Eritrea: War, Women and Aid

As Scotland considers her future it is worth looking around at other nations which have pursued national liberation from an ostensibly benevolent neighbour.  One of the most interesting examples of this is Eritrea, who gained nation status in 1993 after a 30 year war of independence from its neighbour Ethiopia.  Eritrea is a fascinating wee country – ethnically diverse with eight major ethnic groupings, and with a religious split between Muslim, Christian and Animist followers, yet with sufficient national identity to maintain an ideology of liberation which saw them through a long and brutal war.

Eritrea is a small state on the East Coast of Africa.   Initially colonised by the Italians in the 1880s, further colonisation and land annexation continued until 1935. Following the Allied victory in the second world war, the future of the country was put in the hands of the UN, who in 1950 federated Eritrea with Ethiopia as an autonomous region.  Over the following decade that autonomy was eroded, as Ethiopia banned political parties, independent press agencies and in early 1961 suspended its parliament and constitution before completely annexing the country that November.

The previously underground Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) emerged in response, and launched a military campaign of liberation; a campaign that was to last the next 30 years.  The EPLF emerged in 1976 to take over the main bulwark of the resistance. Formed from a splinter within the ELF, it sought to build the infrastructure of the society at the same time as continuing the guerrilla war and at the same time safeguard women’s rights in a country where women had never had the vote.  It emphasized the need for economic self-reliance within a planned economic framework, based on a Afro-Marxist ideology and sought to build a pluralist national identity.

An independent Eritrea under the ELF would resemble the situation in Cuba in that it would be a politically radical state on one hand and geographically isolated on the other….With the Eritrean struggle against neo-colonialism and American Imperialism moving steadily ahead, there are real hopes for the creation of an island in Africa of socialist democracy and freedom.

Richard Lobben, The ELF: A Close up view, 1972

By the mid-80s and at the onset of independence in the early 90s much of their socialism had been diluted, yet the determination for national liberation, the protection of women’s rights and economic self-reliance remained.

The position of women within the EPLF was remarkable.  Approximately 35% of those on active service were women, totally revolutionising the position of women within the country.  East Africa, where Eritrea is situated, has high levels of infibulation.  The EPLF organised against this cultural practice within liberated areas, and later legislating against it as well as other forms of female genital mutilation.  In a country with poor literacy rates of around 10-20%, the oral tradition – particularly song – was important in conveying ideas and sharing history.  A popular folk song of the 80s told the tale of an EPLF fighter from the Afar ethnic group – a group known for both its aggression and traditional cultural practices – who had returned from the front to find her young sister about to be infibulated, kidnapped the child and returned with her to the battlefield, declaring that the country needed strong and complete women in the fight.

Unusually for Africa, abortion is legal (although heavily restricted) and women have held the same property rights as men; as land was appropriated and collectivised by the EPLF in the 70s it was equally distributed between men and women to manage.  The post-war integration of female combatants has not been easy, and sustaining the gains made a hard struggle yet the promotion of women’s liberation from within the EPLF has had a longstanding impact on the country.

Forty years on, Eritrea is no utopia – with significant restrictions on press and religious freedom, yet the one thing it has held onto fiercely is its independence – not only political, but also economic.

Each time a country is freed, we say, it is a defeat for the world imperialist system, but we must agree that real liberation or breaking away from the imperialist system is not achieved by the mere act of proclaiming independence or winning an armed victory in a revolution. Freedom is achieved when imperialist economic domination over a people is brought to an end.

Initially Eritrea did seek and accept a level of foreign aid, however it did it on very specific terms. It only accepted aid which built capacity within in the country rather than any aid which provided directly for the population’s needs, and only admitted NGOs if they were prepared to allow Eritrean ownership and leadership of projects.    By the end of the 90s, despite emerging from war, suffering natural disasters and a per-capita income of less than $250 there was no starvation.

In 2005 it turned down a UN food assessment and expelled all NGOs in 2006.  Last year it turned down $200m of offered aid – continuing its policy of national self-reliance.  This policy has resulted in not only population being fed from domestic produce, but also an agricultural surplus with Eritrea shooting up the UN indicators of life expectancy, literacy, immunizations, and malaria prevention.

In 1975, the railway of the country was shut down by the Ethiopians, and throughout the war, the tracks were ripped up and used as defense and arms.  On liberation in 1993, Afwerki declared that rebuilding the railway was a priority for the country.  Banks, countries and aid agencies fell over themselves to offer the government money to achieve this.  All was turned down with a declaration that they would use the labour power of the decommissioned soldiers and the materials recovered from the battlefield to rebuild.   Refurbishing its antique railcars which had been abandoned through the war, the Eritrean Railway System is a testimony to the country’s ingenuity, determination and self-reliance.

Eritrea never did turn out to be the African Cuba that Lobben envisaged, but at the same time, its determination to gain control over its own destiny, the legacy of women in the struggle and the fierce refusal of aid dependency is well worth a second look.

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