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Revolutionary Suicide | The Nation

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Revolutionary Suicide

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In the scandal-steeped spring of 1998, President Bill Clinton left behind Washington, Kenneth Starr and the Lewinsky-obsessed press and traveled to Africa. He spent twelve days there, tripling the collective amount of time all his predecessors had spent south of the Sahara and throwing himself into a tour of the continent with the same barnstorming, flesh-pressing, emotive spirit that animated his political campaigns. Stepping off Air Force One in Ghana, where he was greeted by a raucous crowd of an estimated half-million, Clinton declared that it was "time for Americans to put a new Africa on our map." At every whistle-stop, from Senegal to South Africa to Uganda, Clinton extolled an "African renaissance," outlining his vision of a continent that was self-reliant and self-possessed, that took responsibility for its failings and demanded free trade with the West, not foreign aid from it.

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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When asked to identify the exemplars of this renaissance, Clinton's aides pointed to four young, dynamic leaders: Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. These four had much in common. They were all vigorous leaders, relatively untainted by corruption. They said the right things about democracy. Most important, the members of the quartet had all once been rebel leaders, and had shot their way to power--which was deemed acceptable because the governments they replaced were so uniformly abysmal. Clinton's blessing confirmed their status as "Africa's new soldier princes," as the New York Times reporter Howard French calls them in his recent book A Continent for the Taking, enlightened authoritarians who would guide their countries to peace and prosperity.

There is a long tradition of white men coming to Africa and hailing new leaders--Guinea's Sekou Touré in the 1960s, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe in the 1980s--as avatars of the future, only to discover, a few disappeared dissidents later, that their heroes were just old palm wine in new calabashes. Clinton's flight of optimistic fancy unraveled in less than a year. Just a few months after the President's Africa visit, Museveni and Kagame, then close friends, teamed up to invade their mineral-rich mutual neighbor, Congo. By 1999, like the gold-crazed prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, they had turned on each other. As Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers battled over Congolese booty, the conflict degenerated into a bloody morass.

Ethiopia and Eritrea, meanwhile, went to war that very spring, fighting what journalist Michela Wrong calls "the worst conflict ever staged between two armies in Africa." This is a somewhat misleading designation, since most African conflicts have been civil wars. Still, it was nasty. In battles that employed cold war weaponry and Great War tactics--the Eritreans dug trenches, and Ethiopian generals launched human-wave assaults--an estimated 80,000 people were killed. At least superficially, the war was utterly pointless: It concerned conflicting claims to a strategically insignificant border town called Badme, a place Wrong describes as "the kind of one-hotel, two-bar village in which yellow-eyed goats wandered through front rooms." Even more perverse, the war, like the Congolese conflict, pitted erstwhile allies against each other. Meles and Isaias had fought side by side to liberate Ethiopia from the brutal Stalinist regime that ruled it in the 1980s. After victory, Isaias had been rewarded with independence for Eritrea, formerly an Ethiopian province.

In her new book, I Didn't Do It for You, Wrong tells the story of how independent Eritrea came to be, and how it then came to disappoint. A British writer who has logged extensive time in Africa for the Financial Times and other publications, Wrong writes that she first gravitated to the country in 1996. Independence was new and spirits were running high. "Having gorged on gloomy headlines," she writes, "I was hungry for what seemed increasingly impossible: an African good news story." It was an admirable appetite, akin to the one that led Clinton to Africa in search of renaissance men. But in the end, as so often in Africa, Wrong's good news story proved too good to last.

Wrong's previous book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, chronicled the final, rotten years of Mobutu's Congo, and for my money, it's one of the best journalistic accounts of contemporary Africa. Mobutu's dramatic overthrow inspired reams of overheated words, but Mr. Kurtz was different: It positively burst with lived experience. Wrong found political meaning in her encounters with legless street hawkers and Versace-donning nightclub dandies. In the book's tour-de-force introductory chapter, she described a post-overthrow visit to one of the ousted dictator's ransacked palaces, where she discovered that the kleptocrat's Ming vases were fake, and his signature cravats, which looked fabulous from a distance, were actually velcroed-on. "This emperor did have some clothes," she wrote. "But like his regime itself, they were all show and no substance."

So it was with some dismay that I opened I Didn't Do It for You to discover that its first chapter begins with the words, "Whenever I land in Asmara..." Her use of the hoary my-plane's-approach device is an early signal that this book will be different from Mr. Kurtz--a visitor's story. This is not to say that I Didn't Do It for You is a failure. It is an engaging read, and, as Wrong writes, it offers "a lasting cautionary tale" about how long-forgotten Great Power decisions--an unfair treaty here, a deal with a dictator there--can reverberate in unanticipated ways. "[This] is a book about betrayal, repeated across generations," she writes, "and how the expectation of betrayal can both create an extraordinary inner strength and distort a national psyche." In devastating detail, Wrong excavates the motivations and machinations of Eritrea's various self-interested overlords and shows how this small, determined nation learned to fight back, finally winning the thing it desired most: its freedom. But in the end, as perceptive as she is, Wrong can't quite explain her story's final, cruelest and most intriguing twist: how Eritrea came to betray itself.

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