Situated in the Sahel, Eritrea suffers periodic droughts and chronic food shortages. Even in times of good rainfall domestic food production is estimated to meet 60 percent to 70 percent of the population’s needs. The last household survey and Participatory Poverty Assessment undertaken in 2003 estimated around two-thirds of the population were living below the poverty line.
Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average annual per capita income of US$336 in 2009, and ranked 165th out of 179 countries in the 2009 Human Development Index. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was estimated at US$1.87 billion in 2009, for a population of about 5.0 million, of whom an estimated two-thirds live in rural areas.
Eritrea’s trade freedom remains severely restricted by prohibitive tariff and non-tariff barriers. The government-controlled economy leaves little room for private investment. Large-scale projects must be approved by the appropriate Office of the President. The financial system remains very much underdeveloped. All banks are majority-owned by the state, and private-sector involvement in the system remains limited.
The rule of law remains fragile and uneven, severely undermined by a weak and inefficient judicial system. Protection of property rights is not strongly maintained. The government has a history of expropriating houses, businesses, and other private property without notice, explanation, or compensation. Pervasive corruption and cronyism continue to erode the foundations of economic freedom.
Eritrea is governed under the transitional constitution of 1993. A new constitution was adopted in 1997 but it has not been fully implemented. The executive branch is headed by the president, who is both head of state and head of government; the president is elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term.
It is bordered on the northeast by the Red Sea, on the southeast by Djibouti, on the south by Ethiopia, and on the northwest by Sudan. Eritrea also includes the many islands of the Dahlak Archipelago, which is located in the Red Sea. Asmara is the capital and largest city. Other cities include Aseb and Massawa, Eritrea's chief ports.
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 armed struggle.
Eritrea emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into military conflict, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly, with its old adversary, Ethiopia.
In the eastern lowlands, temperatures range from a torrid 30°C to 39°C during the hot season (June to September) and from 25°C to 32°C during the cooler season (October to May). In the Dankalia region, temperatures can reach 50°C in the shade and rainfall is practically zero.
Eritrea is a heartbreaker. It was once heralded as a good place for travelling and, with a bit of luck, it could soon be so again. But as long as the country is at odds with its neighbour Ethiopia, its sworn enemy, tourism development won’t be a priority. One of the most secretive countries in Africa, Eritrea seems doomed to remain a hidden gem. Unsurprisingly, it falls below many travellers’ radars.