VOTER apathy? Not in this election. Officials running Eritrea's worldwide referendum on independence to be held this weekend are confident about two things: Eritreans everywhere will stand up and be counted, and they will vote for independence from Ethiopia.
After more than 30 years of civil war, about a third of the Eritrean people live outside the East African country. In the United States and Canada, votes will be cast in 48 cities - from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Toronto.
"We know the result; we know the vote will be overwhelmingly for independence," says Berhane Haile, chairman of the Referendum Commission of Eritrea in the Boston area. Though Eritreans here are certain of the outcome, "we have to participate in the democratic process," Mr. Haile says.
More than 15,600 Eritreans have registered to vote in the US, says Abraham Yohannes of the Referendum Commission of Eritrea in Washington. Of the 1.2 million registered voters, about 400,000 will participate from abroad. About 2.5 million people still live in Eritrea, Mr. Yohannes says. Between 750,000 and 1 million Eritreans are spread across the world.
Back in 1980, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) proposed to Ethiopia's then-ruling Provisional Military Administrative Council that a referendum be held to determine Eritrean wishes. When the EPLF and its allies prevailed militarily in May 1991, its leadership committed itself to holding a referendum. With this weekend's vote "they have upheld that promise to the people," Haile says.
Abebe Woldu, owner of Asmara Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., emigrated to the United States in 1972. "All Eritreans in the United States are ready to vote," he says. "We don't have any excuse not to vote."
Since the EPLF's military victory, Eritreans have been electing governing councils for their villages, cities, districts, and provinces. Work on a constitution continues. Eritrean emigres say they have a vital role in rebuilding their country.
"As we sustained our armed struggle from here, now we will sustain projects in our country - schools, clinics, and agriculture," Haile says.
"This is the greatest opportunity that our people have in our lifetimes," Yohannes says. "After so many years of war, bloodshed, and destruction, there is quite a bright future."
Now that travel back and forth to Eritrea is possible, many emigres plan to visit. "We will go home to see our families, contribute to our country, teach our people," Mr. Woldu says.