Eritrean War of Independence 1961-1993

[ 1961 - 1963 ]

The extinction of the federation consolidated internal and external opposition to union. Four years earlier, in 1958, a number of Eritrean exiles had founded the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) in Cairo, under Hamid Idris Awate's leadership. This organization, however, soon was neutralized. A new faction, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), emerged in 1960. Initially a Muslim movement, the ELF was nationalist rather than Marxist and received Iraqi and Syrian support. As urban Christians joined, the ELF became more radical and anticapitalist. Beginning in 1961, the ELF turned to armed struggle and by 1966 challenged imperial forces throughout Eritrea.

The rapid growth of the ELF also created internal divisions between urban and rural elements, socialists and nationalists, and Christians and Muslims. Although these divisions did not take any clear form, they were magnified as the ELF extended its operations and won international publicity. In June 1970, Osman Salah Sabbe, former head of the Muslim League, broke away from the ELF and formed the Popular Liberation Forces (PLF), which led directly to the founding of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in early 1972. Both organizations initially attracted a large number of urban, intellectual, and leftist Christian youths and projected a strong socialist and nationalist image. By 1975 the EPLF had more than 10,000 members in the field. However, the growth of the EPLF was also accompanied by an intensification of internecine Eritrean conflict, particularly between 1972 and 1974, when casualties were well over 1,200. In 1976 Osman broke with the EPLF and formed the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Liberation Front (ELF-PLF), a division that reflected differences between combatants in Eritrea and representatives abroad as well as personal rivalries and basic ideological differences, factors important in earlier splits within the Eritrean separatist movement.

Encouraged by the imperial regime's collapse and attendant confusion, the guerrillas extended their control over the whole region by 1977. Ethiopian forces were largely confined to urban centers and controlled the major roads only by day.

After 1974, insurgencies appeared in various parts of the country, the most important of which were centered in Eritrea and Tigray. The Eritrean problem, inherited from Haile Selassie's regime, was a matter of extensive debate within the Derg. It was a dispute over policy toward Eritrea that resulted in the death of the PMAC's first leader, General Aman, an Eritrean, on November 23, 1974, so-called "Bloody Saturday." Hereafter, the Derg decided to impose a military settlement on the Eritean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). Attempts to invade rebel-held Eritrea failed repeatedly, and by mid-1978 the insurgent groups controlled most of the countryside but not major towns such as Keren, Mitsiwa, Aseb, and a few other places. Despite large commitments of arms and training from communist countries, the Derg failed to suppress the Eritrean rebellion.

By the end of 1976, insurgencies existed in all of the country's fourteen administrative regions (the provinces were officially changed to regions in 1974 after the revolution). In addition to the Eritrean secessionists, rebels were highly active in Tigray, where the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), formed in 1975, was demanding social justice and self-determination for all Ethiopians. In the southern regions of Bale, Sidamo, and Arsi, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF), active since 1975, had gained control of parts of the countryside, and the WSLF was active in the Ogaden. Under Ali Mirah's leadership, the Afar Liberation Front (ALF) began armed operations in March 1975, and in 1976 it coordinated some actions with the EPLF and the TPLF.

Despite an influx of military aid from the Soviet Union and its allies after 1977, the government's counterinsurgency effort in Eritrea progressed haltingly. After initial government successes in retaking territory around the major towns and cities and along some of the principal roads in 1978 and 1979, the conflict ebbed and flowed on an almost yearly basis. Annual campaigns by the Ethiopian armed forces to dislodge the EPLF from positions around the northern town of Nakfa failed repeatedly and proved costly to the government. Eritrean and Tigrayan insurgents began to cooperate, the EPLF providing training and equipment that helped build the TPLF into a full-fledged fighting force. Between 1982 and 1985, the EPLF and the Derg held a series of talks to resolve the Eritrean conflict, but to no avail. By the end of 1987, dissident organizations in Eritrea and Tigray controlled at least 90 percent of both regions.

In March 1988, the EPLF initiated one of its most successful military campaigns by striking at Ethiopian army positions on the Nakfa front north of the town of Afabet, where the Derg had established a base for a new attack against the insurgents. In two days of fighting, the Eritrean rebels annihilated three Ethiopian army divisions, killing or capturing at least 18,000 government troops and seizing large amounts of equipment, including armor and artillery. Subsequently, the town of Afabet, with its military stores, fell to the EPLF, which then threatened all remaining Ethiopian military concentrations in northern Eritrea.

The Ethiopian army's defeat in Eritrea came after setbacks during the preceding week in Tigray. Using the same tactics employed by the EPLF, the TPLF preempted a pending Ethiopian offensive in Tigray with a series of attacks on government positions there in early March. A government attack against central Tigray failed disastrously, with four Ethiopian army divisions reportedly destroyed and most of their equipment captured. In early April, the TPLF took the town of Adigrat in northern Tigray, cutting the main road link between Addis Ababa and Eritrea.

The March 1988 defeats of the Ethiopian army were catastrophic in terms of their magnitude and crippling in their effect on government strategy in Eritrea and Tigray. The capability of government forces in both regions collapsed as a result. Subsequently, Ethiopian government control of Eritrea was limited to the Keren-Asmera-Mitsiwa triangle and the port of Aseb to the southeast. The TPLF's victories in Tigray ultimately led to its total conquest by the rebels and the expansion of the insurgency into Gonder, Welo, and even parts of Shewa the following year.

In 1960 Eritrean exiles in Cairo founded the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). In contrast to the ELM, from the outset the ELF was bent on waging armed struggle on behalf of Eritrean independence. The ELF was composed mainly of Eritrean Muslims from the rural lowlands on the western edge of the territory. In 1961 the ELF's political character was vague, but radical Arab states such as Syria and Iraq sympathized with Eritrea as a predominantly Muslim region struggling to escape oppression and imperial domination. These two countries therefore supplied military and financial assistance to the ELF.

The ELF initiated military operations in 1961. These operations intensified in response to the 1962 dissolution of the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation. The ELF claimed that the process by which this act took place violated the Eritrean federal constitution and denied the Eritrean people their right to self-determination. By this time, the movement claimed to be multiethnic, involving individuals from Eritrea's nine major ethnic groups.

The ELF's first several years of guerrilla activity in Eritrea were characterized by poor preparation, poor leadership, and poor military performance. By 1967, however, the ELF had gained considerable support among peasants, particularly in Eritrea's north and west, and around the port city of Mitsiwa. Haile Selassie attempted to calm the growing unrest by visiting Eritrea and assuring its inhabitants that they would be treated as equals under the new arrangements. Although he doled out offices, money, and titles in early 1967 in hopes of co-opting would-be Eritrean opponents, the resistance intensified.

From the beginning, a serious problem confronting the ELF was the development of a base of popular support and a cohesive military wing. The front divided Eritrea into five military regions, giving regional commanders considerable latitude in carrying out the struggle in their respective zones. Perhaps just as debilitating were internal disputes over strategy and tactics. These disagreements eventually led to the ELF's fragmentation and the founding in 1972 of another group, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The leadership of this multiethnic movement came to be dominated by leftist, Christian intellectuals who spoke Tigrinya, Eritrea's predominant language. Sporadic armed conflict ensued between the two groups from 1972 to 1974, even as they fought the Ethiopian forces. The various organizations, each waging a separate campaign against the Haile Selassie regime, had become such a serious threat that the emperor declared martial law in Eritrea and deployed half his army to contain the struggle. But the Eritrean insurgents fiercely resisted. In January 1974, the EPLF handed Haile Selassie's forces a crushing defeat at Asmera, severely affecting the army's morale and exposing the crown's ever-weakening position...

The rapid growth of the ELF also created internal divisions between urban and rural elements, socialists and nationalists, and Christians and Muslims. Although these divisions did not take any clear form, they were magnified as the ELF extended its operations and won international publicity. In June 1970, Osman Salah Sabbe, former head of the Muslim League, broke away from the ELF and formed the Popular Liberation Forces (PLF), which led directly to the founding of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in early 1972. Both organizations initially attracted a large number of urban, intellectual, and leftist Christian youths and projected a strong socialist and nationalist image... However, the growth of the EPLF was also accompanied by an intensification of internecine Eritrean conflict, particularly between 1972 and 1974, when casualties were well over 1,200.

*****

On 29 May 1991, ISAIAS Afworki, secretary general of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which then served as the country's legislative body, announced the formation of the Provisional Government in Eritrea (PGE) in preparation for the 23-25 April 1993 referendum on independence from Ethiopia. The referendum resulted in a landslide vote for independence, which became effective on 24 May 1993.

<table class='table table-bordered col-lg-12 col-md-12 col-sm-12 col-xs-12 margin20 row-30' border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="100%" style="font-family: 'Times New Roman'; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);"><tbody><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">State</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Entry</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Exit</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Combat Forces</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Population</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Losses</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Cuba</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1975</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">150000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">8700000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">5000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Eritrea</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1961</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">15000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">2500000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">50000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Ethiopia</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1961</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">217000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">42000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">75000</font></td></tr></tbody></table>

Belligerents Initiation Date Termination Date
Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Ethiopian Empire 1961 1987 View
Eritrean People's Liberation Front and Derg 1974 1987 View
People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) and Tigrayan People's Liberation Front 1987 1991 View
Weapon Name Weapon Class Weapon Class Type
AH-IV Vehicle Armoured Fighting Vehicle

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts