THE man who would be king is finally home. He has returned to his native region after 17 years of forced exile as an opponent of the previous Ethiopian government.Amid hand-kissing, shouting and singing, Sultan Alimirah arrived recently in this small northeastern town, deep inside the impoverished territory of his people - the Afars, who have a reputation as fierce fighters and who want to be united. His success in handling the problem of poverty and the question of unity will in part determine whether Ethiopia will be able to maintain peace, not only within its borders, but with its newly self-proclaimed independent neighbor: Eritrea. Eritrea is the northern Ethiopian province that fought 30 years to win the right to a referendum on staying with Ethiopia or choosing independence. A vote is planned within two years. But the Afars, who are divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as the neighboring country of Djibouti, want their own referendum on the question of unity. And that's the sticky point for Ethiopia - and Eritrea. The Afars want the right to unite under one ruler, the sultan, in Ethiopia. They claim parts of several provinces in Ethiopia and a critical part of Eritrea - along the coast from just south of the port of Massawa down to and including the other port, Assab. Eritrean rebel leader Isaias Aferworki says the Afars in Eritrea cannot secede from Eritrea to join an autonomous Afar region in Ethiopia. Mr. Aferworki strongly opposes the loss of any land - hard fought in the Eritrean struggle for self-determination - to Ethiopia. Afars can unite within Eritrean borders, he says. But at a political conference in Addis Ababa in July, the soft-spoken, dark-skinned sultan, whose short white beard matches the color of the long robe and Muslim skull cap he usually wears in public, took the floor. He insisted on the right of his people in both Eritrea and Ethiopia to vote on uniting within Ethiopia. Monitor interviews with top Afar leaders in Addis Ababa, and during the sultan's four-day ride home in a convoy of Land Rovers guarded by Afar fighters in Toyota pickups, indicate they do not want trouble with Eritrea. But they absolutely insist on the right of their people to decide their own future. "We are not against Eritrean self-determination," says Ahmed Alimirah, a son of the sultan and head of the military wing of the rebel Afar Liberation Front (ALF). "We'd also like the Afars to have the right to self-determination." "We are going to govern our affairs, rule our area, and we'll have an autonomous Afar region in the Afar area," he continues. "The Afar people [in Eritrea] will decide whether they [would] like to join the Afars in the rest of Ethiopia or want to remain within Eritrea." And if the Afars in Eritrea vote to unite with their brothers and sisters in Ethiopia proper, but are denied the right by the EPLF, will the Afars fight? Ahmed declines to answer directly. But he notes that the ALF helped fight the Army of now-deposed Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, once considered one of the biggest and best equipped in Africa. Another Afar political leader suggests that Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti could solve the dilemma by allowing the Afars unrestricted travel across the boundaries. They might then technically still be residents of one of those three states, but feel united under the sultan's rule. Other Afars were not certain this would be acceptable. Meanwhile, the sultan faces a host of complaints from his people about their loss to the government of key grazing and crop lands along the fertile Awash river, a lifeline in their dry region. "We came to complain about losing our lands, our rivers," says Abdu Adu, an Afar clan leader who greeted the sultan at one of his stops on the way home. "We cannot feed our children. And we cannot teach our children where there are no schools." Sultan Alimirah also promises schools, health clinics, and foreign aid to the Afars. "We ask the world community to assist us until we get into shape." He says he had a hard time recognizing some of his old colleagues here because of the thinness of their faces and their tattered clothing. But his first priority is religion. He wants to impose sharia, or Islamic law, among the Afars, a Muslim people. I'm very happy to be back after 17 years," he says. "First of all I want to restore the morale of the people. The Mengistu government introduced strange customs [drugs, alcohol, and stealing, he later alleges]. We'll try to go back to our Islamic and good traditions. After that we'll concentrate on the economy which Mengistu destroyed." The rights of non-Muslim Afars will be respected, he says, adding that even under his Islamic rule, women will have the right to university educations - but the sexes will be separated after primary school. He also promises his people to try to settle peacefully the long, traditional grazing-land- and cattle-raiding disputes between the Afars and the similarly well-armed neighboring Issa tribe.