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Everyone agreed?

GIVEN THE INEVITABLE result, Eritrea's referendum on independence held in April looked like a superfluous exercise. A total of 1,100,260 people voted in favour as against a minuscule 1,822 opposing sovereignty. Turn-out was reported to be 98.5% of registered voters. For once, claims of electoral near-unanimity are not unreasonable.

The victorious freedom fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) entered the capital, Asmara, in May 1991 after a three-decade long liberation struggle with Ethiopia. The two-year delay by the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) in declaring independence was designed to give the new regime in Addis Ababa time to digest the inevitable separation from Ethiopia. For many Ethiopians, particularly the Amharic-speaking majority, the partition is hard to accept and the Addis Ababa government is far less firmly entrenched than its Eritrean counterpart.

Both Isyas Aferwerke, the EPLF and head of the PGE, and Meles Zenawi, president of Ethiopia, have determined that the divorce between the two territories will be conducted as amicably as possible - as befits former comrades in arms. In the late 1970s, the EPLF helped set up the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) under Zenawi in neighbouring Tigray province. Whereas the EPLF demanded Eritrea's secession, the TPLF wanted no more than autonomy within an Ethiopian framework. Broadening its national base by forming the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDP), the TPLF swept the politically bankrupt regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam from power in Addis Ababa at the same time as the EPLF liberated Asmara.

After almost 30 years of civil war which left the country ravaged and depopulated, independent Eritrea cannot afford to live with a hostile neighbour. Ethiopia is the natural market for Eritrean exports, while Eritrea represents Ethiopia's chief outlet to the sea.

Perhaps the most important reason why Eritrea has not rushed into independence, however, is the scrupulous concern of Aferwerke and the PGE to observe legal formalities. Eritrea wanted to obtain United Nations endorsement of independence and international recognition as smoothly as possible (wisely in retrospect, given the upheavals which have accompanied the disorderly break-up of Yugoslavia during the same time).

In order to ensure UN approbation, the new Ethiopian regime and the Eritrean provisional government held a conference in Addis Ababa in July 1991 which recognised the right of the Eritrean people to self-determination through an internationally supervised referendum. At the request of the Ethiopian government, the United Nations approved the creation of a UN mission to oversee the referendum (known as Unover) in October 1992.

UN staff meticulously supervised the organisation of the vote. "We have to check the whole process," said one Unover envoy. "It is not just the vote which constitutes proof of democracy, but registration and the campaign as well."

Registration without discrimination was an exhaustive process, involving the distribution of national identity cards. Altogether, 715,000 civilians were registered in Eritrea and 110,000 fighters included on a separate, secret list. A further 150,000 refugees in Sudan and 60,000 refugees in Ethiopia were added to the electoral roll, alongside 60,000 expatriates living in Europe, North America and the Middle East (about half of them in Saudi Arabia).

The UN's chief problem was the lack of any opposition. "It bothers me," remarked a Unover official. "We like balanced situations, but what can we do? My job is to look for opponents, but I can't create them. The Ethiopians, who might have made up the only real opposition, have already left."

There is, however, undefinable opposition from splinter resistance groups sidelined during the war by the EPLF. The remnants of the predominantly Muslim Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which predates the EPLF, receive support from some Arab countries. The membership of the EPLF is both Muslim and Christian, although the majority of its leadership (including Aferwerke) is Christian.

The Unover official was anxious to stress the significance of the UN role. "The referendum marks the beginning of a legal process," he said. "Nothing is being imposed by force, and that is important enough for us to give it our blessing."

Eritrea's conciliatory approach has also eased its access to foreign assistance. Following the Addis Ababa conference, the PGE discussed the elaboration and financing of an "emergency recovery and rehabilitation programme" with the World Bank to tackle spending priorities for an initial two-year period. Ethiopia agreed to take up a $25m soft loan from the World Bank on the understanding that Eritrea would take over the obligation once it became a bank member after independence. The PGE also managed to persuade Ethiopia and the European Community to allocate Eritrea a $25m share of EC assistance to Ethiopia under the Lome IV convention.

Otherwise, potential aid donors have been less forthcoming. The country's infrastructure, including the vital port of Massawa, has been ruined by the war. Agriculture, on which more than 90% of the population depends, has been devastated, with an estimated third of the country's topsoil destroyed and 80% of the people now relying on food aid.

Eritrea also faces the imminent return of over 300,000 refugees from Sudan, many of whom are already camping in harsh conditions in the ruins of their old villages. The PGE is embroiled in a dispute with UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). It claims to need $200m in emergency aid for rehabilitating refugees; UNHCR has only offered $6m to date.

Meanwhile, it has been estimated for example that rebuilding the water distribution system for the medium-sized town of Keren (with a population of 50,000) will cost $1.5m. No-one has yet worked out the comparable cost of water supplies for cities such as Asmara and Massawa.

Bilateral foreign aid has been limited so far. Italy has offered $21m, Sweden $11m and the Netherlands $2.2m. Denmark and Germany are also expected to make pledges. But help from the United States has been held up because of the insistence by the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) on an unrealistically rapid privatisation programme.

The PGE, reasonable as ever, agrees on the principle of privatisation. Foreign investment is vital to give a boost to the economy, says Haile Woldense, its secretary for economic development and cooperation. He is acutely aware of the need to avoid the vicious circle of aid dependency and international indebtedness which has for so long been the bane of many other African states.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Eritrea's declaration of independence
Author:Kutschera, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Exhaustion concentrates the mind.
Next Article:Sorting out the issues.

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