March 30, 2011 § 10 Comments

eritreaWho lives there?: Nobody really knows, there has never been a census. It is thought around five and a bit million people.

The ethnic makeup is also subject to much debate and not a little guesswork. The Tigray-Tigrinya people of the highlands and the related Tigre people of the lowlands are thought to constitute around 80% of the population. Despite that Eritrea is thought to be fairly ethnically heterogeneous, with many different ethnic groups of which seven have a significant presence: Afar, Bilen, Hedareb (Beja), Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, and Saho. The Arabic speaking Rashaida who originate from the other side of the gulf are particularly distinct.

It is difficult to establish a working definition of who is ethnically Eritrean as opposed to Ethiopian – the distinction being more political than anything else (obviously there are huge ethnolinguistic distinctions between Amharic central Ethiopians and Eritreans; but most northern Ethiopians belong to the same ethnic groups as Eritreans). That said there are a significant number of people in Eritrea who regard themselves as Ethiopian and they struggle for official representation. In a similar boat are the estimated 1,000 or so Eritreans of Italian origin.

Each ethnic group has its own language. None are officially recognised but Tigrinya and Arabic are the most spoken. Fun fact: Tigrinya grammar is bizarre and complicated, my favourite Tirginya grammar fact is that it is the only modern language to use gerundives, and oh boy do they use gerundives. The Tigrinya gerundive is not a verbal adjective but a finite verb form: indeed it is one of only three verb forms: present, imperfect and gerundive. It denotes a completed action that is still relevant. Thus “he is carrying a stick” becomes “a-stick he-took-hold-of he-began-walking” = “bitri hidju kheydu”.

There is about a 30-30-40 split between followers of the Eritrean Orthadox (formerly Coptic), Catholic, and Sunni Muslim religions. The Christian/Muslim division is arguably one of the strongest in the nation. Here is an ethnic map which is probably as good a guess as to the true situation as anybodies:

Eritrea ethnic groups

How does the system work? (the theory): Eritrea was given independence in 1993. The provisional government set up interim governance measures to tide the country over until the first elections are held. However 18 years later these interim measures are still in place and there are no elections in sight.

The President is indirectly elected by the legislative although there is no clarity on how often this is to happen. The current situation is that elections have been postponed indefinitely and this includes indirect elections. At any rate any re-election would be a formality whist the legislative remains unchanged.

The legislative is supposed to contain 150 members; possibly indirectly elected by the regional assemblies, possibly directly elected by a mechanism to be determined. At any rate this hasn’t happened and in the meantime the 104 members originally selected in 1993 continue to serve. 40 of these are members of the governing committee of the ruling PFDJ, the other 64 are neutrals appointed by the PFDJ.

Eritrea is split into six regions, each of which has a regional assembly, and many districts, each of which has a local council. Elections have happened at both these levels, but not since 2004. These tiers can in any case have their decisions overruled by the national tier.

How does the system work? (the practice): Whilst the 1997 constitution provides for multi-party elections, this constitution has never been implemented and no political organisation is tolerated except the PFDJ. There is thus no democracy to speak of even if there were to be elections. There are also human rights abuses aplenty and severe concerns about the government’s vehemently anti-Islamic attitude which amounts to religious and, given the ethnolinguistic situation thus racial, hatred.

The main concern in Eritrea is the media. Reporters Without Borders ranks it as the place with the least free media in the world (behind North Korea and Burma, behind everyone, absolutely everyone). All private media is banned and RSF classifies the state media as an organisation to “do nothing but relay the regime’s belligerent and ultra-nationalist discourse”. There is not a single foreign correspondent in Eritrea.

This excellent and short paper comparing Rwanda and Eritrea gives more details as to the true situation in Eritrea.

How did we get here?: All sorts of civilisations came and went in the region but the borders and identity which now form Eritrea come from the colony that Italy created and colonised in 1890. In 1936 Italy conquered the neighbouring Kingdom of Ethiopia. They joined their new conquest with their existing colonies (Eritrea and Italian Somaliland) to create Italian East Africa. Following on from WW2 the Italian possessions were dismantled and the UN decided to join Eritrea and Ethiopia in an Ethiopian led federation. Ethiopia dominated the new arrangements and then annexed Eritrea in 1952

The new Ethiopian rule was tough on ethnic and religious minorities; they enforced rule from Addis Ababa and compulsory use of the Amharic language. This caused general resentment in all minority groups but in Eritrea opposition was particularly forceful as they had never previously been part of Ethiopia. Rebellion first broke out around 1960 amongst Eritrean Muslims but Christians rapidly joined in too.

The resulting war of independence rumbled on for the next 30 years. It was complicated by the twelve or so other wars that took place on the horn of Africa during this time: with military action by or against Somalia, other secessionists, Sudan, and Djibouti either helping or hindering the rebels. It also was aggravated by becoming a cold war proxy war after Ethiopia went communist. The result was that Cuba, East Germany, North Yemen, and the USSR all sent troops and logistics to help Ethiopia. NATO also armed Eritrea but didn’t get heavily involved, largely because they didn’t think the rebels could win.

Eritrean Independence War

The rebels made it harder for themselves by engaging in two internal civil wars. The first rebel group – the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) – engaged in a bitter civil war in the early ’70s to crush all the other rebel groups and become the sole leaders of the rebellion. They were successful but almost immediately the ELF split in half and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) – which later changed its name to the PFDJ – was formed as a more overtly left wing movement to the ELF. The EPLF fought a civil war against the ELF in 1981-2 and succeeded in driving them into South Sudan and out of the conflict.

With the demise of the USSR and support to Ethiopia drying up, the PFDJ succeed in taking over most of eastern Eritrea. Meanwhile, with other secessionist and dissident movements elsewhere in Ethiopia gaining ground, Ethiopia decided to withdraw. A UN mediated ceasefire led to an independence referendum which was passed by 99.97% of voters. Whilst doubts were held about some aspects of the referendum the UN did agree that this was a fair result.

Ethiopia grudgingly accepted this, but not the new borders and Ethiopia and Eritrea have been in an almost constant state of war ever since.

Who’s in charge?: The PFDJ’s leader since its foundation (as the EPLF) in 1970 has been Isaias Afewerki and he is the only President Eritrea has ever known. He is 65 so has a few more years in him yet and has said that elections are “postponed indefinitely”, “will happen when the election commission say they can happen”, “will not happen until there is peace with Ethiopia” and “will not happen in any case for two or three more decades” because “they polarise people.” So expect him to stick around.

The only opposition movements are banned and mostly exiled. Most stem from the old ELF in various new forms (such as the ELF-RC and ELF-UO). There is also a nascent pro-democracy movement: the EPDF. A major force within the Muslim community is the Eritrean Islamic Jihad (EIJ).

What does it look like?: The middle is dominated by the Eritrean highlands which are dry and dusty. Either side is quite fertile hilly lowlands, then there is a strip of desert near the sea. Off the coast is the ecologically diverse Dahlak Archipelago with its world famous pearl fisheries. Then in the south eastern corner is the bleak Dahkil desert: 100m below sea level, covered in volcanoes, one of the hottest places on earth (68 degrees C), and one of the most uninhabitable – only the incredibly tough Afar people and a few wild asses live there.

Eritrea volcano world's hottest desert

What are the issues?: Very little is known about what goes on in Eritrea except for official government propaganda. Thus whilst it seems that there is a good story to tell in terms of infrastructural development, it is probable that the government is guilty of lying by omission. There is certainly dire poverty and the wars have considerably damaged the nation. Eritrea has a robust and belligerent attitude to its neighbours and is at war, or in a state of frozen conflict, with every single one if its neighbours by land and sea.

Eritrea has an easy government to dislike, and not without reason, but as the paper I linked to earlier said this is perhaps a view lacking in nuance as there are many regimes who are almost as bad, and considerably worse in some respects, and yet receive considerably more development aid. Insofar as it is possible to tell Afewerki is a brutal and uncompromising tyrant and a bigot, but an honest and rational one – something that cannot be said of several other heads of state.

However for the moment Eritrea receives virtually no aid (only £3 million from the UK which gives £70 million to the similarly sized and ethically compromised Rwanda). They have however had a spot of luck in that newly found mineral deposits mean that Eritrea’s economy may be set to boom. Having been moribund for many years the economy should grow by 17% this year – making it the fastest growing economy on the planet. Sadly it is this mineral wealth, rather than any democratic improvement, that may be the reason developed countries finally start to take an interest.

A good source of impartial information is: virtually impossible to come by. This is the most restrictive and under-reported media environment in the world.

A good book is: Three good recent books on Eritrea are From Guerrillas to Government: The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front: The Eritrean Liberation Front, Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War and Building a New Nation: Collected Articles on the Eritrean Revolution (1983-2002).

When are the next elections?: Nobody knows, don’t hold your breath.


§ 10 Responses to Eritrea

  • Abraham says:

    this article is full of misinformation. the author either knows nothing about eritrea or has hidden agendas.

    • Thank you, feedback is always welcome. But you have to give more details. What specifically do you regard as misinformation. All facts a rigorously checked; the element of opinion are of course more subject to editorialisation. Please give some examples and we can discuss them

  • […] outcomes for many, it led inevitably to ethnic tension and full out civil war with Eritrea – which rumbled on for forty years and ended in Eritrean independence. Flag of the Derg […]

  • Can I disagree with your thoughts on the Africa Research Institute paper?

    I don’t think it really took the reader anywhere useful.

  • […] I’ve just been reading the section about Eritrea on the (erudite in style, but very ambitious in scope) ‘Who rules where?’ website. […]

  • Samuel N. says:

    Excellent piece! as you noted correctly good and impartial source of information about Eritrea is difficult to come by. Following are some really long corrections to what I think are possibly minor inaccuracies:

    Paragraph 16 (right bellow the 3rd graphics): “…driving them into South Sudan”. should be “Sudan” not “South Sudan”

    Par 17: “PFDJ” should be “EPLF” (EPLF, a ‘front’ became a ‘party’ PFDJ only in 1993).

    Par 17: “…other secessionist and dissident movements…” I think you mean the “EPRDF” which is a movement that was dominated by “TPLF”–an Ethiopian partner of EPLF– which overthrew the Ethiopian government (the Derg).

    Par 17: (The overall story) The Soviet Union stopped aid to the Derg in December 1990. The Derg army was defeated in Eritrea by EPLF on May 1991, and at the same time defeated in Ethiopian (government overthrown) by TPLF. There was no UN mediated ceasefire, the “war” was over with Ethiopian government overthrown and replaced by EPLF’s Ethiopian partners.

    Parag 18: While it might be possible to argue that Ethiopian ‘people’ “…grudgingly accepted this…”, the new Ethiopian government led by the revolutionaries (TPLF and Co.) was supportive of Eritrea’s De facto independence in 1991; the referendum and later Eritrea’s De jure independence in 1993. That said, years of ‘exemplary’ peace and friendship occurred between the two countries until by total surprise the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict started in mid 1997.

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