Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eritrea began its thirty-two-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia, marking the longest armed struggle for political independence in modern African history. Eritrea officially gained independence in 1993 and was admitted as a member state to the United Nations, also in 1993.

Summary of Event

On September 1, 1961, the newly formed Eritrean Liberation Front Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, began an armed struggle for Eritrean independence against Ethiopia. This war, which would last for thirty years, was the longest military independence struggle in modern African history. In the course of the struggle, sixty to eighty thousand Eritreans died, a similar number were permanently disabled, approximately fifty thousand children were orphaned, and close to a half a million Eritreans became refugees in this nation of three million people. Eritrean agricultural and economic productivity was seriously damaged and Eritreans suffered through a massive famine. Eritrean War for Independence (1961-1991) Nationalism;Eritrea Postcolonialism;Eritrea Revolutions and coups;Eritrea [kw]Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence (Sept. 1, 1961) [kw]War for Independence, Eritrea Begins Its (Sept. 1, 1961) [kw]Independence, Eritrea Begins Its War for (Sept. 1, 1961) Eritrean War for Independence (1961-1991) Nationalism;Eritrea Postcolonialism;Eritrea Revolutions and coups;Eritrea [g]Africa;Sept. 1, 1961: Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence[07010] [g]Eritrea;Sept. 1, 1961: Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence[07010] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 1, 1961: Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence[07010] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Sept. 1, 1961: Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence[07010] [c]Independence movements;Sept. 1, 1961: Eritrea Begins Its War for Independence[07010] Haile Selassie I Awate, Hamid Idris Sabbe, Osman Saleh Mengistu Haile Mariam Afewerki, Isaias

The government of Ethiopia would go from being a U.S.-backed monarchy ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie I to a Soviet Union-backed Marxist government under the control of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who waged a successful coup against Selassie in 1974. Despite many setbacks and much suffering, the independence struggle would succeed with a declared military victory in 1991 and the election in 1993 of its first president, Isaias Afewerki, who had been a prominent military strategist and leader of the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF).

The persistence and success of the independence struggle is even more remarkable in the context of Eritrean cultural diversity. The country is almost equally Christian and Muslim, and it has nine significant ethnic groups and its people speak a variety of languages, although Tigrinya is the main language.

As is true of all politics in contemporary Africa, to understand the Eritrean War for Independence, one needs to understand the history of colonialism in Africa. The modern nation of Eritrea, like all African nation-states, is a product of European colonialism. The area now known as Eritrea was first bounded and controlled by the Italians Italy;colonial possessions in 1840; it formally became an Italian colony with the Treaty of Uccialli Uccialli, Treaty of (1889) in 1889, a treaty that was also signed by Ethiopia. The Italians controlled Eritrea until World War II, when the British invaded it and took control; they then administered Eritrea as a United Nations protectorate until 1952. During Italian and British rule, some local political control was permitted, political parties emerged, and the groundwork for a modern urban economy was put in place.

In 1949, the United Nations appointed a commission to determine the political wishes of Eritreans. Despite a strong consensus for independence, the United Nations was under pressure from the Untied States to make Eritrea a federated state under the partial control of Ethiopia. Eritrea, as an independent nation-state, would control access to significant harbors on the Red Sea. This was also a concern for Ethiopia, which had no access to Red Sea ports other than through Eritrea. Also, the Ethiopian claim that it should annex Eritrea was supportable because parts of Eritrea share a common cultural history with Ethiopia. Ethiopia and sections of Eritrea had been united in the D’mt Kingdom (eighth century b.c.e.), the Aksum Empire (first century c.e.), and later Abyssinia. So, in 1952, the United Nations, bowing to pressure from the United States, made Eritrea a federated state under the partial control of Ethiopia. Shortly after the federation, however, Ethiopia initiated a number of actions that were to generate political unrest in Eritrea. Both Arabic and Tigrinya, the dominant spoken languages in Eritrea, were replaced by Amharic, the primary language of Ethiopia, as Eritrea’s official language. In addition, some economic enterprises were dismantled and relocated in Ethiopia proper. Finally, the Eritrean flag was replaced with that of Ethiopia.

Confronted with popular unrest in Eritrea, Emperor Selassie banned Eritrean political parties, censored Eritrean newspapers, and suppressed student protests against these policies. In 1962, in response to active military resistance, Ethiopia formally dissolved the federation and made Eritrea the fourteenth province of Ethiopia.

Military resistance was a logical outcome of the intensifying Eritrean resentment to Ethiopian rule. In 1958, Hamid, then exiled in Egypt, helped form the Eritrean Liberation Movement Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), a nationalist movement that received support from Syria and Iraq. In 1961, Hamid and thirteen others returned to Eritrea, renamed the organization the Eritrean Liberation Front, and, on September 1 at Adal, engaged the Ethiopian military in a seven-hour battle, which was to be the symbolic beginning of the Eritrean War for Independence. The ELF, initially a Muslim-based group, soon drew support from Christian and urban groups.

The growing diversity of ELF, however, caused a great deal of internal dissent, not along religious but along ideological grounds. A dissenting faction who espoused a Marxist-Leninist ideology emerged. Eventually the dissenting group would separate itself from ELF and call itself the EPLF. It was founded by Osman Saleh Sabbe, a former head of the Muslim League. Animosity between the two groups was so severe that the two fought each other in the early 1970’s. Eventually, the EPLF would become the dominant group.

Nevertheless, the brutality of the Ethiopian response to the guerrilla war, which often involved massive destruction of villages and people in Eritrea and a campaign of forced starvation, caused the guerrilla movement to grow in popularity. By the early 1970’s, a movement that had begun with a handful of members now numbered in the tens of thousands. It now appeared that the Eritreans would win independence, but a coup by the Soviet-backed Colonel Mariam of the Ethiopian military brought Soviet military support to the Ethiopians and the Eritrean cause received a major setback. Repression by Mariam’s government, however, created internal dissension in Ethiopia, weakening the Ethiopian military’s resolve. In 1991, Mariam was ousted by a popular coup and the Eritreans achieved military victory and independence. The conflict with Ethiopia, however, continues in terms of a disputed border and has escalated to armed violence.


The Eritrean War for Independence was a remarkable achievement on many fronts. First, the struggle for independence, despite periods of internal dissension, united a religiously, ethnically, and culturally diverse people in a common enterprise. Additionally, this small nation of three million people, through perseverance, achieved independence in a world where politics has worldwide implications: Eritrean independence involved even the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. What is yet to be determined is whether Eritrea, economically and socially devastated by long years of war, can fully recover and become a functioning independent democratic state. Eritrean War for Independence (1961-1991) Nationalism;Eritrea Postcolonialism;Eritrea Revolutions and coups;Eritrea

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connell, Dan. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 2004. A firsthand account by a correspondent who traveled with and lived with the EPLF as it carried out its war for independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iyob, Ruth, ed. The Eritrean Struggle for Independence: Domination, Resistance, Nationalism, 1941-1993. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A collection of articles, which analyzes the political and economic causes and effects of the Eritrean War for Independence. Much attention is given to the various Eritrean groups involved in the struggle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Okbazghi, Yohannes. Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1991. A study of the diplomatic and international dimensions of the Eritrean War for Independence, with a focus on the policies and actions of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pateman, Roy. Even the Stones Are Burning. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1997. A survey of Eritrean history, with a special focus on the causes and impact of the war. Includes an extended discussion of the famine, which was a product of the war and also a discussion of how Eritrea has fared since independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Amrit. The Challenge Road: Women and the Eritrean Revolution. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1991. A discussion of women’s roles in the Eritrean War for Independence and of their struggle to achieve equality in the emerging society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wrong, Michela. I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. An excellent study of the prolonged war for independence set in the context of global politics.

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Categories: History