THE recent visit of Isaias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea, to the United States cast a brief spotlight on Africa's newest nation, a land the size of Ohio along the lower western shore of the Red Sea. President Isaias met with President Clinton Feb. 1.
The story of Eritrea is particularly remarkable. Independence came in 1993 after nearly 30 years of war against Ethiopia, a nation more than 10 times its size. It was the first territory in Africa successfully to secede from another African country. In an era when attention is frequently on Muslim-Christian conflict, Eritrea's population of 3.5 million is almost equally divided between the two religions - and lives in harmony. Located in the turbulent Horn of Africa, just north of Somalia and bordered by troubled Sudan, it has been referred to as an ``oasis of civility.''
President Afewerki considers himself a caretaker president until a democratic constitution is drafted. He has come to the US often to plead the case for his nation's independence. In 1989 he visited former President Carter in Atlanta, who sought unsuccessfully to mediate between Eritreans and Ethiopians. Those talks proved that peace was impossible as long as Marxists remained in power in Ethiopia.
The Carter effort, however, set the stage for negotiations in Nairobi with a new Ethiopian regime that resulted in a referendum and independence. Freedom for Eritrea came after decades of struggle in which this strategically located land was a pawn in the 19th- and 20th-century competitions for imperial control among Ottomans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, and Italians. In 1962, a compliant Eritrean parliament was pressured into approving incorporation into Ethiopia, which had long claimed the region, setting off years of armed struggle, during which 250,000 were killed and 11,000 maimed.
The US position toward Eritrea has been ambivalent. Throughout Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia, Washington benefited from the use of a US Army communication station, Kagnew, in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. This interest in Eritrea made Washington reluctant to contest the emperor's control of the territory. When a Marxist regime overthrew the Selassie regime, Washington became more sympathetic to the Eritreans. When the Marxist government was displaced, the US saw an opportunity for peace and assisted in the mediated settlement that made Eritrea independent.
NOW sovereign, Eritrea faces enormous obstacles to nation building. One of the poorest countries in Africa, its estimated annual per capita income is about $400. Like its neighbors, it has suffered from the severe drought that has hit the Horn of Africa in recent years. As is the case with other countries that have endured wars of liberation, its people also face the problems of destruction and the threat of land mines sewn indiscriminately by withdrawing Ethiopian soldiers.
Development plans center in the agricultural use of a high plateau embracing about half the country, a relatively fertile island in a generally dry region.
At a time when Africa is pictured as a continent in despair, Eritrea is a welcome symbol of internal peace and progress on that continent.