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Ethiopian Confused – Part 1

Every once in a while an Eritrean or an Ethiopian makes a foolish oversight (more often an Ethiopian than an Eritrean) about the commonality and shared history. To the casual observer, or even one who had read a book on the issue it would seem to be an obvious error, however the same story consistently comes up. This time it has come from a member of the Ethiopian opposition: Dr. Yacob Hailemariam insists that “[Ethiopia] must regain her port Asseb.”1 His academic credentials notwithstanding, he misses a rather important bit of evidence regarding his counter-factual statement.

To understand why this recurring myth continues to rear its head after 20 years of Eritrean Independence and over 500 years since Ethiopia had nearly unrestricted use of the Port, it is important to take a very careful look at the policies and myths promoted by the rulers of Ethiopia. To that end let us exam four cases, Emperor Yohannes, Emperor Haile Selassie, Mengistu Hailemariam, Meles Zenawi.

First to clarify a some terminology.

  • Ethiopia will be used in the context of the modern state (including the regions occupied by the Oromo and Ogadeni peoples’),
  • Abyssinia will refer to the northern highlands of Ethiopia,
  • Mereb Mellash will be a reference to the lands on the “other side of the Mereb” which in contemporary geography refers to Eritrea.

Now to understand the main point of the discussion we obviously have to understand the historical context of the region. First it is important to understand that Mereb Mellash is not synonymous with Abyssinia. In fact, their traditional forms of government are at odds with one another.2 The decentralized nature of Eritrean systems versus the highly centralized, monarchial forms of government prevalent in Ethiopia are fundamentally opposed to one another. Similarly these two systems of governance have led to the different natures of the polities. The Eritrean polities remained small and locally engaged as a result of their consensual decision-making processes which also resulted in tempered policies while in Ethiopia the highly centralized structure focused on a singular entity led to wild swings in policy and temperment.

By the mid 19th century, Ethiopia and Egypt were locked in a decades long war to determine who would hold what the Ottomans had for so long. As the Ottoman empire began to collapse the shores of the Red Sea and the Eritrean Sahel were up for grabs. In 1884 the Hewett Treaty was signed between Egypt, the UK and Ethiopia. Amongst the requirements of the treaty were:

  • Egyptian withdrawal from Keren (to whom control would fall was not addressed),
  • Tax free trade through the Port of Massawa for Ethiopia (however, control of the Port itself would remain elsewhere), and
  • That the region of Bogos would be ceded to Ethiopia.

This final point is critical because it speaks to the important recognition by the Eritrean population that they were not a part of the Ethiopian nation. When it became clear in 1876 that the decades long conflict between the Egyptians and Ethiopians could be coming to an end and Eritreans would be given to Ethiopia, the population rose up. In July, Ras Woldemicheal raised an army and struck back at the Ethiopians without Egyptian assistance. In a bloody battle his forces dispatched the Ethiopian garrison and moved south liberate up to the Mereb. Astonished at the Eritrean audacity the Emperor of Ethiopia focused the whole of his forces on this new force and forced them back to Bogos.3 The passion for an unoccupied Eritrea continued to burn, albeit quietly. Similarly, on what would soon be the Ethiopian boundary with Colonial Eritrea, the sleepy village of Asseb was about to change hands.

In 1869 (negotiations ended in 1870) an Italian shipping company bought the port and coastline of Asseb (south eastern Eritrea) from the local rulers.4 Although nominally a part of Ethiopia these pastoralists remained independent until the last century. At the time of purchase, it should be noted, that Asseb was little more than a fishing village, it was not until the 1880’s.5 Of course, by this time the time of Emperor Yohannes was drawing to a close, though what manifested during his rule would mark the history books forever, he set in motion what would be the official demarcation between Eritrea and Ethiopia, laying to rest the question of the border. The boundaries would be finally fixed on paper by Emperor Menelik II, which we will look at next, in part 2.

[simple_series title=”Ethiopian Confused”]


  1. Ethiopia must take back Eritrea’s Assab port says Opposition leader Yacob 

  2. Relevance of African Traditional Forms of Governance 

  3. Yohannes, Oakbazghi; Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics; 1991 

  4. Ring, Trudy; Watson, Noelle; Schellinger, Paul;International Dictionary of Historic Places: Middle East and Africa, 1996 

  5. Ring, Trudy; Watson, Noelle; Schellinger, Paul;International Dictionary of Historic Places: Middle East and Africa, 1996 

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