Eritrean referendum on independence

Wednesday, March 31, 1993

By Peter Boyle

Green Left Weekly -- On May 24, 1991, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) won its long armed struggle against the Ethiopian government. In April the Eritrean people will freely express their right to self-determination in a referendum on the future of their war and drought-ravaged country. They will have three choices: independence, regional autonomy within Ethiopia or federation with Ethiopia.

While there will be thousands of international observers, the United Nations refused a request by the provisional government/EPLF to administer the referendum because it did not want to pick up the costs, according to Elias Habte-Selassie, a former official of the Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs and a member of the EPLF.

Habte-Selassie spoke to Green Left Weekly when in Australia recently to lecture at the Diplomacy Training Program at the University of NSW.

Like many of his compatriots, Habte-Selassie has spent a long time in exile. He had to leave Eritrea when he was 13 to continue his studies in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. In 1975 he fled to Kenya and then to Sudan, where he joined the EPLF.

He began working in refugee affairs (at one point 20% of Eritrea's 3.5 million people had fled their homeland). After serving in Beirut and Rome, he made The Hague his base. Soon he will move back to Eritrea to set up a development agency. He was offered a position in the provisional government, but opted instead to work outside the state.

While acknowledging the terrible social costs of the war of liberation, which spanned three decades, Habte-Selassie remains optimistic. The Eritreans, he says, have a special heritage. When the age of (formal) decolonisation began for Africa, Eritrea was the only country in the continent apart from South Africa that was significantly urbanised (20% of the population was urban in 1941) and had a unionised working class.

In addition, Eritrea's geographical position made it a commercial centre for the Horn of Africa. It has 1000 kilometres of coast, including rich fisheries, and areas of very fertile land in the west. Eritrea also shares the bedrock of Saudi Arabia, so there are possibilities of significant mineral and oil wealth. Saudi Arabia has always opposed Eritrean independence to prevent these resources from being developed, says Habte-Selassie.

The colonial authorities of Italy, which ruled Eritrea between 1885 and 1941, when the British took over, developed the local economy primarily to serve some 60,000 Italian settlers. But between 1941 and 1946 there was an industrial boost under the British, and rural traders and small manufacturers flourished.

The Eritreans' reputation for industriousness and self-sufficiency grew during the war against Ethiopia. The EPLF's ability to deliver free health care, education and economic services to 1.2-1.5 million people — under the most adverse conditions — impressed international aid agencies and today leaves the EPLF with a strong popular authority.

Visitors to Eritrea remark on the law and order that prevail there — in sharp contrast to Ethiopia, not to mention Somalia and Sudan — although armed EPLF fighters are rarely seen on the streets.

"Most EPLF fighters are busy working on community projects", explained Habte-Selassie, "and as they, and their leaders, live on a meagre allowance of US$6 per month, they are well respected by the rest of the population". The whole country is living at a bare subsistence level, so the provisional government/EPLF makes certain that it shares the pain of this transition period.

Nevertheless Eritrea faces a major challenge, according to Chris Kutschera, a correspondent for Middle East magazine. "After 50 years of war and 15 years of neglect and plunder by Mengistu, the country is in such a desperate condition that one wonders how the new leadership, despite its dedication and its energy, can pull it through." The problems include:

  • An agricultural sector, which once exported food, is now paralysed. The war prevented all soil preservation work and ruined the irrigation network. After one season of respite after liberation, drought has returned.
  • Only a few of the 44 state-owned manufacturing and processing plants are working, and none of these at full capacity. Only a third of 600 smaller private industries were functioning last year.
  • Massawa, one of two major ports on the Red Sea, remains a ruin after being flattened by the Ethiopian air force and navy after the EPLF liberated it in February 1990.

This is the time when every bit of international aid and solidarity is needed, says Habte-Selassie, but international concern for the Eritreans has faded, as has Western media interest. Eritrea remains a non-country until the referendum, and

foreign investors have shown little interest so far despite offers of tax concessions and liberal regulations on foreign investment.

But the problem is not a new one. The EPLF faced isolation as a result of the Cold War. Former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was armed and funded by the US, and his successor, the military dictator Mengistu, was supported by the Soviet Union. The EPLF was forced to developed strategies of self-sufficiency. Democratically elected village assemblies were the basic unit of decision making and planning, and provided a popular base for the EPLF.

EPLF general secretary Isaias Afeworki has vowed that the EPLF is committed to establishing a "multiparty democracy". According to Habte-Selassie, Afeworki has also said that this does not mean that the EPLF will be passive spectators of any attempt to dismantle the gains of liberation.

A discussion is under way in the EPLF about what happens to the popular village-based political structure after the referendum and what role the liberation fighters should have.

When the EPLF was formed in a split from the more conservative Eritrean Liberation Front in 1970, it affirmed that it had two related objectives: national liberation and social transformation. "We've never given ourselves a label, like Marxist or Marxist-Leninist", said Habte-Selassie, "but we are deeply committed to social transformation, and EPLF members do study political theory and the experience of other liberation movements.

"We are committed to improving the lives of our people, and you can call it socialism or social justice or whatever you like. We have to be careful of labels for many reasons. Among them is the fact that 42% of Eritreans are Muslims and many others are devout Christians."

Some of the social transformation began as women took up new roles in the liberation struggle. Some 35% of the armed forces of the EPLF were women, a high percentage compared even with some of the more recent liberation movements in Central America. Says Habte-Selassie: "The EPLF leadership is also relatively young. Their average age is 40-45. Many of our well-educated and technically qualified young people also went into the EPLF. Many of us see ourselves as belonging to a new generation of African socialists."

From GLW issue 94