Background Notes: Eritrea

Eritrea Official Info

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Details of Background Notes: Eritrea, Eritrea Official Info
Details for Background Notes: Eritrea

Eritrea Official Info

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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.



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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Ambassador--Vacant
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).

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Background Notes: Eritrea
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