Eritrean People’s Liberation Front
Eritrean People’s Liberation Front

Eritrea is an African country lying along the southwestern coast of the Red Sea and to the northeast of Ethiopia. Its capital and largest city is Asmara. Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The country’s diverse population speaks many languages and reflects many cultures.

About half the inhabitants are Christian and about half are Muslims. In spite of this diversity, Eritrea has had little internal conflict in part because most factions were united in a struggle for independence from Ethiopia.

The Eritrean region was one of the first areas in Africa to produce crops and domesticate animals. Early people also engaged in extensive trade from Eritrea’s Dead Sea ports. In the fourth century, Eritrea was a relatively independent part of the Askum Empire.

In the 16th century the area became part of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1890 it became a colony of Italy. Italian rule lasted until World War II, when Britain conquered the territory in 1941. In 1952 the United Nations (UN) approved a federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia in an attempt to settle the dispute between Ethiopian claims of rights to the land and Eritrea’s desire for independence.

Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, quickly acted to end the federation and to annex Eritrea as a province. Eritrea began a war for independence from its longlasting domination by other countries. The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was formed in 1958 and initiated armed resistance in 1961.

The next three decades were filled with bitter warfare before Eritrea finally gained its independence in 1993. In the 1970s, due in part to the internal conflicts within the ELF, a new and more tightly organized group—the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (ELPF)—emerged.

Eritrea map
Eritrea map

This group became dominant in the struggle against Ethiopian rule. The Soviet Union and Cuba came to the aid of Ethiopia’s new regime after Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974, but the alliance was unable to dominate the rural districts of Eritrea.

By 1980 the ELPF was increasing its control over more areas of the province, and in 1990–91 it gained possession of two major cities, including the capital. At that point the ELPF was recognized as the provisional government by many other countries.

Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed to hold a referendum on independence in 1993, which resulted in almost unanimous approval for the initiative. In May of 1993 the United Nations admitted Eritrea to membership and granted a four-year transitional period for the formation of a constitution.

The ELPF dominated the early years of independence, and Isaias Afwerki—former general secretary of the ELPF—was elected the first president of the National Assembly. The constitution, formally approved in 1997 but not yet implemented, outlines a government directed by the National Assembly—whose members are elected for five-year terms—a president, and a supreme court.

The president holds great power, since he appoints the members of the Supreme Court and the administrators of each of Eritrea’s six regions. The only legal political party is the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (formerly the ELPF). The National Assembly elections scheduled for 2001 were postponed indefinitely.

Eritrea’s independence and democratic government have been threatened by a number of factors, including the government itself and the economic and physical damages of the long war for independence. During the 1970s–1980s, nature dealt Eritrea devastating blows in the form of droughts and famine. In addition, the government pursued policies that led to engagement in several wars.

Eritrea fought the Sudanese on a number of occasions. Eritrean forces invaded the Red Sea island of Hanish al Kabir, a possession of Yemen, in 1995 and claimed ownership. Arbitration settled the dispute in Yemen’s favor in 1998. Conflict that led to thousands of deaths broke out again between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 over disputed territory.

In 2000 the two countries agreed to a cease-fire, but a formal agreement on the borders between them was not approved. A UN peacekeeping force located in Eritrea continued to patrol a 25-mile-wide Temporary Security Zone along the countries’ borders.

With less than 5 percent of its land arable, Eritrea continues to face severe economic and ecological concerns arising from deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, and its decayed infrastructure.