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

EACH evening Asmara's tree-lined boulevards are crammed with people strolling from one end of the city to the other, enjoying the simple freedom of walking after dark denied them for the past two decades under constant curfew.

The facades of many downtown buildings are marred by irregular blank spaces and great smudges of paint, testimony to the zeal with which Eritreans are erasing the memory of Ethiopia's 40-year rule here after routing its 150,000-man occupation Army on May 24, 1991. (Two days later, Ethiopia's brutal military dictatorship, under siege from a coalition of rebel groups, including Eritreans, collapsed.)

A towering sign in bold blue lettering indicates "Eritrean Airlines." Inside, a sheepish clerk admits the airline has no planes of its own, as he sells tickets for the daily flights of Ethiopian Airlines to and from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

In October, the Eritreans opened schools across the country with newly designed curricula in four local languages. Weeks later, citizens announced new criminal and civil codes and appointed dozens of judges to run the courts. Now, leaders of the new government are busy drafting a constitution.

Throughout this strategic Red Sea territory, efforts are under way to establish Eritrean independence as an inescapable fact prior to a formal, internationally supervised referendum on the issue planned for next year. Last May, the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) signed an agreement to delay the referendum for two years to give Ethiopia's new rulers a chance to stabilize their position after seizing power from the defeated, Soviet-backed government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.

The priorities for the new provisional government of Eritrea, senior officials say, are creation of stable, democratic political institutions and reconstruction of the country's war- and drought-ravaged economy. Neither is likely to be easy.

Eritrea's antiquated infrastructure is in ruins. Its subsistence agriculture is reeling from chronic drought and severe environmental degradation, and its limited light-manufacturing sector was largely destroyed by the war. As a result, about 85 percent of the country's 3.5 million people, many of them displaced by fighting, survive on international relief.

During a five-week tour by bus, flatbed truck, four-wheel drive vehicle and, occasionally, by foot, this reporter spoke with scores of officials, private citizens, local and foreign relief workers, and visiting diplomats about Eritrea's prospects. The trip revealed a desperately poor people who nevertheless remain elated at their victory and optimistic about the future.

The Eritreans launched their war for independence from Ethiopia in 1961 as Ethiopia, with US and Israeli backing, moved to annex the former Italian colony after dissolving a United Nations-sponsored federation between the two. A self-described "socialist" military junta seized power from Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The new government realigned Ethiopia with the Soviet Union and stepped up the war with the $10 billion-plus in Soviet arms that poured in.

Escalating fighting during the 1980s increased the destruction and helped trigger a series of famines in Eritrea and much of Ethiopia, already one of the world's poorest countries. But it did little to alter the outcome. Fighting with captured weapons and a volunteer army of 95,000 men and women, the Eritreans broke the stalemate in 1988 and finally won last May.

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.

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."

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