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Eritrean War of Independence
Part of the conflicts in the Horn of Africa
Eritrean Independence War.gif
Map of Eritrea
Date1 September 1961 – 29 May 1991
(29 years, 8 months and 4 weeks)
LocationEritrea as a province in Ethiopia
Result Eritrean victory
Independence of Eritrea, Ethiopia became a landlocked country



Supported by:
 Cuba[3][4] (until 1975)
Libya Libya[3][5][6] (until 1977)
 Saudi Arabia[15][16]
Ethiopia Ethiopian Empire (until 1974)
Ethiopia Ethiopia under Derg/PDRE (from 1974)
 Cuba[18][19][20][21] (1975-1989)
 Soviet Union[18][22][23][24] (1974-1990)
Supported by:
 East Germany [25] (1977-1990)
 South Yemen [25] (1977-1990)
Commanders and leaders

Hamid Idris Awate

Isaias Afewerki
Ramadan Mohammed Nour
Ethiopia Haile Selassie
Ethiopia Aklilu Habte-Wold
Ethiopia Tafari Benti
Ethiopia Mengistu Haile Mariam
Ethiopia Tariku Ayne
Ethiopia Addis Tedla
Casualties and losses
~60,000 soldiers[26]
~90,000 civilians[26]
75,000 soldiers[27]

The Eritrean War of 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. 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 impact 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), having defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, took control of the country. 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 Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) fought two Eritrean civil wars during the war of liberation.


The Italians colonised Eritrea in 1890. In 1935, Ethiopia was added to their colonial empire, which they called Italian East Africa. Italian Somaliland was also part of that entity. There was a unified administration. Conquered by Allied troops in 1941, Italian East Africa was sub-divided. Ethiopia regained independence. 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.


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.[28] 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.


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. With this change of government, Ethiopia came 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 Nur, while the Assistant Secretary-General was Isaias Afewerki.[29] 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.[28]

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",[30] napalm,[31] and other incendiary devices.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union informed Mengistu that it would not be renewing its defense 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.

Map of Eritrea while still attached to Ethiopia.


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.[32] Below are the results from the referendum:

Referendum Results[33]
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



  1. Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror, 2013. Page 158.
  2. Chinese and African Perspectives on China in Africa 2009, Page 93
  3. 3.0 3.1 Fauriol, Georges A; Loser, Eva (1990). Cuba: the international dimension. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-88738-324-6. 
  4. Schoultz, Lars (2009). That infernal little Cuban republic: the United States and the Cuban Revolution. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-3260-8. 
  5. The maverick state: Gaddafi and the New World Order, 1996. Page 71.
  6. Connell, Dan; Killion, Tom (2011). Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. Scarecrow Press, Inc.. ISBN 978-0-8108-5952-4. 
  7. The Pillage of Sustainablility in Eritrea, 1600s-1990s: Rural Communities and the Creeping Shadows of Hegemony, 1998. Page 82.
  8. Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, 2010. Page 492
  9. Oil, Power and Politics: Conflict of Asian and African Studies, 1975. Page 97.
  10. Eritrea: Even the Stones Are Burning, 1998. Page 110
  11. Eritrea - liberation or capitulation, 1978. Page 103
  12. Politics and liberation: the Eritrean struggle, 1961-86 : an analysis of the political development of the Eritrean liberation struggle 1961-86 by help of a theoretical framework developed for analysing armed national liberation movements, 1987. Page 170
  13. Tunisia, a Country Study, 1979. Page 220.
  14. African Freedom Annual, 1978. Page 109
  15. Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Selassie Years, 2006. page 318.
  16. Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, 2010. page 460
  17. Spencer C. Tucker, A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East, 2009. page 2402
  18. 18.0 18.1 Connell, Dan (March 2005). Building a New Nation: Collected Articles on the Eritrean Revolution (1983–2002). Red Sea Press. ISBN 1-56902-199-6. 
  19. "Eritrean War of Independence 1961–1993". Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  20. "A Little Help from Some Friends". Time. 1978-10-16.,9171,916434,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  21. "F-15 Fight: Who Won What". Time. 1978-05-29.,9171,919695,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  22. "Communism, African-Style". Time. 1983-07-04.,9171,950926,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  23. "Ethiopia Red Star Over the Horn of Africa". Time. 1986-08-04.,9171,961908,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  24. "Ethiopia a Forgotten War Rages On". Time. 1985-12-23.,9171,960451,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 Keneally, Thomas (1987-09-27). "In Eritrea". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-14. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 Cousin, Tracey L.. "Eritrean and Ethiopian Civil War". ICE Case Studies. Retrieved 2007-09-03. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 "Eritrean War of Independence 1961–1993". Retrieved 2007-09-03. 
  28. 28.0 28.1 Killion, Tom (1998). Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow. ISBN 0-8108-3437-5. 
  29. "Discourses on Liberation and Democracy – Eritrean Self-Views". Retrieved 2006-08-25. [dead link]
  30. Johnson & Johnson 1981.
  31. Keller 1992.
  32. "Eritrea". Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2006-08-25. 
  33. "Eritrea: Birth of a Nation". Retrieved 2007-01-30. 


Gebru Tareke (2009). The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14163-4. 
Johnson, Michael; Johnson, Trish (1981). "Eritrea: The National Question and the Logic of Protracted Struggle". pp. 181–195. JSTOR 721320. 
Keller, Edmond J. (1992). "Drought, War, and the Politics of Famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea". pp. 609–624. JSTOR 161267. 

Further reading

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