January in the History of Eritrea

By Simon Weldemichael

Eritrea has a long, eventful past. This article takes a look at several significant events that have occurred during the month of January during Eritrea’s history, beginning from 1890. Particular focus is given to events with significant national implications.

1 January 1890: Italy officially announced the formation of their first colony in Africa and named it Eritrea. Generally, outside the old western European countries and some exceptions, all of Africa and the rest of the Third World started out as colonies. Italian colonization defined and forged the geographical map of Eritrea and had an impact on the history of Eritrea. However, this does not mean that the history of Eritrea began with Italian colonization. Rather, the history of Eritrea antedates European colonization. For example, it features the existence of ancient civilizations and a long tradition of resistance against domination.

The prevailing military, economic, and political situation in Eritrea at the end of 19th century made Italian colonial expansion into the interior easier. The continuous raids from Tigray, coupled by the heavy taxation levied on the population in the wake of every war weakened the power of the Eritrean people. To make matters worse, a terrible famine – described by the label “zemene akahida” (meaning “a period of betrayal”) – devastated the population.

Italy’s first colonial steps were facilitated by an Italian trading company, the Rubattino Company. Giuseppe Sapeto, a Catholic priest was instrumental in facilitating the agreement between the trading company and the Sultan of Assab.

Missionaries also played a “great” role in European colonization of Africa. They were pioneers and cleared the way for their respective nations to come to Africa. During European colonization of Africa, religion was a principal instrument in inculcating white supremacy and black inferiority in the mind of Africans. Notably, even decades after the era of direct colonization, many Western nations and groups still attempt to use religion in an attempt to control the minds of Africans.

1 January 1979: The Voice of the Masses, Radio Dimtsi Hafash was established in Fah, Sahel. Media is instrumental in increasing popular consciousness and participation during socio-political movements and revolutions. Aware of this, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) tirelessly worked to develop a media platform through which it could communicate with the Eritrean population.  Communication between the EPLF and the people was impeded by the strategic withdrawal following the Soviet intervention on the side of the Derg. This development thus demanded the launching of broadcast media. Accordingly, Radio Dimtsi Hafash was established on 1 January 1979.

The program accomplished its mission of disseminating news and Eritrean views to the people living inside and outside the country. Today, Dimtsi Hafash has expanded its coverage and added two more channels in order to inform and entertain a broader audience.

6 January 1993: UN Secretary-General Dr. Boutros Boutros Gali made a historic visit to Eritrea. After a long independence struggle, the martyrdom of over 65,000 dead fighters, and the death of many more civilians, Eritrea defeated Ethiopian colonization and oppression. From the day that it passed the federal resolution in 1950 until 1991, the UN failed to ensure justice and carry out its responsibility to the Eritrean people. When the dark chapter of Ethiopian colonization was ended through the monumental efforts of Eritreans, the UN Secretary-General paid an official visit to liberated Eritrea.

7January 1977: The EPLF liberated Karura, a small town located on northern tip of Eritrea. This was the first liberated area and it served as a springboard for the EPLF to free other parts of the nations from Ethiopia’s occupying forces. Fully cognizant and understanding of the uneven balance of forces and power which prevailed at the time, the EPLF employed a strategy summed up as, “Liberating the land and people, bit by bit.” Notably, the liberation of two other important towns, located in western Eritrea, Tessenei and Alighder, also took place in the month of January, in 1984.

12 January 1979: The Derg began its third offensive in an attempt to annihilate the EPLF. After the EPLF made its strategic withdrawal, the successive Ethiopian offensives, supported by the USSR, seemed to tip the balance of power and put Eritrean fighters on the defensive and into retreat. After coming to power, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam decided to address the Eritrean “problem” through a military solution. His regime got closer to the socialist camp and he made a trip to Moscow to strengthen relations and secure military support.  As a result, in December 1976, a secret military assistance agreement was signed between Ethiopia and the USSR. Moscow’s military aid to the Derg, which began in 1977, continued until the Eritrean independence war was effectively over in 1991.

January 1977: The Eritrean independence movement held its First Organizational Congress at Fah, Sahel. Hundreds of representatives of fighters and mass organizations, delegations from various countries, and representative of liberation movements from around the world attended the landmark meeting. In this historic event, the political, economic, social, and military experience of the ongoing Eritrean revolution was closely examined and the national democratic program was approved. The leadership was also elected, with Romodan Mohammed Nur as Secretary-General and Isaias Afwerki as Vice Secretary-General. The name of the liberation movement was also decided – the EPLF. After independence, the EPLF transitioned into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, focusing on the new task of nation-building, national development, and establishing a harmonious, prosperous society for all Eritreans.

January 2019: Eritreans all over the world welcomed the New Year with great enthusiasm and excitement. They also celebrated the developments toward peace and the victory over sanctions that took place across 2018. Many have also expressed their commitment to use 2019 to make up for the years of lost opportunity and potential. During the past 20 years, Eritreans made great sacrifices to protect their independence and seek justice. As a long, dark chapter, characterized by external efforts to isolate and break Eritrea, has come to an end, the country and its people have begun to look forward with optimism to a new chapter of peace, cooperation, and progress.

Finally, a quick glance at some of the events that have occurred in January during Eritrea’s history raises an interesting question:   how did Eritreans manage to so effectively organize themselves and achieve their independence? One factor is the “the culture of resistance,” which, after first emerging, never disappeared. Eritreans have repeatedly made history through relying on that “culture of resistance.” Moving forward, in order to ensure lasting peace and prosperity, Eritreans must maintain their “culture of resistance”.