The sad and strange history of Eritrea

Review of I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation by Michela Wrong.

Every place has its story. Every tiny country, every little town has had its bizarre characters, unbelievable coincidences, moments in the spotlight and uncanny sagas that would make for a great novel, or series of novels.

Eritrea is no exception.

If it hadn’t already been taken, a more descriptive title for this book would have been A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Long ago, the area of modern Eritrea and Ethiopia was home to the mighty and advanced Aksum Empire.

Later, the coastal region of that empire, now called Eritrea, was colonized by various powers while inland Ethiopia remained independent.

For a long time, Eritrea was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was briefly part of Egypt when that part of the empire broke away, but quickly fell under the control of Italy.

The Italians built the modern capital, Asmara. Architects unable to tolerate strict building codes in the old country flooded in, making names for themselves with all sorts of innovative and bizarre designs, as well as some classic buildings:

Many Italians moved to Eritrea, often seizing farming land from the natives. For a long time there were also large populations of Indians and other foreigners living in Asmara.

Business boomed. There were many factories, and both a train and a cableway from the city (at over 2,000m) down to the sea. Most of the trade was with neighbouring Ethiopia.

During this period, Mussolini’s fascists took over Italy and its colonies. The Eritreans were not getting a great deal before this change, but afterwards things got worse. Natives were banned from most of the inner city.

It’s here that Wrong begins her annoying habit which is the only blemish on this otherwise brilliant book – she interviews a ‘typical Italian’ still living in the country. To this end, she leaves Asmara and travels all the way down to seaside Massawa in order meet the most obnoxious Italian in the whole country.

There are plenty of lovely old Italians still living out their days in the capital that she could have featured, but instead she takes a three-hour trip down the mountain to meet a bigoted old loony who’s been married to various younger Eritrean women and now lives in a junkyard. Fair enough, he does have interesting stories about being a handyman for the British army, but it would have been nice to hear from an ordinary Italian.

Whites are bad, Wrong must always remind us. This will be a theme.

Using Eritrea as a base, Italy invaded Ethiopia for a second time in 1935. The first time it has been a disaster, but this time, using air support and chemical weapons, they quickly overwhelmed the only African country to have never been colonized by a European power.

The King, Haile Selassie, fled to London.

Their occupation did not last long. Britain was desperate for a morale-boosting victory early in WWII, so their forces pushed down from Sudan into Eritrea. The road from Kartoum to Asmara is extremely steep and narrow as it winds precipitously through the mountains up to Asmara. This was the perfect position for the Italians and their Eritrean soldiers to make their stand.

The fighting was some of the most intense and terrifying of the war, with the attackers having very little cover at any point. Losses were massive, but the British and their Imperial soldiers eventually reached the top and then marched into Asmara unopposed.

And now Wrong returns to her habit, like a dog returning to its vomit. She duly reports to us that during this march a woman began ululating and a British soldier allegedly told her, “We didn’t do it for you, nigger.” Hence the title of the book.

After all the heroism of the British against the fascists, she feels the need to sum them up with that one comment.

Still, what the British did next doesn’t need Wrong’s slant to look ugly. They seized the physical materials making up the port, the railway, the cableway and other infrastructure and send it all over their Empire.

They claimed that it was natural for a state at war to requisition its enemy’s resources, but hobbling the country would have ramifications that last to this day.

To their credit, the British established a moderate administration and allowed locals to form political parties and so on. This in-between period lasted a decade.

A common misapprehension is that the Italians left at this point. In fact, there were more Italians living in Asmara in the 1970s than in the 1940s, and many Indians and others also remained.
Italian and Eritrean-Italian women, early 1960s

This is partly because of Italian settlers returning from liberated Ethiopia. Some say they were far more nationalistic and anti-native than those who’d long lived in the Red Sea colony, but I don’t know one way or the other.

Finally the UN decided to give Eritrea to Ethiopia, even though the countries had been separate entities for donkeys’ years. It was supposed to be a federation, but Haile Selassie soon showed his true colours by seizing much of Asmara’s factory equipment and sending it back to Addis Ababa.

Some Eritreans attempted to start the process of establishing the state government but they were immediately arrested when they met in this building:

That’s what started the long and stubborn independence struggle against Ethiopia in the 1960s.

One man came to dominate this movement: Isaias Afwerki. After the Eritrean custom, he mostly goes by his first name, Isaias:

In Pythonesque fashion, the two main independence movements were called the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF, a largely Muslim organization) and the more secular, Communist Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF, this one being Isaias’ organization).

For a long time they fought alongside each other without distinguishing much between themselves. However, after the ELF and some of his own followers protested Isaias’ increasingly dictatorial style, he had the malcontents and the ELF liquidated. But that would come later.

Isaias is a man born cock-sure of his right to rule, convinced to this day that he knows better than anyone else what they ought to do. I have no doubt that this man believes, in his heart of hearts, that if he were to become Dictator of the World everything from that point on would be perfect, suffering would be banished from the Earth, and a new Paradise would commence.

This is the most dangerous kind of leader. Give me a self-absorbed Clinton, a thieving Mobutu or a drunken Yeltsin any day.

We now arrive at one of those historical hard-luck stories that are so common in Africa. Asmara, situated in the highlands, has a unique geographical quality: it is the best location for receiving radio signals in the world. Also, the Cold War was well and truly on.

The US signed a deal: they would help out Haile with the EPLF and other troubles, and he would allow the US to build Kagnew Station, a hilltop facility designed to intercept Communist transmissions.
Eritrean Ministry of Information, formerly Kagnew Station

We then come to the US servicemen based in Asmara, and who does Wrong choose to interview? That’s right, members of the most badly-behaved group there, the ‘Gross Boys’ who spent their time boozing, whoring and generally giving Americans a bad name. She admits that these were a small minority of the servicemen, but that’s who she focuses on.

Occasionally Americans would venture too far into the bush and get captured by the EPLF. They would receive training in Communist thought and the righteousness of the independence struggle and then be released unharmed a few weeks later.

Using US arms, the Ethiopian army was keeping these forces at bay. Unimpeded by human rights concerns, they sometimes wiped out entire villages thought to be harbouring the enemy.

However, two things happened to reward the patience of the rebels.

First, satellite communications were improving and radio was becoming less and less important. This made Kagnew less important so US support for Ethiopia began to wane, together with other factors.

Second, there was a separate rebellion in Ethiopia. Haile had many other enemies. The Derg took over. You may have heard of this outfit because they were in charge when the big famine hit.
Derg leader Mengitsu (right) and friends

The Derg were supposedly Socialist so the EPLF hoped they might be able to negotiate, perhaps winning autonomy under the original, UN-mandated federal system. However, it very soon became clear that this was yet another Amharic dictatorship with no sympathy for the Eritreans at all, Socialist or otherwise.

The Derg played the US and the USSR off against each other in a bid for aid, but suddenly chose the latter and kicked the Americans out. They used massive Soviet assistance in the form of arms and military advisors to push the EPLF back to a tiny redoubt in the hills of the north.

This place was called Nakfa, and it would be the home of a holed-up resistance movement for thirteen years of desperate and apparently hopeless struggle.!!-!!nakfa.jpg
A surviving trench in Nakfa
Eritrean fighters

Again the Eritreans waited for something to come up, and again it did. The Soviet Union collapsed. The EPLF seized the initiative and very quickly took control of the whole country. Their Tigray allies, the TPLF (Dr Tedros’ mob) took control of Ethiopia itself.

There was a period of massive self-confidence, foreign investment and optimism.

However, Africa Africa-ed.

Following tensions surrounding currency, port access and territorial boundaries, Eritrea and Ethiopia began a second, brief and extremely bloody war. Eritrea lost some land and its most important trading partner.

Eritreans began to wonder about Isaias, who’d installed himself as president and seemed uninterested in putting in place the constitution which they’d developed. The one that said there should be elections and that national service could only last for one year.
Hasn’t mellowed yet

Some prominent people wrote an open letter asking that the country hold a conference to discuss these issues and to decide what to do next.

Right after 9/11, when the world’s attention was elsewhere, Isaias had all the signatories he could catch arrested and imprisoned. They remain incarcerated in secret locations today.

Since then, Eritrea has been circling the bowl. The young are largely stuck in endless national service, building roads, terracing hillsides or shooting those trying to flee. There is no free media, most private business is illegal or so difficult that it might as well be, and most of the factories that survived the British and Haile Selassie have closed down.

There is no opposition. There have been at least two coup attempts but both failed dismally.

The population has declined from about 6 million in the early 90s to perhaps 2 million today.

Wrong finishes with a hope-inspiring story about how a determined group of volunteers gradually fixed the railway and got the train running again. She acknowledges that Eritrean stubbornness got them into their current strife, especially the foreign policy disasters, but it was also the factor that helped them win the war and might be the factor that will allow them to survive the present mess.

Well, today that railway only runs if you hire it out for a group and never goes all the way to the sea. Wrong also omits the fact that the Eritrean volunteers received a lot of help from the Italian government.

Almost all Eritreans agree: nothing will change until Isaias is dead. But what will happen then?

As he is 74, the vultures are beginning to circle. US neocons, the Saudis, the UAE, Ethiopia and of course China all have their desires about what should happen next. Probably Iran, Al Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, ISIS and assorted others, too.

Whatever happens, are Eritreans capable of running a modern, civilized state? Can they do what most other Africans have failed to do?

On one hand, they have a strong smart fraction and are much more highly educated than most other Africans. Eritreans outside the country are often very successful.

Also, unlike other places on the continent, ethnic rivalries are mild. Differences are respected and each group has its own main region.

On the other hand, there’s that stubbornness. How can you run a liberal democracy when you refuse to reason or compromise, and hold bitter grudges about events that occurred many years ago?

I give them a 50/50 chance.


  1. SFC Ton · November 11

    It’s Africa

    They will tank or get massive amounts of charity and still mostly tank


  2. overgrownhobbit · November 12

    No one will leave them alone long enough for them to find their own level and make a go of it. The occasional missionary family who “go bush” are one thing, but the NGOs and the university toxic humanity will rot even the strongest communities. You can never get even to renaissance civilization with tribes and tribal culture, and “nationalism” is Literally Hitler.


  3. Pingback: War returns to Eritrea | SovietMen

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