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Exploring Eritrea in Northeastern Africa

Updated on August 27, 2013

Eritrea is a country in northeastern Africa. Formerly an Italian colony, it came under Ethiopian sovereignty in 1952 and proclaimed independence in 1993. Eritrea, on the southwestern shore of the Red Sea, has an area of 45,405 square miles (117,599 sq km), including the Dahlak Archipelago. The chief cities are Asmara (Asmera), the capital; Massawa and Assab, port cities; and Keren, an agricultural center.


People and Land

The hot, semiarid or arid Red Sea coastal zones form about one-third of Eritrea's surface area. There live approximately 350,000 pastoralists—Muslim Afro-Asiatic peoples who speak Tigré, Afar-Saho, or Beja. The highlands, between 6,000 and 7,000 feet (1,800–2,100 meters) in elevation, are inhabited by a largely agricultural Afro-Asiatic population, whose language is Tigrinya. Perhaps 50% of them are Christians, belonging to either the Ethiopian Orthodox (about 40%) or the Roman Catholic (about 5%) church. The remainder are Muslims.

The Eritrean countryside, crossed by numerous river valleys and strewn with volcanic remains, has much scenic beauty. The area has long suffered from desiccation, however, which has caused land to go out of cultivation and crop yields to decline. The Red Sea coast is one of the hottest areas in the world. At the port of Massawa, temperatures higher than 120° F (50° C) are not unusual.


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Agriculture employs about 80% of the population but contributes less than 10% of the gross domestic product (GDP). The principal products are grains, fruits and vegetables, livestock, cotton, and tobacco. The small industrial sector processes the country's agricultural output and manufactures construction materials. The country has numerous mineral resources, but they remained largely undeveloped until the discovery of high-grade copper and gold deposits in 2004. Services, including trade, public administration, and transport, contribute the largest share of GDP. Nearly a third of GDP consists of private transfers from abroad, mainly workers' remittances. Fish and other food products are exported, especially to Sudan.


Much of the transportation and communication infrastructure is outmoded and deteriorating. The port of Massawa, however, has been rebuilt, and Asmara has an international airport. Ethiopia routed much of its foreign trade through the port of Assab until 1998, then redirected it to Djibouti because of disputes between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

Control of the Eritrean coast was essential to the mercantile empire of Aksum (Axum), the first Ethiopian state, until its decline in the 8th century. The center of political power then moved southward. Later the Eritrean coastal area fell to the Ottoman Turks and afterward to the Egyptians.


In 1885 Italy occupied Massawa, despite protests from the Ethiopian emperor John (Johannes or Yohannes) IV. The Italians kept to the coast until the accession in 1889 of Emperor Menelik (Menilek) II, who had enjoyed considerable Italian military and political support. On May 2, 1889, he signed the Treaty of Wuchale (Wachile or Uccialli), which gave Rome sovereignty over part of Eritrea.

Italy officially proclaimed Eritrea a colony on Jan. 1, 1890, but with an extended southern frontier. When Rome simultaneously declared a protectorate over Ethiopia, on the basis of a mistranslation of the Wuchale treaty, Menelik realized the fundamental Italian threat. War ensued, the Ethiopians defeating Italian forces at Adwa (Aduwa or Adowa) in 1896. Italy retained the controversial Eritrean frontier but was forced to abandon claims to a protectorate over Ethiopia.

As an Italian colony, Eritrea remained an economic backwater until the early 1930s, achieving its greatest prosperity after Italy conquered Ethiopia in 1936. During World War II, in 1941, Eritrea came under British rule.

In accord with a UN recommendation, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia as an autonomous unit under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian emperor on Sept. 15, 1952. Eritrea retained control over most domestic matters through an elected assembly and a local administration, while the imperial government obtained full authority over foreign affairs, currency, defense, and the port facilities of Massawa and Assab. Ethiopia soon began undermining Eritrean autonomy. After the resignation of Eritrea's chief executive, Dejazmatch Tedla Bairu, the government of Ethiopia succeeded in having its own men elected to Eritrea's assembly, which voted for provincial status in November 1962.

Eritrean opposition to union with Ethiopia was heightened by the loss of British subsidies, then by Ethiopia's seeming neglect of Eritrea's economy and by continuous Muslim fears of encroachments on their religious liberty. By the early 1970s separatists had begun large-scale guerrilla operations, conducted after 1981 primarily by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF).

The EPLF eventually joined with rebel movements from other parts of Ethiopia to overthrow the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, achieving success in 1991. On May 29, 1991, the EPLF set up a transitional government in Eritrea with its leader, Issaias Afewerki, as president. The appointed Transitional National Assembly consisted of members of the EPLF and others approved by them. A referendum on Eritrean independence in April 1993 passed almost unanimously, and independence was formally declared on May 24, 1993.

After decades of warfare the Eritrean economy was in shambles. Administrative, judicial, educational, and other institutions also had to be built from scratch. Although the EPLF had been a Marxist movement, its leaders lost interest in their original socialist goals owing to past Soviet support for the Ethiopian regime and to the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union itself. They now publicly endorsed democratic government and a free-market economy, although their sincerity would later be questioned.

The People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ, as the EPLF was renamed in February 1994) continued to dominate Eritrean politics. A new constitution, which allowed for a presidential regime and "conditional" political pluralism, had been adopted in 1997, but it was not implemented. Elections for the National Assembly, originally scheduled in 1998, were postponed owing to a war with Ethiopia. The elections were rescheduled for December 2001 but then postponed indefinitely. Plans to form political parties were also put off, with the PFDJ remaining the only legal party. In September 2001 the government arrested several dissidents, including prominent party members, who had complained about its failure to implement the constitution. The president of the High Court was detained for criticizing the government's interference in judicial affairs.

In 1997 Eritrea adopted its own currency, causing a disruption in border trade and a deterioration in relations with Ethiopia, which had been cooperative until then. The following year a border war erupted between the two countries and persisted despite efforts by the United States, Rwanda, and others to mediate. Badme, a desolate village along the ill-defined border, was a focal point of the fighting.

Hostilities continued until a formal peace agreement was reached on Dec. 12, 2000, by which time the Eritrean armed forces had grown to encompass nearly 10% of the entire population. An international commission was formed to determine the boundary between the countries, and the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was established to monitor compliance with the cease-fire.

Tensions between the two nations resurfaced in April 2002, when the international boundary commission awarded Badme to Eritrea. The commission confirmed its decision in March 2003, but Ethiopia refused to accept it and continued to occupy the village. In frustration, Eritrea stopped cooperating with a UN special envoy. Restricting UNMEE helicopter flights in October 2005, the government expelled all UNMEE personnel who were from North American or European countries in December; the government expelled several more as "spies" in September 2006. The United Nations decided to withdraw most UNMEE forces from Eritrea in early 2008, after the government cut off fuel and other supplies. From 1,700, the number of troops was reduced to 164, and those were mostly engaged in guarding equipment. The government denied responsibility for the disruption of supplies. In July 2008 the United Nations formally ended its peacekeeping mission, despite continuing tensions. The following year, with the border still in dispute, an international court in The Hague awarded Ethiopia $174 million in war damages, against $164 million to Eritrea. A dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti over a barren but strategic border area at the mouth of the Red Sea has also flared.

Eritrea reportedly also supplied arms to the Islamist militias that gained control of large parts of Somalia in 2006, possibly with the intention of diverting the attention of the Ethiopian army. Ethiopia did, in fact, intervene in Somalia in December 2006 and helped overthrow the Islamist government there. According to a United Nations report, Eritrea continued to supply arms to the Islamists, who started an insurgency against Ethiopian forces in Somalia. In April 2009 Eritrea suspended its membership in the African Union to protest the organization's request that the United Nations Security Council impose sanctions to punish Eritrea for its activities in Somalia. The sanctions were nevertheless imposed in December of that year.


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      3 years ago from Essex, UK

      Useful summary of the salient points about this new country whyjoker. Not many in the west would know anything much about the history and economy of Eritrea, so thanks for this - a well put together article. Alun


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