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If all you know about Eritrea is that it’s a country in Africa, you’re an authority on the subject in comparison with most non-Eritreans. When British journalist Michela Wrong told people she was writing a book about the place, it was misheard variously as Algeria, Nigeria, and Al-Jazeera. In Wrong’s view, this obscurity, like many aspects of the nation’s fate, is undeserved and unfortunate. Eritrea’s history, she argues, holds important lessons about relations between great powers and vulnerable nations, lessons we ignore at our peril. In her new popular history, “I Didn’t Do It for You”: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, Wrong gives Eritreans a dose of the attention they’ve so often been denied.
One possible reason for its low profile is that Eritrea recovered its nationhood only recently. Its modern borders were first consolidated under Italy’s colonial regime in the late 19th century; the shape of a jagged carnation in profile, the mountainous country is lodged between Ethiopia and the Red Sea, to the perennial chagrin of the former. In the dominant Ethiopian version of the region’s history, the two nations are bound by a common 3,000-year past, beginning with the ancient Axumite kingdom that encompassed them both. The Eritrean version insists on “a fierce sense of separate Eritrean identity,” Wrong writes, “long before the first Italian jumped ashore at Assab.” The truth probably lies somewhere in between; the post-Axumite Horn of Africa, in fact, was a messy patchwork ruled by assorted dynasties and warlords. In 1962, to resurrect its vision of a Greater Ethiopia—and to satisfy its coastline lust—Ethiopia acquired its neighbor in a dubiously legal annexation. Africa’s longest war ensued, until Eritrea won independence in 1993.
But Ethiopia was only the most recent of foreign powers to meddle with Eritrea. Throughout its modern history, it has been oppressed, pillaged, exploited—in Wrong’s word, betrayed; in another word, screwed—by a series of foreign interlopers. If not especially brutal by the standards of the continent, Eritrea’s victimization stands out for its crudity. The trend began with Italian colonists in the 1890s, who behaved like little boys with real guns. When they saw Eritreans who had stuff they wanted—whether houses or wives—they simply bumped them off and confiscated the swag. When the British assumed temporary control, after World War II, they were less violent but scarcely less shameless: The country’s factories were quietly plundered and its ports dismantled. (The book’s title comes from an apocryphal story about a World War II battle on Eritrean soil: A British officer, weary from the hard-fought victory over the Italians, encountered an old Eritrean woman ululating in celebration. Perhaps irritated by her chanting, he is said to have clarified: “I didn’t do it for you, nigger.”) In 1949, a U.N. commission assumed the task of deciding the country’s fate; the reult was an ambiguous “federation” with Ethiopia, in which any technical Eritrean autonomy was promptly ignored by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Natural assets often bring dubious fortune; Eritrea’s came in the form not only of its sea access but also its peculiar electromagnetic properties. The Eritrean highlands are mysteriously unparalleled in their ability to broadcast and receive radio signals. Their altitude, sparse population, and proximity to the equator offer partial explanations, but Wrong claims that the feature has never been fully accounted for. This asset, eventually made obsolete by satellites, was priceless during the Cold War, and the United States operated a spy station there from 1943 to 1977. Few will be surprised to learn that the GIs did not ratchet up the sophistication level of outsiders in Eritrea. The title of Wrong’s chapter on this era looks as if it had been cut and pasted from a very different book’s table of contents: “Blow Jobs, Bugging and Beer.”
When the Eritrean rebels wrenched independence from Ethiopia in 1993, a new epoch of optimism and cooperation between the two countries seemed to have arrived. The rebels now in power were allied with Ethiopian rebels, who had simultaneously succeeded in capturing the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. But after an interlude of peace, the two nations returned to war over a minor border skirmish in 1998, in a “family quarrel, with all the vindictiveness that implied.” The United Nations intervened, ruling in 2002 that the disputed territory belonged to Eritrea, but this ruling has never been enforced; the armies remain in a tense standoff. Since then, the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, a hero of the resistance, has arrested former comrades and shut down the private press.
Wrong is all the more dismayed to report this turn of events because, like many Western visitors, she had fallen a little in love with the proud, generous Eritreans. Having spent several years covering central Africa for the Financial Times and other news outlets, she craved good news from the devastated continent. When she first visited, in 1996, to write a country survey for the FT, Eritrea, freshly independent and giddy with optimism, seemed poised to deliver it.
Although she never lived in Eritrea, Wrong returned repeatedly. Her anecdotes will seduce readers from afar. On one of her visits, she had just landed in the airport and was chatting with an Eritrean fellow passenger. As they exited the terminal, he asked if she had any local currency. “Before I had time to mutter a refusal,” Wrong recounts, “he had extracted a banknote from his wallet: ‘Here, take this for the taxi. You can pay me back later.’”
Eventually, Wrong perceived the less charming corollaries of Eritrea’s national attributes: Eritreans’ conviction, she noticed, can cross over into pig-headedness, their self-restraint into coldness, their intensity into humorlessness. In response to a gift from Wrong, an Eritrean friend gave her, in lieu of thanks, “an expressionless grunt, followed by the quick concealment of the unopened present, never to be mentioned again.” With her stories and descriptions, she evokes a vivid national portrait, although, strangely, few strong individual Eritrean personalities emerge. One wishes she had fleshed out the character of the stolid gift recipient, or of other Eritrean friends or acquaintances.
Her quibbles notwithstanding, she was captivated, and she went looking for the sources of the national character in the events of recent centuries. Wrong specializes in studying the consequences left in the wake of nations at the helm of history. Most Westerners, when they bother to glance in Africa’s direction at all, see a big mess, and her books explore the context behind that mess. Her debut, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, portrayed the Congo under Mobutu Sese Seko. That nonfunctioning state, she argued, was a direct legacy of Belgian colonization, which arbitrarily designated a vast swath of diverse inhabitants a single nation—and ruled this nation with disgusting brutality. Her observations about colonialism’s aftermath led to a strong wariness of intervention, no less in Eritrea than in the Congo. “It would be heartening,” she writes, “to think the foreign powers that meddled in Eritrea with such devastating results might occasionally examine their consciences and records…” Alas, she is hard-pressed to find evidence of such reflections.
In Eritrea, the list of culprits is eclectic, and Wrong lets none of them escape her scrutiny. In addition to extensive archival research, she tracked down and interviewed representatives of various powers, including one of the last Italians still living in the country, an American soldier who served at the spy station, and Haile Selassie’s lawyer during the early-’50s drafting of the Eritrean constitution, an American named John Spencer. Spencer’s services—which entailed manipulating both the United Nations and the Eritrean assembly—facilitated Ethiopia’s annexation of its northern neighbor. Wrong brooks no rationalization: “Spencer finds recourse in the excuse available to all lawyers granted, for one moment in their lives, the chance to change the world: ‘I had to look at everything from their point of view, even if I didn’t always share it. I was their advocate.’”
An agile prose stylist with a dry wit and an instinct for storytelling, Wrong sidesteps the traps that snag lesser writers covering similar subjects. Her commentary on the guilty is damning, but she lets them speak and judges without demonizing. Describing the wretched, she avoids sentimentality; championing the Eritreans, she avoids idealization.
She does not, however, entirely avoid romanticizing them. Granted, some episodes from Eritrea’s past would make the most hardened cynic starry-eyed. In the mid-1970s, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) established a Spartan society in the mountains as they waged their campaign for independence from Ethiopia. In the craggy landscape, the rebels formed intense friendships, scoffed at material possessions, and held study groups to discuss political philosophy. It was, in Wrong’s rendering, a Marxist wet dream: “All were equal, and if a relative sent a packet of cigarettes, a bag of sugar or tea, it was automatically shared around. Prior claims of parents, fiancées and children gradually faded, as trench companions came to play the roles of friend and confidant, protector and brother.” Their eventual triumph supplies the fitting fairy-tale climax.
Of course, the rebels Wrong interviewed years later likely indulged in a bit of retrospective romanticization themselves. And from the vantage of today’s political climate, nostalgia is understandable. The fairy tale’s denouement has been markedly less utopian. The president’s crackdown has disillusioned the populace, strangled the economy, and transformed Eritrea into “one big land prison,” in the words of a former rebel.
At the end of her book, Wrong makes explicit the lesson she believes her subject offers. “[W]hile ordinary Eritreans have lessons to learn about how and why their revolution was betrayed, so does the West,” she argues. “Her history of cynical abuse—shared by so many small nations whose gripes prompt irritated yawns in Washington, Moscow and London—should serve as warning as the campaign against Islamic extremism recasts Western foreign policy in brash interventionist mould.” Reasonable people may disagree with her anti-interventionism and her heavy allocation of blame to the West. But her advice to err on the side of caution and avoid meddling in poorly understood places is irrefutably sound.
“I Didn’t Do It For You”, released several months ago in Britain, has received some criticism from Eritreans. This is worth noting, although it hardly seems possible, or desirable, for a book of this sort to avoid offending everybody. One objection is to the paucity of Eritrean voices in the story. That more quotes come from the implicated parties seems partly due to Wrong’s determination to hold them accountable and excavate the details of the “betrayals.” But it is a valid point: Although the Eritrean character comes through, few fully developed Eritrean characters come alive. In any case, Wrong has initiated a valuable conversation about Eritreans, and it seems safe to say that she did it for them. CP