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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Afars in Eritrea

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Eritrea Facts
Area:    93,679 sq. km.
Capital:    Asmara
Total Population:    3,800,000 (source: CIA World Factbook, 1994, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Afars in Eritrea have few of the risk factors for rebellion, outside of geographic concentration. To date, Afars in Eritrea are at risk because of their desire to reunite with other Afars in Ethiopia and Djibouti and because of their residence along contested international boundaries. Since they are a nomadic people, their lifestyle requires seasonal movements, and because they have traditionally moved throughout the region, the creation of national boundaries (albeit porous, ill-defined ones) has negatively affected their quality of life. The Eritrean-Ethiopian 2000 peace treaty has eased border tensions and ended troop movements into one another's territory, and Afar opposition movements have likewise by and large ceased their fights against regional governments. However, if either side returns to aggression in its claims of foreign territory, the Afars may suffer simply by becoming caught once again in between this border dispute.


Analytic Summary

Eritrea, a former Italian colony, was declared independent in May 1993 ending its 31 year secessionist war (1961-1991) waged first against Emperor Haile Selassie and then President Mengistu. During the war, led by Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), 200,000 people (including 40,000 civilians) died. Some 500,000 Eritreans were living in refugee camps in Sudan and 20% of the population within the country were displaced.

Upon independence, the EPLF transformed itself from a liberation movement into the ruling political party. The new government has initiated a cautious transition to plural democracy by adopting a policy embracing minorities, rather than just EPLF members, and through advocating national unity. However, the viability of the new Eritrean state is by no means assured. The state had been severely weakened by the long civil war and has a limited capacity to effectively implement its plans and policies.

Afars represent one of nine ethnic groups in Eritrea, with 90 percent of the population consisting of Tigrinya, Tigre and Kunama. Tigrinya and Arabic are the most frequently used languages for commercial and official transactions, but the Afar also speak a language of the same name (LANG = 1), are religiously Muslim (BELIEF = 2), and are generally nomadic herdspeople of Eritrea's lowland region along Ethiopia and Djibouti's borders (GROUPCON = 3).

Ending a three-decade long secessionist war by declaring independence in May 1993, Eritrea's short sovereign history has been marked by its recent border clashes with Ethiopia, which eventually produced a peace treaty in December 2000. The Afars in Eritrea have literally been caught in between the long-standing dispute among the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and Ethiopia's mainly Tigrean armed forces. For years during this war, each state attempted to undermine the other by seeking Afar assistance against one another (i.e., the Afar Liberation Front and Afar Peoples Democratic Organization in Ethiopia), although it now appears that Afar organizations are more concerned with regional autonomy or union with other Afars who are now split among three countries. In Eritrea, the Afars are represented both conventionally and militantly by the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Union (ARDUF) and its military wing, Ugugumo, which is headed by Mahamooda Gaas and has called for the autonomy of the Danakil region from the Asmara government. Another organization, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, has a platform stating that until Eritrea democratizes, secession is preferable (POLGR04-06 = 4).

Independent reports confirming the actual condition of Afars in Eritrea are difficult to find, but through inference of Eritrean politics (and neighboring Ethiopia and Djibouti), it is safe to speculate that the nomadic Afars suffer economic and political discrimination due to historical neglect and their position on the fringes of Eritrean sociopolitical life (ECDIS04-06 = 2; POLDIS04-06 = 2). It does not appear that Afars are actively repressed by the Eritrean government. Similarly, for the most part, the Afars of Eritrea are not involved in any organized protest or rebellion against the Eritrean government, but they have been involved with other Afar opposition groups who mainly target the Ethiopian government (PROT98-06 = 0; REB04-06 = 0). In 2003, the killing of a colonel of the ruling party's People's Front for Democracy and Justice by forces of the Red Sea Afars Democratic Organization constitutes one of the few instances of rebellions known from Afars in Eritrea (REB03 = 1).



Amnesty International. 5/14/2004. "Eritrea: 'You have no right to aks'-Government resists scrutiny on human rights.", accessed 10/29/2008.

Harbeson, John W. 1995. "Post-Cold War Politics in the Horn of Africa: The Quest for Political Identity Intensified." In John W. Harbeson and Donald Rothchild, eds. Africa in World Politics: Post-Cold war Challenges. Colorado: Westview Press.

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 2001-2006.

Library of Congress -- Federal Research Division. 9/2005. "Country Profile: Eritrea.", accessed 8/4/2008.

Minority Rights Group. "Afar." World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples., accessed 8/4/2008.

"Political program of the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization." 7/16/2006., 8/4/2008.

U.S. Dept. of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Eritrea. 2004-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006