ON May 24, Eritreans celebrated the official birth of Africa's newest country. Eritrea, a nation of 3.2 million on the Red Sea, won de facto independence on the battlefield in 1991 after a bloody 30-year war with Ethiopia. Last month it received recognition for its new status when an internationally monitored referendum delivered a resounding 98-percent mandate for separation.
Two days after the independence day festivities, however, war-ravaged Eritrea had already slipped from world attention and returned to the daunting task of national reconstruction. The Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) has called economic development its top priority, but the former rebel movement must not delay an equally important task: establishing a fully democratic government by consent.
While some analysts have declared that the referendum's successful completion ushers in a new era of popular sovereignty and stability in Eritrea, that conclusion is premature. What the balloting does reveal is overwhelming support for independence. It also proves that the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the liberation struggle and formed the PGE, can mobilize Eritrea, a feat of no small proportions.
However, it is not certain that future elections will be free and fair, or that Eritreans outside the EPLF leadership will have a role in determining the nation's future political direction.
When inevitable disagreements over national policy emerge, the EPLF's democratic impulses will be seriously tested. It now has the enthusiastic support of the vast majority of Eritreans and has moved to broaden popular participation in the administration of its liberated zones by establishing elected village, municipal, district, and provincial councils.
But genuine pluralism and the EPLF's pre-victory platform have not been permitted to evolve. The platform guarantees for political parties and associations to organize after independence. But, despite its 1987 embrace of a multiparty system, the EPLF postponed multipartyism until after the referendum. Recent public pronouncements alluding to a "chaotic political situation" indicate that the ban on competitive parties will be extended for up to five more years. Since the former rebel movement claims to b e a broad "front" representing all sectors of Eritrean society, it is apparently confident that all acceptable perspectives are also represented within its ranks. In Eritrea's post-liberation atmosphere, this presumption finds support down to the grass roots. One is struck by the attitude among many EPLF partisans that those not in solidarity with it must be enemies of Eritrea.
The EPLF says it will continue its effective monopoly on domestic politics at least "until the Eritrean people ratify a constitution and establish a permanent government."
During this transition period, the EPLF Central Committee will serve as the legislature, an advisory council headed by EPLF General Secretary Isaias Afewerki will act as executive, and the judiciary is to be selected by the Front leadership. Thus, the government and EPLF are to remain indistinguishable until the Front's eventual dissolution, which it promises after the constitutional system is established.
As unsettling as its approach to political rights is the EPLF's record on civil liberties. Its platform guarantees freedom of the press, speech, association, and peaceful assembly, yet several serious deviations from these commitments have already occurred. According to the minister of information, independent points of view in Eritrea are amply represented in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the print media, which, like radio, is controlled by the EPLF.
Ethiopian journalists, known to oppose Eritrean independence, were prevented from freely visiting Eritrea in the period leading up to the referendum, and activities of the one local human rights group were suspended by the regime shortly before the balloting. Equally disturbing are reports indicating the disappearance of 10 alleged collaborators with the old regime and the detention without trial of a number of others suspected of opposing the EPLF.
These initial moves to quell pluralism are disturbing in a country as diverse as Eritrea, which houses nine major ethnic groups and three religious traditions.
Although the election of local councils offers a vehicle for the transmission of aspirations and complaints to the leadership, it is hard to imagine a genuine democracy if Eritreans are not permitted the fundamental rights of expression, association, and assembly.
There is no single, correct method for a new nation emerging from repression to chart democracy. Eritrea has a distinct advantage in the commitment of its leaders to the common welfare. But the very tactics that enabled the EPLF to prevail in its struggle against Ethiopian dictatorship could undermine attempts to establish a truly representative form of government.
Transparency and tolerance for dissent, for example, may be unthinkable during a military campaign, but are indispensable to any democratic system.
History is replete with examples of regimes originally committed but ultimately corrupted. They share a number of attributes, chief among them total control over the process of nation-building and orchestrations of unity and popular endorsement. It would be tragic if the Eritrean people were to add a chapter to that sad chronicle.
The EPLF will not have accomplished its mission of bringing self-determination to Eritrea, however, until it has permitted the new country's citizens to exercise the basic right to choose their leaders and their destiny freely and regularly.