Eritrea is a republic in northeastern Africa, on the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea. It borders southeast of Djibouti, south to Ethiopia and west and northwest to Sudan. Eritrea and Yemen both claim the Hanish Islands.
The name comes from the Latin name of the Red Sea, Mare Erythraeum, and the country extends approximately 1150 kilometers from Ras Kasar in the north to Ras Doumeira on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the south.
Eritrea was in modern times Italian colony and part of Ethiopia until the country after many years of liberation struggle became independent in 1993. Decades of war put the business back sharply, and the country has since independence been dependent on financial assistance from other countries.
Geography and environment
Eritrea is divided into two of the Rift Valley, and is mainly divided into three ecological zones. The temperate highlands extend up to 3000 meters above sea level and form part of the Northern Ethiopian Plateau ( Ethiopian Highlands ). The highlands in the north extend almost all the way to the coast of the Red Sea. The desert-like lowland plains lie east of the highlands and extend naturally to the coast of the Red Sea.
In the northern part, a narrow strip of plain meets mountains that rise almost vertically up to the plateau. The lowland in the south is part of the Danakil Desert or the Danakilt Triangle which is partly below sea level. Eritrea has a coastline of 1347 kilometers and over 350 islands. The most important of these are the Dahlak Archipelago and the Hanish Islands, and coral reefs. The highest mountain is Emba Soira, 3018 meters above sea level.
The lowland areas are very hot. On average, the temperature is above 30 degrees Celsius ( ° C ), while occasionally rising to almost 50 ° C. In the highlands, the climate is more moderate. In Asmara (2320 meters above sea level), the average temperature for the whole year is 16 ° C, with very small seasonal variations.
The rainfall varies according to the different ecological zones. The lowlands and the Danaki desert, where there is almost no vegetation, receive very little and occasional rainfall. The rainfall is higher in the highlands, and Asmara receives 560 millimeters of rainfall a year, most of July-August.
People and society
The population of Eritrea is uncertain, but in 2011 the World Bank was estimated at around 4.5 million and an annual population growth of just under two per cent. In 2018, the CIA World Factbook estimated that the population was close to six million. Birth rates are very high, an estimated 37 per milliliter, the death rate seven per milliliter. In 2013, infant mortality was estimated at 36 per 1,000 live births, which is a solid decline compared to estimates of 58 in 2000 and 114 in 1980.
Life expectancy at birth is 65 for women and 60 for men, up from 48 and 45 in 1980. An estimated 43 percent of the total population is under 15. The liberation war led to hundreds of thousands being displaced from their homes, and the proportion of orphans and war invalids is very high. In addition, forced military service has led to a mass migration of Eritreans (see below).
The population is divided into a number of ethnic groups, with the tigrinja group as the largest (about 50 per cent), and tigers as the second largest (about 30 per cent). Other important groups are afar, naha, saho, the car, rashaida and kunama. Although Eritrea does not have a national language of its own, Tigrinja is in fact the country’s official language and is spoken by approximately 50 percent of the population. Arabic is also widely used, and works with tiger grinia as an important working language. In the coastal plains, the Cushitic languages are spoken saho and afar.
There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation in Eritrea, but it is estimated that about half are Muslims, while the rest belong to various Christian churches. The Eritrean Orthodox Church, which broke with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in 2002 (see Religion in Ethiopia ), is the largest church, and about 40 percent of the population belongs to it today. The Catholic Church is the second largest Christian church with about three percent, while various Protestant churches, such as Pentecostals and Lutherans, make up about seven percent.
Sunnislam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church are the only legally registered religious communities in Eritrea, where other faiths have had great difficulty in registering. This has led to state persecution of a number of religious groups.
State and politics
After independence in 1993, the Eritrean Liberation Front’s Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1994 was transformed into a political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). According to the plan, the party would rule for a transitional period until parliamentary elections could be held. Such elections have never been held, and Parliament met for the last time in 2002. A new constitution was passed in 1997, but has never been implemented.
The president, an office that Issaias Afewerki has held since 1993, is the highest executive authority, which appoints and heads the government consisting of 18 ministries. The National Assembly, also established in 1993, consists of 150 seats, one half of which was initially allocated PFDJ, while the other half were eligible seats. Formally, the National Assembly is the country’s supreme legislative body, but because national elections have never been held, it has little real significance. The country is further divided into six zones, which in turn are divided into a total of 55 districts. In addition, there are regional assemblies in Eritrea’s six zones.
The absence of a democratic process has led Eritrea to develop into an authoritarian state, and towards the end of the 1990s, further tightening ensued, with widespread violations of fundamental human rights, including systematic detention on political grounds. This led to increasing opposition to the sitting regime, mainly in the diaspora. In 2001, 15 key members of the PFDJ – called the G15 Group – wrote a critical letter to the president and the regime. This resulted in the imprisonment of eleven of these, as well as extensive arrests of other opposites.
Eritrean opposition is complex, fragmented and unclear. It is based on ideological, ethnic and religious differences. Various opposition parties had formed in 1999 the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF), which eventually became the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) in 2005. This alliance is headquartered in Ethiopia, and aims to rule Isaias Afewerki’s regime with power.
Attempts at a coup d’état in June 2013 were the most serious indication of the regime’s vulnerability. About 200 soldiers took control of the state television station and demanded political reforms and the release of political prisoners. The coup attempt was quickly averted, but little is known about what happened to the rebels.
After the liberation, a large part of the EPLF’s soldiers entered the new national defense, and compulsory military service was introduced in 1994. The defense was reduced, but rebuilt in 1998-1999 when Eritrea mobilized in the border war against Ethiopia. The war against Ethiopia was used by the regime as a pretext to further militarize the country, and meant that national service – as part of the military service – was expanded after the war. It was expanded from the original 18 months of 2002, and all adult Eritreans must be ready to be called into various forms of community service, in principle to the age of 40, in practice even longer.
Various religious groups are systematically suppressed by the regime. This is especially true of Christian Protestants, and especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several Muslim groups have been subjected to the same treatment, and it attracted considerable attention when students at the Muslim school Dia al-Islam took to the streets in October 2017 in protest of the regime’s interference with the school’s teaching.
Human rights violations, national service and economic hardship are all reasons why Eritrea is one of the countries producing the most refugees. According to the UN, 5000 left the country each month in 2016, mainly for refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. A large part continues to Europe, and in 2015, it was estimated that over 80,000 Eritreans were within the EU.
Eritrea joined the UN at independence in 1993. The country is also a member of most of the UN’s special organizations, including the World Bank; for the rest of the African Union and the Cotonou Agreement, etc.
In early history, Eritrea was divided between several different states, with the Aksum kingdom among the most important. The Aksum kingdom was founded in the fourth century before our era (BCE) and stretched from the highlands of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea down to the coast of the Red Sea which also linked the kingdom to the outside world. The Aksum kingdom formed the basis for the later Abyssinian empire, which also included parts of modern Eritrea.
There were no clear boundaries between Ethiopia and Eritrea in early history, and after the fall of the Aksum Empire, the Eritrean Highlands were considered part of the Abyssinian Empire. During the 16th century, the Ottomans also began to assert themselves in the lowlands, and as early as 1517 they had established control over parts of the highlands. The Ottomans gradually lost control in favor of the Egyptians who took over the board in 1865, and with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Eritrea gained strategic importance.
From the 1870s, Italians began to settle on the coast of Eritrea. In 1885 they landed in Massawa and in 1890 they declared Eritrea a colony. The Ethiopian emperor Menelik acknowledged the Italian dominion in 1896, but when the Italians tried to expand south, they were beaten by the Ethiopian army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.
After Haile Selassie was reinstated with the United Kingdom’s help in 1941, Eritrea was first defined as a British protectorate, before the country was federated with Ethiopia in 1950, which led to a gradual assimilation of Eritrean culture and uniqueness. The situation changed dramatically in 1962 when Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia as an Ethiopian province.
This development, as well as Eritrea’s fragmented history, caused a nationalist movement to emerge during the 1950s. The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started an armed liberation struggle in the 1960s, but internal disagreements led to a weakening of that movement and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), formed in 1970, assumed the leadership role in the liberation struggle. During the latter half of the 1980s, the EPLF experienced significant military progress, and in 1989–1990 only the capital Asmara remained under Ethiopian control. As the Cold War drew to a close, Ethiopia lost support from the Soviet Union, which forced Ethiopians to the negotiating table – and to find a solution. The end of the war in Eritrea coincided with the overthrow of the Ethiopian regime by the TPLF in June 1991. In 1993, Eritrea held a referendum on independence, and after 99.8 percent of the country’s population voted for full independence, Eritrea became an independent state on May 24 same year.
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia was good in the 1990s, and several cooperation agreements were signed between the two countries. Especially important for Ethiopia was the agreement that continued access to the now Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, which also provided Eritrea with good revenues. However, the situation worsened at the end of the 1990s, and in 1998 – triggered by a border dispute – the two countries went to war against each other. The war lasted until the spring of 2000, when the OAU negotiated a peace agreement in Algiers. The border issue was left to a border commission, subject to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Ethiopia has long refused to accept the Commission’s decisions, which meant that relations between the two countries remained tense. In June 2018, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared Ethiopia willing to accept the Algerian agreement and make peace with Eritrea. The final peace agreement was signed by the two countries’ heads of state in Saudi Arabia in September 2018.
Economy and business
Eritrea’s gross domestic product, GDP, is projected to be around 4.6 billion USD (2014), and it is estimated that the service industry contributes 55 percent and industry 34 percent, while agriculture contributes eleven percent.
As Eritrea does not publish its state budget, it is difficult to gain detailed access to economic conditions and economic policy. It is estimated that the state’s consumption and investments have been around USD 350 million, while tax revenues are only around USD 320 million. This means that Eritrea usually has significant financial deficits. Government debt is also considered high.
As a new state in the early 1990s, Eritrea faced major financial challenges. Decades of war had left clear traces, but the country managed to build up the economic infrastructure relatively quickly. Future growth, however, is considered to be uncertain, which is mainly due to undecided border issues.
The economic growth was set back sharply as a result of the war against Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. In 1999 fell growth to less than one percent, and GDP shrank by over eight per cent in 2000. The war also caused heavy losses of livestock and agriculture in general. However, Eritrea managed to reverse this trend after the war, and in 2011 managed to achieve growth of over eight per cent, a growth that has risen to 14 per cent in the following years.
While 80 per cent of the population is employed in agriculture, the income from this sector is only about eleven per cent. Economic growth is mainly the result of the extraction of minerals ; copper, gold, silver, granite, marble and pottery, as well as cement production. Eritrea’s agriculture mainly produces sorghum, millet, oats, wheat and various types of fruits and vegetables. Main livestock are cattle, sheep, goats and camels.
Eritrean referrals in the diaspora were an important source of revenue for the liberation struggle, and this has continued after independence. It is estimated that over 30 percent of GDP comes from diaspora contributions. An important part of this is the forced tax of 2.5 percent imposed by Eritrean authorities on all Eritreans abroad. Those who refuse to pay this tax are denied assistance from Eritrean embassies and consulates.
The official currency, nakfa, was introduced in 1997, and in 2005 the exchange rate was set to 15 nakfa for 1 USD. Inflation has become a growing problem during the 2000s, and has been estimated at around 20 per cent.
Knowledge and culture
Eritrea has compulsory schooling from seven to 13 years, and the school system is divided into four stages: preschool, elementary school, secondary school and high school. In principle, the languages of the various ethnic groups are taught. Exact numbers are insufficient, but it is estimated that 40-50 percent of children attend primary school, while only about 20 percent continue with further education. In addition, there is a shortage of both schools and teachers, and the total literacy is estimated at about 67 per cent. The country’s two largest colleges are the University of Asmara and the Eritrean Institute of Technology.
Like Ethiopia, Eritrea has a long literary history, and had developed its own extensive writing tradition before meeting Europe. Written works were of historical, religious, moral and legal character written in geez, the ancient literary language now used only in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church has also been an important supplier of Eritrean visual arts in the form of church paintings and icons, as well as book paintings. Characteristic of this visual art are saturated, powerful colors, often with dark outlines.
Modern Eritrea had a relatively significant literary output and several important newspapers. However, limited freedom of speech has reduced this, and as a consequence, there are no private newspapers, radio or television stations. Eritrea has one daily newspaper, Hadas Ertra, which is owned and controlled by the authorities (circulation 49,000). Some weekly and monthly newspapers are published by various public agencies. The state radio station broadcasts programs in eleven languages. Television broadcasts started in 1993; the state television channel broadcasts in four languages. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea as the worst country in the world in terms of press freedom.