UN Head Quarters, New York, 28 May 1993. Eritrean ambassador Ahmed Haji Ali being directed to his seat in the General Assembly after Eritrea’s admittance as UN member. A symbolic image of Eritrea receiving recognition by the international community after 30 years of liberation struggle. UN Photo / Michos Tzovaras.

Separatists or freedom fighters – the politics of labels

For a long time, the Eritrean liberation struggle, unlike many similar struggles in the Third World, was ignored and neglected. It was largely defined by African countries, as well as the international community, as a separatist and narrowly ethnocentric enterprise. In a new book, researcher Redie Bereketeab concludes that this use of pejorative labels owed more to politics than to lack of knowledge.

In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front defeated Ethiopian forces in Eritrea and proclaimed an independent state after 30 years of fighting for liberation against successive Ethiopian governments. In his new book, Revisiting the Eritrean National Liberation Movement 1961-1991, Bereketeab, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, explains how the forces behind the struggle were not only misunderstood, but also deliberately redefined by outside stakeholders to meet their own objectives. He frames his conclusions against the backdrop of the global Cold War.

"According to international law in the postcolonial era, all colonised people have the right to self-determination, but for the Eritrean people, although they had been colonised by Italy until the Second World War, this right was not acknowledged, not even by the United Nations. When Ethiopia, with US backing, pushed in the early 1950s for the federal inclusion of Eritrea, most countries were more interested in maintaining good relations with the much larger Ethiopia than standing up for little Eritrea. And since Eritrea’s liberation struggle did not involve a colonial power and a suppressed colony, it did not benefit from Western anti-colonial opinion", Bereketeab notes.

There are interesting parallels. Namibia and the Western Sahara are two other countries that were invaded by stronger African neighbours after European colonial powers withdrew or were expelled.

"In the case of Namibia, the world community gave its support to the Swapo liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. This was largely due to the anti-apartheid stance of the time. In Western Sahara, the Polisario/SADR liberation movement was and is still labelled as separatist by the Moroccan government, and the international community is still largely hesitant about acknowledging its rights. Even so, the Western Sahara movement has greater external support than Eritrea ever had. Most African states maintain diplomatic relations with or recognize the Sahrawi Republic", Bereketeab points out.

In his book, Bereketeab also explores the conflicting factions involved in the Eritrean liberation struggle. He notes, however, that despite these internal weaknesses and the failure to achieve a united front against Ethiopian government forces, the liberation struggle successfully culminated in independence for Eritrea.

"People’s yearning for national identity and willingness to make the necessary sacrifices were decisive factors in this success. But freedom came at a high price", Bereketeab concludes.

To the top