Revolutionary Suicide

Revolutionary Suicide

Eritrea betrayed.


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.

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.

An arid, sun-baked land along the Red Sea, Eritrea has long been defined by those who possessed it. It was a province of the mighty Axumite empire, which dominated the Horn of Africa before the Middle Ages, a colony of Mussolini’s Italy, which transformed the capital, Asmara, into an Art Deco showcase, and a prize for the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who coveted its ports. During the cold war, the United States armed Selassie to fight Eritrea’s Marxist separatists–the forebears of the country’s present-day leaders–because the country offered an ideal place to intercept the radio transmissions of our enemies (and allies).

Wrong is at her best when recounting this history. She has a keen appreciation for the recurring irony of Africa: that the well-intentioned so often do the most harm. She exhumes obscure historical figures like the Italian politician Ferdinando Martini, a reformist at home who nonetheless presided over his country’s consolidation of colonial power in Eritrea, and Sylvia Pankhurst, a British suffragette who helped liberate the country from Italian and later British rule, only to deliver it to a mendacious African, Selassie. Wrong has a particular eye for the husks these withered empires left behind: a desolate war cemetery filled with the dead of an arduous 1941 battle between the British and Italian armies; the old Fascist Party headquarters, now the country’s Ministry of Education, “where a stone staircase bearing a wrought-iron motif of flaming torches”–the blackshirts’ symbol–“rises grandly to the first floor.”

She also tracks down some living relics of Eritrea’s past. She visits John Spencer, Selassie’s American lawyer, at a Long Island nursing home, and uses him as a vehicle to explain the back-room legerdemain that led to Eritrea’s being ceded to Ethiopia after World War II. She interviews a group of retired American soldiers who worked at the military’s top-secret base in Kagnew. By day, they manned the listening post. By night, they formed a clique called the “Gross Guys,” drinking heavily and staging frat-house hijinks.

What’s missing from this recitation of the history, which goes on for well over half the book, are any memorable Eritrean characters. This gap is understandable when it comes to the distant past–she notes that the Italians buried their Eritrean military conscripts under gravestones marked “Ascaro Ignoto,” or “unknown soldier”–but less so when it comes to more recent events. It’s also curious, since Wrong is convincing in describing her affection for the Eritrean people, who by her account are purposeful, hardened and severe, like the terrain on which they live. “By God, they were impressive,” she writes in the opening chapter, describing initial encounters so uniform in their postindependence euphoria that she came to have “the uncanny feeling that I was speaking to the many mouths of one single, Hydra-headed creature: the Eritrean soul.” One wishes, however, that Wrong had amplified a few more individual voices over the chorus of this oversoul.

The uniformity of opinion is hardly surprising, given that Eritrea has been a military dictatorship for its entire twelve-year existence. Regimes born of armed struggle are fundamentally different from other governments: Leaders who were willing to die to gain power rarely cede it willingly. Uganda’s President Museveni, the elder statesman of Clinton’s renaissance quartet, who has done many good things for his country, encapsulated this sentiment perfectly in a 2002 speech to his Parliament, in which he warned opponents about trying to challenge his rule through civil disobedience. “We are people in suits by day but in uniform at night. We fought a liberation war,” he said. “Don’t play around with freedom fighters.”

Wrong, who is remorseless when it comes to the failings of the Italians, British and Ethiopians, is positively gushing in her depiction of Eritrea’s freedom fighters, whom she likens to the Spartans of ancient Greece. Admittedly, they benefit from the comparison to their opponents. In 1974 Selassie was overthrown by a military junta known as the Derg. After some infighting, an army colonel named Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the Derg’s leader. Elite Ethiopians scoffed at Mengistu’s dark skin and diminutive stature, but the insecure dictator proved ruthlessly effective at eliminating enemies. When the Americans cut off aid, Mengistu embraced Communism–he capped one memorable rally by smashing a Coca-Cola bottle filled with blood–winning the favor, and the arms shipments, of the Soviet Union.

Mengistu’s well-equipped army drove Eritrea’s separatist rebels into an impenetrable mountainous region known as the Sahel. There, they hunkered down and trained, building an elaborate network of schools, hospitals and factories, which were often literally situated underground. Wrong describes this exilic period as a utopian moment: Uneducated villagers took literature classes in caves; a self-taught chef whipped lentils into delicacies; a rebel pianist played recitals under thorn trees, amid the bombs. Female fighters sported Afros, and their children, called “Red Flowers,” were communally raised. The “absence of worldly distractions,” Wrong writes, “encouraged a clarity of thought the meditating monks of Shangri-La would have recognized.”

Strangely, Wrong does not tell us much about the leader of the “Movement,” Isaias. She says that in her research for the book, she managed to interview Eritrea’s reclusive president several times, yet she dispenses with a character sketch in a scant four pages, far less space than she devotes to describing the scatological derring-do of America’s Gross Guys. She mentions in passing that during the time in the Sahel, opponents of Isaias were often “made to ‘disappear’ with typical Eritrean quietness.” This is a worrisome harbinger, one that makes Wrong wonder whether the rebel experience “also contained the seeds of Eritrea at its worst.”

But the point is not pursued–the enthusiastic oversoul was apparently not expansive on the subject of extrajudicial murders–and such troubling thoughts are not allowed to cloud Wrong’s overall narrative, a tale of brave resistance. She contrasts the rebels with the debauched American servicemen who served in Kagnew, and asks, “Which life, given the choice, would I pick?” She answers, “Give me the Sahel any day, because the choice between blandness and passion seems no choice at all.” She doesn’t venture the logical next question, however. What society would she rather live in: one in which soldiers are subordinate to civilians, or one in which an all-powerful movement rules?

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.

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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