Eritrea Is Ready, but Aid Hinges On Broader Political Participation

PROUD of their victory in a 30-year war against Ethiopia, Eritrean fighters-turned-politicians are determined to run things their way.

To senior Eritrean officials, that means not bowing to Western demands for quick democratization or immediate economic reforms, even at the expense of losing some foreign aid.

Eritrea "definitely will not accept conditions regarding democracy," says head of state Isaias Afewerki, secretary-general of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF).

"Our policies do not mean to satisfy the needs of external forces [donors]," says Haile Woldense, secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Cooperation. He acknowledges the need for considerable foreign help in reviving Eritrea's shattered economy.

This insistence on self-determination is based partly on confidence Eritreans gained in winning a war against the Ethiopian Army. "They know Marxism [once espoused by the EPLF] is finished, but they're not enamored with the wide divisions between the rich and poor," a Western diplomat says.

Dr. Haile wants a "market-oriented" economy, as does Mr. Afewerki. But some EPLF officials continue to insist on a "mixed" economy in which the state plays an important role.

The usual Western demands for rapid economic reforms and scaling back government payrolls are not going to be easy for Eritrea. "We want to privatize," says Haile, concerning sale of state-owned industries. But, he adds, "even to assess [their worth] is difficult." Eritrea lacks the skilled personnel to carry out such assessments and many other vital tasks.

THOUGH it is practically without foreign debt the country has little money. Eritrea does not plan to honor debts incurred by former Ethiopian regimes.

There are few good roads and many industries are running at less then 30 percent of capacity. Oil and mineral deposits have not yet been exploited.

"We were a colony [of Ethiopia]; we never had any development program at all," says Tesfai Ghermazien, secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

Restoring the war-damanged economy will cost approximately $2 billion, the government estimates. Most of that will have to come from foreign donors, officials say.

But when the United States Agency for International Development sought Eritrean commitments to a timetable for certain economic reforms, the EPLF rejected the conditions as "impractical" and turned down the money, Haile says.

One donor official, Gaetane Gascon, of Oxfam/Canada says the Eritreans "are capable and have long-term plans."

But an Eritrean businessman says Afewerki and his colleagues have to realize they cannot order donors around like they do their soldiers. The relatively small clique of ex-fighters comprising the core political leadership has to be broadened to include others, especially exiles who have ideas and skills the country needs.

On the political front, a quick move from the current military rule by the EPLF to multiparty democracy risks granting a platform to Muslim extremists, Eritrean and some Western analysts say.

Eritrean officials argue that fundamentalists pose no threat, but they also acknowledge such groups are already in the country and are trying to establish themselves in Eritrea. Eritrean officials are reluctant to open the door quickly to a multiparty system because that could weaken the current sense of national unity. "We would not like to go back to another civil war," Afewerki says.

Religious, ethnic, and ideological differences between the EPLF and another rebel group, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), weakened efforts to defeat Ethiopia in the past.

But Eritreans would be reluctant to fight each other, says Girma Asmerom, director of Eritrean Television. "Nobody ... wants peace more than we do."

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