A bitter-sweet victory

Published May 1, 1998

ERITREA HAS BEEN within Ethiopia’s sphere of influence for more than 3,000 years – but seven decades of Italian colonialism, combined with the authoritarianism of Ethiopia during the Cold War, have shaped its identity and determination and driven Eritrea into the longest African liberation war this century.

When a small guerilla group rose in arms against the Ethiopian army, backed first by the United States then by the Soviet Union, nobody would ever have thought that three decades later Eritrea would be an independent state with its own currency, the Nakfa.

Yet today Eritrea is a country of 3.5 million citizens, liberated by its own efforts from a country with more than 10 times its population after 30 years of war waged by a couple of thousand barefoot warriors against an army of 300,000 troops.

And, though it is still embattled, it is fighting a war against a different enemy – its own poverty. Being a poor and dry country prone to frequent droughts, Eritrea has had to rely heavily not only on foreign financial aid, but also on foreign food aid.

In 1920, after four consecutive years of drought, the resulting famine caused the death of nearly one third of Eritrea’s population. Neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen, and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, face the same extreme poverty.

Without significant backing from a stronger and more economically stable country, Eritrea will have a hard time winning this latest war. But the overwhelming magnitude of the task does not seem to scare its leaders. Eritrea is relying heavily on its proven persistence and stubbornness in the face of the enemy.

The proud and independent nature of Eritreans can be mistaken for arrogance. Last year, the government unilaterally decided that all foreign Non-Government Organizations involved in grass roots development should prepare to hand responsibility for their projects to Eritrean nationals and leave the country.

Right after the end of the war and the subsequent referendum of 1993, the governing body of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front saw a multitude of foreign NGOs in Asmara, the capital. At that time, sympathies were high for the David who had just defeated Goliath. Foreign funds poured in following these NGOs.

But, as is the case with most Third World countries, when you accept funds from outside, you can expect to be asked to accept foreign funds managers, too. Eritrea was no exception – but, proudly, it would accept aid only on its own conditions.

A minimum of $1,000,000 US was established for a foreign NGO to send a representative to Eritrea, plus a guarantee to use local human resources. Eritrea’s argument was simple and clear. Eritreans had the skills and should have full ownership.

In a book published in 1985 – titled Never Kneel Down – authors Stuart Holland, then British Labour Shadow Minister for Overseas Development and Co-operation, and James Firebrace, seemed to agree with this self-assessment.

Even so, overcoming this challenge and producing competitive goods and services could be more difficult for Eritrea than routing the Ethiopian army. But who ever said nations that win choose the easy route? Simba Gahungu was born in Burundi and is currently a freelance writer living in Toronto.


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