Eritrea Today

Nefasit, Eritrea. Benoit Cappronnier / Getty Images

In the 1990s, great things were expected of Eritrea, then a brand new country, but today Eritrea is most often referenced in the news for the flood of refugees fleeing its authoritarian government, and the government has discouraged foreign travelers from visiting. What is the news out of Eritrea and how did it get to this point?

Rise of an Authoritarian State: Eritrea's recent history

After a 30-year war of independence, Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and began the difficult process of state building. By 1994, the new country had held its first - and only - national elections, and Isaias Afwerki was chosen as the President of Ethiopia. Hopes for the new nation were high. Foreign governments dubbed it one of the renaissance countries of Africa expected to chart a new path away from the corruption and state failures that seemed endemic in the 1980s and '90s.  This image collapsed though by 2001, when a promised constitution and national elections both failed to materialize and the government, still under the leadership of Afwerki, began to crack down on Eritreans.

Development in a Command Economy

The shift to authoritarianism came during a border dispute with Ethiopia that erupted in 1998 into a two-year war. The government has cited the ongoing stalemate over the border and the need to build the state as justifications for its authoritarian policies, particularly the much-hated national service requirement. The border war and droughts reversed many of Eritrea's earlier economic gains, and while the economy - under the government's strict controls - has grown since, its growth has been below that of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole (with the notable exceptions of 2011 and 2012, when mining boosted Eritrea's growth to higher levels). That growth has not been felt equally either, and the poor economic outlook is another contributing factor to Eritrea's high emigration rate.

Health Improvements

There are positive indicators. Eritrea is one of the few states in Africa to achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals 4, 5, and 6. According to the UN, they have drastically reduced infant and young child mortality (having cut mortality of children under 5 by 67%) as well as maternal mortality. Exponentially more children are getting important vaccines (a shift from 10 to 98% of children between 1990 and 2013) and more women are receiving medical care during and after delivery. There have also been reductions in HIV and TB. All of this has made Eritrea an important case study in how to implement successful change, though there are continued concerns about neonatal care and the prevalence of TB.

National Service: forced labor?

Since 1995, all Eritreans (men and women) are forced to enter national service when they turn 16. Initially, they were expected to serve for 18 months, but the government stopped releasing conscripts in 1998 and in 2002, made the term of service indefinite. 

New recruits receive military training and education, and afterwards are tested. The select few who score well enter coveted positions, but still have no choice about their occupations or wages. Everyone else is sent into what are described as menial and degrading jobs with extremely low pay, as part of an economic development plan named Warsai-Yikealo. Punishments for infractions and evasions are also extreme; some say they are torture.  According to Gaim Kibreab the involuntary, indefinite nature of service, coerced through threat of punishment, qualifies as forced labor, and therefore is, according to international conventions, a modern form of enslavement, as many in the news have described it.

Eritrea in the News: Refugees (and cyclists)

Events in Eritrea have gained international attention largely due to the large numbers of Eritrean refugees seeking asylum in neighboring countries and Europe. Eritrean emigrants and youth have also at high risk of human trafficking. Those who manage to escape and establish themselves elsewhere send back much-needed remittances and have sought to raise awareness about and concern for the plight of Eritreans. While refugees by nature represent the disaffected within a country, their claims have been borne out by third party studies.

In a very different note, in July 2015, Eritrean cyclists' strong performance in the Tour de France brought positive media coverage to the country, highlighting its strong cycling culture.

The Future

While it is believed that opposition to Aswerki's government is high, there is no clear alternative in place and analysts do not see change coming in the near future.


Kibreab, Gaim. "Forced Labour in Eritrea." Journal of Modern African Studies 47.1 (March 2009): 41-72.

United Nations Development Project, "Eritrea Abridged MDG Report," Abridged Version, September 2014.

Woldemikael, Tekle M. "Introduction: postliberation Eritrea." Africa Today 60.2 (2013)

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Thompsell, Angela. "Eritrea Today." ThoughtCo, Nov. 28, 2020, Thompsell, Angela. (2020, November 28). Eritrea Today. Retrieved from Thompsell, Angela. "Eritrea Today." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).