Eritrea profile - overview

  • 4 May 2016
  • From the section Africa
Map of Eritrea

Eritrea emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into military conflict, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly, with its old adversary, Ethiopia.

Today, a fragile peace prevails and Eritrea faces the gigantic tasks of rebuilding its infrastructure and of developing its economy after decades of conflict.

A former Italian colony, Eritrea was occupied by the British in 1941. In 1952 the United Nations resolved to establish it as an autonomous entity federated with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims for sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. However, 10 years later the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, decided to annex it, triggering a 32-year armed struggle.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Cathedral and Catholic Mission in Eritrea's capital Asmara

This culminated in independence after an alliance of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and a coalition of Ethiopian resistance movements defeated Haile Selassie's communist successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia, Eritreans voted almost unanimously for independence, leaving Ethiopia landlocked.

Relations between the two neighbours have proved to be uneasy, and are complicated by issues such as Ethiopian access to the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab and unequal trade terms.

In 1998 border disputes around the town of Badme erupted into open hostilities. This conflict ended with a peace deal in June 2000, but not before leaving both sides with tens of thousands of soldiers dead. A security zone separates the two countries. The UN patrolled the zone at one time but pulled out, unable to fulfil its mandate.

In recent years Eritrea has become one of the world's most secretive countries.

It does not have any privately-owned indigenous media, and is ranked alongside North Korea at the bottom of global media freedom rankings.

It also reportedly does not welcome foreign journalists unless they agree to report favourably about the government.

Information 'black hole'

United Nations officials have complained that the country hasn't shared information about food supplies in times of famine.

When in 2011 the Horn of Africa was hit by its worst drought in 50 years and aid agencies warned that millions in the region were affected by food shortages, Eritrea denied it had a crisis on its hands.

The UN has been investigating human rights in Eritrea, but its special rapporteur has been denied entry. She has described a refugee exodus from the country as being fuelled by alleged abuses including extrajudicial executions, torture and forced military conscription. The government dismissed a UN report on human rights violations published in 2015 as politically motivated.

In recent years, Eritreans have reportedly constituted a large number of those attempting the risky crossing from North Africa to Europe by boat.

Eritrea has become a gold producer, with mining expected to become an important source of revenue and growth.

Image copyright Nevsun Resources Ltd
Image caption Gold, produced by mines such as Bisha - which began operations in 2011 - has fuelled economic growth