Eritrea nears end of road to freedom: A vote for independence in tomorrow's referendum looks certain, writes Richard Dowden from Asmara

THE DATE has been fixed and the invitations to the celebrations have already been issued. So certain are the new rulers of Eritrea that they will win a 'yes' for independence in the referendum tomorrow that they have set 24 May as the date for the new country's birth.

The diplomatic guests are diplomatic enough not to reply to the invitations yet - not that they doubt the referendum will produce an almost unanimous 'yes' vote. They say it would be jumping the gun. But there is also, perhaps, a feeling of guilt about Eritrea in the corridors of the world's foreign ministries. Eritrea is like an abandoned child who has returned a self-made man.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) will tell you how the Eritrean people have fought for 30 years for this moment. They will tell how they were colonised by Ethiopia and began a guerrilla war against the armies of the emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1962. They will recall how they nearly freed the whole country in 1977, only to be almost crushed the following year by the armies of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, newly supplied by the Soviet Union, and then how they fought and slowly pushed his armies south.

They will recall the almost daily bombing raids on villages and how Eritreans lived underground, with doctors administering surgery in hospital bunkers, with underground factories turning out plasma bags and pharmaceuticals, and with underground schools.

They will recall how they brought famine relief in convoys across the border from Sudan despite persistent bombing by Mengistu's air force. They will recall the torture and execution of hundreds of suspect supporters of the EPLF by secret police, and the thousands of lives lost in the cause - the referendum. All this was done for the right to choose.

This is all true. The war for Eritrea is the 20th century's longest and least reported. Its result is this century's version of David and Goliath. But the story is riven with contradiction and paradox, none of which will appear in the official version or be mentioned in front of the diplomats next month. Eritrea needs friends.

The first omission will be that Eritrea is an Italian invention. It was the name given to the Red Sea-coast area Italy took over in the late 19th century. The name is derived from the Greek name for the Red Sea.

There are more than 10 different peoples in Eritrea. The most powerful and the strongest advocates of independence are the highlanders, who are the same race and culture as those across the border in Ethiopia. So, at a time when many people are questioning the viability of African states that include diverse peoples within borders drawn by European powers 100 years ago, here is Eritrea, a typical colonial creation, fighting for independence from its 'natural' motherland.

The Eritrean nation was founded by the experience of rejection and forged by Mengistu's war against it. When the Italians invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea in 1936, many Eritreans fought alongside the fascists. At the end of the war, therefore, Eritrea had few friends and Britain, which had driven Italy out, asked the United Nations what should be done about the former colony.

Independence was only advocated by the Soviet Union, whose weapons were later to try to crush it. The United States and Britain advocated federation with Ethiopia, and their view prevailed. A referendum showed that Eritreans were divided over independence or federation but within 10 years Haile Selassie eroded the Eritreans' separate powers and made Eritrea a province.

Eritreans appealed to the US, Britain and the UN but were ignored. The coastal strip along the Red Sea was of great strategic importance, and no superpower wanted it an independent country. Apart from occasional military supplies from Iraq in the mid-1980s and the constant support of Sudan, the Eritreans were on their own against the vast Russian-trained and supplied Ethiopian army. And when the Russians began to fade, they were replaced by the Israelis.

The Eritreans were not always united. The first national movement was the Eritrean Liberation Front. It was largely Muslim dominated and badly co-ordinated. The EPLF split away from it, and from 1972 to 1974 the two movements indulged in a fratricidal war. The EPLF included Muslims and Christians, though it is led by the Christian intelligensia. It emerged as the winner and set about creating a disciplined, highly motivated force that drew on Marxism-Leninism but always denied the label.

Because it was fighting a socialist state backed by the Soviet Union, the EPLF was shunned by the other 'liberation' movements in Africa. It was anathema to the Organisation of African Unity, it was regularly denounced by the African National Congress of South Africa, and when Mengistu finally fell he was given refuge by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

None of this will be spoken of next month. Nor will the fact that the new government in Addis Ababa has allowed a province that includes its only ports to break away almost without discussion or negotiation.

Many years ago the EPLF realised that while it could battle successfully with the Ethiopian army in Eritrea, it needed allies in other parts of the country. So it helped set up and train a sister organisation in the neighbouring province, Tigray. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front was in some ways a carbon copy but more Marxist-Leninist and it fought for autonomy for Tigray, not independence. The TPLF always supported the aims of the EPLF and the two leaders, Isias Aferwerke of the EPLF, and Meles Zenawi of the TPLF, were always close.

The TPLF proved equally successful, driving the Ethiopian army out of Tigray. It then formed the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Movement to give it a wider national base. Early in 1991 its guerrillas swept towards the capital and Mengistu fled. The sister movements marched into Addis Ababa and one of the first things President Meles announced was that Eritrea would be allowed to hold its referendum. A debt repaid.

COUNTRY PROFILE

Population: 3.2 million

Capital: Asmara

Religion: equally divided between Muslims and Christians

Lifestyle: 80% rural

Language groups: (9) Afar, Bilen, Hadareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashida, Saho, Tigre and Tigrinya

Agriculture: sorghum, livestock industry including camels and goats

Resources: Red Sea fishing, gold, copper, potash and iron ore

Exports: hides, salt, cement and Gum arabic

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness