Why can’t we all just get along? Specifically, why is it that Eritrea and Ethiopia cannot get along? After all it would seem to the casual observer that Eritreans and Ethiopians are roughly similar. They share similar GDP’s per capita, religious balances, and are even geographically connected by a 1,000 km boundary. Some even go so far as to say they share history! Well this isn’t entirely honest.
Surely, the histories of the two lands are as deeply interrelated as neighborly lands go, however to understand the history you cannot center on this bilateral relationship. Just as Eritreans have had a long shared history with the peoples of Ethiopia, they too have had a long history with the peoples of the Sudan and the Red Sea region. Eritrea has always been a hub of trading peoples in the lowlands and sedentary farmers in highlands and these peoples shared a robust relationship centered on trade (and at times conflict, although their relationship was not based on this).
For instance, the Eritreans of Massawa used to trade extensively throughout the Red Sea region, ((Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa)) particularly across the Red Sea with the Arabian peninsula while serving as a transit point in the trade routes from Eritrea and southern Ethiopia to south Asia. Similarly the nomads of the western Eritrean lowlands were often a trade buffer of goods from central Africa and the Sahel with the Eritrean highlands and further still into the coastal regions.
Of course when it came to conflict between the highland Eritreans and highland Ethiopians, the use of foreign empires was used just as Henry Kissinger ((Diplomacy)) described it was used in Europe. This “balance-of-power” was used by the relatively small Eritrean highlands polities to counter the scales of power in their interest by leveraging opposing neighbors against the other. This actually a common mechanism for survival of small powers surrounded by large ones, particularly by modern states such as Singapore. ((From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000))
This has driven the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia since the collapse of the Aksumite kingdom (and before the rise of the Aksumite Kingdom). Essentially this is a reflection of empire building in the Horn of Africa and the conflict that ensues at their periphery. For millenia, Eritreans have stood against this for millenia and so the result has been millenia of conflict between an imperialistic, colonizing power and a polity resisting. Until this dynamic changes, the idea of us just getting along will remain a fantasy. How could we get there, it all rests on political domination and how this simply is unacceptable by Eritreansl; Ethiopians recognition of this fact will start the road to peace.