Eritrea’s war of independence, waged against its imperial neighbour Ethiopia, lasted 30 years and ended in 1991. Often, in the British media, the case against covering the conflict was that if no one had heard of it, it couldn’t be worth the trouble. That kind of argument, which plumps the cushions for the proof to lie on, is hard to counter. Telling the story to a wide non-specialist audience is a daunting prospect and few people have tried; the most successful, until now, was Thomas Keneally, whose novel Towards Asmara (1989), set in the guerrilla-held areas at the time of the liberation war, was a picaresque homage to the Eritrean people. Michela Wrong has attempted something different: an idiosyncratic, free-ranging history of Eritrea, from colonial times to the present, marvellously full of anecdote, archive and interview material. The book moves easily along, driven by Wrong’s relentless fascination with her subject. Her theme, resumed in every chapter, is that meddling and cynicism on the part of Eritrea’s neighbours, the European colonial powers and chiefly the two main Cold War adversaries, created the moral and political catastrophe of which so few outsiders had an inkling. Even twenty years ago, at the time of Bob Geldof’s involvement in the regional famine, Eritrea remained an obscure subject.
The territory itself only fully permeated the European consciousness after the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and the port of Assab, about 1500 miles down the coast, was sold by the presiding sultan to an Italian priest. After the Berlin conference, the Italians landed a force at another port, Massawa, and pushed 25 miles inland, where it was wiped out in 1887 by an Abyssinian warlord. Massawa was held, however, and in 1889 Rome concluded a treaty with Menelik II, the new emperor of Abyssinia. The formal existence of the colony of Eritrea was declared the following year.
Menelik seems to have misunderstood a passage in the treaty he signed with the Italians which committed Abyssinia proper – Ethiopia as it came to be known – to everlasting servitude. Once this fact had sunk in, the clash of armies was inevitable. The Italians were famously trounced by Menelik at Adua in 1896 and retired within the boundaries of their colony, which they’d hoped might be a springboard for the conquest of the interior. Another of their hopes was that Eritrea would eventually be settled by land-hungry Italian poor. In the end only about 1 per cent of emigrant Italians opted for the country’s African possessions, America being by far the more popular choice.
The administration of Eritrea was summary: in the early years much energy was expended in the clubbing to death of dissident notables and exemplary use of a hippopotamus-hide whip known as the curbash. This approach caused such a scandal at home that a royal commission was sent out to investigate in 1891. One of the members, Ferdinando Martini, a Tuscan Liberal with large ambitions, was both appalled and intrigued. He decided, in the end, that Italians had a historic duty to misbehave in the colony. ‘One race must replace another,’ he wrote on his return. ‘It’s that or nothing . . . The native is a hindrance; whether we like it or not, we will have to hunt him down and encourage him to disappear, just as has been done elsewhere with the Redskins, using all the methods civilisation – which the native instinctively hates – can provide: gunfire and a daily dose of firewater.’
Six years after his visit, Martini went back to Eritrea as the colony’s first civilian governor. He moved the capital from the sweltering port of Massawa to the pretty highland town of Asmara and set about a programme of works, including a remarkable feat of railway engineering which linked the port to the new capital. It took 30 years to complete. ‘Between Massawa and Asmara,’ Wrong explains, ‘the land soars from sea level to 2300 metres in just 70 kilometres.’ At its steepest the Eritrean railway touched a gradient of 1 in 28. It is running again today, with steam locomotives.
‘Only a people that had already thrown railroads across the Alps and Dolomites,’ Wrong tells us, ‘would have dared take on the Eritrean escarpment.’ This is not just a jolly observation about national character. It is the kind of point on which disagreements about decolonisation turn, especially once the process has started to unravel or been scotched in its early stages. Whatever else it is, colonisation is an assertion of foreign culture, and Italian colonial rule was a reality for the assimilated and the unassimilated alike. When, in due course, Ethiopia made its bid to incorporate Eritrea, nationalist opponents argued that the specificity of their experience as colonial subjects distinguished them wholly from the people who now wished to bring them under yet another form of non-indigenous rule. Ethiopia had been invaded, but never colonised; Eritreans by contrast had a thorough immersion in colonialism, and an ingrained memory of day-to-day life under European rule, including fighting for the colonial power and fifty or sixty years speaking a lingua franca in the form of Italian. The railway is a symbol of all that divided Eritreans, to their own way of thinking, from the inhabitants of the African imperium to which they would be yoked, like serfs to a cart, half a century or more after Martini inspected the first length of track on his miraculous railway.
Martini’s wish for the Europeans to degrade and supersede the natives went unfulfilled. If anything the reverse was the case. Administering, settling and being administered were all pretty much side-by-side activities – a circumstance which led to a certain amount of rolling around in the bed and a healthy surge in mixed-race births: by 1935, Wrong tells us, Asmara contained 3500 Italians and a thousand meticci. Martini was gone by then, but this vain, ruthless and obscurely attractive figure left an enduring legacy – pernicious, again, to the Eritrean way of thinking – in his opposition to mixed-race schooling. He argued that ‘the blacks are more quick-witted than us’ and that if you stuck an Italian peasant with a measure of native wit next to a quick-witted native, the unpalatable facts would soon become obvious. In such a system, he wrote, ‘the white man’s superiority, the basis of every colonial regime, is undermined.’
Eritrea toiled on under Italian administration into the glory days of Fascism. In 1930, eight years after the March on Rome, Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and in 1935 Mussolini mustered an expeditionary force across the border in Eritrea. The conquest of ‘Abyssinia’ involved no serious setbacks of the kind inflicted at Adua. Triumphant Italian regiments entered Addis Ababa the following year, not far behind the dissipating fumes of their own chemical weapons, and the little emperor went into exile. ‘Italian East Africa’, a new entity proudly proclaimed by Il Duce, saw fierce campaigning during World War Two. By 1941, however, after the British and colonial advance in East Africa, ‘a place in the sun’ had grim connotations for Italian survivors, who had seen the bodies of their fallen comrades darken in the forward fortifications of Keren, a promontory town in Eritrea which nobody, perhaps not even the British, had believed it was possible to take.
The result, for Eritreans, was a British administration which lasted for the duration of the war and beyond. Wrong doesn’t think well of British interim rule and there’s something to be said for taking the dim view, including the fact that the British kept the Fascist racial laws, even after they were scrapped in Italy. The implacably pro-Ethiopian Sylvia Pankhurst was rightly horrified by the British decision to seize and dismantle valuable quantities of plant and ship them out of the territory. Eritrea also doubled for the British as a pan-imperial jail, a ‘version of Guantánamo Bay’, as Wrong describes it, where ‘251 hardcore members of the Jewish underground . . . were deposited in a camp on the capital’s outskirts.’ They were bent on escaping and heading back to Palestine. Wrong has managed to find the man who served as deputy police commissioner in Asmara at the time: he recalls fishing Yitzhak Shamir ‘from the tank of a water container in which he had been hiding, hoping to pass through police checkpoints unnoticed’.
For Wrong, the absence of British-Eritrean mixed-race offspring confirms the ‘pinched, parsimonious quality’ of British attitudes in Eritrea, though it may have been an oversight, rather than a slight, on the part of an expatriate administrative force who knew they would be posted elsewhere before long. Eritrea, a settler project for the Italians, was for the British merely a brief and tiresome tour of duty.
Whatever their faults, the British were tolerant of workplace combination, freedom of the press and the energetic production of indigenous teaching aids – Tigrinya primers and the like – by Eritrean nationalists who also believed in multilingual education. If British rule left the territory materially impoverished, it did little to interfere with a thriving political culture that might, in other circumstances, have been the prelude to independence. Eritrea does not feature in Imagined Communities, but the period of British administration is a hasty, condensed version of the slower colonial evolutions towards national consciousness plotted by Benedict Anderson.
How the territory was denied independence is a story Wrong tells very well. Much had to do with Emperor Haile Selassie, the way he positioned himself and the presence he achieved, both in the West and (despite his enemies on the continent) in Africa. He was a clever and persuasive statesman, whose speech to the League of Nations in 1936 was all the more resonant in the world historical memory for the disagreeable truth, baldly stated, that no real effort had been made by members of the League to dissuade Mussolini from his African adventure.
Haile Selassie returned to Addis in 1941. Of the many projects he had in mind, incorporating Eritrea into the Ethiopian Empire was probably the most important. There is a famous photo of Jomo Kenyatta taken at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, which gives a providential glimpse of Ethiopia’s ambitions and the writing on the wall for the Eritreans – or some of the writing anyhow. At the time of the Congress, the British were still running Eritrea, the world war was over and decolonisation was the next great step for Europe and its subject peoples. The portrait of Kenyatta perfectly expresses this mood of impending transition: he is resolute and imposing, regal almost in the huge fur coat from which the cuffs of his grey suit protrude. Behind him is a propaganda poster done in brush and ink: ‘ETHIOPIA wants _______ to the SEA.’ The crucial word, which you might take to be ‘access’, is obscured by Kenyatta’s head. The message, however, is not. (And the word, apparently, is ‘outlet’.) Eritrea’s coastline was now an obsession with Haile Selassie: he and his people never failed to remind the British that their main business in Eritrea was to perform a holding operation on his behalf.
In 1948 a commission of Allied powers failed to agree the future of the territory. The following year another lacklustre commission, under the auspices of the UN, looked into the question. It turned out that there were strong nationalist stirrings in favour of independence, despite the fact that a number of Eritreans favoured some form of federal arrangement. The outcome, clearly, would depend on Haile Selassie’s ingenuity and the biddable nature of his friends overseas.
As the Cold War got underway, he planted his feet firmly in the anti-Communist camp and dramatised his stance by sending 1000 Ethiopian troops to Korea. In 1952, in return for his efforts, he got Eritrea, and his ‘outlet to the sea’, in the guise of federation. Eritrean nationalists were profoundly unhappy that no proper consultation had taken place. The Americans, for their part, got a highland base in Asmara, where they constructed a massive eavesdropping facility known as Kagnew with state-of-the-art equipment which enabled their intelligence staff to analyse the Soviet Union’s missile capacity, Wrong tells us, down to the engine types, guidance systems and fuel consumption.
In 1950, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had explained the inevitability of federation in terms that every adult Eritrean can retrieve, more or less correctly, from somewhere in the mental files: ‘From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interest of the United States in the Red Sea basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country has to be linked to our ally, Ethiopia.’
In just over a decade, Eritrea had moved from Italian to British and then to Ethiopian rule, though the latter was an undeclared reality: the technical description of what had happened was still ‘federation’. Haile Selassie hadn’t liked the idea – outright ‘return’, as he called it, would have been the thing – and his strategy was now to treat the institutions of the Eritrean administration as though they did not exist and finally to annex the territory, which he contrived to do within a decade, right under the noses of the Americans.
Among Wrong’s most entertaining interviews are the handful she conducted with former US army members working on the intelligence base in Kagnew, which in the 1960s became an attractive alternative to service in Vietnam: now well into retirement, the men talk frankly, often comically, about life on the base, their sexual forays into Asmara, binge drinking or drinking to near-extinction, and occasionally about the nationalist politics of which they got a faint intimation as they surveyed the scene, sporadically, hazily, through the bottom of a beer glass or peered out from their preferred point of vantage as maturing intelligence personnel, somewhere beneath the skirts of a local one-night stand.
Yet Wrong’s most fruitful encounter is with the elderly John Spencer, the American lawyer engaged by Haile Selassie to undermine Eritrea’s federal rights even before the federation came into effect. Spencer, who left Ethiopia in 1960 to teach international law in Boston, gave no quarter in the pursuit of his client’s interests. He successfully haggled away a clear separation of jurisdictions and won predominance for Addis. In particular, he negotiated a place for a ‘crown representative’ in the Eritrean assembly who could obstruct (though not veto) local legislation and who was empowered to promulgate laws that suited the larger of the two partners. A few years into the federation, however, and the mention of partnership was simply a joke. Spencer could say with satisfaction that the loose arrangement originally conceived by the UN to allow for the possibility of Eritrean independence at some later stage – a possibility inconceivable in Addis – was now a vice in which the smaller territory was held quite powerless as Haile Selassie set to work with all the tools at his disposal to hammer it into final submission.
As one political humiliation followed another, even Eritrean unionists began to feel that Eritrea had been ill served by the federal arrangement. But the crucial component of the federation, Wrong explains, was an economic siphon, activated once Addis had taken control of customs in Assab and Massawa. Duties on maritime trade brought the territory vital income and, according to Wrong, Addis studiously failed ‘to remit Asmara’s share, which accounted for up to 60 per cent of Eritrean revenue’. By the end of the 1950s, the notables and tribal heads who sat in the assembly had agreed to replace the official languages of Tigrinya and Arabic – the Mussolini interlude having done for Italian – with Amharic, the language of the imperial Shoan heartland to which Eritrea was now fully in thrall. The assembly was dissolved in 1962 and Eritrea became an Ethiopian province.
The UN backed away and the OAU, which came into existence in 1963, was a disappointment for Eritrea: its headquarters were in Addis and the emperor was to all intents and purposes the host. When the organisation declared the inviolability of colonial boundaries in 1964, this was taken to mean that Ethiopia should be recognised for the entity it was at the time, with the useful coastal annex it had just acquired: there must be no ugly secessions. In this way, the very principle that Eritreans would invoke to argue their rights was turned against them. They were about to embark on a period of lunar isolation.
Broadly speaking, half of Eritrea’s population were Muslims living in the lowlands and half were Christians living in the highlands. It was from the lowlands that the Eritrean Liberation Front emerged on the eve of annexation. The war with Ethiopia was brutal and bitter for the Eritreans – brutal because Ethiopia was backed by the US until the late 1970s and bitter because it was backed thereafter by the Soviet Union. There was, meanwhile, the difficult question of how to reconcile two major strands of armed resistance, each with its own objectives and its model of what a liberated Eritrea might look like.
It was the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a breakaway from the ELF, that prevailed after a period of internecine fighting which ended in 1981. By then things had changed in Addis. The emperor had been overthrown in 1974 and the revolutionary regime that took over had, by 1978, become a Soviet proxy armed to the teeth. However daunting the fight against an American-backed Ethiopia had been, the struggle against the new regime was harder. It was also, as time went on, more and more a conventional war fought on long fronts with classic deployments of men and armour – and, in the case of the Ethiopians, air power.
The Soviet Union committed enormous amounts of matériel to Addis while Addis took care of numbers on the ground: imperial levies carried hundreds of thousands away from the cities and the land as cannon fodder for the Eritreans, who had been driven back into the north of the territory to a wilderness of mountain and mostly unserviceable plain, which they held against one full-dress Soviet-style military campaign and then another.
By the mid to late 1980s, it was possible to stand in an Eritrean frontline trench and watch with the naked eye as Ethiopian conscripts in the opposing trench, separated by a gully, brewed up water or warmed up gruel. The Eritreans were living like mountain goats in baking rockscape miles from their beautiful capital, but the Ethiopians were further still from anything they recognised as home, press-ganged into a war about which they scarcely cared.
That was not the only reason the Eritreans prevailed in the end. Up in their craggy bases, the EPLF turned into one of the most fastidious, pedantic war machines in African history, counting every bullet, every fistful of injera and every life. They rebuilt captured armour, rehabilitated ageing weaponry, operated on their wounded in underground theatres with surgical equipment that had become obsolete in the West twenty years earlier. All the while, they proselytised for literacy and women’s rights and clambered jubilantly from boulder to boulder, waving transcribed broadcasts from the BBC that suggested things were not all they might be for Mengistu Haile Mariam, the emperor’s successor.
What was the real character of this extraordinary war-forged society, living under air attack for months at a stretch in conditions that might have demoralised a scorpion? Surviving famine; surviving combat; surviving pain or failing to survive it (three hours in a battered Toyota over boulders and dry river-beds from the frontline clinics to the rear base hospital, anaesthetic scarcer than food). All this, year on year, campaign after campaign. All with a view to emerging from their rubble redoubt to take charge of an independent Eritrea.
At the time, many observers felt that adversity was creating a socio-political miracle and that if Eritrea ever did become a nation state, it would be a model for Africa. But perhaps, after all, the centrepiece of the EPLF’s achievement was not the commendable social order it constructed around the business of war so much as the war itself: theirs was a superb fighting capability, sparing when necessary, audacious when the moment seemed right: the politics and culture that came with the struggle were, in this sense, peripherals.
It is an interesting question how much a liberation army can bear before it cracks or evolves into a Spartan culture, raising children for the struggle – and nothing but the struggle – exposing them to the barrenness of nature, the better to prepare them for the encounter with a human adversary. The Spartan analogy doesn’t quite hold for Eritrea but Wrong works it to great effect, and it’s used by Richard Reid in his contribution to Unfinished Business: the EPLF was ‘godless, rocky and Spartan’ is his gloss on a piece of exasperated Ethiopian graffiti accusing the Front of putting their faith in the ‘mountains’. And, one should add, in force of arms. No NGO fund-raiser for Eritrea would have wished to spell this out. It is hard to win financial support for a warrior project. Yet by the time European NGOs were openly campaigning for the Eritrean cause, the EPLF was one of the most battle-hardened armies in the world, and it had survived extraordinary reverses. Of these, one crushing blow, inflicted in 1978, smarted for years in the collective memory of the organisation.
It had taken the form of a devastating superpower reshuffle in the Horn and had come as the Ethiopians looked all but finished: at the time, the EPLF was in jubilant spirits preparing to enter Asmara. Mengistu had been to Moscow in the spring of 1977 and persuaded the Russians to back his regime. They did so in style: Wrong lists deliveries of up to two billion dollars’ worth of matériel, 1500 military advisers and ten battalions of Cubans as an earnest of Soviet support. The main task was a defensive campaign against Somalia, suddenly averse to Moscow, but it wasn’t long before this enormous army – by now one of the largest in Africa – wheeled about to tackle the Eritreans. As it advanced, Soviet gunboats lay off the coast and shelled the Eritrean fighters evacuating Massawa. The Eritreans called it a ‘strategic withdrawal’, but more than 25 years later one of them admitted to Wrong that ‘it was a complete defeat, a defining moment.’ The very prospect of independence seemed to have died with Moscow’s decision to underwrite Mengistu.
In the years that followed, the new Marxist-Leninist emperor relied increasingly on famine as a weapon against Eritrea and the neighbouring province of Tigray. But there were also formidable onslaughts, including ‘the multifaceted operation to solve the conflict in Eritrea’, of which the brightest facet was undoubtedly the Red Star campaign of 1982, intended to flatten all resistance and, if possible, level the mountains by detonation bombing. This, like the defeat in 1978, was withstood.
Thereafter, slowly but surely the balance of military power began to shift. Then, in 1988, the EPLF destroyed an Ethiopian mechanised division in a pass on the outskirts of a highland town called Afabet. It was the end of Mengistu’s ‘northern Eritrean command’ and the beginning of the end for Ethiopia. Wrong’s reconstruction of the battle is one of the best sections in her book.
From Afabet the fighters moved south to Massawa, where they were pitted against a seasoned commander who tried to put local Eritrean inhabitants in the way of the Front’s artillery: an astute move which would have fouled the EPLF’s welcome in the town. This was cleverly circumvented by a series of tactical gambles which left the EPLF in charge of the port and the hinterland, with relatively few civilian casualties. The triumphal entry into Asmara in 1991 was painless by comparison with the kinds of advance the Front had made until then. The Berlin Wall had come down and Shevardnadze had signalled the end of Soviet pretensions in Africa. Mengistu’s armies lay strewn here and there like the bones of a mastodon.
The final stages of the Eritrean campaign were helped by a series of anti-government offensives throughout Ethiopia proper, of which the most vigorous was waged by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. It was the Tigrayans who took power in Addis after Mengistu fled (the EPLF loaned them its captured Soviet tanks for the drive into the capital).
Tigray and Eritrea are adjacent and Tigrinya is a language common to highland Eritreans and Tigrayans. The two Fronts had fought the same enemy for many years and if their relationship had been decidedly troubled, it looked at the start of the 1990s as though the new arrangement would be workable. Eritrea gained formal independence in 1993 amid extraordinary optimism – Wrong calls it ‘Eritrea’s golden era’ – as the TPLF, fully functional behind a new acronym, brought an end to the long Amhara ascendancy in Ethiopia and settled in to the seats of power so briskly vacated by Mengistu and his people. (Mengistu’s ruling ‘committee’ was, like Haile Selassie’s court, predominantly Amhara.)
The word went out from the Clinton administration that this was a fresh start, part of an ‘African renaissance’, with two regimes building from scratch in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Uganda, too, was nervously approved by the remaining superpower and the parts of the ‘international community’ that mattered. A little later, post-genocide Rwanda, under Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was welcomed into the club.
The configuration of new regimes was, if anything, more like a Rift Valley axis and though it surely crossed the minds of foreign enthusiasts that they were all steeled in conflict and willing to give as good as they got – Kagame proved the point as the RPF pursued the Hutus into eastern Zaire after the genocide – there was a feeling that the end of the Cold War might lead to demilitarisation, or at least to a militarised imbalance, engineered by the US, which made hostilities less likely. The political space evacuated by nations under arms would be filled by generous, convivial market economies and for better or worse Washington would spearhead this utopian makeover with the alacrity it had shown after 1945, when Britain pulled back from its outposts of empire and the US moved in. The Clinton administration was keen on the idea and duly perplexed when it turned out to be at odds with reality.
In 1998, Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war again. Despite the abundance of causes, there was no intelligible reason. It came as a shock to Africa-watchers such as Wrong, professionals who allowed themselves the occasional parti pris – and there were dozens like her who admired the Eritrean struggle. In Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, Dan Connell, for years an ardent supporter, argues that the Eritrean leadership, having emerged into the sunlight and done the triumphal march through Asmara, shielding their eyes all the while, hastened back to their wartime ways ‘as if they were a band of bunkered guerrillas running a liberated zone, rather than officials governing a modern state’. The Marxism-Leninism of the Tigrayans had once been so abstruse that the Eritreans used to joke about them as ‘our Albanian comrades’, but the TPLF had risen to the occasion of government in Addis with more imagination than the EPLF had managed in Asmara. Both leaderships were alarmingly tetchy – the Eritreans especially. ‘Each time a dispute arose with one of its neighbours,’ Connell writes, ‘Eritrea rolled out the artillery – first against Sudan (1994), then Yemen (1995), Djibouti (1996), and finally Ethiopia (1998).’ The newly independent country quickly proved to be ‘a volatile warrior-state’. This is about right.
Ostensibly the war with Ethiopia was the result of a border dispute. It erupted in May 1998 over the village of Badme, claimed by the Eritreans and by Addis – or more precisely by the Tigrayan leadership in Addis. International mediation was in fact quite swift – by Washington especially, which could see its cherished African renaissance sliding back into a dark age. But a month of fighting had done irreversible damage to relations between Asmara and Addis. There was further fighting in 1999 and the following year a ceasefire, which was bolstered by a UN peacekeeping deployment. Before the conflict was adjourned, it had cost 80,000 lives, according to Wrong – 100,000 according to Martin Plaut, one of the editors of Unfinished Business. Neither leadership had seemed able or willing to stop it – and, as Wrong points out, it was conducted in the tradition of a family dispute between the TPLF and the EPLF, underpinned by ‘an almost pathological desire to keep the matter private’.
Every factor that hardened the resolve of the warring parties remains activated in the present stand-off. Economic tensions, carefully explained by David Styan in Unfinished Business, have continued to simmer, while old ideological grievances between the Tigrayan and Eritrean movements, exacerbated by the TPLF’s constitution for a post-Cold War Ethiopia, have given way to something like hatred. One of the intriguing differences is that the constitution envisages ethnic secessions: heresy to the Eritrean leadership over the border, which always regarded theirs as a proper, old-fashioned struggle based on the inviolability of colonial boundaries – if identity politics were to catch on in Eritrea, it could rip apart the nine ethnic groups they had worked so carefully to unite. No multiculturalism in Sparta.
In 2002, an independent boundary commission ruled that Badme, an undistinguished place with a few huts and (fatally perhaps) a flagpole, belongs to Eritrea. Though Addis agreed to abide by the commission’s findings, it has since changed its mind. The Eritreans, meanwhile, sensing a partisan compliance on the part of the outside world – something of an old feeling for them – have banned UN helicopter flights over the demilitarised zone and thrown out the European and American members of the UN mission quartered in Eritrean territory. The Security Council has called on Addis to accept the commission’s findings and on Asmara to stop obstructing the mission’s work. A Security Council resolution in May extended the mission until September but cut back on the number of personnel: a signal that it may wish to wind down the operation to a token presence.
The EPLF, now known as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, runs Eritrea with a rod of iron. The victor’s entente it reached with its rival, the ELF, in the early 1980s did not bring everyone into the fold even then. Now, Connell writes, there are at least 18 groups pitted against the ruling party and its leader, Isaias Afewerki, most of them remnants or splinters of the ELF. Of these, a majority are affiliated to two opposition blocs, both functioning mostly from exile. In addition, one or two ELF ultra groupings, plus some new blood, have coalesced into Eritrea Jihad, funded by Khartoum and, Connell believes, by bin Laden. There were about five hundred fighters in the 1990s by Connell’s estimate.
It’s unlikely that the regime’s repressive habits will have done the jihadists any disservice. During the liberation war their antecedents were dismayed that the EPLF allowed women to be educated or serve as doctors, teachers and fighters. Now, in a sanctimonious mirroring of the regime’s draconian style, they mean to close down the few freedoms left to this damaged people, whose options are increasingly stark.
The Eritrean revolution and the jumbled mythos which Keneally proposed for it (the heroism of Antiquity, the luminous goodness of the Christian saints) have come to nothing. The ‘golden era’ was quickly tarnished; old habits died hard; hard men refused to die; self-reliance, the Eritrean watchword, mutated into a grotesque form. The brief opening for reconstruction and civility was lost. Argument, bitterness, reprisals, the bristling retreat to the moral high ground, the absolutism of the mountains, where everything had once seemed possible: this has been Eritrea’s tragic undoing.
Where the blame lies is difficult to say. This much is obvious from Alex de Waal’s definitive essay at the core of Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (2004). If the Eritreans came briefly to see themselves as masters of their own destiny, they remained prey to upheavals in the region. Sudan, an erstwhile ally of the EPLF, and a dependable one, has been a worryingly unstable and destabilising neighbour. One thread, followed by de Waal, vividly illustrates the difficulty. In 1989 Mengistu, a quid pro quo supporter of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, threatened to propel the southern rebels to victory unless the new regime in Khartoum, recently installed by a coup, cut off its support for the Eritrean struggle. Access to eastern Sudan – to the fuel provided by Khartoum and the aid by NGOs with offices in Khartoum – was critical for the EPLF as the war drew on. Sensing that the threat was not idle, Isaias sent an elite Eritrean force to the rescue of the regime. After a crisp intervention which neutralised the SPLA offensive, the same elite force shuttled back to the coast to take part in the capture of Massawa.
Khartoum, whose leadership consisted of ‘realist’ military and ambitious Islamists, was delighted with the result and with the subsequent fall of Mengistu. Both factions were convinced by this taste of ‘vicarious victory’, as de Waal calls it, that Sudan had a future as a regional heavyweight. The snag, for Sudan’s neighbours, was that Khartoum chose to lead with Islamism and to do so aggressively: Hassan al-Turabi and his coterie in the capital rightly believed that their revolution stood to thrive by going into expansionist mode.
There have been many twists and turns as a result. One of them, in 1994, saw Isaias sending off fighters to train the SPLA and rallying a range of Sudanese opposition groups, as a riposte to Khartoum’s active interest in Eritrean Islamism. Another is that Isaias, though vexed by his own religious extremists, should approve – and by all accounts be arming – some elements of the Union of Islamic Courts under Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in Somalia. On the face of it, the ascendancy of the UIC could be an opportunity to undo the tangled rivalries in Somalia, but that is not Isaias’s reasoning: Islamism in Mogadishu is a more threatening phenomenon for Addis than it is for Asmara and, on these grounds alone, a tolerable state of affairs. Rather than all this regional politicking, de Waal believes, the EPLF should have done more after the liberation to head off discontent in the Western lowlands of Eritrea. The leaders of reconciled Muslim communities, he says, were invited into the provisional government but ‘quickly relegated to marginal positions’.
To chide Isaias and his people for the murderous absurdity of the border war with Ethiopia seems fair, though it may be inappropriate to scold them for their bad character, even if Plaut, O’Connell and Wrong regard this new conflict largely as the result of ingrained attitudes that failed to change in peacetime. It must be tempting to toss the recriminations around, especially to journalists who praised the Eritreans for their long and terrible struggle and who now feel let down. Michela Wrong is careful, even in her hour of dark disappointment.
Perhaps Eritrea’s well-wishers should have looked harder at the way the independence war was refracted through their eager susceptibilities, as they scanned the rubble and found encouraging signs of ‘civil society’ and sustainable development in a place where hundreds of thousands had died in combat and hundreds of thousands more of hunger and disease. In the bad old days – good old days as they’ve perversely come to seem – death was a constant presence, like a contour in the landscape. The dying were mostly Eritrean elderly and infants who hadn’t enough water or food. The dead were mostly Ethiopian conscripts in overrun positions. Until the famine of 1984-85, little was said about them. Many visitors who were struck by the Eritrean cause thought it better to stress the ‘positive’ aspects. The shades of Eritrea’s liberation are now doubly obscure. The majority died without much acknowledgment from the rest of the world and, in the light of recent events, it’s not clear what for.
There are few echoes any longer of Eritrea’s former triumphs in the way of boreholes, irrigation schemes, indigenous emergency relief, barefoot doctoring, literacy campaigns and the defence of women’s rights, magnificent achievements which sometimes obscured the central fact that the Eritreans were dedicated to victory by military means. Of that martial dedication – from the hard-won skirmish in open terrain to the martyr’s bomb on the café terrace – we must expect to hear more.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.