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Questions of Eritrean History

I thought today I would take the time to respond to some comments from another blog that I happened upon. The post that I had commented on was about Eritrea and Ethiopia’s less than neighborly relations for the past decade. I thought that part of the original post were ill-informed, as were some of the comments, however, because I believe in not being too judgmental, engage in the conversation. Impressively the original author responded to my comments with more depth than I expected (a wonderful surprise), however, I disagreed further with his statements. Careful not to start a blogging war I decided it would be best to create a far more in depth post here because the information will hopefully be instructive to a much larger audience.

The original blogger, Shlomo Bachrach, begins his response to my comments by saying:

“Eritrea” is, as you say, an old name that referred only to the Red Sea. The highlands and the coast that are within today’s Eritrea were part of the empire of Axum, and were never known by the name. Today’s Eritrea has kept the name that Italy gave its colony in the late 19th century.

Indeed, Eritrea has kept the name that it was given by Italy, however, this is not uncommon in Africa or elsewhere for that matter. Furthermore, it was the Mr. Shlomo’s original assertion that the name was “invented” and clearly it was not, but rather adjusted to not only refer to the sea but also to some of the land bounding it. This however is not a significant point, because one way or another the people of Eritrea have come to identify themselves as Eritreans, nullifying the fact that the original name was a description of a geographic condition.

Now, before I get into what may end up being the initially controversial second half of this post I would like to touch on a comment Shlomo made about national boundaries. He seemed surprised that boundaries shift when rivers do:

By the way, your claim that borders move when rivers change course is surprising. Can you document it?

Of course when it comes to this matter it is obviously a question of the specifics, however, what I will present is a couple of excerpts from a court decision and another from a handbook on international law. Of course, the problem with most international law is that it has not been written yet, however, this issue has come up on so many occasions that it has taken an entire section of most international legal books. “As regards a change in the course of a river forming a boundary … where a gradual move has taken place … the boundary will continue to be the middle of the river itself.”1 This point is surprising, at least to the uninitiated because this particular point would seem self-evident, in the United States (where this issue as been dealt with extensively) however, it has been a bone of much contention. This is because many of the borders bounding the States of the United States are in fact rivers. A typical example is that bounding Nebraska and Iowa by the Missouri River. “The [US] Supreme Court decided that the political boundary line [between Nebraska and Iowa] would vary as the river moved, despite the rapidity of such river movement.”2

Now that we have these relatively simple matters attended to I may continue responding to what may be the most controversial bit of my response to Shlomo. He continues:

During the first millennium, Axum ruled much the territory that is now Eritrea. Your statement that it was never under the control of Ethiopia  only applies to remote parts of today’s Eritrea that may never have been ruled by either Axum or Ethiopia (in later centuries). Ethiopia’s empire expanded and contracted over the years, at times including parts of today’s Eritrea, at other times not.

Here I do disagree somewhat with the assertion that Aksum (note: I will use Aksum to refer to the Kingdom of Aksum instead of Axum which will be reserved to refer to the city of Axum) ruled much of the territory that is now Eritrea. Aksum was the certainly the pre-eminent power in the region (although state-building in the region was far from new, as the ancient writings of the Punt Empire would attest to) and most of the Eritrean highlands and eastern lowlands were part of this empire. I would dispute however, that the western lowlands of Eritrea and the northern tip of the Eritrean highlands were not part of the Empire. Furthermore, the cities of Matara, Qohaito and Sembel were vibrant cities unto themselves before the rise of Aksum. As for Adulis, it has been suggested in fact that this may have actually been the original centre of the Aksumite kingdom before its capital was moved inland. Nonetheless, the second part of this comment’s relevance is based on the assertion that Aksum and Ethiopia are identical in soul, I would contend that this is not true.

I present a thesis, although not original, is based on historical evidence, “Aksum was an Eritrean empire, certainly more so than an Ethiopian empire.”34 Now this thesis flies in the face of nearly a hundred years of Ethiopia-oriented archaeology. It is certainly not a new idea, but it has not received broad attention as the ancients community has focused on (some would say enamored with) Ethiopia’s influence on the region, versus the region’s influence on Ethiopia. I personally imagine this is a result of the 19th century Imperial attention given to Ethiopia by the powers of Europe and near East (i.e. England, Italy, France and the Ottomans).

Finally onto Schlomo’s question about the Federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia:

… The result was a federation in 1952 that pleased no one. Was it intended to be a temporary arrangement? Ethiopia obviously thought so, because it soon eliminated the features that were intended to give Eritrea home rule. You suggest a different kind of temporary condition, one that was to lead to a referendum, or the equivalent, on independence Can you document this? In any case, Ethiopia’s actions inspired the liberation movement that eventually led to Eritrea’s official independence in 1993.

Well I will certainly agree with you that the Federation pleased no one. The answer to Schlomo’s question in short is yes. From the perspective of the Ethiopians surely, the Federation was to be a short lived entity, as Bereket Habte Selassie (for some time Haile Selassie’s Attorney General) suggested, “the ‘federal’ scheme was only a betrothal scheme which merely whetted the imperial appetite to … swallow Eritrea.”5 Most Eritrean Unionists were agitating not to become a single entity with Ethiopia, but for the Federal solution, this in their estimation would allow Eritrea’s government to focus on developing locally. Now the Independence Bloc, which was wholly ignored in this entire process (not to mention threatened with assassination, which occasionally were successful) hoped that this would be a temporary situation as the people of Eritrea were not limited from dissolving the Federation by referendum (ostensibly for independence).

Now this is an interesting point, because as Ethiopian(ist) historians would suggest, in 1962 the Eritrean Parliament dissolved itself voting for full inclusion in the Ethiopian empire. This simply was not the case however as this excerpt from an essay by Semere Haile shows:

Eritrean parliamentarians who opposed the systematic disintegration of the federal government and apparatus were intimidated and forced to resign their posts. Yet the motion to dissolve the Federation was defeated four times. Finally, on 14 November 1962, members of the Eritrean Assembly were ordered by force of arms to … dissolve the Federation …6

Affirmative Ballot from 1993 Referendum
Affirmative Ballot from 1993 Referendum

Ironically this is legally impossible as UN Resolution 390(V)7 gave no such power to either the Ethiopian or Eritrean governments (in other words, this could only be accomplished by a referendum in Eritrea). This referendum though finally did take place, be it 30 years subsequent to occupation of Eritrea. At the very least the referendum showed the true nature of Eritreans’ wish for independence from Ethiopia!

This in turn returns us to the fact that Eritrea was never a part of Ethiopia, but rather suffered an occupying force. If however, you are thinking of the time period between the fall of Aksum (which we have already addressed) and the Ottoman occupation, well that will have to be for a subsequent piece.

I hope this piece was at the very least instructive, if not helpful. Of course there may be some controversy in what was said here, but of course such is history, but this should at least be a point of reference for further conversation. I hope the links to references too will be helpful for those wishing a deeper understanding.

  1. International Law by Malcolm Nathan Shaw 

  2. Nebraska v. Iowa, supra, 143 U.S. 359-360 

  3. The Long struggle of Eritrea for independence and constructive peace By Lionel Cliffe, Basil Davidson 

  4. The Case for Eritrea National Independence by Araia Tseggai 

  5. Eritrea and the United Nations and other essays By Bereket H. Selassie 

  6. The Long struggle of Eritrea for independence and constructive peace By Lionel Cliffe, Basil Davidson 

  7. The Long struggle of Eritrea for independence and constructive peace By Lionel Cliffe, Basil Davidson 

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