The Eritrean War of Independence: How Eritrea Won its Freedom

Lasting for almost three decades, the Eritreans struggled violently against Ethiopia in a bid for complete independence.

Nov 23, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
eritrean war of independence
Eritrean soldiers, via Eritrea Madote

 

On May 24, 1993, world maps had to be updated again as national borders shifted and a new nation was officially established. It was the culmination of a war that ended two years prior and established Eritrea as an entity separate from Ethiopia.

 

This development, however, was not brought about through diplomacy and peace. It was brought about by a war that lasted three decades and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

 

The Eritrean War of Independence was a long and bloody struggle.

 

A Long Prelude to the Eritrean War of Independence

battle of adwa
A painting of the Battle of Adwa in 1896 which secured Ethiopian independence from the ambitions of colonial Italy, via the British Museum, London

 

From 1882 to 1941, Eritrea was an Italian colony. Its neighbor to the south, Ethiopia/Abyssinia, retained its independence, one of only two African nations to be able to do so (the other country being Liberia in West Africa).

 

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In 1889, the borders of Eritrea were officially defined by the Treaty of Wuchale, and the following year saw the official founding of the Italian Colony of Eritrea. This came after a two-year-long, low-conflict war between Italy and Ethiopia over the borders. This peace would not last.

 

In January 1895, the First/Second Italo-Ethiopian War* broke out. Italy claimed dominion over all of Ethiopia as a colony, but this assertion was naturally rejected by the government of Ethiopia under the rule of Emperor Menelik II. After almost two years and the loss of around 30,000 people, the war drew to a close with Ethiopia victorious, securing its independence from colonial ambitions.

 

* Some historians refer to the Second Italo-Ethiopian War as the First Italo-Ethiopian War, combining it with the conflict between the two countries from 1887 to 1889, which was undeclared and amounted to no more than a series of skirmishes. 

 

The Italian rule over Eritrea was marked by industrial expansion and the immigration of Italians to the colony. A railway was built along with a cableway that was the longest in the world at the time. Medical and sanitary conditions were improved dramatically, and although racial laws existed, the native Eritreans were granted access to amenities, and Italian rule was largely peaceful.

 

Italian east africa
Map showing the regions of Italian East Africa from 1938 to 1941, via the University of Central Arkansas

 

The rise of Fascism in Italy, however, took the colony in a different direction, and things began to change dramatically. In 1935, Eritrea was used as the staging point for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. After a year of fighting, Italy was victorious, and Ethiopia was incorporated into the Italian Empire. The end of the war brought about the 1936 merger of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, and the newly conquered Ethiopia into a single entity called Italian East Africa. Italian control ended in November 1941 when a British-led campaign saw the defeat of the Italians. Ethiopia was liberated, and the rest of the Italian possessions remained under British control until the end of the war. Italian Somaliland then was returned to Italy but as a United Nations Protectorate and not a colony. In 1960, it was merged with British Somalia to form the independent country of Somalia.

 

Figuring out what to do with Eritrea was a more difficult task. From the end of the war in 1945 to 1951, Eritrea was a British Protectorate. In 1952, the United Nations federated Eritrea and Ethiopia. This was done to appease the Ethiopians, who claimed sovereignty over Eritrea, and the Eritreans, who wanted autonomy. This arrangement lasted until 1962, when the Ethiopians, under Emperor Haile Selassie, took full control of Eritrea by abandoning the federal arrangement and annexing it. This move further encouraged a rebellion that flared into the Eritrean War of Independence.

 

The Fighting Begins

elf fighters togoruba
ELF fighters who took part in the Battle of Togoruba, via Hedgait

 

The banner of rebellion was first taken up by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which caused divisions within Eritrea, as the ELF was predominantly Muslim and saw the struggle against Ethiopia as not just a struggle for independence, but as a religious struggle against the predominantly Christian Ethiopians. The Ethiopian occupation provided an additional factional aspect, however, and this was along ethnic lines. Christian Eritreans, thus, felt compelled to join the ELF, but the result was not full integration. The Christians were under a separate fifth command, adding to the four established commands, which were exclusively Muslim.

 

The first few years of the war were characterized by small raids and commando-style operations while roving bands of ELF soldiers harassed the Ethiopian force in the barren lowlands and the coastal areas. The heaviest battle in the 1960s was the Battle of Togoruba which claimed the lives of 19 ELF soldiers and 84 Imperial Ethiopian soldiers. There was a very loose chain of command due to the sporadic contact leaders had with their own troops. The ELF did enjoy significant support from neighboring Muslim countries, which supplied the ELF with arms.

 

The Ethiopian army was not very effective at fighting this kind of war and resorted to punishing civilians by burning down villages and killing livestock. The Israeli-trained Commando Police did a better job, but they were too few in number to be effective.

 

Factional & Leadership Changes

mengistu haile mariam
The President of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, via The Economist

 

The early 1970s brought a change in dynamics in Eritrea, as ELF infighting fractured the rebel group. Several groups broke away from the ELF, notably those who were Christians, those with regional concerns, and radical Marxists. These groups eventually joined together as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). War broke out between the EPLF and the ELF, which lasted for two years and claimed the lives of 3,000 fighters – more than had been killed by the Ethiopian forces. After the Battle of Woki left 600 dead, the civilian call for peace was heeded, and the two groups reconciled in 1975, agreeing to fight the Ethiopians together.

 

This era also brought changes in Ethiopia. In 1974, Haile Selassie was ousted in a coup and replaced by a Marxist military junta called the Derg and was controlled by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The next few years saw the Derg concentrating on internal affairs, trying to consolidate power within their own country rather than attending to Eritrean independence movements. As Marxists, the new Ethiopian government also began to ally itself with the Soviet Union.

 

The EPLF Era

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Eritrean fighters in front of destroyed Ethiopian vehicles, via Eritrea Ministry of Information

 

By 1977 in Eritrea, the EPLF became the more popular movement, eclipsing the ELF. While the Ethiopian tactics in Eritrea descended into brutality to instill fear, the EPLF began to rise in power and came to outnumber their oppressors. They managed to liberate much of Eritrea, but the Ethiopians still controlled several vital urban areas.

 

With Ethiopia embroiled in a war with Somalia, the EPLF seized its chance and went on the offensive to completely drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. With Cuban and Soviet help, however, the Ethiopians achieved victory against the Somalians in what became known as the Ogaden War. With the momentum of victory, Ethiopia moved north to concentrate its mobilized forces on Eritrea. The EPLF offensive failed dramatically as the Ethiopians launched a series of intensive campaigns against the rebels. This included saturation bombing that targeted EPLF and ELF areas, but also urban areas, killing and wounding many civilians. Several ground offensives were launched. The ELF was completely defeated in the field, while the EPLF retreated to the mountainous regions.

 

Sure of victory, the Ethiopians launched a final offensive to wipe out the remaining rebels but suffered a surprise defeat when the EPLF managed to counterattack and cause a complete rout of the government forces at the Battle of Nakfa.

 

The Ethiopians, near victory, had failed, and the Eritrean War of Independence would carry on for another decade. Indiscriminate reprisals, including bombings and raids by the Ethiopians, ensured a steady supply of recruits for the EPLF, and the Eritrean forces became stronger with each passing year.

 

The Final Era of the Eritrean War of Independence

ethiopian soldier surrender
An Ethiopian soldier surrendering to an EPLF fighter, via Freedom United

 

In the early 1980s, the differences between the ELF and the EPLF were once again evident, and the alliance between the two factions broke down. With the support of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the EPLF was much larger and more powerful than the ELF, and the ELF was pushed into Sudan, where they were disarmed by the Sudanese.

 

The Ethiopians spent 1980 and 1981 building up their forces, and in 1982 they launched a massive campaign known as Operation Red Star, which saw the deployment of 120,000 Ethiopian troops to crush the Eritrean resistance once and for all. Mengistu Haile Mariam traveled to the Eritrean capital of Asmara to oversee the campaign personally. The plan was to crush the EPLF through superior numbers, but after several months of fighting, the Ethiopians failed to make any significant gains and even left themselves open to a counterattack. The offensive was quietly abandoned, and a new, more low-key offensive was launched in 1983. This offensive achieved some success but failed to completely break the EPLF, who just retreated to new defensive positions.

 

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An Eritrean soldier with the flag of the EPLF, via Talking Humanities

 

The following year saw the EPLF go on the offensive, but they also failed to make significant gains on the Ethiopians and were forced to retreat back to their own defensive lines. Another offensive by the EPLF in 1985 was costly for both sides, and the town of Barentu was captured by the rebels but retaken by Ethiopian forces soon after.

 

In 1986, the Ethiopian government launched another offensive with the objective of capturing Nafka, and despite significant aerial support, it failed. To add to their woes, insurgencies in Eritrea’s Wollo and Tigray provinces became a huge issue, and the Ethiopian government was forced to concentrate its efforts on multiple fronts.

 

On March 17–20, 1988, The Battle of Afabet took place. The EPLF claimed victory in this major battle, which saw 15,000 EPLF soldiers engage with the Ethiopian army of over 20,000. With many thousands of casualties, the battle was of major significance, resulting in the EPLF taking full control of the western and northern parts of Eritrea. The Ethiopians were forced to withdraw their garrisons from several cities, and the EPLF surrounded the city of Keren, which was, and still is, the second-largest city in Eritrea.

 

eritrea map features
A map showing the borders of Eritrea today, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

With a major blow struck to the Ethiopians, further offensive operations were significantly curtailed. Unhappy with their government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was founded and launched military actions to take control of Ethiopia. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s government was encountering major challenges. In 1990 the Soviet Union announced it would be withdrawing military aid to Ethiopia, and the EPLF launched its next offensive, capturing the Eritrean port city of Massawa.

 

When the EPDRF marched on the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country, and in May 1991, the city fell. The last fighting between the Eritreans and the Ethiopians occurred on May 25, 1991, when the EPLF defeated the last Ethiopian loyalist forces in the port city of Assab in the far southeast of Eritrea.

 

Soon afterward, peace talks were held, and in 1993, a referendum was held in Eritrea. The result was 99.83% in favor of independence. On May 28, 1993, the referendum results were recognized internationally, and Eritrea was admitted as a member state of the United Nations.

 

eritrean freedom fighters
Eritrean soldiers, via Eritrea Madote

 

From small skirmishes to large battles, the long and bloody conflict that was the Eritrean War of Independence took a huge toll on human life and loomed as a specter of death and destruction over the region for three decades.

 

Although the conflict had its roots in the short-sighted interference of European colonial ambitions, the war for independence ultimately was not one where the Eritreans were fighting against a European power but rather another African nation.

 

The length of the war also affected Eritrean unity. An entire generation of people had grown up during the war and, equally affected, was able to put their differences aside and stand together against Ethiopian oppression.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.