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Summary Article: Eritrea
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ĕrĭtrē'Ә), officially State of Eritrea, republic (2015 est. pop. 4,847,000), 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 main Christian church is Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis. 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 Permanent Court of Arbitration 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 did not improved significantly in several subsequent years. 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. UN human rights investigators charged in 2016 the Eritrean leaders had committed crimes against humanity, including torture and the effective enslavement of several hundred thousand in government service.

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. 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 (a UN monitoring group reported in 2017 that it had been unable to confirm the allegation) 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 and Qatari peacekeepers were positioned there. 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. In 2015 Eritrea permitted Arab nations fighting in support of the Hadi government in Yemen to use its territory to support their forces, and several hundred Eritrean soldiers also fought in Yemen. A significant border clash involving the Eritrean and Ethiopian armies occurred in June, 2016. In June, 2017, Qatar withdrew its peacekeepers from border regions disputed with Djibouti; Eritrea then occupied the areas.

  • See Tekeste, N. , Italian Colonialism in Eritrea: 1882-1941 (1987);.
  • Cliffe, L. D. , ed., The Long Struggle of Eritrea for Independence and Constructive Peace (1988).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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