GIVEN THE INEVITABLE result, Eritrea's referendum on independence held in April looked like a superfluous exercise. A total of 1,100,260 people voted in favour as against a minuscule 1,822 opposing sovereignty. Turn-out was reported to be 98.5% of registered voters. For once, claims of electoral near-unanimity are not unreasonable.
The victorious freedom fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) entered the capital, Asmara, in May 1991 after a three-decade long liberation struggle with Ethiopia. The two-year delay by the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) in declaring independence was designed to give the new regime in Addis Ababa time to digest the inevitable separation from Ethiopia. For many Ethiopians, particularly the Amharic-speaking majority, the partition is hard to accept and the Addis Ababa government is far less firmly entrenched than its Eritrean counterpart.
Both Isyas Aferwerke, the EPLF and head of the PGE, and Meles Zenawi, president of Ethiopia, have determined that the divorce between the two territories will be conducted as amicably as possible - as befits former comrades in arms. In the late 1970s, the EPLF helped set up the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) under Zenawi in neighbouring Tigray province. Whereas the EPLF demanded Eritrea's secession, the TPLF wanted no more than autonomy within an Ethiopian framework. Broadening its national base by forming the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDP), the TPLF swept the politically bankrupt regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam from power in Addis Ababa at the same time as the EPLF liberated Asmara.
After almost 30 years of civil war which left the country ravaged and depopulated, independent Eritrea cannot afford to live with a hostile neighbour. Ethiopia is the natural market for Eritrean exports, while Eritrea represents Ethiopia's chief outlet to the sea.
Perhaps the most important reason why Eritrea has not rushed into independence, however, is the scrupulous concern of Aferwerke and the PGE to observe legal formalities. Eritrea wanted to obtain United Nations endorsement of independence and international recognition as smoothly as possible (wisely in retrospect, given the upheavals which have accompanied the disorderly break-up of Yugoslavia during the same time).
In order to ensure UN approbation, the new Ethiopian regime and the Eritrean provisional government held a conference in Addis Ababa in July 1991 which recognised the right...