Eritrea emerges as world's newest nation: Asmara celebrations acclaim independence after civil conflict. Richard Dowden, Africa Editor, assesses the challenges ahead

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The Independent Online
ERITREA became the world's newest country yesterday, two years to the day since the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) seized the capital Asmara, and helped capture the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The red, blue and green flag with a yellow olive branch was raised at a ceremony in Asmara at midnight on Sunday after a day of parades, street dances and fireworks.

The war for Eritrean independence lasted 30 years and in the last decade developed from a guerrilla conflict into a full-scale conventional war, with frontline trenches and tank battles. The Eritrean leaders estimate that 160,000 fighters and 40,000 civilians died in the fighting.

Since it took over, the EPLF has ruled as if Eritrea were already independent but last month it confirmed its military victory by holding a UN- monitored referendum which produced a 99 per cent majority in favour of independence.

The new country has little but the enthusiasm and skills of its population to build a future, and the government has a monumental task ahead. It has few natural resources and will not be self-sufficient in food for at least a decade. At present three-quarters of the population are partly dependent on foreign food aid. The government must also bring back some 750,000 refugees from neighbouring countries and demobilise 70,000 soldiers. For the past two years it has kept its fighters in barracks, paying them only pocket money, and last week several units broke out and seized the airport, banks and other vital installations in a protest to demand cash salaries.

The separation of Eritrea from Eth iopia has the blessing of the new Ethiopian leaders who were close allies of the EPLF during the struggle against Mengistu Haile Mariam. This support is essential. Eritrea was Ethiopia's coastal province and contains its only ports, Massawa and Assab, but this conflict of interests has been resolved by an agreement between the two governments which allows Ethiopian goods to have free access through the ports.

Eritrea's other neighbour, Sudan, gave the EPLF access and military support during the war and the presence of President Omar Hassan el Bashir of Sudan at the independence celebrations strengthens co-operation between the EPLF and Khartoum.

Recently, Eritreans have expressed concern about Sudan's brand of Islamic fundamentalism spreading into Eritrea. The Eritrean leaders are privately more worried by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis supported the precursor and Islamic rival to the EPLF, the Eritrean Liberation Front, which is now almost defunct. Eritrea's population is said to be equally divided between Muslims and Christians and there are concerns that the Saudis, anxious to keep a pliant state on the other side of the Red Sea, will fund an Islamic party in the new country.

The birth of Eritrea is causing concern to African neighbours who are themselves facing separatist movements. Isias Aferwerke, the Eritrean President, stresses that Eritrean independence is not a precedent for anywhere else in Africa. He told a press conference recently that further division of the region would be contrary to the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity, which lays down acceptance of colonial boundaries. Ironically, this was the argument constantly used against the EPLF during its struggle for independence.

Nevertheless Eritrean independence will encourage secessionists in other African countries. Angola, Cameroon, Senegal and South Africa all face potential splits. But any movement wanting independence will have to overcome two conditions which allowed the world community to accept Eritrea: the fact that Ethiopia agreed to it and that the EPLF held a UN-monitored referendum. Not many other movements in the region are in a position to do this.

Southern Sudan, which has little in common with its Islamic and Arabic north, is a prime candidate for separation but independence would be forcibly resisted by Khartoum and tribal rivalries in the south would prevent a majority favouring independence. One of the factions of the divided Sudan People's Liberation Army favours independence for the south, while John Garang, who leads the other faction, is ambivalent: once a staunch defender of a united Sudan, he now raises the independence option, saying the people must decide.

Northern Somalia has declared itself independent as the Republic of Somaliland but it is yet to be recog nised. It split away two years ago and since the rest of the country dissolved in chaos, Western donors have become more sympathetic to the north. The rest of Somalia cannot do anything about this de facto secession but this is unlikely to lead to recognition.

(Map omitted)

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