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The fall of an African promised land

By John Ryle, The Financial Times

Jan 26, 2005 — In 1995, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Movement celebrated its 20th anniversary in Mekelle, in northern Ethiopia, near the border with Eritrea. There were two guests of honour: Meles Zenawi, long-time leader of the TPLF, elected president of Ethiopia after the defeat of the Derg regime in 1992; and Isaias Afewerke, leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, president of the newly independent state of Eritrea, formerly an Ethiopian province. The two guerrilla movements had fought together to defeat the Derg, then – unprecedentedly – agreed to an amicable secession. In western diplomatic circles, Meles and Isaias were being touted as a new breed of African statesman. That evening on the outskirts of Mekelle, I watched as Meles, Isaias and other guests, serenaded by Mahmud Ahmed, a veteran Ethiopian pop star, danced together in the moonlight.

The scene is unlikely to be repeated on the TPLF’s 30th anniversary this year. Africa’s velvet divorce took only a few years to unravel. In 1998, the Eritrean army moved into a border area administered by Ethiopia. Ethiopia retaliated by bombing the Eritrean capital, Asmara, a jewel of Italian- inspired modernist architecture. The Eritrean air force bombed Mekelle. And Ethiopia reduced sections of the Red Sea port of Massawa to rubble. The conflict, as Michela Wrong explains, has been economically ruinous for both countries: Eritrea depends on Ethiopia for trade, while Ethiopia is landlocked without access to the Red Sea. A United Nations monitoring force has kept the peace since 2001 but the stand-off is not over. Meanwhile the political situation within Eritrea has worsened. Isaias Afewerke, the physically imposing, hard-drinking president and former guerrilla leader, has arrested dozens of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms and closed down the independent press. It seems that Eritrea, once an African Catalonia, a promised land for a generation of anti-colonial solidarity movements, is turning into a basket-case..

In I Didn’t Do It For You, Wrong takes us into the history of this remote, arduous region, where a succession of African and European powers have claimed sovereignty. “It’s hard to think of another African country,” she writes, “that was interfered with by foreign powers quite so thoroughly and so disastrously.” Eritrea is itself the creation of colonialism: the Italian invasion in 1886 gave it a single name, from the Latin for the Red Sea. Italy also transformed communications in its new colony with a railway from Massawa to Asmara, a marvel of engineering that ascends 7,000 feet. But Mussolini’s decision to invade Ethiopia in 1935 undid any good work by the Italians. Tens of thousands of Eritrean soldiers – forefathers of the EPLF guerrilla fighters – were cannon fodder in a campaign to link Eritrea with the Italian colony of Somalia, creating a new Roman empire in Africa. In 1942, British imperial forces destroyed the Duce’s vision with a giant pincer movement from Kenya and Sudan. The campaign culminated in a contest for the heights of Keren on the Eritrean plateau, as unrelenting a battle as Monte Cassino, described here with exemplary vividness.

The British administration that followed misappropriated, by Wrong’s reckoning, a large part of Eritrea’s industrial capacity, shipping it off for the war effort elsewhere. Then, with Haile Selassie restored to the throne, the country was handed back to Ethiopia. The insurgency against his rule continued after the Derg deposed him in 1974. At this point, the Soviet Union entered, choking the region with Warsaw Pact weaponry. The war ended only with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Derg’s defeat in 1992.

Wrong’s earlier book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz,described the interplay of home-grown tyranny and western greed in the Congo. This book is likewise strong on the grotesque aspects of the foreign presence in the Horn of Africa. She also pays tribute to the heroic quality of the Eritrean resistance – the ascetism of EPLF cadres, with their afro hairdos and sandals, an image of struggle so beguiling to western visitors. She could have said more, perhaps, about the ethnic and religious composition of the Eritrean polity. The country is neither culturally nor linguistically uniform. It is dominated, like Ethiopia, by Christian highlanders, but half the population is Muslim. And Eritrea’s strategic position on the Red Sea means that, in the age of global terrorism, there is little chance of respite from outside interference. Ethiopia and Eritrea are both big clients for US humanitarian aid and military assistance. Even so, US diplomats have been unable to reconcile the two countries. This book should be on their reading list.

The writer chairs the Rift Valley Institute, a research organisation working in Eastern Africa

– How the World Betrayed A Small African nation
– By Michela Wrong Fourth Estate, £16.99

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