The African state of Eritrea is often called the ‘North Korea of Africa’. We at YPT were of course very interested in that and have been running tours there for a while now. But what do you know about Eritrea? A good way to get a sense of a country is to look at its national flag and learn the history of it. So that’s what we’re doing here, we’re going to check out the flag of Eritrea.
Current Flag of Eritrea
So there’s quite a bit going on here. Three triangles in red, green and blue with an emblem in yellow. Let’s start by looking at the colours. The green stands for the agriculture of the land and the blue stands for the sea. Pretty simple, a lot of flags use symbolism like that. The red however represents blood shed in the struggle for Eritrean independence. You see, Eritrea has had a long history of colonialism, with the most recent case being under the rule of Ethiopia. After some time post-WW2 as a British protectorate, the United Nations decided in 1952 to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia, giving them regional autonomy but also satisfying Ethiopian demands for the territory.
This did not pan out well. In 1961, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie decided to just annex Eritrea outright, bringing it under full Ethiopian rule. This sparked an immediate war of independence that was fought until 1991, when revolution in Ethiopia itself unseated its ruler and brought in a new government. During that time, Eritrean rebels had cleared the region of Ethiopian soldiers, but what was to happen now? Talks began with the new Ethiopian government and it was agreed that a referendum would be held on national independence. Fighting ceased and in 1993, the referendum concluded with 99.8% in favour of independence.
It was in 1993 that the current flag of Eritrea was officially hoisted for the first time. But a similar flag had already existed for quite some time! The flag of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front was pretty much the same, except the emblem had been a five-pointed yellow star. Which you might recognize as being a rather communist symbol… Indeed, they were a Marxist-Leninist movement initially, but had shed that ideology by the end of the 80s, recognizing that the tide of socialism internationally was turning with the gradual disintegration of the USSR and aligned states. This may be why they chose a different emblem for the flag.
Speaking of, let’s take a look at the emblem that’s actually on the flag. What we have here is an olive branch with olive wreathes surrounding it. This was actually taken from the 1952 flag, which existed when Eritrea was a federation within Ethiopia. At that time, the emblem was in green and also, the wreath looked slightly different. In fact, it was that different wreath which was originally flown in 1993, it wasn’t until 1995 that it officially took on its current form, where thirty leaves branch off to symbolize the thirty years of struggle for independence.
Flag of Eritrea (1952-1962)
As mentioned earlier, this was the flag of Eritrea from 1952-1961 when it was part of a federation with Ethiopia. Eritrea’s position in the federation was poor from the start, having essentially been handed over to Ethiopia without consent from the Eritrean people. A great many parties had been formed throughout the 40s in opposition to unity with Ethiopia, though none were taken seriously by Britain, the UN or Ethiopia itself.
Upon its formation, there were some attempts to define Eritrean national identity through defining the official languages as Tigrinya, Arabic and English rather than the common Ethiopian language Amharic, along with denying Ethiopian imperial representatives the right to comment on drafted legislation, but these were all quite minor compared to the influence Ethiopia had. By 1955, the Eritrean president was removed entirely. Eritrea was disenfranchised economically by the Ethiopian state and by 1956, Amharic was increasingly pushed as a language requirement, making it difficult for many Eritreans to even gain a proper education as they often only spoke Tigrinya and Arabic.
By 1960, the Ethiopian government was no longer recognizing the Eritrean flag and the judicial system moved to Ethiopian control. At last in 1962, formal annexation took place, dissolving what little self-governance remained. This prompted the rise of the Eritrean Liberation Front, a primarily Islamic movement that fought for Eritrean independence while waving the flag of their deposed federal state. While initially very prominent, it’s primarily Islamic nature coupled with the support of Arab states who wished to incorporate Eritrea into a pan-Arab fold brought about strong divisions within the movement.
By 1973, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front was formed and rapidly grew in popularity. As opposed to the ELF, the EPLF was Marxist-Leninist and Maoist in nature, which had a broader appeal across the different ethnic and religious groups in Eritrea than a purely Islamic movement could manage. Guerrilla training in China further enhanced their ability to fight back against the Ethiopian state, leading to the near total liberation of Eritrea by 1975. Lest you think the flag of Eritrea was flying proudly at this point, the newly pro-Soviet Ethiopian government gained assistance from the USSR and had retaken most of the nation by 1977.
By the 1980s, the ELF had completely dissolved, leaving the EPLF to finish the fight and gain Eritrea’s independence, just as the Ethiopian state was itself collapsing into a state of civil war, with the collapse of the USSR finally sounding the death knell for Ethiopian control of Eritrea and the rise of the Eritrean flag once more. But with the history of this stage of Eritrea now understood… What was the flag of Eritrea before all this? Before Ethiopian rule and even before British rule?
Flag of Italian Eritrea (1882-1941)
That’s right, the flag of Eritrea was none other than the Italian flag until 1941. This era was actually quite significant as Italian rule was what established the modern borders of Eritrea. It began simply enough in the late 1860s as local chiefs sold land around the bay of Assab to the Rubattino Shipping Company, which isn’t quite the same as annexation. This changed in 1882 when the territory was brought officially under the control of the Italian government, followed by gradual expansion and conquest until the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889 defined the borders of the Colony of Eritrea with the Ethiopian Empire.
Upon the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Eritrea became a foothold for incursions into Ethiopia, soon leading to Eritrea only being a part of Italian East Africa. Eritrea became merely the Eritrea Governorate, still maintaining recognized boundaries while being part of a larger Italian colony. Eritrea Governorate was selected to be the industrial heartland of this new colony, with the relatively small Italian population exploding to nearly 100,000 by the start of WW2.
Italy developed Italian Eritrea to a greater degree than Ethiopia, partly due to the head-start in development which had begun decades earlier, but also due to continued resistance in Ethiopia making it unpopular for Italian settlers. By the time Italy was driven out of the region in 1941, a great deal of the territory had been ravaged by warfare, undoing the Italian development. Even worse for many Eritreans was Britain seizing remaining infrastructure and moving it overseas as war reparations from Italy. This led to some (though by no means a majority) of Eritreans backing the Italians and joining a guerrilla war against Britain.
To go back further in history, we’re not really looking at Eritrea specifically anymore. European colonialism of Africa was of course an abomination and fascist Italy was hardly the ‘good colonizer’, but they did form the Eritrean borders. Prior to them, it was Ethiopia, before that it was the Ottoman’s. While a unique Eritrean culture existed, the possibility for Eritrean independence and the growth of a national identity cemented in the aftermath of Italian rule. That was when the flag of Eritrea finally became something to rally behind. It was only inevitable that soon after, the flag of Eritrea would be representing the nation before the world.
So… That’s it! That’s the flag of Eritrea summarized. And if you found this interesting, maybe you’d like to pay a visit to Eritrea yourself? You can! Be sure to check out some of our Eritrean tours, we hope to see you there!