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Eritrea's Path to Independence

After a 30-year war, residents of this Red Sea land struggle to rebuild and win recognition for their dream of sovereignty

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Today, most of the roads are in shreds from the Ethiopian military traffic and lack of maintenance for more than 15 years. Electricity is sporadic, most urban water systems leak up to half their load, and the railway has been completely dismantled.

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On the economic front, EPLF leaders concede they are starting practically from scratch.

"Our people are our main resource," says Economics Minister Haile Wold'ensai. "We have both a challenge and an opportunity. The problem in this transition period is that because of the issue of sovereignty, we cannot expect much help from the outside."

The new government's first priority, according to Mr. Wold'ensai, is to rebuild the country's war-damaged infrastructure. To this end, the entire EPLF Army has been asked to serve another two years without pay. Recently, a compulsory "national service" was also announced, requiring citizens between 18 and 40 to register. All those not employed or in school are liable for call-up for 12-18 months.

The new government is targeting food security as a medium-range goal, but admits this will be impossible without significant changes in the traditional system of rain-fed agriculture. Meanwhile, officials say they hope to attract capital from abroad to regenerate Eritrea's industrial sector. Investors will receive guarantees against uncompensated nationalization, the right to full repatriation of profits, and a minimum of red tape in setting up businesses or restarting old ones, Wold'ensai says. Most for merly nationalized enterprises, with the exception of banks and insurance companies, will be privatized, he says.

The Eritreans, however, are having difficulty gaining international recognition and the financial aid and investment that could go with it, given the unresolved status of the territory. The Sudanese, longtime supporters of the Eritreans, were the first to establish an official presence in Asmara. Egypt and Yemen have since followed suit, though formal ties with Western countries are proving harder to come by.

A series of high-level delegations from the US and United Kingdom have been through Eritrea recently, but formal relations are still at the talking stage, External Affairs spokesperson Ahmed Baduri says. "We're patient, and we don't want any confrontations," he adds.

By contrast, the UN is proving the easiest international body for the Eritreans to deal with. The World Food Programme was the first UN agency to set up operations here, followed by UNICEF.

Against this backdrop, the Eritreans are pushing ahead with efforts to institutionalize new forms of self-rule. The model they propose calls for three co-equal branches of a parliamentary-style government: a popularly elected legislature, an executive selected by the legislators, and an independent judiciary.

In late October, judges at the national, provincial, and district level were appointed for lengthy terms by the Justice Department. Elected People's Assemblies have been functioning for more than a decade at the village level, and provincial elections are planned soon, government officials say. But executive positions at the provincial and national levels will remain under the direct control of the EPLF until national elections are held after the 1993 referendum.

"This is part of a continuous process of educating our people to the practice of democracy and then turning over power to them," says Sebhat Efram, commander of the EPLF Army that captured Asmara last spring. "The EPLF, as a separate entity, is already disintegrating. After the referendum, our mandate is finished, and the Front will disappear."