Today, the Brussels based International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, issued its Africa Report “Eritrea : The Siege State”. The report explores, at length, the making of Indepedent Eritrean State, the evolution towards a military state and now, a society under siege.
Almost twenty years ago, Eritrea became Africa’s newest country – de facto in 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) entered Asmara in triumph, and de jure in 1993, following a UN-sponsored referendum on independence. At the time, there was optimism that northeast Africa might finally achieve political and economic stability, and regional development might be founded upon a new relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Within a few years, however, there was heightened repression inside Eritrea and a devastating return to war with Ethiopia. Covering about 125,000 sq km and with a population of some 5.5 million, Eritrea is a fraction of the size of its main neighbours, Ethiopia and Sudan, but it contains considerable diversity.1 Broadly, it is divided between the highlands – including the central plateau (the kebessa) and the rugged mountains to the north – and the lowlands to the west, the coastal plain and the Danakil desert to the south.
It is ethnically and religiously mixed, with nine official ethnic groups and large Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. The bulk of the population lives in the central highlands. Regardless of its small size, it occupies a critical geopolitical position in the region, including some 1,150km of Red Sea coastline – and it is this which has shaped much of its troubled history.
Created in a contested and volatile region, first as an Italian colony and then as an Ethiopian province, Eritrea’s defining experience has primarily been violent instability and political conflict. The political culture of the EPLF has its roots in the liberation struggle against Ethiopia (1961-1991). Engaged in a life and death struggle, its leadership has long been intolerant of internal dissent and external opposition, and it forged its political program – essentially that of a state in waiting – during the years when its rear base was in the harsh northern mountains.
The EPLF’s character evolved in those formative years –the early- and mid-1970s – through its elimination of rivals during the civil war and ultimately its defeat of the Ethiopian Derg regime in 1991.2 After a brief respite with independence, it became increasingly oppressive, particularly following the 2001 crackdown.
Full Report in PDF: (The Internationa Crisis Group Africa Report N°163, 21 September 2010)