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History & Background

Eritrea, Africa's newest nation, celebrated its tenth year of independence in 2001. In May 1991, Eritrean liberation fighters swept the besieged remnants of Ethiopia's occupying army out of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, ending four decades of Ethiopian control and Africa's longest continuous modern war. In April 1993, Eritreans overwhelmingly endorsed independence in a UN-monitored referendum. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea declared itself an independent nation and four days later joined the United Nations.

The armed struggle for Eritrea's independence began in 1962, after a decade of Ethiopian violations of a UN-imposed Ethiopia-Eritrea federation, and following Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea as its fourteenth province. In the early 1970s, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), was organized and, throughout the next decade, emerged as the dominant liberation force. The Eritrean independence struggle became synonymous with "selfreliance"—a 30-year war fought from wholly within the country by a politically mobilized population supporting a large, well-trained army using captured weapons. The historical and political necessity of Eritrean self-reliance forced Eritreans to plan and test—while fighting for—the kind of society they wanted, with education a vital factor in the liberation movement's success and a key element in the Eritrean model of development.

Country & People: Eritrea is a torch-shaped wedge of land, about the size of Britain, along the Red Sea coast in northeast Africa. Sudan is to the north and west, Djibouti to the southeast, and the Ethiopian province of Tigray to the south. As a former province of Ethiopia, Eritrea formed that country's entire, 750-mile Red Sea coast. A highland plateau divides the northern half of the country, with lowlands to the west and east. The south is desert. Asmara and major towns are sited in the highlands. Massawa and Assab are significant Red Sea ports.

About 20 percent of Eritreans are urbanized, forming a significant working class. Of the rural population, more than 60 percent are farmers; the rest combine farming and herding, except for the less than 5 percent who lead purely nomadic lives in the far northern mountains and southern coastal desert. Eritreans comprise nine ethnolinguistic groups. The total population of about 3.5 million is approximately equally divided between Muslims and Christians, the religious division cutting across some ethnic lines. The predominant language is Tigrinya, spoken by the group of that name. Arabic is widely spoken among Muslims. English—the language of instruction in post-elementary schools—is increasingly common, especially in the cities.

Early History: Archeological sites in Eritrea have yielded hominid fossils judged to be two million years old. Tools from about 8000 B.C., unearthed in western Eritrea, provide the earliest concrete evidence of human settlement. Rock paintings found throughout the country, dating to at least 2000 B.C., have been assigned to a nomadic cattle-raising people. Between 1000 and 400 B.C., the Sabeans, a Semitic group, crossed the Red Sea into Eritrea and intermingled with the Pygmy, Nilotic, and Kushitic inhabitants known to have earlier migrated from Central Africa and the middle Nile. In the sixth century B.C., Arabs occupied the Eritrean coast, establishing trade with India and Persia, as well as with the pharaonic Egyptians. The ports of Eritrea enjoyed continuous contact with Red Sea traffic and Middle East cultures that fostered a cosmopolitanism unique to the coast.

The powerful Axumite kingdom, centered in the present-day Ethiopian province of Tigray, prospered on trade through Eritrea from the first to sixth century A.D., adopting Christianity in the fourth century, then declined as Beja tribes migrated from Sudan and Arabs gained dominance of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Turks ruled Massawa and its coastal plains from 1517 to 1848, when they were displaced by Egypt. With the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, the Red Sea coast gained strategic and commercial importance. In that year the Italian government purchased the port of Assab from the local sultan. The Italians occupied Massawa in 1885. In 1889 the Ethiopian King Menelik ceded Eritrea to the Italians in exchange for military support against his Tigrayan rivals.

Prior to Italian domination, education fell into two broad categories, religious and local. Christian and Muslim clerical hierarchies replenished themselves by educating—essentially raising—small numbers of children in the tenets of the faith. Local education, as in any society, consisted of training children in practical, productive skills: home construction, traditional medicine, music-making, storytelling, and decorative arts. These practices persist in all of Eritrea's cultures and can be detected in general in the force of authority, especially generational authority, and the educative functioning of exemplary behavior, demonstration, and imitation.

Italian Eritrea: Despite Menelik's treaty with Italy, Italian legions invaded Tigray in 1895. The Italian generals, however, blundered fatally at Adwa on March 1, 1896, losing nearly half of their forces. In the ensuing Treaty of Addis Ababa, Italy renounced claims to Ethiopia, while Menelik affirmed Italian control of Eritrea.

The Italians ruled Eritrea until their defeat in Africa by the British in 1941. Education in Italian Eritrea prior to fascism was in the hands of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Swedish missionaries had established the first school, in Massawa, in the 1860s, and by the 1920s had schools in eight centers, serving 1,100 students. An early center of Roman Catholic missionary education was the highland city of Keren, where a seminary, day school, and orphanage served a few hundred children. In 1909, the first colonial educational policy was declared, based on separate schools for Italians and Eritreans. Schooling was compulsory for Italians to age 16; the curriculum of Italy was used. Education for Eritreans, however, limited to the Italian language and basic skills, was designed to produce menials for the Italians.

After Mussolini's rise to power, strict racial laws enforced segregation and wage differentials based on color. Benefiting from low wages and extensive use of child labor, the Italians built diverse manufacturing concerns, increasing the drift to the towns; by the end of Italian colonial rule, about 20 percent of the population was living in urban centers, where they were restricted by law to native quarters. In 1932, the first central office for primary education was established, the purpose of which as defined by its director, Andrea Festa, was to ensure that education accorded with the principles of the Italian regime. In 1938 Festa wrote to headmasters: "The Eritrean student should be able to speak our language moderately well; he should know the four arithmetical operations within normal limits...and of history he should know only the names of those who have made Italy great." But education was never widely available to Eritreans, and fourth grade was the highest level an Eritrean was allowed to reach. There were only 20 schools for Eritreans in 1938-39, with 4,177 students.

British Administration: Italian colonialism was an early casualty of World War II. British forces entered Eritrea in January 1941. British administration continued to 1952. The British gradually removed the color bar, began an "Eritreanization" of lower administrative positions, and allowed the formation of political parties and trade unions. At the beginning of British rule, there were no Eritrean teachers but, in 1942, nineteen were recruited. Over the next ten years, the British increased the number of elementary schools to 100 and opened 14 middle and 2 secondary schools. The curriculum introduced in 1943 covered agriculture, woodworking, clay-modeling, carpet-making, shoe-making, reading, writing, and hygiene for boys, and reading, writing, hygiene, weaving, sewing, basket work, and domestic science for girls. Textbooks in Tigrinya were locally printed, books in Arabic and English were provided, and entrance to the middle schools required students to be able to read and write English. In 1946 a teacher training college was established; by 1950, fifty-three men and seven women were in training to be teachers.

Through school committees organized in the villages, Eritreans actively supported education, funding school construction, and paying teachers. But the demand for education far exceeded budgeted funds, a 1950 British government report admitted, leaving many children unserved because of a lack of buildings, equipment, and staff.

Federation & Annexation: In 1952, after lengthy debate, and with Cold War politics a factor, the UN General Assembly voted to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia. Eritrea was to be an autonomous unit under the sovereignty of Ethiopia's monarch, Haile Selassie. The contradictions of federation were immediately apparent. Ethiopia's feudal economy and imperial political system clashed with the capitalist development of Eritrea and the democratic constitution approved by the elected Eritrean Assembly in 1952. Eritrean political parties and trade unions were banned, newspapers censored, and protests attacked by police. Finally, in November 1962, Selassie terminated Eritrea's federal status, making Eritrea a province of Ethiopia.

Eritrea had passed from British control to the federal arrangement with better educational facilities than Ethiopia, but Ethiopia's imperial government soon began to undermine Eritrean education, along with other institutions. In 1956, Eritrean languages were banned and replaced by Amharic, an Ethiopian language virtually unknown in Eritrea. Ethiopian teachers brought in to teach Amharic were paid 30 percent more than their Eritrean counterparts. The first of many student strikes occurred in 1957 at the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Asmara, the first school at which Amharic was made compulsory; in response, 300 students were jailed for a month.

Following annexation in 1962, all education decisions were made in Addis Ababa. The policies of "Ethiopianization" and "Amharization" intensified and became factors that awakened Eritreans' national consciousness and united diverse ethnic groups against the imperial regime.

In 1962 the Santa Familia University, founded in Asmara by the Comboni Sisters in 1958, obtained recognition from the Ethiopian government, changing its name to the University of Asmara. But Eritrean students resented entrance policies they viewed as favoring Ethiopians.

The Independence War: In 1963, elementary and secondary teachers went on strike, ostensibly over the pay differential between Eritrean and Ethiopian teachers. Underlying the strike, however, were sympathies for the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which had begun a guerrilla war for independence a year before. Teachers were active in clandestine nationalist organizations, and many were arrested, jailed without trial, or transferred to Ethiopia. Starting in 1967 when large-scale military confrontations broke out between the Ethiopian army and ELF, young nationalists began joining the guerrillas outright. In 1970, members of ELF had a falling out, some of the dissidents eventually forming the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The ELF was organized along religious and regional lines; the EPLF called for nonsectarian unity and social revolution, a stance that attracted even more students and intellectuals.

The Dergue: Ethiopia's monarchy was replaced by a military dictatorship, called the Dergue (committee) in 1974. Under Haile Mengistu Mariam, the Dergue pressed for a military victory over the Eritrean independence movement. Ethiopian forces steadily lost ground. By 1977 the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. That year, however, a massive airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia enabled the Ethiopian Army to regain the initiative and forced the EPLF, largely intact, to retreat to the mountainous north of the country.

Educated Eritreans were a particular target of Dergue harassment and violence. Thousands were detained and many killed. Amharic remained compulsory, and the number of Ethiopian teachers increased—up to 2,000 by 1980. The Dergue had declared Ethiopia a Marxist state, and all teachers were required to attend weekly classes in Marxism-Leninism, where their allegiance to the official doctrine was scrutinized. Eritrean teachers were further demoralized by the lack of professional development afforded them. In this climate, school officials feared widespread desertion of students to the guerrillas, and teachers were susceptible to accusations of political deviance; both factors led to a precipitous drop in educational quality and standards. In 1990 the Dergue disbanded the University of Asmara, taking its staff and movable property to Ethiopia.

The EPLF: Between 1978 and 1986, the Dergue launched eight major offensives against the EPLF; all failed. In 1988, the EPLF captured Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea. At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union withdrew support, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF began to advance on remaining Ethiopian positions. Meanwhile, other dissident movements were making headway throughout Ethiopia. In May 1991, the EPLF entered Asmara without firing a shot. Simultaneously, Mengistu fled before the advance of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which formed a new government in Ethiopia.

During the war the EPLF established healthcare and education programs and facilities in the regions under its control. Education was seen by EPLF leaders as integral to the national liberation struggle. An early EPLF slogan was "Illiteracy is our main enemy." EPLF-sponsored education was marked by the integration of theory and practice. In the 1970s, efforts focused on the combatants themselves with all new recruits—men and women (women made up a third of the fighters) with less than seven years of schooling required to complete their education in the EPLF, attending classes for up to six hours a day. Many rural villagers and farmers encountered education for the first time in the front.

In the mid-1970s liberated areas began to expand. In essaying the beginnings of a national school system, the EPLF began the Zero School, a boarding school for orphans, refugees, children of fighters, and those who had run away to join the front but were too young to fight. The Zero School, started with about 150 students and a handful of teachers, was designed as a teaching laboratory and workshop for the expanding education system. The Zero School eventually offered five years of elementary education and two years of middle school, adding grades as students continued. By 1983, the school had more than 3,000 students.

In addition to the Zero School, the EPLF maintained regular schools in liberated, predominantly rural areas. At many sites, students sat on stones in the shade of trees. Schools had to be camouflaged against air attack, and students had to be prepared to take cover.

In 1983 a national adult literacy campaign was begun with the dispatch of 451 teenage Zero School students to serve as teachers behind enemy lines. The literacy campaign reached 56,000 adults, 60 percent of them women. The campaigners taught reading, writing, numeration, hygiene, sanitation, and health, and participated in agriculture in the rural communities.

Drought and Ethiopian military offensives after 1985 disrupted the literacy campaign, and the EPLF abandoned the campaign form altogether when it began its own offensives in 1988, continuing adult education only for civilian health, agricultural, and political workers brought in groups to protected areas for one to two months at a time. By 1990, with the war intensifying to its climax, adult education was available only to combatants. Nevertheless, in the vast areas of liberated countryside, education continued. In 1990, a year before liberation, there were 165 schools administered by the EPLF, with 1,782 teachers serving about 27,000 students.

Independent Eritrea: In May 1991, the EPLF established the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) to administer Eritrean affairs until a referendum on independence could be held and a permanent government established. EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki became the head of the PGE, and the EPLF Central Committee served as its legislative body. On April 23-25, 1993, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia in a UN-monitored referendum. The government was reorganized and after a national, freely contested election, the National Assembly, which chose Afwerki as President of the State of Eritrea, was expanded to include both EPLF and non-EPLF members. Expressing the government's commitment to working towards gender equality, 30 percent of the Assembly seats were reserved for women, while the remaining seats were open to men and women. The EPLF established itself as a political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in February 1994. A new constitution establishing a tripartite government and guaranteeing human and civil rights for all Eritreans was ratified in 1997 but was not implemented, as pending parliamentary elections were postponed indefinitely following the start of a border conflict with Ethiopia in May 1998. The National Assembly—with 150 seats, half elected by the people, half installed by the PFDJ—continued to govern the country, and Afwerki remained president, but new elections were scheduled for the end of 2001.

After the long independence war, Eritrea faced an enormous task of reconstruction. The economy and infrastructure had collapsed, and social services had disintegrated, the result of war damage, population displacement, and prolonged, severe neglect. Education was seen as a key to overall development of the country, and an immediate priority: Five months after the May 1991 victory, the EPLF reopened schools country-wide. A 1994 policy document outlined these educational objectives:

  • to produce a population equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge, and culture for a self-reliant and modern economy
  • to develop self-consciousness and self-motivation in the population
  • to fight poverty, disease, and all the attendant causes of backwardness and ignorance
  • to make basic education available to all.

In meeting these goals, the government from 1991 to 2000 constructed 365 new schools, mostly in the severely disadvantaged lowland areas. An additional 323 existing schools were rehabilitated, in many cases old schools made of twigs and sacks being replaced by entirely new buildings. From 1991 to 2000, total school enrollment (government and non-government elementary, middle, and secondary schools) increased by 255 percent, from 168,783 pupils to 429,884 pupils. The number of teachers also increased, from 5,188 in 1991 to 8,588 in 2000. A sharp increase in the number of qualified elementary teachers, from 42.7 to 72.4 percent from 1992 to 1996, was the result of three consecutive summers of inservice training at the Asmara Teachers Training Institute.

In the ten years after independence, the existing curriculum was extensively reviewed, and weaknesses were identified. English curriculum, grades 2-10, was completely revised and new textbooks were created, but few other reforms had been implemented by 2001. Additionally during this period, a score of research projects looked into such areas as girls' participation at the elementary level, education of nomads, the structure of technical and vocational education, community response to mother-tongue teaching, and preschool education needs. Beginning in 1994, secondary school students were sent during summer vacation to various regions to engage in development work: environmental protection, road construction and maintenance, production and repair of school furniture, laying power lines, and improving community sanitation. Each summer, approximately 30,000 students (38 percent of them female) participated. The program's goals include strengthening students' cultural experience, work ethic, and ecological awareness.

In 1999 a border dispute with Ethiopia devolved into large-scale war. During the fighting, as many as a million Eritreans were internally displaced and 67,000 were expelled from Ethiopia, most arriving destitute in Eritrea, severely straining the nation's social services. Among those still displaced at the end of fighting in mid-2000 were 139,000 school-age children. The government responded with makeshift schools, enlarged class sizes, and emergency shipments of school supplies to the affected areas.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceEritrea - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education