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Ethiopia-Eritrea: A Troubled Relationship

Eritrea/Ethiopia Map/
(Updated: March 1999)
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia took a dramatic turn for the worse in 1961, when Emperor Haile Selassie formally annexed Eritrea, then an autonomous state of the larger Ethiopian Federation. The move spurred the organization of a more-focused Eritrean independence movement, at first headed by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in the 1960s and, later, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in the 1970s.

In 1974, a Marxist military junta known as the Derg ousted the Ethiopian emperor in a coup. But the political upheaval did little to change the country's attitude toward the Eritreans, as Derg strongman Mengistu Haile Miriam continued the fight against the EPLF.

By 1977, the EPLF, led by Issaias Afwerki, seemed to be on the verge of driving the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. However, a cache of arms airlifted by the Soviet Union to Ethiopia enabled the Derg to regain the upper hand and forced the EPLF to retreat. Between 1978 and 1986, the Derg launched eight major offenses against the freedom fighters, mostly unsuccessful.

For the Eritreans, the big break in fighting came in 1988, when the EPLF captured Afabet, the Ethiopian Army headquarters in Northeastern Eritrea, prompting the army's withdrawal from the western lowlands. Later, the Soviet Union informed Mengistu that it would not be renewing Ethiopia's defense and cooperation agreement. Ethiopian Army morale plummeted and, with that, the EPLF and other Ethiopian rebel forces began to advance.

In May 1991, the Mengistu regime fell and rebels captured Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa. Defeating Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, the EPLF took control of their homeland. Talks with the four major war combatants began in London that month to formalize the end of the 30-year war.

"We are committed to a peaceful solution .... [But] at the moment, I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel." – Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki speaking in June 1998 about the war with Ethiopia.
As a transitional government was established in Ethiopia, Eritrean leaders moved to establish a provisional government of their own, and began steps toward a referendum on independence. In April 1993, Eritreans voted on the U.N.-supervised plebiscite, overwhelmingly approving independence as some 98.5 percent of registered voters turned out for the historic event. Eventually, the government was reorganized and a national election held for the National Assembly. The body chose Issaias as president of the provisional government in May 1993.

Despite the ensuing peace, the bonds between Eritrea and Ethiopia – whose leaders had fought alongside each other against the Mengistu regime – began to deteriorate in the mid-1990s. The major source of contention involved an area known as the Yirga Triangle, a barren, 160-square mile stretch of land that both sides claimed as part of their territory. Eritrea has accused Ethiopia of sending in thousands of settlers to the area in an attempt to push out Eritreans. Ethiopia claims the territory is part of its Tigre province. In 1996, a border commission was set up, but was unable to settle the issue.

Relations between the countries were further strained after Eritrea introduced its own currency in November 1997, then bristled when Ethiopia said it would trade only in dollars. Eritreans complained that letters of credit were being required and new duties levied.

In May 1998, Eritrean troops marched into the heavily disputed territory along the border of the two countries. The Ethiopian Army attacked Eritrean troops soon after, beginning what would develop into a brief air war between the two by June.

The fighting generally subsided, replaced by a huge troop and weapons build-up from each side. By February 1999, tens of thousands of troops had poured into the front that ran along the two countries' 600-mile border. That month, fighting resumed anew in the disputed border area of Badame, claiming heavy casualties on both sides.

In late February 1999, Ethiopia declared victory in the war and Eritrea acknowledged losing most of the ground it has occupied since the summer. The result, however, produced no peace settlement and the two sides resumed fighting two weeks later. – Tim Ito, staff

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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