Every once in a while I’m sent questions about Eritrean history that people are curious about. Often they are submitted in genuine curiosity and other times by someone who has believed a “truth” their whole life and is finally starting to realize that they had been misled. Recently I was sent comments from around the web that reflect tremendous confusion on the historical relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. One point of confusion is described best by this comment:
Since Eritrean independence in 1991, Ethiopian nationalists have struggled with the idea of an independent Eritrea. This challenged what Emperor Menelik II’s wife put forth, “… that Ethiopia’s strength derived primarily from its political mythology …”1) Clearly this presented an existential threat to the Ethiopian state itself, and its ruling elites in particular. This likely brought forth memories of the “Era of Princes” wherein the various Ethiopian kingdoms fought constantly with one another for the Imperial throne. This lasted for nearly 100 years. Has we have explored int he previous pieces (part 1, part 2 and part 3), it is abundantly clear that as a fundamental question of both identity and control, the lands that now call themselves Eritrean were not a part of the either an Ethiopian kingdom or the Empire. Of course, the final piece of recognizing that the ports of Asseb and Massawa are Eritrean and wholly separate from Ethiopia comes by way of the third great war fought along the border.
Reid, Richard; “The Challenge of the past: The Quest for Historical Legitimacy in Independent Eritrea”; History of Africa; Vol. 28 (2001 ↩
The importance of Emperor Haile Selassie to the Eritrean independence movement as well as to further defining the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia is clear. During the reign of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia the people of Eritrea made great gains in their governance. After the defeat of Italy during World War II the British Military Administration imposed a parliamentary democracy in Eritrea which was flush with political parties of various agendas.
Throughout the reign of Emperor Menelik, the immediate successor of Yohannes the IV (discussed previously, in part 1), the treaty boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia was further clarified. Although these treaties essentially recognized the balance of power on the ground they also provided grounds for recognizing that Ethiopia did not have sovereignty over the Red Sea nor ports on it. Additionally they also connect the pre-colonial independent regions of Mereb Mellash together into a singular territorial entity. As we will see in the discussion regarding Emperor Haile Selassie (part 3), the only way for Ethiopia to have access to the sea would be through the intervention of European powers.