By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

Globalization in the industrialized societies means bringing down borders and forming currency unions. For instance, during the Cold War period, the realities of international politics dictated the need for bigness in international affairs if a country was not to become a second-rate power compared to the United States or the former Soviet Union. Thus, to Western European countries, that necessitated integration.

On the other hand, when it comes to poor countries globalization in the Post-Cold War period has lent itself to fragmentation, erecting barriers and less freedom. The concept of self-determination and secession has been pushed in poor countries by the industrialized societies largely out of self-interest.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea are not enemies. The bonds between the two are deep and strong.

In 1890, Eritrea was carved out of parts of northern Ethiopia and the coastal establishments by the Italians. Eritrea was ruled by the Italians for 50 years and by the British for another 10 years.

Sixty years of European rule had weakened Eritrea’s feudal structure. Urban centers were established and infrastructure was built. Various consumer goods industries were created and the wage system was introduced. As a result of this modern influence, new social groups with a more progressive outlook developed in Eritrea.

Compared to resource-rich Ethiopia, the Italian colony of Eritrea was very small and less endowed with agricultural lands. It had an industrious population, but its employment base was very limited.

Ethiopia had existed as an independent country long before the European Scramble for Africa. Ethiopia was not colonized except for a brief Italian occupation of five years (1936-1941). Italian colonialism left very little impact on Ethiopia, which remained virtually unchanged as a feudal society.

Historically, Ethiopia was an isolated country, lying far beyond the horizon of Europe. It had to pay expensive transit cost for its external trade. For example, prior to the 1950s, Ethiopia paid, per ton, ten times higher than what was paid in Europe under similar conditions.

The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway carried about 70 percent of Ethiopia’s foreign trade, and freight rates were very high. The remaining 20 percent was carried through Gambela and up to 10 percent through the Italian colony of Eritrea. These routes were difficult, expensive and entailed long hauls through European colonies to reach the sea.

All these changed when Eritrea, with its own government and flag, was federated with Ethiopia in 1952. Ethiopia was now able to transit its goods through three major ports: Massawa and Assab on the Red Sea in Eritrea, and Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. Most of Ethiopia’s cargo transited through Assab.

The federation also created opportunities for many Eritreans to freely move to Ethiopia and fill positions in various technical and professional areas or to start businesses of their own. Most of them became quite successful. Eritreans were able to pursue modern education in institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia paid for by the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian population always welcomed Eritreans, and their success was not viewed as a threat.

The federation was mutually beneficial for both countries, but it did not last long. It was abolished unwisely in 1962. Eritrea lost its autonomous government and was simply made one of the provinces of Ethiopia. This suppression of democracy in Eritrea provoked Eritrean nationalism and triggered armed resistance (ELF & EPLF).

Upon the overthrow of the imperial regime by the armed forces in 1974, the Eritrean conflict took a dangerous turn. A moderate position of reconciliation in Eritrea and a return to the federation was rejected by the junta. By acting in self-serving ways to hold on to power, the Mengistu Hailemariam regime exacerbated the conflict.

Finally, as a result of the change in superpower politics in the late 1980s, the Eritrean nationalists (EPLF) and their allies (TPLF) gained the upper hand and toppled the Mengistu Hailemariam regime in 1991. In 1993, Eritrea’s independence was formalized by a U.N. sponsored referendum. In 1998, the EPLF and TPLF regimes now went to war, even though they are ethnically the same, over boundaries, demarcated by the Italian colonialists.

The separation between Ethiopia and Eritrea did not produce a favorable outcome. For instance, it forced Ethiopia into isolation again. The resource-rich central and southern regions of Ethiopia became landlocked. Ethiopia’s foreign trade no longer passed through Assab, and consequently Eritrea lost income from transit services. Ethiopia had to divert its cargo to the port of Djibouti that has a smaller capacity, thereby hampering Ethiopia’s trade with the rest of the world. The flow of Eritrean capital and labor to Ethiopia ceased.

Furthermore, Eritrea’s secession created a wedge between Ethiopians and Eritreans. In guise of economic nationalism, the TPLF regime expelled Eritrean entrepreneurs and confiscated their property. This was detrimental to the Ethiopian economy because Eritrean entrepreneurs had been major players in the private sector. Eritrea’s secession also sparked imitation throughout the region. This is currently threatening to create isolated peoples and fragmented markets, which could exacerbate poverty, ignorance, disease and the curse of famine.

Ethiopia and Eritrea are culturally and geographically cohesive. No ethnic group in the region has been untouched by others through trade, intermarriage or war. Ethnic mixing and changes in boundaries have continued for centuries. New borders may be drawn, but the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea cannot detach themselves from one another.

The so-called conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is actually an intra-ethnic rivalry between the two Tigrinya-speaking regimes. This rivalry is also being fueled by external forces for their own self-interest.

There is no historical or economic justification for separation between the two countries. Ethiopia and Eritrea need each other for their survival. Ethiopia’s advantage is its rich resources. Eritrea’s is its access to the sea and industrious population. For both countries, the benefits with integration are greater than the benefits without integration.

*Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ferris State University; UW-Whitewater,