Eritrea’s Transformations Reshape the Horn of Africa

Eritrea’s Transformations Reshape the Horn of Africa

by Adnan Mosa

Translated from Arabic by the Center for Arab Progress


Eritrea is a modern country in the African continent. Its independence in 1993 was a reflection of many international and regional entanglements. Within the framework of the changes in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea represents the pivotal role in redrawing the geostrategic map of the region.  Especially with the entry of two other international players into the field of competition over areas of influence and control.  As well as the impact of regional data and variables, such as the Gulf-Gulf crisis and the Egyptian quest to regain its role in those vital areas on the Red Sea. Therefore, the paper seeks an analytical reading of the Eritrean internal affairs, the changes that are taking place in Asmara and its reflections on redrawing the political map of the Horn of Africa. And hence the results and practical recommendations on the future of political mobility in that region.

First: the geopolitical and demographic map of Eritrea

Eritrea lies in the Horn of Africa, bordered to the north and west by the Republic of the Sudan, to the south by Ethiopia, and Djibouti to the south-east. It has a coastline of 1,000 km on the Red Sea and owns the ports of Assab and Massawa. It has an area of about 12,120 km2 and is administratively divided into three regions. Eritrea also has about 126 islands, the most important of which is the Dakhl archipelago with some 25 islands. Therefore, many regional and international forces have taken control of the Eritrean islands as focal points and control of the region.

Eritrea is a confluence and transit area for successive waves of human migrations; Semitics, Afro-asiatics and Nilotics.  The Eritrean population is thus a combination of these historical mingling. It is diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic. Each ethnic region is geographically distinct, in qualities such as language, religion and way of life. [2]

The Eritrean ruling party encourages the policy of separating religion and race from politics. The authority in Eritrea allows only four religions: Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and Sunni Islam. The Eritreans, who make up about five million people, are divided into 55% Muslims and 30% Orthodox Christians, 10% Christian Catholics, 3% Christian Protestants, and 2% remaining local traditional religions. The rich diversity of demographics illustrates the impact of Eritrea’s ethnic and ethnic map, and its association with the language. [3]

The Eritrean state officially recognizes nine ethnic groups; Tigrinya, Tigre, Palin, Saho, Beja, Afar, Nara, Konama and Rachida. The Eritrean population is historically divided between three linguistic groups: Semitics, Afro-asiatics and Nilotics.  The groups belonging to the Semitics or afro-asiatics are linked to the tribes of the Beja in the Gash region, the Asorta and Saho tribes in the provinces of Eqli Qawzai and the Red Sea, the Balin tribes in the province of Karn, the Marian tribes in Aghordat and Kern, the Dnaqil tribes in the Danakil plain, the Habbab tribes in Naqafa and Tigray, About Krn, and the Christian tribes in Hamsin. And there is almost no trace of the known black features among these tribes except for the dark brown skin color that makes them closer to the tribes of Sudan. The Nilotics on the other hand,  or half Semitics do not exceed a few thousand people, represented by the tribes of the Konama or Baza and the tribes of the Pariah and spread in different areas of the Gash and Stett.

There is also mixed ancestry across the different tribes, making it difficult to determine the purity of each race.  Early Arab migrations to the region prior to the advent of the Islamic message were the Bani Hamir, who were known as the “Al Balu” tribe. The tribes of Rabia and others from Al-Qahtaniyah and Jahniyya came later to the region. The Rashaida tribe is the last of the Arab migrations to Eritrea, which have come to it through Sudan in 1846, and spread on the coastal strip from Massawa to the border of Sudan. [4]

The far-right movement “The Eritrean Agazians in Israel

Agazian is a radical right-wing movement that seeks to establish a Christian-Orthodox Tigrinya state in Eritrea and part of Ethiopia. Its anti-Muslim military policies deepen divisions within the troubled Eritrean opposition. The extremist movement began to work on the Eritrean political scene two years ago, from within the Orthodox-Tigre Christian opposition in the diaspora. It began to operate in several different places in Europe, Ethiopia and Israel, but still represent a minority within the Eritrean opposition dispersed abroad.

The movement creates interest between the Jews and Zionists, along with Israel. The Agazian emphasize the similarity between the Zionist vision of the establishment of the State of Israel and their vision of the establishment of their Agazian state. The movement also seeks assistance from Israel and Jewish groups to achieve their goals in establishing their state in Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia.

Second: the political, economic and partisan system of Eritrea

Eritrea remained under Italian control under the Treaty of Ucciali between the Emperor of Abyssinia (Menelic) and the Italian Government in 1889.  However, the defeat of Italy in World War II in 1941 made Eritrea an English protectorate. According to the report of the United Nations investigation committee, the presentation of the Eritrean case to the General Assembly proposed the annexation of Eritrea to Ethiopia, a trend supported by the United States.  The US pressure led the United Nations General Assembly to approve it in 1950 and announced that Eritrea will join Ethiopia in the framework of a federation. Consequently, Britain withdrew from Eritrea in 1952 and the Ethiopian military managed all the Eritrean properties. Then Asmara gained independence from Ethiopian rule after the takeover of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea led by Isaias Afwerki in 1991. This got Eritrea officially independent under the self-determination referendum in 1993. [5]

The period of the end of the Italian presence in Eritrea witnessed the beginning of the formation of political party life in Asmara. There were several political parties formed with external ties, some of which adopted a policy of assassinations.  Such as the Ethiopian Democratic Union party, which established a terrorist militia known as “Shifta” and assassinated a number of national leaders. Furthermore, this period has witnessed a political and cultural revival. The new variables have produced special newspapers and an active business sector, in addition to the formation of an elected legislative assembly and the adoption of a constitution. Both Arabic and Tigrinya have been adopted as official languages ​​of Eritrea.

The Eritrean Republic uses the presidential system with multiparty (not truly applied). The President of the Republic is the President of the State and the Government at the same time. The National Assembly is elected by a two-thirds majority of the members for five years. The President appoints the Council of Ministers after approval by the National Assembly. [6] One finds that The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFLP) has ruled the country since independence, and despite the enactment of the January 2001 law by the National Legislature which recognizes multi-parties, it has not been ratified or applied. [7]

After nearly twenty years of independence, there are challenges on the ability of the political system to absorb political changes and developments. There is the issue of political pluralism and its relation to the reality of political opposition and the freedom to establish parties.  Opposition abroad represents the basis for many Eritrean political parties. These include the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EDP), who calls for the overthrow of the regime of Asefi Afwerki. Further, they also call for the adoption of the principle of division of power and wealth, and the political Islam in Eritrea. One finds that the opposition movement of the Islamists see that there is a deliberate marginalization by the government and the political system to the extent that it affects their rights as citizens. The Eritrean Justice and Development Party are at the head of this opposition Islamist movement in Eritrea.

As for the civil society in Eritrea, it suffers from the problems of the formation phase. It is still in its infancy, which is reflected in the nature of its relationship with the state. It links many international reports between the Eritrean regime and the North Korean regime. Amnesty International in 2018, noted that thousands of Eritreans continued to flee Eritrea while the authorities severely restricted the right to leave the country. Mandatory national service continued indefinitely. Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and religion continue to exist. Arbitrary detention without charge or trial remained the norm for thousands of prisoners of conscience. Thousands have been deprived of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Third: Regional and international competition over Eritrea

The Horn of Africa has imposed itself on the regional and international scene given its strategic geopolitical position. Thus, the regional and international role in Eritrea can be refuted as follows:

  • United Arab Emirates

The UAE has sought to find a place in the region by signing a lease for the military use of the Eritrean port of Assab and the main airport for 30 years, with a runway of 3500 meters. Large transport planes can land on it. A key to the UAE forces participating in the Huthi rebellion in Yemen.

  • United State

Djibouti, on the other hand, allowed China to build a military base on some kilometers away from the US commanders. This upset the US administration, who sought to find an alternative to Djibouti, before finding its way into Eritrea. In addition, there is a tendency for the current US administration to form a regional alliance in the region. It is similar to the coalition to be established in the Middle East with some of the Arab countries (Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt) to counter Iranian influence in the region. The US vision in the Horn of Africa is aimed at curbing and encircling Iran from more than one direction. Moreover, China’s growing presence in this vital region, which is a key part of Beijing’s Silk Road. On the other hand, the US administration in the region is based on empowering the allies Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in order to formulate an East African regional system. This in return explains the political movement and fundamental changes in the shape of current relations in the Horn of Africa.

  • Germany

Some local reports revealed that the visit of the Minister of Development German International Economic Cooperation to the Eritrean capital in August 2018 resulted an initial agreement to establish a seaport north of the city of Assab. It is allocated for the transportation of Ethiopian and South Sudanese goods and other services which were not specified. And this represents one of the aspects of International and regional competition for Eritrea.

Fourth: Features and dimensions of the map of new interactions and relations in the Horn of Africa

The rapid movement of the Horn of Africa is almost non-stop, as the region is currently in the re-drawing of its political map.  There was the first real surprise in the Ethiopian approval of the implementation of the Algiers Agreement in 2000 to demarcate the border with Eritrea. This automatically meant the concession of the town of Badme, which was under the control of Ethiopia.

One can assume that Eritrea was completely isolated regionally. The relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea were completely cut off, and Asmara’s relations were almost cut off with Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan. At the beginning of 2017, relations between Khartoum and Eritrea were strained after news media reported the presence of Egyptian troops at the Eritrean Sawa camp.  And then the challenges reached its peak with the declaration of Sudan to close the border with the eastern neighbor and the deployment of its armed forces on the border of the state of Kassala, adjacent to the Gash region of the Eritrea Baraka.

Changes in the Horn of Africa did not stop at the Ethiopian-Eritrean reconciliation. At the end of July 2018, Somali President Mohamed Abdellah Farmajo went to Asmara after a 15-year break. During his visit to Eritrea, Farmajo called for the UN to lift sanctions on Eritrea. Eritrea’s relations with Somalia deteriorated because the United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea since 2009. This included freezing assets, the prevention of political and military officials to travel, in addition to a ban on weaponry.


Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed joined the Eritrean-Somali summit, where a tripartite summit was held in Asmara. It was agreed on closer relations between the three parties. Some Western reports indicate that the tripartite meeting discussed mediation between Eritrea and Ethiopia.   Especially that the latter was disturbed by the movements between the neighbors in favor of Afwerki. Furthermore, Djibouti was concerned about the loss of its port for the Ethiopian goods movement. Abe Ahmed reached an agreement whereby Ethiopia would use the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massouda. This is reflected in the sudden visit that followed the trilateral summit of the foreign ministers of the three countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia) to Djibouti. Where they met with President Ismail Omar Jelle and discussed with him the outcome of the Asmara Summit.

Some Western reports referred to the role of the UAE in mediating the restructuring or arrangement of the Horn of Africa. That Ibn Zayed’s visit to Ethiopia in June 2018 devoted a new picture to the international media. Where the Horn of Africa has become a “pivotal circle in regional security”. In the geo-strategic ocean, away from the approach of the previous Ethiopian government, which was more inclined to the Turkish-Qatari alliance.

However, when analyzing the situation of the Horn of Africa, there is no explicit ally to Abu Dhabi in the region.  So far, it is only Afwerki, whose country hosts the UAE base on the port of Assab.  Ethiopia on the other hand, the relations with them is in the testing phase and gradually developing.  Despite the economic temptations of UAE to deposit 3 billion dollars in the Central Bank of Ethiopia in support of the local currency. Furthermore, the relations between Somalia and Djibouti are still tense with the UAE even after the reconciliation between Mogadishu and Asmara. As well as Sudan being absent from the recent moves will not join the course of the axis led by the UAE. And the major problem faced by the finest in the Horn of Africa region is the tension that has occurred after taking out the Dubai Ports from Djibouti Port. Further, the exclusion of Abu Dhabi from the military training in Somalia, in addition to being accused of involvement in the killing of Eritrean national fishermen from Afar. [8]

Fifth: Conclusion

In the context of developments in the Horn of Africa, several important points can be mentioned, as follows:

First, there is a marked decline in the security grip of the Afwerki system, which was reflected by some indications such as the refusal of some of the army leaders to accompany Afwerki during his visit to Ethiopia. Then came the publication of the book “Eritrea Patriotic” by the author and former minister Barhani Abrahi, who highlighted the crimes of the regime. These internal developments are explained in Eritrea. First, there should be some opposition movements to the Afwerki regime within the Eritrean army.  So the Eritrean president avoids any escalation with the internal opposition to escape provoking a wave of protests that may call for military intervention and disqualification. While the second scenario refers to external pressure from international and regional forces on the Afwerki regime to reduce the police grip. This is in order to avoid an internal crisis and ensure the survival of the Afwerki regime, which is needed by these international forces in the coming period after the Djibouti rebellion.


Secondly, the escalating internal discontent against the Afwerki regime should be taken into consideration after the rapprochement with Ethiopia. A large segment of the Eritrean people considered these moves as surrendering to the Ethiopian colonizer and disregarding the violations committed by Ethiopia against the Eritrean people. To mitigate its effects through hints at the applicability of the Constitution and the obligation to set a period of time for national service, and references to the possibilities of allowing freedom of expression.


The current changes reflect the trend towards the formulation of a new regime in the Horn of Africa, led by international and regional forces. The war in Yemen and the growing Iranian, Turkish and Israeli influence in the region have opened up new ideas for the integration of the national security of the Gulf states and the region. China also stands out after giving up its historical isolation as a rival US power in Africa. The current depth of the differences between Washington and the European Union explains the unilateral movements of the European powers to find a role for themselves in the map of competition in that region. Thus this explains the German moves, the undeclared movements of Italy, France and Britain in Eritrea.



[1] The State of Eritrea, department of Environment in Ministry of Land, Water and Environment: Asmara –Eritrea, December 2001, Pp 10-11.

[2] Mohammed Osman Abu Bakr, History of Contemporary Eritrea: Land and People, Cairo, 1994, pp. 175-176.

[3] Ayman El Sayed Abdel Wahab, Eritrea Problems of State Building and Interaction with a Troubled Regional Environment, Arab Center for Research and Studies, April 2016, available at



[4] Habtai, Araya, Between the World and the Village: The Role of Education in Sustaining and Developing an Eritrean Cultural Identity, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 1995, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 181-194


[5] Mohammed al-Husseini, African Horizons, No. 24, Spring 2007.

[6] Mohamed Ashour Mahdi, Directory of African States, Cairo: Institute of African Research and Studies, 2007, pp. 207-212.

[7] Africa south of Sahara 2011, 40th edition, routledge: London and new York, Pp 202-203.



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