By T.J. Petrowski,
THERE exists in the Horn of Africa a small nation that few living in the West have heard of. A former Italian colony, Eritrea is only reported on in the mainstream media when the U.S. imposes further sanctions on this small country of six million, or when Hollywood makes a movie about a dictator in a fictitious country that shares its exact borders. But for those journalists living in Eritrea, the country is the “Cuba of Africa.”
During the “scramble for Africa”, Italy colonized the port of Asseb in modern day Eritrea in 1869, to compete with French and British control of the Red Sea shipping lanes. Britain administered the colony of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland following the defeat of Italy and the Axis powers in WW2, and a United Nations resolution, backed by the U.S., made Eritrea an autonomous territory of Ethiopia in 1951. When Haile Selassie I, the feudal emperor of Ethiopia, unilaterally revoked Eritrea’s autonomous status, separatists led by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) fought a 30 year war of independence.
When Eritrea achieved formal independence in 1993, its infrastructure had been devastated. A third of the population was in exile, agricultural and industrial production was in a state of collapse, and the ruling EPLF had to begin rebuilding the country in a state of ruin. The National Democratic Program outlined socialist development in four pillars: food security, water, health, and education.
Agrarian reforms radically transformed food security. Peasants were allocated small plots of land and provided with more modern tractors to work their farms. But the construction of a micro-dam irrigation system had the greatest impact on food security. These micro-dams broke the age-old dependence on the rains in this arid region of Africa. In 2011, the United Nations Famine Early Warning System predicted millions would starve in capitalist Ethiopia, despite being the birthplace of the Nile River and the Zenawi regime exporting 10,000 tons of rice to Saudi Arabia that year. But the people of Eritrea were able to survive the worst of the drought.
Access to clean drinking water has improved dramatically. In 1990, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 43% of Eritreans had access to safe drinking water; by 2013 that number had risen to 85%, compared to 48% in Ethiopia. The government has supported a variety of methods to provide safe drinking water, including harvesting rainwater through roof collection and solar-powered pumps to extract ground water reserves.
Eritrea’s “existing national health policy aims to ensure equity and access by majority population to essential health services at affordable cost, consistent with the Universal Health Coverage principles,” the WHO reported.
Eritrea is one of only three countries in Africa on target to reach the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. Eight major vaccine-preventable diseases have been eliminated, life expectancy is 66 years, the country is moving towards eliminating malaria, and HIV/AIDS infections in the general population is less than 1%. By comparison, HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. is around 3%, and Eritrea’s life expectancy is equivalent to the state of Mississippi, in the richest country in the world.
In Ethiopia, hailed as the “African lion” by pundits for its creation of millionaires, the WHO reports:
“The main health concerns in Ethiopia include maternal mortality, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS compounded by acute malnutrition and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. The limited number of health institutions, inefficient distribution of medical supplies and disparity between rural and urban areas, due to severe under-funding of the health sector, make access to healthcare services very difficult.”
Adult literacy in Eritrea is 80%. Education is provided free to all students, including university and college, and the government spends 45% of its budget on education.
When it became clear that Eritrea would not adhere to Western neoliberalism, imperialism launched a campaign of demonization and economic sabotage, calling it a “rogue” state, a “dictatorship”, and an “international sponsor of terrorism.”
Ethiopia invaded Eritrea in 1998 with the support of U.S. imperialism. Hundreds of thousands of troops were deadlocked in trenches along an 800 kilometer front, the largest and deadliest conventional war since the Iran-Iraq War.
Allegedly the war was the consequence of Eritrean territorial expansion into Ethiopia, but this can easily be disproven. Ethiopia unilaterally superimposed its Tigray administrative zone into Eritrea. This change can be seen in maps created by the Ethiopian regime in 1997, compared to those by international organizations. The change was even visible on Ethiopian currency issued in 1997 showing an enlarged map of Ethiopia. A peace agreement was signed in Algeria in December 2000, establishing the Eritrean- Ethiopian Border Commission (EECB), a UN body tasked with identifying a “final and binding” border between the two countries. In 2002, the EECB released its findings, awarding the controversial village of Badme to Eritrea, infuriating Ethiopia’s leaders, who have rejected the ruling. To this date Ethiopia continues to militarily occupy Eritrean territories with U.S. support.
But the war wasn’t about a border dispute. In a secret cable published by Wikileaks, Meles Zenawi, the former prime minister, tells Susan Rice, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: “The outbreak of hostilities … was never about the border dispute in Badme and Zelambessa… It was about economic and political differences”. Smaller “border conflicts” also occurred between Eritrea and U.S.- backed Yemen and Djibouti.
Now the U.S. has imposed crippling sanctions on Eritrea for its alleged support for al-Shabaab in Somalia. Wikileaks also disproved this claim in its “Ethiopia Files”. In a secret cable, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto said, “The role Eritrea plays in Somalia… is probably insignificant.” The United Nations monitoring group in Somalia admitted it “has found no evidence to substantiate allegations that Eritrea supplied Al-Shabaab with arms and ammunition by air in October and November 2011,” even though this was used to justify Resolution 2023, imposing sanctions on Eritrea’s mining development.
Canadians should be aware of Western imperialism’s violent policies, and support the right of all people, whether in Eritrea, Cuba, Venezuela or Korea, to self determination.