Eritrea Offers Key Lessons in Nation-Building

It takes time for leadership to emerge that spans ethnic divides, and patient assistance from outside can help that process along

When Eritrea pulled free from a collapsing Ethiopia in 1991, few thought that Africa's newest country would survive. Eritrea had eight different ethno-linguistic groups, a population evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, and a legacy of communal strife so bad that one RAND Corporation analyst dubbed the place "Lebanon squared."

Defying expectations, Eritrea came together instead of falling apart. In a 1993 UN-backed referendum, 99.8 percent of the Eritrean electorate voted for an independent and unified country. A sense of national pride that crosses the religious and ethnic divide has taken root.

Eritrea's recent economic progress has been noted in the media, but the triumph over parochialism that made this progress possible has mostly been ignored. Yet Eritrea's journey from a country bitterly split to one surprisingly united could offer insight into how other strife-torn societies can overcome divisions.

The central lesson from Eritrea is clear: National unity requires indigenous leaders who are committed to forging it. Eritrea didn't have such a leadership during the fractious early days of its struggle for independence from Ethiopia. The Muslim-dominated independence movement actually intensified the territory's divisions by proclaiming Eritrea an Arab nation.

With time, though, Eritrea got it right. In the early 1970s a new independence movement, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), launched a vigorous effort to build national unity. The EPLF recruited its leaders and soldiers from across Eritrea's demarcations, and socialized them all around a unifying concept of nationhood.

After consolidating unity within the organization, the EPLF sought to impress upon the populace its vision of Eritrean identity, launching social and economic programs aimed at breaking down ethnic, linguistic, and religious barriers. Diversely composed EPLF civilian units crossed the countryside, not only setting up schools and teaching better agriculture, but also embodying the subtle lesson that Eritreans of all backgrounds could be counted on to help each other.

Eritrea's experience seems to offer little to places like Bosnia and Burundi, countries not blessed with the strong leadership that made Eritrea's unity possible. But such leadership is not a matter of blessings so much as one of incentives. Eritrea's leaders only began preaching national unity when earlier efforts to use divisive rhetoric resulted in disaster on the battlefield.

In other places, though, the incentives have pointed away from pluralism. Politicians in a collapsing Yugoslavia saw ethnic and religious appeals as the best way to further their personal and political goals. To change that equation, the West would have had to summon the political will to punish those who sought ethnically pure states and reward those who embraced more tolerant visions. Today, with troops on the ground, aid to disperse, and influence to wield, the West has a real opportunity to encourage actions that rebuild ethnic bridges.

This is not to say that incentives for multiethnic cooperation make a difference overnight. Transformations take time - in Eritrea's case, decades. The United States frequently does not display such patience, rushing into places like Bosnia and Somalia with the hopeful notion that animosities can be pushed aside overnight, and scrambling out again when our naive expectations are disappointed.

What is needed is balance. Outsiders cannot build pluralist societies on their own, but they can play a supportive role. If the West is able and willing to open breathing space within strife-torn countries, it can use its political and economic resources to boost incentives for ethnic cooperation. Indigenous leaders will emerge to support multiethnic societies if they feel they can benefit from doing so. And under such leadership, as happened in Eritrea, a long and difficult process of reconciliation can begin to occur.

* Devlin-Brown researches ethnic conflict as a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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