U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: State of Eritrea, March 1998
Released by the Office of East African Affairs, Bureau of African
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 (1997 est.): 3.75 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.6%.
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
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance--elementary 26%; secondary
Health: Infant mortality rate--135/1,000. Life expectancy--46 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture--80%. Industry and commerce--20%.
Type: Transition government.
Constitution: Ratified May 24, 1997, but not yet implemented.
Branches: Executive--President, Cabinet. Legislative--National Assembly.
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 (1997): $345 million.
Defense: 39% of total government expenditure.
National holiday: May 24 (Liberation Day).
Flag: green, red, and blue with a gold laurel wreath and olive branch.
Statistics prior to 1992 are extrapolated from Ethiopian data.
Real GDP (1997 est.): $800 million.
Annual growth rate (1995 est.): 3%.
Per capita income: Less than $300 per year.
Avg. inflation rate (last 2 years): 11%-12%.
Mineral resources: Gold, copper, iron ore, potash, oil.
Agriculture (22.1% of GDP in 1990): Products--millet, sorghum, teff,
wheat, barley, flax, cotton, coffee, papayas, citrus fruits, bananas,
beans and lentils, potatoes, vegetables, fish, dairy products, meat, and
skins. Cultivated land--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 (1996)--$48 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,
Official exchange rate: 7.2 nakfa=U.S.$1.
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 26o C (80o 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 mid-September.
Eritrea's population comprises nine 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
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 also was 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 now says it is 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
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 government.
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
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
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. A new constitution was promulgated in 1997 but has
not yet been implemented, and general elections have been postponed.
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. Haile Woldense
Minister of Local Government--H.E. Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo
Eritrea maintains an embassy in the United States at 1708 New Hampshire
Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009 (tel. 202-319-1991) headed by Ambassador
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 was not 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 3% of the total population of Eritrea. The fragile peace-time
economy cannot sustain such a large army, and in 1993, Eritrea 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 work place.
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. By 1998, the army had shrunk to 47,000.
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
U.S. 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
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 increase.
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 1970s, technological advances in the satellite and
communications fields were making the communications station at Kagnew
increasingly obsolete. Early in 1977, the United States informed the
Ethiopian Government that it 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 the consulate
In August 1992, the United States reopened its consulate in Asmara,
staffed with one officer. The PGE returned consulate property,
confiscated by Mengistu, and the U.S. is in the process of renovating
it--Kagnew Station and other facilities used by the U.S. military in
Eritrea had been leased. On April 27, 1993, the U.S. recognized Eritrea
as an independent state, and on June 11, diplomatic relations were
established, with a 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. The U.S. 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. The U.S. 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 FY 1995, 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
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
Deputy Chief of Mission--Donald Y. Yamamoto
Political Officer--Mark Sullivan
Economic/Political Officer--David Manuel
Administrative Officer--Bonita Bissonette
Public Affairs Officer--Mary Scholl
USAID Representative--G. William Anderson
The address of the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea is 34 Zera Yacob St., P.O.
Box 211, Asmara
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