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Africa Confidential, April 1993

Africa’s new state

Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia 19 years ago. After overseeing a bloody border war with Ethiopia in which an estimated 120,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians died, Issayas Afeworki's government remains isolated in both the Horn and the international community.

The ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice is yet to sign a constitution into law, hold a general election or allow the formation of political opposition. Most Eritreans are either locked into lifetime military service or imprisoned in shipping containers. A blind spot on the world's radar, Eritrea is said to be the world's most restricted media environment.

Our report from 30 April 1993 highlights lingering uncertainties over the EPLF's democratic credentials and tensions with Ethiopia as Eritrea prepared to become Africa's newest state.

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From the Africa Confidential archives

AC Vol 34 No 9 | 30 April 1993

The overwhelming majority for Independence in the 23-25 April referendum – 99.8 per cent of the 98.5 per cent of voters officially turning out voted ‘yes’ – allows the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) to start the harder task of constructing the state which will be formally declared independent on 24 May 1993 (AC Vol 34 No 4). Stressing his organisation’s pragmatism and flexibility, EPLF President Issayas Aferworki told journalists in Asmara on 25 April that he would not rule out very close economic ties or even the establishment of a confederation with Ethiopia – although this was not offered as an option to voters in the referendum.

As the self-appointed Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) since mid-1991, the EPLF has already laid down the economic ground rules, with the government keeping control of almost all industry for the moment, and for a multi-party political system (with no ethnic or religious based parties) and by implication, national reconciliation. Pluralism was part of the price of United States’ support for Independence and for United Nations’ recognition of the process. Issayas made it clear in his press conference that he was thinking in terms of years rather than months: democracy was not to come before stability, he said.

Many Eritreans remain sceptical of the EPLF’s promised multi-party politics and its desire for reconciliation. It wasn’t just the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) which was angered by the EPLF’s refusal to admit ELF papers as evidence of registration in the referendum. Only EPLF documents were acceptable: these could be bought on the spot for $75 in the USA, £50 in Britain, DM55 in Germany and 30 birr in Ethiopia or Eritrea. Opponents saw this as an attempt to impose EPLF authority over all Eritreans, as well as a device to extract funds. The use of red ballot papers (the colour of death in Eritrea) for those wanting to vote ‘no’ and blue ballots (the colour of the Eritrean flag) for ‘yes’ votes was criticised by those complaining that the EPLF continued to equate the independence struggle with itself.

Many ELF members have returned, particularly from the ELF-United Organisation. The most important group to refuse so far is Ahmed Nasser’s ELF-Revolutionary Council, which claims to be pursuing a long-term political strategy, trying to mobilise pressure on the EPLF to implement genuine democracy. Two smaller groups are associated with it. One is the Eritrean Democratic Liberation Movement (led by Gebreberhan Zere), the other the ELF-Central Leadership (Tewolde Gebreselassie). Both, surprisingly, still have excellent relations with Ethiopia’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This emphasises the TPLF’s own ambivalence towards the EPLF. Two other grounds also remaining outside are the ELF of Abdullah Idriss and Islamic Jihad, a Sudanese-backed group which remains committed to armed struggle.

None of these will have much effect on the EPLF’s post-referendum strategy. It plans to turn its Third Congress into a national unity gathering. Attendance will be on an individual not organisational basis. The congress will then, ostensibly, decide on the EPLF’s fate. The intention is to dissolve it in its present form and replace it by one or more parties, supposedly representing ideological differences – socialism, liberalism, democratic socialism, and so on.

Indications are that the process may now be rather more drawn out, delayed by internal discussions. Attempts to reorganise the mass organisations (the youth, workers’ and women’s organisations, closed down after the 1991 take-over) have met resistance and with demands for new, more independent bodies. The regional Centre for Human Rights and Development in Asmara was shut down in March, apparently for trying to take its role too seriously.

Reports have been circulating in Asmara critical of senior EPLF figures, among them Petros Solomon, the Secretary of Defence, and Sebhat Ephrem, former army commander and now administrator of Dankalia. Petros is normally seen as Issayas’ number two but some have seen him and Sebhat as possible leaders of another party. Both belonged to the radical Menka (‘Bat’) group within the EPLF, which was crushed and most of its leaders killed in the mid-1970s.

Immediately after creating the PGE, the EPLF set up provincial administrations, encouraging people to identify with their own region. Money was raised for development and conferences were held at a provincial level. The Afar, the Kunama and the Saho (from which group Ahmed Nasser comes) indicated strong support. Others, including the EPLF army, thought it likely to encourage ethnicity. At the end of last year, the EPLF Central Committee quietly made it clear that the policy would be rethought.

It is still probable that three or four parties will appear after the Third Congress but the delays will upset Eritrea’s impressive pool of educated professionals, Most have been overseas for many years, the majority in Western democracies. Often privately critical of the EPLF’s political strategy, they stifled doubts during the struggle. Now they epect changes and will be reluctant to return to work in Eritrea if there is little visible sign of democracy. The ties with Israel, encouraged by the USA, are controversial. Several Central Committee members believe that any development and security aid from Tel Aviv will be insufficient to offset Arab and Muslim opprobrium. There has also been argument over the close ties with Sudan and on how to handle Ethiopia. Another unresolved question is the level of government control over the economy.

Eritrea becomes independent with considerable goodwill and a solid core of international backing. It needs all the economic support it can get. Infrastructure has been badly damaged. Some 50 public sector industries are operating at no more than one-third capacity. Agriculture has been devastated by drought. There is a grave shortage of oxen. Some 80 per cent of the population needed food aid last year although the rains have been good this year. Tens of thousands of disabled people, orphans and the families of those who died need assistance urgently. Nearly 500,000 refugees remain in Sudan: the government hasn’t got the resources to finance their return and re-integration, which it has costed at $200 million. Long-term reconstruction and development will be much greater. The EPLF has said it needs $2,000 mn. initially. Eritrea will be applying for World Bank and other international finance, for which negotiations were not able to start before Independence. There is still uncertainty over the rehabilitation of Assab, the first phases of which began under President Mengistu Haile Mariam: agreement here may depend on Ethiopia’s interest in upgrading the railway to Djibouti, for which nearly $300 mn. has already been promised.

In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)’s ready acceptance of Eritrean Independence has provided a rallying point for the opposition which has made great play on the emotional loss of part of ‘the motherland’ and the loss of Ethiopia’s coastline and ports. In fact, there is little dispute with President Meles Zenawi’s assertion that there is no option to Independence. Ethiopia lost the war and Independence is the price to be paid. But Meles will feel the political effects for a long time to come. His opponents argue that the EPRDF, in power by virtue of its military victory, has no right to either offer a referendum or bind subsequent governments to the result. Similar criticisms are directed at the decrees on regional autonomy and self-determination promulgated even before the EPRDF’s own constitutional committee was set up. Critics argue that these decisions should be left to the government which emerges after the constitution has been debated.

Meles’ generosity towards Eritrea has also been controversial. Eritrea will set off essentially debt free. Two alternatives in apportioning debts were considered: one way to ‘settle up the accounts’, working out just how much each had contributed to the other since federation. Meles preferred to ignore the compensation issue and start from scratch. Precise figures are not available but from 1962 onwards, Eritrea got more funding than all other Ethiopian provinces put together, with the exception of Shoa, and for most of the last twenty years it contributed no taxes.

Any question of compensation for war damage would be highly contentious in Ethiopia. Ethiopians argue they suffered as much as, if not more than, the Eritreans. Casualties ran into hundreds of thousands killed, maimed and wounded. The economic effects of the conflict, with up to 75 per cent of the budget going on military spending, were catastrophic.

Ethiopia’s foreign exchange reserves were down to $25 mn. by May 1991 and debts were getting out of control, though until the late 1980s Addis Ababa had an exemplary payment record. This does not include $8,600 mn, military debt to the former Soviet Union which is unlikely ever to be repaid. The diversion of resources to the military played a major role in the famine of 1984-85 and in the failures of the villagisation and resettlement programmes of the later 1980s.

The question of Eritrea also affects the EPRDF’s regional and ethnic policies (AC Vol 34 No 1), sharply at odds with those of the EPLF, particularly over the Afars, now split between the two countries. Several nationalities are now using Eritrea as a stick to beat the EPRDF within and outside Ethiopia. At a Conference for Peace in Paris in March, attended by several opposition groups (the EPRDF refused an invitation), the Oromo Liberation Front was prepared for the first time to sign a communiqué reserving the rights of a future Ethiopian government over the Eritrean referendum.

The other groups attending were the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Union; the Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a multinational party; the multinational Ethiopian Medhin Democratic Party; the Multinational Congress Party of Ethiopia (Tigrayan); the new Tigray-Tigrinya Ethiopia, Tugranyans from Eritrean and Ethiopia; and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Coalition grouping 14 nationalities from the south and east. None pose any military threat to the EPRDF at the moment but they do represent, in part, four of the six major nationalities in Ethiopia (no Somalis or Gurages). This explains why Meles reacted sharply to the meeting, condemning the participants in a press conference. It also indicates why five of the SEPDS’s 14 groups were promptly expelled from the Council of Representatives. The indications are that criticism of EPRSF ethnic policies may continue to grow.