Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After thirty years of active civil war, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia after the assumption of power by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.

Summary of Event

Eritrea, which is located on the western coast of the Red Sea, fulfilled its long struggle for independence from Ethiopia on May 24, 1993. Eritrea’s liberation struggle began in 1961, when Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia masterminded the abrogation of its federation with Ethiopia. However, the groundwork for the country’s independence was prepared as early as February 5, 1941, when the British ended fifty years of Italian colonial rule and administered Eritrea for ten years. As soon as the British liberated Eritrea from Italy, they were mandated by the United Nations to administer the territory and prepare the population for a transition to independence. Eritrea;secession from Ethiopia Ethiopia;Eritrean secession [kw]Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia (May 24, 1993) [kw]Secedes from Ethiopia, Eritrea (May 24, 1993) [kw]Ethiopia, Eritrea Secedes from (May 24, 1993) Eritrea;secession from Ethiopia Ethiopia;Eritrean secession [g]Africa;May 24, 1993: Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia[08620] [g]Eritrea;May 24, 1993: Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia[08620] [c]Independence movements;May 24, 1993: Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia[08620] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 24, 1993: Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia[08620] [c]Government and politics;May 24, 1993: Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia[08620] Haile Selassie I Bouteflika, Abdelaziz Afewerki, Isaias Annan, Kofi Sahnoun, Mohamed

The proclamation of the British Military Administration (BMA) of Eritrea envisioned a democratic political system for the country. It allowed free press, freedom of association, and due process of law for all Eritreans for the first time in their modern history. At the end of British rule, when the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France could not agree on the Eritrean question, the General Assembly of the United Nations looked into the status of Eritrea. In 1950, the U.N. General Assembly made a recommendation that Eritrea be federated with Ethiopia on September 15, 1952. The United Nations also designated a special commissioner for Eritrea to find out the preference of the Eritrean people once federation was implemented. The commissioner had a mandate to consult with the population and prepare a constitution.

On October 17, 1951, the commissioner completed his consultation. Immediately, the BMA issued Proclamation No. 121, setting ground rules for an Eritrean representative assembly. On March 26, 1953, polling was conducted for the sixty-eight seats of the assembly. The result was split between thirty-four Christian and thirty-four Muslim representatives.

On July 10, 1952, the Eritrean constitution was adopted by the assembly. Two months later, on September 11, Emperor Haile Selassie ratified the constitution, formally completing the federation process. The British departed on September 15.

The federation was a transitional phase meant to last for ten years and to prepare the Eritrean people for a 1962 referendum on union with Ethiopia versus complete independence. During this transitional period, Emperor Haile Selassie instructed his representative in Eritrea to emphasize Ethiopia’s right to the country, and to campaign on the benefits of Eritrea’s union with Ethiopia.

The emperor lobbied individual members of the Eritrean assembly, and when independent-minded members would not comply with Ethiopian demands, they were forced to resign or face violence. On November 14, 1962, the assembly was forced to meet and dissolve both itself and the federation. The anticipated democratic transition to independence was aborted, triggering a thirty-year war for liberation.

As early as 1958, an underground organization known as the Eritrean Liberation Movement was agitating against Ethiopian interference in Eritrea. By 1962, it came out in the open, calling itself the Eritrean Liberation Front Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). ELF fighters were a resourceful political and military force when they began their struggle. Their clandestine operations and guerrilla tactics presented a formidable challenge to the Ethiopian army.

As time progressed, ELF lost its focus. It lacked discipline, a cohesive political program, and committed leadership. In 1969, Marxist-leaning elements within ELF’s ranks split and formed the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front Eritrean People’s Liberation Front[Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front] (EPLF). Between 1970 and 1980, ELF and EPLF fought against each other while simultaneously fighting Ethiopian troops. By 1980, EPLF gained the upper hand because of a large influx of new recruits, mainly young people escaping Ethiopian atrocities in the cities.

In 1980, ELF was driven out of the Eritrean battlefield, its fighters seeking refuge in Sudan. EPLF, under the leadership of Isaias Afewerki, increased in strength and discipline. It scored successive victories in guerrilla ambushes against the Ethiopian army. One of its decisive victories occurred in 1987 at the battle of Afabet, where one-third of the Ethiopian army was defeated. The entire lowland of Eritrea was liberated as Ethiopian troops abandoned their positions and garrisoned themselves in the cities of Asmara, Keren, Massawa, and Dekemhare.





In 1990, the ancient Eritrean seaport of Massawa was liberated, a development that exposed the Decamare and the Asmara garrisons to attack by the EPLF. Ethiopian troops outnumbered the Eritreans by five to one, but they were dispirited over their poor leadership. When Eritrean fighters mounted the last offensive in 1991, against Decamare and Asmara, Ethiopian troops retreated and scattered in confusion.

On May 24, 1991, the Eritrean capital of Asmara was liberated. Eritrean liberation, anticipated as early as 1941 but circumvented in 1962, had finally been achieved. The EPLF called for the implementation of the referendum that was derailed by Haile Selassie in 1962. A referendum was held in 1993, under the supervision of the United Nations. The overwhelming majority of Eritreans voted for the complete independence of Eritrea. Ethiopia, under a new, pragmatic regime, was the first country to recognize Eritrea’s independence, declared on May 24, 1993.

For a brief period, it looked as if sovereign Eritrea and Ethiopia were opening up a new chapter of peace and good-neighborliness. This apparent friendliness between the countries was deceptive. A series of economic and political disputes escalated into border war on May 13, 1998, when the Ethiopian parliament declared war on Eritrea over a border skirmish around the small village of Badme.

At first, the war appeared to be heading toward stalemate. However, given Ethiopia’s ample manpower and Eritrea’s critical shortage of troops, it was a matter of time before Ethiopian forces breached Eritrean defenses. The destruction of Eritrean defense positions occurred on February 26, 1999, when all Eritrean borders were overrun and Asmara was exposed to Ethiopian artillery. A day later, Eritrea accepted a peace plan mediated by the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU) that called for a cease-fire and withdrawal of Eritrean forces to their precrisis positions.

Eritrea sought frantically for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but Ethiopia refused and escalated the war. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations appointed Mohamed Sahnoun as his special envoy to mediate peace between the warring parties. President Bill Clinton’s administration appointed Anthony Lake, former U.S. national security adviser, as a special envoy from the United States. The chairman of the OAU, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, appointed former Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia Ouyahia, Ahmed as a special OAU envoy.

All parties worked tirelessly for two years, until they were able to secure and sign the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement on June 18, 2000. The two countries were represented by their foreign ministers, Haile Woldetensae Woldetensae, Haile of Eritrea and Seyoum Mesfin Mesfin, Seyoum of Ethiopia.

On July 31, 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1312 establishing the United Nations Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE). Under UNMEE authorization, the United Nations stationed more than four thousand peacekeepers in the temporary security zone between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

On December 12, 2000, the two sides signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which established the Boundary Commission and the Claims Commission. The latter was charged with determining culpability for the initiation of the war.


On May 24, 1993, Eritrea joined the family of nations as a sovereign state with internationally recognized boundaries. However, its 1998 war with Ethiopia was as much a reminder of its fragile existence as it was confirmation of its sovereignty. The war demonstrated that smaller states on the global stage risk their sovereignty and security unless they surrender to the demands of larger neighbors. At the same time, Ethiopia’s rejection of the OAU-brokered peace plan in favor of prolonging the war increased its casualties.

Even after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ethnic conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia continued, along with reports of human rights violations from both sides. A December 19, 2005, decision by the Claims Commission in the Hague found Eritrea guilty of triggering the war with Ethiopia in 1998, ruling that it should not have resorted to force over its claims to the village of Badme. Eritrea;secession from Ethiopia Ethiopia;Eritrean secession

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gebre-Medhin, Jordan. Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea: A Critique of Ethiopian Studies. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1989. Condemns the argument for a “Greater Ethiopia” as a new form of African imperialism advanced by Western apologists for Ethiopian elites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longrigg, Stephen H. A Short History of Eritrea. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945. The first book on modern Eritrea contending that its historical, political, and economic conditions make it unviable for sovereignty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Negash, Tekeste. Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic Africa Institute, 1997. Offers analysis of the political drama that resulted in the union of Eritrea with Ethiopia, with a pro-Ethiopia slant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pateman, Roy. Eritrea: Even the Stones Are Burning. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1989. Presents a catalog of Eritrean war casualties during the mid-1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trevaskis, G. K. N. Eritrea: A Colony in Transition, 1941-1953. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. Analysis of Eritrean history and political affairs during British administrative rule.
  • 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, 2005. A journalistic analysis of Eritrea’s struggle for global attention.

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Categories: History