forced into a federation with Ethiopia.) However, in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, dissolved the federation and forcibly annexed Eritrea in direct violation of the UN treaty, which made Eritrea a self-governing autonomous unit federated under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown. (This act, basically started the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia)

Eritrean and Ethiopian War

With the end of the federation came a more militant Eritrea nationalism, whose political and social roost had been created during the process of the Italian rule. In 1958, the Eritrean Liberation Movement was formed, which was changed to the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The ELF began it's armed struggle against Ethiopia in September, 1961. (Which became the longest fight for independence in modern African history.) But this organization did not last for long. In the mid 1960s, violence erupted in the ELF. This was a result of demands for reform (within the organization) from the increasing numbers of educated guerrilla fighters, mainly the Christian highlanders and the Muslim eastern lowlanders. The reformist group separated from the ELF and formed the Popular Liberation Forces, which was renamed the Eritrea People's Liberation Front -- EPLF in 1977. One major consequence of the split-up was a civil war between the two organizations during 1972-74. This civil war basically destroyed the ELF as a coherent military organization. Unlike the ELF, the EPLF was made up as a highly centralized and disciplined political and military organization.

With the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia and its violent aftermath, thousands of new recruits joined the resistance groups of Eritrea. "Even greater numbers of recruits joined the EPLF after the Mengistu regime launched its 'red terror' campaign in Asmara (Eritrea's capital) and following its capture of smaller cities suck as Keren and Decamhare in 1977."10 Through the 1980s the EPLF, pushed back the Ethiopian armies on all fronts, capturing large quantities of artillery and tanks, and transformed itself from a guerrilla force into a real army.

Ethiopian defeats gave the EPLF control of the north, west and, finally the east (with the capture of the port city of Massawa in 1990). The EPLF broke through the Decamhare front in early May 1991 and they entered the capital Asmara on May 24,1991. The capture of Asmara ended the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. And on April 23, 1993, Eritrea was voted into the United Nations, and was recognized as a new state in Africa.

The effects of the War (Social)

During the war, more than 150,000 Eritrean died, 60,000 of them were guerrilla fighters, and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians.11 This meant that virtually every family in Eritrea had lost someone to the war. Worse still, there is a large number of disabled war veterans in the country. Many thousands of the 3 million Eritreans were disabled by the war.12 Also, during the war, 400,000 Eritreans took refuge in the Sudan and other areas, are now coming back to the country. Furthermore, there is a problem with the combatants who survived the war. Many of these soldiers have spent most of their adult lives fighting the war, that is all they know how to do. More than 50,000 soldiers have been discharged since 1993. It is going to be a very difficult for the Eritrean government to train these people with better skills, and basically integrate them back into the society. And of course, during war and after the war Eritrea has suffered from chronic food shortages. Only about 20% of Eritrea's national farms are irrigated. The Eritrean government estimated that the nation's farms could only supply about 60% of the country's food needs even with good weather conditions. "As estimated two thirds of the population relies on some form of food aid."13

These basic social problems have caused many problems in the rebuilding of Eritrea. First, it will take the people some time to recover from the lost of their love ones. Second, with the many disabled war veterans, the Eritrean government most see to their welfare, in turn thousands or millions of dollars will be sent doing this. Also, with the hundreds of thousands Eritreans coming back into the country, the government most also, help them relocate back into the country because of many of the areas these people lived in have been destroyed by the war. Furthermore, with the unskilled veterans of the war being discharged, from the military forces, the Eritrean government is faced with the task to help them train to get better and more fulling jobs, that in turn would help the society and country advance.

Environmental effects of the war

Before the war, Eritrea was had flourishing small-scale industries and a well-developed system of roads and railroads, which was built during the Italian occupation. But the war between Ethiopia basically destroyed Eritrea entire infrastructure. With the war lasting for 30 years, virtually all of the cites and country side has been badly damaged and its going to take a long time to repair this. The sea city Massawa, paid a great price during the war. Thirty years ago Massawa was a prosperous city of 80,00014 , but now it only has about 20,000 residents. Also, because of the war, Eritrea has terrible land mine problem. (one of the worst in the world) Farming or herding in most of the countryside has become very dangerous, this in turn effects the farming prospects greatly in many areas. Farmers not only have less irrigable land, they have to worry about stepping on a land mine and getting killed.

Before the war Eritrea had a winding railway which descended 7,000 feet in 70 miles from the Eritrean capital of Asmara to the Red Sea coastal city of Massawa. But after the war this 70 mile long railway is only about two and a half miles long, the rest of the railway was destroyed by the war. The railway was in fact used for other reasons in the war, it was used to help the Ethiopians build foxholes during the war. To repair the decimated railroad, "foreign contractors have estimated the cost of rebuilding the railway at between $200 million and $400 million, and foreign governments have offered to lend Eritrea the money to employ the contractors."15 But the Eritrean government refused the aid, they know not they can not possibly afford such a large expenditure, the Eritreans want to rebuild the railroad because they will acquire useful skills in rebuilding the railroad themselves.

Like the social problems, the environmental effects of the had greatly affected Eritrea. One Eritrean said to a Newsweek reporter, that "We're rebuilding the city block by block.... its a fantastic feeling"16

Future Prospects

3. Duration: 1961-1991

4. Location

Continent: Mideast

Region: Mideast Africa

Country: Eritrea

5. Actors: Eritrea and Ethiopia

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat Loss

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

8. Act and Harm Sites: Ethiopia and Eritrea

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Ethiopia       Eritrea             Damage from 30 yeaers of war

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 545,000 (Ruth Sivard)

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect

Causal Diagram

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Region

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

TED Cases KENYA Case
QAT Case

ICE cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature




Literature Caputo, Robert. "Eritrea." National Geographic Feb. 1996: 85-103.

Cliffe, Lionel, and Basil Davidson. The Long Struggle of Eritrea. New Jersey:

The Red Sea Press, 1988.

Connell, Dan. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. New Jersey: The Red Sea Press, 1993.


Hammer, Joshua. "Eritrea: Back From the Ruins." Newsweek. 26 Feb. 1996: 40.

Rake, Alan. "Eritrea." Africa South of the Sahara. London: Europa, 1996 ed.

Tekle, Amare. Ed. Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Conflict to Cooperation. New Jersey:

The Red Sea Press, 1994.

Weissman, Robert. "An African Star? Free Eritrea Faces the Challenges Ahead." Multinational Monitor. July/Aug. 1996: 22-26.

End Notes


1. Tekle, Amare. Ed. Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Conflict to Cooperation. New Jersey:

The Red Sea Press, 1994: 92.

2. Weissman, Robert. "An African Star? Free Eritrea Faces the Challenges Ahead." Multinational Monitor. July/Aug. 1996: 23.

3. Hammer, Joshua. "Eritrea: Back From the Ruins." Newsweek. 26 Feb. 1996: 40.

4. Cliffe, Lionel, and Basil Davidson. The Long Struggle of Eritrea. New Jersey:

The Red Sea Press, 1988: 68.

5. Ibid, 68.

6. Ibid, 68.

7. Ibid, 69.

8. Ibid, 70.

9. Rake, Alan. "Eritrea." Africa South of the Sahara. London: Europa, 1996 ed. 376.

10. Ibid, 377

11. Caputo, Robert. "Eritrea." National Geographic Feb. 1996: 85.

12. Weissman, Robert. "An African Star? Free Eritrea Faces the Challenges Ahead."Multinational Monitor. July/Aug. 1996: 23.

13. Ibid, 24.

14. Caputo, Robert. "Eritrea." National Geographic Feb. 1996: 91.

15. Weissman, Robert. "An African Star? Free Eritrea Faces the Challenges

Ahead."Multinational Monitor. July/Aug. 1996: 23.

16.Hammer, Joshua. "Eritrea: Back From the Ruins." Newsweek. 26 Feb. 1996: 40.

Time Line

1557- Ottoman Turks set foot on Eritrean soil

1865- Anglo-Egyptian expansionists (1865-1876)

1889- Italian colonization (1885-1941)

1941- British colonization (1941-1952)

1953- The Eritrean-Ethiopian Federation was created

1952- Ethiopia began its colonization of Eritrea

1961- The beginning of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war (the creation of the ELF)

May 24, 1991 The EPLF liberated Asmara (Liberation Day)

April 23, 1993 Eritrea was voted into the United Nations

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November, 1997