Eritrea Reviving as an African Bright Spot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When troops of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front marched into this capital last May, victorious after a 30-year civil war, one of their major problems was getting people off the streets.

Literally; over the years, soldiers of the Ethiopian 2nd Army had marked their sidewalk guard posts by stringing tin cans across the doorways; any Eritrean returning home after a late night among Asmara's numerous bars and overturning the cans risked getting shot on the spot.

So people took to strolling down the center of the street to avoid the soldiers, while cars used the vacated sidewalks.

"I remember seeing one driver ask some men to help him get his Volkswagen up onto the sidewalk so he could have room to drive," recalled Girma Asmerom, an American-educated liberation front fighter who now serves as director of protocol for the front's provisional government.

Today Asmara has returned, at least outwardly, to normalcy. People use the sidewalks and cars the pavement. Shopkeepers on National Boulevard again dispense gelato-- one reminder that this city was once an Italian colonial capital--from machines of polished chrome. Store shelves are stocked with new consumer goods sent in from Eritreans living abroad or bought with remittance money.

Disarmed fighters reassigned to work crews can be seen excavating broken water and sewer lines, repairing the toll of decades of inattention by Ethiopian officials feeling increasingly encircled by advancing insurgents.

After Africa's longest war this century--a 30-year "war of liberation" in which the liberation front and other rebels fought against Emperor Haile Selassie and, after his fall, finally defeated the army of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam--one would expect Eritrea to be facing the continent's greatest challenge of reconstruction.

More than 50,000 of its people were killed in the fighting, by liberation front estimate, and as many as 500,000 remain refugees across the border in Sudan. One of the province's two seaports was bombed almost daily from the air for more than a year, leaving scarcely a single building intact and 500 people dead. More than 230,000 land mines littered the countryside; defusing them took the lives of 15 more fighters.

Eritrea's croplands were fallow, its land-preserving hillside terraces left to deteriorate, allowing its meager soil to wash away. The Italian-built railway to the sea was ripped apart. Generations of children went without schooling.

As the liberation front closed in on Asmara early this year, fleeing Ethiopians looted its banks and enterprises of an estimated $150 million in Ethiopian currency; foreign exchange reserves were down to almost nothing.

Liberation front officials say they expect 75% of this year's food crop to fail because of inadequate rain, an infestation of grain-destroying army worm and war dislocation. As many as 2.75 million Eritreans will be in need of emergency food relief.

But out of this morass the new Eritrean leadership is determined to build an African phoenix--and many recent visitors are convinced that they have a good chance to succeed.

"In the context of the Horn of Africa right now, they're very impressive," said one Ethiopia-based Western relief official who recently toured the country. "In any visible way, the country's been demilitarized, which makes Eritrea one of the most peaceful of the entities we have in this part of the world."

Their efforts will be a test of Western prescriptions for African success, including free-market and export-based economics, liberal rules for foreign investment and rigorous fiscal controls, all of which they have moved to establish. Success here would be even more impressive, given that Eritrea currently has almost nothing to export, very little money and a rocky, semi-arid landscape on which even hardscrabble farming will be difficult.

But that does not take into account the character of the Eritreans, who are as a group among the most admired people in this region.

Wasting little time, the liberation front has already begun rebuilding Eritrea's once-thriving industrial sector. Italian-built factories and citrus plantations that once made Eritrea an important export partner of the Middle East and southern Europe are being offered for sale to foreign investors. And Asmara's hotels are filling up with returning Eritreans and even with Italians, many of whom were born in Asmara, spent 20 years in self-imposed exile in Rome and are planning to move back.

"Almost every day something new comes on line," said Trevor Page, the U.N. secretary general's personal representative in Asmara and head of the World Food Program's Eritrean relief effort. Utility plants and factories have been swiftly revived. Water pumping stations and power generators were back in operation within a week of the liberation front's arrival.

Renowned across Africa for their mechanical skill, the Eritreans have put their talents to work since war's end. At the Red Sea port of Massawa, a trading lifeline almost destroyed by Mengistu's air force after the rebels seized it in February, 1990, only one dockside crane of six was in working order last May. Today five are running, and the sixth is due to come on line by the end of this month.

The port's only pilot boat is an ancient craft with an engine that went out of production in 1952. In most other African countries it would long since have been left to rust on the beach; the Eritreans have kept it running for 40 years by manufacturing their own spare parts.

One indication of Eritrean pride and potential is the condition of Asmara itself. The Italian-built capital--nestled like Shangri-La at an elevation of 7,000 feet within a ring of rocky crags and featuring an enormous Romanesque brick cathedral at its center--is in gleaming shape, in far better repair after three decades of war than are most African cities after 30 years of peace.

Virtually no firearms are displayed anywhere in the city, even though the liberation front still has an estimated 100,000 fighters mobilized. While the entourages of most African leaders bristle with carbines and move about in armored convoys, the liberation front's secretary general, Isaias Afewerki, can be found on most days tooling around Asmara alone in a beaten-up four-wheel-drive vehicle, dodging bicycle traffic like everyone else.

Front leaders are hoping they can prove themselves to be paragons of modern economic development. In effect, they have already unilaterally devalued the currency--they are still using the Ethiopian birr--by allowing returning Eritreans to convert dollars to birr at the same black-market rate prevailing in Ethiopian cities to the south.

Businessmen negotiating deals with the former rebels say the front's proposed investment code is among the most liberal in Africa--and in many ways more inviting than the codes in force in the booming Far East.

For all its potential, however, Eritrea today finds itself in a unique diplomatic limbo that may well hamper its efforts at reconstruction: The outside world is still debating whether to treat it as a real country.

The liberation front's seizure of Asmara in May--two days after Mengistu fled Ethiopia for exile in Zimbabwe--gave the rebel force undisputed control of Eritrea, especially after rebels of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front unseated the feeble remnants of Mengistu's government in Addis Ababa three days later.

But preserving Ethiopia's status as a unified country with an outlet on the Red Sea is an article of faith among Western governments (Eritrea occupies Ethiopia's entire seacoast), and most of them informed the Eritrean People's Liberation Front that they would not recognize an immediate declaration of independence.

In response, the front established a provisional government and agreed to submit the question to an open referendum, subject to international oversight, two years hence, or in mid-1993.

But the harvest of this delay is a growing paranoia among liberation front officials, who are convinced that the West wants to starve Eritrea of crucial and timely aid in order to pressure its voters into reuniting with Ethiopia.

"The objective is to ensure that the Eritrean economy remains paralyzed and plagued by crisis and poverty for the coming two years so that the Eritrean people may choose 'slavery with a full stomach (in preference) to freedom in misery,' " Isaias proclaimed in a speech in September.

Liberation front officials dismiss Western cavils about Eritrea's sovereign and diplomatic status as mere "pretexts"--the word has become something of a totem in the hallways of the provisional government. To Eritreans who have seen Western governments funnel arms and money to scores of illicit clients over the years, not to mention propping up oppressive regimes in the name of anti-communism, the donors' new-found punctilio smacks of hypocrisy.

"We know donors do a lot of 'illegal' things," said Tesfai Ghermazien, the front's former Washington representative, now secretary of agriculture in the provisional government.

In truth, the liberation front has not made things easier, displaying a prickly temperament that comes off at best as impatience and at worst as sheer arrogance. In the last month, the provisional government has managed to pick a fight with the governments of both France (which it accuses of fomenting a tribal rebellion in neighboring Djibouti) and Germany (which it believes is discouraging the European Community from providing relief aid).

And there is no question that the current provisional government is far more homogeneous than the Eritrean population at large, a situation that raises questions about its representativeness and even the front's commitment to genuine democracy. Highland Christians are overrepresented, while some estimates place the proportion of Arabic-speaking Muslim tribes in the population, including the historically troublesome Afar, at close to 50%.

Still, the liberation front has pledged openly to disband after the referendum, throwing Eritrean politics open to democratic competition. And some independent observers agree that foreign donors are probably placing more stress on legalism than is necessary.

What lends these disputes their element of futility is the near-certainty that the referendum will sound loudly for independence. Questions about its possible outcome elicit amazed laughter from government officials and common workers alike, and it is hard to find people who consider the referendum much more than a pro forma exercise.

Liberation front leaders are now considering advancing the referendum date, so as to get the formalities out of the way quickly.

"We're regretting that we decided to postpone it," said Isaias in an interview. "We expected to have direct dealings (with Western countries) without any diplomatic complications. If this continues, we definitely would prefer to have the referendum sooner."

Statements such as that unnerve Western officials who regard the timing of the referendum as even more important for Ethiopia's stability than for Eritrea's. The post-Mengistu transitional government in Addis Ababa, which must balance a far more varied mix of ethnic groups and political factions than the Eritrean front, has already faced down mass demonstrations in favor of Ethiopian unity; given any further signs that Eritrea's independence is a foregone conclusion, anti-government sentiment could mushroom.

"I'm prepared to believe that a fair election would decide for independence, by 75, 80 or 90%," said a key Western diplomat in Addis Ababa. "But moving up the referendum would cost the EPLF a lot of credit internationally, because it would make the Ethiopian government's position more difficult."

But such outsiders may be underestimating the Eritreans' resentment at being considered secondary to Ethiopia. And that derives in part from Eritrea's unique history as the only part of Ethiopia to be colonized by Europeans.

The Italians who settled Eritrea barred natives from secondary schooling, white-designated restaurants and shops and senior ranks of the military; the grand villas that lend Asmara so much of its mysterious charm were once reserved for Italian settlers only. But they also built roads and a railway and other infrastructure that brought unprecedented prosperity to the area and somehow managed to instill in the natives a sort of European pride.

When the United Nations in 1952 federated Eritrea with Haile Selassie's Ethiopia as a semi-autonomous region, the emperor tried to merge it by force into his still-feudal domain. By 1961, Eritrean grievances were numerous enough to generate armed resistance.

As the former Ethiopian official Dawit Wolde Giorgis wrote later: "The Eritreans, with their 60-year exposure to Western government, were more sophisticated and politically advanced than the rest of Ethiopia. . . . For the Ethiopian army, going to Eritrea was like going to Europe."

The Eritreans came to view the Ethiopians as aliens, a sensation that prevails today within the provisional government and in much of the countryside.

Meanwhile, the provisional government's optimistic officials try not to minimize the scale of the reconstruction--physical, psychological and personal.

"After 30 years of war, you can imagine," said Dr. Asefaw Tekeste, the secretary of social affairs. "There is no Eritrean family intact."

More than 50,000 Eritreans are permanently disabled, and more than 60,000 children have lost one or both of their parents.

Adding to this is the weight of the coming demobilization. The liberation front army of 100,000 men and women has been redeployed into work gangs, which can be seen around the country shoring up roads and filling potholes; for the next two years they are to continue this work without pay, getting only lodging and board. But after that, they stand to join the ranks of the unemployed. That's a problem the provisional government recognizes as its most menacing, and it provides an important spur to get Eritrea's factories and farms functioning again.

Members of a U.N. mission sent to Eritrea this month to assess its relief needs were impressed with the care and organization with which the provisional government made its presentation, but also somewhat put out at the size of the program the Eritreans expect foreign donors to finance.

"They're being very unrealistic about what they're going to get out of the donors," said one team member, who asked to remain unidentified. "They classified their entire reconstruction needs--schools, hospitals, road and everything else--as emergency needs deriving from the war. It's as if they want foreigners to give them the infrastructure of a middle-income country, all at one fell swoop."

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