Eritrea and Ethiopia: the Federal Experience

This thesis, by Tekeste Negash, throws a fascinating light on an otherwise little studied part of the Ethiopia-Eritrea story.

You can find the full thesis here.

Introduction

Haile Selassie incorporates EritreaOn December 2, 1950, the United Nations passed resolution 390A (V) on the fate of the former Italian colony of Eritrea.

The said resolution which came to be known as the Federal Act stipulated that “Eritrea shall constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown”.

The resolution further stipulated that the Eritrean government would possess legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the field of domestic affairs. A United Nations Commissioner was simultaneously appointed to draft the Eritrean Constitution in consultation with the British Administering Authority, the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean people.

In pursuance of the UN resolution, the United Nations Commissioner supervised the election of a Constituent Assembly, drafted a Constitution, witnessed its coming into effect, and wound up his responsibility when the Union Jack was replaced by the Eritrean and Ethiopian flags on September 15, 1952. The federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia had only a ten year lease of life; it came to an end on November 15, 1962. A year earlier, Eritrean exiles in Cairo had formed an organization called the Eritrean Liberation Front.

This study was conceived in the summer of 1988 when the war between theEritrean nationalist forces and the Ethiopian state appeared to have reached a stalemate. The victory that the Eritreans scored at Afabet in the early months of 1988 had brought to the attention of the leaders of Ethiopia that there was not going to be a military solution to the problem. The same view prevailed among the Eritrean camp even though this was camouflaged by the rhetoric of the Victory to the Masses. By 1988, the Eritrean war was entering its 28th year and was described as early as 1981 as Africa’s longest war.

However, as late as 1988 the causes of Africa’s longest war were very obscure indeed. There were few studies on the period preceding the era of conflict and these were either biased or were inadequately documented. There was a clear predominance of the interpretation of the conflict that had been handed down by the Eritrean Liberation movements. In the search for a peaceful solution, there was then a need for an exhaustive study on the period following Italian colonial rule, namely, 1941–62.

Why did the UN come to the decision to unite Eritrea with Ethiopia? Important as this question might be, it has been of marginal interest as far as this study is concerned. Apart from the fact that the resolution of the Eritrean case by the UN falls very much under International Law rather than Eritrean history, we have sufficient though slightly biased studies on the subject. The impact of the British period on Eritrean society, however, needs to be closely looked at because of its relevance towards a better understanding of the background to the conflict and also because it forms part of Eritrean political and social history.

The period where our knowledge remained least developed was, however, that covering the federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia, 1952–62. The Eritrean parties were quick enough to denounce the Ethiopian government for violating the federation thereby providing a precipitant condition for the conflict. In contrast the Ethiopian government remained with folded hands and watched the rewriting of an important part of the social and political history of the country by nationalist forces who by their nature were bound to twist and distort the past in order to suit their current objectives.

By 1988 prospects for a political solution did not look positive; there did not exist the preconditions for a negotiated settlement. There was also an awareness that a military solution was not within reach. At the level of research, our knowledge was extremely sketchy on far too many aspects of the conflict. The Eritrean nationalist forces and the Ethiopian government believed strongly in the justness of their cases. These strong beliefs, made visible by the pursuance of Africa’s longest war, were no doubt based on subjective perceptions of the background, causes and nature of the conflict. Subjective perceptions about one’s actions could, however, be altered through experience and above all through knowledge. The relevance of this study was, therefore predicated on the argument that a negotiated settlement could hardly be expected without the existence of a pool of knowledge on the subject available to both parties.

In May 1991 the Eritrean nationalist forces together with other nationalist cum regionalist forces defeated the Ethiopian government forces and thus brought the 30 year long war to an end. Contrary to what many observers, including this author, had earlier believed, the Eritrean war was resolved militarily.

What is presented here is very much the story of the slow but steady dissolution of the federation as seen and observed by the British diplomatic corps. Between 1952 and 1962, there were about 30 British nationals seconded to the Eritrean government. These expatriates kept in touch with the British Consulate-General whose responsibility was to protect the interests of British nationals as well as to report the developments to London. The conclusions and interpretations are, therefore, to a great extent based on that documentation with all the shortcomings inherent in such material.

Moreover, this study is a reconstruction of Eritrean history from 1952 to It is also a first attempt towards a synthesis. However, a more complete work of synthesis is several decades away due to the closeness of the period and the intensity with which some events and aspects are discussed. Furthermore, the ambiguities and ambivalences of the nationalist movement make it virtually impossible to even contemplate such a task. Yet the history of the federation has been told by a number of researchers; with very few exceptions these studies are either based on hearsay or on the ideologised interpretation of the Eritrean liberation organizations.

Finally this study is the first of its kind to follow the rise and decline of the federation. The dangers inherent in undue reliance on semi-colonial and entirely western documentation notwithstanding, it is my firm belief that this study can be seen as a challenge to young as well as veteran students of Eritrean affairs.

 

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