On 1 January 1890, Italy set the boundaries of Eritrea and ruled it as a colony until 1941, when the British defeated the Italians in Africa and took over the administration. After the Italian defeat in World War II, Britain administered Eritrea. Following a decision by the United Nations, Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia in 1952, with a certain amount of autonomy. However, during the federation with Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie’s government systematically violated the rights granted by the UN. The oppression culminated with the dissolution of the Eritrean parliament and the annexation of Eritrea as Ethiopia’s fourteenth province in 1962. In 1961, an armed struggle for independence began. The thirty years of fighting ended in May 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) liberated Asmara and established the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE). In an internationally supervised referendum in April 1993, 99.8% of Eritreans voted for independence, which was officially declared on 24 May 1993.
Eritrea is located on the Horn of Africa, extending over 1,000 kilometers from Ras Kassar in the north to Ras Dumeira in the south in the strait of Bab-el-Mendeb. Ethiopia and Sudan lie to the west of the country, Djibouti to the east, and across the Red Sea are Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Eritrea, including the Dahla archipelago, covers an area of 124,324 square kilometres. The country comprises a high plateau and a coastal plain. The altitude ranges from the highest mountain, Amba Soira (3,010 metres), to the Dankaful depression (100 meters below sea level). The coastal plain consists of semi-arid desert. Tthe Dahla archipelago consists of more than 300 islands and is located off the port city of Massawa. Asmara, capital of Eritrea, has a population of 400,000 people. Assab has 28,000 people and Massawa has 25,000.
Eritrea’s 3.5 million citizens belong to nine major ethnic groups, and are part of three distinct linguistic families: the Cushitic (or Hamitic), the Semitic, and the Nilotic language families. Cushitic languages are spoken by the Beja in western Eritrea, the Afar in the southern tip of the country, and the Saho in the eastern parts of the highlands. The mostly widely spoken languages in Eritrea are Tigrigna and Tigré. They are closely related Semitic languages. Tigrigna is spoken by 50% of the population, while 25% speak Tigré. Kunama and Baria, the Nilotic languages of Eritrea, are spoken in the lowlands between the Gash and Setit rivers. The main working languages of Eritrea are Tigrigna and Arabic. English is the medium of instruction from high school level upwards.
The government includes legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The judicial body operates independenly of both the legislative and executive bodies and has a court system extending from the village, district, zonal, and national levels. The National Assembly outlines the internal and external policies of the government, regulates their implementation, and approves the budget. The legislative body, the National Assembly, has 150 members. Half of them are members of the central committee of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the name adopted by the EPLF at its February 1994 congress. The other 75 representatives are elected. The president nominates officials to head the various ministries, commissions, and offices. The cabinet comprises 16 members chaired by the president. The cabinet has the highest authority between sessions of the national assembly and is accountable to national assembly. A constitutional commission of Eritrea (CCE) which commenced work in 1994 with a two year mandate to draft a constitution has completed its work. The draft constitution is to be submitted to the national assembly for approval and eventual submission to a constituent assembly.
The Eritrean Government is currently engaged in creating a modern, technologically advanced and internationally competitive economy where private enterprise is the driving economic force. Historically, Eritrea has been a trading nation with its strategic location and accessibility to the markets of the Middle East and Africa. Agriculture Agriculture is the main sector of Eritrean economy, and three quarters of the population is dependent upon the production of crops and livestock. The main crops are cotton, sorghum, vegetables, wheat, millet, sesame, and beans. The government has targeted this sector as a priority, identifying the attainment of food security as a long term goal. This includes increasing food production as well as the employment and income levels of the rural population. Industry and Trade The Department of Industry’s objectives are to modernise existing industries and direct them toward becoming export enterprises. New industries will be established, indigenous techology will be made more competitive, and women’s participation in industry will especially be promoted. Within the Department of Trade, the Export Promotion Office aims to improve the competitive position of Eritrean exports in regional markets. The efforts are focused on the country’s traditional export sectors, such as textiles and related products, clothing, footwear, leather and leather products, agricultural products (fruit, oil seeds and gums), fish, and salt.
The main imports include durable and non-durable consumer goods, industrial machinery and transport, raw materials for industry, agricultural inputs, electronic goods, drugs, and medical equipment. The service sector was neglected during the Ethiopian occupation but is now being rebuilt. In particular, Eritrea has a very high potential for tourism. The strategic location of the country and acccessibility to the markets of the middle east provide advantages for trade. Exports The main exports are textiles, clothing, footwear, leather, oil seeds, gum, salt, dairy products, livestock, household utensils, pelagic fish, demersal fish, shrimp, lobster, shark, household utensils, vegetables, and services. Ports The ports of Massawa and Assab presently handle 2.5 million tons of goods through thirteen commercial and nine specialised berths with a joint capacity of 480,000 cubic metres.
With a coastline of over 1,200 km, Eritrea has considerable marine resources. In the 1950′s, the annual catch of low value fish was over 25,000 tons, most of which was exported. The Ministry of Maritime Resources is developing fishing communities along the coast, assisting fishermen with long time credits and training programmes, as well as encouraging people to eat more fish. In addition, shark, lobster, shrimp, shells (including pearl shells), and sea cucumber are also caught. Mineral Resources Minerals and Energy Geological surveys from the Italian colonial period through the 1970′s show occurrence of great mineral resources. There are deposits of metals, as gold, zinc, silver, nickel, lead, chrome, copper and iron, as well as of industrial minerals as kaolin, silicon sand, limestone, marble, salt and potash. There are also reserves of oil and natural gas.
The Department of Mines is now conducting regional mining surveys. Serious negotiations are being conducted with companies interested in mining activities and off-shore oil exploration. Today, most energy used in Eritrea comes from biomass such as wood and charcoal. The Department of Energy is trying to increase energy ouput. Fuel oil powered electrical generation has been the driving force of the improvements, but solar energy is also being introduced.
An increasing number of women are engaged in business enterprises in urban areas. Women constitute 21% of the national assembly and 13% of ministers. Women can enter into marriage freely. Bride price and dowry are prohibited by law. Women play a significant role in the rural economy.
The telecommunication department (ETS) is seeking interested joint venture partners in its effort to partially privatise the telecommunications industry. The communications proclamation, issued on March 1998, paves the way for private companies to invest in the communications sector.
Private companies are now providing value added services such as Internet access. Mobile phone service is expected to be introduced by May 2001. Eritrea’s telecommunications network is in direct need of capital investment. With a per capita of 0.8 telephones per 100 persons Eritrean telecommunications is one of the least developed in sub-Saharan Africa. The government estimates that US$135 million is needed over the next decade to develop the country’s telecommunications networks. ETS plans to put another 250,000 new lines to bring the current per capita up to over one unit per 100 people.
Although a definite market assessment has not been conducted it is believed that there is a substantial market for Internet services. Local private companies are now providing e-mail and Internet services to over 1,000 subscribers. Eritrea’s telecommunications sector offers opportunities for telecommunications companies. There is a long waiting list of subscribers. Currently the government gives priority to businesses, government ministries, and non-governmental organizations, while local residents are served last. The proclamation allows the communications department to determine whether the operation of telecommunications networks and the provision of public telecommunications services are to remain exclusive rights activities or limited competition activities. Potential strategic partners may discuss these issues with the communications department during the joint venture agreement negotiations.
For direct inquiry about telecommunications prospects contact (+291-1) 11-58-47 or fax: (+291-1) 12-69-66.