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State of Eritrea

Hagere Ertra


FLAG: A red triangle divides the flag into two right triangles; the upper triangle is green, the lower one is blue. A gold wreath encircling a gold olive branch is centered on the hoist side of the red triangle.

ANTHEM: Eritrea National Anthem beginning "Eritrea, Eritrea, Eritrea."

MONETARY UNIT: After establishing independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea used Ethiopian currency until November 1997. At this time the nafka was issued to replace the Ethiopian birr at approximately the same rate. 1 nafka = $0.06897 (or $1 = 14.5 nafka) as of 2005.

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES: The metric system is used.

HOLIDAYS: New Year's Day, 1 January; Independence Day, 24 May; Martyrs' Day, 20 June; Anniversary of the Start of the Armed Struggle, 1 September. Movable holidays include 'Id al-Fitr, 'Id al-Adha, and 'Id Milad al-Nabi. Movable Orthodox Christian holidays include Fasika and Meskel.

TIME: 3 pm = noon GMT.


Eritrea is located in eastern Africa. The area occupied by Eritrea is slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania with a total area of 121,320 sq km (46,842 sq mi). Eritrea shares boundaries with the Red Sea on the ne, Djibouti on the se, Ethiopia on the s, and Sudan on the w, and has a total land boundary of 1,626 km (1,010 mi) and a coastline of 2,234 km (1,388 mi).

The capital city, Asmara, is located in the central portion of the country.


The topography of Eritrea is dominated by the extension of the Ethiopian north-south trending highlands, descending on the east to a coastal desert plain and on the northeast to hills and on the southwest to flat-to-rolling plains. Approximately 4% of the land is arable. Natural resources include gold, potash, zinc, copper, salt, and fish. Frequent droughts, soil erosion, deforestation, and overgrazing all present environmental challenges.


Highs of 60°c (140°f) are not uncommon in the Danakil Depression in Eritrea's southernmost province, Denkalia. This is reportedly the hottest spot in the world. It is cooler and wetter in the central highlands. The western hills and lowlands are semiarid. Heavy rainfall occurs during June, July, and August, except in the coastal desert.


The giraffe and baboon are extinct in Eritrea. Populations of lion, leopard, zebra, species of monkey, gazelle, antelope, and elephant continue to thrive, however. The coastal areas are home to many species of turtle, lobster, and shrimp. Plant life includes acacia, cactus, aloe vera, prickly pear, and olive trees. As of 2002, there were at least 112 species of mammals and 138 species of birds throughout the country.


The most significant environmental problems in Eritrea are deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, overgrazing, famine, and damage to the infrastructure from warfare. In 2000, about 15.7% of the total land area was forested. In 2003, about 4.3% of the total land area was protected. According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the number of threatened species included nine types of mammals, seven species of birds, six types of reptiles, nine species of fish, and three species of plants. Threatened species include the spotted eagle, the cheetah, the black crowned crane, the great white shark, the African wild ass, and the green turtle.


The population of Eritrea in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 4,670,000, which placed it at number 113 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 3% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 45% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 96 males for every 100 females in the country. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 20052010 was expected to be 2.6%, a rate the government viewed as too high. Although the fertility rate declined from 6.1 births per woman in 1995 to 4.8 in 2002, the government still considered the fertility rate too high, with only 5% of married women using contraception. The projected population for the year 2025 was 7,244,000. The population density was 40 per sq km (103 per sq mi).

The UN estimated that 19% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 5.63%. The capital city, Asmara, had a population of 556,000 in that year.


During Eritrea's fight for independence, more than 750,000 fled the country, 500,000 of whom went to Sudan. Following Eritrea's liberation in 1991, many of these refugees returned voluntarily, although there were still some 315,000 in Sudan at the end of 1997. An Eritrean plan for repatriation from Sudan was implemented between 1994 and June 1995, with 25,000 refugees successfully repatriated. Another 80,000 returned on their own. Results of a data collection exercise conducted in Sudan in April 1998 suggested that 90% of Eritrean refugees (some 130,000) were willing to be repatriated. The Eritrean/Ethiopian border conflict had also displaced more than 300,000 people within Eritrea as of 1999. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began repatriating 150,000 Eritrean refugees from Sudan in 2001 due to renewed diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 2004 UNHCR assisted 9,893 voluntary returnees from Eritrea to Sudan.

In 2004, there were 131,119 refugees in Eritrea, mainly from Somalia and Sudan. Also in 2004, there were 58,953 internally displaced people. There were also 449 asylum seekers that year, mainly Ethiopians. However, over 6,000 Eritreans sought asylum in sixteen countries in 2004, mainly in Ethiopia, Sudan, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden.

In 2005, the net migration rate for Eritrea was estimated as zero migrants per 1,000 population, a significant change from -22.5 per thousand in 1990.


Ethnologists classify Eritreans by nine prominent language groups. The Afar live in the southeast, the Tigrinya in south central Eritrea, and the Tigre in the north. The Saho live in the south central/southeast. The Bilen live in central Eritrea, the Hadareb in the northwest, and the Kunama and Nara in the southwest. The ninth group, the Rashaida, inhabit the northwest. The Tigrinya (50% of the population), Tigre and Kunama (40%), Afar (4%), and Saho (3%) are believed to be the largest ethnic groups.


No official language has been proclaimed. However, Arabic and Tigrinya are the working languages of the Eritrean government. Tigre is widely spoken in the western lowlands, on the northern coast, and in parts of the Sahel. Afar, Amharic, Kunama, and other minor ethnic group languages are also spoken.


The largest religions in Eritrea are Sunni Muslim (approximately 50%), Orthodox Christian (approximately 40%), Eastern Rite and Roman Catholic (approximately 5%), and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (approximately 2%). Other minority groups include Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is, Buddhists, and Hindus. Geographically, Islam predominates in the eastern and western lowlands while Christianity is dominant in the highlands. Along ethnic lines, members of the Tigrinya group are primarily Orthodox Christian. Most of the Tigre, Nara, Afar, Saho, Beja, Rashaida, and Blen are Muslim. Over 50% of the Kunama are Roman Catholic.

Though the constitution provides for freedom of religion, the government has placed a number of restrictions on "Pente" groups, or all religious organizations other than the four government-sanctioned religions of Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. In 2001, the government began closing all Pente facilities and by 2002 had issued a degree that all religious groups must be officially registered in order to continue practices. This has effectively allowed for the closing of all facilities not belonging to the four principal groups. There is a standing law prohibiting political or other gatherings in private homes of more than five individuals, but it is unclear as to whether or not this law has been enforced against the members of the Pente groups.

Jehovah's Witnesses are particularly subject to discrimination both socially and from the government since their refusal to participate in national service is considered unpatriotic. Besides receiving prison sentences for evading national service (up to three years), a number of Jehovah's Witnesses have been denied or have had trouble obtaining passports, exit visas, identification cards, and trading licenses. Some have been forced from government-subsidized housing.


The infrastructure suffered some damage during the war for independence with Ethiopia. Massawa, the principal port, serves Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. The port, which has a 7-m (24-ft) channel and pier facilities capable of accommodating five or six large vessels, was damaged by bombing raids from February 1990 to May 1991. In early 1992, agreements were concluded between the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments to make Assab a free port for Ethiopia, making Ethiopia dependent on Eritrean ports for its foreign trade. Assab has an oil refinery and facilities capable of handling more than one million tons of goods annually. As of 2005, Eritrea had six ships (1,000 GRT or over), totaling 16,069 GRT.

Eritrea had 3,859 km (2,392 mi) of roads, of which 810 km (503 mi) were paved in 2002. A railway, which was almost completely destroyed during the war, once extended 317 km (197 mi) from Massawa on the Red Sea to Asmara, terminating near the Sudanese border. Reconstruction work on this railway, starting from Massawa, began in summer 1994. As of 2004, Eritrea had 306 km (190 mi) of rail line, all of it narrow gauge.

There were 17 airports and airfields in the country as of 2004, only 4 of which had paved runways as of 2005. The airport at Asmara (Yohannes IV) handles international jet transportation. In 1997, (the latest year for which data is available) an estimated 174,000 passengers were carried on scheduled international and domestic flights. Repair of the railroad and highway network is necessary for the revival of agriculture and industry. The government of Eritrea has established a budget for transport rehabilitation, two-thirds of which is allocated for road repair to ensure that all parts of the country have access to modern roads.


Eritrea's strategic location on the Red Sea has made the history of this country one dominated by colonial rule. Turks, Egyptians, Italians, British, and Ethiopians have all colonized Eritrea over the years. During the modern European scramble for Africa, Eritrea fell under the colonial rule of Italy in 1890. Sustained resistance to Italian rule developed into a unified sense of Eritrean nationalism among the various ethnic groups in the country. For the first time, Eritrea was welded into a single political entity with unified political and social structures, which cut across the traditional divisions. It broadly followed the pattern of political development experienced in all other European colonies in Africa and which, in the vast majority of cases, formed the basis for eventual independence. Between 1936 and 1941 Eritrea, along with Italian Somalil- and as part of the Italian East African Empire, was ruled together with Ethiopia for the first time. In 1941, after the Italians were defeated by Allied forces, Eritrea and Somaliland were placed under the British Military Administration while Ethiopia regained its independence under Emperor Haile Selassie. As a loser in the World War II, Italy relinquished its legal right to its colonies in a 1947 treaty. A Four Power Commission (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) was set up to decide on how to dispose of the former Italian colonies through negotiations. The agreement was to submit the matter to the UN General Assembly if negotiations were unsuccessful. The four countries could not agree on Eritrea's future. Britain proposed partition of Eritrea, with the western parts to go to the Sudan and the highlands and coastal strip to go to Ethiopia, while the United States suggested complete union with Ethiopia. France proposed Trust Territory with Italian administration while the Soviet Union argued for Trust Territory under international administration. The problem was referred to the United Nations (UN), which set up a commission of five countries (Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan, and South Africa) to study and propose a solution. The idea of partition was rejected outright. Guatemala and Pakistan proposed the standard formula of the UN Trusteeship leading to independence, but others favored close association with Ethiopia. For example, Norway wanted full union while Burma and South Africa favored federation with some autonomy. Meanwhile, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was working hard on the diplomatic front to acquire Eritrea. The United States backed Eritrea's federation with Ethiopia and UN Resolution 390A was passed to that effect. This decision was made without giving due attention to the overwhelming presence of groups who were mobilizing the population for independence. From September 1951 Eritrea became an autonomous territory federated with Ethiopia. US strategic interests in the Red Sea and its close ties with the emperor played a major role in influencing the final decision. The United States put forth enormous pressure to have Ethiopia administer Eritrea, under "the Sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown."

The federation lasted from September 1951 to 1962, but did not bring about harmonious integration of the entities. Ethiopia soon started to impose more direct rule at its will. The UN ignored Eritrea's protests against Ethiopia's intervention in their autonomous rule, and Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea in 1962.

A year earlier, in September 1961, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) launched an armed struggle for independence. By 1970, when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) was created from within the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), Eritrea had become the emperor's main preoccupation. EPLF is the organization that led Eritrea to independence in 1991. After the emperor was overthrown in 1974, the self-styled Marxist military dictatorship, called Dergue, stepped up its campaign against Eritreans. With the help of Soviet Union, Korea, Cuba, and other countries in the Eastern Bloc, the Dergue sustained a very bitter war over Eritrea between 1978 and 1991. The war left Eritrea in complete ruins and created enormous land-mine and population-displacement problems. In terms of infrastructure, all basic services were virtually disrupted. Most towns were without servicessuch as electricity, water, and transportationfor much of the war years. Industrial sectors were wiped out and the ports were destroyed. Ethiopian forces bombed Massawa extensively during the last days of the war, killing many civilians, destroying most of the buildings, and depopulating the area. Towards the end of the war, Ethiopia had 500,000 troops under arms, half of them in Eritrea. At no time did the Eritrean forces number more than 100,000. It is estimated that the Dergue had spent $12 billion on military supplies for its war against Eritrea. In the 30 years of war, Eritrea lost more than 60,000 fighters and about 40,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands were also forced into exile.

In May 1991, the EPLF captured the last Ethiopian outposts in Eritrea. Asmara, Eritrea's capital, was occupied on 24 May 1991. President Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Addis Ababa and the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which had also been fighting against the Dergue since 1975, took over the Ethiopian government. The EPLF created a provisional government for Eritrea, until a referendum was carried out to determine the choice of the Eritrean people. The referendum was scheduled to take place in 1993. Although Eritrea had been absorbed into Ethiopia in 1962, Eritreansunlike many Ethiopiansdid not regard their struggle as one of secession. They never recognized Ethiopian legitimacy over their territory; rather, they viewed their struggle as anticolonial, seeking to gain the independence they were denied by the UN in 1952. The referendum on 2325 April 1993 proved that this was indeed the case. The great majority98.5% of the 1,173,000 registered votersvoted for independence. The UN certified the results and on 24 May 1993, Eritrea became Africa's 52nd independent state. Four days later it was admitted to the United Nations and the OAU.

The colonial boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia, defined in a treaty between Italy and Ethiopia in July 1900, became the international boundary between the two sovereign states without modification, leaving Ethiopia a landlocked state once more. The decision was consistent with the cardinal article of an OAU charter adopted in 1963, stipulating that colonial boundaries were to be respected, and until May 1998, relations between the two countries were good. The Eritrean ports of Assab and Masawa remained open for Ethiopia free of charges.

In May 1998, disagreement over the sovereignty of border villages erupted into all-out war. Between 2 and 6 May 1998, Eritrean soldiers invaded and occupied Badme, in northeastern Ethiopia. Other areas were subsequently occupied in Tigray State. Ethiopia later recaptured Badme, but fighting continued for two and a half years, interspersed with periods of inactivity. A US- and Rwanda-sponsored peace plan proposed in early June 1998 failed; so did arbitration efforts by the OAU with each side claiming to accept an OAU framework agreement while accusing the other of making impossible preconditions to its implementation.

The war, which according to the UN claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000 people on both sides, ended officially with a peace treaty, the Algiers Agreement, on 12 December 2000. Under the Algiers Agreement, some 4,200 UN soldiers commanded under the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) remained on the border to monitor the so-called Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) that separates the two countries. Experts from the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) established in April 2002 physically demarcated the internationally recognized boundary. However, Ethiopia rejected, as unjust and illegal, the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague following its decision on 13 April 2002. Legally, the ruling was binding and final. The Ethiopian government announced in November 2004 that it accepted the EEBC ruling and urged Eritrea to accept its full implementation, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi later said he would accept border demarcation only in undisputed areas. In October 2005 the Eritrean government banned UN flights in the 25-kilometer demilitarized TSZ, and by mid-November 2005 the UN Security Council expressed deep concern over rising tension in the shaky peace agreement over military movements by both parties towards the TSZ. In the last week of November 2005, the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that threatened action, including possible sanctions, to Eritrea if it did not immediately rescind its flight ban, and to Ethiopia if it did not reverse its military build-up. As of 6 December 2005 the military situation in the TSZ remained tense and potentially volatile.

Fallout from the war exacerbated the famine. A four-year drought resulted in malnutrition rates of between 15% and 30% in the under-five population by November 2005.


After defeating the Ethiopian military government in May 1991, Eritrea functioned as a distinct political unit. Between the end of the war in May 1991 and the celebration of Independence Day in May 1993, the EPLF formed a provisional government to run the country. The provisional government was comprised of a 28-member executive council. This provisional government organized elections at the village, district, and provincial level throughout the country to broaden popular participation.

Following the referendum, in May 1993, an interim administration was created to govern for four years. In this government, a National Assembly was formed, consisting of the Central Committee of the EPLF and 60 other individuals. Ten out of the 60 seats were reserved for women. The assembly elected Isaias Afewerki president. He also served as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chaired the executive branchthe State Councilwhose members he nominated. The National Assembly ratified all of his nominations. This government was to serve until a constitutional commission prepared a constitution and the government organized elections.

In 1996, the 50-member constitutional commission submitted a draft document for public debate. It provided for multiparty democracy based upon Western standards featuring a full array of civil liberties. Ratified by referendum in 1997, the constitution called for national elections in May 1998, which were delayed by the war with Ethiopia, subsequently rescheduled for December 2001, and postponed indefinitely. By mid-2006, there were no elections in sight.


The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started the armed struggle for the independence of Eritrea in September 1961. In 1970, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) evolved from the ranks of the ELF with a new vision and program. Initially, both fronts intensified the war against Ethiopia. Both the ELF and the EPLF were mixed Muslim-Christian groups. However, they differed in the way they dealt with religious, ethnic, and regional differences inside their organizations. For example, the ELF organized itself into relatively autonomous separate units by regional, and therefore typically religious and ethnic, divisions. The EPLF on the other hand was comprised of units with mixed religion, ethnic, and regional backgrounds. By 1977, the two parties controlled most of the countryside. However, with their contradictions at the breaking point in 1978, the parties fought an all-out war against one another. By 1981, the EPLF had defeated and chased the ELF from Eritrea, leaving it the lone party operating in the country.

One still unsettled issue is the nature and role of political parties. The EPLF government has opposed the creation of parties based on race, religion, region, or ethnicity. A split between Christian and Muslim-based parties would be disastrous because the Christian-Muslim divide in the country is about fifty-fifty. The EPLF itself is a good example of a party free of religious, ethnic, or regional basis. Since its inception in 1970, it represented a united front of people with very diverse political views who shared the common goal of obtaining the right of self-determination for Eritreans.

Following its defeat in 1981, the ELF leadership divided into more than a dozen different factions. Some ELF members joined the EPLF while others fled to Sudan. After 1991, most of the former leadership returned to Eritrea to accept positions in the government or to form businesses. Others continued to discredit the government from outside the country. The Eritrean Islamic Jihad, a militant terrorist group, is a notable example.

At its third Congress on 1017 February 1994, the EPLF adopted a new name, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and committed itself to widening its popular appeal to all sectors of the Eritrean society. The National Assembly, dominated by the PFDJ, declared a ban on opposition political activity until the implementation of the constitution, thereby giving the PFDJ a monopoly on power. Though a political party law was drafted by a committee of the National Assembly in January 2001, it had yet to be debated and approved by the Assembly. Hence Eritrea remains a one-party state, with only the PFDJ allowed to operate legally.


During the years since independence in 1991, Eritreans have been participating in a process of electing governing councils for their villages, districts, and provinces. Between 1993 and 1997, both the central and local governments underwent a series of reorganizations. In 1996, Eritrea was restructured into six semiautonomous zones or regions, each consisting of several sub-zones. The change from ten provinces to six zones was controversial, but gradually won public acceptance.

Zones are administered by governors and have their own local assemblies. At the central level, the Ministry of Local Governments oversees local affairs, and concerns itself with formulating national policy, regulations, and research and manpower development, leaving implementation responsibilities to regional and local governments.


The legal system is a civil law system borrowed from Ethiopia's adaptation of the Napoleonic Code. The court system consists of courts of first instance, courts of appeals composed of five judges, and military courts, which handle crimes committed by members of the military. Traditional courts play a major role in rural areas, where village elders determine property and family disputes under customary law or in the case of Muslims, Shariah law.

Although the judiciary appears to function independently of the executive branch, it suffers from lack of resources and training and there are signs of executive interference. The new constitution promulgated in 1997 provides for democratic freedoms, such as free speech, free assembly, and free association.

The government clamped down on freedom of speech and the press, assembly, association, and religion, and in 2001 it closed all privately owned print media. According to international human rights agencies, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, many journalists viewed as outspoken critics of the government have been arrested and held without trial. Eritrea also has a record of religious persecution over which the US State Department declared it a Country of Particular Concern in both 2004 and 2005. Human rights groups were not permitted to operate in the country, except for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICR).


In 2005 active armed forces personnel numbered around 201,750 with a reported 120,000 reservists. The Army constituted an estimated 200,000 personnel, whose equipment included 150 main battle tanks, 40 reconnaissance vehicles, 40 armored infantry fighting vehicles/armored personnel carriers, and more than 170 artillery pieces. The Navy numbered 1,400 members. Primary naval units consisted of eight patrol/coastal vessels and three amphibious land craft. There were 800 members of the Air Force, which had 17 combat capable aircraft, including 13 fighters, in addition to 1 attack helicopter. The defense budget in 2005 totaled $74 million.


Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia 24 May 1993 and joined the United Nations later that year. The country has since joined several specialized UN agencies, such as the FAO, ICAO, IAEA, IFC, UNESCO, UNIDO, the World Bank, and the WHO. Eritrea is a member of the African Union, the ACP Group, the African Development Bank, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), and G-77. It also belongs to COMESA and the Community of Sahel and Saharan States (CENSAD).

A border dispute with Ethiopia resulted in war from 19982000. The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was established in 2000 to monitor the cessation of hostilities agreement made between the two countries, both of which later accepted a 2002 Boundary Commission delimitation decision. Eritrea is part of the Nonaligned Movement. In environmental cooperation, Eritrea is part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES, and the UN Conventions on Climate Change and Desertification.


The Eritrean economy has yet to stabilize after years of armed struggle against the Ethiopian government. The population is still largely dependent on food aid. Agriculture and raising of livestock occupy over 80% of the population, taking place throughout the country, in both the highlands and lowlands. Long-term prospects for agricultural development appear to be strongest in the western lowlands. A small industrial sector shows signs of growth potential, but infrastructure and skilled labor is lacking.

The natural resource profile of Eritrea is not yet known with certainty. Known mineral resources include copper, zinc, lead, gold, silver, marble, granite, barite, feldspar, kaolin, talc asbestos, salt, gypsum, and potash. Petroleum resources are also suspected, located offshore.

The military regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 nationalized all housing and all large- and medium-sized businesses and services, including banks, in Eritrea. The post-independence government has denationalized housing, and is committed to denationalization of business and services. As of 2002, there were approximately 2,000 manufacturing companies operating in Eritrea: all but 45 were private enterprises, and of the state-owned businesses, 35 had been sold to private interests and 10 were awaiting privatization.

Eritrea's most significant economic assets may be its unspoiled coastline, which offers some of the best fishing and underwater diving in the world, and its two ports on the Red Sea.

The two-year war with Ethiopia (19982000) halted foreign investment. Fears of a resurgence of hostilities, combined with poverty, illiteracy, and a weak transportation and communications infrastructure also hamper the investment climate. The war greatly slowed economic growth (the economy contracted by 9% in 2000), largely due to a disruption in trade relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrea's expenditures on defense and relief amounted to 23.5% of GDP in 1999.

The GDP growth rate was 1.0% in 2004, down from 1.8% in 2002, and 2.0% in 2003; in 2005, the economy was estimated to have expanded by only 0.7%. The inflation rate has been fluctuating, and at 18.2% in 2004, it was a significant impediment for economic development. Other impediments to the economy were the erratic rainfall, the late demobilization of agriculturalists from the military, and a relatively unskilled workforce.


The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that in 2005 Eritrea's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $4.5 billion. The CIA defines GDP as the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year and computed on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than value as measured on the basis of the rate of exchange based on current dollars. The per capita GDP was estimated at $1,000. The annual growth rate of GDP was estimated at 2%. The average inflation rate in 2005 was 15%. It was estimated that agriculture accounted for 8.7% of GDP, industry 26.3%, and services 65%.

Foreign aid receipts amounted to $307 million or about $70 per capita and accounted for approximately 34.2% of the gross national income (GNI).

The World Bank reports that in 2003 household consumption in Eritrea totaled $835 million or about $190 per capita based on a GDP of $751.0 million, measured in current dollars rather than PPP. Household consumption includes expenditures of individuals, households, and nongovernmental organizations on goods and services, excluding purchases of dwellings. It was estimated that for the period 1990 to 2003 household consumption grew at an average annual rate of -3.9%. It was estimated that in 2004 about 50% of the population had incomes below the poverty line.


Agricultural work accounted for approximately 80% of the labor force in 2002. The remaining 20% are engaged in industry and services. There is no data on the size of the Eritrean worforce or on its unemployment rate.

As of 2005, the right to form and join unions was limited by the government. All unions were run by the government and union leaders were usually government employees. Any union activity had to be sanctioned by the government. Workers could bargain collectively, but no collective bargaining agreements as of that date were known to exist. Strikes are also allowed, but as of 2005, that right had not been exercised by workers.

The minimum working age is 18, but apprentices may be hired at age 14. However, enforcement of the nation's child labor laws has been ineffective. It is common for children in rural areas who were not in school to work on family farms, while in urban areas, some children worked as street vendors. Most wage earners are employed by the public sector. Although there is no minimum wage in the private sector, a minimum wage does exist for the civil service sector. In 2005 it stood at $24 per month and is considered incapable of supporting a worker and family with a decent standard of living. The workweek is set at 44.5 hours, with one rest day every week. Health and safety standards are not regularly enforced.


Eritrea has 565,000 hectares (1,396,000 acres) of arable land and permanent crops. Three-quarters of Eritrea's people are subsistence farmers dependent on unreliable rainfall to feed families that average seven children. Although these farmers have experienced relative peace and good harvests since May 1991, food production has not been able to keep pace with a rapidly expanding population. Harvests have been variable due to rainfall variations and pest infestations. The present government dissolved the former Ethiopian military regime's marketing board and reinstituted private markets for agricultural products. Principal crops in 2004 included sorghum, 56,700 tons; millet, 11,600 tons; barley, 16,900 tons; and wheat, 17,200 tons. Legumes, vegetables, fruits, sesame, and linseed are also grown. War, drought, deforestation, and erosion caused about 7080% of the population to become dependent on food aid. Agricultural output, however, increased slightly during the 1990s, due to the ending of the war, favorable weather, and a newly developed seed and fertilizer distribution system. The army is involved in agricultural restoration, evidence of the government's commitment to agricultural reform.


Sheep, goats, cattle (especially zebu), and camels make up the majority of Eritrea's livestock. In 2001, Eritrea had 2,100,000 sheep, 1,700,000 goats, 1,950,000 head of cattle, 75,000 camels, and 1.4 million chickens. Total meat production that year was 30,900 tons; cow's milk, 39,200 tons; and eggs, 2,000 tons. The government is emphasizing development of agriculture and animal husbandry in order to decrease the reliance on international relief, caused by war and drought.


With Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia, access to about 1,011 km (628 mi) of Red Sea coastline was obtained. Because Eritrea now controls the coastline, long-term prospects for development of offshore fishing and oil are good. The total catch rose from 475 tons in 1993 to 6,689 tons in 2003. The Eritrean navy patrols the coastal waters to limit poaching by unauthorized nonnationals. The development of local fishing will decrease the dependence on foreign food aid, even though fish has not been a major source of Eritreans' protein intake.


Eritrea's forested area covers 1,585,000 hectares (3,916,000 acres), or 13.5% of the total land area. Total roundwood production in 2004 was 1,266,000 cu m (44.7 million cu ft), nearly all of it used for fuel. Since 1993, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front army has been involved in tree planting; the annual average rate of deforestation during 19902000 was 0.3%.


In 2002, mining and quarrying accounted for less than 1% of Eritrea's gross domestic product (GDP). Eritrea produced basalt, cement, common clay, kaolin, coral, gold, granite, gravel, gypsum, laterite, lime, limestone (for other than cement), marble, pumice, quartz, salt, sand, and silica sand. The country also had known resources of chromium, copper, magnesium, zinc, lead, silver, barite, feldspar, talc, asbestos, iron ore, nickel-chromite, potash, and potassium. Marine salt was produced at Massawa and Assab. Quarries for limestone, clay or shale, and gypsum were located near Massawa. Artisanal gold production, extracted over a large area in the southwestern hills, was 33 kg in 2004, up from 9 kg in 2003, but down from 107 kg in 2001. There was no recorded gold output in 2002. Production totals for 2004 included: basalt, 499,349 metric tons, up from 111,677 metric tons in 2003; granite, 192,803 metric tons, up from 140,418 metric tons in 2003; marble blocks, 780,733 cu m, down from 1,777,814 cu m in 2003; and sand, 611,000 tons, down from 788,000 tons in 2003. The outlook for Eritrea's mineral industry was for gradual recovery from the war, with demand for basalt, granite, gravel, limestone, marble, and sand likely to increase.


Oil and gas exploration in the Red Sea off Eritrea began in the 1960s, when Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. Following independence, the country began awarding production contracts in 1995. However, as of 1 January 2003, Eritrea had no proven reserves of crude oil or natural gas. It also has no known reserves of coal. As a result, the country, as of 2001, has had no output of oil, natural gas or coal. Petroleum imports and consumption were estimated each at 4,590 barrels per day in 2002. In 1997, due to high costs, Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to shut down their joint operations at the petroleum refinery at Assab and import refined petroleum products. The refinery had a capacity of 18,000 barrels per day. In 2000 an estimated 3.2 to 3.3 million barrels per day of oil were shipped through the Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow waterway between Eritrea, Yemen, and Djibouti that connects the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea.

As of August 2003, about 80% of the population was without electricity, which was available only in the larger cities and towns, although the government was constructing additional electrical distribution lines. In 2002, net electricity generation was 243 million kWh, of which 100% came from fossil fuels. In the same year, consumption of electricity totaled 226 million kWh. As of August 2003 Eritrea had about 60 MW of diesel-fired generating capacity.


Ethiopia nationalized Eritrea's 42 largest factories and systematically dismantled the Eritrean industrial sector during the protracted civil war. By the end of the civil war, however, all production had stopped. Plants were generally inefficient, and most of these industries required significant investment to achieve productivity. Manufactured items in 2002 included beverages, processed foods, tobacco, leather, textiles, metal products, chemicals, printing, nonmetallic minerals, construction materials, salt, paper, and matches. The government sought privatization of these industries, and issued incentives such as exemptions from income tax, preferential treatment in allocation of foreign exchange for imports, and provisions for remittance of foreign exchange abroad. In 2002, there were approximately 2,000 manufacturing companies operating in the country.

The oil industry has potential, as major oil deposits are believed to lie under the Red Sea. In 2001, the United States firm CMS Energy entered into an exploration agreement with Eritrea for exploration in the Dismin Block in northeastern Eritrea. Due to high operating costs, the country's sole oil refinery, at Assab, was closed in 1997. It had crude refining capacity of 18,000 barrels per day. The construction industry is growing, as projects range from the construction and expansion of power plants; road, airport, and dam construction; upgrading sea ports; and the construction of schools and hospitals.

In 2005, industry had a 26.3% share of the GDP; services were the largest sector with a 65% participation in the economy; agriculture was least economically important sector (with only an 8.7% share in the GDP), but was by far the largest employer (80% of the total labor force). Recent industries include food processing, beverages, clothing and textiles, salt, cement, and commercial ship repair.


The University of Asmara, whose Italian and English sections were founded in 1958 and 1968, respectively, is the only facility of higher education in Eritrea offering courses in basic and applied sciences. It issues its Seismic Bulletin twice a year. In 198797, science and engineering students accounted for 30% of college and university enrollments.


Most of the population depends on subsistence farming and so domestic commerce is not a significant part of the economy. There are, however, a number of thriving small businesses and factories within the Asmara area. These include restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, auto repair shops, crafts, a brewery, cigarette factory, and

Country Exports Imports Balance
World 51.8 537.9 -486.1
Sudan 43.4 9.0 34.4
Italy-San Marino-Holy See 1.8 70.4 -68.6
Israel 1.0 1.0
Djibouti 0.8 17.3 -16.5
Singapore 0.6 5.1 -4.5
India 0.5 18.6 -18.1
Germany 0.5 16.4 -15.9
France-Monaco 0.5 8.2 -7.7
United Kingdom 0.3 10.0 -9.7
Netherlands 0.3 17.4 -17.1
() data not available or not significant.

small glass and plastics producers. There are also several companies involved in making leather goods, and textile and sweater factories, operating primarily for domestic consumption. Most local industries rely on outmoded technology and suffer from a lack of capital investment.

Business hours are 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, and 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm, Monday through Saturday in Asmara; and 6:30 am to 12:00 pm and 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm Monday through Saturday in Massawa and Assab. Banks are open from 8 am to 12 pm and 2 pm to 4 pm, Monday through Friday.


In 1996, exports were estimated at $95 million, while imports came to $514 million, resulting in a trade deficit of $419 million. Main exports were livestock, sorghum, and textiles. Imports were mainly processed goods, machinery, and petroleum. Because Eritrea controlled the total coastline that was formerly part of Ethiopia, Ethiopia depended on Eritrean ports for its foreign trade. The recurring border war, though, ensured little usage of these ports.

In 2004, exports reached $34 million (FOBfree on board), while imports grew to $677 million (FOB). The bulk of exports went to Malaysia (21.4%), Italy (13.7%), Egypt (8.3%), India (7.8%), Japan (6.4%), Germany (5.3%), China (4.1%), and the United Kingdom (4%). Imports included machinery and transport equipment, food and live animals, manufactured goods, and chemicals, and mainly came from Ireland (25.7%), the United States (17.9%), Italy (16%), and Turkey (6.2%).


Hard currency transactions represented about 90% of imports in 1996. In 1997, the Eritrean currency, the nafka, was introduced, changing the financial situation.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that in 2000 the purchasing power parity of Eritrea's exports was $34.8 million while imports totaled $470.5 million resulting in a trade deficit of $435.7 million. The trade gap is covered by external remittances from Eritrean expatriates, bank loans, and grants-inaid; but mounting debt threatens the country. Eritrea's large trade gap results from a weak export base and the need to import large amounts of capital goods needed to rebuild the country's infrastructure and industrial base. Economic growth slowed substantially due to the war with Ethiopia, largely due to the disruption of trade between the two nations, Ethiopia's boycott of the port of Assab, an increase in military spending, and the drafting of a large percentage of the work force into military service.

Exports of goods and services reached $80 million in 2004, same as in 2003. Imports decreased from $577 million in 2003, to $533 million in 2004. The resource balance was consequently negative in both years, improving however from -$497 million in 2003, to -$453 million in 2004. The current account balance was also negative, slightly improving from -$89 million in 2003, to -$45 million in 2004. Foreign exchange reserves (including gold) decreased to $16 million, covering less than a month of imports.


After the end of the war in 1991, the Central Bank of Eritrea and the Commercial Bank of Eritrea were reestablished, having been nationalized by the Ethiopian military junta in 1984.

The status of the National Bank of Eritrea (NBE) as central bank was clarified by a proclamation of April 1993. The Commercial Bank of Eritrea has a dozen branches across the country. It is the main retail bank and now has corresponding relations with both the Ethiopian and international banking systems. The Housing and Commerce Bank of Eritrea and the Agriculture and Industry Development Bank are also functioning, albeit at a very low capacity. In 1997, the government issued the Financial Institutions Proclamation, liberalizing the banking and insurance sectors to the private sector.

The CBE recorded assets of $800 million at the end of 2000. In mid-November 1994, the Housing and Commerce Bank of Eritrea started to issue dollar-denominated certificates of deposit with denominations of $1,000 and above, while the Eritrean Development and Investment Bank started operations shortly thereafter.

Eritrea was also hoping to establish offshore banking services and facilities to cater to the Middle Eastern market.


The National Insurance Corporation of Eritrea (NICE) was established after the end of the war. It engages in all classes of insurance and was the only insurance provider operating in Eritrea as of late 2005. Insurance coverage provided by NICE included life, motor, workers' compensation, and personal accident protection.


The state retains control over most of the land, mineral resources, and infrastructure of Eritrea. Most government revenues come from custom duties and taxes on income and sales. Massive infusions of foreign aid and investment are needed to restore the

Current Account -104.7
     Balance on goods -434.6
         Imports -471.4
         Exports 36.8
     Balance on services 32.5
     Balance on income -1.4
     Current transfers 298.8
Capital Account
Financial Account 63.2
     Direct investment abroad
     Direct investment in Eritrea 27.9
     Portfolio investment assets
     Portfolio investment liabilities
     Financial derivatives
     Other investment assets -25.9
     Other investment liabilities 61.2
Net Errors and Omissions -22.9
Reserves and Related Items 64.3
() data not available or not significant.

infrastructure and services and to develop private sector growth. Membership into the IBRD and IMF were approved in 1994. The government was set to invest heavily to upgrade and develop infrastructure and utilities.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that in 2005 Eritrea's central government took in revenues of approximately $248.8 million and had expenditures of $409.4 million. Revenues minus expenditures totaled approximately -$160.6 million. Total external debt was $311 million.


Customs duty and import and export taxes are 33.6% of government revenue; direct domestic tax (business and personal income taxes) are 27.8% of government revenue; domestic sales tax and taxes on services are 26.1% of government revenue. The main indirect taxes are municipal taxes, assessed at different local rates on goods and services. In the capital in 2002, the municipal tax on goods was 4%, and on services, 3.2%.


As of 2005, customs tariffs are based upon the item's CIF (cost, insurance, freight) value. There is a 210% rate on most goods. Luxury goods, such as electronic equipment and automobiles, are assessed at 2535%. Capital goods, industrial inputs, books, livestock and seeds, school supplies, and pharmaceuticals are assessed at rates of 210%. Also, the Eritrean Customs Service levies sales taxes of 2%, 5% and 15% on most goods.


Investment in Eritrea has come primarily from contributions of Eritrean exiles. International aid was restricted by the lack of international recognition of the Eritrean government's sovereignty, a problem resolved in the UN in April 1993. The government issued an investment code in December 1991 to encourage investment in the Eritrean economy. Incentives for investments in certain areas include exemption from customs and duties, exemptions from income tax, and special treatment regarding foreign currency exchange. While foreign direct investment reached $61 million in 1997, it went down to $14 million in 1998.

By 1998, the Eritrean investment center had licensed 661 investment projects worth $562 million, of which $235 million was foreign. Annual foreign direct investment (FDI) flows have remained remarkably steady, ranging from $31.7 million in 1998 to $38.7 million in 1997. In 2001, FDI inflow was $34.2 million. Major investors included the United States, South Korea, Italy, and China.


The development priorities of the Eritrean government are food security, the development of a market-style economy, and the privatization of formerly nationalized enterprises. Encouraging the return of Eritrean exiles abroad is also a government goal in the reconstruction effort. The Emergency and Recovery Action Program was launched in late 1991 to focus on recovery of the transportation system (roads, railroads, and port and airport facilities), agriculture and fishing (including reliable water sources), and industry. Plans for 2000 were to invest $1 billion over the following decade to upgrade infrastructure and utilities. Some estimates put food self-sufficiency for Eritrea within the decade, but drought conditions negate this forecast.

Regulatory requirements imposed by the government have discouraged investment in the early 2000s, as had the 19982000 war with Ethiopia. The port in Massawa was rehabilitated, and an airport constructed there. In 2003, the worst drought since Eritrea's independence threatened the lives of about a third of the population. Assistance from foreign donors was weak, and the country had to resort to borrowing to prevent starvation.

The humanitarian crisis is expected to hold down growth well into 2006. Other factors that will negatively influence the economy include the small production and population base, limited supplies of hard currency, and the country's dependence on foreign donor aid. Food insecurity is one of the main problems that the country is currently facing, and no solid economic development policies can be devised before this one is resolved.


During its struggle for independence, the EPLF created an elaborate system of social services. It launched a literacy program, a health care system (including hospitals), and a food distribution network. The provisional government mandated equal pay for equal work, and equal educational opportunities. However, in practice, traditional male privileges in education, employment, and the domestic sphere largely persist as a result of ingrained custom and uneven enforcement of the law. Domestic violence and abuse are pervasive and not addressed by the government. Officially the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is condemned, but it remains widespread. As of 2004, it was estimated that 95% of women and girls had been subjected to FGM.

The human rights record remains poor. The government does not allow international human rights organizations to monitor prison conditions, and freedom of the press and speech is restricted.


Infant mortality was estimated to be 47.41 per 1,000 live births in 2005. At that time, the average Eritrean woman who lived through her childbearing years had 5.4 children. Of all children under five years of age, 38% were malnourished. As of 2002, the estimated crude birth rate of 42.2 per 1,000 people was higher than the crude death rate of 11.8. In 2004 there were an estimated 3 physicians, 16 nurses, and fewer than 1 dentist or pharmacist per 100,000 people. In 2000, 46% of the population had access to safe drinking water and only 13% had adequate sanitation. Average life expectancy was 58.47 years in 2005.

The immunization rates for children under one year old in 1997 were as follows: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, 60%; polio, 60%; measles, 53%, and tuberculosis, 67%. There were 6,000 deaths of children under five years old of diarrheal diseases in 1995. Goiter appeared in 22% of all school-age children in 1996.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence was 2.70 per 100 adults in 2003. As of 2004, there were approximately 60,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. There were an estimated 6,300 deaths from AIDS in 2003.


After 30 years of war, thousands of returning refugees experienced a severe housing shortage, particularly in urban areas. In the 2000 border conflict, about 100,000 homes were destroyed and at least 450,000 Eritreans were displaced. Government and economic reform are needed before the housing situation can be fully addressed. Some international aid and foreign programs have helped ease the situation; however, in 2004 there were an estimated 60,000 displaced persons still in shelter camps.

In highland rural communities, most housing is built as a joint project of community members. These homes are generally made from wood, stone, and straw. Rural lowland homes are also made of wood and straw. Nomads build temporary shelters of wood and leaves. Concrete block and wood is generally used in urban housing.


Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 7 and 14. The educational system is comprised of five years of elementary school, followed by two years of junior secondary and four years of senior secondary school. At tenth grade, students may choose to attend a three-year technical school. The academic year runs from September through June.

In 2001, about 5% of children between the ages of five and six were enrolled in some type of preschool program. Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 45% of age-eligible students, 49% for boys and 42% for girls. The same year, secondary school enrollment was about 22% of age-eligible students, 25% for boys and 18% for girls. It is estimated that about 40% of all students complete their primary education. The student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 45:1 in 2000; the ratio for secondary school was about 52:1.

There is a university in Asmara. In 2003, about 2% of the tertiary age population were enrolled in some type of higher education program. The adult literacy rate for 2003 was estimated at about 58.6%, with 69.9% for men and 47.6% for women.

As of 2003, public expenditure on education was estimated at 4.1% of GDP.


Asmara houses the library of the University of Asmara (60,000 volumes), the Asmara Public Library (28,000 volumes), and the library of the British Council (20,000 volumes).

The National Museum in Asmaralocated in a former palaceand the Archeological Museum, operated by the Department of Culture in Asmara, are the country's two principal museums.


In 2003, there were an estimated nine mainline telephones for every 1,000 people; about 46,200 people were on a waiting list for telephone service installation.

The government controls all nonreligious media, including one radio station, one television station, and three newspapers. The law prohibits private ownership of broadcast media. Religious media are prohibited from reporting on political news and events. Television broadcasts are Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings in Tigrinya and Arabic languages. Dimtsi Hafash radio broadcasts daily in various local languages. In 2003, there were an estimated 464 radios and 53 television sets for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were 2.9 personal computers for every 1,000 people and seven of every 1,000 people had access to the Internet.

Private newspapers have been banned since 2001, as the government cited many journalists for endangering public security. The government-owned daily, Asmara Herbet, is published in Arabic and Tigrinya and had a 2002 circulation of 4,000. Hadas Eritrea is published three days a week. Eritrea Profile is a weekly English-language paper. Tirigta and Geled are weekly government youth papers.


Professional organizations exist, such as the Teachers Union, Association of Eritreans in Agricultural Sciences, Eritrean Nurses Association, Eritrean Pharmacists Association, and the Eritrean Medical Association. There is an Association of War Disabled Veterans. Various trade unions formed the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers in September 1994. The Eritrean National Chamber of Commerce is in Asmara.

There are various religious humanitarian groups (Christian and Muslim), sports clubs, and art groups centered around music, theater, painting, and drawing.

The National Union of Eritrean Youth Students has branches throughout the country and around the world. Planned Parenthood Association, the Red Cross Society, Caritas, and a Regional Center for Human Rights and Development all operate in Eritrea.


Because Eritrea inherited the entire coastline of Ethiopia, there is long-term potential for development of tourism. However, due to political unrest, the tourism industry is struggling to gain stability. In 2003, there were 80,029 visitors, a 20% decrease from 2002. There were 4,139 hotel rooms with 8,794 beds and an occupancy rate of 52%. Passports and visas are required. Proof of yellow fever vaccination may also be required if traveling from an infected area.

In 2005, the US Department of State estimated the cost of staying in Asmara at $219 per day. In other areas, the cost was estimated at $81 per day.


Isaias Afwerki (b.1946) has been president of Eritrea since its independence from Ethiopia 24 May 1993.


Eritrea has no territories or colonies.


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Gebremedhin, Tesfa G. Beyond Survival: The Economic Challenges of Agriculture and Development in Post-independent Eritrea. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1996.

Iyob, Ruth. The Eritrean Struggle for Independence: Domination, Resistance, Nationalism, 19411993. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Killion, Tom. Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

. Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. [computer file] Boulder, Colo.: netLibrary, Inc., 2000.

Negash, Tekeste. Brothers at War: Making Sense of the EritreanEthiopian War. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.

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Prouty, Chris. Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia and Eritrea. 2nd ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

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Major City:

Other City:


This chapter was adapted from the Department of State Post Report 2000 for Eritrea. Supplemental material has been added to increase coverage of minor cities, facts have been updated, and some material has been condensed. Readers are encouraged to visit the Department of State's web site at for the most recent information available on travel to this country.


Eritrea is Africa's newest country, having achieved its de facto independence in 1991 following a 30-year war with neighboring Ethiopia. Its origins are ancient, as evidenced by its many prehistoric archaeological sites and the ruins of Adulis, a port city believed to have been founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C.

From the 1880s to 1991, Eritrea was successively under Italian, British, and Ethiopian rule. The country was federated with Ethiopia in 1952. Over the next 10 years Ethiopia gradually eroded the institutions that gave Eritrea a degree of autonomy, and finally, in 1962 abolished the federation altogether and made Eritrea an Ethiopian province.

These actions led to the three-decade war for independence, in which the Eritrean forces challenged one of Africa's largest armies. The war ended in 1991 when Eritrean forces captured Asmara and the socialist dictatorship of Haile Mariam Mengistu in Addis Ababa collapsed. In 1993, Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence in a UN-supervised referendum.

Under a transitional government headed by the former liberation movement, the EPLF, the Eritreans made an impressive start in rebuilding the economy, institutions and infrastructure in 1991. The EPLF formally ended its existence and became the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Eritrea's only political party. The PFDJ drafted a constitution and issued proclamations pending parliamentary and presidential elections. Plans for a transition to a full democracy have been indefinitely delayed as a result of a border conflict that began in May 1998, which led to renewed fighting with Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides have been killed or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have been internally displaced. In addition, 75,000 Eritreans have been forcibly expelled from Ethiopia. Finally, through an OAU-led mediation effort that included the participation of the U.S. and the E.U., a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed in June 2000. This was followed by the signing of a peace agreement in December 2000.

The 30-year war both helped form and continues to define the Eritrean character. They are a proud, resourceful and determined people, filled with a spirit of self-help and independence. During the independence struggle, fighters (about one-third of them women) taught villagers and one another to read and write, and formed cultural troupes to teach villages about the diverse cultural, religious and ethnic traditions to be found within Eritrea. Indeed, one of Eritrea's greatest achievements has been the creation of a cohesive and tolerant society from such diversity. Eritrea can also boast a government virtually free of corruption, and safe cities where citizens are not afraid to walk the streeets at night. Despite their long ordeal, Eritreans have retained a sense of humor and are a remarkably friendly and welcoming people.



Clean, safe, unpolluted, a near-perfect climate, interesting architecture and friendly people-all describe Eritrea's capital of Asmara. It is located on a high rocky plateau two miles from a breathtaking escarpment.

The city has a small-town atmosphere where people walk anywhere day or night without fear of harassment. The downtown shopping district along the palm tree-lined main boulevard comes alive at night, when the inevitable cool evening breezes draw residents out for a stroll. There are many small cafes offering cappuccino, fruit juices, snacks, ice cream or beer. A series of traditional markets winds behind the main avenue offering foodstuffs, spices, handmade baskets, furniture, jewelry, religious artifacts and other items for sale.

Asmara escaped serious damage during the war but it suffered from very limited maintenance or expansion of needed infrastructure during the 30-year struggle. Thus, Asmara's charming architecture-essentially unique in Africa though badly deteriorated, survived intact. Asmara is a marvel of modern Italian architecture, reflecting Italy's long colonial and post-colonial presence in the country and in some areas, the city appears like a postcard from 50 years in the past. One particularly fine example is an art deco style gas station in the shape of an airplane.


There is a plenitude of little corner stores in Asmara packed with everything from foodstuffs to batteries to bottled water, cigarettes and beer. In addition, there are large open-air covered markets for vegetables, grains and spices. There are also a number of very good bakeries in town, offering bread, baguettes, rolls and pita bread, as well as pastries, including chocolate donuts. Homemade ice cream is available in a few restaurants but is not as rich as American ice cream. Brown and whole-grain breads can be ordered and purchased at the Intercontinental Hotel though the bread is extremely expensive by Eritrean standards.

Local fresh produce is inexpensive and easily obtained from corner stores and the downtown markets. Some of the produce is seasonal, however, and there are occasional absences of some items. Almost always available are: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, hot peppers, lettuce, chard, garlic and parsley. More seasonal are green beans, eggplant, celery, artichokes, fennel, leeks, radishes, green peppers and cauliflower. Cucumbers are scarce, though the supply is improving. Corn, though seasonally available, is of poor quality. Herbs, other than parsley, are almost never seen on the market. Familiar spices are pretty much limited to chili powder or paste, dried coriander seeds, curry powder, and cumin. Dried ginger is readily available, but fresh ginger is rare.

Bananas, oranges and limes are available throughout the year, but other fresh fruits are seasonal, including tangerines, lemons, grapes, mangoes, papayas, water-melon, cantaloupe, peaches, apples, grapefruit, and various others native to the region, including a delicious cactus fruit high in oxalic acid. Fresh berries are almost never found on the market. Several times a year, one market imports grapes, pears, apples and kiwis. Locally made pasteurized milk, butter, yogurt and cheeses (parmesan, mozzarella) are of good quality and readily available but there can be seasonal shortages. Beef is inexpensive, lean and very good, as are pork, lamb and goat. A wide variety of fresh fish is brought up in refrigerated trucks from the coast several times a week and is available daily from a downtown market and directly from a facility run by the Ministry of Marine Resources. Locally grown chicken can always be found but is almost always tough. Imported frozen chicken is sold at several downtown stores.

Staples such as flour (white only), rice (several varieties including basmati), sugar (granulated only), salt/pepper, and vegetable and peanut oils are always on the shelves. So too are products reflecting Eritrea's long Italian colonial influence, including olive oil, balsamic vinegar, various prepared pastas, tomato sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, canned tomatoes, peas, capers, anchovies, tuna, and sardines. Locally produced peanuts and cookies are good and inexpensive, and Italian-pack-aged cookies and candies are also available. Powdered milk and long-life milk are often found, but there can be shortages. A box of corn flakes, the only cereal presently sold here, is expensive.

Spending time browsing through the various small grocery stores can often be rewarded with surprises such as canned coconut milk, Thai green curry paste, or fresh chestnuts, but supplies of specialty items cannot be counted on.

Coffee beans, ground or whole, are plentiful, as is tea. A local factory produces Coke (classic only), Fanta and tonic water. The local brewery produces a good Western-style lager beer as well as an excellent bottled carbonated water. Plain bottled water is also available. Imported liquor and wine can be bought at a duty-free shop, and a number of stores sell good and relatively inexpensive South African wines. There are two home-brewed alcoholic beverages: meas, a wine made from honey, and suwa, a weak, slightly sour version of beer.

Paper products, cleaning and personal hygiene items are imported and of varying quality, not always available and usually very expensive.


The climate alone is worth a tour in Asmara. The city's temperature typically ranges from 55°F at night to 75 °F during the day, (a little hotter in the summer and a little cooler at night), and is usually extremely dry. During the day, the weather can feel quite hot in the sun and relatively cool in the shade. In this climate, most people opt for layered clothing. At night, jackets and warm sweaters are often needed. During the July/August rainy season, rain tends to fall an hour or two a day, usually in the afternoons. Raincoats aren't really necessary, but umbrellas are useful.

Asmara is not considered a particularly formal city in terms of dress. Most invitations are marked "informal." Men usually wear suits or sports jackets at the office and for receptions and dinner, though more casual attire is also often seen.

Women wear dresses or pants for the office, but nicer dresses or pant-suits with heels and stockings are appropriate or more formal events.

For recreation, running errands or just walking around the town, jeans, T-shirts and jogging shoes are just fine. Swimsuits and shorts are needed for trips to the coast. Hats and plenty of sunscreen are recommended for protection against the powerful sun anywhere in the country.

Children need a good supply of clothes for both warm and cool weather, including pants, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, jackets, sturdy shoes, shorts, socks, warm pajamas, t-shirts, hats, etc.

Try to bring all the clothing necessary for a complete tour, recognizing that supplementary items can be ordered through catalogs. Clothing, fabric and tailors can be found in town, but all tend to be of poor quality. Some shops will custom-make sweaters, vests, shirts and suits, but quality is often a problem. Relatively inexpensive leather items, of varying quality, can be custom made, including shoes, purses, jackets, coats, pants, skirts and backpacks.

Supplies and Services

Most services in Asmara are quite basic, but include bicycle and car repair, quite good dry-cleaning and laundry, film developing, shoe repair and small mending jobs of all types. Hair salons and barbers are extremely basic, though the new Inter-Continental Hotel is planning to open a hair salon soon. In the meantime, "easy care" hairstyles are strongly recommended.

Domestic Help

Domestic help is available to assist with house cleaning, clothes washing and ironing, as well as a range of other duties that can include food shopping, errand running and cooking; these jobs are usually filled by Eritrean women. Most people also hire a full-or part-time gardener. Duties and working hours are negotiated individually with the employee. Salaries are not expensive, about $90 to $100 a month for full-time help.

Fine cuisine was not a priority during the 30-year war; cooks thus lack training and are unfamiliar with most spices-as a result, most cooks can produce only basic meals. Since most domestic help speak and read some English, it would be helpful to bring simple cookbooks containing recipes and pictures of meals that you like.

Religious Activities

Churches found in Eritrea are Orthodox Christian, Moslem, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Greek Orthodox. There is a very beautiful small synagogue maintained by the last Jewish family in Asmara, but there is no rabbi. Some churches offer weekly services in English.


There is a small Asmara International Community School (AICS) offering instruction in English for grades K-7 and a half-day pre-school.

There is also an Italian school for preschool through high school students. All instruction is in Italian though English courses are offered. Anyone interested in placing a child in the school should contact the school directly to determine what is necessary for placement, including documents and health records. The elementary school address is: Michelangelo Buonarotti, PO Box 5230, Asmara, Eritrea. Telephone: (291 1) 12-57-98. For the high school, write to Alessandro Volta and Guglielmo Marconi, PO Box 5554, Asmara, Eritrea. Telephone: 291 1 12 05 05.

Special Educational Opportunities

Other educational opportunities in Asmara are limited. It is the University of Asmara's policy not to admit foreigners at this time. The Alliance Française offers classes in French and Tigrinya. The Italian Embassy sponsors Italian classes, and private tutors in Tigrinya can be found.


Eritreans are quite enthusiastic cyclists and hold periodic bicycle races. The more adventurous challenge themselves on strenuous trips to nearby towns or the spectacular 120 km five-hour bike trip down the escarpment to the port of Massawa. Be sure to bring along extra tire tubes or repair kits.

Hiking in the countryside outside Asmara is a popular activity and a good way to get some exercise while seeing some very beautiful landscapes. One exceptional hike is a zig-zag dirt trail straight up a very tall mountain, on the top of which is a monastery (sorry, only men allowed). No matter where the hike, however, it is absolutely necessary to keep to well-established trails used by people and animals. Though Eritrea has made a start on demining, much of the countryside is still mined. Jogging is not a particularly popular sport with Eritreans, but male and female joggers can run anywhere in town without fear of harassment. Soccer is the most popular team sport. There are a few playgrounds with swings and slides.

Touring and Outdoor Activities

The coral reefs around the 350 or so islands off the port of Massawa offer superb snorkeling and scuba diving. Many of the sites are totally unexplored and others haven't been seen for 30 years or more. Since there is only one basic hotel on one of the islands, most of these snorkeling/diving trips involve camping out for several days. Fishing is also excellent, including tuna, kingfish, jack-fish, and grouper.

Travel by road is steadily improving, although there are still many unpaved roads. Exploring the countryside requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and in some areas it might be necessary to take along extra food, plenty of water, gasoline and spare parts. Given the many winding roads, anyone prone to motion seasickness should take preventive medication. As with hiking, it is necessary to use common sense, especially in more remote areas. Guides who speak Tigrinya are useful, especially in finding obscure or remote sites. Any traveler should, at a minimum consult with local inhabitants in advance on the conditions of the roads and about the potential existence of mines.

The port of Massawa, badly damaged by heavy fighting during the war, is rapidly being repaired. The old town's architecture reflects its Arab and Turkish influence. The city's hotels, both in town and on the coast north of town, are basic, but improvements are in the works. The beach, with very shallow water, can be a disappointment. Massawa's Salaam restaurant, in the old city, is extremely popular with Americans. Its specialties, in fact the only things on the menu, are fish and bread, which are cooked, Yemeni style, by throwing them into a hole in a very hot clay oven. The fish exterior is blackened but inside it is moist, succulent, and tasty. The bread, a cross between pita and pan, is equally good. All of this is eaten at rustic tables in the dirt street outside the restaurant. Assab, Eritrea's other port, is a 1-hour flight from Asmara or a difficult 2-day drive south of Massawa, although part of the road has been paved, almost to the ruins of the port of Adulis, believed to have been established by the Greeks in 600 BC. It later became the seaport of the ancient Axumite kingdom although today the sea is several kilometers distant. Though it is easy to see that this was once a major city, only a small portion of the site has been excavated.

Keren is a very beautiful 2-hour drive north of Asmara. It has long been a crossroads between the Christian highlands and the Moslem lowlands. There are pleasant outdoor cafes, and the local market is a good place to buy gold and silver jewelry at better prices than in Asmara.

North of Keren is the small town of Afabet, famous as the site of a battle that was one of the turning points of the war. Near here, an outnumbered Eritrean force in one battle captured 70 Ethiopian tanks and killed or captured thousands of Ethiopian soldiers. The road along here is still littered with burned-out tanks, trucks and jeeps.

Further north still is the town of Nakfa, dear to all Eritreans as the redoubt for the EPLF in the bleakest years of the war. In the mountains around Nakfa are a hospital, schools and other buildings constructed deep inside mountains and many miles of deep trenches. Completely destroyed during the war, the town is being rebuilt, including a new hotel. In recognition of the area's importance to the struggle, the Eritrean currency is named the Nakfa.

Among other places of interest are Fil Fil, a mountainous, green, and forested area 2 hours northeast of Asmara, which offers a nice contrast to the dry landscapes of most of Eritrea; and Adi Keyih, about 2 hours southeast of Asmara, the site of a 2000-year-old Axumite dam, and an Axumite city dating from the 6th to the 9th century A.D.

The border town of Axum is a political and religious site that dates as far back as the first century A.D. Among its attractions are tall obelisks, one, at 76 feet, still standing; a stone throne; a reservoir carved in rock; an underground tomb; and an ancient Orthodox Church. Many Orthodox Christians believe Axum to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.


There are only two cinemas in Asmara, for the most part showing films several years old or more. For movie entertainment, most families rely on their VCR, making use of the videotape stores in town, two of which carry surprisingly up-to-date English-language selections. Other cultural activities are offered by the Alliance Française, the Italian Club and the British Council. The Alliance Française and the British Council also have an excellent collection of films and television shows on videotape for borrowing.

The restaurant scene has recently shown vast improvement. Just a few years ago. other than a good Chinese restaurant, the China Star, the only options were places with limited menus of Eritrean cuisine, simple grilled meats and fishes, and substandard versions of Italian dishes such as pizza or spaghetti. The Chinese restaurant remains open, but has been supplemented by restaurants serving everything from European to Middle Eastern food. The Inter-Continental Hotel offers a pastry/sandwich shop and two restaurants, including an excellent Italian restaurant, as well as an Irish pub. The Irish Pub and a couple of restaurants also offer disco music and dancing, but the places usually don't start jumping until around midnight. People also frequently entertain with dinners and parties at home.

Social Activities

The Eritrean arts scene is slowly rebuilding after the war. There are occasional exhibits of work by Eritrean artists, but most painting, perhaps understandably, has war-related themes. There are also quite good artisans, making pottery, basketry, and gold and silver jewelry. Eritrean traditional music, akin to Arabic music, is most often heard at weddings and ceremonial occasions. There are more modern musicians popular with young Eritreans, but concerts are rare. This music, as well as Western music, is heard in Asmara's discos.


The town of KEREN is the regional capital of the Anseba Region and one of the major agricultural centers of Eritrea, particularly for fruits and vegetables. Banana plantations are nearby and many dairy herds supply the town's cheese factory. In the town market, you can purchase fresh milk, butter and cream. There are also a wood market and, once a week, a livestock market where sheep, goats, camels and donkeys are sold.

The majority of the 60,000 residents are Muslim, but the town also contains many examples of its Italian and Ethiopian heritage in the architecture of public buildings and churches. The name Keren means highland, which reflects the towns location on a plateau surrounded by mountains. Tigu, an Ethiopian fort, sits on a rise to the northeast of town. A British War Cemetery and the Italian Cemetery serve as a WWII memorial, since the town was the site of heavy fighting between the British and the Italians.

Near the town market is the shrine of St Maryam Dearit, an ancient baobab tree that locals believe has powers for fertility. Traditionally, women will brew coffee in the shade of the tree, and if a passing traveler accepts a cup, they will be blessed with children.


Geography and Climate

About the size of Pennsylvania, Eritrea is a country of stark and dramatic landscapes from its 630-mile Red Sea coastline to its high craggy mountains to the desolate Danakil Depression. To the north and west is the Sudan, with Ethiopia and Djibouti to the south. The capital of Asmara, at 7,600 feet above sea level, is located on a high plateau in the center of the country. The descent from Asmara to the port of Massawa is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, taking nearly three hours over hairpin curves to cover the 65 miles to the coast. Off the coast are some 350 islands, most of them uninhabited and little explored. The coral reefs which surround many of the islands were left undisturbed by tourism and over-fishing during the long war, and are among the healthiest in the world. The country's lowest point is minus 75 meters, near Dalul in the Danakil Depression; its highest is Mount Soira at 3,018 meters. Only about 12% of the land is arable.

The climate in the central highlands, including Asmara, is near perfection, usually in the 70s or 80s during the day, cooling off to the 50s at night. There is little humidity and it seldom rains except during the July/August rainy season when daily afternoon showers are the norm. Asmara receives about 21 inches of rain each year. April, May and June are the warmest months on the plateau, with the cooler season stretching from November to March.

Temperatures in the lowlands can be scorchingly hot, typically ranging from 105°F to 120°F, sometimes more, in August. Along the coast, including in the port cities of Massawa and Assab, high humidity often accompanies the heat. Winter highs here are around 90, with evening temperatures in the '70s.

The country has been sadly deforested by the war, and by the need for heating and cooking fuel, and feed for livestock. Some attempts have been made to reforest but with varying success. Almost any kind of flower seems to do well in the highlands, but much of the lowlands is limited to various acacias, scrub and cactus plants. Wild-life includes an impressive array of birds, including raptors and water birds, some of which are migrants and some of which are unique only to Eritrea and little documented. Wild animals include baboons, monkeys, ostriches, hyenas, and gazelles. The hope was that the end of the liberation struggle would see traditional wildlife return to the region, but the renewed fighting is a deterrent. There is the occasional report of a leopard sighting, and elephants have been sighted recently in the west of the country.


Eritrea's population is estimated at close to 3,500,000, the numbers swollen recently with some 75,000 people expelled from Ethiopia following the renewal of hostilities. In addition, the UNHCR has registered 150,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan for voluntary repatriation following the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries in January 2000. However, more than one million Eritreans were displaced as a result of the war with Ethiopia and of drought. Approximately 400,000 people live in the capital; the next largest cities are: Keren (75,000), Massawa (24,000), and Assab (21,000).

The people are composed of nine major tribal and ethnic groups: Tigrinya (50%), Tigre and Kunama (40%), Afar (4%), Saho (3%), and the remaining 3% are made up of Begia, Bilen, Nara, and Rashaida. Each has its own language, mode of dress and cultural traditions. About half the country is Moslem, living primarily in the lowlands. The other half, mostly highlanders, is Christian, primarily Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic, although there are small Protestant communities.

The government's official working languages are Tigrinya and Arabic, though most officials speak English, and a great deal of diplomatic and commercial business is conducted in English. English is also the language of instruction in public schools from the 6th grade onward, including at the University of Asmara. Ge'ez, an ancestor of Tigrinya, Amharic, and Tigre, survives as the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church. Western dress predominates in the capital, especially for men and young people. Women can often be seen in the traditional dress of white cotton with a colorful border. The traditional dress for men, also white, is seldom used in Asmara except for ceremonial occasions.

The cuisine will be familiar to anyone who has eaten at an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant. The staple is zigny, a highly spiced stew containing mutton, beef, goat, or sometimes chicken.

The stew is ladled into the center of a large flat fermented bread called injera. Diners then use their hands to break off pieces of the bread and scoop up bite-size pieces of the zigny. Italian dishes, particularly pastas and pizza, are also readily available. Many Orthodox Christians, as well as Moslems, do not eat pork. Orthodox Church members abstain from meat and animal products two days a week, as well as for long periods leading up to Christmas and Easter.

There are no family names in Eritrea. A child is given a "first" name, and then takes the name of his father as a "last" name. Women do not change their names after marriage, but they do change their title from Woizerit (Miss) to Woizero (Mrs.). Men are addressed as Ato (Mr.).

Although the Western calendar is used for business and official purposes, it co-exists with both the Moslem and traditional Orthodox calendars. The latter runs eight years behind the Western calendar and the year begins on September 11; it has twelve 30-day months, plus an extra "month" of 5 or 6 days. Days of the week are identical to Western usage.

Public Institutions

Eritrea began statehood in 1993 under a provisional government, which created the Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting a constitution and laws. After the successful referendum for independence in 1993, the Provisional Government gave way to the Government of the State of Eritrea. After ratification of the Constitution in 1997, the Constituent Assembly gave way to a National Assembly, with members either appointed or elected; it was established as one of three independent branches of government and its initial tasks were to create an election code to be followed by Parliamentary and Presidential elections. However, due to the conflict with Ethiopia, elections have been postponed indefinitely, as has full implementation of the Constitution.

The legislative branch of the transitional government, called the National Assembly, is the highest legislative authority in Ethiopia. The National Assembly has met only sporadically since being created but, when fully established, it will be responsible for national policies, enactment of laws and their implementation, as well as approving the budget. It chose Isaias Afwerki as its President with 95% of the vote. The Assembly is a unicameral body, its 150 members include:

  • 75 representatives appointed from the People's Front for Democracy and Justice. The PFDJ is the political party that succeeded the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which waged the successful struggle for independence;
  • 60 elected members of the constituent assembly; and
  • 15 people chosen from the Eritrean Diaspora.

The President serves as both chief of state and head of government under the transitional government. As such, he is head of both the National Assembly and the State Council, a collective executive authority akin to a Cabinet. The President is responsible for nominating people to head the various Ministries and Commissions and Agencies, which make up the Executive Branch, subject to the approval of the National Assembly. President Isaias is also Chairman of the PFDJ-the only political party recognized by the Government, though other interests groups do exist.

When the Constitution is fully implemented, the Judicial Branch will operate independently of both the legislative and executive branches of government; there is already in place a court system extending from the village through the district, provincial and national levels. The justice system consists of a Supreme Court, 10 provincial courts and 29 district courts.

Arts, Science, and Education

The Eritrean education system, having suffered a severe decline during the war, was given a top priority by the new Eritrean Government. School attendance is compulsory and free through grade seven. At the primary and secondary school levels, 331 new schools were constructed between 1991 and 1998, and another 356 were rehabilitated. The number of teachers increased by 33%. Despite this achievement, as of 1997, only 29% of elementary-age children, 8% of junior high school, and 10% of high school students were attending school. The overall literacy rate is only about 30% for men and 15% for women.

University-level education began in Eritrea with the 1958 establishment of the Santa Famiglia, a small private Catholic school administered and largely staffed by Italian Sisters. In 1967, the school was renamed as the University of Asmara, but it remained privately funded and never resembled a national university. In 1990, Ethiopia moved the university (students, staff and materials) to Ethiopia.

Thus, at liberation, Eritrea had no university in any real sense of the word. The University of Asmara now enrolls about 4,350 students and is crucial to the economic development of the country. As such, its priorities are training to produce secondary school teachers, government and economic development workers, and academics to eventually fill the university's faculty needs. Another goal is expansion of the university to include advanced degree programs.

Commerce and Industry

Considerable remittances from Eritreans living abroad mask the fact that Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries. Its economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture with nearly 80% of the population involved in farming and herding. Per capita income is $240 a year (1999 estimate). The population growth rate is over three per cent.

At independence, Eritrea faced the problems of being a small, desperately poor African country with few natural resources; a workforce trained for little other than warfare and traditional agriculture; outmoded light industries; poor infrastructure, with roads, communications and whole towns destroyed by the war.

Eritrea began to tackle these problems with all the determination it had exhibited in winning its independence. Though the 1998 resumption of hostilities with Ethiopia forced Eritrea to put many of its plans on hold-and will create new ones-it had made an impressive start toward rebuilding. Roads, despite the heavy beating they took during the struggle, are now in better shape than in most other African countries and the railroad between Asmara and the Massawa port has been partially rebuilt. A major electric power generating project is underway but the site was bombed in May 2000, which will lead to a lengthy setback. Domestic and international telephone services have improved markedly, although the country still does not have cellular services. Internet service became available in November 2000. Eritrea's first international-class hotel, the Asmara Palace, opened in 1999 and is managed by the Inter-Continental chain.

To attract investors, a top priority, the government created one of the most liberal investment climates in Africa. The investment code provides a number of incentives for investors, including no taxes on exports and items brought in for re-export; a reduced tax rate over several years; and free movement of any amount of capital in and out of the country for both Eritrean and foreign investors.

Apart from infrastructure improvements, the government has privatized more than two-thirds of the 42 state-owned enterprises nationalized by the former Ethiopian Government, including a brewery and milk, soap, textile, furniture, cigarette, leather, oil, metal, machinery and candy factories. It has plans to modernize the textile, glass and leather industries, and is also in the process of developing a fisheries industry. Other potential opportunities for American businesses can be found in energy (oil, natural gas, and thermal), agriculture, food processing, construction, mining (including gold), telecommunications, tourism and general consumer goods. The American petroleum company, Anadarko, found offshore oil in 1999 but not in commercially recoverable quantities. At present, no energy companies are exploring for petroleum or gas.


One of the delights of Asmara is that nothing is more than a 5-or 10-minute drive, or a 15-to 30-minute bike ride, from anything else. The city is small enough for most people to traverse the central area on foot in not much more than an hour.

Asmara traffic is light even in rush hour, but newcomers should be warned that Eritreans are inattentive drivers and pedestrians, paying little attention to traffic around them, and frequently walk or enter into traffic without a glance at what might be coming. Fortunately, the normal speed for Eritrean drivers in Asmara is only 15 to 20 mph, so serious accidents in the capital are rare. The road to Massawa is another matter. It is necessary to pay close attention on the winding, steep descent because Eritrean truckers and other drivers often drive either in the middle of the road or, when swinging around curves, take the oncoming lane. One mistake risks a drop of a thousand feet or more in the upper parts of the road, and there are few guard-rails.

For trips out of town, travelers can rent cars, with or without drivers, at about the same prices as in the U.S.

Cars are scarce at present and very expensive. Also, no vehicle more than 10 years old may be imported into Eritrea. A standard economy car is adequate for Asmara and main paved roads. Any real exploration of the countryside, however, requires a four-wheel-drive with good clearance. Air-conditioning is not needed in Asmara, but is important for lowland travel. European and Japanese cars prevail; repair services exist, but the right spare parts cannot always be found. Diesel fuel and regular gasoline are available, but there is no high-octane or unleaded gasoline in the country.


Telephone and Telegraph

The quality and service are generally good, but calls to and from Eritrea are among the most expensive in the world (currently about $3.00 a minute). Residential call-back service is also readily available. Fax machines are in some places in town. Several companies offer e-mail only services for personal home use and the monthly fee is expensive by U.S. standards. Web access is due in August 2000.


International mail takes 2 to 3 weeks. The local post office, unlike in many third world countries, is reliable, though any private packages must be cleared through customs.

Radio and TV

Eritrea has one television station that broadcasts a half-hour of English news nightly and an occasional film in English, but most programs are in Tigrinya and Arabic. Additional television programming is available by satellite, including CNN, two movie channels with fairly recent offerings, two BBC channels, one with news the other with sitcoms and specials, cartoon channels, MTV style programming, the Discovery, Hallmark and Travel channels, several sports channels and one channel offering nothing but cooking programs. This TV service also has programming in Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Greek as well as international radio stations (VOA, BBC 1 and 2, RFI and very wide range of non-commercial music stations). Subscription to the satellite service is expensive by American standards, and it is necessary to purchase a satellite dish locally.

Both local and satellite TV operate on the European PAL system; videotapes available locally are made for the same system. To enjoy programming and videotapes available in Ethiopia, as well as American videotapes, it is absolutely necessary to have a multi-system TVNCR that can handle both PAL and the U.S. NTSC systems. In purchasing the equipment, make certain that it uses the same system as found in Eritrea.

There are two local radio stations, one AM and one FM. The VOA and the BBC broadcast in English to Eritrea but the quality of reception can vary greatly.

Newspapers, Magazines, and Technical Journals

There are ten Eritrean newspapers, including one, The Eritrean Profile, in English. Some Western magazines, including Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, are available locally. Very few books in English are available.

The Eritrean media consists of one government-owned television station, three official newspapers, one magazine, and two radio stations. There are seven independent newspapers. Freedom of the press is guaranteed under the Constitution, which has been ratified but not implemented. Though there is no official censorship, government reaction to some criticism by the media has at times been harsh, including the jailing of reporters and editors. As a result, the independent media exercise a form of self-censorship.

Health and Medicine

The first medical challenge for newcomers is acclimatization to Asmara's 7,400 feet elevation. Since the air is thinner at that height, some people may initially experience shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches and difficulty sleeping. The dry climate can cause dehydration, irritate the eyes of contact lens wearers, and exacerbate respiratory diseases and allergies. Given the altitude and Eritrea's proximity to the equator, it is necessary to take extra precautions against sun damage.

The most common illnesses found in Eritrea are upper respiratory and gastrointestinal, malaria and measles. Communicable diseases of concern include tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and meningitis.

Mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are not a problem in the highlands, but are found in the lowlands. Malaria suppressants are thus not necessary in Asmara and other highland areas, but are recommended for the lowlands. Insect repellents, while rarely needed in Asmara, are essential for the lowlands, particularly on the coast.

All water for consumption should be boiled and filtered. In a rare case of a long power interruption, keep in mind that the boiling temperature of water is lower at higher altitudes. Local mineral water is safe. All fruits and vegetables must be peeled, cooked or disinfected by soaking in a solution of bleach (available locally) and water.

Medical, dental, diagnostic, and hospital facilities in Eritrea do not meet Western standards. They are, in general, overcrowded, have a limited stock of medicines, and are poorly maintained; limited laboratory tests and x-ray services are available. A new clinic has opened that is better equipped than most, but patients requiring medical assistance other than basic services are evacuated to London or the U.S. There is one western-standard dental facility, but others are not recommended for routine use.

The supply of prescription and non-prescription medicines in local pharmacies is limited and unreliable. Bring all needed prescription and non-prescription medicines and supplies for both routine and chronic medical conditions. This includes items such as aspirins, bandages, adult and baby acetaminophen, vitamins, cough syrups, and any other medicines needed for routine home-treatable conditions. Other useful items recommended are: a thermometer, mosquito repellent, Dramamine against motion sickness on winding roads, tampons, sun block, hand and body creams, and contact lens supplies, as well as an extra pair of glasses and the prescriptions for both.


Passage, Customs and Duties

At present, no American carriers serve Asmara directly. Transfers to a foreign carrier for direct service to Asmara are available at London, Rome, Frankfurt, and Cairo at the time of this writing. It is not necessary to transit Addis Ababa.

A passport and visa, which must be obtained in advance, are required. There is an airport departure tax, and residents of Eritrea generally must obtain an exit visa from Eritrean Immigration in advance of their departure. Entry information (and information on the departure tax) may be obtained from the Embassy of Eritrea, 1708 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; telephone (202) 319-1991; fax (202) 319-1304. Overseas, inquiries may be made at the nearest Eritrean embassy or consulate.

Persons arriving in Eritrea from a yellow-fever endemic area must have proof of a current yellow fever vaccine.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy in Asmara and to obtain updated information on travel and security in Eritrea. The U.S. Embassy address is: Franklin Roosevelt Street, P.O. Box 211 Asmara, telephone (291-1)12-00-04; fax (291-1)12-75-84.


There are no quarantine restrictions, but all pets must have an upto-date health certificate, including evidence of a rabies shot for warm-blooded pets, especially dogs and cats. Tick fever and intestinal parasites have been reported as problems for pets here. There are many diseases among the local chickens, a fact that could pose a problem for pet birds. Only the most basic veterinarian services (for dogs and cats, not birds) are available in Asmara, so before coming to the country, have your pet examined and given all of its needed shots and vaccinations. Bring all pet supplies, including food and medicine, with you. A rabies vaccine is available. Make sure before you leave for Eritrea that you have the necessary paperwork to bring pets, particularly parrots and other birds protected by the CITES treaty, back with you to the United States. For more information on the CITES treaty, contact the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Firearms and Ammunition

The importation of personal firearms is forbidden by the Eritrean Government. The Eritrean Government also prohibits the possession of personal firearms in the country.

Currency, Banking, and Weights and Measures

The Eritrean currency is the nakfa, which is available in denominations of 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, and 1 bills. The current exchange rate is approximately US$1=nakfa 10. Credit cards are rarely accepted in Eritrea except by airlines, the new Intercontinental Hotel, and a few car-hire companies. Foreigners must pay for their airline tickets and hotel bills in U.S. currency (dollar bills, travelers checks, or credit cards). Major hotels, banks, and the airport will exchange dollars for local currency.

Local time is Greenwich Mean Time plus 3 hours. Eritrea is thus 7 hours ahead of Washington, D.C. during U.S. daylight savings months, and 8 hours ahead for the rest of the year. Eritrea does not adopt daylight savings. The metric system of weights and measures is used.


Jan. 7 Christmas (Orthodox)

Jan. 19 Timket (Epiphany/Orthodox))

Mar. 8Women's Day

Apr./May Good Friday*

Apr/May. Easter*

May 24Liberation Day

June 20 Martyrs' Day

Sep. 1 Start of the Armed Struggle

Id al Adha*

Mawlid an Nabi*


Id al-Fitr*



These titles are provided as a general indication of the material published on this country.

Connell, Dan. Against All Odds: AChronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. The Red Sea Press: Trenton, N.J., 1993.

Cliffe, Lionel and Davidson, Basil, eds. The Long Struggle of Eritrea for Independence and Constructive Peace. Spokesman: Nottingham, England, 1988.

Davidson, Basil, et al., ed. Behind the War in Eritrea. Spokesman: Nottingham, 1980.

Duffield, Mark and John Pendergast. Without Troops and Tanks: Humanitarian Intervention in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Red Sea Press: Lawrenceville, N.J., 1994.

Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Eritrea: Dawn After a Long Night. Department of Information: Asmara, Eritrea, 1989.

Firebrace, James, with Holland, Stuart. Never Kneel Down: Drought, Development, and Liberation in Eritrea. Spokesman: Nottingham, England, 1984.

Gamst, Frederick C. "Conflict in theHorn of Africa." In Peace and War. Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Mary L. Foster and Robert A. Rubenstein, ed. Transaction Books: New Brunswick, N.J., 1986.

Gayim, Eyassu. The Eritrean Question: The Conflict Between the Right of Self-Determination and the Interests of States. Lustus Forlag: Uppsala, 1993.

Gebre-Medhin, Jordan. Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea. Red Sea Press: Trenton, N.J., 1989.

Habte Selassie, B. Riding the Whirlwind: An Ethiopian Story of Love and Revolution. Red Sea Press: Trenton, N.J., 1993.

Henze, Paul B. The Horn of Africa:From War to Peace. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1991.

Haggai Erlich. Ras Alula and theScramble for Africa: A Political Biography, and Ethiopia and Eritrea, 1875-1897. Red Sea Press: Trenton. N.J., 1996.

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Basic Data
Official Country Name: Eritrea
Region: Africa
Population: 4,135,933
Language(s): Afar, Amharic, Arabic, Tigre, Kunama, Tigrinya
Literacy Rate: 25%
Number of Primary Schools: 549
Compulsory Schooling: 7 years
Public Expenditure on Education: 1.8%
Foreign Students in National Universities: 117
Educational Enrollment: Primary: 240,737
  Secondary: 89,087
  Higher: 3,096
Educational Enrollment Rate: Primary: 53%
  Secondary: 20%
  Higher: 1%
Teachers: Primary: 5,476
  Secondary: 2,071
  Higher: 198
Student-Teacher Ratio: Primary: 44:1
  Secondary: 45:1
Female Enrollment Rate: Primary: 48%
  Secondary: 17%
  Higher: 0.3%

History & Background

Eritrea, Africa's newest nation, celebrated its tenth year of independence in 2001. In May 1991, Eritrean liberation fighters swept the besieged remnants of Ethiopia's occupying army out of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, ending four decades of Ethiopian control and Africa's longest continuous modern war. In April 1993, Eritreans overwhelmingly endorsed independence in a UN-monitored referendum. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea declared itself an independent nation and four days later joined the United Nations.

The armed struggle for Eritrea's independence began in 1962, after a decade of Ethiopian violations of a UN-imposed Ethiopia-Eritrea federation, and following Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea as its fourteenth province. In the early 1970s, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), was organized and, throughout the next decade, emerged as the dominant liberation force. The Eritrean independence struggle became synonymous with "selfreliance"a 30-year war fought from wholly within the country by a politically mobilized population supporting a large, well-trained army using captured weapons. The historical and political necessity of Eritrean self-reliance forced Eritreans to plan and testwhile fighting forthe kind of society they wanted, with education a vital factor in the liberation movement's success and a key element in the Eritrean model of development.

Country & People: Eritrea is a torch-shaped wedge of land, about the size of Britain, along the Red Sea coast in northeast Africa. Sudan is to the north and west, Djibouti to the southeast, and the Ethiopian province of Tigray to the south. As a former province of Ethiopia, Eritrea formed that country's entire, 750-mile Red Sea coast. A highland plateau divides the northern half of the country, with lowlands to the west and east. The south is desert. Asmara and major towns are sited in the highlands. Massawa and Assab are significant Red Sea ports.

About 20 percent of Eritreans are urbanized, forming a significant working class. Of the rural population, more than 60 percent are farmers; the rest combine farming and herding, except for the less than 5 percent who lead purely nomadic lives in the far northern mountains and southern coastal desert. Eritreans comprise nine ethnolinguistic groups. The total population of about 3.5 million is approximately equally divided between Muslims and Christians, the religious division cutting across some ethnic lines. The predominant language is Tigrinya, spoken by the group of that name. Arabic is widely spoken among Muslims. Englishthe language of instruction in post-elementary schoolsis increasingly common, especially in the cities.

Early History: Archeological sites in Eritrea have yielded hominid fossils judged to be two million years old. Tools from about 8000 B.C., unearthed in western Eritrea, provide the earliest concrete evidence of human settlement. Rock paintings found throughout the country, dating to at least 2000 B.C., have been assigned to a nomadic cattle-raising people. Between 1000 and 400 B.C., the Sabeans, a Semitic group, crossed the Red Sea into Eritrea and intermingled with the Pygmy, Nilotic, and Kushitic inhabitants known to have earlier migrated from Central Africa and the middle Nile. In the sixth century B.C., Arabs occupied the Eritrean coast, establishing trade with India and Persia, as well as with the pharaonic Egyptians. The ports of Eritrea enjoyed continuous contact with Red Sea traffic and Middle East cultures that fostered a cosmopolitanism unique to the coast.

The powerful Axumite kingdom, centered in the present-day Ethiopian province of Tigray, prospered on trade through Eritrea from the first to sixth century A.D., adopting Christianity in the fourth century, then declined as Beja tribes migrated from Sudan and Arabs gained dominance of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Turks ruled Massawa and its coastal plains from 1517 to 1848, when they were displaced by Egypt. With the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, the Red Sea coast gained strategic and commercial importance. In that year the Italian government purchased the port of Assab from the local sultan. The Italians occupied Massawa in 1885. In 1889 the Ethiopian King Menelik ceded Eritrea to the Italians in exchange for military support against his Tigrayan rivals.

Prior to Italian domination, education fell into two broad categories, religious and local. Christian and Muslim clerical hierarchies replenished themselves by educatingessentially raisingsmall numbers of children in the tenets of the faith. Local education, as in any society, consisted of training children in practical, productive skills: home construction, traditional medicine, music-making, storytelling, and decorative arts. These practices persist in all of Eritrea's cultures and can be detected in general in the force of authority, especially generational authority, and the educative functioning of exemplary behavior, demonstration, and imitation.

Italian Eritrea: Despite Menelik's treaty with Italy, Italian legions invaded Tigray in 1895. The Italian generals, however, blundered fatally at Adwa on March 1, 1896, losing nearly half of their forces. In the ensuing Treaty of Addis Ababa, Italy renounced claims to Ethiopia, while Menelik affirmed Italian control of Eritrea.

The Italians ruled Eritrea until their defeat in Africa by the British in 1941. Education in Italian Eritrea prior to fascism was in the hands of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Swedish missionaries had established the first school, in Massawa, in the 1860s, and by the 1920s had schools in eight centers, serving 1,100 students. An early center of Roman Catholic missionary education was the highland city of Keren, where a seminary, day school, and orphanage served a few hundred children. In 1909, the first colonial educational policy was declared, based on separate schools for Italians and Eritreans. Schooling was compulsory for Italians to age 16; the curriculum of Italy was used. Education for Eritreans, however, limited to the Italian language and basic skills, was designed to produce menials for the Italians.

After Mussolini's rise to power, strict racial laws enforced segregation and wage differentials based on color. Benefiting from low wages and extensive use of child labor, the Italians built diverse manufacturing concerns, increasing the drift to the towns; by the end of Italian colonial rule, about 20 percent of the population was living in urban centers, where they were restricted by law to native quarters. In 1932, the first central office for primary education was established, the purpose of which as defined by its director, Andrea Festa, was to ensure that education accorded with the principles of the Italian regime. In 1938 Festa wrote to headmasters: "The Eritrean student should be able to speak our language moderately well; he should know the four arithmetical operations within normal limits...and of history he should know only the names of those who have made Italy great." But education was never widely available to Eritreans, and fourth grade was the highest level an Eritrean was allowed to reach. There were only 20 schools for Eritreans in 1938-39, with 4,177 students.

British Administration: Italian colonialism was an early casualty of World War II. British forces entered Eritrea in January 1941. British administration continued to 1952. The British gradually removed the color bar, began an "Eritreanization" of lower administrative positions, and allowed the formation of political parties and trade unions. At the beginning of British rule, there were no Eritrean teachers but, in 1942, nineteen were recruited. Over the next ten years, the British increased the number of elementary schools to 100 and opened 14 middle and 2 secondary schools. The curriculum introduced in 1943 covered agriculture, woodworking, clay-modeling, carpet-making, shoe-making, reading, writing, and hygiene for boys, and reading, writing, hygiene, weaving, sewing, basket work, and domestic science for girls. Textbooks in Tigrinya were locally printed, books in Arabic and English were provided, and entrance to the middle schools required students to be able to read and write English. In 1946 a teacher training college was established; by 1950, fifty-three men and seven women were in training to be teachers.

Through school committees organized in the villages, Eritreans actively supported education, funding school construction, and paying teachers. But the demand for education far exceeded budgeted funds, a 1950 British government report admitted, leaving many children unserved because of a lack of buildings, equipment, and staff.

Federation & Annexation: In 1952, after lengthy debate, and with Cold War politics a factor, the UN General Assembly voted to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia. Eritrea was to be an autonomous unit under the sovereignty of Ethiopia's monarch, Haile Selassie. The contradictions of federation were immediately apparent. Ethiopia's feudal economy and imperial political system clashed with the capitalist development of Eritrea and the democratic constitution approved by the elected Eritrean Assembly in 1952. Eritrean political parties and trade unions were banned, newspapers censored, and protests attacked by police. Finally, in November 1962, Selassie terminated Eritrea's federal status, making Eritrea a province of Ethiopia.

Eritrea had passed from British control to the federal arrangement with better educational facilities than Ethiopia, but Ethiopia's imperial government soon began to undermine Eritrean education, along with other institutions. In 1956, Eritrean languages were banned and replaced by Amharic, an Ethiopian language virtually unknown in Eritrea. Ethiopian teachers brought in to teach Amharic were paid 30 percent more than their Eritrean counterparts. The first of many student strikes occurred in 1957 at the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Asmara, the first school at which Amharic was made compulsory; in response, 300 students were jailed for a month.

Following annexation in 1962, all education decisions were made in Addis Ababa. The policies of "Ethiopianization" and "Amharization" intensified and became factors that awakened Eritreans' national consciousness and united diverse ethnic groups against the imperial regime.

In 1962 the Santa Familia University, founded in Asmara by the Comboni Sisters in 1958, obtained recognition from the Ethiopian government, changing its name to the University of Asmara. But Eritrean students resented entrance policies they viewed as favoring Ethiopians.

The Independence War: In 1963, elementary and secondary teachers went on strike, ostensibly over the pay differential between Eritrean and Ethiopian teachers. Underlying the strike, however, were sympathies for the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which had begun a guerrilla war for independence a year before. Teachers were active in clandestine nationalist organizations, and many were arrested, jailed without trial, or transferred to Ethiopia. Starting in 1967 when large-scale military confrontations broke out between the Ethiopian army and ELF, young nationalists began joining the guerrillas outright. In 1970, members of ELF had a falling out, some of the dissidents eventually forming the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The ELF was organized along religious and regional lines; the EPLF called for nonsectarian unity and social revolution, a stance that attracted even more students and intellectuals.

The Dergue: Ethiopia's monarchy was replaced by a military dictatorship, called the Dergue (committee) in 1974. Under Haile Mengistu Mariam, the Dergue pressed for a military victory over the Eritrean independence movement. Ethiopian forces steadily lost ground. By 1977 the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. That year, however, a massive airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia enabled the Ethiopian Army to regain the initiative and forced the EPLF, largely intact, to retreat to the mountainous north of the country.

Educated Eritreans were a particular target of Dergue harassment and violence. Thousands were detained and many killed. Amharic remained compulsory, and the number of Ethiopian teachers increasedup to 2,000 by 1980. The Dergue had declared Ethiopia a Marxist state, and all teachers were required to attend weekly classes in Marxism-Leninism, where their allegiance to the official doctrine was scrutinized. Eritrean teachers were further demoralized by the lack of professional development afforded them. In this climate, school officials feared widespread desertion of students to the guerrillas, and teachers were susceptible to accusations of political deviance; both factors led to a precipitous drop in educational quality and standards. In 1990 the Dergue disbanded the University of Asmara, taking its staff and movable property to Ethiopia.

The EPLF: Between 1978 and 1986, the Dergue launched eight major offensives against the EPLF; all failed. In 1988, the EPLF captured Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea. At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union withdrew support, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF began to advance on remaining Ethiopian positions. Meanwhile, other dissident movements were making headway throughout Ethiopia. In May 1991, the EPLF entered Asmara without firing a shot. Simultaneously, Mengistu fled before the advance of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which formed a new government in Ethiopia.

During the war the EPLF established healthcare and education programs and facilities in the regions under its control. Education was seen by EPLF leaders as integral to the national liberation struggle. An early EPLF slogan was "Illiteracy is our main enemy." EPLF-sponsored education was marked by the integration of theory and practice. In the 1970s, efforts focused on the combatants themselves with all new recruitsmen and women (women made up a third of the fighters) with less than seven years of schooling required to complete their education in the EPLF, attending classes for up to six hours a day. Many rural villagers and farmers encountered education for the first time in the front.

In the mid-1970s liberated areas began to expand. In essaying the beginnings of a national school system, the EPLF began the Zero School, a boarding school for orphans, refugees, children of fighters, and those who had run away to join the front but were too young to fight. The Zero School, started with about 150 students and a handful of teachers, was designed as a teaching laboratory and workshop for the expanding education system. The Zero School eventually offered five years of elementary education and two years of middle school, adding grades as students continued. By 1983, the school had more than 3,000 students.

In addition to the Zero School, the EPLF maintained regular schools in liberated, predominantly rural areas. At many sites, students sat on stones in the shade of trees. Schools had to be camouflaged against air attack, and students had to be prepared to take cover.

In 1983 a national adult literacy campaign was begun with the dispatch of 451 teenage Zero School students to serve as teachers behind enemy lines. The literacy campaign reached 56,000 adults, 60 percent of them women. The campaigners taught reading, writing, numeration, hygiene, sanitation, and health, and participated in agriculture in the rural communities.

Drought and Ethiopian military offensives after 1985 disrupted the literacy campaign, and the EPLF abandoned the campaign form altogether when it began its own offensives in 1988, continuing adult education only for civilian health, agricultural, and political workers brought in groups to protected areas for one to two months at a time. By 1990, with the war intensifying to its climax, adult education was available only to combatants. Nevertheless, in the vast areas of liberated countryside, education continued. In 1990, a year before liberation, there were 165 schools administered by the EPLF, with 1,782 teachers serving about 27,000 students.

Independent Eritrea: In May 1991, the EPLF established the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) to administer Eritrean affairs until a referendum on independence could be held and a permanent government established. EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki became the head of the PGE, and the EPLF Central Committee served as its legislative body. On April 23-25, 1993, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia in a UN-monitored referendum. The government was reorganized and after a national, freely contested election, the National Assembly, which chose Afwerki as President of the State of Eritrea, was expanded to include both EPLF and non-EPLF members. Expressing the government's commitment to working towards gender equality, 30 percent of the Assembly seats were reserved for women, while the remaining seats were open to men and women. The EPLF established itself as a political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in February 1994. A new constitution establishing a tripartite government and guaranteeing human and civil rights for all Eritreans was ratified in 1997 but was not implemented, as pending parliamentary elections were postponed indefinitely following the start of a border conflict with Ethiopia in May 1998. The National Assemblywith 150 seats, half elected by the people, half installed by the PFDJcontinued to govern the country, and Afwerki remained president, but new elections were scheduled for the end of 2001.

After the long independence war, Eritrea faced an enormous task of reconstruction. The economy and infrastructure had collapsed, and social services had disintegrated, the result of war damage, population displacement, and prolonged, severe neglect. Education was seen as a key to overall development of the country, and an immediate priority: Five months after the May 1991 victory, the EPLF reopened schools country-wide. A 1994 policy document outlined these educational objectives:

  • to produce a population equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge, and culture for a self-reliant and modern economy
  • to develop self-consciousness and self-motivation in the population
  • to fight poverty, disease, and all the attendant causes of backwardness and ignorance
  • to make basic education available to all.

In meeting these goals, the government from 1991 to 2000 constructed 365 new schools, mostly in the severely disadvantaged lowland areas. An additional 323 existing schools were rehabilitated, in many cases old schools made of twigs and sacks being replaced by entirely new buildings. From 1991 to 2000, total school enrollment (government and non-government elementary, middle, and secondary schools) increased by 255 percent, from 168,783 pupils to 429,884 pupils. The number of teachers also increased, from 5,188 in 1991 to 8,588 in 2000. A sharp increase in the number of qualified elementary teachers, from 42.7 to 72.4 percent from 1992 to 1996, was the result of three consecutive summers of inservice training at the Asmara Teachers Training Institute.

In the ten years after independence, the existing curriculum was extensively reviewed, and weaknesses were identified. English curriculum, grades 2-10, was completely revised and new textbooks were created, but few other reforms had been implemented by 2001. Additionally during this period, a score of research projects looked into such areas as girls' participation at the elementary level, education of nomads, the structure of technical and vocational education, community response to mother-tongue teaching, and preschool education needs. Beginning in 1994, secondary school students were sent during summer vacation to various regions to engage in development work: environmental protection, road construction and maintenance, production and repair of school furniture, laying power lines, and improving community sanitation. Each summer, approximately 30,000 students (38 percent of them female) participated. The program's goals include strengthening students' cultural experience, work ethic, and ecological awareness.

In 1999 a border dispute with Ethiopia devolved into large-scale war. During the fighting, as many as a million Eritreans were internally displaced and 67,000 were expelled from Ethiopia, most arriving destitute in Eritrea, severely straining the nation's social services. Among those still displaced at the end of fighting in mid-2000 were 139,000 school-age children. The government responded with makeshift schools, enlarged class sizes, and emergency shipments of school supplies to the affected areas.

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

A new constitution guaranteeing the right to education to all citizens was ratified in 1997 but was not implemented following the start of the border war with Ethiopia in 1998. Education is administered in the Ministry of Education, one of 17 ministries with cabinet status in the executive branch of the government, under President Isaias Afwerki. The government of Eritrea views education as a key factor in political transformation, economic growth, social justice, and the alleviation of poverty, and education for all Eritreans is the government's goal.

Educational SystemOverview

The government offers education at elementary (for five years), middle (two years), and secondary (four years) levels, and provides one special school for blind and two schools for deaf students. The University of Asmara, offering 17 bachelor degree programs, enrolled about 4,000 students in 1999. Nongovernmental Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic schools (a total of 110) are found throughout the country. So-called public schools (a total of ten) are administered by municipalities or village committees. Five schools are administered by foreign communities in Asmara for their children.

The government also offers technical and vocational programs for middle and secondary graduates, as well as literacy, continuing education, and skill development training programs for adults. Additionally, the Ministry of Education is responsible for school sports programs at national and international levels.

In government schools, enrollment grew an average of 7.4 percent (6.1 percent primary, 14.9 middle, 7.0 secondary) each year from independence to 1999. However, the number of children not enrolled, at all levels and particularly in rural regions, was still high in 2000: about 320,000 at elementary age and 172,000 at middle school age. Literacy for the country is estimated to be 30 percentfor women just 10 percent. Despite the EPLF's and the government's longstanding commitment to women's equal participation in all areas of national life, female enrollment in schools, in numbers or growth, has not kept pace with male participation.

Government policy is for the local language, or the language locally chosen, to be the language of instruction at the elementary level and in literacy programs. To implement this policy, alphabetic forms have been created for six previously nonwritten languages. As of 2000, elementary education and literacy programs were being conducted in eight of the nine Eritrean languages.

Objectives of the educational system, as outlined in the Government's 1994 Macro-Policy, are to create a united, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic nation by educating women and men to:

  • have the skills and commitment to work together to reconstruct the economic, environmental, and social fabric
  • love and respect their nation and all people within it, regardless of sex, ethnic group, religion, or profession; this includes producing citizens who are fully literate in their mother tongue and who know and wish to preserve the best aspects of their culture while changing the negative aspects, including working toward the achievement of gender and ethnic equality
  • respect democratic institutions and to fully and effectively participate in the democratic process, including developing and defending basic human rights, and to be guided by and adhere to the highest ethical principles
  • have a deep knowledge of and respect for the environment and the need for its restoration and protection
  • wisely use scientific processes and developments so as to achieve self-sufficiency in food, modern services, and industries, based on the principle of environmental sustainability
  • develop to the fullest their creative potential in all aspects.

These principles are largely inherited from the liberation struggle, which included tremendous efforts to consolidate national identity and unity, promote social progress, and inculcate tolerance and democratic ideals.

Preprimary & Primary Education

Preschool education begins at age five. Early childhood education is largely a community responsibility, with the government giving functional support by developing policies, programs, and teacher training activities. The government considers early childhood education as the first component of the basic education strategy and envisages expansion of preprimary schools but not supplanting the role and responsibility of parents and the community in early childhood upbringing and education. In addition, the overall tendency is to encourage nongovernmental organizations and nonformal activities in this field. The policy gives much attention to the need and importance of early and extensive investment in health care, cognitive development, and socialization. The number of preschools90 in 2000, almost all in urban areashas not significantly increased since independence, but enrollment rose by 50 percent, from 7,747 children in 1993 to 11,885 children (or about 5 percent of eligible children) in 2000. In 1996, many preschools run by the municipalities were transferred to private institutions and communities, and some were closed for lack of funds. Most surviving preschools are situated in Asmara and are controlled by religious institutions. The learning environment in most centers suffers from lack of basic resources and play materials. More than 50 percent of preschool teachers were untrained, but in 1996 a summer training program was organized; approximately 90 teachers had completed this training by 1999. In 2000 there were 223 trained and 97 untrained preschool teachers.

Elementary, or primary, education lasts five years. The official starting age is seven, but due to the previous lack of access to school, the majority of students are older.

The academic year runs from September to June and consists of approximately 200 school days divided into two semesters. Schools in lowland areas operate six days a week in order to finish before the hottest season. At the primary level, school exams are given four times per year at the end of every half semester, and reports are given at the end of each semester. Total gross primary enrollment in 2000 was 295,941 students. The gross enrollment percentage (enrolled students to eligible children in the population) went from 36.3 percent in 1992 to 57.5 percent in 2000; within this, the female student enrollment percentage increased from 33.8 to 52.4 percent. Elementary teachers numbered 6,229 in 2000.

The elementary curriculum includes reading and writing in the mother tongue, mathematics, science, art and music, and physical education. Starting at the second grade, English (plus Arabic where teachers are available) and civics and moral education are added. Geography is added during fourth grade.

Secondary Education

Elementary education is followed by two years of middle level (completing what is called basic formal primary education) and four years of secondary education, at the end of which students take the Eritrean Secondary Education Certificate Examination. Instruction in middle and secondary classes is in English. In middle schools, overall enrollment grew by 266 percent from 1992 to 2000, from 27,917 to 74,317 students. This represented a doubling of the ratio of enrolled students to middle-school-age children in the population, from 20.1 to 43.2 percent. Female middle students totaled 33,284 in 2000. Secondary enrollment increased from 27,627 in 1992 to 59,626, of which 37 percent were female, in 2000. The gross enrollment rate grew from 12.2 to 26.0 percent for males in this period, but from 12.1 to only 16.2 for females. In 2000 there were 1,312 middle and 1,047 secondary teachers.

The middle curriculum includes general science; mathematics; English; Arabic; geography; Eritrean, African and world history; civics and moral education; physical education; and music and art at some schools.

Secondary subjects are biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, English, Arabic, geography, history, civics, physical education, and music and art.

Instructional Technology: In 2001 computers were available in only a few secondary schools in Asmara; these schools had piloted computer education classes for selected students. In some cases, Parent-Teacher Associations had raised money to buy computers for a school. Adding more computers, as it becomes financially feasible, is slated to take place first at the secondary level, and then expand downwards. In preparation for these developments, a computer lab was set up at the Asmara Teacher Training Institute in order to have teacher-trainees computer-literate by the time they begin or return to teaching.

Higher Education

Eritrea faces a serious shortage of skilled professionals in all fields. The only institute of higher education in the country, the University of Asmara, since its reopening in October 1991, has been engaged in restructuring and revitalization and is still establishing new colleges. Since 1997, there have been eightAgriculture and Aquatic Sciences; Arts and Language Studies; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Health Sciences; Law; Sciencethat offer a total of 17 bachelor degree programs, as well as diploma and certificate programs. The College of Business and Economics offers evening programs for working adults. A degree program requires four years' attendance. All students follow a general freshman program during the first year, then enter the college of their choice. After their second year, students are obliged to serve one year of national service; this means that it will take them a minimum of five years to earn a bachelor's degree. In 2000, the university graduated 371 students with bachelor's degrees, 170 with diplomas, and 106 with certificates. Enrollment in Fall 2000 was 4,642 (about 13 percent women). Total faculty was 230. The university foresees steady growth, with enrollment reaching 6,000 students in 2005 and stabilizing at around 8,000 by 2010.

The university aspires to become a regional center of higher education, but first to primarily serve national needs, and has developed linkages both to national programs and initiatives and to international donor organizations and foreign universities. In 2001, the university was still suffering from a lack of basic equipment, computers, laboratories, library facilities, and a shortage of qualified academic staff.

Administration, Finance, & Educational Research

The Ministry of Education, the body responsible for administering the schools and setting and implementing the national curriculum, consists of three departments: General Education, responsible for early childhood through secondary education; Technical and Vocational Education, which includes adult literacy; and Research and Human Resource Development, whose responsibilities include teacher and staff training. At the regional level are six regional offices, which have autonomy to manage educational matters within their geographical area. Sub-regional offices are responsible for direct management of schools within each sub-region.

At the end of 1999, the Ministry of Education installed its first computer network, making information on all aspects of school administration available to all departments. The network extends to most district offices in all regions of the country, but in 2001 was still too slow in functioning to be of much use outside of the Asmara offices of the Ministry. When it is functioning efficiently, the network will aid decentralized decision-making in regions and sub-regions.

Education expenditures as a percent of the government's total expenditures grew from 4 percent in 1993 to more than 9 percent in 1997 (education accounted for an average of 38 percent of yearly social service expenditures in that period). As a percentage of GNP, education increased from 2 to 4 percent over those five years, a significant investment compared to many sub-Saharan African nations and a testament to the government's commitment to education. In 2000, salaries, nonsalary recurrent expenditures, and capital cost totaled 115 million, 38 million, and 77 million nakfa respectively; international donors provided 66 million nakfa applied to capital expenditures.

Nonformal Education

Through the Department of Technical and Vocational Education, the Ministry of Education runs technical and vocational programs, adult literacy programs, continuing basic education classes, and adult skills development programs.Technical and vocational education is offered at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels. Seven basic level training centers provide employment skills courses, four to nine months in length, for elementary completers. The centers graduated 296 students (78 female) in 1999 and 157 students (0 female) in 2000. At the intermediate level, three technical institutes (Asmara, Wina, and Mai Habar) provide training programs, lasting two to three years, for middle-school completers. Total enrollment of the three schools was 908 (15 percent female) in 2000. At the advanced level for secondary graduates, two schools are available: the Asmara Business and Commerce Training School, providing courses in accounting, banking and finance, secretarial science, and management; and the nongovernmental Pavoni Technical Institute, which offers machine shop training. Enrollment in the Business School was 190 (30.5 percent female) in 2000; Pavoni had 67 students, including 5 women.

A school of fine arts and a school of music were pioneered by the EPLF during the independence war. The arts school trains secondary school completers in sculpture, painting, and printmaking. In 2000, the school had 29 beginning (8 female) and 39 intermediate (12 female) students. The Asmara Music School offers one to two years of theoretical and practical training to those who complete grade eight. In 2000, the school had 22 male and 34 female students.

In 2000, a literacy program was operating in 796 centers, serving more than 49,000 adults, 94 percent of them women. Four-fifths of these adults were new students in the first year of the three-year program; the border war with Ethiopia had reduced the number of continuing students. The literacy program was conducted, and primers printed, in seven languages.

Evening classes in basic education are conducted at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels, with 4,872 adults (3,461 female) attending in 2000, the majority at the secondary level. Since independence, many adult skills development programs were begun in cooperation with NGOs, but the Ministry of Education has largely taken over responsibility for the programs. From 1993 to 1997, some 6,000 to 7,000 adults were trained in building trades, metal fabrication, agricultural technology, secretarial skills, and other job skills.

Various professional training programs are run by other ministries, most importantly the Ministry of Health (nurses, pharmacists, village health workers, and technicians), and the Ministry of Agriculture (farmers and its own staff of technicians). The Institute of Management Studies has been established to upgrade the skills of existing civil servants. Quasi-governmental organizations such as the National Union of Eritrean Woman and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students offer a variety of vocational and some academic courses across the nation. The National Union of Eritrean Women has been especially active in mounting women's literacy projects in small towns and rural villages.

Teaching Profession

There is one Teachers Training Institute (TTI), located in Asmara; graduates are qualified for elementary teaching. Teacher training was given a high priority following independence, with TTI graduating about 1,600 students per year (using intensive short courses) from 1992 to 1995; however, from 1996 to 1999 enrollments averaged 350 a year. In 2000, TTI had 606 trainees enrolled. In 2000, 72 percent of the nation's elementary teachers were qualified.

The Faculty of Education at the University of Asmara trains middle and secondary school teachers, offering a diploma in middle school teaching and a bachelor's degree in secondary teaching, as well as bachelor's degrees in educational administration and educational psychology. In 2001, approximately 800 students were enrolled in all programs. The teaching staff totaled 21, the largest in the university. The school has strong links to the Ministry of Education, and its programs are keyed to national needs. Students are prepared to meet the challenges of teaching in rural schools, to innovate, and to rely on local resources and materials.

In 2000, about 32.0 percent of middle teachers and 71.2 percent ofsecondary teachers were qualified. To make up for a shortage of qualified teachers, and to allow Eritrean teachers to spend time abroad pursuing advanced degrees, the Eritrean government, in a program partially financed by the World Bank, has recruited expatriate teachers, mainly from India, since 1997. In 2000, approximately 250 such teachers were bolstering the teaching staff at secondary and technical schools. At the same time, 64 Eritrean teachers were studying in postgraduate programs outside Eritrea.


Eritrean education has suffered from the disregard, and even malice, of colonial occupiers and the devastation of a long independence warand benefited from the experience of the liberation movement that developed an educational system with some modern and progressive features years before coming to power.

From the liberation movement, the national education system inherited a respect for all the languages and cultures of the country, now seen in policies that primary and literacy education be conducted in students' mother tongue; that priority for educational expansion be given to disadvantaged and marginalized areas and ethnic groups; that communities be involved in the establishment and running of schools; and that women be accorded full educational equality with men. Additionally, Eritrean education has inherited from the independence struggle a self-reliant attitude. As a nation, Eritrea has sought to keep development firmly in the hands of Eritreans and is known for refusing international aid that would compromise that ideal. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education has maintained and sought international aid and assistance to build its capacity and improve teaching and learning.

As an independent nation since 1991, Eritrea has managed to build or rehabilitate more than 600 schools, add 3,400 teachers, and more than double enrollmentsa creditable achievement for a young, poor, and warravaged country. The government has stated its intention to provide basic education for all and considers education a key to development. For a country that is one of the world's poorest, Eritrea has devoted significant financial resources to education.

Still, in 2000 more than 716,000 school-age children remained unenrolled, curriculum reform was stalled, illiteracy for the population as a whole stood at 70 percent, and the planned-for widespread adult education had barely begun. At the turn of the millennium, improving educational quality was seen as the Ministry of Education's major priority. Plans were under way to fully implement curriculum reform in the coming five years; to improve and expand teacher training, including opening a second Teacher Training Institute, enlarging the Faculty of Education at the University of Asmara, and creating more opportunities for teachers to increase their skills and pursue higher education both in and out of the country; to establish new and strengthen existing Parent-Teacher Associations; provide more vocational training options to students; to create a unit to address the needs of children with learning difficulties; to systematize preschool education; to increase adult literacy; to expand computer technology at all administrative levels and in academic programs beginning with secondary schools; to better coordinate the educational activities of various government ministries; and to correct inefficiencies within the Ministry of Education itself.


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Leslie D. Gottesman

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State of Eritrea
Hagere Ertra



Eritrea is an eastern African country occupying an area of 121,320 square kilometers (46,841 square miles), which makes it slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania. It borders Sudan to the north and west, Ethiopia and Djibouti to the south, and the Red Sea to the east. Its land borders extend for 1,630 kilometers (1,012 miles), while its total coastline is 2,234 kilometers (1,388 miles). Eritrea's capital, Asmara, and its 2 other major cities, Assab and Massawa, are in the southeastern and eastern parts of the country.


Eritrea's population was estimated to be 4,135,933 in July 2000. The population increased from 2.1 million in 1975 to 3.6 million in 1998, indicating a growth rate of 2.4 percent. The estimated birth rate in 2000 was 42.71 births per 1,000, and the estimated death rate 12.3 deaths per 1,000, contributing to a 3.86 percent growth rate in 2000. The population is expected to increase to about 5.5 million by 2015. Because of drought and a war with Ethiopia, about 1 million Eritreans lived abroad (mostly in Sudan) in 2000, while at least 955,000 were internally displaced.

The major ethnic groups of the predominantly African population of Eritrea are the Tigrinya (50 percent), Tigre and Kunama (40 percent), Afar (4 percent), and Saho (3 percent). There are a variety of religions in the country, with Muslims, Coptic Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants dominating. There are also a variety of Cushitic languages spoken in the country. The population is young, with 43 percent under the age of 15 and only 3 percent above the age of 65.

Most Eritreans live in rural areas. In 1998 urban dwellers accounted for only 18 percent of the population, but this figure is expected to reach 26.2 percent by 2015. Asmara is the largest city with 480,000 inhabitants. Other major urban areas include Assab (70,000), Keren (70,000), Mendefera (65,000), and Massawa (35,000).


Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and declared statehood in 1993, but its underdeveloped economy had suffered greatly from the 30-year war of independence with its neighbor. Conditions were worsened by a serious drought in the late 1990s, and the outbreak of a new war with Ethiopia that arose over a territorial dispute in 1998 and reached an uneasy, internationally brokered peace in mid-2000. This combination of adverse conditions further destroyed Eritrea's already limited agricultural and industrial capabilities and exhausted its inadequate financial resources, leaving the economy in ruins. Consequently, the country's foreign debt rose from $76 million in 1997 to $142 million in 1998, and to $242 million in 1999.

Eritrea is in transition from a deteriorating socialist economy to a market economy. The government has taken steps to end state monopolies and foster the growth of a private sector . It has encouraged domestic and foreign investments by beginning the privatization of state enterprises and passing laws to open trade and investment to market forces. Measures such as the lowering of business taxes have created some incentive for investment, but the emerging private sector is still too weak and foreign investment too small to make an impact on Eritrea's severe underdevelopment. The private sector is limited to the importation and distribution of goods.

The country's industrial, agricultural, and service sectors are small-scale and underdeveloped. Exports are limited and the country relies heavily on imports, including foodstuffs. Unsurprisingly, the balance of trade has recorded a large annual deficit since independence $534 million in 1999. Since 1952, Eritrea has depended on 2 strands of economic activity to provide employment and revenue: port services at Assab and Massawa and agricultural exports. Landlocked Ethiopia conducted most of its international trade through these ports until the outbreak of war in 1998. Agricultural exports to a few African and Middle Eastern countries have been a major source of income for Eritrea.

The Eritrean economy grew during the first few years of independence. However, since this growth was due to its earnings from port services, it proved unsustainable as a consequence of hostilities with Ethiopia. Ethiopia placed an embargo on Eritrea's ports, while the heavy cost of war between the 2 countries and a sharp decline in agricultural production caused by war and drought have since damaged the economy. Economic contraction began in the late 1990s, with the growth of Eritrea's gross domestic product (GDP) falling from 7 percent in 1997 to 4 percent in 1998, and to nil in 1999 and 2000. This disaster has made Eritrea dependent on foreign assistance for its survival. The Persian Gulf countries, Italy, Japan, the United States, the World Bank, the African Development Bank (ADB), and the European Union (EU) have collectively been the country's main source of loans, grants, and food aid. Eritreans who have dispersed to live in other countries have become the main hard-currency providers since 1998.


Eritrea has enjoyed internal political stability since its independence. In 1993, a splinter group of senior members of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) joined the Eritrean People's Liberation Front to become a political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which has ruled the country ever since. The Eritrean constitution provides for a multiparty political system, but the reality is a one-party system dominated by the PFDJ, which, while so far unable to rescue the economy, keeps a tight rein on internal order, sometimes by measures such as the restriction of press freedom, that ensures domestic political stability. The opposition groups are all in exile (in Sudan) and include the Eritrean Islamic Salvation party and dissenting ELF factions, but they have no impact on Eritrea's economy.

Despite its liberalization policies, the government still dominates the economy. However, corruption is en-viably low by the standards of many third world countries, and the government encourages industrial growth and exports. It has introduced low customs duties (2 percent in 2000) on capital goods , intermediate industrial spare parts, and raw materials, side by side with high tariffs (50-200 percent) on luxury goods (liquor and tobacco). Nevertheless, by 2001, efforts to create a viable free-enterprise economy and stimulate sustainable growth had not yet succeeded. The major barriers to meeting these objectives include limited financial resources, the absence of adequate infrastructure , lack of expertise and management, and a high illiteracy rate. These factors, with an environment made unattractive by war and drought, have conspired to discourage investment.

It is difficult to gather accurate statistics regarding revenues obtained by the Eritrean government, but it is evident that taxes and tariffs contribute little. In 1996, when the economy showed some growth, taxes contributed 30 percent of national income. However, the worsening economic situation and low international trade figures do not yield sufficient taxable profits or incomes, and the 1996 figure undoubtedly took a sharp fall in 1999 and 2000 when economic growth halted. From 1998, the war with Ethiopia and the drought proved disastrous to the economy. With drastic reductions in port fees and exports, the share of port-generated revenue dropped from 16 percent of revenues in 1996 (about $32 million) to almost nil in 1999 and 2000, while export earnings decreased from about 48 percent in 1996 ($95 million) to about 12 percent in 1999 (just under $26 million).

The gap between Eritrea's annual income and its expenditures is enormous (expenditures outstripped income by more than half in 1996), thus forcing the government to finance its deficit through foreign loans and grants and money from expatriates. In 1999 expatriate purchases of government bonds generated $400 million. Eritrea has been mostly successful in securing favorable loans, enabling it to keep its foreign debt low ($242 million in 1999).


Eritrea suffers from seriously inadequate infrastructure. An extensive road and rail network built by

Country Telephones a Telephones, Mobile/Cellular a Radio Stations b Radios a TV Stations a Televisions a Internet Service Providers c Internet Users c
Eritrea 23,578 (2000) N/A AM 2; FM 1; shortwave 2 (2000) 345,000 1 (2000) 1,000 4 500
United States 194 M 69.209 M (1998) AM 4,762; FM 5,542; shortwave 18 575 M 1,500 219 M 7,800 148 M
Egypt 3,971,500 (1998) 380,000 (1999) AM 42; FM 14; shortwave 3 (1999) 20.5 M 98 (1995) 7.7 M 50 300,000
Djibouti 8,000 203 AM 2; FM 2; shortwave 0 52,000 1 (1998) 28,000 1 1,000
aData is for 1997 unless otherwise noted.
bData is for 1998 unless otherwise noted.
cData is for 2000 unless otherwise noted.
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [Online].

the Italians in the 1930s was destroyed during the long war of independence. It is now estimated that there are 4,010 kilometers (2,491 miles) of roads, of which 874 kilometers (543 miles) are paved, but they are poorly maintained. The country's Italian-built, narrow-gauge railway, owned by the state, is almost defunct, with only 317 kilometers (196 miles) accessible. The few road and rail reconstruction projects are proving to fall far short of what is required.

Eritrea has 21 airports and airstrips, 3 of which have paved runways. Asmara International Airport was damaged during the war. Assab has a small airport and another is being built in Massawa. Eritrea's 2 major ports, Massawa and Assab, require upgrading.

Energy production is limited in Eritrea. According to 1997 estimates, the country generates and consumes 177.6 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, powered by fossil fuel, and many parts of the country, particularly the rural areas, lack electricity. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have funded the construction of an 84-megawatt power station, and the European Development Bank has pledged a loan for the restoration of war-damaged power infrastructure. Eritrea has a limited oil production (0.55 million tons in 1998), but its main refinery is closed and thus it must import all refined oil products. Imports of petroleum products amounted to 100,000 tons in 1998.

Eritrea's telecommunications system is old and inadequate. In 2000 there were only 23,578 telephone lines in the entire country. The Eritrean government has installed a digital system to improve and expand the service. There is 1 Internet service provider and a growing number of e-mail stations. The country has 1 state-run television channel and 5 radio stations. In 1997 there were only 345,000 radios and 1,000 television sets in use.


At the time of independence, Eritrea lacked the basic infrastructure and resources to address its many economic problems. Efforts to improve the infrastructure and develop its backward agriculture, industry, and services have had limited success, despite foreign assistance. Drought devastated agriculture, and war further damaged the inadequate infrastructure, destroyed many farms, and exhausted financial resources. The result was a massive internal displacement of civilians and the flight of large numbers of Eritreans to neighboring Sudan. Thus, by 2000, the country was unable to meet the basic needs of its population. In the wake of such devastation, Eritrea has had to depend on foreign aid and a large quantity of imports for its survival, and most of its limited developmental projects have been placed on hold.


Subsistence agriculture shapes Eritrea's economy and employs about 80 percent of its population, but its contribution to the economy is small. Agriculture's share of the GDP was only 9 percent in 1998 (equal to $261 million), while its contribution to exports was only $8 million. Major exports are livestock, sorghum, and food products exported to Ethiopia (before the war), Sudan, Yemen, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In the absence of statistics, one can assume with some certainty that the 1998-2000 war and drought have lowered the contribution of agriculture to Eritrea's economy. The main agricultural products (sorghum, lentils, vegetables, corn, cotton, tobacco, coffee, sisal, and livestock) are insufficient to meet domestic needs, and these must be satisfied through foreign aid and large imports of foodstuffs ($63 million in 1998). The sharp fall in production during the crisis period between 1998 and 2000 led to price increases in food. The production of sorghum fell from 120,000 tons in 1994 to 62,000 tons in 1998. Eritrea can only become self-sufficient in food production if it is able to address its major handicaps: lack of money, poor irrigation, extensive soil erosion, and outdated technology.

The Red Sea coastline of Eritrea is rich in lobster, shrimp, and crab and offers the potential for a valuable export-oriented fishing industry. However, the lack of adequate investment, modern fishing boats, and technology have prevented any development, and fishing represents a negligible economic activity with a low annual catch (5,000 tons in 1999). Fishery projects are focused on privatization and the creation of storage and processing facilities funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Japan.


Industry is the second largest sector after the service sector. Its main activities, manufacturing and mining, accounted for 29.5 percent of the GDP in 1998, valued at $855 million.


The manufacturing industry is unable to meet domestic needs, while its exports are insignificant. Exports earned a paltry $4 million in 1998, while imports of industrial goods ran to $250 million. Manufacturing consists of Asmara-based small and medium size establishments producing consumer products such as glass, leather, processed foods, cotton, textile, liquors, and other beverages. New factories produce marble, recycled plastics, metals, and rubber goods. Low investment and management capacity, outdated machinery, and poor infrastructure have prevented growth, and the Eritrean government has privatized some of its industries while ending subsidies to others to stimulate development. It has also lowered taxes and tariffs on industrial exports and imports and offered other incentives to foreign investors.


Eritrea's mining industry is small but has growth potential. Its mineral resources include substantial reserves of barite, feldspar, kaolin, gold, potash, rock salt, gypsum, asbestos, and marble. If mining developed, Eritrea's proximity to the Middle East and Europe would be favorable to the export of minerals to those markets. In the absence of domestic investments, companies from Australia, Canada, France, South Korea, and the United States have operated or now operate limited mining operations there. Mineral exports accounted for $12 million in 1998. Eritrea has sought foreign investment for the exploration and development of offshore oil and gas reserves, but Anadarko, an American company, stopped drilling operations in 1999 after disappointing results.


The most important services in Eritrea are tourism, retail , and financial. Services form the largest economic sector, accounting for 61.2 percent of the GDP and 20 percent of the workforce in 1998. However, like the rest of the country's economic sectors, services suffer from underdevelopment.


Eritrea has a small state-run financial system. It consists of a central bank, the National Bank of Eritrea (NBE), 4 other banks, dominated by the Commercial Bank of Eritrea (CBE), and an insurance company, the National Insurance Corporation of Eritrea. The NBE accounted for over 60 percent of Eritrean banking assets in 2000. Except for the Housing and Commerce Bank of Eritrea, owned by the ruling party, all other financial institutions are state-owned, and the government licensed several private exchange offices in 1997 to liberalize the industry. No foreign financial institution operates in Eritrea, but the CBE has arrangements for money transfers with 40 foreign banks.


With its long warm-water coastline and an abundance of historical, archaeological, and natural sites, Eritrea has much to offer as a tourist destination. However, the development of tourism is constrained by the lack of basic infrastructure. There are only 11 hotels, all in Asmara, all of which require renovation. The government has privatized 3 hotels but has failed to find buyers for the rest. Thanks to some success in attracting foreign investment, in 2000 the first foreign hotel, the Inter-Continental, was opened in Asmara. In that year the government negotiated the construction of a casino and several hotels on the Dahlak archipelago by U.S. and Saudi Arabian companies.


The retail sector of Eritrea is poorly developed. It consists of small-scale traditional shops that are unable to ensure the accessibility of goods and services to either the rural or the urban populations. The emerging middle class is encouraging the establishment of modern retail outlets in major urban areas, but the economic devastation of the country has delayed the creation of a viable retail sector.


Eritrea's international trade is characterized by its deficit. The 1998 deficit of $499 million rose to $534 million in 1999, as the value of exports dropped to $26 million against imports of $560 million. Large trade deficits are a clear sign of Eritrea's underdeveloped economy in which the necessity for large-scale imports does not begin to be matched by its output of exportable goods. Imports accounted for a huge 89.7 percent of the GDP in 1998, the same year that an epidemic of cattle disease stopped major livestock exports to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, while drought and the outbreak of war with Ethiopia further decimated local productivity. Although that war ended in June 2000, Eritrea's exports are likely to remain low for a long time because of its devastated farms and infrastructure, its depleted financial resources, and the massive displacement of its population.

The country's main export products are salt, livestock, flour, sorghum, foodstuffs, small manufactures, and textiles. Major imports include foodstuffs, fertilizers, fuel, machinery, spare parts, construction materials, and military hardware. The war brought a sharp increase in military hardware imports, causing state expenditures on defense to jump from 9 percent of the GDP in 1997 to about 44 percent in 1999.

Ethiopia was Eritrea's largest trading partner until 1998, taking 65.8 percent and 64 percent of its total exports in 1996 and 1997. Ethiopia's share dropped to 26.5 percent ($28 million) in 1998 when the countries went to war, but their bilateral trade did not resume when the war was over. Eritrea's other main trading partners are Sudan, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Yemen, and the UAE. Sudan was Eritrea's second largest export destination in 1997, taking 17 percent of exports, rising to 27.2 percent in 1998. In 1996 and 1997, Eritrea's main source of imported goods was Saudi Arabia, followed by Italy and the UAE; in 1998, Italy was the most important supplier of imports, followed by the UAE and then Germany.


Eritrea shared the Ethiopian currency, the birr, until November 1997 when it introduced its own currency, the nakfa. The NBE adopted a fixed exchange rate for the first 6 months and then switched to a floating exchange

Exchange rates: Eritrea
nakfa per US$1
2001 N/A
Jan 2000 9.5
Jan 1999 7.6
Mar 1998 7.2
1997 N/A
1996 N/A
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].

rate , that is, a rate determined by supply and demand. There are no exchange restrictions for the Eritreans or foreigners. The nakfa remained stable between 1997 and 2000, during which time it depreciated slowly against the U.S. dollar, declining from 7.2 to 9.5 nakfas to US$1. This minor fluctuation had no noticeable impact on the pace of economic activity or on the purchasing power of the population.


Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries. Poverty is rampant, and the severity of the war, compounded by the effects of drought, forced the migration of about 1 million people (1998 est.) to neighboring Sudan, decreasing the resident population to 3.5 million. In 2000 about half of this population faced a serious humanitarian emergency as their dismal situation gave rise to epidemics of diarrhea, malaria, and respiratory infections.

Basic necessities for dealing with the crises of homelessness, want, and disease are worse than inadequate. In 1997 access to sanitation was available to a mere 13 percent of Eritreans, while only 22 percent had access to safe water. Widespread malnutrition and a poor health-care system lead to high infant mortality (70 per 1,000 live births) and low life expectancy (50.8 years) in 1998. The inadequate medical services are barely available outside the capital.

A high illiteracy rate, estimated at between 49 and 80 percent, demonstrates the weakness of the educational system. Over half of the children of school age do not study because of poverty and a lack of educational facilities. There is only one small university in Asmara with 1,300 students. Solutions to these many social problems are unlikely so long as Eritrea lacks domestic resources and foreign aid remains relatively low.


Eritrea's workforce consists of unskilled workers, over 80 percent of whom are involved in agriculture. The

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Eritrea N/A N/A N/A N/A 175
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
Egypt 516 731 890 971 1,146
Djibouti N/A N/A N/A N/A 742
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.

country suffers from a shortage of skilled or educated labor. There are no unemployment statistics, but one must conclude that, given the state of the economy, it must be high. Unions are legal and The National Federation of Eritrean Workers consists of 129 unions representing over 23,000 workers, and public and private company employees. The labor code prohibits child labor, discrimination against women, and anti-union regulations. Regulations permit the right to strike and endorse equal pay for equal work for women. However, in the absence of mechanisms for enforcement, the labor laws exist in principle rather than in practice. About half of children work and women face discrimination. The working week is 44.5 hours, but many work less than that due to limited employment opportunities. There is no minimum wage, and the market determines wages.


16TH CENTURY. Eritrea falls under the rule of the Ottoman Empire but claims to the region are disputed by the Ottomans, Italians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians.

1889. Italy signs the Treaty of Wechale with the king of Ethiopia to establish the borders of its colonial state of Eritrea.

1941. Italy loses Eritrea to Britain during World War II (1939-45), and Eritrea falls under a British mandateuntil 1952.

1948. The United Nations (UN) is mandated to determine the future of Eritrea.

1950. The UN adopts Resolution 390 A (V) to provide for the creation of a federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia with Eritrea to retain autonomy under the Ethiopian crown.

1952. The Federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia is ratified.

1961. The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) begins an armed struggle against Ethiopia.

1962. Ethiopia formally annexes Eritrea in violation of international law.

1973. A splinter group of the ELF forms the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF).

1991. Ethiopia's military junta is overthrown. The EPLF defeats the ELF and establishes control over Eritrea. The 2 new governments agree to discuss Eritrea's independence.

1993. In a referendum held in April, almost 100 percent of voters demand independence for Eritrea, and the country declares its independence on May 24.

1994. The EPLF reorganizes itself as a political party, renamed the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

1997. In May, Eritrea's constitution is promulgated. In November, the Ethiopian currency (the birr) is replaced by the Eritrean nakfa.

1998. In May, a territorial dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia leads to a new and devastating war.

2000. In June, Eritrea and Ethiopia conclude a peace accord, and refugees who have fled to Sudan begin to reenter the country.


War and drought have devastated the Eritrean economy. Eritrea requires large investments in infrastructure as a first step for an overhaul of its economy, and extensive foreign assistance is essential in tackling urgent problems such as malnutrition, and to help revive and expand the economy. The expansion of fishery and tourism could make a major contribution to Eritrea's economic growth, but there is little interest on the part of international donors to help Eritrea achieve these objectives. In the absence of foreign resources, the outlook for the Eritrean economy, at least in the future, would appear bleak.


Eritrea has no territories or colonies.


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Government of Eritrea External Affairs Office. Birth of a Nation .Asmara, Eritrea: Government of Eritrea, 1993.

Tesfai, Alemseged, and Martin Doornbos, editors. Post-Conflict Eritrea: Prospects for Reconstruction and Development. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1999.

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U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2000. <>. Accessed August 2001.

U.S. Department of State. FY 2000 Country Commercial Guide: Eritrea. <>. Accessed September 2001.

Hooman Peimani




Nakfa (Nkfa). One nakfa equals 100 cents. There are coins of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50 and 100 cents, and notes of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 nakfa.


Livestock, sorghum, textiles, food, small manufactures.


Processed goods, machinery, petroleum products.


US$2.9 billion (purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).


Exports: US$26 million (1999 est.). Imports: US$560 million (1999 est.). [The CIA World Factbook lists exports of US$52.9 million (f.o.b., 1997 est.) and imports of US$489.4 million (c.i.f., 1997 est.).]

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Basic Data

Official Country Name: Eritrea
Region (Map name): Africa
Population: 4,298,269
Language(s): Afar, Amharic, Arabic, English, Tigre and Kunama, Tigrinya other Cushitic languages
Literacy rate: 25.0%
Area: 121,320 sq km
GDP: 608 (US$ millions)
Number of Television Stations: 1
Number of Television Sets: 1,000
Television Sets per 1,000: 0.2
Number of Satellite Subscribers: 2,063
Satellite Subscribers per 1,000: 0.5
Number of Radio Stations: 5
Number of Radio Receivers: 345,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000: 80.3
Number of Individuals with Computers: 6,160
Computers per 1,000: 1.4
Number of Individuals with Internet Access: 500
Internet Access per 1,000: 1.2

Background & General Characteristics

Eritrea is Africa's latest nation to gain its independence from Ethiopia's 40 years of occupation. After a long, drawn-out military conflict between the two states, Eritreans won their independence on May 24, 1993. Four days later, Eritrea became a member of the United Nations.

Eritrea, at 121,000 square kilometers, is a torch-shaped wedge of the physical landscape whose size equals that of Britain. The country lies along the Red Sea coast in northern Africa and borders Sudan in the north and west, Djibouti in the southeast, and Ethiopia in the south. Its coastline is 750 miles long and is intersected with the seaports of Massawa and Assab. The northern half of the country is a highland plateau on which Asmara, the capital city, is located. The country has 10 provinces (Akele, Asmara, Barka, Denkel, Gash-Senhit, Guzai, Hamasien, Sahel, Semhar, and Seraye) (Hunter 1997). The lowlands lie to the west and east while the south is predominantly characterized by aridity (Gottesman, 2001).


Eritrea's population is 4.3 million and comprises nine ethno-linguistic groups, namely Amaharic, Tigra, Kunama, Hidarb, Saho, Rosdia, Blen, Arabic and Afar. The three major languages are English, Tigrinya, and Arabic. While all the languages are used in elementary school, English forms the medium of communication in post elementary and post secondary institutions. Religiously, the country is divided into half Muslim and half Christian. About 20 percent of the people live in urban areas, and 80 percent live in the rural countryside. About 15 percent are herders and farmers and less than 5 percent practice pastoralism. About 45 percent of the total population is under 15 years, 54 percent is between 15 and 64 years (life expectancy is 56 years), and a tiny fraction is comprised of senior citizens.

The literacy rate suffers at 25 percent. A quarter of a million children are enrolled in elementary school, 90,000 attend high schools, and more than 3,000 attend post secondary institutions. Of all of these, female enrollment is 48 percent, 17 percent, and 0.3 percent as compared to males respectively. The patriarchal, traditional and religious practices tend to discriminate against women. Female discrimination is more highly pronounced in higher education, the professions, and government. Press activism intended to educate the country to bridge the gap between the sexes may be regarded with distaste.

The Press

Previously, Eritrea published both private-owned and government-sponsored newspapers. However, in September 2001 the government authorities ordered all eight newspapers in the private press closed. This included Admas, Keste Debena Mana Meqaleh Setit Tiganay, Wintan, and Zemen leaving Hadas Eritrea as the sole daily (run by the government).

State-Press Relations

Historical Background

Eritrea became independent from Ethiopian annexation rule in 1993. In 1994, Eritrea established a more concrete stand in international relations by being accepted as a member of the UN and OAU organizations. The first four years were a form of transitional or preparatory statehood. In May 1997, a new constitution was adopted but has never been ratified. The transitional government had a 4-year term and consisted of the presidency and the 130 member unicameral legislature. There is no judiciary branch. This national assembly consists of members of the only approved political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Formerly, the PFDJ was the nationalist movement that fought Ethiopia for Eritrean independence, as the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). A marginalized opposition is centered around the Eritrean National Pact Alliance. In 1994, the PFDJ formed the Central Committee and 60 other Parliamentarians who included 11 women. The Central Committee elected the President whose constitutional responsibility is to appoint the State Council (cabinet). The transitional government had 14 cabinet ministers and 10 provincial governors. The President chairs both the State Council and the National Assembly.

In the modern world, Eritrea's historical profile, demography, political economy, constitutional and legal framework, and international relations have a profound impact in its perceptual and interpretive role of the press in an emerging democracy. These six forces form a complex interplay of factors upon which the role of Eritrean private and independent media reverberates. For instance, based on the principles of the transitional government, Eritrean government was supposed to hold general elections in September 2001. That did not happen. In a country that is perceived to be a weak but emerging democracy, the nullification of the election timetable by the government is something that makes many people skeptical, both at home and abroad. For marginalized opposition groups, an issue like this one tends to reunite, reenergize, and radicalize the opposition's challenge against the government. In the eyes of donor communities, especially the United States, whose foreign assistance to the country enables it to sustain 70 percent of its population, retaliatory diplomatic pressure on an authoritarian and "infant democratic" political system tends to overwhelm the influence of the powers that be. These corrupt powers are farther challenged by the work the print media, broadcast media, and electronic media display in public about them. This dissemination results in national and international awareness of the regime's political behavior in terms of its state-press relations.

Press Laws & Censorship

Further evidence seems to suggest that President Isayas and his single political party (PFDJ) "have unlawfully disallowed opposition parties from partaking in Eritrean politics. They also continue to eliminate challengers, muzzle discontent, imprison critics, persecute opponents, layoff civil servants and systematically exclude conscientious citizens in order to carryout the leadership's brutal and undemocratic activities" ( Although the Eritrean National Assembly established a commission in January 2000 for the purpose of ratifying the role and responsibility of an independent press, this constitutional and political procedure has not helped.

On February 28, 2002, ten journalists were arrested and detained indefinitely. Two unconstitutional explanations were given to justify the detention. First, since the work of some of the arrested and detained journalists is financed by foreign governments including the United States, and since the U.S. Secretary of State's office has communicated with these journalists about internal socio-economic and political conditions, there are rumors of governmental fears of exposure. Media coverage and powerful communication technology in the arena of political corruption and diplomatic pressure tend to expose sensitive bureaucratic issues which may serve to discredit democratic political rationality in Eritrea (Robinson, 2000). Second, some of those who were arrested, as the government claimed, failed to complete their mandatory military service. Journalistic detainees are members of the private press whose freedom to write, publish, educate, and communicate is in the national constitution. Irrespective of their constitutional privileges and immunities, the Eritrean Press Corps was "silenced." Meanwhile, the pressmen had been on a two-month hunger strike that incapacitated one of them, a statement that was made public on April 10, 2002.

Since the laws holding the pressmen in prison are supposed to be interpreted in the context of legal jurisprudence, their interpretation remains to be challenged since the nation lacks a judicial system and since that lack is partially rooted in its ethnic and political controversies whose dynamics dictate and reinforce it.

Eritrean laws say that a detained suspect has the right to be free on bail, pending investigation, unless the suspect is a flight risk, a threat to his community or will tamper with evidence. Accordingly, the Eritrean public forum and the organization of the African commission on Human and Peoples' Rights urged the Eritrean government to consider enforcing the right to the bail of the detainees under a scheme where the movements and activities of the suspects on bail are legitimately limited in place and time, with full supervision that ensures that these suspects do not violate the terms of their bail. Freeing the journalists on bail will be necessary if the Eritrean government requires more time to complete its case against them. Such violation is inconsistent with the freedom of the press in its emblematic significance that challenges print, broadcast and electronic journalism.

Broadcast & ELECTRONIC News Media

Eritrea claims only one television station and three radio stations, all of which are government-controlled as private ownership is prohibited. As of a 1997 estimate, only 345,000 Eritrean households had radios and a scant 1,000 possessed televisions.

Furthermore, in the year 2000, Eritrea had the distinction of being the last country in Africa to provide Internet access to its people. With only four Internet Service Providers and a mere 500 users in 1999 (who pay relatively high usage fees) electronic media is clearly in its infancy without much foreseeable growth.


In Africa, the role, constraint, and concern of the press, as the continent struggles with democratization and other development issues, is no exception to the challenges of the Eritrean private press. The press' role in and contribution to democratic political governance and bureaucratic accountability is viewed with skepticism and distaste for its controversial stance and imperialistic overtones.

By using psychological and diverse ways of understanding and influencing the public, the press can effectively play its role as an investigator, reporter, and agenda-setter. This role is that of being a carrier because the press tends to creatively formulate and articulate agenda for public policy debates. The courage, skill, and dynamism with which the press carries out its responsibility in the Third World, in the midst of surmounting obstacles, could be different from that of its counterpart in well-established and constitutionally more tolerant democracies. Therefore, Western-oriented, ideologically intoxicated, and democratically minded private press may find it difficult if not impossible to professionally survive in Africa and particularly in Eritrea. To function well in such an environment, the press may need to learn how to adapt itself to new and challenging situations in order to capitalize on existing opportunities.


Absuutari, Pertti. ed. Rethinking the Media Audience: The New Agenda. London: Sage, 1999. "National Assembly Endorses Press Clampdown, Sticks to One-Party System." AllAfrica Global Media, August 2002. Available at

"Government Admits to CPJ that it is Holding Journalists in Secret Detention." AllAfrica Global Media, August 2002. Available at

Amnesty International. "Eritrea: Growing Repression of Government Critics." Amnesty International Report 2002. London: Amnesty International, August 2002. Available at

Awde, Nicholas and Hill, Fred James, eds. Nations of the World: A Political, Economic and Business Handbook.Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2002.

Barnett, Clive. "The Limits of Media Democratization in South Africa: Politics, Privatization and Regulation." Media Culture and Society, 21, 5, 649-672, 1999.

Burstien, Paul. "Bringing the Public Back" In: Should Sociologists Consider the Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy. Social Forces, 77, 1, 27-62, 1998.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "Eritrea." The World Factbook. Directorate of Intelligence, August 2002. Available from

Committee to Protect Journalists. "Eritrea: Nine journalists arrested; two others flee as crackdown continues." CPJ: 2001 News Alert. New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available at

Dayan, Daniel. "The Peculiar Public of Television." Media Culture and Society, 23, 6, 743-765, 2001.

Diamond, Larry. Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Decalo, Samuel. The Stale Ministry: Civilian Rule in Africa, 1960-1990. Gainsville, FL: Academic Press, 1998.

Freedom House. "Eritrea." Freedom in the World. Freedom House, Inc., August 2002. Available at

Gaubatz, Kurt Taylor. Elections and War: The Electoral Incentive in the Democratic Politics of War and Peace.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Gottesman, Leslie, D. "Eritrea." World Education Encyclopedia: A Survey of Educational Systems Worldwide.1, 410-419, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2001.

Gunther, Richard and Mughan, Anthony. eds. Democracy and the Media: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Human Rights Watch. "Eritrea." Human Rights Watch World Report 2002. New York: Human Rights Watch, August 2002. Available at

Hunter, Julian. ed. The Stateman's Yearbook: A statistical, Political and Economic Account of the States of the World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996-1997.

Linz, Juan, J. and Stepan, Alfred. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Mickiewicz, Ellen. ed. Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Milton, Andrew, K. The Rational Politician: Exploiting the Media in New Democracies. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000.

Mughan, Anthony. Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Munck, Gerardo, L. "The Regime Question: Theory Building in Democracy Studies." World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations , 54, 1, 119-149, 2001.

Norris, Pippa. ed. Women, Media, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Patterson, Thomas, E. We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics. Boston: McGraw, 2002.

Robinson, Piers. "World Politics and Media Power: of Research Design." Media Culture and Society, 22, 2, 227-232, 2000.

Tettey, Wisdon, J. "The Media and Democratization in Africa: Contributions, Constraints and Concerns of the Private Press." Media Culture and Society, 23, 1, 5-31, 2001.

Volkomer, Water E. American Government. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Meshack M. Sagini

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Eritrea (ĕrĬtrē´ə), officially State of Eritrea, republic (2005 est. pop. 4,562,000), c.48,000 sq mi (124,320 sq km), NE Africa. It is bordered on the northeast by the Red Sea, on the southeast by Djibouti, on the south by Ethiopia, and on the northwest by Sudan. Eritrea also includes the many islands of the Dahlak Archipelago, which is located in the Red Sea. Asmara is the capital and largest city. Other cities include Aseb and Massawa, Eritrea's chief ports.

Land and People

The southern part of the country is made up of a low, largely desert coastal strip c.30 mi (50 km) wide; in N Eritrea there is a narrower, level coastal zone adjoining a ruggedly mountainous inland plateau (3,000–8,000 ft/914–2,438 m high). Most of the country supports only a sparse population of pastoral nomads. The central plateau, however, has many fertile valleys where settled agriculture is pursued. The inhabitants of Eritrea belong to several ethnic groups, primarily the Tigrinya, Tigre and Kunama, Afar, and Saho, each of whom has a distinct language. Arabic is also spoken. The population is about equally divided between Christians and Muslims; the Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious groups that the government has not granted recognition to have been persecuted.


Eritrea's largely agricultural economy was devastated by its 30-year-long indepedence war with Ethiopia and hurt again by the strain of the 1998–2000 border war. Some 80% of the population is involved in farming and herding, although this sector provides less than 10% of the country's GDP. Eritrea's agricultural products include sorghum, lentils, vegetables, corn, cotton, tobacco, and sisal. Cattle, sheep, goats, and camels are raised, and hides are produced. There is a fishing industry and some pearl fisheries remain in the Dahlak Archipelago. The country's natural resources include gold, potash, zinc, copper, and salt, but they have not yet been exploited. Offshore oil exploration was begun in the mid-1990s. Eritrea has little industry beyond the production of food and beverages, clothing and textiles, and building materials. Many Eritreans work outside the country, and their remittances substantially augment the GDP. Imports (machinery, petroleum products, food, and manufactured goods) greatly exceed the value of exports (livestock, sorghum, and textiles). The country's main trading partners are Italy, the United States, France, and Germany.


Eritrea is governed under the transitional constitution of 1993. A new constitution was adopted in 1997 but it has not been fully implemented. The executive branch is headed by the president, who is both head of state and head of government; the president is elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. There is a unicameral 150-seat National Assembly whose members are to be popularly elected, but legislative (and presidential) elections scheduled for 2001 were not held. Administratively, the country is divided into six regions.


Eritrea formed part of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum until the 7th cent. Thereafter Ethiopian emperors maintained an intermittent presence in the area until the mid-16th cent., when the Ottoman Empire gained control of much of the coastal region. Beginning in the mid-19th cent. Ethiopia struggled against Egypt and Italy for control of Eritrea. In the 1880s, Italy occupied the coastal areas around Aseb and Massawa, and by 1890 had extended its territory enough to proclaim the colony of Eritrea (named after the Roman term for the Red Sea, Mare erythraeum). The colony was later the main base for Italy's conquest (1935–36) of Ethiopia.

In World War II, Eritrea was captured (1941) by the British. Ethiopia had long demanded control of Eritrea on the ground of ethnic affinity, but Britain occupied Eritrea after the war and, beginning in 1949, administered it as a UN trust territory. In 1950 the United Nations decided that Eritrea was to be made independent as a federated part of Ethiopia, and in late 1952 this decision became effective. In late 1962 the Eritrean assembly voted to end the federal status and to unify Eritrea with Ethiopia. After 1962, Eritreans who opposed union carried on sporadic guerrilla warfare against Ethiopia and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was founded. In the 1970s a rival insurgent group, the Eritrean Popular Liberation Forces (EPLF), was formed and battled the ELF for supremacy.

After Emperor Haile Selassie's overthrow in a military coup in 1974, the two insurgent groups united to fight against the Ethiopian government's forces. Fighting increased and by 1976 the Eritreans had virtually forced the government forces out of the province. However, the Ethiopian government, with massive amounts of aid and troops from the USSR and Cuba, was able to defeat the Eritreans in 1978. After their defeat the insurgents were forced to return to sporadic guerrilla warfare. During the 1980s the rebels continued their attacks on Ethiopian troops and eventually Eritreans controlled most of the countryside.

In 1991 the insurgents succeeded in capturing Asmara and the ports, giving them control of the province. That same year the United Nations scheduled a referendum on Eritrean independence. In 1993, after 30 years of warfare and the death of an estimated 200,000, Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence, and Isaias Afwerki, formerly the principal leader of the EPLF, became the new nation's first president. His party, renamed the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), became the only viable political organization. The new government enacted legislation to promote trade and investment and provide for the privatization of many state firms.

In the mid-1990s, Eritrean and Yemeni forces clashed over control of the Hanish and other island groups in the Red Sea; the dispute was resolved in 1998, largely in Yemen's favor. A border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out in 1998 when Eritrean forces occupied disputed territory. Fighting was largely inconclusive, with many thousands killed on both sides, until May, 2000, when Ethiopian forces launched a major offensive, securing the disputed territory and driving further into Eritrea. A cease-fire agreement signed in June called for a truce, the establishment of a 15.5 mi (9.6 km) UN-patrolled buffer zone (in Eritrean territory), and the demarcation of the border by UN cartographers. The war hampered Eritrea's efforts to rebuild its economy and made the previously self-reliant young nation dependent on foreign aid to feed its citizens. An estimated 70,000 to 120,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers and civilians died in the conflict.

Peacekeeping forces arrived in significant numbers by Dec., 2000, and there was steady, if sometimes fitful, progress towards the goals of the cease-fire agreement in 2001. Late in the 2001 the government arrested a number of opposition leaders and journalists and closed private newspapers; elections scheduled for that December were indefinitely postponed. In Apr., 2002, the Hague Tribunal issued a complex ruling on the disputed border that favored Eritrea in some locations and Ethiopia in others. Ethiopian resistance subsequently delayed finalization of the border, and Eritrea refused to enter into discussions with Ethiopia.

Four years of drought led to a food crisis in Eritrea by 2002, requiring substantial international assistance, and conditions have not improved significantly since then. The political and human rights situation in the country also deteriorated; in 2004 Amnesty International accused Eritrea of persecuting religious minorities, using torture, and detaining thousands for criticizing the government. When those charges were reiterated in 2013, Amnesty International accused the government of having jailed some 10,000 people for political reasons.

Tensions with Ethiopia escalated in 2005 as both nations bolstered their forces along the disputed border. Frustrated with lack of progress on the border issue, Eritrea restricted UN peacekeepers movements in October. In November the United Nations called for Eritrea and Ethiopia to reduce their forces along the border and for Eritrea to end restrictions on UN forces, and expressed concern over Ethiopia's failure to finalize the border; UN sanctions were threatened for noncompliance. Eritrea rejected the ultimatum and in Dec., 2005, forced those UN forces from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Russia to withdraw. The same month, a Permanent Court of Arbitration claims commission ruled that Eritrea had violated international law in attacking Ethiopia, and that Ethiopia was entitled to compensation.

In Mar., 2006, Eritrea, apparently as a result of its continuing frustration with the border situation and the international community's response, expelled a number of foreign aid organizations despite the country's need for food aid. In response to Eritrea's restrictions on UN forces, the Security Council voted (May, 2006) to reduce UN forces on the border by a third. Relations between the UN peacekeepers and Eritrea continued to be extremely strained.

In Nov., 2006, the boundary commission responsible for demarcating the disputed border with Ethiopia said it would demarcate the border on maps, and that the Eritrea and Ethiopia would have a year to demarcate it on the ground. The 2007 deadline passed with issue unresolved. Meanwhile, in Dec., 2006, Ethiopia accused Eritrea of having soldiers in Somalia in support of Islamists there, saying that Eritrean dead had been found after the Islamists were routed. Eritrea denied the charges, but it was widely believed to have supplied the Islamists with arms. Eritrea subsequently sponsored an anti-Ethiopian, anti-Somali coalition that included Ethiopian rebels, Somali Islamists, and former members of the Somali government. Eritrea was again accused of aiding Somali Islamists in 2009; Eritrea's denials were undercut by public statements by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, an Islamist leader, that his group received Eritrean support.

In early 2008, after a prolonged cutoff of fuel supplies by Eritrea, UN forces were withdrawn from the country. In July, 2008, the Security Council voted to end the UN peacekeeping mission, blaming both Eritrea and Ethiopia for the failure of the mission, and all peacekeepers were withdrawn from the two nations by October.

Meanwhile, in June fighting erupted briefly between Eritrea and Djibouti near the Bab el Mandeb strait; Djibouti had accused Eritrea of occupying Djiboutian territory there earlier in the year. The United Nations called for both nations to withdraw from the disputed territory; when Eritrea did not, the Security Council unanimously called (Jan., 2009) for Eritrea to withdraw. In Aug., 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration claims commission issued its final war damages awards, calling for Eritrea to pay roughly $174 million to Ethiopia and Ethiopia $164 million to Eritrea. The Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea in Dec., 2009, for its support of Somalia's rebels and for refusing to withdraw from the disputed territory on the Djibouti border.

In June, 2010, following the signing of an agreement that called for Qatar's emir to mediate between Eritrea and Djibouti, Eritrea withdrew its forces from disputed areas they had occupied. Additional UN sanctions were imposed in Dec., 2011, for supporting Somali rebels. In Mar., 2012, Ethiopia attacked what it described as several Eritrean military bases that were used to train Ethiopian antigovernment groups. A group of soldiers apparently mounted a coup attempt in Jan., 2013, but it quickly failed.


See N. Tekeste, Italian Colonialism in Eritrea: 1882–1941 (1987); L. and D. Cliffe, ed., The Long Struggle of Eritrea for Independence and Constructive Peace (1988).

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Official name : State of Eritrea

Area: 121,320 square kilometers (46,842 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Soira (3,018 meters/9,902 feet)

Lowest point on land: Denakil Depression, near Kulul (75 meters/246 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 3 p.m. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 830 kilometers (520 miles) from northwest to southeast; 400 kilometers (250 miles) from north to south

Land boundaries: 1,630 kilometers (1,013 miles) total boundary length; Djibouti 113 kilometers (70 miles); Ethiopia 912 kilometers (567 miles); Sudan 605 kilometers (376 miles)

Coastline: 2,234 kilometers (1,388 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


Eritrea is located in northeast Africa on the western coast of the Red Sea. The country shares borders with Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Sudan. With an area of about 121,320 square kilometers (46,842 square miles), the country is slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania. Eritrea is divided into eight provinces.


Eritrea has no outside territories or dependencies.


Along the Red Sea, temperatures average from 27°C (81°F) to 30°C (86°F) in the daytime, but at midyear, in the Danakil Depression in the southeast, temperatures may reach 60°C (140°F). The highlands are moderate, with temperatures that average about 17°C (63°F). The coast enjoys a Mediterranean-like climate when the northeast trade winds blow in January.

Rainfall varies according to season, elevation, and location. The semiarid western hills and lowlands along the Sudanese border receive up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) of rain annually, with the heaviest rainfall occurring from June through August. In January, monsoons originating in Asia cross the Red Sea, bringing rain to the coastal plains and the eastern escarpment. The eastern lowlands receive less than 50 centimeters (20 inches) of rainfall annually, while the cooler and wetter highlands receive up to twice that amount.


The country of Eritrea resembles a funnel lying on its side and tilted to the southeast. It occupies the northern portion of a high, mountainous plateau reaching north from Ethiopia to the Red Sea. The mountains descend to a network of high hills on the northeast and to a low, arid coastal strip along the Red Sea. A corridor of low rolling plains marks the southwestern perimeter with Sudan. Bordering Ethiopia in the southeast, the Danakil Depression at its deepest point lies 130 meters (423 feet) below sea level. The hottest temperatures in the world have been reported there. Only 3 percent of the land is arable.

Eritrea lies along the boundary between the African and Arabian Tectonic Plates. The Great Rift Valley, which extends from Mozambique in southern Africa all the way north into the Middle East, passes near Eritrea's eastern border.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

Eritrea has an eastern coast on the Red Sea, which is a narrow, landlocked sea that separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula. In the north, the Red Sea links to the Mediterranean through the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. In the south, the sea links to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea through the Strait of Mandeb (Bab el Mandeb). The Red Sea is a busy shipping channel, potentially rich in oil and natural gas.

Sea Inlets and Straits

Massawa Channel separates the mainland from the Eritrean islands of the Dahlak Archipelago.

Islands and Archipelagos

The Dahlak Archipelago, a collection of coral-line (coral-like) islands, lies opposite the Buri Peninsula. The many islands are mostly small and sparsely inhabited.

Coastal Features

Coastal hills drain inland into saline lakes and sinks from which commercial salt is extracted.

Although subject to torrid temperatures much of the year, Eritrea's coastal beaches and Red Sea islands hold significant tourism potential. The, hot, arid, and treeless coastal lowlands range in width from 16 to 80 kilometers (10 to 50 miles).


There are no major lakes in Eritrea.


The longest river in Eritrea is the Tekeze, with a length of about 755 kilometers (470 miles). The Tekeze and the Mereb Rivers form sections of the southern border with Ethiopia. The Gash River drains westward to Kassala in Sudan and the Baraka River flows northward to Sudan from its source near Asmara. Volume in these rivers is highly seasonal; at certain times of the year, they are completely dry.


The waters surrounding the more than three hundred islands of the Dahlak Archipelago provide a habitat for diverse species of marine life and extensive coral reefs, providing scuba divers with much to explore.


Eritrea has semiarid western hills and a very dry and hot coastal strip of land along the eastern seaboard. The desert-like coast is home to vegetation such as acacia, cactus, aloe vera, prickly pear, and olive trees. The Danakil Depression is a desert region.


About 49 percent of the lowlands in Eritrea are characterized as permanent pasture.


Ethiopia's northwestern highlands extend into Eritrea, reaching elevations of more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) above sea level. A line of seismic belts extends along the length of Eritrea and the Danakil Depression, but no serious earthquakes were recorded in the area during the twentieth century.

The Danakil Depression is also the site of the Alid volcano. Alid is an elliptical mountain about 5 kilometers wide (3 miles), 7 kilometers long (4 miles), and 900 meters tall (2,953 feet). United States researchers have been working with the Eritrean government to assess the area of this volcano for possible geothermal resources, which may be used in the future to produce electricity.


There are no major caves or canyons in Eritrea, although southeast of Asmara there are some small caves, with ancient art drawn and etched into the rock walls.


Eritrea shares the northeast section of the Ethiopian high plateau, which in appearance looks more like a set of rugged uneven mountains. The plateau, also known as the Northwestern Highlands, rises up on the western scarp of the Great Rift Valley and projects northward from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to the Red Sea coastline in Eritrea. It descends to the Red Sea coast in a series of hills.


There are over one hundred small dams built along the rivers of Eritrea, used primarily for irrigation.


The Great Rift Valley, which passes just outside the western border of Eritrea, is a massive fault system that stretches over 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) from the Jordan Valley in Israel to Mozambique. In general, the Great Rift Valley ranges in elevation from 395 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level at the Dead Sea to 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level in south Kenya. A large number of volcanoes lie along this rift, which was created by the violent underground activity of the African Plate (Nubian) to the west and the Eurasian, Arabian, Indian, and Somalian Plates to the east.



Africa South of the Sahara 2002. "Ethiopia." London: Europa Publishers, 2001.

Ellingson, L. The Emergence of Eritrea, 1958-1992. London: James Currey Publishers, 1993.

Killion, Tom. Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

NgCheong-Lum, Roseline. Eritrea. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2001.

Papstein, Robert J. Eritrea: A Tourist Guide. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995.

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Eritrea Independent state in ne Africa, on the Red Sea; the capital is Asmara. The chief ports are Aseb and Massawa.


Much of Eritrea is a continuation of the high Ethiopian plateau, sloping down to plains to the e and w. Climatic conditions vary greatly, and unreliable rainfall is a frequent cause of drought.


Eritrea was a dependency of Ethiopia until the 16th century, when it fell to the Ottoman Empire. During the 19th century, control of the region was disputed between Ethiopia, Egypt and Italy. In 1890, it became an Italian colony. From 1941–52, it was under British military administration. In 1952, it federated with Ethiopia, becoming a province in 1962. Eritrean separatists began a 30-year campaign of guerrilla warfare, and 700,000 refugees fled to Somalia. In 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) helped topple Mengistu's Ethiopian government, and won a referendum on independence. Eritrea formally gained independence in 1993. The new EPLF government, led by Isaias Afwerki, began reconstructing a country impoverished by war and famine. Eritrea faced border conflicts with Sudan and Djibouti. Between 1998 and 2000, a border dispute with Ethiopia flared into a war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. The war-devastated economy is mainly agricultural (2000 GDP per capita, US$710). Industries: textiles, leather goods, salt. Area: 117,599sq km (45,405sq mi). Pop. (2000 est.) 4,523,000. See Ethiopia map

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Culture Name



Identification. The term "eritrea" derives from Sinus Erythraeus, the name Greek tradesmen of the third century b.c.e. gave to the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and the Africa continent (now known as the Red Sea). Later, during the Roman Empire, the Romans called it Mare Erythraeum, literary meaning "the red sea." When Italy colonized a strip of land along the Red Sea in 1890, they gave it the name Eritrea.

Since the creation of Eritrea was so closely linked to Ethiopia, Eritrea's identity developed in struggles against its ancient and larger neighbor to the south. Many of the nine ethnic groups within Eritrea are also found in Ethiopia, and the dominant Christian Orthodox highland culture of Ethiopia also stretches into the Eritrean highland plateau. Historically, there has been a division in Eritrea between the Christian highlands, which are culturally and linguistically homogenous, and the predominantly Muslim lowlands, which are culturally and linguistically heterogeneous. Eritrea's long war of liberation, however, managed to bridge some of the traditional differences between the highland and lowland populations.

Location and Geography. Located in northeastern Africa, Eritrea has about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) of coastline along the west coast of the Red Sea. To the north and northwest, the country borders the Sudan, to the south, Ethiopia, and to the southwest, Djibouti. Eritrean territory covers about 48,000 square miles (125,000 square kilometers) and contains a wide variety of rugged landscapes: mountains, desert, highland plateau, lowland plains, and off the coast some 150 coral islands. The topographical variety has affected the social organization and mode of production of the country's nine ethnic groups. In the highland plateau, people live in small villages conducting subsistence plow-agriculture. Many of the lowland groups, however, lead semi-nomadic pastoral or agro pastoral lives. The Eritrean capital, Asmara, is located in the highland plateau, the home region of the biggest ethnic group, the Tigrinya.

Demography. The population in Eritrea is approximately three to three-and-a-half million (1994), divided between nine ethnic groups. The highland Tigrinya group constitutes about half of the population. More than 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

Linguistic Affiliation. Although the Eritrean Constitution states that all nine ethnic languages in the country are equal, the government of Eritrea has two administrative languages: Tigrinya and Arabic. Tigrinya is a Semitic language also spoken by the Tigreans of Ethiopia. Arabic was chosen to represent the lowland Muslim groups in the country. Nevertheless, only one ethnic group, the Rashaida, has Arabic as a mother tongue, whereas the other groups use it as a religious language. Many of the groups are bilingual, and because of the legacy of Ethiopian domination over Eritrea, many Eritreans also speak Amharic, the Ethiopian administrative language. Eritrean pupils are today taught in their mother tongue in primary levels (one through five), and English takes over to be the language of instruction from sixth grade (at least in theory). English is taught as a second language from second grade. It appears, however, that Tigrinya is taking over as the dominant language, since the majority of the population are Tigrinya-speakers, the biggest towns are located in the highlands, and most people in government and the state bureaucracy are from the Tigrinya ethnic group.

Symbolism. Since Eritreans fought a thirty-year-long war of liberation (19611991) to achieve independence from Ethiopian domination, the national culture endorsed by the government invokes symbols of war and sacrifice. The three main national holidays all commemorate the war of liberation: 24 May, Liberation Day; 20 June, Martyr's Day; and 1 September, a holiday that commemorates the start of the liberation war. The official Eritrean flag, adopted in 1993, is a combination of the flag of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the liberation movement that achieved a military victory over the Ethiopian government, and the old flag given to Eritrea by United Nations in 1952.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The Eritrean-Ethiopian region has been exposed to population movements and migrations from northern Africa, across the Red Sea, and from the south. On the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, one also finds traces of some of Africa's oldest civilizations. The Axumite empire, which emerges into the light of history in the first century c.e., comprised the Akkele-Guzai region of highland Eritrea and the Agame region of Tigray, Ethiopia. The empire expanded and its port city of Adulis, south of present-day Massawa, became an important trading post hosting ships from Egypt, Greece, the Arab world, and other far-off areas. In the early fourth century Enzana, the king of Axum, converted to Christianity. He thus established Christianity as the religion of the court and state, making the Ethiopian/Eritrean Christian Church one of the oldest in the world. The decline of the Axumite empire began around 800, when its area of dominance became too big to administer efficiently. Moreover, local resistance and uprisings coupled with the domination of overseas trade by the Islamic empire in the Middle East led to the collapse of the kingdom. Ethiopia was subsequently constructed on the legacy of Axum.

The Italian colonization of Eritrea in 1890 marked the first time that Eritrean territory was ruled as a single entity. Under Italian colonial administration, infrastructure was developed, and a modern administrative state structure was established. The development of the Eritrean colonial state helped to create a distinction between Eritreans as subjects of the Italian crown and their ethnic brothers in Ethiopia. The notion that Eritrea was more developed and modern than Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia helped to boost Eritrean national consciousness.

Italywhich had occupied Ethiopia in 1935 saw its dream of an East African empire crushed in World War II. British forces liberated Ethiopia from the Italian colonizers and took control of Eritrea in 1941. Eritrea was administered by the British Military Administration until 1952, when the United Nations (UN) federated Eritrea with Ethiopia. Ethiopia soon violated the federal arrangement, however, and in 1962 Ethiopia annexed Eritrea as its fourteenth province. The year before the annexation, the Eritrean armed resistance against Ethiopian rule commenced. It would take thirty years of liberation war before the Eritrean People's Liberation Front managed to oust Ethiopian forces from Eritrean soil, one of the longest wars of liberation in Africa. In 1993 the Eritrean people voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence in a UN-monitored referendum.

National Identity. Eritrea's long struggle for self-determination and independence has created a feeling of nationhood based on a common destiny. The armed struggle was initiated by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1961, but in 1970 an ELF splinter group formed a new organization that later took the name Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). During periods of the 1970s, a fierce civil war raged between the ELF and the EPLF. In 1981, the EPLF, with the help of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front in Ethiopia, managed to crush the ELF as a military organization. From then on, the EPLF deliberately used its military struggle and its internal policy of social revolutionwhich included land reform, gender consciousness, and class equalityto achieve a national cohesion. The EPLF recruited fighters from all the country's ethnic groups. The fighters and the civilian population in the liberated areas were educated in Eritrean history and the EPLF ideology of a strong territorial nationalism.

Following the vote for independence in 1993, the EPLF took power in Asmara and continued their centrally-driven nationalistic policies. For instance, eighteen months of national service became compulsory for all men and women between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five. Moreover, new multiethnic regions ( zoba ) were established in 1997, abolishing the old ethnicity-based regions ( awraja ). The strongest force of Eritrean nationalism after independence derives from the border wars Eritrea fought against Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The conflict with Ethiopia, which erupted in 1998, escalated into a full-scale war that claimed tens of thousands of casualties. During this war, the majority of the able-bodied population of Eritrea had to serve in the national military forces. A peace treaty with Ethiopia was negotiated by the U.N. and Organization of African Unity (OAU) and signed 12 December 2000.

At the turn of the millennium, mounting criticism and resistance, most notably from lowland groups and intellectuals, against the monopolistic role of EPLF was coming to the fore and splitting the unitary, nationalistic impression of an all-embracing Eritrean identity. Much of the criticism reflected the view that the EPLF was a monopolistic, Tigrinya-dominated front that was subduing the interests and cultures of the minority groups.

Ethnic Relations. The highland Tigrinya ethnic group is the dominant group, numerically, politically, and economically. There is also a minority group of Tigrinya-speaking Muslims called Jeberti in the highlands. The Jeberti, however, are not recognized as a separate ethnic group by the Eritrean government. The lowland groupsthe Afar, Beja/Hadarab, Bileyn, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, and Tigreare all, with the exception of the Tigre, relatively small and, taken together, they do not form any homogenous cultural or political blocs. Traditionally, the relationship between the highland and lowland groups has been one of tension and conflict. Raids on livestock and encroachment on land and grazing rights have led to mutual distrust, which is still, to a certain degree, relevant in the relation between the minorities and the state. Many of the groups are also divided between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan, and Djibouti, making cross-border ethnic alliances a possible threat to the national identity.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The architecture of Eritrean towns reflects the nation's colonial past and the shifting influence of foreign powers. The Italian population in the country called Asmara "Little Rome." The city boasts wide avenues, cafés and pastries, and a host of Italian restaurants. The port of Massawa, on the other hand, is influenced by the Ottoman period, the Egyptian presence, and the long tradition of trade with far-off countries and ports. In the countryside, traditional building customs are still upheld. In the highlands, small stone houses ( hidmo ) with roofs made of branches and rocks dominate. The house is separated into two areas, a kitchen section in the back and a public room in the front that is also used as sleeping quarters. The various lowland groups employ several housing styles, from tentlike structures ( agnet ) among the pastoral nomadic groups, to more permanent straw or stone/mud huts among the sedentary groups.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Eritrean cuisine is a reflection of the country's history. The injerra is commonly eaten in the rural areas. It is a pancake-like bread that is eaten together with a sauce called tsebhi or wat . The sauce may be of a hot and spicy meat variety, or vegetable based. In the urban centers one finds the strong influence of Italian cuisine, and pasta is served in all restaurants. The lowland groups have a different food tradition than the highlands with the staple food being a porridge ( asida in Arabic) made of sorghum.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Both Islam and the Orthodox Christian tradition require rigorous observance of fasts and food taboos. Several periods of fasting, the longest being Lent among the Orthodox and Ramadan among Muslims, have to be adhered to by all adults. During religious celebrations, however, food and beverages are served in plenty. Usually an ox, sheep, or goat is slaughtered. The meat and the intestines are served together with the injerra. Traditional beer ( siwa )is brewed in the villages and is always served during ceremonial occasions.

Basic Economy. The Eritrean economy is totally dependent upon agricultural production. Over 75 percent of the population lives in the rural areas and conducts subsistence agricultural production, whereas 20 percent is estimated to be traders and workers. No major goods are produced for export, but some livestock is exported to the Arabian peninsula.

Land Tenure and Property. The granting of equal land right use to all citizens, irrespective of sex, ethnicity, or social class, has been a political priority for the EPLF since the days of the armed struggle. After independence, the Eritrean government passed a new land proclamation abolishing all traditional land tenure arrangements, and granting the ownership of all land to the Eritrean state exclusively. Accordingly, each citizen above the age of eighteen has the right to receive long-term usufruct rights in land in the place he or she resides. The Eritrean government has not yet fully implemented the new land proclamation, and land is still administered under traditional communal tenure forms. Land scarcity is widespread in Eritrea, particularly in the densely populated highland plateau. Thus, any reform touching upon the sensitive issue of access to land necessarily creates controversies.

Commercial Activities. Agricultural production and petty trade make up the bulk of the commercial activity in Eritrea. The informal economy is significant, since petty traders dominate the many marketplaces throughout Eritrea, where secondhand clothing, various equipment, and utensils are sold.

Major Industries. The marginal industrial base in Eritrea provides the domestic market with textiles, shoes, food products, beverages, and building materials. If stable and peaceful development occurs, Eritrea might be able to create a considerable tourism industry based on the Dahlak islands in the Red Sea.

Trade. Eritrea has limited export-oriented industry, with livestock and salt being the main export goods.

Division of Labor. In urban areas, positions are filled on the basis of education and experience. Key positions in civil service and government, however, are usually given to loyal veteran liberation fighters and party members.

A large share of trade and commercial activity is run by individuals from the Jeberti group (Muslim highlanders). They were traditionally denied land rights, and had thus developed trading as a niche activity.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Eritrean society is divided along ethnic, religious, and social lines. Traditionally, there were low caste groups within many of the ethnic groups in the country. The last slave was reportedly emancipated by the EPLF in the late 1970s. The traditional elites were the landowning families. After land reforms both during and after the liberation struggle, however, these elites have ceased to exist. Generally, in the rural areas, the people live in scarcity and poverty and few distinctions between rich and poor are seen. In the urban areas, however, a modern elite is emerging, composed of high-ranking civil servants, business-people, and Eritreans returning from the diaspora in the United States and Europe.

Symbols of Social Stratification. In the rural areas, the better-off are able to acquire proper clothing and shoes. The rich may have horses or mules to carry them to the market. A sign of prosperity among the pastoral groups is the display of gold jewelry on women.

Political Life

Government. Eritrea is a unitary state with a parliamentary system. The parliament elects the president, who is head of state and government. The president appoints his or her own cabinet upon the parliament's approval.

No organized opposition to the government party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ; the re-named EPLF) is allowed in practice. The new constitution, which was ratified in May 1997 but not put fully into effect, guarantees the freedom of organization, but it is too early to say how this will influence the formation of political parties.

Leadership and Political Officials. The president of Eritrea, and the former liberation movement leader, Isaias Afwerki, is the supreme leader of the country. In addition to serving as president, he fills the roles of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and secretary-general of the ruling party, the PFDJ. He is held in high regard among large portions of the population because of his skills as the leader of the liberation movement. Former liberation movement fighters fill almost all positions of trust both within and outside the government.

Social Problems and Control. With the coming to power of the EPLF, strong measures were used to curtail the high rate of criminality in Asmara. At the turn of the millennium, Eritrea probably boasted some of the lowest crime rates on the continent. The people generally pride themselves in being hard working and honest, and elders often clamp down on youths who are disrespectful of social and cultural conventions.

Growing tensions between the lowland minority groups and the Tigrinyareinforced by the Muslim-Christian divide and Ethiopia's support for Eritrean resistance movementsmay threaten the internal stability in the country.

Military Activity. As a result of the 19982000 war with Ethiopia, Eritrea was characterized as a militarized society in the early twenty-first century. The majority of the population between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five had been mobilized to the war fronts, and the country's meager funds and resources were being spent on military equipment and defense. Since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, the country has had military border clashes with Yemen, Djibouti, and Sudan, in addition to the war with Ethiopia. This has led to accusations from the neighboring countries that Eritrea exhibits a militaristic foreign policy. There are indications that the Eritrean government uses the military to sustain a high level of nationalism in the country.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

The government of Eritrea is concentrating its development policies on rural agriculture and food self-sufficiency. Few resources are available to social welfare programs. Reconstruction of destroyed properties, resettlement of internally displaced people, and demobilization of the army are huge challenges facing the government. Few national or international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are allowed to implement social welfare programs on their own initiative.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

The Eritrean government prides itself on its policy of self-reliance, rejecting development aid projects that are not the priority of the government. The majority of international NGOs were expelled from the country in 1998, although all were invited back later due to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war with Ethiopia. The government restricts the development of national NGOs, and foreign aid has to be channelled through governmental organizations.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Since subsistence agriculture is the main production activity in Eritrea, the division of labor is influenced by custom. Women's input in agricultural production is vital but certain tasks, such as plowing and sowing, are conducted only by men. Animals are generally herded by young boys, while young girls assist in fetching water and firewood for the household.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Since Eritrean society is still highly influenced by customary principles, the status of women in many communities is inferior to that of men. The war of liberation, where female fighters served side by side with men, was believed to have changed the status of women. The EPLF culture of gender equality, however, did not penetrate deeply into the Eritrean patriarchal culture. Nevertheless, with the government's policies of modernization and gender awareness, changes are slowly occurring in the status of Eritrean women.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Customary rules of marriage vary among the ethnic groups. Generally, girls marry at an early age, sometimes as young as fourteen. A large share of the marriages in the rural areas are still arranged by the family groups of concern.

Domestic Unit. Generally, people live together in nuclear families, although in some ethnic groups the family structure is extended. The man is the public decision-maker in the family, whereas the woman is responsible for organizing the domestic activities of the household.

Inheritance. Inheritance rules in Eritrea follow the customary norms of the different ethnic groups. Generally, men are favored over women, and sons inherit their parents' household possessions.

Kin Groups. The nuclear family, although forming the smallest kin unit, is always socially embedded in a wider kin unit. The lineage and/or clan hold an organizing function in terms of social duties and obligations and as a level of identity. With the exception of the Kunama who are matrilineal, all ethnic groups in Eritrea are patrilineal, that is, descent is traced through the male line.


Infant Care. In all ethnic groups, children are raised under the strong influence of parents and close relatives, as well as neighbors and the kin group. While conducting domestic chores or working in the fields, mothers usually carry the infants on their backs.

Child Rearing and Education. From an early age, both boys and girls are expected to take part in the household's activities: boys as herders of the family's livestock, girls as assistants to their mother in domestic affairs. An increasing number of children is joining the formal educational system, although education sometimes conflicts with the children's household obligations. In some of the nomadic and seminomadic communities, children might be unable to regularly attend classes in the formal educational system.

In some ethnic groups, circumcision is used as an initiation ritual into adulthood. The majority of both Eritrean men and women are circumcised. Female circumcision, or female genital mutilation, is carried out both among Christians and Muslims, although the type of circumcision differs from clitoridectomy to infibulation (the removal of the labia and partial closing of the vagina by approximating the labia majora in the midline).

Higher Education. The institutions of higher education in Eritrea are few, and the only university, Asmara University, admits a limited number of students. In the rural areas most people take up farming, which does not presuppose any formal education. The better-off families and those with relatives abroad try to send their children to the United States or Europe for further education and work.


Eritreans pride themselves on being hard working and resilient, and they show great social responsibility. Respect for elders and authority is deeply rooted. Compared to the urban population of Asmara, the peasantry keeps a tighter social discipline in relation to open, public affection between two people of the opposite sex. Boys and men, however, are frequently seen holding hands as a sign of friendship.

All traditional foods are eaten using the right hand only and without the use of silverware. The left hand is considered impure.


Religious Beliefs. The population is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with the number of Christians being slightly larger. In addition, there are some followers of traditional beliefs among the Kunama group. The Orthodox Christian tradition in Eritrea stretches back to the fourth century, and Orthodox Christianity forms an integral part of the Tigrinya cultural expression. Catholicism and Lutheranism are also represented. Some syncretism with traditional beliefs is found among both Christians and Muslims. The government has been criticized for discriminating against and persecuting the country's Jehovah's Witnesses.

Religious Practitioners. All Eritreans are either Christians or Muslims (except a few followers of traditional religion among the Kunama), thus the religious practitioners are the formalized clergy and ulama, respectively. Since the rural Eritrean community is deeply religious, the clergy and ulama have an influential position in the everyday lives of their followers.

Rituals and Holy Places. Since Christianity and Islam are equally recognized by the state, the main religious holidays of both faiths are observed, including both Christian and Muslim celebrations: Both Western and Ge'ez Christmas, the Epiphany, Id Al-Fetir, Good Friday and Ge'ez Easter, Id Al-Adha, and Mewlid El-Nabi.

Death and the Afterlife. The beliefs and practices concerning death, funerals, and the afterlife follow some of the norms of the two religionsOrthodox (Coptic) Christianity and Islam. Funeral practices, however, may vary among the ethnic subgroups who follow Islam.

Medicine and Health Care

The formal health care system is poorly developed. Poor sanitary conditions in the rural areas and lack of tap water create a high rate of infant mortality. Numerous other health problems, including malaria and HIV/AIDS, lack of food and proper water supplies, and lack of trained personnel, continue to burden Eritrea's development of an efficient health care system. Traditional medical beliefs are widespread in the rural areas.

Secular Celebrations

Upon gaining independence Eritrea changed its calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian. But the reckoning of time according to the Julian calendar exists unofficially and is known as the Ge'ez calendar. The official state holidays are: New Year's Day (1 January); International Women's Day (8 March); May Day (1 May); Liberation Day (24 May); Martyr's Day (20 June); Launching of Armed Struggle (1 September); Ge'ez New Year (11 September; 12 September in leap years); and Meskel (the finding of the true cross) celebrations (2728 September).

The Arts and Humanities

Because of the protracted war of liberation, the development of arts and humanities has been hindered. Some new artists in postliberation Eritrea are emerging, however, with an artistic focus on the country's struggle for independence.

Support for the Arts. Since the Eritrean society is extremely poor, the government needs to prioritize its funds for development efforts, leaving little for the arts. However, some support is given to cultural shows and exhibits that portray the cultural variety of the Eritrean people. Support is also given to exhibits and shows that display the hardships and sacrifices of the thirty-year war of liberation.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The Eritrean government gives priority to building academic capacity within scientific fields that relate to the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Priority is also given to research into the environment and agricultural production, in order to secure food self-sufficiency.


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The people of Eritrea, called Eritreans, are classified into nine language groups. The three largest groups are estimated to be the Tigrinya, Tigre, and Afar.

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Eritreaabaya, betrayer, conveyor, Eritrea, flayer, Freya, gainsayer, layer, Malaya, Marbella, Maya, Mayer, Nouméa, obeyer, payer, player, portrayer, prayer, preyer, purveyor, slayer, sprayer, stayer, strayer, surveyor, waylayer, weigher •tracklayer • bricklayer • minelayer •record-player • taxpayer • ratepayer •naysayer • soothsayer • crocheter

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