Revolutionary Suicide | The Nation


Revolutionary Suicide

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In 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated, and Mengistu fell, worn down by the Eritrean rebels and an allied movement of highland Ethiopians led by Meles. Two years later, in a referendum, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence. Isaias became president. This was the period during which Wrong first visited the country. In retrospect, she writes, this was to be "Eritrea's golden era, when everything seemed possible." She met newly minted government ministers who dropped references to Samuel Pepys and Charles Darwin. She heard that President Isaias, an ascetic fellow, was sometimes glimpsed doing his own shopping along Liberation Avenue.

About the Author

Andrew Rice
Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (...

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Then came Badme. If the war with Ethiopia seemed senseless and spiteful, Wrong writes, this was largely because it was a family spat. Meles and Isaias had a similar ethnic background; they were even rumored to be blood relations. In the bush, Meles had been Isaias's protégé. But after the war, the dynamic changed. Meles ruled a far larger and more powerful country. "They were brothers, certainly, but a touchy younger brother can easily come to hate a patronizing older sibling," Wrong writes. (The relationship between Museveni and Kagame, incidentally, followed much the same trajectory.)

Eritrea marched to war with Spartan assurance. It retreated badly defeated. Thousands of soldiers perished, and with them any hope for democracy. Since 1998 Eritrea has degenerated into a paranoid hermit state. Opposition political parties are banned, as are gatherings of more than seven people. Dissenters are jailed. Internet cafes are watched. Foreign aid has dried up. Last year the government kicked out the BBC correspondent, the last Western journalist in town. Wrong reports that Isaias is often drunk, and has taken to head-butting underlings who dare utter a word of disagreement. Presumably, he doesn't do his own shopping anymore.

In her closing chapters, Wrong describes this changed country, which she compares to Ceausescu's Romania, and ventures an explanation for its decline. As usual, history is to blame. "If Eritrea today so often comes across as dangerously imperious to criticism and bafflingly quick to anger," Wrong writes, "she is largely that way because colonial masters and superpowers made her so." But this seems simplistic. Might there not be other factors at play--ones that implicate Eritrea's rulers themselves? Look at the wider trend. Seven years on, Clinton's soldier princes are looking increasingly like the stereotypical Big Men of Africa's past. The exception is Meles, whose Ethiopia is still considered a relative success. But Kagame's Rwanda is a police state. He finally submitted to an election in 2003, which he won with a credulity-stretching 95 percent of the vote. Museveni is now campaigning to remove term limits from Uganda's Constitution, which would allow him to stay in power indefinitely.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say there's a lesson here, for American policy-makers and journalists alike: Don't fall for the allure of charismatic men of arms. The good news is that today we have options, for Africa looks a lot different now compared to the 1990s. Elections have become more common than coups. Democratic regimes, however imperfect, now rule countries like Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. South Africa is growing into a regional power; the whole continent watches its television networks and uses its cell phones. These are not scintillating stories of life-or-death struggle, but that, on balance, is probably a good thing. Africa could stand a boring decade.

I shouldn't be so hard on I Didn't Do It for You. This is probably the best book that could be written about Eritrea, given its present state of repression. "I used to come away from Asmara with my notebooks scrawled with names and addresses; asking an Eritrean whether he minded speaking on the record almost felt like an insult," Wrong writes, mournfully. "Now acquaintances mutter under their breath, or suggest a drive to Durfo to watch the clouds swirling over the valleys. There, in the privacy of their cars, they open their hearts." Ever in search of the good news, Wrong is able to find hope in even these furtive exchanges, for now "the Hydra's heads often speak in whispers, but they wear different expressions, and none of the opinions they voice are the same.... Eritreans are becoming rounded individuals, their community a more complex, conflicted society. This is no bad thing."

If you're Eritrean, this is probably cold comfort. We can only hope that one day when things change, those people will still be around to speak in more than anonymous, plaintive whispers. Perhaps then they will tell us what dashed the hopes of those heady independence days. For now, however, we will have to content ourselves with this imperfect book, as we wait for a true renaissance to come.

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