Eritrea: National Liberation or National Disaster?

Eritrea: National Liberation or National Disaster?

This article critiques the political situation in Eritrea as an example of a fault in the wider modern paradigm of 'National Liberation' struggles.

By Pink Panther & LAMA

The world is divided into nation-states. These artificial constructs have either evolved over an extended period, through the actions of people within particular areas or are created by outside forces. There is nothing ‘natural’ about them, though this is harder to see in cases where they have been in place for a long time.

In Africa the European colonial powers drew up the political boundaries to suit themselves, in the latter half of the 19th Century. Later wars of independence fought in Africa did not result in the redrawing of colonial boundaries. Most of the anticolonial movements were essentially united only by their hatred of the imperialist powers. Despite using the rhetoric of a nation united regardless of ethnicity or tribe, the reality has been far more fractious, with a large degree of favouritism given to certain groups. Upon gaining independence many African countries, for example the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Nigeria, spawned separatist movements based along ethnic,
tribal and religious lines. They have fought each other just as bitterly as their former rulers.

Eritrea is a place many people elsewhere probably haven’t heard of. It is worth knowing a bit about it because it is a textbook case of a war of national liberation that did not work for the betterment of people and the consequences of that is seriously impacting on events elsewhere right now. Eritrea is a small country in northeast Africa, with a population of about 6.3 million. There are nine ethnic groups of whom the largest are the Tigrinya who make up 55% of the population and the Tigre who make up about 30%. It is one of the world’s poorest and most autocratic countries, often coming at or near the bottom of most human rights lists.

Eritrea was an Italian colony, then it was put under British administration. In 1962 it was taken over by the feudal monarchy of Ethiopia. It would not be until 1993 before Eritrea would become formally independent. For most of that time the two main rebel factions the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Eritrean Liberation Front, fought against the monarchy of Haile Selassie then the Soviet
backed Mengistu Haile Mariam. After ‘liberation’ a one party state was established by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice under Isaias Afwerki. As is all too common with states and political parties labelling themselves with the words “democracy” and “justice”, both are absent from Eritrea.

The devastation wrought by decades of war, which were marked by forced population
resettlements, famine and atrocities, ensured that Eritrea had a woefully inadequate
infrastructure and an economy in ruins when it finally gained independence. This made
economic growth very hard to achieve and matters have not been helped with at least two
border wars being fought with Ethiopia. To aggravate matters, there have been appalling human rights abuses under the Afwerki regime. An aspect of his rule that has drawn increasing attention has been the introduction of indefinite compulsory military conscription. As a result, everyone under 50 is tied to the military, with the possibility of release only at the whim of a commander. People spend years in a form of military induced slavery and are used to build various projects for the ruler and his clique.

The situation has become so grim that thousands of Eritreans have fled abroad and made a trek across northern Africa and crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, along with hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the Syrian civil war. This has helped create one of the greatest refugee crises since the Second World War. European countries, which are the heirs to the colonial powers, have been willing to help Syrian refugees to some extent. In contrast, Eritreans have been treated as ‘economic migrants’, and therefore unworthy of the same consideration.

So what went so horribly wrong?

In wars of national liberation the only thing that ultimately unites the various factions is a hatred of
those whom the nationalists blame for their problems. In the case of Eritrea that was initially
the Italians, then the Ethiopians. However, the defeat of the Mengistu regime in 1991, did not bring about the liberation of the Eritrean people. Rather, one tyranny was substituted for another and this replicates a common pattern in many countries.

The removal of the hated foreign power and nationals of that group from a newly independent
country, exacerbates existing problems in the short term. One reason is because the people who are expelled take their money, skills and expertise with them: the unfortunate situation that happened in
many of the African countries such as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and
Mozambique and in the Belgian Congo. After a grace period, what often then happens is the return of these outside powers in the form of giant multinationals in search of raw materials. The nationalist regime needs the expertise the companies bring, and offer sweetheart deals in return. This leads to all sorts of corruption and kleptocracy. For example, in Eritrea a multi-national minerals company called Nevsun is making profits from mining there, with President Afwerki also personally picking up a huge percentage of that money extracted from his slave labour force.

Another problem is that these wars of national liberation were usually led by people trained
in elitist schools in the West, the former Soviet Union or some other place of exile. They often had little, or no, understanding of the real situation in their country. Idi Amin was educated in the United Kingdom. Robert Mugabe was educated in apartheid era South Africa and the UK. They also picked up the ideological or elitist hatred and contempt for ordinary people. Thus, when they took over their respective countries, they imposed the same repressive and autocratic rule that had previously been imposed by the colonialists. In essence, a white colonial elite was replaced by a tribal or local ethnic or other elite. Replacing one clique with another, either through wars of liberation such as that which Eritrea endured, or through the ballot box, is not really changing much. It is a problem that both liberals and certain brands of Marxists alike, fail to grasp or under-emphasize.

Wars of national liberation can easily be made to sound romantic or noble. After all, there have been a number of horrific regimes that have sorely needed replacing. That has usually required organised resistance. Only a total cynic, right-wing racist or utterly naïve person would argue otherwise. Psychologically there is also an unacknowledged tendency on the Left to over focus on obscure struggles in faraway places. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with looking at difficulties in other countries. It is essential in fact. However, it is far easier to obsess over the plight of the workers and peasants of wherever, than doing the hard work of trying to deal with problems in your own immediate neighbourhoods or town. We need to get the balance right and keep our wits about us. The sobering reality of such wars can be found in their legacy: a whole list of nations, like Eritrea, ruled by autocrats in repressive one party states that use terror and repression to silence any real or imaginary threats. Eritrea may be an extreme example, but it is one within an overall pattern.

Anarchists do not oppose the state because of a belief that any form of rules or organisation is wrong. It is because we recognise the state is a key means by which an elite rules over everyone else. Whether the rulers are elected through the ballot box or gain power via the bullet, they still think they know what is best for everyone else and will use varying degrees of coercion, ideological indoctrination or brute force to impose their will. National liberation struggles have succeeded in eliminating the scourge of colonialism but not that of authoritarianism. One definition of insanity is knowing something doesn’t work but continuing to repeatedly do it. With decades of examples in various parts of the world and contemporary disasters like that of Eritrea, the need for a change of approach is compelling.


Mike Harman
May 1 2018 10:15
LAMA wrote:
One reason is because the people who are expelled take their money, skills and expertise with them: the unfortunate situation that happened in
many of the African countries such as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and
Mozambique and in the Belgian Congo. After a grace period, what often then happens is the return of these outside powers in the form of giant multinationals in search of raw materials. The nationalist regime needs the expertise the companies bring, and offer sweetheart deals in return. This leads to all sorts of corruption and kleptocracy.

This paragraph stuck out as being quite flawed - it seems to accept the arguments of the colonial powers and multi-nationals at face-value.

It's very rarely the case that former colonies are missing 'expertise' from the colonising countries as such. When multi-nationals or colonial technicians returned it was not to develop anything useful for the working class, it was to manage extractive industries for export or similar. There are a few reasons for this:

1. The national liberation leaders were happy to continue economic co-operation with the former imperial powers - this counts for the FLN in Algeria (especially under Boumédiène but iirc under Ben Bella too), or for cases where there was an independence deal like Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya.

What's really happening in those cases is that the national bourgeoisie gets catapulted into control of the existing colonial state and economy, then changes as little as possible. The thing is though this critique is not unique to anarchism but was made by left pan-africanists involved in the national liberation movements themselves, whether Fanon, Cabral or Nkrumah. Now I think their respective critiques are insufficient, but they're more complete than the one given here unfortunately.

2. In the case of Angola there was never really a question of oil companies being given access to the oil fields - John Stockwell the CIA whistleblower made the point that while the US backed the losing UNITA side, if they had backed the MPLA they probably would have easily made a deal with them (has to be taken on its own merits of course). As it was Cuban military and technicians did it instead initially (I need to read up on this again, either way there was always going to be access to the oil reserves, it was a question of which bloc got it).

3. The colonial boundaries of African countries as well as their development under colonialism have made the vast majority of them dependent on extractive industries and cash crops - as well as all the transport infrastructure being geared to exporting goods out of the countries. This isn't an issue of expertise but of there not being a radical reconstruction/abolition of the economy to produce for human need.

4. If the test of a national liberation movement is whether it needs 'foreign capital'/investment/expertise or not (and this seems like a really strange argument for anarchists to make), then you'd need to deal with examples that mostly or completely rejected foreign capital investment like Nyerere in Tanzania, or Sankara in Burkina Faso.

I need to write some of this up properly, but there's a tendency to look at national liberation movements as homogenous, whereas (like the Russian Revolution) there was often a massive proletarian class struggle going on (which could not avoid clashing with the colonial state, but also often with the nationalist parties too), and then blaming that class struggle for its eventual suppression by both the colonial state and later the national bourgeoisie. Like many mass strikes in the UK or US there were all kinds of flawed ideologies involved and many failures, but mass strikes in the UK and US don't get lumped in the same way.

On Ethiopia specifically, it's worth noting that there was massive left internal opposition to Mengistu, who came to power following a military coup but after a general strike in 1974, and ruthlessly suppressed all the communists: and this research blog has a lot more: