Twelve hundred miles south of Suez a struggle to control the farther entrance to the Red Sea is well underway. Though naturally overshadowed by the Arab-Israeli conflict to which it is not unrelated, the contest to the south involves substantial issues for great and small powers alike, who look to the future of the African Horn and the Red Sea basin. More than this, the problem of Eritrea, together with the related question of French Djibouti's future, is an intriguing one which, for all its complexities, recorded in past United Nations resolutions and every kind of East-West, North-South compromise, still may prove soluble short of major war. For the armed struggle along the Red Sea's southern rim is thus far a conflict of subdued violence and muted, if bizarre, ramifications.

The seat of the unfolding drama is Eritrea itself, a coastal strip running seven hundred miles from Sudan in the north to French Djibouti in the south. Over the last century and a half it has been alternately under Turkish suzerainty, an Egyptian, Sudanese and Abyssinian fiefdom, an Italian colony, a British military-administered territory, a U.N.-sponsored semi-autonomous federated state and, since 1962, a province of Ethiopia. From 1941 to the present Eritrea has known four separate sets of rulers, and therein lies a good deal of the problem. Today a fifth and latest claimant for power, the Syrian-based "Eritrean Liberation Front," has entered the lists. The Front, with some 1,500 armed guerrillas (it claims 10,000) and the propaganda facilities of distant Radio Damascus, says it is fighting for an independent Eritrea and declaims against the "imperialist oppression" of Ethiopia's venerable 78-year-old Emperor Haile Selassie I. More to the point, it boasts of support from China, Cuba and most of the "fraternal Arab states" which surround Ethiopia. During 1969 the Front carried out bomb attacks on Ethiopian commercial jets at Frankfurt and Karachi, sabotaged the main power plant of Asmara, Eritrea's capital, and hit the Franco-Ethiopian Railway terminus at Djibouti. On a road trip to western Eritrea last September, the U.S. Consul General was stopped by armed partisans and detained for two hours.


The troublesome Eritrean insurgency commenced eight years ago, but its root causes go further back in time, to Mussolini's defeat by the British armies of Platt, Cunningham and Wingate in 1941. The first Allied victory of World War II raised also the first thorny problem of postwar accommodation and decolonization in Africa. Now that the Allies had captured a piece of Axis real estate, what was its new juridical status?

This political question, like so many others that emerged in the wake of successful Allied military operations, was tacitly deferred by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin for later settlement at the anticipated postwar peace conference. At Tehran and Yalta, the Soviets intimated that they would like themselves to administer two of the ex-Italian colonies-Eritrea and Tripolitania-under a postwar international trusteeship arrangement. The British, who were in military possession of Italy's African Empire, hoped to prolong their stay after the war. When the Italians joined the Allies in 1943, the Badoglio government and its successors insisted that Italy be permitted to continue its "civilizing mission" in Africa. Meanwhile the United States obtained a modest stake in Eritrea, when Britain in 1942 turned over a major military communications facility at Asmara to the Americans in the context of wartime collaboration among the Allies. Today, 27 years later, more than 1,000 U.S. servicemen and their families remain in Eritrea administering a $60 million complex of installations of continued strategic significance.

Amid these competing great-power interests which arose from the Second World War, Eritrea was important as well to landlocked Ethiopia, her awakening Arab neighbors and France. Haile Selassie had been the first victim of Fascist aggression in 1935, and the attack on his ancient mountain empire was launched from Italian Eritrea. Ethnically and by virtue of the ties and traditions of Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic Christianity, the peoples of the Abyssinian and Eritrean Highlands were one. Indeed the legendary Mother of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba, was by tradition an Eritrean; and Menelik I, the child she bore King Solomon a thousand years before Christ, was the first "Conquering Lion of Judah" and ancestor in the Solomonic line of today's royal house of Ethiopia.

From the eighth century down to the present, wars of religion have seen Eritrea pass back and forth between Ethiopian Christian and Arab Moslem rule. In the century preceding World War II the reunion of Eritrea with the "Ethiopian Motherland" had become a dream of Abyssinian patriots. Such a solution would offer the ancient empire of Haile Selassie a buffer against future aggression from the north and restore Ethiopia's access to the sea through Massawa and Assab.

To the Arab states surrounding Ethiopia on three sides, age-old enemies newly awakened to nationalism, Eritrea was chiefly interesting for its Moslem minority. The 1.6 million inhabitants of the province are Christian and Moslem in nearly equal proportion, and Arab nationalisms have sought to detach the Moslem half of the province from Ethiopian loyalties. The Free French under de Gaulle, for their part, participated in the 1941 liberation of Massawa, and were bound to view the future of the territory in relation to their interests at neighboring Djibouti.


The clash of these diverse interests produced a ten-year stalemate after 1941, as Eritrea's future was debated among the wartime Big Three and the postwar Big Four. Despite the dispatch of "commissions of inquiry" and a full panoply of other multilateral devices, the United States, Britain, France and the U.S.S.R. were unable to agree. In the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947 they concluded: ". . . the matter shall be referred to the General Assembly of the United Nations for a recommendation and the Four Powers agree to accept the recommendation and to take appropriate measures for giving effect to it"

Three years of discussion at the United Nations produced more than one hundred draft resolutions and another commission of inquiry before a compromise solution was reached. The four main proposals, none of which commanded majority support in the General Assembly, were the following: (1) Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea; (2) Eritrean independence; (3) partition of the territory, giving Ethiopia the eastern (largely Christian) portion including the two main seaports, and ceding the western (largely Moslem and nomadic) half to the Sudan, then a British territory; (4) award of a U.N. trusteeship to Italy or another European power.

The compromise reached, described at the time as a "middle-of-the-road formula," was finally adopted on December 2, 1950. The United States joined with seven Latin American states, Burma, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Liberia and Turkey to sponsor a resolution which recommended: "Eritrea shall constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown." The General Assembly wearily approved this federal solution by a vote of 46 to 10? with 4 abstentions, and appointed the Bolivian diplomat, Eduardo Anze Matienzo, to carry out its mandate as U.N. Commissioner in Eritrea.

By the summer of 1952 Sr. Anze Matienzo had completed his duties and was able to report that "there is a genuine readiness for full coöperation . . . and a real respect for the unity of the Federation under the sovereignty of the Emperor." An elaborate Constitution and Federal Act had been drawn up and ratified by representatives of the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples, and the new Federation took effect on September 15, 1952, when Haile Selassie journeyed north to cut a symbolic ribbon at the Mareb River boundary.

But the federal experience proved neither a happy nor a lasting one. As was to occur later with other federal experiments in former colonies-in Malaysia, Nigeria, East Africa, South Arabia and the British West Indies- the institutions of a complex federalism showed themselves too weak and artificial to fill the ex-colonial void.

The years of U.N. and great-power procrastination on Eritrea contributed to this result, though perhaps not decisively. As the territory's future was up for ten years of public debate after 1941, deep splits occurred in Eritrea's internal politics. Outside of the main cities, armed banditry had long been a part of traditional nomadic life, and this now received a political sanction as indigenous politicians and tribal leaders organized their own informal militias. Each visit by an outside commission of inquiry in the late 1940s became the occasion for street demonstrations in Asmara by competing power groups, while brigandage and assassination darkened the countryside. The majority of Eritrea's Christians flocked to the Ethiopian- sponsored Unionist Party, advocating full reunification with Ethiopia, while the Moslem masses of the west organized under the banner of a "Muslim League" to agitate for support from Arab neighbors in the protection of their minority rights.

A federal solution with the overlay of three sets of authorities-imperial, federal and local-could not paper over deep religious and ethnic divisions. Neither could such a solution inspire confidence in relations between the imperial government of Addis Ababa and its federal affiliate in Asmara. While the Emperor, acting through his personal representative in Eritrea, controlled defense, foreign affairs, currency and finance, commerce and port administration, all remaining authority in other fields of government in the maritime territory was administered by an elected Eritrean Assembly and Chief Executive. Animosities between the ruling Amhara clans of Addis Ababa and the Tigrinya-speaking "northern" Abyssinians of Eritrea came to the fore, each group complaining of alleged discriminatory treatment Eritrea's gifted people, who are only 8 percent of the total population of the Ethiopian Empire, today account for a substantial part of the country's export earnings and boast a literacy rate that is above the national average.

Above all, while exacerbating regional splits and jealousies and erecting a confusingly complex series of tri-layered institutions, federation tended to create a power vacuum along the southern shores of the Red Sea. A sophisticated system of federal checks and balances was not likely to inspire among neighboring powers any confidence in the lasting nature of the Ethiopian-Eritrean union. To the contrary, the patent instability of such a design was almost an open invitation to outside interference in Eritrean affairs. In this climate of uncertainty, disgruntled local politicians felt they could appeal not only to three sets of federal authorities but also to the United Nations and to interested foreign powers. The economy could not prosper under these circumstances, and stagnation in employment levels and economic development efforts would breed further discontent.

Ten years after the start of the federal experience, it was terminated by the Eritrean Assembly, which was pressed by the Addis Ababa Government to vote for Eritrea's full integration into the Ethiopian Empire. Relinquishing local autonomy, Eritrea in December 1962 became one among thirteen other provinces of the Empire.

The factors influencing this legal annexation were largely international. West European power was clearly in flight from the Middle East and rising Arab nationalism was beginning to make Ethiopians remember the "encirclement syndrome" that geography and Moslem-Christian religious warfare has marked out for them over the past millennium. Sudan on the western flank was now independent and building up its own army; Somalia, with irredentist claims to much of eastern Ethiopia, had achieved independence in 1960 and was commencing negotiations with Moscow for military assistance. In the same year that Somalia became independent, the Emperor faced the most serious internal threat to his half-century of rule. A group of young officers seized power in Addis Ababa while Haile Selassie was away on a state visit to Brazil, and it took three days to crush the rising, at the cost of more than a thousand lives. By 1962, the year of decision, Nasser had begun to launch his Yemen adventure, and a Moslem tribal rebellion in western Eritrea, started twelve months before, seemed to carry ominous pan-Arab overtones in a beleaguered Christian kingdom. Faced potentially with what Bismarck called "the nightmare of hostile coalitions," Ethiopia's ruler must have felt it ample time to secure the vital Red Sea coastline.


Along that troubled coast, the wounds of three decades of political uncertainty and internal strife have not yet healed. The past seven years have seen some measure of economic progress in Eritrea, but the province's political life remains flawed by violence. By late summer of 1969 an American journalist could write of the Eritrean insurgency that it "might have escalated to Vietnamese proportions already" were it not for internal "problems" within the Eritrean Liberation Front, or "ELF." In October of last year, The Economist of London reported that the Eritrean struggle "seems to be getting more serious-and more international."

The Liberation Front, a largely Moslem organization, was formed a full year before Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962. For eight years now it has received clandestine arms support from Arab countries to wage low-level guerrilla warfare along the arid canyons and desert spaces of Ethiopia's Red Sea littoral.

Despite the enthusiastic comparison to Vietnam quoted above, the interesting thing about the progress of the ELF insurgency to date is its localized character. The real risk is not of an "escalation to Vietnamese proportions" or of a replay of tribal conflict in the Horn of Africa modeled on the Nigeria-Biafra war, but rather of a southerly extension of the Arab-Israeli struggle.

Northern Ireland to the contrary, it is still not fashionable to speak of religious wars in the twentieth century. Yet to the peoples of the Red Sea basin, religious conviction precedes, shapes and often seems almost to define nationalism. It can hardly be otherwise in Ethiopia, where over the centuries men have been called to "defend the Faith" by rallying to Crown and Church against Moslem invaders marching under the opposite banners of Islamic Holy War. Thus, though the religious element need not dominate the decisions of political leaders in the region, it remains a powerful and incalculable element in the minds of the people they rule.

Though as many mosques as churches dot the Eritrean landscape and there are few outward signs of communal violence, the Liberation Front continues to win limited support in the Moslem world, from Algeria to Pakistan, by alleging "persecution of Moslems" in Ethiopia. The régime of Haile Selassie has retaliated with mass loyalty demonstrations in the streets of Ethiopia's major cities, organized around the slogans "Hands Off Eritrea" and "Arabs Go Home."

During 1969 Radio Damascus added a new theme to the continuing propaganda warfare, claiming that "international Zionism" is establishing itself in Eritrea, a land which is "part of the Arab Nation." While maintaining diplomatic relations with both Israel and most of the Arab countries, Ethiopia has sought to stay aloof from their war. It is an uneasy balancing act, for Ethiopia is almost surrounded by potentially hostile Arab neighbors and has a Moslem minority comprising some 30 percent of its population. At the same time, the Christian Empire of Haile Selassie receives some modest economic development aid-including a police training program-from Israel, and as the only non-Arab country with a Red Sea coastline, its ports are hospitable to both Arab and Israeli shipping.

Capitalizing on Ethiopia's links with Israel, Damascus broadcasts have implied a virtual anti-Arab alliance between the two countries. The Syrian Radio alleges that the "Arab" struggle for Eritrea is part of the battle for Palestine and that ELF guerrilla trainees in Syria and Iraq are being schooled shoulder-to-shoulder with fedayeen of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is not always clear whether these Syrian broadcasts truly reflect the thinking of Moslem Eritrean leaders of the ELF. It is also hard to imagine why the Syrian Arab Republic, beset with deep internal problems of its own and nearly two thousand miles northward and five intervening international borders removed from the Empire of Ethiopia, should take so keen an interest in the affairs of that distant land.

Whatever the answer, the majority of ELF cadres seem to be receiving training in Syria in the arts of guerrilla warfare, and are presumably being infiltrated into Eritrea along its Red Sea coastline and from adjacent countries. After a year's interruption following the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967, this Syrian pipeline bringing arms and matériel to the Eritrean insurgents apparently began to function again in mid-1968. Most of the rebel weapons captured by Ethiopian forces and displayed in the press since then have been of Soviet or East European manufacture. One can assume that a small trickle of the estimated $3 billion in military assistance supplied by the Soviet Union to the Arab states has found its way into Eritrea.

Since the June War, the Liberation Front's announced political goals have identified ever more closely with pan-Arab, anti-Zionist aspirations, including the demand that the Red Sea should become an "Arab Lake." Mr. Osman Saleh Sabbe, Secretary-General and chief foreign spokesman for the Front, on several occasions last year told American and Arab journalists that he is committed to a truly independent and "Arab" Eritrea. On the other hand, Mr. Tedla Bairu, titular Vice President and sole Christian member of the Front's Executive, has told an Italian interviewer that the ELF maintains its original goal of a return to the pre-1962 Federation with Ethiopia under U.N. guarantee. Bairu's argument, and the past position of the Front, is that the 1962 Eritrean Assembly vote for full union with Ethiopia was "illegal" in that it unilaterally abrogated the U.N. resolution of 1950 recommending federation, and that the 14 co-sponsors of that resolution should raise the issue in the General Assembly to bring about a "return to legality," presumably enforced on Ethiopia by the United Nations. The international legality of Eritrea's incorporation into Ethiopia seven years ago was, however, widely accepted at the time; and a world body sufficiently occupied with more sensational political crises has not seen merit in a reëxamination of the Eritrean question.

As time passes, the legal arguments grow increasingly academic. For the Front, through the pronouncements of Mr. Sabbe and Radio Damascus, is coming to demand an independent and Arab-oriented Eritrea. That goal is clearly not acceptable to the Christian half of the population, thus raising once more the specter of a Christian-Moslem partition which is favored by none of the parties involved.

Up to 1969, the Liberation Front's military achievements within Eritrea were less than spectacular, consisting of an occasional attack on an isolated police post. Periodic amnesties, army sweeps and appeals to patriotism by the Addis Ababa government had served to keep the guerrillas off balance, but without undercutting a hard core of activism and an ability to exploit Moslem grievances. The largest single engagement in the eight-year insurgency, fought in September 1968, proved a fiasco for the rebels. ELF units attacking a remote commando police encampment at Hal-Hal in northwestern Eritrea were routed in a one-day battle, leaving 60 dead on the field.

But a change in tactics and an apparent step-up in training and infiltration gave the Eritrean war a more dramatic turn in the spring of 1969. During March and April, uniformed ELF troops appeared on the vital Massawa-Asmara highway to stop and destroy oil tanker trucks. On March 11 an explosion ripped through an Ethiopian Air Lines commercial jet parked at Frankfurt, Germany, an attack to be repeated on another jet two months later at Karachi. In August a smaller plane was hijacked to Aden. On December 13 plainclothes detectives foiled in mid-air another ELF hijacking venture, which occurred on an international jet flight between Madrid and Athens. Ethiopia's national flag airline is one of the country's biggest foreign-exchange earners. Thus the new "economic tactic" of the insurgents is extremely worrying to Ethiopia, which at this point must put armed guards on its planes and protest to international civil aviation bodies, lest its commerce and prestige be further undermined.

The number and variety of skilled sabotage operations in Eritrea and abroad during the past year suggest a new pattern of ELF activities designed to achieve more world publicity for the Liberation Front. The Front has evidently concluded that it will be unable to win power in Eritrea by classic guerrilla means alone. It faces indifference or hostility from at least the Christian half of Eritrea's population, and it cannot in the final analysis compete militarily with Ethiopia's 40,000-man army and modern air force-Black Africa's most substantial military establishment. Instead, it can seek to undermine confidence in the régime of Haile Selassie by sabotaging carefully selected economic targets, winning wider publicity and international support for its cause, and prompting Arab countries to intervene more openly on its behalf.


Thus far international reaction to the ups and downs of the Eritrean conflict has been characterized by a prudent restraint. There has been some name-calling between Syria and Ethiopia, but little more. Undoubtedly there remains a modicum of support for the insurgents from most Arab governments, though their main attentions are fixed on Israel. Undoubtedly the fighting is far from over and the sabotage operations of the ELF continue, as do Ethiopian army and police actions. The cost in lives and in damage to economic development and neighborly relations along the Red Sea coast will continue to take a certain toll. Up to now one can say only that the damage and the level of violence have been, thankfully, limited.

French decisions about the future of Djibouti could up the scale of trouble in the region, at least marginally. That once-strategic but now wasting colonial asset (officially, French Territory of the Afars and the Issas; formerly, French Somaliland) may seem all the more expendable to a new régime in Paris which has already devalued the franc. Djibouti's 5,000-man French air and naval base is a drain on metropolitan finances, somewhat comparable to the cost in sterling of Britain's strategic base at Aden, which the British left in November 1967. Djibouti remains also the terminus of the only rail line from the Red Sea to the inland Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, a railroad controlled jointly by Ethiopia and France. Since both Ethiopia and Somalia lay future claim to this ethnically mixed, Moslem enclave (the size of New Hampshire) a French pullout and grant of independence could spark a chaos of competition for control of the port and its railhead. That the most interested neighbors not come to blows over Djibouti, but come instead to a rational understanding which respects their mutual needs and interests is a coming task of statesmanship in the African Horn, and one in which Paris can play a useful mediating part if it chooses.

Whatever the outcome in Djibouti in the 1970s, the retention of Eritrea with its Red Sea coastline and two ports will remain a vital interest to Ethiopia. Without coastal access, the foreign commerce of this nation of 22 million (Black Africa's second largest state) would be dependent on others. With Suez closed and the Strait of Bab-al-Mandab at the southern extremity of the Red Sea potentially subject to hostile control and blockade, the economy of Ethiopia could be placed at the mercy of foreign interests. Hence the clear relationship between Eritrea and Djibouti, which, with the ex-British colony of Aden, now the Arab "People's Republic of Southern Yemen," controls the southern strait.

The United States has over the past two decades contributed some $240 million to Ethiopia's economic development and provided $140 million in military assistance. The total of nearly $400 million represents one of the largest American aid commitments to any country on the African continent. There is, then, ample reason for American interest in the success of Ethiopia's efforts to modernize.

At the same time, looking to the complex ambiguities of the Eritrean question-one which for ten years plagued the Big Four and the United Nations prior to the provisional compromise settlement of 1950-there is reason for restraint on the part of outsiders. Eritrea has known so many rulers and such frequent changes in administration in the past thirty years that she craves a pause. Her problems, interesting though they may be to great and small neighbors, and to participants in the northern struggle for Palestine, are susceptible of solution without foreign pressure.

Though any "political solution" of the differences between the Liberation Front and the Addis Ababa government now seems remote, the elements of such a solution are not difficult to imagine. However great the ancient religious enmities, Ethiopia knows that it must live among Arab and Moslem neighbors. Attempts to improve relations with Sudan and Somalia, both of which have new governments as a result of military coups within the past ten months, give evidence of this knowledge. For its part, the Liberation Front must know that there is a difference between its announced maximum and minimum claims. If it should ever seek agreement on a degree of local autonomy and recognition of minority rights within Eritrea, then the Front would realistically have to recognize the security requirement of any Ethiopian régime that it control its own commerce through its own secure seaports.

As the conflict drags on, any suggested solution at this point seems hypothetical and beyond the pale to both sides. But however interesting control of the entire Red Sea basin may appear to nearby Arab countries, it is to them a marginal interest and to Africa's most ancient unitary state a vital interest. Thus the notion of Eritrea becoming the seat of a southern extension of the Arab-Israeli war does not seem in the cards. One cannot rule out political irrationality of a kind that could pit Africans against Arabs in an expanding conventional war. But, especially after Egypt's experience in Yemen, most Arab leaders will most likely be loath to devote limited arms and supplies to a "southern diversion" as long as they have their hands full with Israel.

In the last analysis, if there is any chance for scaling down the violence and moving toward peace, the choice seems to be up to Ethiopians and Eritreans themselves. Here is one long-festering international problem which begs not for intervention but for restraint, which admits of solution by the peoples directly concerned without complicating recourse to big- power involvement.

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