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Eritrea - a huge missed opportunity?

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Eritrea - a country of missed opportunities?

Since the 2018 Eritrea–Ethiopia summit (also known as 2018 Eritrea–Ethiopia peace summit), Eritrea has had the opportunity to put its past behind it and navigate to a better future. There is no denying the country's ongoing challenges but the peace agreement provided a platform for Eritrea to build from after decades of war.

While numerous economic, social, and international opportunities have already been explored - Eritrea still appears somewhat defined by its past and at risk of not achieving its significant potential.

This introductory article discusses Eritreas context at a high level and focuses on five key areas that the country could prioritize as part of its strategy to accelerate its ongoing development. A conscious attempt has been made to avoid extensive discourse on specific political challenges that Eritrea may face in order to not get boxed into existing narratives around why the country can not (apparently) move forward. While issues such as regional tensions, political machinations, and social issues may persist - a fresh approach may be required to pivot to new thinking.

History of Eritrea - an introductory background

Eritrea, which is in the Horn of Africa, shares borders with Ethiopia, Sudan, and Djibouti with a coastline along the Red Sea. The name "Eritrea" comes from the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea. Human remains in Eritrea date back over a million years highlight the region's significance in history. This includes prehistoric sites, with significant fossil finds like "Madam Buya" dating back 1 million years. The Red Sea coast also played a role in early human migration out of Africa and archaeological discoveries near Massawa provide evidence of Paleolithic tools used for harvesting marine resources.

The Kingdom of Aksum, located in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, existed from around 100 to 940 AD. It began as a trading empire in the fourth century BC and gained prominence by the first century AD. The first capital, Mazaber, was built by Itiyopis, son of Cush, according to the Liber Axumae. The capital later moved to Axum in northern Ethiopia, and the kingdom used the name "Ethiopia" from the fourth century.

The Aksumites erected large stelae, including the world's largest, the Obelisk of Aksum, standing at 90 feet. Under Ezana, Aksum adopted Christianity, making it the first world religion in modern Eritrea. Debre Sina, built in the fourth century, is one of the oldest monasteries in Africa. Debre Libanos, founded in the late fifth or early sixth century, housed the Golden Gospel, a metal-covered bible from the thirteenth century.

In the seventh century, early Muslims sought refuge in Aksum from Qurayshi persecution, building the first African mosque, the Mosque of the Companions in Massawa, during a journey known as the First Hijrah. Aksum was a significant market for ivory, mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Zoskales ruled Aksum, facilitating trade by minting their own currency.

Following the decline of Aksum, the Eritrean highlands came under the rule of the Christian Zagwe dynasty. Subsequently, the area fell within the influence of the Ethiopian Empire. Initially called Ma'ikele Bahri, meaning "between the seas/rivers" (referring to the land between the Red Sea and the Mereb river), the entire coastal region was controlled by the Adal Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Badlay ibn Sa'ad ad-Din.

The Ethiopian Emperor Zara Yaqob later reconquered this territory and reorganized the coastal highlands into the Christian province of Midri-Bahri, signifying "Sea land" in Tigrinya. This region, governed by a Bahri Negus (or Bahri Negash, meaning "sea king"), included areas like Shire in Ethiopia, located on the opposite side of the Mereb river. The capital was Debarwa, and the state's primary provinces were Hamasien, Serae, and Akele Guzai.

The first documented Westerner in Eritrea was Portuguese explorer Francisco Alvares in 1520. He described local powers, including the kingdom of Axum. Eritrea's coast was crucial for connecting to the region of Tigray, where the Portuguese had a colony, aiding their ties with interior Ethiopia. In 1541, Massawa witnessed the landing of troops, leading to the defeat of the Adal Sultanate in 1543.

By 1557, the Ottomans occupied northeastern Eritrea until the late 1800s. They established the Habesh Eyalet, with Massawa as the capital. The Ottomans faced resistance in the highlands but retained control of the seaboard until the late 1800s. In 1734, the Afar leader Kedafu established the Mudaito Dynasty, incorporating the southern Denkel lowlands into the Sultanate of Aussa.

Eritrea's pre-colonial period had distinct regions, hindering political and economic development due to limited exchanges and creating inequality. The Scramble for Africa led to the establishment of present-day Eritrea during Italian colonization. In the vacuum following Emperor Yohannes IV's death in 1889, Italy proclaimed Italian Eritrea. The Treaty of Wuchale formalized Italian control over various territories in exchange for guarantees of financial assistance and continued access to European arms, solidifying Italy's colonization.

In 1888, the Italian administration initiated development projects in Italian Eritrea, including the completion of the Eritrean Railway to Saati and its extension to Asmara in the highlands by 1911. The Asmara–Massawa Cableway, once the world's longest, was dismantled during World War II. The colonial authorities invested in agriculture, urban amenities, and public services, employing many Eritreans in the police, public works, and military during various conflicts.

The administration established numerous factories producing various goods, and by 1939, there were around 2,198 factories, with most employees being Eritrean citizens. The industrialization led to an increase in both Italian and Eritrean residents in the cities. Mussolini's rise to power in Italy in 1922 brought significant changes, and in 1936, Italian Eritrea, along with Italian Somaliland, was merged with conquered Ethiopia to form Italian East Africa. Eritrea became the industrial center of the new territory during this fascist period.

From 1935 onwards, Asmara's architecture underwent significant improvements, transforming into a "modernist Art Deco city" that was later declared a "UNESCO World City Heritage." The Italians designed over 400 buildings, including renowned art deco structures like the Fiat Tagliero Building and the Cinema Impero, but this construction boom was halted by Italy's involvement in World War II.

Following the 1941 Battle of Keren, the British expelled the Italians from Eritrea and assumed administrative control. Eritrea was placed under British military administration as the Allied forces deliberated on its future. Due to a lack of consensus among the Allies, British administration continued until 1950.

In the immediate postwar period, the British proposed dividing Eritrea along religious community lines, suggesting annexation to the British colony of Sudan and Ethiopia. The Soviet Union initially supported the idea of returning Eritrea to Italy under trusteeship or as a colony, anticipating a communist victory in Italian polls.

In the 1950s, Emperor Haile Selassie's Ethiopian feudal administration sought to annex Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. Emperor Haile Selassie claimed both territories in international forums, asserting Ethiopian control. The debate over the fate of former Italian colonies, including Eritrea, continued in the United Nations.

In response to U.N. Resolution 390A(V) adopted in December 1950, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia with the encouragement of the United States. The resolution outlined a loose federal structure, linking Eritrea and Ethiopia under the emperor's sovereignty. Eritrea was granted its own administrative and judicial structure, flag, and control over domestic affairs. However, the federal government, effectively the existing imperial government, retained control over foreign affairs, defense, finance, and transportation. While the resolution ignored Eritreans' desires for independence, it ensured democratic rights and a degree of autonomy for the population.

In 1958, the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was founded by a group of Eritreans, primarily comprising students, professionals, and intellectuals. The ELM engaged in clandestine political activities to resist the centralizing policies of the Ethiopian state. On September 1, 1961, the armed struggle for independence began with the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), led by Hamid Idris Awate.

In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the Eritrean parliament and annexed the territory. The Eritrean War of Independence lasted for 30 years until 1991, when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), a successor of the ELF, defeated Ethiopian forces in Eritrea. The EPLF also assisted Ethiopian rebel forces in taking control of Addis Ababa.

In the 1980s, the Eritrea Inter Agency Consortium (EIAC), a non-government organization, contributed to development projects for the Eritrean Liberation movement.

After a UN-supervised referendum where Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence, Eritrea declared its independence in 1993, gaining international recognition. The EPLF took power, establishing a one-party state and ion effect banning further political activity. As of 2020, no elections have been held. On May 28, 1993, Eritrea became the 182nd member state of the United Nations.

International relations

Eritrea is an active member of various international organizations, including the United Nations, African Union, Arab League (as an observing member alongside Brazil and Venezuela), and others like INTERPOL, Non-Aligned Movement, and the World Customs Organization. The nation also participates in regional bodies like the Port Management Association of Eastern and Southern Africa.

The Eritrean government has withdrawn its representative from the African Union in the past but appointed an envoy in 2011. Relations with Djibouti and Yemen have been strained due to territorial disputes. In May 2019, the United States removed Eritrea from the "Counterterror Non-Cooperation List," and a U.S. congressional delegation visited Eritrea, marking the first visit in 14 years. Notably, Eritrea, along with Belarus, Syria, and North Korea, voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Relationship with Ethiopia

Eritrea's primary external issue is the un-demarcated border with Ethiopia, resulting in a deadly rivalry after years of cautious mutual tolerance. The Eritrean-Ethiopian War from 1998 to 2000, marked by conflict around Badme and Zalambessa, claimed thousands of lives and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Disagreements post-war led to a prolonged stalemate, periodic tension, and threats of war. The president of Eritrea urged the UN to take action, escalating the situation with support for opposition between the two nations.

In 2018, a peace treaty and joint declaration officially ended the border conflict. This occured via a bilateral summit that took place on 8–9 July 2018 in Asmara, Eritrea, between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The key aspects of the agreement include:

  • The state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has come to an end

  • To forge intimate political, economic, social, cultural and security cooperation

  • Diplomatic ties, transport, trade and communication links resume

  • The decision on the boundary will be implemented

  • Jointly ensuring regional peace, cooperation and development

However, in 2020, Eritrean troops intervened in the Tigray War within Ethiopia on the side of the Ethiopian government (and in April 2021, Eritrea confirmed its troops' involvement in Ethiopia).

What opportunities does Eritrea have?

Eritrea does have a lot to offer if the conditions were to improve even slightly. The following are five key areas that the country could focus on as part of its strategy to accelerate its ongoing development. These include:

  • The people of Eritrea. Despite the conflicts and hardships that they have been through, the Eritrean people remain the country's biggest asset and key to the future. Eritreans have shown incredible tenacity, intelligence, and resourcefulness and this needs to be tapped into in order to build the best possible version of Eritrea. It is noted that many highly capable Eritreans now live outside Eritrea and their talents need to be drawn upon to maximise the capabilities available.

  • Education. Building the capability of the country through education is an obvious axiom but is particularly important for Eritrea given its more recent challenges. Education needs to start at primary level but extend through to higher educational levels and be focused on transitioning adults from low to high income professions.

  • Tourism. Accounting for only 1-2% of GDP, tourism appears to be an economic activity that could provide Eritrea with significant opportunities. This could be focused on Eritreas coastline, highlands, national parks, wildlife, history, culture and cuisine, architecture and the development of new sustainable attractions.

  • Asmara. The capital city of Eritrea is a national treasure that is rated as a UNESCO world heritage site. Asmara offers the best of Eritrea culture, cuisine, and has a temperate climate and could be further enhanced to maximise its status as a location for international tourism and business.

  • The Port of Assab is a port city in the Southern Red Sea Region of Eritrea. It is situated on the west coast of the Red Sea. Landlocked Ethiopia has made it clear that it would like greater access to sea ports to support its growing population and trade. Eritrea could support Ethiopia's ambitious in manner that would significantly boost its own economy and regional status with no loss of sovereignty or territorial integrity.

These five areas can be further unpacked to understand the nature of the opportunity.

Eritreas people

Estimates of Eritrea's population vary from 3.6 million to 6.7 million, as the country has not conducted an official government census. In 2020, 41.1% of the population was below 15 years, 54.3% were between 15 and 65, and 4.5% were 65 or older.

There has been significant levels of emigration from Eritrea, attributed to the poor economy and political conditions. The Eritrean diaspora live all over the world including Ethiopia, Sudan, Germany, United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, UAE and other locations.

The country is multi-ethnic with nine recognized groups, speaking various languages. Tigrinya, Arabic, and English are the main languages.

Eritrea has two main religions, Christianity and Islam. Estimates of religious adherence vary; according to the Pew Research Center (2020), approximately 62.9% are Christians, 36.6% are Muslims, and 0.4% practice traditional African religions. The U.S. Department of State (2019) estimates 49% adherence to both Christianity and Islam, with 2% practicing other religions. The exact distribution remains a subject of debate.

Education in Eritrea

Eritrea's education system consists of pre-primary, primary, middle, secondary, and post-secondary levels. There are nearly 1,270,000 students in primary, middle, and secondary education, distributed across approximately 824 schools, two universities (the University of Asmara and the Eritrea Institute of Technology), and smaller colleges and technical schools. The Eritrea Institute of Technology, with three colleges, focuses on science, engineering, and education. The University of Asmara, established in 1958, is currently inactive.

As of 2018, the adult literacy rate in Eritrea is 76.6%, with higher rates for men (84.4%) than women (68.9%). For youth aged 15–24, the overall literacy rate is 93.3%, with slightly higher rates for men (93.8%) than women (92.7%).

Education is compulsory for children aged 6 to 13, but barriers include traditions, school fees, and the opportunity costs for low-income households. Statistics suggest 70% to 90% attendance at the elementary level and approximately 61% at the secondary level, with high student-teacher ratios and large class sizes. Learning hours are often fewer than six hours per day.

Tourism in Eritrea

Tourism in Eritrea accounted for 2% of the economy until 1997 but declined significantly after 1998, reaching less than 1% of GDP in 2006. International tourism receipts were $73 million in 2002, with most tourists being members of the Eritrean diaspora. Annual visitors increased to 142,000 in 2016.

Key attractions include the capital Asmara, Dahlak Islands, and wilderness areas. Eritrean Airlines had no scheduled service as of July 2023, and international visitors often rely on alternative carriers. The government has initiated a 20-year tourism development plan, the "2020 Eritrea Tourism Development Plan," aiming to leverage the country's cultural and natural resources, with active participation in tourism trade fairs.

Wildlife in Eritrea

Eritrea boasts a diverse array of wildlife, including 126 mammal species, 90 reptile species, and 19 amphibian species. Regulations have contributed to the steady increase in their numbers throughout the country. Common mammals include the Abyssinian hare, African wild cat, Black-backed jackal, African golden wolf, Genet, Ground squirrel, pale fox, Soemmerring's gazelle, and warthog. Dorcas gazelle is prevalent on the coastal plains and in Gash-Barka.

Lions are reported to inhabit the mountains of the Gash-Barka Region, while Dik-diks can

be found in various areas. The endangered African wild ass is present in the Denakalia Region.

Other local wildlife includes bushbuck, duikers, greater kudu, Klipspringer, African leopards, oryx, and crocodiles. The spotted hyena is widespread and fairly common in the region. Eritrea is also home to a rich avifauna, boasting 560 species of birds. It is estimated that there is a small population of around 100 African bush elephants in Eritrea.

Coastal areas boast diverse marine species such as dolphins, dugongs, whale sharks, turtles, marlins, swordfish, and manta rays. Eritrea also hosts unique species found only in the country, including various bugs, frogs, mammals, snakes, and plants.

Over 700 plant species, including marine plants and seagrass, have been recorded in Eritrea. The country possesses 26% arable land and diverse habitats, including grasslands, savannas, shrublands, deserts, xeric shrublands, tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, and mangrove forests.

All of Eritrea's national parks, including Dahlak Marine National Park, Nakfa Wildlife Reserve, Gash-Setit Wildlife Refuge, Semenawi Bahri National Park, and Yob Wildlife Reserve, are protected.


Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 8, 2017, due to its wealth of Art Deco, futurist, modernist, and rationalist buildings, primarily constructed during the period of Italian Eritrea. The city's rapid growth began in 1889, and it became a hub for experimenting with radical new designs.

Despite European influence in planning and construction, the indigenous population played a significant role as construction. Asmara boasts various early twentieth-century architectural styles, including neo-Romanesque, Art Deco, Cubist, and futuristic designs. Notable buildings include the Cinema Impero, Africa Pension, Eritrean Orthodox Enda Mariam Cathedral, Fiat Tagliero Building, and Asmara Opera, reflecting the city's modern and diverse architectural heritage.

In Asmara, the summers are warm, dry, and partly cloudy and the winters are short, cool, wet, windy, and overcast. Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 9°C to 25°C and is rarely below 7°C or above 27°C.

The Port of Assab

In the 19th century, Assab was a small fishing village with minimal contact with the interior. In 1869, an Italian missionary bought the port, claiming it was strategically located. Despite controversy, Italy seized control in 1882, aiming to develop trade routes to Ethiopia. Trade between Assab and Shewa expanded, but after the occupation of Massawa in 1885 and hostilities with Ethiopia, Assab declined.

In the early 20th century, Ethiopia favored Djibouti, and the completion of the Ethio-Djibouti Railways further diminished Assab's importance. The settlement relied on salt exports and had a population of 1,000 to 3,000. By 1922, it was described as a small village. After Eritrea's federation with Ethiopia in 1952, Assab became a crucial port but faced setbacks during the Eritrean–Ethiopian War in 1998, leading to a decline in population by 2005.

In 2008, a border dispute with neighboring Djibouti made the immediate area around Assab unsafe and resulted in forces from Qatar acting as mediators in a buffer zone. The role of Assab further diminished economically however. Assab is served by Assab International Airport and several nations including The United Arab Emirates reportedly uses the port and airport for logistics.

Other opportunities in Eritrea - Mining, agriculture,

Mining activity in Eritrea

Mining plays a significant role in Eritrea's economy, contributing approximately 20% to its GDP in 2021. The growth in this sector is attributed to the full operations of the Bisha Mine (gold and silver) by Canadian Nevsun Resources, the production of cement from the Massawa cement factory, and investments in copper, zinc, and Colluli potash mining operations by Australian and Chinese mining companies, contributing to economic development.

Agriculture in Eritrea

Agriculture is a crucial economic activity in Eritrea, constituting 20% of the GDP in 2021. The country possesses 565,000 hectares of arable land and permanent crops. Seventy percent of the Eritrean workforce is engaged in agriculture, making up about one-third of the economy. Key agricultural products include sorghum, millet, barley, wheat, legumes, vegetables, fruits, sesame, linseed, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. Since independence, Eritrea has constructed 187 dams, including large ones with a capacity of up to 350 million m3, aimed at addressing drought, supporting agriculture, fishing, and energy needs. Additionally, 600 micro-dams have been built.

Energy sector in Eritrea

In 2001, Eritrea's annual petroleum consumption was estimated at 370,000 tons, with no domestic production. The Eritrean Petroleum Corporation procures petroleum through international competitive tenders. Although opportunities exist for oil and natural gas exploration, no substantial progress has been made. The country has seen a slight increase in the use of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower, driven by the growth of solar power manufacturing companies. The Eritrean government has expressed interest in further developing alternative energy, including geothermal, solar, and wind power.

Possible steps for the five focus areas:

  • The people of Eritrea.  Given the hardships that country has been there may be a degree of fatigue and loss of vision for the country. This may particularly be the case for young people and the diaspora who now view the country from outside. Despite this, it is clear that Eritreans are fiercely proud of their country no doubt dream of a better future for it. This energy needs to be captured in a new way by the government and media in Eritrea in a non political way in order to harness the ideas and resources that Eritreans everywhere can bring to bear. This could be accomplished with the establishment of new non political communications functions using modern tools and platforms that work between government, business and non-government. Clear ground rules need to be established to create a new narrative for Eritrea that looks forward and focuses on the opportunities and does not dwell on the risks and threats. The talent of all Eritreans needs to be drawn upon in a politically neutral manner in order to create sustainable economic growth story.

  • Education. Raising all levels of education within Eritrea needs to be a priority but an immediate focus at the tertiary level and focused on transitioning adults from low to high income professions. Currently 70 % of Eritreans work in agriculture and while this will remain a crucial sector for the Eritrean economy, the development of other sectors will necessitate new capabilities. The new sectors could relate to the other focus areas noted in this report such as tourism, the accentuation of Asmara as an international city, and the the management of the Port of Assab. Other sectors will also evolve through this pivot to a modern economy such as technology based industries, creative media, and aquaculture related areas.

  • Tourism. With such a low percentage of the economy currently based upon tourism, there is significant scope to grow a prosperous tourist industry in Eritrea, The country has an excellent base from which to build including its coastline, highlands, national parks, wildlife, history, culture and cuisine, and architecture. These attractions cannot be taken for granted however in the highly competitive international tourist industry and Eritrea needs to engage with the international tourism industry and begin attracting the variety of international tourists that it would like to see. This could start relatively small and scale up to allow for the Eritrean sector to continue improving and adapt its offerings to meet the expectations of international tourists. New attractions should also be actively developed and Eritrea may wish to partner with international companies with experience in niche areas to rapidly develop the infrastructure required.

  • Asmara. The capital city of Eritrea is already well regarded as a travel destination by travellers despite its very limited international exposure and accessibility. Eritrea could focus attention on maximising the potential of Asmara as a location for international tourism and business but ensuring core infrastructure is enabled in tourist areas such as water, power and internet access. International entrepreneurs from a variety of locations and backgrounds could be permitted to be based in Asmara in order to rapidly build Eritrean capability. By bringing in international individuals and companies who possess desired capability the country can accelerate the transfer of knowledge and consequently its positive transition.

  • The Port of Assab. Ethiopia's need for greater access to sea ports offers Eritrea an opportunity to replicate some of the economic success enjoyed by Djibouti. By creating a strategic link from Ethiopia to the Red Sea, Eritrea could benefit from improved roads, rail and possibly other infrastructure. The accessibility of the Red Sea to Ethiopians would also likely increase the level of Ethiopian tourism coming into southern Eritrea and could be exploited further over time. A thriving port could also evolve broader opportunities up the coast of Eritrea and provide a helpful transport connection. The port project would also be a strong symbol of Eritrea's strategic partnership with Ethiopia and reflect the positive regional status of both countries with no loss of sovereignty or territorial integrity by Eritrea.

Continuing to improve Eritrea's relationship with Ethiopia

Clearly, Eritrea's future is closely tied with that of Ethiopia's. Beyond the historic connections there are very good and logical reasons for the countries to work increasingly closely together.

Arguably, the main way to improve the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is through economics as both countries will benefit from working together.

Given the historic conflicts there is likely merit in building these economic ties with and through partners from outside the region. These partners should be chosen carefully to avoid 'big power' politics, regional block interests, religious, or ethnic prejudices. This may eliminate some obvious partners and require both Ethiopia and Eritrea look further afield for partners who bring less regional or strategic baggage.


Eritrea is currently a country that appears to be missing the opportunity to pivot from its past and navigate to a significantly better future. Eritrea has an excellent base from which to build from but it does need to take active steps to move in a new direction. Key focus areas could include: the Eritrean people (including the Eritrean diaspora); education; tourism; Asmara; and the Port of Assab. While these are all obvious areas - they all may require a new strategy and level of policy pragmatism, with a clear focus on the long term outcomes for Eritrea and its people.


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