THE long-disputed Red Sea territory of Eritrea gained its independence this week after 99.8 percent of the voters opted to separate from Ethiopia in a United Nations-monitored referendum. The birth of this African state will pose intriguing foreign policy challenges for the Clinton administration.
Eritreans began a war for independence in 1961, when Ethiopia, Washington's closet African ally, annexed the former Italian colony. The United States was one of the first nations to recognize Eritrea after the results of the plebiscite were announced. This is a positive first step, but there is more to do and much more at stake than righting wrongs.
While Eritrea's neighbors struggle with virulent ethnic and religious revivalism, this country brings together Christians and Muslims from nine tribal groups in a bold, original experiment in cultural and political pluralism that promises to break ground in the effort to make democracy work in Africa. However, the people of this embattled territory are fiercely committed to doing things their own way.
Eritreans have been political mavericks from the outset of their 30-year war for independence, battling the US-backed Ethiopian regime of Emperor Haile Selassie and then a Soviet-sponsored military junta, while shunning most outside aid. As a result, they reached statehood without any major debts, financial or otherwise.
The futility of the cold-war thinking behind this war - Africa's longest - was illustrated most vividly by its effects: It bankrupted Ethiopia, already one of the world's poorest nations, and triggered one of the worst famines in modern times. The billions of dollars in arms that poured into the region from Washington and Moscow now help fuel the crises in Somalia and Sudan.
After an unprecedented two-year transition from the end of the war in May 1991 to the formal declaration of independence this week, Eritreans enter the international community with a highly unified, disciplined society. But it is a society with all the inherent fault lines of its neighbors.
If the new government cannot deliver now on the economic front, as it did on the political and military sides, it, too, will soon face disaffection and division. Whether it reaches that point before having an opportunity to test its vision of multicultural democracy will be determined in part by the degree to which the international community - particularly the US - responds to the opportunity its emergence now offers.
Unfortunately, the record of the previous administration on this score was not good. The first field representative of the US Agency for International Development (AID), sent to Eritrea in 1992, has already been withdrawn amid reports that his arrogance and administrative incompetence alienated his hosts.
When an AID team went to Eritrea last year and presented a rigid timetable for privatizing much of the economy as a condition for help, the Eritreans, expecting a more flexible approach, balked and the talks collapsed, leaving the country with no US development aid for the year.
TALKS between Eritrean and US officials this year appear to be going better, though only $5 million in development aid is earmarked for Eritrea this year, and there is nothing in the pipeline for 1994. More pitfalls will surely appear if, after all the Eritreans have been through, they find themselves again scolded over how to micro-manage their economic and political lives, while being denied the basic support needed to complete the transition to civilian rule. Given the rare opportunity that exists the re for constructive, sustainable economic and political development, this would be a significant tragedy.
Corruption, the bane of most third-world governments, is almost nonexistent in Eritrea. In a unique post-war transition, the entire nationalist movement, including the acting president, has spent the past 22 months working without pay and with little external aid to rebuild the country's devastated infrastructure: rehabilitating small farms, building dozens of earthen dams, and reforesting the barren hillsides.
Meanwhile, a new political system is being built from the ground up through hotly contested local and regional elections in which people learn basic political skills before applying them to the national scene. In many villages, the liberation front supervised repeated elections at three-month intervals before devolving power to the municipalities, with a view to sharpen people's grasp of how to use elections to hold their leaders accountable.
Independent trade unions have also been chartered, criminal and civil codes enshrined in law, civilian judges appointed, and nongovernmental organizations - including an autonomous national women's union - launched.
These building blocks for a vibrant civil society are investments in the country's democratic future as well as important moves now to engage the population in the effort to reshape and develop this backward, impoverished society.
The victorious liberation front pledges to convene a constitutional convention, place its army under the control of the new state, and hold multi-party national elections during the next two years. The contrast with Eritrea's neighbors, Somalia and Sudan, as well as with much of the rest of the third world today, not to mention Eastern Europe, could not be more stark.
This is Eritrea's most shining moment. Yet there remains strong opposition to Eritrea's separation among Ethiopia's displaced elite, there are small dissident Eritrean movements in Sudan, and there are Islamist trends in the region that are bound to affect them. But for now, at least, this is a country that works.
Although US policy in the region over the past half century is replete with mistakes and miscalculations, Eritrea's independence provides a time to reassess and try again. If the Clinton administration is genuinely interested in fostering democracy in Africa and elsewhere in the third world, Eritrea is the place to start.