Eritrea, Free at Last

May 03, 1993

Ordinarily when 98 percent of eligible voters turn out for a referendum and 99.8 percent of them vote yes, the election was rigged. Not in last week's referendum in Eritrea. The question was whether 3.5 million Eritreans wanted independence from Ethiopia. Since they have fought in a bloody revolt for 30 years, the outcome was never in doubt. Equally remarkable, the new government in Ethiopia quietly accepts the decision.

Yet independence simply marks the end of one struggle and the beginning of another. Eritrea has been devastated by the war which began in 1962, when Emperor Haile Selassie annexed the former Italian colony and U.N. protectorate. Its once-prosperous capital, Asmara, is slowly regaining strength and its main port, Massawa, needs extensive rebuilding. The sparsely populated country is 80 percent rural. Most people subsist on international food aid because of droughts that have beset the region for years and the bitter guerrilla warfare.

Eritrea really won its independence nearly three years ago when the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front drove out the forces of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose own regime was crumbling in Addis Ababa. The Eritreans agreed to delay a referendum to establish themselves in the eyes of the world community. Even other African liberation movements had shunned the Eritreans, partly because the Ethiopians they were resisting were "socialists" backed by the Soviet Union.

Now the nation-building begins. Eritrea is a Western creation. Its population is half Christian, half Muslim, composed of 10 distinct ethnic groups speaking nine languages. International aid agencies have withheld reconstruction aid until its independence was confirmed. The U.S. recognized the new nation, and U.N. membership is only a formality away. Ethiopia, whose own liberation movement was aided by the Eritreans, will depend on its neighbor for access to the sea. The Eritreans displayed great skill at organizing and even building small industries during their 30-year struggle, so they will inaugurate their freedom May 24 with hope based on past achievements.

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