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.

Suggested Topics
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup