Eritrea emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into war, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly, with its old adversary, Ethiopia. It now faces the gigantic task of rebuilding a country ravaged by more than 30 years of conflict, its infrastructure, buildings and fields destroyed.
A former Italian colony, Eritrea was occupied by the British in 1941. In 1952 the United Nations resolved to establish it as an autonomous entity federated with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims for sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. However, 10 years later the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, decided to annex it, triggering a 32-year-long armed struggle.
This culminated in independence shortly after an alliance of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and a coalition of Ethiopian resistance movements defeated Selassie’s communist successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
In 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence, leaving Ethiopia landlocked.
However, by 1998 the two sides had fallen out over Ethiopian access to the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab. Unequal trade terms, and border disputes around the town of Badme contributed to a resumption of hostilities.
This formally ended with a peace deal in June 2000, but not before leaving both sides with thousands of soldiers dead and the two Eritrean ports destroyed.
Population: 4 million
Major languages: Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic, English
Major religions: Islam, Christianity
Form of government: One-party republic
Monetary unit: 1 Nakfa = 100 cents
Main exports: Livestock, hides, sorghum, textiles, salt, light manufactures
Internet domain: .er
Time zone: GMT+3
International dialling code: +291
President: Isayas Afewerki
Born in 1945, Isaias Afwerki joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in 1966. He received military training in China the same year, then went on to be deputy divisional commander. In 1970 he co-founded the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and in 1987 he was elected secretary-general of the EPLF.
In 1993 he was elected president of independent Eritrea. Once a friend and ally of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, Isaias purports to favour economic integration with Ethiopia.
The Eritrean media has made great strides since independence in 1991. Under the Ethiopian Government there was only one small regional radio station broadcasting in Tigrinya and a local weekly newspaper published in Tigrinya and Arabic. Since independence the Eritrean Government has developed a new national radio station which broadcasts in Tigrinya, Arabic, Tigre, Afar, Saho, Kunama, Amharic and Oromifa.
In the print media there are a number of privately-owned as well as government newspapers.