Focus On

Ernst Stavro Blofeld/GNU
An Eritrean wedding

Focus on Eritrea

October 09, 2008
by Liz Colville
Eritrea, the small country in northeast Africa bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti, has been the center of colonization, cultural and religious divides, border wars and trade disputes for centuries. Today, it is a haven for Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees, and has governed by the autocratic Isais Afewerki since 1993.

A Brief History

Occupied by Arabs beginning in the sixth century B.C., Eritrea’s linguistic origins began around this time, with the Ge’ez language evolving over time into Amhara, a language preserved today by Christian priests in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Today 12 languages are spoken in the country.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D., Eritrea was part of the larger Axum kingdom, whose main port was in Eritrea and whose capital was in Ethiopia. The predominant religion in the kingdom was Christianity. In the 700s, the Persian Empire’s expansion quashed the Axum kingdom, and Eritrea became an isolated area for several centuries, becoming part of the kingdom of Abyssinia in the 16th century. According to the Unity Center in Minnesota’s history of Eritrea, the history of the country becomes “contentious” during this period: Ethiopians, who would become enmeshed politically and militaristically with Eritrea in the mid-20th century, “claimed Eritrea had been an integral part of historic Ethiopia but though there are some common practices and religious beliefs between Eritreans and Ethiopia, these ties do not extend throughout Ethiopia. In fact, large parts of Eritrea, it would seem, were linked to other empires,” including the Sudanic and Ottoman Empires.

During the so-called Scramble for Africa during the mid-19thth century, the Italians began several missions in the Abyssinian kingdom, taking administrative control of many parts of Eritrea starting in 1882. By 1935, Italy had declared Eritrea and surrounding areas as Italian East Africa, maintaining control over its colonies by indirect rule. But in 1940, the British army attacked and seized control of much of Eritrea, lifting a ban in order to permit Eritreans to work as civil servants for the first time. When World War II led the British to withdraw from the country, Eritrea began its struggles with Ethiopia.

Recent Developments

Following World War II, the United Nations moved to give Eritrea independence from Ethiopia, which claimed control over the country after the British left. In 1952, the country was declared an “autonomous region federated with Ethiopia” as a “compromise,” according to Eritrea’s BBC Country Profile. But Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, annexed Eritrea in 1962, beginning a “32-year armed struggle.” In the 1980s, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front fought with an Ethiopian resistance movement to successfully defeat Haile Selassie’s successor, the communist Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1993, Eritrea gained independence, but trading inequalities and border disputes led to more flare-ups with Ethiopia. Between 1998 and 2000 around 150,000 died. Now the countries’ borders are maintained by a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Isaias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea, has been in power since 1993, having been a member of the Marxist Eritrea Liberation Front during the country’s struggle against Haile Selassie in the 1970s. He later became the secretary general of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which gained control over the country and established a government in 1991.

Perspectives on Eritrea

Afewerki has ruled with a heavy hand since then, accused of ridding the country of its private presses and attacking privately employed journalists. Many Eritreans have sought asylum in Ethiopia in the past decade or so. Religion is also a target of the government, with only Islam and certain churches within Christianity being accepted. 

Today, Eritrea has a population of nearly 4.5 million, 54 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter’s human rights agency. The average income of an Eritrean is just US $190 a year and the average life expectancy is 53 years. The Carter Center has been working in Eritrea since its war with Ethiopia in the 1980s. It now focuses on agriculture, which accounts for at least half of the country’s gross domestic product, bringing new technology and other means to help the country grow more food and otherwise improve its farming industry, preventing malnourishment and famine.

In a 2008 interview with Al-Jazeera, President Afewerki says that his country has “recovered” from the devastation of its struggle with Ethiopia. “We are embarking on a new era where we would be in a position to exploit the natural endowments and resources of this country to give more impetus to our developmental programs,” Afewerki said. He also insisted that despite the fact that the U.N. Border Commission has not ratified an agreement securing the borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Eritrean border is “virtually demarcated” and that any inkling of future conflicts between the two countries are “speculation.” Afewerki also rejected claims that his country supports Islamist terrorist operations, and told Al-Jazeera that elections might not be held in his country for decades.

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