Washington. -- Pennsylvania-sized Eritrea, which calls itself Africa's last colony, is about to form a provisional government which will confirm its de facto independence from Ethiopia.
Surprisingly little is known of the leadership of the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Its secretary general, Isaias Afwerki, who is expected to become either prime minister in a parliamentary system or executive president, is an elusive figure who has discouraged a personality cult.
The front's literature mentions no other names and includes no pictures of any officials.
A nation of four million fine-featured people of Sabaean (Yemenite) origin, roughly equally divided between Roman Catholics and Muslims, and speaking three main languages -- Tigrinya, Tigre and the "Afar" Arabic of the northern Somalis -- Eritrea is expected to become a secular blend of welfare and market state.
Once a satrap of ancient Greece which later fell under the influence of Jesuits, imams and traders from Europe and Egypt, it became an Italian colony in 1889.
After World War II, it was given to Ethiopia to administer as a U.N. trust territory. The emperor, Haile Selassie, annexed it in 1962, exacerbating armed resistance to his rule which had begun the previous year.
Washington-based Tesfai Ghermazien, the deputy North America representative of the front, says Mr. Afwerki and his proto-cabinet would prefer that de jure independence be preceded by a plebiscite under U.N. auspices.
"The U.N. got us into this mess [of being governed by Ethiopia] so they should get us out," he laughs.
However, diplomatic observers predict that, because of the country's urgent need for access to global organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Office and UNESCO, the de facto independence that already exists will simply be confirmed rather than created by the plebiscite.
Australia and the Scandinavian countries are on record with urging early sovereignty, which is likely to be recognized also by Eritrea's neighbors -- the Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti.
The European Parliament and Britain's Labor and Liberal Democratic parties have called for the U.N. to organize a referendum quickly.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler says the U.S. favors self-determination through "peaceful, democratic processes". The U.S. will "work with whatever authority emerges in Eritrea," she adds.
At the May 27-28 conference in London of the rebel forces which overthrew the Ethiopian government that month, Eritrea's representative agreed to collaborate with but not participate in the emerging coalition government in Addis Ababa, and to guarantee Ethiopian access to Eritrea's main ports of Massawa and Assab, especially for food relief -- which the front says is also the first priority for Eritrea itself.
In return, the Addis Ababa coalition reluctantly supported the call for a plebiscite on Eritrea's future.
This will offer a choice between independence, federation with Ethiopia or regional autonomy. The new regime in Ethiopia -- now once again landlocked -- will urge Eritreans to take one of the latter alternatives; but after three decades of Ethiopian bombing, a huge majority for independence is expected, especially now that the emerging regime in Addis Ababa appears to be as Marxist as the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime it ousted.
At present, Eritrea is a sort of giant kibbutz, reliant on barter and on an economy based on the "to each according to his needs" principle. The rare foreign visitors are virtually the only people who use money.
The country's Thirty Years War of resistance was itself an extraordinary feat of self-reliance.
Initially, with the emperor a Washington ally -- he gave the Eritrean hill town of Kagnew to the Pentagon as a communications base -- cold war rules made Eritrean nationalists an instant dependency of Moscow's. But when the Ethiopian monarchy was replaced by a Communist republic in 1974, the Soviet Union dropped Eritrea like a hot potato and began arming the 250,000-strong Ethiopian forces.
Except for brief assistance from Saudi Arabia, the front has been self-supporting ever since, arming itself with weapons captured from the Ethiopians, from Kalashnikovs to tanks. European journalists who accompanied Eritreans on forays reported that nearly a third of the guerrillas were young women, reputed to be crack markswomen.
Constantly bombed by the Ethiopian Air Force, the front's quasi-government organized a literally underground economy, with six hospitals, a print shop, a radio station and almost everything from a tire-retreading plant to workshops producing sandals, clothes, sanitary towels, drugs, dentures and artificial limbs quartered in a maze of tunnels under liberated areas.
French reporters were fascinated by the enormous scale of the resistance. A French magazine described Orota hospital as being "five kilometers (three miles) long."
Volunteer surgeons came from France, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Australia.
Compulsory education through ninth grade (taught in English from fifth grade on) involved classes held under parasol-shaped acacia trees in the Tigrinya hills, away from bombing. Adult literacy classes were extended to the nearly 12,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war, who were left unguarded.
Rabbit and chicken hutches and diesel pumps were similarly hidden under the huge acacias. Farming in the valleys, some of it helped by Norwegian agronomists, was conducted at night -- with water channeled from artesian dams -- so as not to attract the attention of bomber pilots. Fifteen hundreds miles of roads were built.
The two main ethnicities in Addis Ababa, the Amhara and the Oromo (or Galla) people, argue that unlike Ethiopia -- one of the oldest nations in the world -- Eritrea, with its nine distinct "tribal" groups, is a nineteenth-century invention, an amalgam of principalities. The same could of course be said of Germany and Italy -- Eritrea's colonial power -- not to mention Zaire and Nigeria, where the radio reads the news in 43 native tongues and English, and which boasts of grouping more than 600 "tribes".
Ethiopians have traditionally derided Eritrea's Greek name (which means Red, for the sea). But Nigeria has a Latin name and Zaire a Portuguese one. All the Portuguese and many of the former French and British colonies still have European names.
Eritreans, who own most of Washington's thirty-some "Ethiopian" restaurants and taxi firms, are seen here as a well-behaved, industrious community. Several hundred thousand Eritrean refugees are distributed across North America, Europe and especially the Sudan.
With a superb coast and what is claimed to be the best scuba diving in the world, Eritrea would seem to have a promising tourism future. Away from the coast, it has an equable highland climate and an interesting mix of local and Italian cuisine. Its main commodity export will probably be coffee: It was indeed in Asmara that the Italians invented espresso.
Russell Warren Howe writes about foreign affairs from Washington.