Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: Eritrea is a one-party state. Elections have been postponed repeatedly, and reforms called for in the constitution, ratified in 1997, have yet to take place.

Constitution: In March 1994, the Provisional Government of Eritrea established a Constitutional Commission. The resulting constitution was introduced in 1997, one year later than planned. Although the constitution has been ratified, it has yet to be fully implemented, and general elections have not been held, despite the ratification of an election law in 2002.

Branches of Government: The Eritrean constitution calls for legislative, executive, and judicial branches. According to the constitution, a 150-seat unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, decides internal and external policy, approves the budget, and elects the president of the country. However, the National Assembly has not met since 2002, and many of its members are either in prison or have fled the country. Legislative as well as executive functions are now exercised by President Isaias Afwerki. The president’s cabinet, the executive branch of the government, has 17 ministers, all appointed by the president. Civilian and military zonal administrators also are appointed by the president. The judiciary consists of three court systems: civilian, military, and special courts. Civilian courts include community courts, sub-regional courts, regional courts, and the High Court, which also serves as an appellate court.

Administrative Divisions: Eritrea has six administrative regions (zobatat; sing., zoba): Anseba, Debub, Debubawi K'eyih Bahri, Gash-Barka, Ma'akel, and Semenawi Keyih Bahri.

Provincial and Local Government: Each of the six administrative regions has its own regional, sub-regional, and village administrations.

Judicial and Legal System: Although the judiciary is nominally independent of the executive and legislative branches, in practice there reportedly is significant interference in the judicial process. In one case in 2001, the president of the High Court was detained after criticizing the government for interfering in the judiciary. The legal system incorporates pre-independence laws of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, revised Ethiopian laws, customary laws, and laws enacted after independence. Sharia law is used in civil cases involving Muslims.

Electoral System: National Assembly elections were scheduled for 2001, but the elections were delayed indefinitely by the government and have yet to take place. Although elections have not been held, the president ostensibly serves a five-year term and is limited to serving no more than two terms.

Politics and Political Parties: The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the ruling party in Eritrea. Opposition political parties are not legal and do not have a political presence in the Eritrean government. Opposition groups in Eritrea include the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea, the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (Eritrean Islamic Jihad), the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Eritrean National Alliance, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front-Democratic Party, and the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization.

Mass Media: There is no independent press in Eritrea. In 2001, in an effort to quell burgeoning dissent about the future of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the government closed down eight independent newspapers and arrested an undisclosed number of journalists. The only published newspaper is the state-owned daily Hadas Eritrea. Daily radio (the Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea) and television (ERI-TV) broadcasts made in local languages also are controlled by the government.

Foreign Relations: When Eritrea gained independence in 1993, it enjoyed good relations with its regional neighbors and the goodwill of the international community. A little more than a decade later, Eritrea is increasingly isolated from its neighbors and the international community. Eritrea’s relations with Ethiopia are strained by territorial disputes and relations with Sudan, by political problems. Relations with Yemen warmed considerably in 2004, when President Isaias visited Sana, and the two countries concluded agreements in areas such as cultural exchanges, security, and trade. Although relations with European nations, including Italy, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands, have been close in the past, they have chilled in the wake of the Eritrean government’s crackdown on internal dissent in 2001 and the closure of the independent press. At present, relations with the United States focus on resolving the border dispute with Ethiopia and cooperation on counterterrorism. Relations with Ethiopia, once close and mutually beneficial, are extremely tense, as the border dispute between the two nations has yet to come to a full and peaceful resolution.

Membership in International Organizations: Eritrea is a member of a number of international organizations, among them the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, African Development Bank, African Union, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), International Criminal Court, International Finance Corporation, Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, International Criminal Police Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Maritime Organization, United Nations, and World Health Organization.

Major International Treaties: Eritrea is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, United Nations Convention on Desertification, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Eritrea is not a party to the Conventions on Biological Weapons or Conventional Weapons.


Armed Forces Overview: Following its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the Eritrean government planned an armed forces strength of around 30,000. By the late 1990s, the armed forces had grown to 50,000 troops, and with the start of hostilities with Ethiopia, the army expanded dramatically, to nearly 300,000. A demobilization of about 50,000 soldiers took place in 2003, although aggressive efforts to round up men aged 18 to 40 who were avoiding national service continued as lingering tensions with Ethiopia failed to reach a peaceful resolution. Eritrea still has the second largest army in Africa. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an estimated 1 million antipersonnel mines remain in Eritrea, approximately 400,000 of which were laid by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces during the 1998–2000 conflict.

Foreign Military Relations: Eritrea’s government generally is not favorably disposed to multilateral institutions, and relations with neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan are poor. Eritrea has had a close security relationship with China since independence. In early 2005, security cooperation with Yemen began with the signing of a joint security agreement and the creation of a joint ministerial committee. U.S. military cooperation with Eritrea, suspended during the war with Ethiopia, has resumed on a modest basis.

External Threat: The continuing border dispute with Ethiopia represents the most immediate and clear external threat to Eritrean security and stability. Relations with Sudan also remain tense, as for the past decade Khartoum has accused Asmara of supporting rebel groups in southern, eastern, and western Sudan. In turn, Asmara accuses Khartoum of backing the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (Eritrean Islamic Jihad) in attacks on local and Western targets in Eritrea.

Defense Budget: In 1997 Eritrea’s defense budget was US$88 million, or 13.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Defense spending skyrocketed during the war with Ethiopia, peaking in 1999 at US$271 million, a staggering 38.5 percent of GDP. Since the 2000 cease-fire, defense spending has declined, but it remained a heavy burden in 2002 (the last year for which figures are available) at US$150 million, or 25.7 percent of GDP.

Major Military Units: The Eritrean army has four corps with 20 infantry brigades, one commando division, and one mechanized brigade.

Major Military Equipment: The Eritrean army has an estimated 150 main battle tanks, 40 reconnaissance vehicles, 40 armored infantry fighting and personnel vehicles, 100 pieces of towed artillery, 25 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 35 multiple rocket launchers, 100+ mortars, 200 antitank guided weapons, and 70 air-defense guns. The navy has one missile craft, seven inshore patrol boats, and three amphibious vehicles of unknown serviceability. The air force has 18 combat aircraft of unknown serviceability, including MiG–21s, MiG–23s, and MiG–29s. The air force is thought to have approximately 15 training, transport, and armed helicopters.

Military Service: National Service is compulsory for a term of 16 months, including four months of military training. Since 1998, however, military service has often been extended indefinitely for men aged 18 to 40 and childless women aged 18 to 27. In 2005 men aged 40 to 60 in the major towns were recalled for several weeks of compulsory civil defense training.

Paramilitary Forces: None.

Foreign Military Forces: The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea has some 3,300 troops inside a 25 kilometer-wide zone along the border with Ethiopia.

Police: Reliable estimates on the size of the Eritrean police force are not available.

Insurgent Forces: The Eritrean National Alliance (ENA) is a 3,000-strong organization of 10 opposition groups. It was established in Khartoum in 1999, in part as an attempt by Sudan to retaliate against Eritrean support for the National Democratic Alliance, a Sudanese opposition group. The following groups belong to the ENA: the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Eritrean People’s Conference, the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council, the Eritrean Liberation Front-National Council, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Liberation Front, the Eritrean Revolutionary Democratic Front, the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Kunama/Eritrea, the Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement Gash-Setit, and the Eritrean Initiative Group. These groups are a mix of liberation organizations marginalized during the struggle for independence, ethnically based groups, and the Sudan-sponsored Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (Eritrean Islamic Jihad). All are based in Sudan, from where some stage occasional and mostly ineffectual raids into western Eritrea. The strength of another group operating in Eritrea, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, currently is unknown.

Human Rights: According the U.S. State Department, Eritrea is a one-party state in which presidential and legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed, the judiciary is weak, and constitutional provisions for democratic freedoms have yet to be implemented. Western observers characterize the Eritrean government’s human rights record as poor, and note that it continues to commit serious abuses. Security forces are responsible for unlawful killings, and there are persistent reports of torture and physical abuse of prisoners. Arbitrary arrests and detentions continue, and an unknown number of persons have been detained without charge for their political views. In general, freedom of speech and the press are severely constrained, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion also are restricted. Discrimination and violence against women remain social problems, and the practice of female genital mutilation is widespread. Social discrimination against members of the Kunama group continues, as do government restrictions of workers’ rights.

Index for Eritrea:
Overview | Government


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