When Ethiopia contemplated war against Britain and the UN – over Eritrea

Documents held by the CIA and released under the Freedom of Information Act throw interesting light on Ethiopia’s relationship with Eritrea.

This is one of them which reveals that in 1949, when the UN was considering whether the British administered territory should be incorporated into Ethiopia or be given another possible status, Addis Ababa was ready to go to war.

Ethiopia CIA doc

You can read the full document here. CIA Ethiopia May 1949

Why the UN was involved

The UN’s role arose from the British attack on what was then the Italian colony of Eritrea in 1941, as part of the UK’s East Africa campaign during the Second World War.

This culminated in the Battle of Keren and the liberation from Italian control of Asmara.

You can watch a Pathe News film made at the time.

British troops Asmara 1941
British troops entering Asmara

Britain was left administering Eritrea, even after the war was concluded and the Emperor Haile Selassie returned to his throne in Addis Ababa. But London did not know what to do with Eritrea. Should it be given to Ethiopia (as the Emperor and many Christian Eritreans wanted) or should it be given independence (as many Muslim Eritreans wanted)? Or should Eritrea be divided?

Britain could not resolve the issue, and so handed it over to the United Nations to resolve. You can read a comprehensive account of what took place in the UN’s own account of events leading up to Eritrea’s final independence in 1993.

The UN mission

The UN sent a mission to consult with the Eritrean people.

UN commissioner Eritrea 12 Nov 51

But – as the CIA document at the start of this article makes clear – Ethiopia was prepared to use force, if the decision went against it.

Assuming the American intelligence at the time was correct, Ethiopia left nothing to chance, importing Czech weapons in case it had to fight. But – since Britain was still in control of Eritrea at the time – this would have meant confronting British troops. And since the British were by this time working with the UN to resolve the issue, any Ethiopian attack on Eritrea in 1949 would have resulted in the involvement of the UN.

Luckily for all concerned (except the Eritreans who wanted independence) this did not take place.

Instead, Eritrea was given to Ethiopia in 1952, with a promise that it would be granted a federal status and maintain some measure of independence. The Emperor was pleased to mark the inclusion of Eritrea into Ethiopia by cutting a ribbon with a pair of golden scissors. Sadly he did not maintain the federal status of Eritrea leading to the start of the war of Eritrean independence in 1961. The rest is history.

Haile Selassie cuts tape between Ethiopia and Eritrea.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

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