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From the Paper

Wednesday September 9, 1998

The ancient train of empire that carries Eritrea's new dreams

Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet David Hirst in Asmara finds it using self-reliance to build a society free of many of the problems of developing nations

So how old is this lathe, I asked Seyum Beraki, foreman at the Asmara workshops of Eritrean Railways, pointing to an antique contraption buzzing merrily at the end of a strap attached to a motor on the ceiling?

Well, he said, it was already quite old when he began work there. That was in 1940. Eritrea was an Italian colony. Its railway was a triumph of Italian engineering. In less than 30 miles it rises a spectacular 7,500ft, from the sweltering Red Sea port of Masawa to the blessed cool of the highland capital, Asmara.

With Eritrea's fall to the British in 1941, and its absorption into Ethiopia some 10 years later, the railway kept going until the 1970s when, in the war between Ethiopia and its rebellious province, both sides ripped up every rail and metal sleeper in the land for use in trenches and fortifications.

After victory in the liberation war in 1991, the new-born Eritrean state received foreign offers to rebuild the railway. "It would have cost us at least $200 million (120 million)," the railway chief, Amanuel Selassie, said. "It was just too damned expensive, so we decided to do it for ourselves."

There can be few relics of the steam era like the 49-tonne Giovanni Ansaldo, Genoa 1937, or the 30-tonne Ernesto Breda, Milan 1927, outside railway museums, and surely none being restored as an integral part of a country's transport system.

Eritrean Railways boasts some 20 of these quaint machines. Some look decrepit; others gleam proudly in freshly painted livery of red and black. The men, like Mr Beraki, who wrought this transformation are older than the locomotives.

Younger generations have been scouring former battlefields for rail and sleeper, then laying them anew in their original locations. It will cost Eritrea nothing in foreign expertise, and a few million pounds for a track-laying machine and the nuts and bolts.

It is a picturesque metaphor for this African country, so different from almost any other; so much at variance with the familiar Western perceptions of a continent sunk in calamities - natural and man-made - hunger, debt, civil war.

Statistically, Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries. One can just about believe that in the countryside, where farmers still work their rugged little highland plots with yoked oxen and primitive wooden plough. But it's harder in the towns.

It is not necessary to arrive in an Asmara at war from the anarchy of supposedly more sophisticated capitals such as Cairo or Beirut to wonder at the order and cleanliness of the place, its well-kept public gardens; at the mere existence, let alone functioning, of such services, virtually unknown in the Middle East, as public telephone booths; at the few, unarmed policemen directing well-disciplined traffic. There are virtually no beggars, and virtually no crime.

The secret of this African miracle is rooted in the fact that Eritrea was the last African state to win independence and the first to do so from another African state, and that it did so in one of the most remarkable "people's wars" ever waged.

"Doing it ourselves" - as the railway chief said - sums it up: self-reliance, ingrained, passionate, stubborn to the point of masochism, lies at the heart of the "ethics of the bush". It was inculcated by the loneliness of that 30-year epic. It has left Eritreans deeply anchored in themselves and their experience. So it's almost a fetish of their leadership that, while open to the world, it doesn't accept "models", or formulae, of any kind.

The country has yet to ratify a constitution. It is typical that the leadership should have taken so long, and brought the entire people into a great debate about it. "They sometimes study things to excess here," said a Western banker, "but it pays off; President([Isaias) Afewerki rightly says Eritrea is like the tortoise that gets there in the end."

The Eritrean solution is clearly not a fully-fledged, functioning democracy by the criteria of multi-party pluralism, independent media, civil society.

"We think all Eritreans should have the right to establish parties," said Yemani Gebreab, a presidential adviser. "But we also think that having parties for its own sake is meaningless. More important is to ensure the continuous engagement of the population in political life."

All the former guerrilla fighters worked for nothing till 1995 and then took salaries of which the highest - the president's - is about 490.

"Most African leaders are emperors," said a Sudanese opposition leader, marvelling at the modesty of Eritrea's ruling class. A minister makes an appointment to see you in the simplest of lean-to coffee shops outside his ministry; there are no perks, no official cars and, even in new buildings, no lift to a minister's fourth-floor office.

Such a life-style is one reason why the regime is highly popular and respected. Pure itself, it can demand high standards from others. President Afewerki has said Africa's curse is not this or that aim or objective, but the corruption of regimes that embody them.

Another African, Martyn Ngwenya, head of the United Nations Development Programme in Asmara, bears lyrical witness to the "corruption-free development environment" Eritrea has achieved. He says: "Here they fight corruption better even than Canada or the US; the convergence between what they say and what they actually do is almost complete."

The country's youth is assiduously schooled in the "ethics of the bush". National service - compulsory for both men and women - consists of six months' military training, followed by a year of "free work" for the state. Every year some 40,000 youngsters lay railway tracks, build scores of micro-dams, repair hundreds of miles of hillside terraces and plant millions of trees in a country whose forest cover was reduced by war from 30 per cent of the land surface to less than 1 per cent.

Not for Eritreans anything that smacks of the "aid dependency", the crippling indebtedness, of so many African countries.

The government took food distribution out of the hands of foreign donors, and sought to shift the country by swift, perhaps avoidably harsh, stages from an internationally relief-based economy to a locally productive one.

Insisting that all who could should work for a living, it instituted a programme of "work for food", then "work for money"; then stopped distributing aid altogether. It rejected aid or development projects it did not control.

Outside control and supervision, said the Eritreans, might be valid in other parts of Africa but, theirs being a wholly honest administration, they were not valid here. "It's great to work for a government that truly leads," Mr Ngwenya said.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has granted Eritrea a privileged status all its own. "The work ethic here is amazing," said the foreign banker. "Last year there were two cases of fraud; you probably have 50 a day in Nigeria. And people pay their taxes." Not just easily levied indirect ones, but progressive, personal income tax of up to 49 per cent. In the West that might seem unremarkable; here it's another of the attainments that set Eritrea apart.

These are many indeed. Unfortunately, the greatest and most obvious are still the military ones. That was proved once again in the past two months by the seeming ease with which a people of 3 million more than held their own in battle against Ethiopia's 60 million.

It will take time for qualities that serve so well in war to yield their peacetime fruits. But, said the banker, "come back in 20 years, and I guarantee the tortoise will have more than arrived."

And perhaps, by then, Eritrea will have become that African model it could not discern anywhere else.

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998