Eritrean War of Independence

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Eritrean War for Independence
Part of the conflicts in the Horn of Africa
Map of Eritrea
Date 1 September 1961 – 29 May 1991
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Location Eritrea as a province in Ethiopia
Result Eritrean victory; overthrow of Derg / People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; Ethiopia becomes a landlocked country.
Independence of Eritrea, Ethiopia becomes a landlocked country

Supported by:
Libya Libya[1][2][3]
(until 1977)
(until 1974)
 Saudi Arabia[12][13]


Supported by:
Libya Libya[1][2][3]
 United States
(May 1991)[18]

Ethiopia Ethiopian Empire (until 1974)
Supported by:
 United States (until 1974)
 Israel (until 1974) [24][25]

Ethiopia Derg (1974–1987)
Ethiopia PDRE (1987–1991)
Supported by:
 Cuba[26][27][28][29] (1974–1989)[dubious ]
 Soviet Union[26][30][31][32] (1974–1990)
 South Yemen [24]
Commanders and leaders

Hamid Idris Awate
Abdella Idris

Isaias Afewerki
Mohammed Said Bareh
Sebhat Ephrem
Petros Solomon
Gerezgher Andemariam (Wuchu)
Ethiopia Haile Selassie (1961–1974)
Ethiopia Aklilu Habte-Wold (1961–1974)
Ethiopia Tafari Benti (1974–1977)
Ethiopia Mengistu Haile Mariam (1977–1991)
Ethiopia Tariku Ayne
Ethiopia Addis Tedla
Casualties and losses
~60,000 soldiers[33]
~90,000 civilians[33]
~80,000 soldiers[34]

The Eritrean War for Independence (1 September 1961 – 29 May 1991) was a conflict fought between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean separatists, both before and during the Ethiopian Civil War. The war started when Eritrea’s autonomy within Ethiopia, where troops were already stationed, was unilaterally revoked.

Eritrea had become part of Ethiopia after World War II, when both territories were liberated from Italian occupation. Ethiopia claimed that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. Ethiopia's wishes were fulfilled after a United Nations General Assembly federated Eritrea to Ethiopia as a province as early as 1950.[35] Following the Marxist–Leninist coup in Ethiopia in 1974 which toppled its ancient monarchy, the Ethiopians enjoyed Soviet Union support until the end of the 1980s, when glasnost and perestroika started to affect Moscow’s foreign policies, resulting in a withdrawal of help.

The war went on for 30 years until 1991 when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), with the help of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), took control of Ethiopia and removed the Marxist-Leninist People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. In April 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favor of independence. Formal international recognition of an independent and sovereign Eritrea followed later the same year. The two main rebel groups, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the EPLF fought two Eritrean civil wars during the war of liberation.


The Italians colonised Eritrea in 1890. In 1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia and declared it part of their colonial empire, which they called Italian East Africa. Italian Somaliland was also part of that entity. There was a unified Italian administration.

Conquered by Allied troops in 1941, Italian East Africa was sub-divided. Ethiopia regained its formerly Italian occupied land in 1941. Italian Somaliland remained under Italian rule until 1960 but as a United Nations protectorate, not a colony, when it united with British Somaliland, also granted independence in 1960, to form the independent state of Somalia.

Eritrea was made a British protectorate from the end of World War II until 1951. However, there was debate as to what should happen with Eritrea after the British left. The British proposed that Eritrea be divided along religious lines with the Christians to Ethiopia and the Muslims to Sudan. This, however, caused great controversy. Then, in 1952, the UN decided to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia, hoping to reconcile Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. About nine years later, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering a thirty-year armed struggle in Eritrea.[36]


During the 1960s, the Eritrean independence struggle was led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The independence struggle can properly be understood as the resistance to the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia long after the Italians left the territory. At first, this group factionalized the liberation movement along ethnic and geographic lines. The initial four zonal commands of the ELF were all lowland areas and primarily Muslim. Few Christians joined the organization in the beginning, fearing Muslim domination.[37]

After growing disenfranchisement with Ethiopian occupation, highland Christians began joining the ELF. Typically these Christians were part of the upper class or university-educated. This growing influx of Christian volunteers prompted the opening of the fifth (highland Christian) command. Internal struggles within the ELF command coupled with sectarian violence among the various zonal groups splintered the organization.

The war started on 1 September 1961 when Hamid Idris Awate and his companions fired the first shots against the occupying Ethiopian Army and police. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia unilaterally dissolved the federation and the Eritrean parliament and annexed the country.

War (1961–1991)

Hamid Idris Awate, the founder of the Eritrean Liberation Army.

In 1970 members of the group had a falling out, and several different groups broke away from the ELF. During this time, the ELF and the groups that later joined together to form the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) fought a bitter civil war. The two organizations were forced by popular will to reconcile in 1974 and participated in joint operations against Ethiopia.

In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted in a coup. The new Ethiopian government, called the Derg, was a Marxist military junta, which eventually came to be controlled by strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam. The new Derg regime took an additional three to four years to get complete control of both Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Somalia. With this change of government and eventually widely known recognition, Ethiopia became directly under the influence of the Soviet Union.

Many of the groups that splintered from the ELF joined together in 1977 and formed the EPLF. By the late 1970s, the EPLF had become the dominant armed Eritrean group fighting against the Ethiopian government. The leader of the umbrella organization was Secretary-General of the EPLF Ramadan Mohammed Nour, while the Assistant Secretary-General was Isaias Afewerki.[38] Much of the equipment used to combat Ethiopia was captured from the Ethiopian Army.

During this time, the Derg could not control the population by force alone. To supplement its garrisons, forces were sent on missions to instill fear in the population. An illustrative example of this policy was the village of Basik Dera in northern Eritrea. On 17 November 1970, the entire village was rounded up into the local mosque and the mosque's doors were locked. The building was then razed and the survivors were shot. Similar massacres took place in primarily Muslim parts of Eritrea, including the villages of She'eb, Hirgigo, Elabared, and the town of Om Hajer; massacres also took place in predominately Christian areas as well.[37]

The War memorial square in Massawa, Eritrea.

By 1977, the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea, by utilizing a predetermined, simultaneous invasion from the east by Somalia to siphon off Ethiopian military resources. But in a dramatic turnaround, the Derg managed to repulse the Somalian incursion, thanks mainly to a massive airlift of Soviet arms. After that, using the considerable manpower and military hardware available from the Somali campaign, the Ethiopian Army regained the initiative and forced the EPLF to retreat to the bush. This was most notable in the Battle of Barentu and the Battle of Massawa.

Between 1978 and 1986, the Derg launched eight major offensives against the independence movements, and all failed to crush the guerrilla movement. In 1988, with the Battle of Afabet, the EPLF captured Afabet and its surroundings, then headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea, prompting the Ethiopian Army to withdraw from its garrisons in Eritrea's western lowlands. EPLF fighters then moved into position around Keren, Eritrea's second-largest city. Meanwhile, other dissident movements were making headway throughout Ethiopia.

Throughout the conflict Ethiopia used "anti-personnel gas",[39] napalm,[40] and other incendiary devices.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union informed Mengistu that it would not be renewing its defence and cooperation agreement. With the cessation of Soviet support and supplies, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF, along with other Ethiopian rebel forces, began to advance on Ethiopian positions. The joint effort to overthrow the Mengistu, Marxist regime was a joint effort of mostly EPLF forces, united with other Ethiopian faction groups (primarily consisting of tribal liberation fronts, for example the Oromo Liberation Front, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front – who were jointly in battles against the ELF and other key battles where many Tigrayans were lost in the Eritrean Civil Wars – and the EPRDF, a conglomerate of the current TPLF regime and the marxist Oromo People's Democratic Organization who became prominent for recruiting Derg defects as the EPLF and EPRDF occupied parts of the provinces of Wollo and Shewa in Ethiopia).[41]

File:LocationEthiopia before1993.png
Map of Eritrea while still attached to Ethiopia as a federation, and later as an annexation.

Peace talks

At one point, then former-President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, with the help of some U.S. government officials and United Nation officials, attempted to mediate in peace talks with the EPLF, hosted by the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia in September 1989. Ashagre Yigletu, Deputy Prime Minister of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE), helped negotiate and signed a November 1989 peace deal with the EPLF in Nairobi, along with Jimmy Carter and Al-Amin Mohamed Seid. However, soon after the deal was signed, hostilities resumed.[42][43][44][45] Yigletu also led the Ethiopian government delegations in peace talks with the TPLF leader Meles Zenawi in November 1989 and March 1990 in Rome.[46][47] He also attempted again to lead the Ethiopian delegation in peace talks with the EPLF in Washington, D.C. until March 1991.[48]


After the end of the Cold War, the United States played a facilitative role in the peace talks in Washington, D.C. during the months leading up to the May 1991 fall of the Mengistu regime. In mid-May, Mengistu resigned as head of the Ethiopian government and went into exile in Zimbabwe, leaving a caretaker government in Addis Ababa. A high-level U.S. delegation also was present in Addis Ababa for the 1–5 July 1991 conference that established a transitional government in Ethiopia. Having defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, the EPLF attended as an observer and held talks with the new transitional government regarding Eritrea's relationship to Ethiopia. The outcome of those talks was an agreement in which the Ethiopians recognized the right of the Eritreans to hold a referendum on independence. The referendum helped in April 1993 when the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence and this was verified by the UN Observer Mission to Verify the Referendum in Eritrea (UNOVER). On 28 May 1993, the United Nations formally admitted Eritrea to its membership.[49] Below are the results from the referendum:

Referendum Results[50]
Region Do you want Eritrea to be an independent and sovereign country? Total
Yes No uncounted
Asmara 128,443 144 33 128,620
Barka 4,425 47 0 4,472
Denkalia 25,907 91 29 26,027
Gash-Setit 73,236 270 0 73,506
Hamasien 76,654 59 3 76,716
Akkele Guzay 92,465 147 22 92,634
Sahel 51,015 141 31 51,187
Semhar 33,596 113 41 33,750
Seraye 124,725 72 12 124,809
Senhit 78,513 26 1 78,540
Freedom fighters 77,512 21 46 77,579
Sudan 153,706 352 0 154,058
Ethiopia 57,466 204 36 57,706
Other 82,597 135 74 82,806
% 99.79 0.17 0.03

See also



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Further reading