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Eritrea - African Enigma

Once held up as a beacon of hope in Africa, Eritrea is now more often referred to as a militarised camp ruled by an authoritarian regime. Since independence in 1991, Eritrea has had fraught relations with most of its neighbours and mainly features in Western media these days in the context of human rights violations and its youth fleeing indefinite military service. But there is also another side to Eritrea that goes largely unreported. Based on strong principles of self-reliance and social justice, the country met many of the UN's Millennium Development Goals ahead of the 2015 deadline and performed particularly well in the fields of education and health. In its short history, Eritrea has seen its fair share of upheaval and violence. The country was born out of a protracted War of Independence from Ethiopia that rumbled on for three decades, variously involving the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany and South Yemen, finally resulting in formal independence in 1993. Only 5 years into independence, however, another ruinous border war with Ethiopia erupted that lasted for 2 years, costing two of the region's poorest countries hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. The border adjustments following the cessation of hostilities were marginal.

Since the heady days of early independence, when Eritrea was seen as a potential model for other countries on the Horn of Africa, the country has increasingly withdrawn into economic and diplomatic isolation under the autocratic administration of President Isaias Afwerki. Having led the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to victory against Ethiopia in 1991, Afwerki became head of state and has remained the country's unchallenged leader for the past two decades.

The People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the EPLF's successor, which is led by Afwerki, is the only party that is permitted to politically organise in Eritrea and elections have been continually postponed, the government's reasoning being that no elections can take place while territorial conflicts with neighbouring Ethiopia remain unresolved. Afwerki runs a tight ship economically and the country's plan economy leaves little scope for private enterprise. Micro-managed imports and negligible exports supplement an economy that is largely based on subsistence agriculture, with some 80% of the population involved in farming and herding.

Consumer goods beyond the basics are in short supply, giving rise to a vibrant economy in recycled materials based around Medeber market in the capital Asmara where items are fashioned out of scrap metal. Though Asmara draws tourists with its unrivalled concentration of Art Deco architecture dating from the the Italian occupation in the first half of the 20th century and the Tour of Eritrea draws international cycling teams and spectators from around the world, the country remains very much in a timewarp.

Eritreans live under a complex web of restrictions and face the risk of arrest and imprisonment for activities like practicing 'unregistered' religion, trying to flee the country or refusing to serve in the armed forces. Eritrea's media is closely censored placing it at the bottom of the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters without Borders, an NGO, behind Iran, Turkmenistan and North Korea. Eritrea struggles to maintain good relations with neighbouring countries and other governments and following a leaked US State Department assertion that Eritrea was a 'state sponsor of terrorism' and potentially a 'rogue state', relations with the US slumped, leading to an arms embargo and sanctions over allegations of Eritrean involvement with the al-Shabab militia in Somalia.

Despite these shortcomings, however, the country's economy has been growing at double digit figures for the past decade, is self-sufficient in its food production and has this with comparatively little foreign aid due to restrictions on foreign involvement in the country's economy.

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