Eritrea's referendum turns into a joyful party: Much of the country is in ruins, but Richard Dowden found the people in buoyant mood

THERE is a good news story from Africa, the continent of war, drought and disease. The story comes from Eritrea, the place where both war and drought have been at their worst.

Last night the polls closed on the three-day referendum which will decide whether Eritrea will continue to be part of Ethiopia or become independent. The result is not in doubt and sometime today or tomorrow the announcement of a new African nation will be made.

If anyone is voting 'no' to independence they have yet to be found. 'This is not a referendum, this is a party,' said one old man in the bar, offering to buy drinks for a group of foreigners. And for four days and nights now the people of Asmara and the surrounding villages have danced and sung and paraded and celebrated. 'I suffered for 30 years, today I am so happy. I am reborn,' said Zemhref Habte, 40, a teacher and poll organiser. He said all but 40 of the 1,000 people registered to vote in his village of Tsetserat near Asmara had cast their ballots by noon on Saturday.

Isias Aferwerke, the leader of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front which drove out the Ethiopian army two years ago, said at a press conference yesterday that he could not imagine anyone voting 'no' unless they could not distinguish between red and blue - the colours of the voting slips.

The referendum is more than a political party coming to power or the birth of a new country. It represents the fruits of 30 years of bloody and vicious war in which almost every family has lost someone.

Many exiles are returning to savour the moment when Eritrea declares its independence. Amid the euphoria everyone has a personal tale of survival and loss to tell. Every night in the broad tree-lined streets of this magnificent Italianate town thousands of people promenade and greet each other in the cool evening air.

Sometimes you hear shrieks and sobs as friends and relations, who were parted by war for 10 or even perhaps 20 years, meet and embrace. When you look at the condition of Eritrea, however, there is little to celebrate.

The country has few natural resources and its exports at present amount to a few shiploads of hides. Its small manufacturing industry has been destroyed or disrupted by war. Nearly half its population of about 3.2 million people is displaced by war or drought and three-quarters of that population are dependent on food aid and will be for some time.

The mountains where most Eritreans live are so deforested as to be an ecological disaster zone and there are few roads in them to reach the scattered villages whose inhabitants scratch a living from the terraced mountainsides. It is here that the famine was worst in 1984 and many parts have still not recovered. This year the World Food Programme is asking for pounds 48m to provide 140,000 tonnes of food aid for the country. The response from the United States, the European Community and other countries has been almost nil.

Eritrea's main port of Massawa still lies in ruins since the Ethiopian air force bombed it after it was captured by the EPLF in 1990. The port is working but nature added its own devastation two weeks ago when a storm hit the town, killing several people, making 3,000 homeless and destroying food aid stored at the port.

But 30 years of war have produced an extraordinary quality of leadership in the EPLF which has announced its intention to disband itself as soon as democratic institutions are in place. Mr Isias, the leader of the interim government, has announced that a constitutional commission will shortly begin drawing up a constitution which will then be voted on.

Other commissions will draw up laws on press freedom and political parties; religious-based parties will be banned. Once these institutions are in place, the EPLF will disband itself and political parties will be allowed.

Mr Isias will give no public commitment on a timetable for this but in private he talks about one and a half to two years.

So far the EPLF has managed to forge a remarkable unity between three potentially rival elements in Eritrean society: the fighters who have spent years at the front, the well-educated returning exiles from America and Europe, and those who simply stayed in Eritrea throughout the war.

It has also retained a wartime spirit over the two years since the fighting ended. The entire civil service, all EPLF members, are still working without salary with an allowance of less than pounds 10 a month. Judging by its ability to keep the streets clean and organise several hundred foreigners who have come for the referendum, it is the most efficient in Africa.