The State of Eritrea is a country in Northeastern Africa. The name is derived from the Latin word for Red Sea, Mare Erythraeum. The country is bordered by the Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast. The east and northeast of the country have an extensive coastline with the Red Sea. Eritrea also includes the Dahlak Archipelago and several of the Hanish Islands.
Modern Eritrea was consolidated into a colony by the Italian government on January 1, 1890. Contemporary Eritrea gained its Independence from Ethiopia after a thirty year war which began on September 1, 1961 ending on May 29, 1991. The peoples of Eritrea share a long and complex history with neighboring peoples.
Eritrea is officially a parliamentary democracy consisting of six regions and defines itself as a multilingual and multicultural nation. The two dominant religions are Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam; there are nine nationalities, each with a different language. There is no official language in Eritrea, rather it has three working languages, Tigrinya, Arabic, and English, and Italian is still sometimes spoken as a commercial language. Eritrea is also a mineral rich country with large deposits of gold, silver and copper.
Eritrean history is one of the longest of Africa and even the world. Together with Abyssinian and the southeastern part of the Red Sea coast of Sudan, it is considered the most likely location of the land known to the ancient Egyptians as Punt (or "Ta Netjeru," meaning land of the Gods), whose first mention dates to the 25th century BC.
The modern name is the Italian form of the Greek name ΕΡΥΘΡΑΙΑ (Erythraîa; see also List of traditional Greek place names), which derives from the Greek name for the Red Sea (Ἐρυθρὰ Θάλασσα).
Around the 8th century BC, a kingdom known as D'mt was established in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with its capital at Yeha in northern Ethiopia. Although it has been contended today, Eritrean and Ethiopian civilization is thought to have been be founded by Semitic-speaking Sabaeans who crossed the Red Sea from South Arabia (modern Yemen), on the basis of close ties in the past, closely related languages and people.
After D`mt's decline around the 5th century BC, a state named Aksum, after its capital, rose in the northern Ethiopian plateau, began to arise around the 4th century BC, coming to prominence around the first century AD, minting its own coins by the 3rd century. It grew to be, according to Mani, one of the four greatest civilizations in the world, along with China, Persia, and Rome. Aksum began its decline in the 7th century AD, and the population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands, eventually being defeated c. 950 AD.
Eritrea's first experience with partial domination by a foreign power occurred in 1557, when an Ottoman invasion under Suleiman I conquered Massawa, Arkiko, and Debarwa the capital of Bahr negus Yeshaq. Yeshaq was able to retake much of what the Ottomans captured, but later revolted twice with Ottoman support. By 1578, all revolts had ended, with the Ottomans having domain over the important ports of Massawa and Hergigo and their environs, leaving the province (Habesh, related to the word Habesha) to Beja Na'ibs (deputy).
The Ottoman state maintained control over much of the coastal areas for nearly 300 years, leaving their possessions to their Egyptian heirs in 1865 before being given to the Italians in 1885. The interior, particularly the Christian (predominantly Orthodox) Kebessa (Highlands) of Hamasien, Akele Guzai, and Seraye, were traditionally associated with Ethiopia. An Italian Roman Catholic priest by the name of Sapetto purchased the port of Assab from the Afar Sultan (a vassal of the Emperor of Ethiopia) on behalf of an Italian commercial conglomerate. Later, as the Egyptians retreated out of Sudan during the Mahdist rebellion, the British brokered an agreement whereby the Egyptians could retreat through Ethiopia, and in exchange they would allow the Emperor of Ethiopia to occupy those lowland districts that he had disputed with the Turks and Egyptians.
Emperor Yohannis IV of Abyssinian believed this included Massawa, but instead, the port was handed by the Egyptians and the British to the Italians, who united it with the already colonised port of Assab to form a coastal Italian possession. The Italians took advantage of disorder in northern Ethiopia following the death of Emperor Yohannis IV to occupy the highlands, and established their new colony, henceforth known as Eritrea, and achieved recognition by Ethiopia's new Emperor Menelik II.
The Italians remained the colonial power in Eritrea until they were defeated by Allied forces in World War II (1941), and Eritrea became a British protectorate. After the war, the United Nations, after a lengthy inquiry in which those who wanted union with Ethiopia and those who wanted independence lobbied the great powers and the U.N. extensively, eventually reached a compromise that the former Italian colony was to join Ethiopia as part of a federation. Eritrea would have its own parliament and administration, and would be represented in the Ethiopian parliament which would function as the Federal Parliament. The Emperor of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie, would be the monarch of Eritrea and would be represented there by a viceroy.
Struggle for independence
In 1960, the Eritrean parliament voted unanimously to dissolve the federation, but there was evidence of intervention and coercion by the Ethiopian government. Pro-independence Eritreans (especially the Muslim ELF) went into rebellion and launched a long war of independence, later joined by disaffected Federationists in the 1970s. The Struggle for Independence neared victory in the mid-1970's but was pushed into a 'strategic withdrawal' when the Derg, a Marxist military junta, came to power in Ethiopia with backing from the Soviet Union. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the Derg, did much to increase the numbers of the independence movement supporters due to his brutality.
The liberation struggle was dominated by two movements, the ELF and the EPLF. The ELF was a conservative grass roots movement dominated by Muslim lowlanders, and thus received backing from Arab governments, whereas the EPLF professed Marxism and was supported by a growing Eritrean Diaspora. The ELF was eventually overshadowed and eliminated by the EPLF.
The long war ended in 1991, when joint Eritrean and rebellious Ethiopian forces defeated the Ethiopian army, and the Derg regime fell. Two years later, after a referendum, Eritrean independence was declared. The leader of the EPLF, Isaias Afewerki, became Eritrea's first Provisional President, with the EPLF as the sole legal ruling party, later renamed to the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
In 1998, a border war with Ethiopia resulted in the deaths of thousands of Eritrean soldiers (estimated at 19,000 by the government), resulting in massive population displacement, reduced economic development, and a severe landmine problem. During and after the war, the Ethiopian Government expelled Eritreans and those of Eritrean heritage from Ethiopia. The Eritrean-Ethiopian War ended in 2000 with a negotiated agreement known as the Algiers Agreement, which assigned an independent, UN-associated boundary commission known as the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) with the task of delimiting and demarcating the boundary. The EEBC issued a final border ruling in April 2002, but the border demarcation and delineation remains a problem today.
In spite of initially promising economic and political strides, the Eritrean government cracked down on the free press and on opposition in 2001 when questions about the conduct of the war were raised. The government also failed to implement the new constitution and to hold long-promised elections. Later, the government of Eritrea enforced the Italian colonial practice of requiring government approval of all practiced religions.
Main article: Regions of Eritrea
Eritrea is divided into 6 regions (or zobas) and subdivided into approximately 55 districts or sub-zobas. The regions are based on the hydrological properties of area. This has the dual effect of providing each administration with ample control over its agricultural capacity and eliminating historical intra-regional conflicts.
The regions are included followed by the Sub-region:
|Region (ዞባ) (location on map)||Sub-region (ንዑስ ዞባ)|
|Central (Maekel Zoba) (Al-Wasat) (1)||Berikh, Ghala Nefhi, North Eastern, Serejaka, South Eastern, South Western|
|Southern (Debub Zoba) (Al-Janobi) (2)||Adi Keyh, Adi Quala, Areza, Debarwa, Dekemhare, Kudo Be'ur, Mai-Mne, Mendefera, Segeneiti, Senafe, Tserona|
|Gash-Barka (3)||Agordat City, Barentu City, Dghe, Forto, Gogne, Haykota, Logo Anseba, Mensura, Mogolo, Molki, Omhajer (Guluj), Shambuko, Tesseney, Upper Gash|
|Anseba (4)||Adi Teklezan, Asmat, Elabered, Geleb, Hagaz, Halhal, Habero, Keren City, Kerkebet, Sela|
|Northern Red Sea (Semienawi-QeyH-Bahri Zoba) (Shamal Al-Bahar Al-Ahmar) (5)||Afabet, Dahlak, Ghelalo, Foro, Ghinda, Karura, Massawa, Nakfa, She'eb|
|Southern Red Sea (Debubawi-QeyH-Bahri Zoba) (Janob Al-Bahar Al-Ahmar) (6)||Are'eta, Central Dankalia, Southern Dankalia|
Politics and government
- More information on politics and government of Eritrea can be found at the Politics and government of Eritrea series.
The National Assembly of 150 seats, formed in 1993 shortly after independence, elected the current president, Isaias Afewerki. National elections have been periodically scheduled and cancelled. Independent local sources of political information on Eritrean domestic politics are scarce; in September 2001 the government closed down all of the nation's privately owned print media, and outspoken critics of the government have been arrested and held without trial, according to various international observers, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In 2004 the U.S. State Department declared Eritrea a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its alleged record of religious persecution (see below).
Eritrean National elections were set for 1997 and then postponed until 2001, it was then decided that because 20% of Eritrea's land was under occupation that elections would be postponed until the resolution of the conflict with Ethiopia. Local elections have continued in Eritrea. The most recent round of local government elections were held in May 2003. On further elections, the President's Chief of Staff, Yemane Ghebremeskel said,
- "The electoral commission is handling these elections this time round so that may be the new element in this process. The national assembly has also mandated the electoral commission to set the date for national elections, so whenever the electoral commission sets the date there will be national elections. It’s not dependent on regional elections, although that might be a very helpful process.
- Multipartyism, in general principle yes, it is there but the law on political parties has to be approved by the national assembly. It was not approved the last time. The view from the beginning was that you don’t necessarily need a party law to hold national elections. You can have national elections and the party law can be adopted at any time. So in terms of commitment it’s very clear, in terms of the process it has its own pace, its own characteristics."
- See also: Military of Eritrea
External issues include an undemarcated border with the Sudan, a war with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in 1996, and a recent border conflict with Ethiopia.
The undemarcated border with Sudan poses a problem for Eritrean external relations. After a high-level delegation to the Sudan from the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs ties are being normalized. While normalization of ties continues, Eritrea has been recognized as a broker for peace between the separate factions of the Sudanese civil war. "It is known that Eritrea played a role in bringing about the peace agreement [between the Southern Sudanese and Government],"  while the Sudanese Government and Eastern Front rebels have requested Eritrea to mediate peace talks. However, at this point in time, Eritrea seems to be in good terms with Sudan.
A dispute with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in 1996 resulted in a brief war. As part of an agreement to cease hostilities the two nations agreed to refer the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the the Hague. At the conclusion of the proceedings, both nations acquiesced to the decision. Since 1996 both governments have remained wary of one another but relations are relatively normal.
The undemarcated border with Ethiopia is the primary external issue facing Eritrea. This lead to a long and bloody border war between 1998 and 2000. As a result, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) is occupying a 25 km by 900 km area on the border to help stabilize the region. Disagreements following the war have resulted in stalemate punctuated by periods of elevated tension and renewed threats of war. Central to the continuation of the stalemate is Ethiopia's failure to abide by the border delimitation ruling and reneging on its commitment to demarcation. The stalemate has led the President of Eritrea to urge the UN to take action on Ethiopia. This request is outlined in the Eleven Letters penned by the President to the United Nations Security Council. The situation is further escalated by the continued effort of the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders in supporting each other's opposition.
Main article: Geography of Eritrea
Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa and is bordered on the northeast and east by the Red Sea. The country is virtually bisected by one of the world's longest mountain ranges, the Great Rift Valley, with fertile lands to the west and the descent to desert in the East. Off the sandy and arid coastline is situated the Dahlak Archipelago and its fishing grounds. The land to the south, in the highlands, is slightly less dry and cooler. Eritrea at the southern end of the Red Sea is the home of the fork in the rift. The Afar Triangle or Danakil Depression of Eritrea is the probable location of a triple junction where three tectonic plates are pulling away from one another: the Arabian Plate, and the two parts of the African Plate (the Nubian and the Somalian) splitting along the East African Rift Zone (USGS). The highest point of the country, Soira, is located in the centre of Eritrea, at 9,902 feet (3,018 m) above sea level.
The main cities of the country are the capital city of Asmara and the port town of Assab in the southeast, as well as the towns of Massawa to the east, and Keren to the north.
- Main articles: Economy of Eritrea, Eritrean Railway, and Transport in Eritrea
Since independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea has faced economic problems characteristic of a small, poor country. Like the economies of many other African nations, the economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture, with 80% of the population involved in farming and herding.
The Ethiopia-Eritrea war severely hurt Eritrea's economy. GDP growth in 1999 fell to less than 1%, and GDP decreased by 8.2% in 2000. The May 2000 Ethiopian offensive into northern Eritrea caused some $600 million in property damage and loss, including losses of $225 million in livestock and 55,000 homes. The attack prevented planting of crops in Eritrea's most productive region, causing food production to drop by over 60%.
Even during the war, Eritrea developed its transportation infrastructure, asphalting new roads, improving its ports, and repairing war-damaged roads and bridges as a part of the Warsay Yika'alo Program. The most remarkable of these projects has been the rehabilitation of the Eritrean Railway. The rail line now runs between the Port of Massawa and the capital Asmara. This feat of re-engineering was accomplished by local labor and ingenuity.
Eritrea's economic future remains mixed. The cessation of Ethiopian trade, which mainly used Eritrean ports before the war, leaves Eritrea with a large economic hole to fill. Eritrea's economic future depends upon its ability to master fundamental social problems like illiteracy, unemployment, and low skills, as well as the willingness to open its economy further to private enterprise so that the diaspora's money and expertise can foster economic growth.
Eritrean society is ethnically heterogeneous. The largest ethnic group (nationality) is the Tigrinya who compose up to 50% of the population, while the Tigre make up another 31.4%. The balance of the Eritrean population is made up by the smaller populations of Saho, Nara, Hedareb/Beja, Afar, Bilen, Kunama, and the Rashaida. Each nationality speaks a different native tongue, but typically, many of the minorities speak more than one language.
The most recent addition to the nationalities of Eritrea are the Rashaida. The Rashaida came to Eritrea in the 19th century from the Arabian Coast. The Rashaida do not typically intermarry, are typically nomadic, and number approximately 61,000.
The Kunama were originally the only settled peoples in Eritrea. They adopted rain-fed agriculture and settled into communal villages. They originally settled in the 'lowlands' of Eritrea.
Many languages are spoken in Eritrea today. The two language families that most of the languages stem from are the Cushitic and Semitic families. The semitic languages in Eritrea are Arabic, Tigrinya, Tigre, and the newly recognized Dahlik. The Cushitic languages in Eritrea are just as numerous: Afar, Blin, Kunama, Nara, and Saho. Italian and English which are recent additions in Eritrea are from the Italic (Italian) and Germanic (English) families respectively. The Beja language is a language spoken in Eritrea but is not related to the other language families.
The local Tigrinya and the wider Arabic language are the two predominant languages for official purposes, but a few Italian speakers can still be found. Along with Arabic (spoken natively only by the Rashaida), English is the most widely spoken non-African language
There are five levels of education in Eritrea, pre-primary, primary, middle, secondary, tertiary. There are nearly 238,000 students in the primary, middle, and secondary levels of education.There are approximately 824 schools in Eritrea and two Universities (University of Asmara [UoA] and the Institute of Science and Technology [EIST]) as well as several smaller colleges and technical schools.
One of the most important goals of the Eritrea's educational policy is to provide basic education in each of Eritrea's mother tongues as well as to develop self-motivated and conscious population to fight poverty and disease. Furthermore it is tooled to produce a society that is equipped with the necessary skills to function with a culture of self-reliance in the modern economy.
The education system in Eritrea is also designed to promote private sector schooling, equal access for all groups (i.e. prevent gender discrimination, prevent ethnic discrimination, prevent class discrimination, etc.) and promote continuing education through formal and informal systems.
The dominant religions are Christianity and Islam (predominantly Sunni Islam), each group representing roughly 50% of the population. The Christians consist primarily of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, which is the local Oriental Orthodox church, but small groups of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and other denominations also exist.
Members of the Eritrean Orthodox Church are sometimes described as Coptic Christians because the hierarchy of that church was formerly subject to that of the Tawahido Church of Ethiopia, which was in turn formerly (before 1950) subject to the Coptic Pope. However, the word Coptic in modern usage refers primarily to the Egyptian Orthodox branch of Christianity. The Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches are still in full communion with the Coptic Church in Egypt. In 1993 the Eritrean Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly, and in 1998 the Archbishopric of Asmara, the young nation's capital, was elevated to the rank of patriarchate, within the Oriental Orthodox church.
Since May 2002, the government of Eritrea has only officially recognized the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, Catholicism and the Evangelical Lutheran church. All other faiths and denominations were required to undergo a registration process that was so stringent as to effectively be prohibitive. Amongst other things, the government's registration system requires religious groups to submit personal information on their membership in order to be allowed to worship. The few organisations that have met all of the registration requirements have still not received official recognition. Other faith groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahais, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and numerous Protestant denominations are not registered and cannot worship freely. They have effectively been banned, and harsh measures have been taken against their adherents. Over twenty Protestant pastors and almost 2000 church members have so far been detained indefinitely and without charge. In addition several Orthodox priests have also been detained, and the Patriarch of the Orthodox church has been replaced by the Eritrean Orthodox Synod and placed under stringent house arrest ostensibly for objecting to government interference in church affairs. See also Eritrean Orthodox Church.
- Main articles: Cuisine of Eritrea, Literature of Eritrea, and Music of Eritrea
The Eritrean region has traditionally been a nexus for trade throughout the world. Because of this the influence of diverse cultures can be seen throughout Eritrea. Today the most obvious influences in the capital, Asmara, is that of Italy. Throughout Asmara, you may find small cafes serving beverages common to Italy. In the town of Keren there is a clear merging of the Italian colonial influence with the traditional Tigre lifestyle. In the smaller villages of Eritrea these changes never took hold.
In the cities before the Occupation and during the early years the import of Bollywood films was commonplace while Italian and American films were available in the cinemas as well. In the 1980's and since Independence however, American films have certainly become the most common. Vying for market share are films by local producers who have slowly come into their own. The global broadcast of Eri-TV has brought cultural images to the large Eritrean population in the Diaspora who frequent the country every summer.
Traditional Eritrean dress is quite varied with the Kunama traditionally dressing in brightly colored clothes while the Tigrinya and Tigre traditionally dress in bright white clothing. The Rashaida women are ornately bejeweled and scarved.
Popular sports in Eritrea are soccer and bicycle racing. Almost unique on the continent, the "Tour of Eritrea" is a race from the hot desert beaches of Massawa, up the winding mountain highway with its precipitous valleys and cliffs to the capital Asmara. From there it continues downwards onto the western plains of the Gash-Barka Zone, only to return back to Asmara from the south. This is by far the most popular sport in Eritrea though as of late long-distance running has garnered its own supporters. The momentum for long-distance running in Eritrea can be seen in the successes of Zeresenay Tadesse and Mebrahatom (Meb) Keflezghi, both Olympians.
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