Return to Stories

Going it Alone in Asmara

In its short history, Eritrea - the Land of the Red Sea - 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 and 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when Eritrea was seen as a potential model for other countries on the Horn of Africa, the country has increasingly withdrawn into economic and diplomatic isolation under the autocratic administration of President Isaias Afwerki.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 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 as well and the country's plan economy leaves very 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 very basics are in short supply which has given rise to a vibrant economy in

recycled materials based around the Medeber market in the capital Asmara where items of all shapes and sizes are fashioned out of scrap metal. Though Asmara draws tourists with its unrivaled concentration of Art Deco architecture dating from the decades of 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 in spring in the years it is held, 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 such seemingly trivial matters as practicing an 'unregistered' religion, trying to flee the country or refusing to serve in the armed forces. Eritrea's media and press is intensely controlled and scrutinised giving the country the dubious accolade of being at the very bottom, in 178th place, on the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters without Borders, an NGO, behind such unsavoury regimes as Burma, Iran, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Eritrea struggles to maintain good relations with neighbouring countries and governments further afield. 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 during the last decade, is self-sufficient in its food production and is one of very few countries that look set to achieve the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations in 2000. And it has achieved this with comparatively little foreign aid due to restrictions on foreign involvement in the country's economy.

Stefan Boness has visited Eritrea on a number of occasions, documenting social and economic developments as well as its unique architectural heritage (click HERE to view a photo story on Eritrea's architecture).
powered by