U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Eritrea, September 1995
Bureau of African Affairs

Prepared and released by the Bureau of African Affairs,
Office of East African Affairs

September 1995
Official Name: State of Eritrea



Area: 125,000 sq. km. (48,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Pennsylvania.
Cities: Capital--Asmara (est. pop. 435,000). Other cities--Keren 
(57,000); Assab (28,000); Massawa (25,000); Afabet (25,000); 
Tessenie (25,000); Mendefera (25,000); Dekemhare (20,000); 
Adekeieh (15,000); Barentu (15,000);Ghinda (15,000).
Terrain: Central highlands straddle escarpment associated with Rift 
Valley, dry coastal plains, and western lowlands.
Climate: Temperate in the highlands, hot in the lowlands. 


Nationality: Noun and adjective--Eritrean(s).
Population (1995 est.): 3.5 million.
Annual growth rate 3.4%.
Ethnic Groups: Tigrinya 50%, Tigre 31.4%, Saho 5%, Afar 5%, Begia 
2.5%, Bilen 2.1%, Kunama 2%, Nara 1.5%, and Rashaida .5%.
Religions: Christian 50%, mostly Orthodox, Muslim 48%, indigenous 
beliefs 2%.
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance--elementary 26%, 
secondary 17%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--135/1,000. Life expectancy--46 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture-80%. Industry and Commerce-20%. 


Type: Transition government.
Constitution: Drafting in process, estimated date of promulgation-
March 1996. 
Branches: Executive--President, Cabinet. Legislative--National 
Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Court. 
Administrative Subdivisions: 6 administrative regions.
Political Parties: People's Front for Democracy and Justice (name 
adopted by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front when it established 
itself as a political party).
Suffrage: universal, age 18 and above.
Central government budget: $60.8 million (1993). 
Defense: 36% of total government expenditure (1993).
National holiday: May 24 (Liberation Day).
Flag: green, red, and blue with a gold laurel wreath and olive branch. 


Statistics prioland--10% of arable land.
Industry (29.6% of GDP in 1990): processed food and dairy products, 
alcoholic beverages, leather goods, textiles, chemicals, cement and 
other construction materials, salt, paper, and matches.
Trade: Exports (1994)--$29 million: skins, meat, live sheep and cattle, 
gum arabic. Major markets--Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Italy. Imports 
(1994)--$360 million: food, manufactured goods, machinery and 
transportation equipment. Major suppliers--Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, 
Italy, UAE.
Official exchange rate: Eritrea continues to use the Ethiopian Birr. 
Mid-1995 exchange rate, 6.2 Birr=US$1.

Membership in International Organizations

UN and its specialized agencies, OAU, AFDB, ILO, IMO, World 


Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa and is bordered on the northeast 
and east by the Red Sea, on the west and northwest by Sudan, on the 
south by Ethiopia, and on the southeast by Djibouti. The country has a 
high central plateau that varies from 1,800 to 3,000 meters (6,000-
8,000 feet) above sea level. A coastal plain, western lowlands, and 
some 300 islands comprise the remainder of Eritrea's land mass. Eritrea 
has no year round rivers.

The climate is temperate in the mountains and hot in the lowlands. 
Asmara, the capital, is about 3,000 meters (8,000 ft.) above sea level. 
Maximum temperature is 26 degrees C (80 degrees F),  The weather is 
usually sunny and dry, with the short or belg rains occurring February-
April and the big or meher rains beginning in late June and ending in 


Eritrea's population comprises 9 ethnic groups, most of which speak 
Semitic or Cushitic languages. The Tigrinya and Tigre make up four-
fifths of the population and speak different, but related and somewhat 
mutually intelligible, Semitic languages. In general, most of the 
Christians live in the highlands, while Muslims and adherents of 
traditional beliefs live in the lowland regions. Tigrinya and Arabic are 
the most frequently used languages for commercial and official 
transactions, but English is widely spoken and is the language used for 
secondary and university education.


Eritrea officially celebrated its independence on May 24, 1993, 
becoming the world's newest nation. Prior to Italian colonization in 
1885, what is now Eritrea had been ruled by the various local or 
international powers that successively dominated the Red Sea region. 
In 1896, the Italians used Eritrea as a springboard for their disastrous 
attempt to conquer Ethiopia. Eritrea was placed under British military 
administration after the Italian surrender in World War II. In 1952 a 
UN resolution federating Eritrea with Ethiopia went into effect. The 
resolution ignored Eritrean pleas for independence, but guaranteed 
Eritreans some democratic rights and a measure of autonomy. Almost 
immediately after the federation went into effect, however, these rights 
began to be abridged or violated. 

In 1962 Emperor Haile Sellassie unilaterally dissolved the Eritrean 
parliament and annexed the country, sparking the Eritrean fight for 
independence that continued after Haile Sellassie was ousted in a coup 
in 1974. The new Ethiopian government, called the Derg, was a 
Marxist military junta led by strongman Mengistu Haile Miriam. 

During the 1960s, the Eritrean independence struggle was led by the 
Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). In 1970, members of the group had a 
falling out and a group broke away from the ELF and formed the 
Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). By the late 1970s the EPLF 
had become the dominant armed Eritrean group fighting against the 
Ethiopian government and Isaias Afwerki had emerged as its leader. 
Much of the materiel used to combat Ethiopia was captured from the 
Ethiopian Army.

By 1977 the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. 
That same year, however, a massive airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia 
enabled the Ethiopian Army to regain the initiative and forced the 
EPLF to retreat to the bush. Between 1978 and 1986 the Derg launched 
eight major offensives against the independence movement. All failed. 
In 1988 the EPLF captured Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian army 
in northeastern Eritrea, prompting the Ethiopian Army to withdraw 
from its garrisons in Eritrea's western lowlands. EPLF fighters then 
moved into position around Keren, Eritrea's second largest city. 
Meanwhile, other dissident movements were making headway 
throughout Ethiopia. At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union 
informed Mengistu that it would not be renewing its defense and 
cooperation agreement. With the withdrawal of Soviet support and 
supplies, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF--
along with other Ethiopian rebel forces--began to advance on Ethiopian 

The United States played a facilitative role in the peace talks in 
Washington during the months leading up to the May 1991 fall of the 
Mengistu regime. In mid-May Mengistu resigned as head of the 
Ethiopian government and went into exile in Zimbabwe, leaving a 
caretaker government in Addis Ababa. Having defeated the Ethiopian 
forces in Eritrea, EPLF troops took control of their homeland. Later 
that month, the United States chaired talks in London to formalize the 
end of the war. These talks were attended by the four major combatant 
groups, including the EPLF. 

A high level U.S. delegation was also present in Addis Ababa for the 
July 1-5, 1991 conference that established a transitional government in 
Ethiopia. The EPLF attended the July conference as an observer and 
held talks with the new transitional government regarding Eritrea's 
relationship to Ethiopia. The outcome of those talks was an agreement 
in which the Ethiopians recognized the right of the Eritreans to hold a 
referendum on independence. 

Although some EPLF cadres at one time espoused a Marxist ideology, 
Soviet support for Mengistu had cooled their ardor. The fall of 
communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc 
convinced them it was a failed system. The EPLF is now committed to 
establishing a democratic form of government and a free market 
economy in Eritrea. The United States agreed to provide assistance to 
both Ethiopia and Eritrea, conditional on continued progress toward 
democracy and human rights. 

In May 1991, the EPLF established the Provisional Government of 
Eritrea (PGE) to administer Eritrean affairs until a referendum was held 
on independence and a permanent government established. EPLF 
leader Isaias became the head of the PGE, and the EPLF Central 
Committee served as its legislative body. 

On April 23-25, 1993 Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for 
independence from Ethiopia in a UN-monitored free and fair 
referendum. The Eritrean authorities declared Eritrea an independent 
state on April 27. The government was reorganized and after a 
national, freely contested election the National Assembly, which chose 
Isaias as President of the PGE, was expanded to include both EPLF and 
non-EPLF members. The EPLF established itself as a political party, 
the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and is now in the 
process of drafting a new constitution and setting up a permanent 

Meanwhile, Sudan's aggressiveness toward its neighbors, its goal of 
spreading Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region, and its 
unwillingness to play a constructive role in regional development have 
raised security concerns along Eritrea's border with Sudan. Khartoum 
gives support and safehaven to a small, relatively ineffectual Eritrean 
insurgent group, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Eritrea, in turn, 
supports the Sudanese opposition, which has coalesced in the National 
Democratic Alliance (NDA). The NDA has the stated objective of 
overturning the current National Islamic Front (NIF)-dominated 
government in Khartoum.


The new government faces formidable challenges. Beginning with no 
constitution, no judicial system, and an  education system in shambles, 
it has been forced to build the institutions of government from scratch. 
The present government includes legislative, executive, and judicial 

The legislature, the National Assembly, includes 75 members of the 
PFDJ and 75 additional popularly elected members. The National 
Assembly is the highest legal power in the government until the 
establishment of a democratic, constitutional government. The 
legislature sets the internal and external policies of the government, 
regulates implementation of those policies, approves the budget, and 
elects the president of the country.

The president nominates individuals to head the various ministries, 
authorities, commissions, and offices and the National Assembly 
ratifies those nominations. The Cabinet is the country's executive 
branch. It is composed of 16 ministers and chaired by the president. It 
implements policies, regulations, and laws, and is accountable to the 
National Assembly. The ministries are: Agriculture; Construction; 
Defense; Education; Energy, Mining, and Water; Finance and 
Development; Foreign; Health; Information and Culture; Internal 
Affairs; Justice; Local Government; Marine Resources; Transport; 
Trade and Industry; and Tourism. 

The judiciary operates independently of both the legislative and 
executive bodies, with a court system that extends from the village 
through to the district, provincial, and national levels. On May 19, 
1993 the PGE issued a proclamation regarding the reorganization of 
the government. It declared that during a four year transition period, 
and sooner if possible, it would: draft and ratify a constitution; prepare 
a law on political parties; prepare a press law; and, carry out elections 
for a constitutional government. In March 1994 the PGE created a 
Constitutional Commission charged with drafting a constitution 
flexible enough to meet the current needs of a population suffering 
from 30 years of civil war as well as those of the future, when stability 
and prosperity change the political landscape. Commission members 
have traveled throughout the country and to Eritrean communities 
abroad holding meetings to explain constitutional options to the people 
and to solicit their input. The new constitution is scheduled to be 
promulgated by March 1996, and general elections will follow 
sometime in 1997.

Principal Government Officials

President of the State of Eritrea; Chairman of the Executive Council of 
the PFDJ--Isaias Afwerki
Director, Office of the President--Mr. Yemane Gebremiskel
Minister of Defense--H.E.Sebhat Ephrem
Minister of Foreign Affairs--H.E. Petros Solomon
Minister of Internal Administration--H.E. Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo

Eritrea maintains an embassy in the United States at 910 17th Street 
NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20006 (tel. 202-429-1991) headed by 
Ambassador Amdemichael Kahsai.


The government of Eritrea states that it is committed to a market 
economy and privatization, and it has made development and economic 
recovery its priorities. The economy was devastated by war and the 
misguided policies of the Derg, which disrupted agriculture and 
industry. Much of the transportation and communications infrastructure 
that had not been destroyed by the war is outmoded and deteriorating. 
As a result, the government has sought international assistance for a 
variety of development projects and has mobilized young Eritreans 
serving in the National Youth Service to repair crumbling roads and 
dams. Small businesses, such as restaurants, bars, stores, auto repair, 
and crafts, continue to thrive in the Asmara area. A brewery, cigarette 
factory, small glass and plastics producers, several companies involved 
in making leather goods, and textile and sweater factories operate in the 
Asmara area. The textile and leather industries have made a particularly 
robust recovery since independence.

The Eritrean economy is largely based on agriculture, which employs 
80% of the population but currently may contribute as little as 22% to 
GDP. Export crops include coffee, cotton, fruit, hides, and meat, but 
farmers are largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture and growth in this 
and other sectors is hampered by lack of a dependable water supply. 
Worker remittances from abroad currently contribute 40-50% of GDP. 

The Port of Massawa, destroyed by the Ethiopian Army during the 
final year of the war, is on its way to complete rehabilitation. With 
political stability and a liberal investment climate, Eritrea has begun to 
attract international businesses. Various U.S. and other western 
concerns are planning to invest in tourism, mining, and offshore oil 


During the war, the EPLF fighting force grew to almost 110,000 
fighters, almost three percent of the total population of Eritrea. The 
fragile peacetime economy cannot sustain such a large army, and 
Eritrea in 1993 embarked on a phased program to demobilize 50-60% 
of the Army, which had by then shrunk to about 95,000. During the 
first phase of demobilization in 1993, some 26,000 soldiers--most of 
whom enlisted after 1990--were demobilized. They received cash 
bonuses and six-month food rations, and many also took advantage of 
government loans, grants of farm land in western Eritrea, or vocational 
training courses. The second phase of demobilization, which occurred 
the following year, demobilized more than 17,000 soldiers who had 
joined the EPLF before 1990 and in many cases had seen considerable 
combat experience. Many of these fighters had spent their entire adult 
lives in the EPLF and lacked the social, personal, and vocational skills 
to become competitive in the workplace. As a result, they received 
higher compensation, more intensive training, and more psychological 
counseling than the first group. Special attention has been given to 
women fighters, who made up some 30% of the EPLF's combat troops. 

In order to fund the demobilization program, the government cut other 
expenditures, campaigned to raise voluntary contributions, took its first 
loans, and sought external aid. Germany, Italy, Israel, and the US have 
provided help. 

Although committed to demobilization, the Government of Eritrea has 
some legitimate security concerns and seeks U.S. assistance to upgrade 
its equipment and training with a goal of producing a smaller, more 
professional, and more efficient Army. United States military 
assistance so far has included deploying in-country training teams, 
establishing a de-mining training program, ship visits during which 
U.S. service personnel contribute labor and materials for various 
community relations projects, and the training of Eritrean military 
officers in the United States.

The Eritrean Army is equipped with a hodgepodge of captured 
Ethiopian equipment, mostly of Soviet origin. Eritreans have proven 
particularly adept at maintenance, and in many cases have improved on 
Soviet designs.


Eritrea is a member in good standing of the OAU. It has a close 
relationship with the United States, Italy, and a number of other 
European nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and 
Norway, which have become important aid donors. Within the region, 
it is particularly close to Ethiopia, its largest trading partner and fellow 
IGADD member, and Uganda, also an IGADD member. In the Middle 
East, Eritrea has close ties with Yemen; relations with Israel, Saudi 
Arabia, and Dubai are likely to become closer as their aid programs 

 Eritrea broke diplomatic relations with the Sudan in December 1994. 
This action was taken after a long period of increasing tension between 
the two countries due to a series of cross-border incidents involving the 
extremist group the Eritrean Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Although the attacks 
did not pose a threat to the stability of the Government of Eritrea (the 
infiltrators have generally been killed or captured by government 
forces), the Eritreans believe the National Islamic Front (NIF) in 
Khartoum supported, trained, and armed the insurgents. After many 
months of negotiations with the Sudanese to try and end the incursions, 
the Government of Eritrea concluded that the NIF did not intend to 
change its policy and broke relations. Subsequently, the Government of 
Eritrea hosted a conference of Sudanese opposition leaders in June 
1995 in an effort to help the opposition unite and to provide a credible 
alternative to the present government in Khartoum. 


The U.S. Consulate in Asmara was first established in 1942. In 1953, 
the United States signed a mutual defense treaty with Ethiopia. The 
treaty granted the United States control and expansion of the highly 
important British military communications base at Kagnew near 
Asmara. In the 1960s, as many as 4,000 U.S. military personnel were 
stationed at Kagnew. In the 1970's, technological advances in the 
satellite and communications fields were making the communications 
station at Kagnew increasingly obsolete. Early in 1977, we informed 
the Ethiopian government that we intended to close Kagnew Station by 
September 30, 1977. In the meantime, U.S. relations with the Mengistu 
regime were worsening. In April 1977, Mengistu abrogated the 1953 
mutual defense treaty and ordered a reduction of U.S. personnel in 
Ethiopia, including the closure of Kagnew Communications Center and 
our Consulate in Asmara.

In August 1992 we reopened our Consulate in Asmara, staffed with one 
officer, Joseph P. O'Neill. The PGE returned our Consulate property, 
confiscated by Mengistu, and we are in the process of renovating it. 
(Note: Kagnew Station and other facilities used by the U.S. military in 
Eritrea had been leased.)  On April 27, 1993 we recognized Eritrea as 
an independent state and on June 11 diplomatic relations were 
established, with Mr. O'Neill remaining as charge d'affaires.

The United States has provided substantial assistance to Eritrea, 
including food aid, development assistance, and election assistance. In 
FY 1993 the United States provided $6 million in assistance to Eritrea, 
of which $5.65 million was for a broad range of technical assistance. 
We also provided a $457,000 grant through the African-American 
Institute, under the African Regional Election Assistance Fund, for 
voter education, training for referendum officials, and selected 
commodities. We provided an additional $350,000 (representing the 
remainder of the $6 million assistance program) through a UNDP 
program of referendum support that was used for critical commodities, 
primarily fuel, and official transportation during the referendum. In 
FY95 USAID programs provided almost $16 million in direct 
assistance in the areas of health, demobilization, refugee resettlement, 
and Government and University training programs. An additional $4 
million in food assistance was provided to U.S. private volunteer 

Ongoing U.S. interests in Eritrea include encouraging the growth of a 
democratic political culture, supporting Eritrean efforts to become 
constructively involved in solving regional problems, and assisting 
Eritrea in filling its humanitarian needs. 

Principal U.S. Officials

Ambassador--Robert G. Houdek
Deputy Chief of Mission--Susan Keogh-Fisher
Political Officer--Paul Kepp
Administrative Officer--Michael Hoza
Consul--Ronald Robinson
Public Affairs Officer--Christopher Datta
AID Representative--Glenn Anders

The address of the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea is 34 Zera Yacob St., P.O. 
Box 211, Asmara (tel 291-1-120004). 


Customs: A valid Eritrean visa is required for entry, as is a current 
vaccination for yellow fever. 

Climate and clothing: Lightweight woolens and light wraps are 
appropriate year round in Asmara. Umbrellas are needed June-
September. Hot weather clothing is needed for travel in the lowlands, 
where temperatures sometimes reach 120o in the summer months.

Health: Medical facilities in Eritrea are extremely limited, and travelers 
should bring an ample supply of prescription drugs. Inoculations for 
tetanus, hepatitis, and meningitis, and a cholera stamp are advisable, 
and a malaria prophylactic should be taken if traveling in the lowlands. 
The climate in the highlands is cool and dry, and care must be taken to 
avoid dehydration. Likewise, sun protection is warranted, since 
sunburn occurs more quickly at high elevations. Take reasonable 
precautions regarding food and drink. Tap water is not potable. The 
altitude in Asmara can cause dizziness and could adversely affect those 
with cardiopulmonary conditions. 

Telecommunications: Long distance service is available from major 
cities, but direct dial service to international numbers is unavailable 
with the exception of Ethiopia. Fax service is available in Asmara at 
the major hotels or at the Telecommunications Office. 

Transportation: The most direct air routes from the US to Asmara are 
via Frankfurt, Rome, or London. International air routes link Asmara to 
Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, although flights are not 
frequent. Ethiopian Airlines flies daily to Addis Ababa, however, 
increasing the traveler's options. Municipal bus transportation is 
available, although likely to be crowded. Taxis are available and 

Travel precautions: It is wise to bring along plenty of water, two spare 
tires, and extra cans of gasoline when traveling in the countryside. 
Roads are in poor condition, and help for automotive emergencies is 
scarce. Security conditions are generally good, but occasional bandit or 
EIJ rebel raids are an ever-present possibility in the west and 
northwest. Land mines, remnants of the civil war, litter the landscape, 
and it is wise to keep to major towns and hard surfaced roads. US 
Government employees are prohibited from driving at night outside of 


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