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An African Star?
Free Eritrea Faces
the Challenges Ahead

by Robert Weissman

ASMARA, ERITREA -- The winding railway which descends 7,000 feet in 70 miles from Eritrea's highlands capital of Asmara to the Red Sea coastal city of Massawa is emblematic of this recently liberated country.

Originally built by Italian colonizers, the railway, which runs parallel to a narrow road connecting Eritrea's two most important commercial centers, is operational for only about two-and-a-half miles inland from Massawa. Those couple miles of rail, along with an additional 18 miles of track not currently in use, have been rebuilt in the five years since the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) freed the country from Ethiopian occupying forces.

Ethiopia took control of Eritrea in the period after World War II; after Haile Mariam Mengistu and a junta known as the Dergue seized control of Ethiopia in 1974, Ethiopian rule in Eritrea was characterized by brutality and plunder. Facing a well-disciplined national liberation movement which was led by the EPLF and enjoyed the virtually complete support of Eritreans, the Ethiopian military pulled up the railway track, using the metal to line foxholes and for other military purposes.

Foreign contractors have estimated the cost of rebuilding the railway at between $200 million and $400 million, and foreign governments have offered to lend Eritrea the money to employ the contractors. But the Eritrean government, led by the EPLF -- now renamed the Peoples' Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) -- has refused. The desperately poor country cannot afford such an expenditure, government officials reason; and besides, they believe, Eritreans will acquire useful skills in rebuilding the railway themselves.

Now Eritreans are building the railway on their own -- as well as widening the parallel road -- using labor intensive techniques. As part of a mandatory national service program, old men who once managed the railway are helping oversee construction, and young men are laying the ties.

The decision to build the railroad without foreign assistance reflects the PFDJ's fierce commitment to self-reliance. PFDJ leaders' emphasis on self-reliance is rooted in their war experience, when the EPLF received no aid from either of the Cold War superpowers, nor from China in its battle against an Ethiopian regime backed first by the United States and then by the Soviet Union, and when the EPLF created makeshift underground factories in the territory it controlled to produce everything from munitions to pharmaceuticals to sandals.

"We stood alone for 30 years against the mighty," says Eden Fassil, legal adviser to the Eritrean government. "Self-reliance has taught us a lot and we strongly believe in it."

But the stripped railway also signifies the enormous devastation wreaked upon this already poor country by a bloody war of liberation that lasted 30 years, the last two decades of which were characterized by World War I-style trench warfare. Much of the country's physical infrastructure has been destroyed; and what was not destroyed was allowed to deteriorate during the years of rule by the Dergue. As it became clear that the EPLF would win the war, in a final paroxysm of violence the Ethiopian military heavily bombed Massawa, destroying most of the port facilities and a great deal of the town itself.

Finally, the effort to rebuild the railroad as part of a national service ethic symbolizes the national determination to reconstruct the country, and the enormous credibility the government maintains with the population as a result of having led a truly unified, nationwide movement against the Ethiopian occupation. The sense of shared national purpose, and willingness to contribute to its achievement, may constitute the country's biggest asset.

At the same time, the government's top-down mobilizational approach to reconstructing the country, while appropriate for the war effort and likely for the building of a railroad, may ultimately interfere with the country's effort to create a sustainable economy.

The daunting tasks ahead

There is no disputing that the new Eritrean government faces extraordinary challenges in countless areas, including confronting sheer poverty, dealing with the aftermath of the war and combatting oppression of women:

During the war, the EPLF adopted a strictly egalitarian approach to gender relations. Thirty percent of combatants were women, and women were treated as equals in EPLF-controlled territory, with the traditional gender hierarchy suppressed. While in government, the PFDJ has maintained its firm commitment to promoting non-sexist social relations, but with the military demobilization, many traditional gender roles, especially in the countryside, have resurfaced.

Given the depth of patriarchal structures in rural Eritrea, there is little doubt that, even with enlightened government policies, change will come slowly. "We cannot just do away with attitudes," says Mehret Iyob, a member of Eritrea's constitution commission and a former combatant. "What makes us optimistic," she says, "is that the 30 years of struggle was not just a military struggle; social transformation took place in liberated areas," a social transformation she hopes to see continued and spread across the country.

An independent drive

The Eritrean government has no illusions about the depth of the challenges it faces. But government officials are ready to confront these difficulties with a unique drive and purpose.

A small country in a continent largely ignored in the Western media, Eritrea has not received much media attention, but the press coverage it has received has been overwhelmingly positive. Even World Bank officials talk about the Eritreans with a different voice, one that considers them almost equals in promoting development, a sharp contrast to Bank officers' attitude toward other African countries, which are often characterized as if they were children.

The Eritreans themselves are quick to distinguish themselves from African nations, even as they consider numerous forms of cooperative arrangements with regional neighbors. "Thirty years ago when we went to the bushes, most African countries were getting their independence," says Eden Fassil. "Thirty years later, we look around, and not a single African country is a success story."

Integral to PFDJ leaders' notion of how they will differentiate themselves from other African countries is their attitude toward foreign aid.

Although the country has no choice but to accept food aid for the time being, government officials insist the aid is transitional only, and will be phased out as the country develops its agricultural base.

The government's rules covering foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are strict, limiting the NGOs to a single foreign staff person, and requiring the NGOs to work on projects only in collaboration with government agencies. These restrictions, according to Eden Fassil, are motivated by concerns about inappropriate NGO use of resources and especially by the government's desire to promote self-reliance.

Regarding official aid, the country has declined not only loans for the railroad, but assistance offerings ranging from UN offers to develop technical classifications of occupational categories to World Bank loans. It has kicked numerous aid officials and agencies out of the country for interfering in national policy making.

The government has maintained a policy of flatly refusing aid or loans that are conditioned on adopting certain policies. On this principle it has turned down conditional World Bank loans -- even though the government intended on its own to implement the World Bank-demanded policies.

"We are doing adjustment, so why do we need conditions?" Teame Tewolde-Berhaw, head of macro-policy and international economic cooperation for the government, asks impatiently.

"We cannot surrender the managing of our economy to others," he says. "We have to [gain experience] -- that is how our development can be sustainable."

In its selective approach to accepting aid, Eritrea does have a single, important advantage over other developing nations: it started life as an independent country free of foreign debt. The country inherited none of the massive debt the Dergue accumulated in waging war against Eritrea and Ethiopian liberation fighters. Thus despite its extreme poverty, Eritrea, unlike virtually every other developing country, does not need foreign loans to pay off old foreign debts.

Striving to be Singapore

In a country where everything needs to be done, the government has adopted what it terms a two-pronged strategy to revitalize the economy and alleviate social problems. Within this framework, says Teame Tewolde-Berhaw, "the development rehabilitation effort is so large, the challenge so huge, it is hard to say [a single element] is a 'priority.'" He speaks of the government adopting "an interactive, rather than a sequential view of development."

The government defines the first prong of its strategy as a program of recovery and rehabilitation. This prong has relied heavily on the use of mandatory national service on behalf of what the government, in a November 1994 paper on macro-policy, calls "a multi-sector program that covered the restoration of essential agricultural and industrial activities, the repair and rehabilitation of infrastructure, the restoration of community assets, such as schools, clinics, water systems, agricultural tools, livestock, etc. and the building and strengthening of institutional capacity."

Pursuant to this prong, the large armed force of the EPLF continued to serve, but transferred its attention to rebuilding the country. Government employees -- from the lowest-level worker to President Isaias Afewerki -- served without salary, working only for minimal subsistence allowance, from liberation in 1991 until early 1995.

The government is also emphasizing human resource development, training Eritreans in skills ranging from plumbing to building construction. In this area, the government is especially focusing on ex-combatants, in an effort to integrate them into civil society.

The second prong of the economic program involves the more complicated problem of energizing the economy and setting it on the path to sustained growth. Failing to discover any attractive models in Africa, leaders of the once self-defined Marxist-Leninist EPLF, now entrenched in top government positions, have set for the country the goal of becoming the "Singapore of the twenty-first century," in the words of Eden Fassil.

Despite its emphasis on self-reliance, the PFDJ intends to create an export-oriented, outward-focused economy. The government hopes to promote tourism, especially on the Red Sea coast; mineral and oil exports, assuming projections of oil deposits in the Red Sea are correct; fish exports; and eventually labor-intensive manufacturing exports. Ultimately, it hopes to be an international financial center.

The government is proceeding cautiously in its dealings with multinationals, but it has adopted a liberal foreign investment code and is relying on multinationals to exploit the country's mineral deposits and is open to other forms of foreign investment as well. So far, the government has awarded mining permits to a handful of foreign firms: the Western Mining Corporation of Australia, the Canadian Golden Star Resources and Rift Resources, a Canadian company in which another Canadian corporation, Echo Bay, owns a 12.2 percent share, and Ghana's Ashanti Goldfields. The U.S.-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation has signed an oil exploration and production sharing agreement covering a 6.7 million acre area in the Red Sea.

Internally, the government says in its macro-policy paper, "the private sector [will be] the lead actor in the economic activities of Eritrea."

But the government is approaching the issue of state involvement in the economy in characteristic pragmatic fashion. The Eritrean economy is overwhelmingly state-dominated. As a result of far-reaching nationalization policies of the Dergue, the state owns not only every major factory in the country, but the hotels and even many houses.

Eritrea does not have a domestic capacity to absorb sudden, massive privatizations, so the government is approaching the privatization issue cautiously. (The private sector is so weak that the Minister of Labor worries about the possibility that the country's small labor movement is strong enough to overwhelm the tiny, weak business class.) The macro-policy paper says, "In view of the present dearth of a capable business community in Eritrea, there is a clear need for a pioneering and catalytic role to be played by the government."

The government recently announced plans to privatize 23 companies, including metal work and shoe factories and a dairy products plant, in its first major round of privatizations; other privatizations will proceed even more slowly. Privatization will proceed "in a manner and pace that will be useful for the economy and the people who work in those enterprises," says Teame Tewolde-Berhaw.

Despite their commitment to privatization, government officials are not averse to state involvement in the economy. Where the private sector cannot perform necessary functions, they say, the state will step in. "We will intervene," says Teame Tewolde-Berhaw, pointing to the example of electricity as a case where the private sector is too tiny to be able to command the large loans needed to invest in upgrading the electric system. Ultimately, Eritrea is likely to wind up with a mixed economy, albeit one in which the private sector plays a leading role.

Democracy and development

Paralleling the country's economic-building project is an effort to construct a viable state machinery and a working democracy.

The central element of democracy building is the constitution-drafting process. A constitution commission is drafting a short constitution intended to articulate foundational principles for the new country, and undertaking a systematic and wide-ranging popular consultative process. Among the bedrock rights which will be guaranteed in the final version of the constitution, says Paulos Tesfa Giorgis, a member of the commission's executive committee, are free speech, free association, freedom of movement and other liberal democratic rights. The finalized constitution is expected to be adopted in April 1997.

In the interim period, however, democratic rights have an uncertain position. Eritrea is certainly not a totalitarian state. Indeed, one of the PFDJ's most stunning accomplishments has been to disarm the civil society while maintaining order. In a country in the throes of a full-fledged war half a decade ago, there are fewer signs of an armed police presence than in a comparably sized U.S. city. At the same time, there is virtually no street crime.

But Eritrea is not a particularly tolerant country, either. The government clamped down on the only effort so far to create an independent NGO, a proposed human rights group. The government owns the media, which does voice some criticism of government policies. In a political culture in which public criticism of the government is expected to remain within certain bounds and in which almost no one wishes to undermine the government, however, self-censorship is prevalent.

More broadly, and perhaps more worrisome for the ultimate development of a democratic culture, there remains a top-down orientation to government policy and program implementation. By all accounts, the EPLF governed the territory it controlled and ran its military operations in as democratic a fashion as possible in wartime, relying on citizen committees and assemblies to establish some policies and carry out administrative responsibilities. But out of necessity, wartime organization relies on a mobilizational model that is ultimately top down in approach. That top-down approach continues to characterize free Eritrea, and it may ultimately impact not only the political culture but the nation's economic rebuilding efforts.

Consider the issue of land tenureship, for example. In much of Eritrean society, land had been held communally, subject to frequent redistribution, as often as every seven years. In the eyes of government officials, this traditional land holding system poses two problems. First, they believe it discourages investment, because investors do not have time to recoup the benefits of their investment. "Ultimately, we believe unless land is converted to a commodity, you can't have economic development," says Eden Fassil. Second, the traditional land system has generally denied women ownership rights, and thus been a critical way in which traditional cultures have subordinated women.

The government's solution was to move quickly to nationalize all the land. For now, that has had little concrete effect in most rural areas, but ultimately the government hopes to move to a private holding system.

The government has such immense credibility with Eritrean citizens that its dramatic restructuring of land rights did not generate any popular outcry.

But the move was undertaken without consultation with, or the meaningful participation of, rural communities. Over time, the remaking of land ownership patterns is likely to alter significantly the country's society, culture and economy -- in very uncertain ways, possibly including the fraying of Eritrean communities' strong bonds and the creation of a new rural elite.

"It is very important to have strong communities," says one Eritrean intellectual who is very sympathetic to the government. "Change things, yes, but these are things that sustain the culture, and to a large extent are the culture," says the intellectual, who worries also that making land into a commodity may promote undesirable urbanization, especially in the outskirts of Asmara.

"It worries me a lot," says the intellectual, adding that there are no "tools to combat the current legislation." But, noting the legitimate issues raised by government critics of the current land tenure system, he also asks, "You can raise all sorts of questions, but how can you say it is not right, especially without a counter proposal?"

Somewhat harsher criticism comes from Karin De Jonge, an Oxfam United Kingdom and Ireland representative in Eritrea who supports many of the government's restrictions on foreign NGOs. The government has carried over its top-down approach from the war era to the current period, she says, with deleterious effects. Throughout the government, she says, there is a "blueprint approach. [Development] programs are designed for people, rather than with people, and that is not very effective."

De Jonge cites the example of reforestation, a critical issue in Eritrea, which has seen its forest and woodlands cover plunge from 30 percent in the 1920s to less than 3 percent today. The government and before it the EPLF have mobilized young people for many years to plant trees, she says, but the overall forest cover has not increased. Villagers continue to cut trees unsustainably, primarily for firewood purposes. De Jonge and Oxfam advocate a different approach to tree planting; De Jonge proposes that communities be encouraged to plant trees on their own, and be given ownership of, and responsibility for maintaining, the trees. Community members will harvest the forest sustainably, she argues, if they are given stewardship responsibilities. "But those things are very difficult to discuss with the government," she says.

"As long as [the government] does not allow people to take over, they won't be very effective" in implementing rural development projects, she says.

But emphasizing their honesty, efficiency and good faith, she predicts that "it is probably a matter of time" before the government turns to more participatory approaches.

Stepping on to a growth path?

Other observers of the Eritrean scene who wish the government placed a higher value on democratic participation believe the country will succeed economically whether or not it becomes as open and participatory as it might.

"Eritrea will not be a democratic model," says one prominent Eritrean, "but it will be an economic model."

The experience of the Asian Tigers (the high-growth East Asian countries of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong) suggest that economic gains can be achieved independent of democratic ones. To the extent that honesty, determination, a willingness to sacrifice, independence, pragmatism and efficiency make a difference in achieving economic development, desperately poor Eritrea may be starting on a steady growth path. Whether political will is enough, whether Eritrean officials are making astute policy choices, particularly in their decision to emphasize exports, and whether a top-down orientation impedes the country's economic development will be seen in the years ahead, as Eritrea attempts to traverse that road.

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