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Background Notes: State of Eritrea, March 1998

Released by the Office of East African Affairs, Bureau of African Affairs.

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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 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: Ratified May 24, 1997, but not yet implemented.
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 (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, Italy, UAE.
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 Ethiopian positions.

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 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 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 bodies.

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. 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 Semere Rossom.


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 exploration.


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 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 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 Asmara.

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 volunteer organizations.

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
Consul--Christopher Rowan
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
(tel 291-1-120004).


The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on immigration practices, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications program to N-8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the password is info (Note: Lower case is required). The CABB also carries international security information from the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.

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Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648)

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).

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Further Electronic Information:

Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch, the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://1997-2001.state.gov.

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