Abdulkadir Kebire believed that only through education  and unity can a people control their own destiny.



Is there a good  prospect of education  for the younger generation in Eritrea ?


Resoum Kidane





In the 1940s  education  was  in Eritrea in its infant stage.  It  contributed considerably to laying a foundation for a culture of tolerance and democracy.  It helped to create in  the late 1940s and mid-1950s  an environment conducive to the emergence of 8 political parties,  6 newspapers, a trade union and for the formation of  a democratic government in 1952. 


Those who had access to education during the Italian rule notably Woldab Woldemariam, Isaac Twelde Medhen  and Abdulkadir Kebire and others played an important role  in promoting education;  they believed that   education  was the cornerstone  for the development  of  Eritrea. Abdulkadir Kebire believed that only through education  and unity can a people control their own destiny. The education system that began to be developed in this period gave more freedom of intellectual expression and  democratic rights than under the present government.


The aim of this paper is to provide background information on the development of education in Eritrea and then briefly examine the obstacles encountered by the younger generation in pursuing their study in higher education which has implications for democracy.


The 15th anniversary of Independence Day is an appropriate time to ask if there exists in today’s Eritrea prospects for the younger generation to benefit from higher education.


Historical background on  Education in Eritrea


For centuries education  in  Eritrea  was strongly based on  religious schools (Stefanos, 1997)  The religious education [1] run by the Coptic Church  was for Christians and  that  run by the Mosque was for the Muslims.    Since the introduction of  Islamic religious education  Tigrinya and Arabic languages   have been the medium of teaching in schools.   Perhaps the   Turkish  language  was also used between 16th and 17th  centuries  as   there was   a dictionary which contains  a glossary of eight Tigrinya -Turkish entries and Tigrinya- Arabic list of 380 words which  was published  during the Ottoman empire(Wende, 1994). The dictionary is available  at the British Library.


From the middle  of  the 19th century a formal  education system was introduced  in Eritrea  and the first  Islamic school was established  by the Ottomans in Tewalet in 1870 (Kidane, Eyob  2004) . Then other schools were opened by the Catholic Lazarists in Keren in 1872 [2 ]and  Swedish Evangelican  Missionaries (SEM)opened  a boys’ school  in Gheleb  in 1889.  By  1900   there were scholars  who received   their education  from Islamic education and the  Missionary schools,  notably  the father of Sheikh Ibrahim Mukhtar who  obtained Islamic education,  and  the  preacher Twelde Medhin, who  was a student at Oslo in 1900. (Ghebreab,  2006)


The introduction of formal education made possible  the emergence  of Eritrean scholars and the development  of Tigrinya  and Tigri publications in the late of the 19th century and at the  beginning of the 20th century.   The evidence of  scholarly contribution from that period is that

the Bible was translated into Tigrinya.   The group that made the translation included  the preacher Twelde Medhin and Kentiba Belta.   Giyorgis who was a scholar and taught Tigrinya in Naples published a pamphlet in Rome about  his journey to Italy five years earlier [Anon, Wikipedia ].  Hagos Tekeste also compiled a 195 page Tigrinya-Italian-Arabic dictionary in 1903. This dictionary has about 4,140 Tigrinya entries with Arabic and Italian equivalents.


European missionaries had also greatly contributed to the flourishing of Tigrinya and Tigri publications from the 1890s onwards which  included the first Tigrinya language newspaper in 1909 [3]. Other publications  from the mid-1800s were mostly religious books and dictionaries,    For example The four Gospels: of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ/translated into Tigre language by Abyssinian debtera Mattoes and revised by the deceased Rev.Mr Isenberg (1806-1864), which was printed at the Mission-Press , 1866. The book is available  in libraries at the School of  Oriental and African Studies in London..


By 1907    there were  two Swedish missionary societies which established  nine schools in eight centres, and the total number of students  rose  to 1,100  in the late 1920s [Gottesman, Les, 1998].  However,  in 1932, most missionary schools which provided education for local people were closed down, but the Roman Catholic missionaries were encouraged to run the government schools which had come into existence with Italian colonization.   


After  the  arrival  of Italian Fascism,  by order of  the Italian government no Eritrean was allowed to be promoted beyond  the 5th elementary class, and after 1936 no one was allowed  to rise beyond the 3rd grade, (Taye, 1991: 43),. and only 6 out of the 25  schools for Eritreans  provided basic literacy and vocational training  up to 4th  grade apart from  the Scuola Vittoria Emmanunel in Asmara. The scuola Salvago Ruggio in Keren offered two years courses for children of some privileged Eritreans or balabats.


As a consequence  of the Italian discriminatory policy,  thousands of Eritreans  fled to Ethiopia. Amongst those who fled were students and staff   attached to the missionary  schools.  Among these were   General  Mebrahtu  who was the father of Martha Mebrahtu. Martha  was killed  in  the 1972  hijacking in Ethiopia.

 [http://eri24.com/Article_10028.htm],  Belta Ephreme  who was the first Ethiopian representative in the UN (Pankhurst, 1953 ),  and Dawit  Ogbazghi who was vice-governor of Addis Ababa.     Other Eritreans  moved  to Sudan,  for example the father of General Aman Andom[4] who studied at the American School in Khartoum and   was  the first Head of State of Ethiopia after the revolution of 1974 ; Sheikh Ibrahim Mukhtar who  was a student at the Umdurman Institute and Al-Azhar and became the first Mufti in Eritrea in 1940[5], Gilamichael Bahta who studied law  in Khartoum with Aman Andom  


Other citizens after graduating from the fourth grade  pursed their  studies by self-education.  An example of this was Abdulkadir Mohammed Saleh Kebire. Those who stayed in the country after completing their 4th grade worked, during the Italian rule  as clerks. soldiers, telegraph operators, typist, interpreters.  One such person was Woldeb Wolde Mariam[6] who served, 1935-1941,  as the director of the former SEM school in Asmara.


Renaissance of Education In Eritrea


During the Italian rule the Eritrean people were not only deprived of the right to education beyond the 4th grade, but there was discrimination [7]. As a result of this there was disproportionately large number of pupils from the Italian settler populations.  In the 1930s although  the Eritrean population was about  405,000, there were only 1,530 Eritrean students in 19 elementary schools whereas the Italian  population, which stood at  60,000 had 16 elementary and 10 secondary schools. In addition, there were three insitutions for higher education with a total of 3, 000 pupils with 150 teachers, and four Pre-University courses with 120 students.(


The segregation and restriction of education beyond  the 4th grade came to an end with the defeat of the Italians in 1942.  The British administration, in its early years,  acknowledged that education was one of the greatest needs of the Eritrean people and that an educated stratum could counter the influence of the Italian community.  The British administration established a Department  of  Education  on 1 August 1942 and the first Director for this Department was Mr. Kynaston Snell and his Assistant director was Mr Isaac Twelde Medhen [8].   In the first  four years the Department of Education succeeded to some extent in preparing text-books, recruiting and training teachers, building schools  and other facilities.


Despite these effort, the Department of Education  still faced problems in building  new schools  and hiring teachers .  For example a warehouse was  converted into  a girls’ school, and   only £7,000 annually was provided for the education of European and Eritrean children, . [Pankhurst, 1953: p97]


To resolve these problems at one point the local communities were asked by  the Director of Education if they would raise the  money needed  to build a school with living accommodation for the teachers.  Due to the enthusiasm for education,  23 poor villages provided school buildings at their own expense  ( Pankurst  1953).     Taye (1991) in his book   also mentions  the devotion of the Eritrean people to education when referring to   Sylvia, Pankurst



                The British Director of Education, Mr. Kynaston Snell, endeavoured with the  modest means placed at his disposal to reverse the Italian imperial policy of debarring Eritrea from Education and to commence by establishing elementary schools on a sound basis. He lacked the financial resources  to erect them but the people were eager for their children to be educated so  he promised to supply a teacher for any village whose inhabitants built a school and a house for the teacher.  At the same time he advertised for young Eritreans who would be willing to teach. There was a great response from the villagers; many schools and teachers’ houses were built.   By 1947, no fewer than 59 villages had erected their own schools. Poor people sent a pig, a sheep or a cow to the market in order to provide a share in the cost of hiring builders  who had adequate tools,  experienced quarrymen and masons to quarry the good, grey stone of the mountains". (Taye, 1991: 59)


The villagers not only funded  the building of new schools but also paid the salaries of the teachers.  This was achieved through the formation of school committees.   The school committees were also responsible for the routine monitoring  of the schools and for the  accommodation  of  the teachers.  Additionally there was  also a commitment from individual citizens to the expansion of education in the 1940s.  For example Abdulkader Kebire[9]  who was a businessman funded many charitable projects including one for the establishment of a technical school in Mai Dshto in Akria, Asmara (Gabeel Team, 2005).    According to the British Ministry of Information in Eritrea(1944) , by 1944 there was a girls' school in Asmera, and in other places girls attend with the boys. There was techical education in carpentry, weaving and metal work. Three of the schools offered boarding accommodation. Instruction is given either in Arabic or Tigrinya. Each native school had its School Committee of local Chiefs and notable, whilist the growing public interest was shown by considerable expenditure of local funds on the erection of schools.. Before 1946 , there were twenty-seven  and fifteen schools with an attendance of 3, 000 scholars under 69 teachers,   the  medium of instructions were  Tigrinya  and  Arabic respectively. By  1946   the elementary school system was expanded  and middle schools were opened.


Before,   students after completing their elementary education had to move to Ethiopia for the middle and secondary schooling. Such was the case for   Dr Bereket Habte Sellase [10].   After the opening of the middle schools in 1946 students got access to  further education.  The table below shows some  of the first group of candidates who passed the entrance examination for  the middle school.   (Taye, 1991:p50)  The source of this information is the Eritrea Weekly News, Thursday 8th August 1946 .


Table 1 : The First  Group of Middle School  Candidates

Place of School

Name of  Some of the Student


  1. Girma Berhe
  2. Re-esom Ghebremariam


     1.Wold Tseyone Kelati

     2.Alganesh Kshisai


     Amanuel Ade-michael


     Abubeker Haji


     Kinfe Ghebreil Gabir


    Okuba Ghebriel Desta


     Berhe Mengistu


     Semainesh Abrha

Source: A historical survey of state Education in Eritrea  p.50


The following is from a 1947 news report on the first group of students who took an exam that year for admission to St. George Middle School, the first middle school established for Eritreans (Eritrean Weekly News, 24 July 1947, p. 1).




Adi Tekelezan




Keren [i]

Adi Wegri

Adi Khwala




Keren [ii]


Ali Gidir



















Source Raji, Ahmed - Aug 24, 2009   


In the early 1950s the number of schools increased and there was a drastic increase in the  student population.  The students  numbers increased  from 2,045  to 13,240 between 1943 and 1951. (Taye, 1991)


Generally speaking , the British administration played a significant role in introducing modern education and building schools between 1942 and 1952, The British educational system  also enhanced the educational awareness and political consciousness of the Eritrean people which  contributed  to the 30 year struggle  for independence.



Ethiopian Education Policy in Eritrea 1962-1991


Prior to 1962  the number of students and teachers were higher  in Eritrea than in the other provinces of Ethiopia (Table 2). This could be due to the dedication of the local communities in the construction of school buildings and employment of teachers during the  British and Federation periods.


Table 2.:   Percentage increase of Enrollment, Teachers and Schools (1956-57 to 1959-60)







Empire total

12 Provinces

Addis Abeba























Empire total

12 Provinces

Addis Abeba























Empire total

12 Province

Addis Abeba























Source: A historical survey of state Education in Eritrea  p.103


The Ethiopian  government  in order to restrict the progressive education system in Eritrea took  the first step  by  replacing  Tiginya and Arabic  as the official languages    with  Amharic ( the Official language of Ethiopia). Thereafter,  all the school textbooks and other documents which had been  written in Tigrigna   were burnt [11],  by the Ethiopian government.  Yohannes Zeggai  documented it as follows.


“A greater part of the books, together with other documents, were burned in 1963 in the industrial  oven of the Matches Factory in Asmara. The same took place at the Ceramic Factory in Asmara. Private collections were also gathered and destroyed in similar fashion”    (Negash , p10)


Furthermore the Ethiopian government gradually  introduced a calibration of examination scores  for entrance to  the university  according to the province of origin, in order to limit places in higher education for  Eritrean students.  Based on this policy, students from provinces with poor educational endowment needed only  to achieve low marks to gain entrance to the university compared to those with better schools in  Eritrea.  This policy was not applied to Addis Ababa  which had a  higher  number of  foreign teachers  as compared to  Eritrea. (Table 3)


Table 3.








35, 534





9, 527




















12, 535








Bigemidir &Semien












10, 876





3, 163










5, 800








Addis Abeba





Source: A historical survey of state Education in Eritrea  p.101


The standard of education in Eritrea was far in advance of the Ethiopian education system which  was ranked   bottom among African nations at the  Conference of African States on the Development of Education held in May 1961 [12].  Because of this and other factors such as thirst for education that was aroused during the British Administration, Eritrea was among the main sources of students for the university in Ethiopia through the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination (E.S.L.C.E) as shown in table 18.


Erlich (1983) who was lecturer at the University of Addis Ababa also observed that the proportion of Eritreans at this University was higher than for Ethiopians in the early 1970s.   A lecturer, who had worked in Ethiopia  in the early 1970s claimed  that  there were more Eritrean students  than Ethiopians at Haile Selassie I University during the period that he taught there.


Table 4


1968and 1969

E.S.L.C.E Passes

Rank order of passes



Begemeder & Semen


Gomu Gofa






Addis Abeba



































Source: A historical survey of state Education in Eritrea  p.106


The strong enrollment of Eritreans for higher education was not limited to Ethiopia. In the 1960s there were  also more than 300 Eritrean students pursuing higher education in Cairo and at the American University in Beirut. 800 or so enrolled in the institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia.


Once  the students had gained qualifications in Ethiopia or overseas, they had wider opportunities than their Ethiopian  counterparts. Most of them secured better jobs in the private and public sectors.  Many modern organizations employed a disproportionate number of Eritreans in jobs that included  the Ethiopian Airlines, Telecommunications, Ethiopia Electric Light  and  Power Authority (EELPA),  the Air Force, banks, hospitals and other public sectors.   As a legacy of  the Eritrean federal government educational system in the early 1960s, Eritrea had a sizeable intelligentsia at an intermediate professional  level. 


However,   with the  beginning   of  the  independence struggle  in 1961 and  with  the  state of emergency  declared  in  1970  Eritrean students, teachers  and  other educated classes  became a  target  of the   Ethiopian government.  There   was a great deal  of violation of academic freedom at the  University of Asmara, which included  the killing of Dr. Petros Habtemikael  [13] and others in 1975.   The  number of  students   and schools  started  to  decline  between 1974-1978 (Africa Watch ,1993),  and  the number of Eritrean teachers in Eritrean schools fell  from 3,000  to 1,200 between  1974 and  1980 and many of them joined the  EPLF  and ELF or went in to exile.  


After 1980 the number of schools and teachers began to  increase but  it had a much larger presence of  Ethiopians  teachers.  For example, there were more than 2, 000 non-Eritrean teachers in Eritrea by 1980. Furthermore  the balance among staff and students between Eritreans and Ethiopians changed at the University of Asmara.  According the Africa Watch (1993)  by 1990 62 % of the staff were non-Eritreans, and 91 % of the students were from Ethiopia.


Overview of the  Education System in the Liberated Areas during the Armed Struggle


From 1975,  the  ELF and EPLF  focused  on education as a way to  influence the young generation and not primarily to  deliver education for the benefit  of society .  The ELF  opened  school in the  liberated area  and in Sudan ;   there were  also  some scholarships provided for  Eritrean students  through Sabe and ELF to Libya.  After the EPLF split  from the ELF,    the EPLF gave greater priority to combating illiteracy among  the EPLF members.  As a continuation of this in 1975  a new  education  unit ( CHENFER TEMIHRT)  was established  which was   responsible for developing  a new curriculum  for elementary education. Thereafter,  the Revolutionary School was launched in 1976 and  was expanded  to EPLF camps in Sudan.  By 1991, the  number of pupils  in the revolutionary school  at Orota was about 3000 (Killion, 1991).


 Those teachers who joined to the EPLF  in 1975  greatly contributed  to laying   the foundation  for the establishment of  the revolutionary school in Sahel and in developing  the curriculum.   Among the teachers who joined to the EPLF in 1975  were Solomon Woldemichael and Kaleab Haile.  Kaleab Haile who  had been  a secondary school teacher in  Ethiopia before joining the revolution mentioned  in his interview  with  Les Gottesman    that an earlier generation of fighters had been relatively well-educated in the front but later from the mid -1980s   the proportion of illiterate  fighters  was higher than the educated fighters as  most of those  educated fighters were martyred    between 1973 and 1983.  This  was confirmed by Solomon Woldemichael  in his interview with Les Gottesman. 


Some of the  teachers and fighters with good educational background were also  killed by the EPLF because they were always  suspected of being supporters or sympathizers  of  Menkae[14]

According to Mengisteab (50, 2005) that Teklay Aden, an EPLF security chief who defected to the Ethiopian regime in 1981, revealed that three thousand fighters were physically liquidated by the Front between the start of the internal power struggle(1973) and the time of his defection(1980). Mengisteab added that one source said that the number of fighters physically eliminated by the Front between 1973 and the liberation of Eritrea in 1991, could range between three thousand and five thousand, if those fighters who disappeared under mysterious circumstances are included. However, Solomon Woldemariam, who was in the EPLF leadership from 1971-1977, suggested that the number was much larger. Solomon added that around one thousand fighters who participated in the Menka movement were rehabilitated after undergoing serious political indoctrination and self-criticism( Mengiseab, 49: 2005) Furthermore Sherman(64) mentioned that in 1976 perhaps as many as 200 young EPLF intellectuals were arrested. Many were executed for “radicalism” for following an alleged Maoist line. This was when Goitom Berhe and his groups tried to form an underground movement called 'the Eritrean Revolutionary Party' in 1975/1976. During this period the party translated a number of Marxist works to Tigrigna (eg Dialectical Materialism, Four Essays of Philosophy, About the Proletariat Party) . All the literature was then collected and burnt. The suspected ring-leaders of the anti-Essayas movement of progressives were arrested and, later executed.

Sometimes educated fighters were suspected  spying for the  CIA. For example in 1975 the rumour deliberately spread that there were up to one hundred and fifty CIA spies within the Front whom the challengers handled. and many young students were accused as CIA spies and they were executed as there was any news about them.  Under this pretext some influential educated  fighters were deprived  of  their freedom of expression. Those who were arrested and executed are listed in the table below.


Table 5

Group 1: 1973 (Menka)

Yohannes Sebhatu;

Group 2: 1976

Goitom Berhe (bitsay), a law school graduate

Group 3.:1978

Dr Eyob Ghebre-leul

educated in the USSR

Dr Russom;

Mesih Russom

Mehari Ghirma-Tsion, educated in the USSR

Tareke Yehdego

Tewolde Eyob

Ghebre-Michael Meharizghi; Addis Abeba university graduate

Mussie Tesfamichael

Teclai Ghebre-Kristos

Hibret Tesfa-Ghaber

Afeworki Teklu;

Michael Bereketeab

Kidane Abeito


Haile Yohannesom

Fissehaye Kidane (Germen)

Aberash Melkie

Samuel Ghebre-Dingil

Araya Semere

Dehab T/Tsion;

Bereket Haile


Ammanuel Filansa;

Habte Kidane (gorrilla),

 Memhir Tecle Habte-Tsion

Debessai Ghebre-Selassie

 Alem Abraha


Educated  fighters who  were  assigned   to different departments  within the Front  between 1973 and 1981, after completing their military training  were under close surveillance  Some who were assigned to  the front line   were  given  harsh treatment  by their military commanders.

Moreover, it was a common to send potentially troublesome(educated fighters) fighters to the frontlines where pitched battles with the Ethiopian army were anticipated so that they would perish by Ethiopian bullets

After 1982 the treatment of educated fighters within the Front had improved to some extent due to the following factors:
1.The 'Eritrea People's Revolutionary Party', which was formed secretly by Isays and his clique in 1975, became stronger from the early 1980s than in the 1970s
2.Most educated fighters who joined the Front in the 1970s, were killed either in the front line or in the EPLF secret prisons
3.The establishment of the Research and Information Centre of Eritrea (RICE) in 1979 and the Eritrea Medical Association (EMA) etc
4.The establishment of the Eritrean National Student Association and other developments concerning the EPLF foreign policy in Europe and North America

As a result of the above factors, the attitude of the Front toward the educated fighters had began partially improved from the early 1980s. Despite this, the most educated fighters were not member of the secret party ('Eritrean People's Revolutionary Party').

 Generally  speaking during the 30 years of  struggle  for independence the Ethiopian government  was not alone in violating the principle of education and the educators.  The EPLF did much worse than the Ethiopian government in committing crimes  against the educated classes.   The ELF is not  innocent of   this crime either.  If we look back to the 1960s  there  was the massacre  of 150  high school and university students Siriya Addis who had joined  the ELF from Ethiopia.


 Then in the early 1970s  there were  the mysterious deaths of Dr. Fetsum,  who was  a member of ELF, and of others. Furthermore in 1977 some of  the newly recruited fighters (Falul )  were also killed by the ELF leaders during the power struggle between Herui T. Bairu and other leaders such as Abedela Idris   1977.   This  crime was committed by Abedela Idris who was a member of the ELF Iraqi Baath Party.


The EPLF and ELF leaders  also committed the crime of burning books as the Ethiopian army had done. 

 For example in 1976 all the literature which was   translated from  Marxist works in to Tigrigna  by Goitom Berhe (bitsay), was  burnt [16], by the order of EPLF leaders. Similar Tigre  text -books which  were prepared for school children were condemned  and burnt[17] after the executive committee said that " teaching in Tigre was not our policy "  (Negash, 1999: p.59)


The Birth & Demise of the Asmara University


Brief historical background


The Camboni Sisters founded the University of Asmara in 1958 ( known as  the Santa Famila University).  In 1959, the university was recognized by the then Eritrean Government.  In 1960 a pre-university one year  programme entry into the University was recognized by the Superior Council of the Italian University.   In  1962  it changed its name from the  Santa Famila to the University of Asmara after obtaining recognition from the Ethiopian government, and in 1964  (two years later) the Emperor Haile Selassie attended the ceremony  of laying the first stone in its Main Building.


The University College was inaugurated offering in 1964 Associate Diploma programme in arts, commerce and science. English was adopted as the medium of instruction in addition to Italian in that year. 


The university showed good progress in the enrolment of students in the late 1960s which exceeded 1,500.  The number of students in 1964 had been only 486. 


Development of the University during the Dergue 1974-1991


As a result of the Ethiopian Dergue government's announcement of the Zemetcha in 1974 (Campaign for National Development through Cooperation), the number of Eritrean students at Asmara University and the University of Addis Ababa declined as they boycotted Zemetcha.   Many of them joined the liberation fronts.  Most Asmara University students joined the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) whereas the majority Eritrean students who attended at the University of Addis Ababa joined the EPLF (.Eritrean People's Liberation Front).


The intensified of fighting  in  the suburbs of the capital city,  Asmara, restricted academic freedom of expression and  caused   the death of Dr. Petros.  Due to the killing  of many youths.  the number of Asmara University students   declined to  349 between 1974 and 1976.  After 1980   the number of students  enrolled at the University of Asmara increased  from 300 to 2, 700,  but  this number  declined  when   a new policy  was introduced.  According to this, Eritrean youth were admitted to the university under a quota system that granted them only 9 percent of the places,this gave more opportunity  for the  enrollment of many Ethiopians  in  the University of Asmara. As a result of this, in the mid-1980s  there  was a disproportion  number between  Eritrean and Ethiopian  students in  the University of Asmara.   


In the late 1980s the advancement of EPLF to liberate the whole country became imminent, and  the port of Massawa was liberated in 1990.  Following this,   the University of Asmara was dismantled and the teaching was transferred to the interior of Ethiopia, with its staff and movable property such as computers and books.  By 1990,  the university was known as “Asmara University for the Northern Regions of Ethiopia”.  (Africa Watch, 1993)


Status  of the University of Asmara in Post-Liberation era (1991-2004)


After the liberation of Eritrea, despite the scarcity of resources and the shortage of academic staff, the University of Asmara was re-established and resumed its academic work on October 10, 1991 with a few hundred students and five faculties  to mention a few,  faculty of natural science, social science,   . The president of the University of Asmara,  Andeberhen and Chancellor,  Isays Afeworki .


 In 1992 the university reviewed its academic programme and the curriculum, and introduced a Student National Service Programme,[ Leonida, 2004] whereby students spent one academic year before graduation   providing services to the  local community .


In order to achieve its mission and play a significant role in the rehabilitation  and enhancement of the University ,  the university set up a 10-year strategic plan in 1995, which aimed to rebuild the University of Asmara. The university succeeded in  its mission to some extent, increasing the number of enrolled students and new staffs were hired. Many went to pursue postgraduate studies. Educated Eritreans in the diaspora started to join the University etc. Educated Eritreans in the diaspora started to join the University etc.


On the other hand as can be seen from the table below,  from the academic year 1992/1993 until the academic year 2002/2003, the number of students enrolled in day classes grew despite the outbreak of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, from 1998 to 2000.


It is surprising to see, however,   the decline in the number of students enrolled in the evening programme from the academic year 1991/92 to 1998/99 ,  the explanation for this, according  to Leonida, is  that  the course was removed from the programme . He added that,  the reason for the cancellation was the shortage of qualified staff, and inadequate teaching facilities. Although Leonida ,(2004), did not address the cause of the sharp decline of the students from 1259 in the academic year 1991/92 to 130 in the 1998/99 academic years, the possible reason for this could be the government’s deliberate dispersal in 1994  of  most ex-fighters who had been attending the evening class.  In other words,  most ex-fighters were withdrawn from the evening programme. The termination of the evening program was an early crack down of formally educated individuals in the government institutions.


The University was excelling towards a strong institution teaching and research after 1996 when  many of the staff who went for postgraduate studies had returned to the country. As a result of this, 1999 210 faculty members taught at the university; 90 held PhDs. Of these 90, only 38 (42%) were Eritreans  whereas in 1991, only 8 (12.9%) of 62 faculty members held doctorates, and in 1999,


A second reason was the mobilization for war during the border conflict in 1998 and the intensification  of  Warsay-yekalo campaign, which was described as  slavery by Adhanom Gebremariam, [18] in 2002, and finally  since 2001  arbitrary arrest, and  flight from the country.


Table: Student enrollment

Enrollment of students

Academic Year




































Source Leonida, Tekie Asehun(2004)Student Selection and Retention at the University of Asmara, Eritrea



The  political situations in the country affected the phase of the University of Asmara.

After the Algeria ceasefire agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia  in 2000, the Eritrea National Assembly promised to hold elections before the end of 2001 but there was no support from the hard -line leaders of the PFDJ for democratization. In order to divert  the attention of  the  Asmara University's Students, a summer work program was introduced  to recruit 40,000 students to repair roads, plant trees and work on construction, although the university  was already running a Student National Service Program


The intention behind the programme was to divert the University of Asmara students from focusing on democratization through engaging them in labour.   But  the summer work program provoked  protests and the students called it slave labour. In the end the PFDJ ruling party suppressed the protest and the protesters were  taken to an exceedingly  hot place called Wia,  30 kilometres from  port of Massawa.  The temperature there was  49 degrees centigrade (120 degrees Fahrenheit).


Since then and even more after the crackdown on the reformist movement, the government  has been apprehensive of the University of Asmara students.  In order to prevent further student protest the government  closed all 12th grade classes and opened a new high school at Sawa[19].   It is now   the only high school which provides  a 12th  grade  completion course.   Until recently the school system ended at grade 11. According  to the government, the rationale for opening grade 12 in Sawa is that the government   does not have the money to expand secondary schools around the country. 


 Since the opening of this school, as soon as students complete their 11th grade class they are transferred to the Sawa high school. There,after completing their 12th grade  those who pass  the examination are transferred to the new technical college in Mai Nefi  whereas  those who fail are immediately transferred to the Army and  spend the most productive years of their life in  uncertainty.


The Mai Nefi  college was constructed with collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defense.    Colonel Ezira who was a former administrator of Sawa administered this college.

Because of this military administration students at Mai Nefi Technical Institute are not allowed to choose what subject they study.


The  institute in Mai Nefi  didn't have   a   standard   library, laboratory and qualified staff , because it was  opened without  proper  planning.   Zega  (2004)documented it as follows.


"......Prefabricated Houses were imported from abroad, about 400 Indian teachers were recruited and all the students who did their last year of high school in Sawa were all put in the yet unfinished new “institute.”


In 2003   the first batch of students who completed their 12th grade  at  the Sawa High School  were  transferred to  Mai Nafi Technical Institute.  The University of Asmara  did not enroll any  freshmen students in the academic year 2003/2004.   In 2004  the university was again informed that all the students who  were finishing high school in Sawa would  be sent only to Mai Nefi.   In regard to this,   Isays Afeworki made clear during a visit to the university of Asmara in 2005   that the staff should not be surprised if they don’t get any fresh students in the coming 4-5 years.  The reason, he expalined,  is that “ we are in a transition period".


Majority of the departments in the University of Asmara are near termination with no more students and  a very  few staff. For example, the Marine sciences department has now only a laboratory technician and a graduate assistant. The research facility of the Marine sciences department in Massawa was taken by the security agents of the government.


By contrast the government has opened a college of nursing and a college of  medicine in Asmara, an agricultural Colleges at Hal Hale and Hagaz, a technical school in Massawa, a teacher traing insitute at Adi Keih, and the Eritrean Institute of Technology at Mai Nefh.  All this  while the University Asmara  was told that in the coming 4-5 year they would not receive  fresh  students.  In 2005. a    Cabinet  Ministers meeting, underlined the need to strengthen the colleges of science and technology in the country, (Habtemariam, 2005) but expressed  no  concern over the future of  Asmara University.


Why  is the government not interested in the development of Asmara University, parallel with the  development of other colleges? What is the government motivation?


By way of explanation  for  the above, brief mention should be made of  the Eritrean government’s  attitude towards Asmara University’s staff  which goes back to 1993. Some of the challenging issues that were not embraced by the president of the University  and the chancellor were the development of constitution of the University to become an independent institution in the country for the advancement of science and technology. The authoritarian behavior of the president of the country started to be manifested in the University campus since 1993


At that time,  the  academic staff proposed to reform a university faculty association which they had established during the Dergue period.  Their proposal  was rejected  and 40 lecturers were dismissed. Among these were:


Dr Tesfay who was a lecturer in the Department of Accounting who had challenged Andebrhane, ex-president of the university in the meeting.

Dr. Semera a lecturer in the Department  of Physics

Mr. Iyob  a  lecturer in the  Department of Biology who had a good reputation among the students for his teaching skills.

Dr Nugusse a lecturer in the Department of  Economics

The repression of academic staff did not cease even after  Andebrhane, who had been the president between 1991 and 1993, left.

In fact it got much worse. During Dr Woldab’s tenure as president of the University of Asmara (1993-2005) the University not only lost its autonomy but was placed under an autocratic administration and without constitution . This caused dissatisfaction among many academic staff and resignations by some such by Professor Asmerom.

Dr Woldab was responsible for the death of some academic staff. For example Dr Feshay who was outspoken and very critical of the government, Dr Haile G/Kidane, Dr Alexander Naty, two students, namely Yirga Yosef and Yemane Tekee, who died in the detention camp at Wia in 2000.  Eritrean youths also died in the concentration camps of Sawa, Wia, Adi Abioto, Dankalian, Dahalk Islands, in the Sahara desert.

After committing all the above crimes, Dr. Woldab had officially resigned from his post and left the country in 2005,  since then the university doesn't have an official designated president.  This  ad by acting ministers


To conclude, the Eritrean government has committed crimes against the country’s youth by:

1. Introducing the Wefri-Warsai Yike'Alo campaign;

2. Restricting exit visas to students who wanted to study abroad and

3. Refusal  to demobilize the army,

It has pursued these policies  to prolong its autocratic rule.

The University of Asmara’s future is uncertain and its prospects for  development are bleak.








1. In Orthodox  church education  boys (never girls) learned the Psalms of David and other religious texs in Geeze by rota. Those who elected to priesthood continued through a demanding curriculum that could take more than twenty years to complete. A lay order of the church the Debtera learned to write as well as read hence constituted the only literate group.


 In Islamic education,  the purpose of  education was to teach Muslim children about the cultural heritage and brotherhood of Islam. Similar to church schools, the methods of learning were primarily based on listening ,reading oral recitation and memorization. (source  Rena, Ravinder 2003)


2.This school had enrolled 500-day students and additional 158 boarding students of which 80 were boys and 78 of them were girls. Some of the subjects taught were languages, woodwork, metalwork, tailoring, agriculture and printing. After Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890, the Lazarist who were French citizen were forced to leave Eritrea in 1896 because France opposed the Italian colonial expansion in the region.


 3. The first of these  collection of forty fables and folktales by Gehebre-medhin Dighnei was published in a journal in Rome in 1902. It contain nine fables with animal  characters, typically depicting the stronger animals. Other publications of this period included three collections of oral poetry by Carlo Conti Rossini, Johannes Kolmodin and Jacques Faitlovitch    (literature of Eritrea )


4. General Aman Andom (1924-74) Aman was born in Khartoum to parent who had recently moved from Tsazzega to escape Itlian discrimination.  He was educated at an America School in Khartoum 1936-1941,  at Cadet College (Khartoum) and Camberedge and Royal Military College, Sandhurst.  From 1964-65 he served on Ethiopa military attaché in Washington.D.C after returing to Ethiopia 1965, the emperor appointed him to the Senate while he became a crticle of government policy


5  Sheikh Ibrahim Mukhtar  established the largest Islamic library in the country  and donating more than 3,000 books from his own personal collection.


6. Ato Woldab Wolde Mariam published the first Tigrnya Grammer, Fidel  Tiginya in 1932 and Arki Temharey (Students Friend) in 1942


7. 1909 the first colonial educational policy was declared, based on separate schools for Italians and Eritreans. Schooling was compulsory for Italians aged seven to sixteen, and the curriculum followed the curriculum of the school in Italy.


8. Mr Isaac had attended the Swedish Mission school in Eritrea and then studied for the two years at the American University in Beirut, and became a teacher for a number of years until the Italian closed the mission. (Gottesman, 1998, Tay 1991). When a new education programme was introduced by the Department of Education , Mr. Issac Twelde Medhin  occupied in writing text-books,  for example [Mebata’ta quisri ba--tegrena . Arithemetic foe beginners, 1943


9. Sheikh Abdulkader Kebire(1902 - 1949 )  who became a controversy by calling for the education of women, something, which was a taboo in those days. He believed that only by education and unity can a people be masters of their own destiny. These messages were his vehicle to the world of politics

10. Dr Bereket after completing his elementary education went to Addis Ababa.  He  was  a  student  at Teferi Mekonen school before he was  awarded a scholarship to purse his education in a  London


11.  Following annexation in 1962,  the policies of “ Ethiopianization” and Amharization” intensified; In 1963 the Publications Committee was abolished and Arabic and Tiginya textbooks were burned


12. ....States on the Development of Education. Among other things, the conference highlighted Ethiopia’s educational deficiencies. The Ethiopian education system, especially in primary and secondary education, was ranked bottom among African nations. There were school and teacher shortages, a high dropout rate, and low overall attendance rate. Embarrassed by this record the Ministry of Education developed a new education policy which was in operation  until 1974.

(Source http://countrystudies.us/ethiopia/70.htm Education During Imperial Rule)



13. Dr Petros Habtemichael was an economist in 1975. Dr Petros taught extension courses in the evening, and some of his students were Ethiopian military officers, who objected to his use of Eritrean rather than Ethiopian examples in his coursework, and to the low grades that some of them were given. It is believed that officers caused Dr. Petros to be detained and executed. (Source  Africa Watch, 1993)


14.  in 1973 a group of  leftist  Marxist member of the  Eritrea  People Liberation Front  fighters  began  challenging the  Front in general, and Isayas Afewerki in particular, for the lack of democracy within the Front.   Names of  leaders of the ‘Menka’e’ movement  who were executed are listed in grour 3 in the table 5. (www.eri24.com/Article_10001.htm ) ]


15. Goitom and his groups tried to form an underground movement called 'the Eritrean Revolutionary Party' in 1975/1976.  The suspected ring-leaders of the anti-Essayas movement of progressives were arrested and, later butchered.


16. 'the Eritrean Revolutionary Party'  translated a number of Marxist works to Tigrigna (eg Dialectical Materialism, Four Essays of Philosophy, About the Proletariat Party) . All the literature was then collected and burnt


17.....The curriculum section of the ELF, on their own initiative without consulting the executive committee…, Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, wrote in Tigre under the presupposition that people had to learn in Tigre. They prepared educational books.These people (Teachers) were new comers to the organization. Because they agreed among themselves that the official languages of Eritrea ought to be Tigrinya and Tigre, they prepared and printed material in Tigre for first and second graders……The executive committee said that “teaching in Tigre was not our policy and decided that the book be burned and it was burned according. The main opponents were Abdella Idris and others three from Tigre speaking ( Negash 1999, p59)


18. Warsai-Yikalo. After the Algeria  ceasefire agreement, many expected the demobilization  of thousand of young people. However, instead of demobilization the government announced the Warsai-Yikalo scheme . This scheme was agreed by the Cabinet in 2002  to name it as Warsai- Yekalo Campaign, but  Adhanom Gebremariam called  it slavery .

19..Sawa  is the site of a massive military training camp where every Eritrean aged between 18-40 has to go as part of their compulsory military service. 




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Freedom of expression and ethic discrimination in the educational system: past and future


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Eritrean Education - Historical Perspective



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