Volume 2, Number 45
by Dan Connell
Editors: Tom Barry (IRC)
and Martha Honey (IPS)
- The U.S.-sponsored federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea
triggered a 30-year war when Ethiopia annexed the strategic
Red Sea territory.
- Eritrean liberation forces, fighting with little outside
help, defeated successive U.S.- and Soviet-backed Ethiopian
regimes to win independence in 1993.
- Abandoned after the cold war, Eritrea was born in ruins,
with almost 85% of its three million people surviving on
Eritreas independence from Ethiopia became
official in May 1993, through a United Nations-monitored referendum
in which 99.8% of the voters opted for sovereignty. The former
Italian colony had been linked to Ethiopia in 1952 when the
U.S., looking for ways to strengthen its original African ally
in Addis Ababa and determined to set up military bases in Eritrea,
imposed a UN-sponsored federation. Ten years later, Ethiopia
dissolved the pact (again with U.S. backing) and forcibly annexed
the strategic Red Sea territory, prompting Eritrean nationalists
to launch an armed struggle for independence. Over the next
30 years, Eritrea became a cold war battlefield with dizzying
Ethiopia was a linchpin of Washington's efforts
to control sub-Saharan Africa starting in the 1940s when the
rest of the continent was still under European rule. Following
World War II, U.S. advisers designed Ethiopia's entire infrastructure,
from the Western-style parliament and the education system to
the armed forces. From 1952 to 1976, more than of all U.S. aid
to Africa went to Ethiopia, including the first supersonic jet
fighters on the continent. In exchange, Ethiopia provided troops
to U.S.-led military operations in Korea and the Congo. Ethiopia
also granted basing rights for the U.S. navy in the Eritrean
port of Massawa and for the National Security Agency in the
Eritrean capital, Asmara, to establish the largest overseas
spy facility in the world. When the Eritrea war heated up in
the 1960s, the U.S. sent Special Forces units to train Ethiopians
in the latest counterinsurgency techniques. Israel also sent
advisers and arms.
In 1974, an Ethiopian military committee known
as the Derg overthrew the 82-year-old, pro-Western Emperor Haile
Selassie. Two years later the Derg declared Ethiopia socialist,
broke relations with Washington, and realigned the country with
Moscow. The Soviets promptly pumped in over $11 billion in arms,
along with high-level military advisers. The U.S. then shifted
to a strategy of encirclement, arming Ethiopia's neighbors (Somalia,
Sudan, and Kenya) and developing a new base on the Indian Ocean
atoll of Diego Garcia. Soviet aid enabled Ethiopia to reoccupy
Eritreas major towns, but the war ground to a stalemate.
It was punctuated by bloody battles in which tens of thousands
perished on both sides until 1988, when the Eritreans, now led
by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), regained the
In May 1991 the EPLF routed the Ethiopian army
near Asmara, winning the war with almost no outside help. Simultaneously
it helped opposition forces in Ethiopia topple the regime there.
After a two-year cooling-off period, the Eritreans voted to
establish their own state. With the cold war over, the Horn
of Africa lost much of its strategic significance, and the U.S.
largely abandoned its one-time interests there. The war left
Eritrea in ruins, however. Water and sewage systems in the towns
barely functioned. The few asphalt roads were in shambles. Port
facilities were badly damaged. The 220-mile rail system had
been dismantled, its iron rails used to make bunkers. Upon independence
in 1993, the country's per capita income was less than $150,
compared to $330 for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Since then,
with minimal foreign aid or influence, the Eritreans have been
constructing the physical and political infrastructure of a
new country. In 1998, under a newly adopted constitution, they
will hold national elections and complete the postwar transition.
In some respects the Eritreans have an advantage
by starting with so little: no capital (but no crime or corruption
to speak of), no debts, and little ideological baggage. At independence,
Ethiopia absorbed Eritreas financial liabilities, and
the new country carries no political obligations.
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
- Despite professing to support self-reliance, the U.S.
still resists Eritreas efforts to define its own policies.
- The U.S. and its European allies are critical of a reform
that nationalizes urban and rural land, while guaranteeing
use rights to Eritreans, rather than privatizing
- Development capital and foreign investment are proving
hard to attract, despite the almost complete absence of
corruption or crime in the country.
The U.S., having orchestrated Eritreas initial
link to Ethiopia and then backing its annexation, bears major
responsibility for the bitter war that followed. Once Moscow
displaced Washington in Addis Ababa in 1977, the U.S., mistrusting
the Eritrean movement's independent-left politics, shifted to
a policy of Soviet containment. This involved arming pro-Western
states surrounding Ethiopia while ignoring the continued heavy
fighting in Eritreaa policy described by then-Deputy Secretary
of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker as the pursuit
of negative strategic interests.
Since Eritreas hard-won independence, the
U.S. has sent mixed signals. As the recent product of a successful
liberation struggle with overwhelming popular support, the Eritrean
government continues to take a leading role in economic construction
and all other aspects of national life. So far there is only
one political party (though it is organizationally and financially
separate from the state), the media is government-controlled,
and activities by both domestic and foreign NGOs are restricted.
These policies conflict directly with Washington's agenda of
unregulated markets and multiparty politics.
One of the first U.S. acts after Eritreas
independence was to deliver a list of businesses and government
departments to be immediately privatized. When the Eritrean
government rebuffed these demands, it received no development
assistance in 1992. Later, however, the U.S. provided financial
assistance for the constitution commission, for demobilization
of former combatants, and for expansion of the health care system.
Currently, the Pentagon provides various services to Eritrea,
including de-mining assistance and support for professionalizing
the armed forces. State Department officials, however, voice
impatience with the pace of economic and political liberalization.
Economic development assistanceaveraging less than $10
million per yearhas been extremely modest.
For its part, the Eritrean government insists
it must first resuscitate war-damaged industries in order to
sell them at better-than-bargain-basement rates. It also cites
the highly participatory process under way in villages and neighborhoods,
where people are choosing leaders in fiercely contested local
elections, as evidence of a long-range commitment to real democratization.
The Eritreans are constructing their state from
scratch, doing it much as they won their sovereigntythrough
their own efforts and on their own terms. In 1995 the Asmara
government nationalized urban and rural land, while guaranteeing
use rights to all Eritreans, despite a strong U.S.
preference for outright privatization. Next, it launched a National
Service program requiring women and men over 18 to undergo six
months of military training plus a year working on reconstruction
projects. This program aims to compensate for Eritreas
lack of capital and to reduce dependence on foreign aid, while
welding together an ethnically diverse society, half Christian
and half Muslim, representing nine ethnic groups. It also places
women and men in conditions of relative gender equality for
18 months, like their experience on the liberation front during
the war years.
Food aid has been a contentious issue. In 1996
the government ended all free distribution of food. Henceforth,
it announcedover U.S. and European oppositionthat
it would sell donated grain on the domestic market at subsidized
rates (rather than giving it away) and then use the proceeds
to underwrite a public works campaign for poor people. Those
unable to workwhether disabled, sick or elderlywould
receive cash grants; all others would be paid in cash for working
on projects like road repair, reforestation, or dambuilding.
Thus, the government proposed to shift from a relief-based economy
to one in which everyone who could work was guaranteed a jobby
Washington and other food donors balked at losing
control over the distribution of grain shipments within Eritrea.
They also insisted that subsidies should be eliminated and that
donated grain must be resold at world market prices. When the
Asmara government refused, the U.S. withheld grain aid, forcing
the cash-strapped Eritrean government to purchase food on the
open market and to postpone its jobs program. Late in 1996,
with Eritrean grain supplies running short, the U.S. agreed
to permit the sale of donated grain as proposed by the Eritreans,
rather than take the blame for renewed hunger, though European
donors continued to oppose the program.
There has been some private foreign investment
by both U.S. and other firms seeking joint ventures in oil and
gold exploration, but Eritreas weak infrastructure and
its inadequate energy supplies are obstacles to growth. North
American and European NGOs have also given modest assistance,
but new restrictions limit their role to providing training
and to funding Eritrean state-run operations or social movements
like the national women's union, the trade unions, or the youth
union. Some, like New York-based Catholic Relief Services, are
closing programs rather than accept controls Eritrea deems necessary
to protect its sovereignty; others, like Boston-based Grassroots
International, which has always worked through local counterparts,
Toward a New Foreign Policy
- U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa has been inconsistent
for more than two decades; it needs to be clarified and
rearticulated to reflect the new realities in the region.
- The U.S. should support Eritreas bottom-up economic
and political development strategy without trying to control
- Washington should give material and political support
to the new regional initiatives aimed at stabilizing the
U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa was driven for
decades by cold war imperatives. As superpower allegiances shifted,
billions of dollars in heavy arms flowed to corrupt autocrats
like Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, Siad Barre in Somalia, and
Jaafar el-Nimeiri in Sudan. This helped to sink the resource-rich
region into a morass of war, migration, poverty, and horrific
After decades of pouring arms into the region,
future U.S. policy toward Eritrea should be based upon a sustained
commitment to reconstruction. During their liberation struggle,
the Eritreans demonstrated the capacity to design and implement
their own relief and development programs, and the country has
the potential to become a model of efficient, self-reliant development.
Washington should facilitate Asmaras efforts through direct,
bilateral government-to-government assistance to rebuild and
develop the country's roads, bridges, railroads, communications,
and power-generation capacity.
The U.S. practice of channeling a high proportion
of its aid through private U.S. organizations is not appropriate
in Eritrea at this time. Instead, the U.S. should consider providing
grants to key ministries responsible for agriculture, industry,
mines, and marine resources and should support promising government
initiatives in such areas as education and public health.
The U.S. often tends to identify democracy with
simply holding multiparty elections. The recent record of such
elections in African countries is decidedly mixed, and, in any
case, such processes do not address the questions of how to
avoid ethnic fragmentation and how to foster democratic participation
by rural Africans. The key challenge is to bring nonliterate,
rural majorities from diverse communities into a national political
process. Eritrea is one of several African states experimenting
with building new forms of bottom-up democracy. Its leaders
argue that the development of a national political culture including
formerly disenfranchised citizenspeasant farmers, women,
ethnic minoritiesis a precondition for the creation of
a stable political system that does not simply pit the urban
leaderships of competing ethnic factions against each other
in a battle for control of the spoils of office.
Although there are areas of concern in Eritrea
that should not be ignoredcontrols the state still maintains
on the media, continuing restrictions on independent political
activity, and constraints on the establishment of nongovernmental
organizations, for examplethis new nation is clearly a
work-in-progress that needs time to mature. The U.S. should
back off from pressuring Eritrea to impose a pluralistic political
model drawn up in Washington and should instead support Asmaras
plan to build such a system in stages, rooted within its own
history and culture. The U.S. could, for example, provide funds
for Eritreas remarkable multilingual education system
and its homegrown adult literacy campaign.
Today, Eritrea maintains particularly close relations
with Ethiopia. The two erstwhile enemies have open borders and
are engaged in numerous joint economic projects. Together with
Uganda, they have taken the lead in expanding the function of
the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) from
drought relief toward resolving crises such as that in Sudan
and generating joint infrastructure projects to promote regional
integration. The U.S. should support these initiatives. The
post-independence experience of other liberation movements raises
questions as to whether the Eritrean government's highly centralized
structures and controls can assure democracy in the long run.
Nevertheless, the Eritrean government enjoys wide internal popularity,
and its commitments to economic and political self-development
and regional stabilization deserve respect and support from
Dan Connell is an independent research journalist
and development consultant based in Gloucester, MA.
Sources for more information
World Wide Web
Africa News On-Line
Africa Policy Information Center
Eritrea on the Net
Africa Policy Information Center/
Washington Office on Africa
110 Maryland Ave. NE
Washington, DC 20017
Voice: (202) 546-7961
Fax: (202) 546-1545
11 Marshalsea Rd.
London SE1 1EP, UK
Voice: (44-171) 717-1224
Fax: (44-171) 717-1240
Center of Concern
3700 13th St. NE
Washington, DC 20012
Voice: (202) 635-2757
Fax: (202) 837-9494
179 Boylston St., 4th Flr.
Boston, MA 02130
Voice: (617) 524-1400
Fax: (617) 524-5525
Human Rights Watch/Africa
485 Fifth Ave., 3rd Flr.
New York, NY 10017
Voice: (212) 972-8400
Fax: (212) 972-0905
Dan Connell, Against All Odds: A Chronicle
of the Eritrean Revolution (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press,
1993, revised 1997).
Dan Connell, After the Shooting Stops: Revolution
in Postwar Eritrea, Race & Class, vol. 38,
no. 4, April-June 1997.
Eritrea Profile, c/o Embassy of Eritrea,
1708 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
Eritrean Studies Review, Red Sea Press,
11-D Princess Rd., Lawrenceville, NJ 08648.
Middle East Report, 1500 Massachusetts
Ave. NW, Ste. 119, Washington, DC 20005.
Northeast African Studies, Michigan State
University Press, 1405 S. Harrison Rd., 25 Manly Miles Bldg.,
E. Lansing, MI 48823-5202.