Thursday, 6 September 2012

Eritrea - A Nation Once Again

If Eritrea is known at all, to many people in the West, it will most likely be for its long and bitter independence struggle against the central government of Ethiopia.  In fact, judging by what I've read so far on the subject, it's probably fair to say that Eritrea has been defined by its struggle for nationhood.

Emperors and Revolutionaries

Whilst the rest of the world reacted by (at best) remaining indifferent or (at worst) actively supporting the various Ethiopian regimes, against all odds, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front fought for almost 30 years, defying the might of Hailie Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia and his successor, the Communist Mengistu Haile Mariam. During that time they gained the respect and trust of the Eritrean people who suffered through years of hardship and war.  So successful was the Eritrean struggle that they not only freed Eritrea, but also helped rid Ethiopia of the Stalinist Dergue, as Meles Zenawi and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front swept into Addis Ababa in 1991.

A Nation forged on the Battlefields

Eritrean woman by United Nations
Even if Eritrea had never been a nation before, it certainly became one after the years of fighting in the battlefields of Nafka and Keren.  As with any newly-independent nation that has gone through a long period of struggle against colonial rule, the question now remains as to how Eritrea will define itself outside the context of war. Having a well-defined enemy or coloniser can bring your national identity into sharp focus, but once that enemy is removed, what exactly is needed to hold the conceptual 'nation' together?

The Balkanisation of Africa?

Eritrea's claim to nationhood is quite different than many others in Africa.  On a continent struggling with multi-ethnic nations which were defined by European powers, with borders haphazardly criss-crossing linguistic, tribal and cultural divides, many Africans would like to see an Africa that has moved on from its colonial legacy.  Whilst the Organisation of African Unity is opposed to the balkanisation of Africa, some kind of redress is necessary, if not inevitable, and I think events like the recent independence of South Sudan are part of that process.  Eritrea, ironically, has fought to return to its colonial borders, which were politically, historically, perhaps even psychologically, established by the Italians in the late 19th century.

Welcome to Gelatoland

Ice-cream parlour by thecomeupshow
Whilst Eritrea, in some ways, owes its existence as a nation to lines drawn on the map by the Italians, being colonised by the Italians was, ultimately, Eritrea's downfall (although they did leave a legacy of stunning architecture and refreshing gelaterie or ice-creams parlours!).  Post-WW2 British and US governments weren't all that interested in preserving a state created by their erstwhile enemies and favoured the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia, which is what eventually happened.  It's clear that the Eritreans never really wanted federation but, I guess the issue of Eritrea/Ethiopian identity is complex, considering the fact that tribes like the Afar and Tigrinya straddle both sides of the Eritrea-Ethiopian border.

Self-determination versus Federation

I find Eritrea's tenacity and commitment to self-determination fascinating.  I guess, being Irish, I can relate to the desire for 'nationhood' - although it's a modern concept and, equally, one that will be redefined in the next century, in Europe, as much as in Africa.  I guess the question of self-determination versus federation, is one that many nations have had to face and, in the case of places like Scotland, Catalunya or Quebec, will be facing in the near future.  Ireland was faced with this question at a time when the British Empire covered one third of the globe.  The consequences for us, as a nation, were pretty harsh. But we live in a different world now and, one might hope, nations should be able to go their separate ways in an amicable fashion.

So what happens next?

Eritrea addresses the UN by United Nations
Indeed, the separation of Eritrea and Ethiopia was relatively amicable in the beginning - a civilised agreement between revolutionary comrades - but this mutual goodwill, unfortunately, evaporated with a border war, which cost thousands of lives and devastated the Eritrean economy, in the late 90's.  It sounds as though things are still pretty tense between Eritrea and Ethiopia (and Djibouti and Sudan!). It's hard to stop fighting and move on but I believe that Eritrea will, eventually, need to accommodate its dominant neighbours - to recognise commonalities whilst respecting each nation's right to follow its own path.  That is, as long as nations continue to exist!

Zenawi, the Tigrayan People's revolutionary leader and Prime Minister of Ethiopia has just passed away. Eritrea's leader, Isaias Afewerki, keeps a firm grip on the reigns of power. Ethiopia's future seems as uncertain as ever.  Equally, Eritrea faces greater challenges than ever before, to forge a nation which is prosperous, future-proof and at peace with its past.

Image credits:

The image of the ice-cream parlour was taken by Flickr member thecomeupshow aka Adulis 'Chedo' Mokanan, a hip-hop and R&B DJ who is based in London, Ontario!  Adulis took a trip to Eritrea in 2011 and has shared his photos with us, using the Creative Commons license.

The other photographs are from the United Nations flickr account and have been provided using the Creative Commons license, as the UN wishes to foster greater understanding on the work they have done down through the years.  You can also find out more by visiting the United Nations website.

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