Eritrea – ‘Patriotism versus Hope’

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Bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, it occupies a strategically important area in the Horn of Africa and this country is known as Eritrea. Eritrea was previously known as the city and the kingdom of Aksum which was a major naval and trading power from the 1st to the 7th centuries C.E. As a civilization it had a profound impact upon the people of Egypt, southern Arabia, Europe, and Asia, as some visitors to its shores, and in some cases, some were residents. The Aksumites developed Africa’s only indigenous written script, Ge’ez. They traded with Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean and Arabia. Despite its power and reputation, it was described by a Persian writer as one of the four greatest powers in the world at the time. But in the last 20 years the region of the Aksumites or where present-day Eritrea is located is in the news for all the wrong reasons: for its repressive, one-party state; for its forced conscription and “slave labour” and the government’s exploitation of the diaspora through coercion and tax levies and its two-decade feud with neighbouring Ethiopia, a conflict that killed about 70,000 and led to years of no-war, no-peace stalemate even after the signing of a 2000 peace deal.

Due to the struggle from the Italian colonial rule and independence after 32 years from Ethiopia’s imperialism. By UN estimates, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country in recent years, making the perilous journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to Europe with about up to 5,000 people leave the country every month according to the data. However, the multi-ethnic nation today is still growing and hosts a population of about 5 million. But not everyone is willing or able to seek an alternative to their homeland, and those Eritreans who remain are focused on the positives. There are some jewels in Eritrea like the capital Amara. Albeit relatively little known compared to many African capitals, Asmara is celebrated for its unique Modernist architecture, which won the city a UNESCO World Heritage status in 2017. An exciting day trip from Asmara is a ride onboard an old steam locomotive to Nefasit the track was considered a masterpiece of Italian engineering when initiated in 1912. But keep in mind that Eritrea is certainly not a cheap country to visit on an organised tour a paid tour can cost you around $285 per person per day.

Eritreans also have a weird way of using family names. Eritreans are given an individual first name at birth and will normally be addressed by that name through their lives. To differentiate among many people with the same first name, a patronymic – father’s name – is used as a second name, also followed by the grandfather’s name in the official documentation. And if you do not believe me go google the facts, oh wait you cannot, Eritrea is one of the least connected countries in the world: reportedly, only around 1% of the population are internet users. For the lack of the necessary roaming agreements, foreign SIM cards do not work in Eritrea and there is no 3G network in Eritrea, and even locals are not able to access mobile data. Funny enough though globally, there are over a dozen streets named after the country Eritrea.

Reliable data on Eritrea’s economy are scarce, due to the government’s refusal to release even the most basic statistics such as population and GDP figures. The country also lacks interaction with the international economy whether through investment, trade, or cooperative arrangements. Foreign investment could be used to bring new technology and expertise into the country regarding financial services, manufacturing, and world markets. The mining sector is a promising example of what is possible and the beautiful coastline and historical sites as niche tourism. And through this lack of interaction, the country has major deficiencies in energy supply, roads, telecommunications, and ports. Eritrea ranked forty-seven out of fifty-three countries across the continent in the 2013 Africa Infrastructure Development Index due to poor road networks, water and sanitation, energy, and ICT deficiencies.

However, there Is some hope of change in Eritrea as in 2018 the peace agreement with Ethiopia was signed to open the doors for regular flights between the two countries. This facilitates cross-border travel in the broader region and connecting Eritrea more conveniently with the rest of the world. And with its visa policies more relaxed compared to only a few years ago, Eritrea is unlikely to remain a travellers’ secret for much longer. Eritrea’s complex situation calls for, above all else, pragmatism. Eritrea can and should pursue economic growth on its own terms, but it should be more like China and Rwanda, and less like Cuba. Eritrea has great economic potential.