Eritreans' intent for sovereignty mars agreement


WASHINGTON -- The seeds of possible future conflict lay in the agreement reached last week in London that ended the long years of civil war in Ethiopia.

The United States has been urging Eritrea, the rebellious province bordering the Red Sea, a former Italian colony, to consider uniting with Ethiopia in a federal system of government instead of seeking full independence. Such a course, U.S. officials believe, could discourage an eventual renewal of civil strife.

But the Eritreans are bent on full sovereignty. They say they have never been a part of Ethiopia. They announced last week they would run Eritrea under a provisional government that would operate out of their capital of Asmara until a United Nations-sponsored referendum on full independence can be held.

The Eritreans have taken no part in the formation of a coalition government of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. They have agreed to hold talks with the government, but only on matters that involve the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In fact, so determined are the Eritreans to distance themselves from Ethiopia's internal affairs that the United States had difficulty persuading them even to attend last week's war-ending conference in London.

"We need sovereignty to secure the national safety of Eritrea," said Tesfai Ghermazien of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

Mr. Ghermazien is EPLF deputy representative for North America, based in Washington. As to the outcome of a referendum, he said, "It is very inconceivable that any family in Eritrea would vote against sovereignty."

Independence has been the goal of the Eritrean liberation organization since it was founded in 1970. If it succeeds in this aim by way of a referendum, it would leave Ethiopia a landlocked country.

Experts in and out of the U.S. government believe that were the vote held today, it would be approved. "The Eritreans most certainly would vote for independence," said Terrence Lyons, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution's Africa program.

In the optimistic afterglow of the successful peace conference in London, no one has been eager to address the grim prospect of a truncated Ethiopia without an outlet to the sea. Also, all parties agree that conflicting political aims should be set aside, at least temporarily, in the interest of speeding food aid to millions of people in drought-stricken areas.

All the parties have been eager to celebrate the cooperative atmosphere engendered by the London conference: the United States, which facilitated the agreement; the Eritreans; and members of the new government shaping up in Addis Ababa, a coalition regime led by rebels out of Tigray province who now go under the name Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Forces.

Said Mr. Ghermazien: "I don't see any problem. We have no interest in seeing the people of Ethiopia without access to the sea. We have already said the Ethiopian people can use our ports."

But he also stressed that those ports -- Mesewa and Aseb -- and the territory surrounding them, "are not Ethiopean territory. It has never been theirs. It is important that the Ethiopean forces understand that perspective."

Meles Zenawi, the Tigrean who heads the EPRDF, said he supported the idea of the sovereignty referendum in Eritrea. Previously, the Tigreans had opposed it.

But one U.S. official attuned to the diplomatic process in London said that although the United States did not anticipate it, "There is a real chance of conflict between these groups," Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It also has to be stressed that the aim of bringing Eritrea under the control of the Ethiopian central government was endorsed by many Ethiopians.

"Certainly there is a possibility of conflict," said Mr. Lyons. "There is an inherent tension in that there is a vast popular sentiment within Ethiopia . . . for Ethiopian nationalism -- a commitment to the territorial integrity of Ethiopia."

Demonstrators active in Addis Ababa late last week, a number of whom were shot by troops of the new governing forces, were said to be accusing the United States of conniving in the dismemberment of the country by acquiescing in Eritrean separatism.

Mr. Lyons said he saw a "basic division" of interests between Eritrea and the emerging Ethiopean government, adding, "I'm not sure there are many ways to gloss over that basic division."

It is for these reasons that U.S. diplomats have been pressing the Eritreans to consider as an alternative to full sovereignty membership in an Ethiopean federation. They've had little success.

"We've urged this model with the Eritreans [federation]. I'm not certain they really understand what a federal system is," said the U.S. official, who declined to be identified. "I don't think they grasp it: how one can have one country with autonomous regions in it. We can't see why some sort of federal system adopted to Ethiopia cannot be viable to them."

Having urged the Eritreans to curtail their drive for full independence, the United States however insists it will abide by any decision the Eritrean people make democratically. In London as well as in Washington, U.S. officials have stressed again and again that decisions in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and those that have to do with the relations between the two, must be made through a democratic process.

The assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Herman Cohen, chairman of the London conference, said the flow of U.S. economic aid to Ethiopia and Eritrea was contingent on this.

He said that although independence seems to be "on" for the moment, the way the Tigreans go about creating the new government of Ethiopia might encourage the Eritreans to look again at the advantages a federation has to offer.

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