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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


The Eritrean Struggle for Independence
Ruth Iyob

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
0-521-59591 pb, 198pp, index, bib, 14.95.



The Eritrean "story," of overthrowing two colonialisms, the Italians and then the Ethiopian Amharic ruling ethno-class, deserves a wider audience -- among political scientists and international relations specialists, as well as the usual Africanist regionalists and Horn of Africa aficionados. While this study makes a start in that direction, unfortunately it will not satisfy inquiring social scientists.

The author is clearly an insider within the Eritrean struggle, with access to much primary information; she has been advised in drafting this study in its early form as a Ph.D. thesis by several distinguished political scientists (she now teaches political science at University of Missouri- St. Louis). The author aspires to placing the Eritrean struggle within an international perspective. The early (the "locating the study within the literature") section proffers the theme of the Ethiopian state in violation of the the post-war, UN-brokered federation agreement with Eritrea and then illegally annexing it. This eventuates as the Cold War created a necessity for Western (U.S.) bases in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and because Ethiopia inherited much goodwill -- from the Christian heritage of its ruling ethno-class, from its anti-fascist struggle against the Italian invasion, and from its historical independence in Africa, creating a natural choice by the early 1960s for the headquarters of the continental international organization, the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This realpolitik explanation then nests within an enlightening discussion of models of analysis tried out by competing social science interpreters, "greater Ethiopia" vs. "national self-determination" (of the Eritreans, and by implication, other national or ethnic groupings in the Horn of Africa). In turn, this discussion is paralleled by noting the acceptance of standard state sovereignty and non-interference doctrines by the OAU. Useful talking points for further analysis, but then they are fogged over (mercifully briefly) by the unfortunate now-obligatory, and in this instance otiose, references to Foucoult and Gramsci in an apparent attempt to locate the study in contemporary post-modern discourse.

The main part of the book is a sort of worm's eye view of the Eritrean struggle against the royal and then the revolutionary socialist government of Ethiopia. Conflict between Muslims and secularists, including Marxists, and much factionalism between the resistance parties characterize the review of four decades of rebellion of varying intensity and organization. The reader is inundated with lists of names of political leaders, with accounts of meetings, and a bewildering array of initials of political groups. The curiously mechanical language reinforces an image of the clanking of gears as the discourse shifts focus from theory to narrative.

The author portrays the early Eritrean Liberation Front as warlord-oriented, to be superseded by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, which emerges after 20 years as a secular, Marxist, nationalist group, and the final arbiter of the internal conflicts, overcoming Christian-Muslim and clan-kin, as well as regional splits. Amidst much that resembles for-the-record description, the author loses sight of the original international perspective. The machinations inside the UN serving to help the Ethiopian rulers, the Big Powers and their overlapping as well as conflicting views and interests, the Cold War considerations, the U.S.- Israeli connection, although related and laid out, are not followed up in a systematic way. Perhaps over-dependence on a handful of scholarly authorities for the analytical network hampered further advance.

Finally, the effect of this uniquely successful rebellion-secession on Ethiopia and the rest of Africa needs to be suggested. By demonstrating the hollowness of the formerly received doctrine of the OAU with regard to territorial boundaries, and by sharing in the process that undermined the centralized, military socialist Ethiopia, Eritrean independence is intimately linked to the confederal status of the current Ethiopian state, as well as to an inevitable re-assessment of the nature of African territorial political systems today. Not only is the Eritrean story inspiring, it represents a stumulus to a new African political order. That story will yet find its narrator.


Harvey Glickman, Haverford College, Pennsylvania



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