Eritrea officially the State of Eritrea, is a country in the Horn of Africa region of Eastern Africa, with its capital (and largest city) at Asmara. It is bordered by Ethiopia in the south, Sudan in the west, and Djibouti in the southeast. The northeastern and eastern parts of Eritrea have an extensive coastline along the Red Sea. The nation has a total area of approximately 117,600 km2 (45,406 sq mi), and includes the Dahlak Archipelago and several of the Hanish Islands.
The boundaries of the present-day Eritrea nation state were established during the Scramble for Africa. In 1869 or 1870, the ruling local chief sold lands surrounding the Bay of Assab to the Rubattino Shipping Company. The area served as a coaling station along the shipping lanes introduced by the recently completed Suez Canal.
In the vacuum that followed the 1889 death of Emperor Yohannes IV, Gen. Oreste Baratieri occupied the highlands along the Eritrean coast and Italy proclaimed the establishment of the new colony of Italian Eritrea, a colony of the Kingdom of Italy. In the Treaty of Wuchale (It. Uccialli) signed the same year, King Menelik of Shewa, a southern Ethiopian kingdom, recognized the Italian occupation of his rivals’ lands of Bogos, Hamasien, Akkele Guzay, and Serae in exchange for guarantees of financial assistance and continuing access to European arms and ammunition. His subsequent victory over his rival kings and enthronement as Emperor Menelek II (r. 1889–1913) made the treaty formally binding upon the entire territory.
In 1888, the Italian administration launched its first development projects in the new colony. The Eritrean Railway was completed to Saati in 1888, and reached Asmara in the highlands in 1911. The Asmara–Massawa Cableway was the longest line in the world during its time, but was later dismantled by the British in World War II. Besides major infrastructural projects, the colonial authorities invested significantly in the agricultural sector. It also oversaw the provision of urban amenities in Asmara and Massawa, and employed many Eritreans in public service, particularly in the police and public works departments. Thousands of Eritreans were concurrently enlisted in the army, serving during the Italo-Turkish War in Libya as well as the First and Second Italo-Abyssinian Wars.
Additionally, the Italian Eritrea administration opened a number of new factories, which produced buttons, cooking oil, pasta, construction materials, packing meat, tobacco, hide, and other household commodities. In 1939, there were around 2,198 factories and most of the employees were Eritrean citizens. The establishment of industries also made an increase in the number of both Italians and Eritreans residing in the cities. The number of Italians residing in the territory increased from 4,600 to 75,000 in five years; and with the involvement of Eritreans in the industries, trade and fruit plantation was expanded across the nation, while some of the plantations were owned by Eritreans.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini‘s rise to power in Italy brought profound changes to the colonial government in Italian Eritrea. After il Duce declared the birth of the Italian Empire in May 1936, Italian Eritrea (enlarged with northern Ethiopia’s regions) and Italian Somaliland were merged with the just conquered Ethiopia in the new Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) administrative territory. This Fascist period was characterized by imperial expansion in the name of a “new Roman Empire”. Eritrea was chosen by the Italian government to be the industrial center of Italian East Africa.
Asmara’s architecture after 1935 was greatly improved to become a “modernist Art Deco city” (in 2017 has been declared a “UNESCO World City Heritage”), featuring eclectic and rationalist built forms, well-defined open spaces, and public and private buildings, including cinemas, shops, banks, religious structures, public and private offices, industrial facilities, and residences (according to UNESCO’s publications). The Italians designed more than 400 buildings in a construction boom that was only halted by Italy’s involvement in WW2. These included art deco masterpieces like the worldwide famous Fiat Tagliero Building and the Cinema Impero
The British placed Eritrea under British military administration until Allied forces could determine its fate.
In the absence of agreement amongst the Allies concerning the status of Eritrea, British administration continued for the remainder of World War II and until 1950. During the immediate postwar years, the British proposed that Eritrea be divided along religious lines and annexed partly to the British colony of Sudan and partly to Ethiopia. The Soviet Union, anticipating a communist victory in the Italian polls, initially supported returning Eritrea to Italy under trusteeship or as a colony.
Annexation with Ethiopia
In the 1950s, the Ethiopian feudal administration under Emperor Haile Selassie sought to annex Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. He laid claim to both territories in a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Paris Peace Conference and at the First Session of the United Nations. In the United Nations, the debate over the fate of the former Italian colonies continued. The British and Americans preferred to cede all of Eritrea except the Western province to the Ethiopians as a reward for their support during World War II. The Independence Bloc of Eritrean parties consistently requested from the UN General Assembly that a referendum be held immediately to settle the Eritrean question of sovereignty.
Following the adoption of UN Resolution 390A(V) in December 1950, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia under the prompting of the United States. The resolution called for Eritrea and Ethiopia to be linked through a loose federal structure under the sovereignty of the Emperor. Eritrea was to have its own administrative and judicial structure, its own flag, and control over its domestic affairs, including police, local administration, and taxation. The federal government, which for all practical purposes was the existing imperial government, was to control foreign affairs (including commerce), defense, finance, and transportation. The resolution ignored the wishes of Eritreans for independence, but guaranteed the population democratic rights and a measure of autonomy.
In 1958, a group of Eritreans founded the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM). The organization mainly consisted of Eritrean students, professionals and intellectuals. It engaged in clandestine political activities intended to cultivate resistance to the centralizing policies of the imperial Ethiopian state. On 1 September 1961, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, waged an armed struggle for independence. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the Eritrean parliament and annexed the territory. The ensuing Eritrean War of Independence went on for 30 years against successive Ethiopian governments until 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), a successor of the ELF, defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea and helped a coalition of Ethiopian rebel forces take control of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Following a UN-supervised referendum in Eritrea (dubbed UNOVER) in which the Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence, Eritrea declared its independence and gained international recognition in 1993. The EPLF seized power, established a one-party state along nationalist lines and banned further political activity. There have been no elections since.
The Eritrean–Ethiopian War from 1998 to 2000 involved a major border conflict, notably around Badme and Zalambessa, eventually resolved in 2018. In 2020, Eritrean troops intervened in Tigray War on the side of Ethiopian central government. In April 2021, Eritrea confirmed its troops were fighting in Ethiopia.