Every Thursday, we will use an event that occurred on this date to discuss an important moment in international history. This week: Eritrea votes to gain its independence from Ethiopia (1993).
On April 23, 1993, Eritreans began voting in a referendum which would result in the small East African nation’s independence. The referendum concluded a decades-long war between Eritrean armed groups and the Ethiopian government.
The conflict began when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea in 1961, then a semi-independent region which had previously been a British protectorate. The annexation of Eritrea triggered a thirty-year struggle, in which a number of Eritrean armed groups competed not only against the Ethiopian military, but also for internal control. Eventually, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Force (EPLF), which formed when a number of competing factions united, became the primary resistance force. The EPLF began making gains in the 1980s after Ethiopia lost the support of the Soviet Union, its principle ally.
When the government of Ethiopian President Mengitsu Haile Mariam collapsed in 1991, the United States helped broker a peace deal which created a transitional government in Ethiopia and paved the way for Eritreans to vote in a referendum to determine their independence.
Following the referendum, head of the EPLF Isaias Afwerki became the President and head of government, a position he has held ever since.
Post-independence Eritrea has had a notably troubled existence. Tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia which remain high, blew up during a war between the two nations between 1998 and 2000, leading to the death of up to 100,000, according to the International Crisis Group. Isaias’ regime is extremely repressive with one of the worst records of freedom of the press in the world. Although Eritrea has performed well on a number of health and economic indicators, these gains have come at the cost of individual liberties.
Eritreans make up the second highest number of refugees travelling across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe—second only to Syria, which, as Michela Wrong points out, is striking considering Eritrea is comparatively tiny and not in the middle of a civil war. Many of these migrants cite among the reasons they fled indefinite military conscription with minimal pay, and a dearth of economic prospects. The Mediterranean migrant issue has developed into a full-blown crisis this year, with deaths so far in 2015 30 times higher than the same period last year.