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Caught in the headlights of history: Eritrea, the EPLF and the post-war nation-state

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2005

Richard Reid
University of Durham.


A little over a decade after the achievement of independence, Eritrea is confronted by a range of social and political problems, problems which are rooted both in the nation's past and in the ruling movement's interpretation of that past. This paper is concerned with the widening gulf between the nation-state, as envisaged by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) during the liberation struggle and as currently ‘imagined’ by the government, and the socio-political reality. Eritrean society is now marked by widening divisions between the ‘struggle generation’ and the membership of the former EPLF on the one hand, and large sections of the remainder of the population, notably youth. The 1998–2000 war with Ethiopia, the root causes of which are as yet unresolved, has proved more destructive than was apparent even at the time, and has been used by the state as a vindication of the EPLF's particular interpretation of the past. Political and social repression, rooted in a militaristic tradition and a profound fear of disunity, has intensified since the war. In this paper the current situation is examined in terms of the deep frustration felt by younger Eritreans, the urban–rural divide, the state-level determination to cling to the values and the aims of the liberation struggle, and the position of Eritrea in international politics.

Research Article
© 2005 Cambridge University Press

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Much of this paper is based on several years of observing Eritrea and conversing with Eritreans, most recently in September 2003 and July 2004. While I have conducted more formalised interviews in particular contexts, much of my material is derived from countless informal conversations which cannot be fully referenced. The formal interview is often counter-productive in the current political climate, and in any case informants must almost always remain anonymous. I am indebted to those who have commented on earlier versions of this paper, including that presented at the Centre of African Studies seminar, Edinburgh, in November 2003.