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new internationalist
issue 261 - November 1994

Country profile - Eritrea

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Where is Eritrea? [image, unknown]
go to the contents page Where is Eritrea? [image, unknown]

The tree-lined boulevards of Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, give it a Mediterranean flavour – a legacy of its former years as an Italian colony. Eritrea celebrated independence in 1993 after defeating the Ethiopian ‘Dergue’ (regime) of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Multi-party elections are scheduled for 1997 and until then power remains in the hands of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – now renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

After the defeat of Italy in 1941, Eritrea was governed for 10 years by British mandate which stimulated the rise in Eritrean national consciousness and the formation of political parties. In 1950 a UN Resolution made the region a federated state within the Ethiopian empire but this ended with Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1962 incorporation of Eritrea. In the struggle for independence, a conflict developed between the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the breakaway EPLF. The ELF, formed in 1958, was organized along ethnic and regional lines. The EPLF was influenced by Pan-Africanist and socialist trends sweeping the continent, with national unity and social development high on the agenda.

Regional stability is seen as essential to Eritrea’s security but its position as a bridge between African and Arab worlds means that it is vulnerable to neighbouring ethnic and religious conflicts. Relations with Sudan are especially important given the half-million refugees who live there, subject to Khartoum’s oppressive Sharia law.

Providing for the returning refugees is proving a headache for the Government and aid agencies. The UN repatriation programme is getting under way but suffers both from lack of money and from Eritrea’s lack of infrastructure.

Yet the Government remains popular and freedom of speech and the rule of law prevail. Government officials, many former fighters, work for a pittance and the Eritrean people have earned themselves a high reputation among donors for their dedication and honesty.

How long Eritrea can sustain its stability is uncertain. Cracks are appearing as impoverished fighters vie for scarce resources with refugees and with rich returnees. Foreign remittances kept the struggle alive and are still essential to the economy but as market liberalization proceeds many Eritreans are beginning to question the value of their sacrifices. International investment has been slow and with a fast-growing population, unemployment is set to rocket.

But Eritrea’s constant refrain is one of self-reliance and determination: ‘We fought against the odds for 30 years and we can do so for 30 more. If you don’t want to help us, leave us to do it ourselves.’

Jacky Sutton


LEADER: President Isiais Afwerki, EPLF’s General Secretary.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$120 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: Ethiopian Birr
Main imports: Machinery, food aid, tools, spare parts, crude oil, vehicles, construction materials, fertilizers.
Main exports: Hides, salt, leather goods, some fruit, petroleum products.

PEOPLE: 3.5 million (1 million refugees)

HEALTH: Infant mortality 123 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Highland farmers and lowland nomads; also returnees who have added cosmopolitan influence. Fighters are an important ‘class’ with a dialect of their own.
Religion: Equally Muslims and Coptic Christians.
Languages: Official languages are Tigrinya, Arabic, English. Also: Amharic, Tigre, Italian, Samo, Beja, Kuname, Bilen, Baria.

Sources: 1991 Leeds University Study, National Bank of Eritrea; National Union of Eritrean Women; Economist Intelligence unit Country Profile 1993/4; Ministry of Agriculture; Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs; UNHCR; Ministry of Education; Ministry of Industry; Asmara University; Third World Guide 1993-4; The State of the World’s Children 1994.



[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Wealthy returnees and middle class prosper. Subsistence economy in rural areas.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
20%. Even lower among women and nomads.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Depends on food aid; investment needed to kick-start viable economy.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
New freedoms since independence, but still one-party state.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Equal in theory; traditional attitudes in rural areas. Female circumcision widespread. Women hold 20% of seats in national assembly.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
47 years, lower in rural areas and among nomads. (US 76 years)




One-party state; aim is for multi-party democracy; equal rights for women; free speech; the rule of law.


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