A small poor country in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea is one of the most closed and repressive states on the planet, ruled with an iron fist for 30 years by President Issaias Afeworki.
Eritrea officially became a state in May 1993, two years after shedding Ethiopian rule.
Since then, the country has been led by Issaias Afeworki, hero of independence, who established a one-party system, without an election, where any opposition is severely repressed.
“One-man dictatorship (…), Eritrea has no legislature, no civil society organizations or independent media and no independent judiciary”, says the NGO Human Rights Watch.
Independent media have been banned since 2001 in the country, ranked 174th (out of 180) in Reporters Without Borders ‘ 2023 press freedom index.
The human rights situation there is “disastrous” with “no sign of improvement”, lamented the UN Human Rights Council in March, citing in particular cases of torture and enforced disappearances committed with “total impunity”. “.
Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have left their country, fleeing religious persecution, arbitrary arrests and indefinite national service, considered forced labour by human rights organisations.
An Italian colony from 1889 to 1941, Eritrea then passed under British administration until 1952.
It is then federated by a UN resolution to Ethiopia, of which it becomes an “autonomous entity”, with its own flag, parliament and government. But in 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed the annexation of Eritrea.
An independence movement, led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea (FPLE), developed and engaged in an armed struggle against Ethiopian domination.
In May 1991, the forces of the EPLF – which greatly participated in bringing down the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam in Addis Ababa – seized Asmara and installed a government led by Issaias Afeworki.
On May 24, 1993, after a referendum supported by the UN, Eritrea officially proclaimed its independence.
Eritrean independence deprived Ethiopia of its unique coastline, on the Red Sea.
There followed 25 years of tension between the two neighbours, which exploded into a bloody border conflict between 1998 and 2000, causing 80,000 deaths and 1.3 million displaced persons without resolving the question of the delineation of the borders.
On July 9, 2018, the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepted the demarcation of the border set by an independent international commission in 2002.
This rapprochement allows the reopening of the embassies in Asmara and Addis Ababa, the restoration of air links, commercial relations and telephone lines.
It will also earn Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
War in Tigray
In November 2020, Abiy Ahmed sent the federal army to Tigray, a northern region of Ethiopia, accusing local authorities of having organized attacks on military installations.
This border region of Eritrea is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a party that dominated the Ethiopian government until 2018 and sworn enemy of the Asmara regime.
The Eritrean army enters Tigray, in support of Ethiopian forces. During the two years of conflict, its soldiers were accused of abuses against civilians (massacres, rapes, looting, etc.) and the regime was sanctioned by the United States in 2021.
Asmara rejects these accusations, described in February as “chimera” and “disinformation” by Issaias Afeworki.
The Ethiopian government signed a peace agreement with the TPLF in November 2022, but Eritrea did not participate in the negotiations.
In January, the United States announced that Eritrean forces had begun a “withdrawal” from Tigray, but a UN report in March deemed it “very slow and largely incomplete”.
As access to Tigray is restricted, it is impossible to independently verify whether Eritrean troops have left the region.
Poverty and corruption
Eritrea is one of the least developed countries on the planet, ranked 176th out of 191 countries on the UN’s human development index in 2021. It is also one of the most corrupt, 162nd out of 180 in the ranking of the NGO Transparency International.
Its main riches are the gold, copper and zinc mines. Its population, estimated between 3 and 6 million inhabitants, lives mainly from agriculture, an activity very vulnerable to extreme climatic hazards in this region of the world.
The country has nine ethnic groups and a roughly equal split between Christians and Muslims. There is no official language but Tigrinya, Arabic and English are the most widely used.
The capital Asmara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Italian colonial modernist architecture.