Song and dance over referendum: Eritreans celebrate three days spent voting for independence from Ethiopia

THEY WERE dancing in the street long after I went to bed and their dancing woke me in the morning. The relentless, repetitive Eritrean music blares out from speakers hung on every lamppost on the main streets. Quiet came only in the afternoon, when the city closes for a three-hour siesta (this was not an Italian colony for nothing).

In the parts of town not reached by piped music, men and women gathered in separate groups around a drummer and linked arms and chanted. Outside polling stations, the queues burst into clapping and ululations at the slightest excuse or threw popcorn into the air.

But the perpetual party belies an underlying seriousness. In a three-day referendum, 800,000 people are voting to decide the future of Eritrea. With the simple efficiency that marks this about-to-be country, each voter brings a registration card, signs or makes a thumb print in the register and takes a voting card. They are half-blue and half-red, blue for independence and red for continued union with Ethiopia. The voter tears off one half and places it in the ballot box.

I asked one man to translate the question in the local language, Tigrinya, written on the voting slip. 'It says 'Do you want Eritrea to be free?',' he replied. The actual word is 'independent' but it matters little. All the procedure of the referendum, with international observers, is a mere rubber stamp. It has proved impossible to find anyone who is going to vote against independence.

In Asmara's prison the 244 political prisoners - collaborators with the former regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam - were casting their votes. Here, if anywhere in Asmara, one might expect to find resistance to the idea of Eritrean independence.

Isias Merhazion used to be a representative of the Ethiopian Workers Party. He was arrested two days after the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) took power in 1991 and had been held ever since without charge. He said he had never been subjected to threats or political indoctrination and that his family were allowed to visit him every three weeks. He wore his own clothes, had his own radio and was allowed to talk freely to me.

He described himself as one of the most senior people who had collaborated with the old regime, but said he would be voting for independence, as would every other political prisoner in the jail. 'Two of my brothers died fighting for the EPLF and I am proud that these people have now taken over . . . we hope with this referendum we cannot present any sort of threat to the government and I hope they will let us out now,' he said.

There are, however, parts of Eritrea that may not share the capital's enthusiasm for independence. Assab, 300 miles to the east, is the main port for Ethiopia and has few links with the Eritrean highlands. The population is largely Afar, a nomadic and independent-minded people. The Afar sultan has declared Assab an Afar town and many may want an independent Afar homeland or continued unity with Ethiopia.

The vote may have repercussions in Ethiopia, where there is a strong feeling for unity, especially among the Amharic people around the capital. There are fears of retribution against the Eritrean population in Ethiopia.

The EPLF's attempt to make friends with everyone in the region appears to be paying off, with food aid on its way from Saudi Arabia - an apparent peace offering. The Saudis were deeply opposed to a new state across the Red Sea. When an EPLF leader contracted cerebral malaria last month, he flew to Tel Aviv for treatment. The Saudis promptly expelled the EPLF representatives. The EPLF has nevertheless continued relations with the Israelis.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment

Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

MI Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – £25k-£35k

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job ? This is a new post...

Primary General Cover Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: We are looking for Primary School ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album