Review of I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, by Michela Wrong
National identity is always woven out of many different strands: ethnicity, language, religion, geography, culture, economy and history. An outsider struggling to convey the essence of another nation’s character may be tempted to simplify—a temptation to which the British journalist Michela Wrong succumbs in her new book. I Didn’t Do It for You portrays the east African state of Eritrea as a product of but one strand of its national tapestry: its history.
Eritrea’s history, she writes, is a story “about betrayal, repeated across the generations, and how the expectation of betrayal can both create an extraordinary inner strength and distort a national psyche.” Wrong’s book provides a rare and convincing review of the policies and motives of Eritrea’s colonial masters, but the history she recounts is less satisfying as an explanation of Eritrea’s character and post-independence policies.
I Didn’t Do It for You offers a highly readable, well-researched depiction of the region’s serial exploitation by a parade of foreign predators. Italy ruled with “apartheid” brutality from the 1870s up until World War II (when it lost its east African colonies to the Allies), committed “mass killings” in Eritrea and resorted to “widespread use of mustard gas” against Ethiopian civilians; Britain, reluctant inheritor of Italy’s surrendered colony after 1941, dismantled Eritrea’s Italian-made infrastructure and shipped much of it to Her Majesty’s more prized and longer held African outposts, such as Egypt, Sudan and Kenya. After 1952, the United Nations failed, as trustee of Eritrea’s autonomy, to stop its annexation by Ethiopia in 1962 or even to respond to Eritrean diplomats’ protests. Years later, Wrong discovered, the United Nations lost all documents related to this sorry chapter in its history, having “expunged [Eritrea] from the record.” Thus the world abandoned Eritrea to decades of Ethiopian repression—facilitated by massive foreign military aid, first from the United States and Israel, later from the Soviet Union after the Marxist Derg regime shifted Cold War loyalties in 1976. Finally, Eritrea, the underdog nation, gained its independence from Ethiopia by referendum in 1993, after three decades of rebellion.
Wrong excels as a storyteller, providing evocative descriptions of Eritrea’s dramatic topography and gripping dollops of military history, especially the dramatic British defeat of Italy’s best Alpine forces at Keren in 1941. She paints fascinating personal portraits, including those of the grandiose Italian governor Ferdinando Martini and the British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, a relentless critic of her own government. The stories of Eritrean fighters such as double agent Melles Seyoum (who stole valuable medical supplies from his Ethiopian employer), a bicycle-mounted hit man known as Asmerom and John Berakis (the famous field-hospital chef who studied European hoteliers’ books and served great battlefield chow to thousands at a time, making the most of limited ingredients) offer enthralling insights into the liberation struggle.
But Wrong takes her storytelling off on a bizarre tangent when recounting the perversions of “the Gross Guys,” a band of Americans based at Kagnew Station in Eritrea, a massive Cold War listening post from 1953 through 1977. Her chapter—whose title cannot be printed in a family newspaper—delves in lurid and gratuitous detail into the drunken sexual exploits of these servicemen. Indeed, this chapter seems misplaced—however accurate its depiction of some Americans’ lewd behavior may be.
Wrong’s greatest failure is her portrayal of Eritrea’s colonial past as an excuse for its troubled present: “If Eritrea today so often comes across as dangerously impervious to criticism and bafflingly quick to anger, she is largely that way because colonial masters and superpowers made her so.” This conclusion diverges sharply from the premise of her fine first book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz , in which Wrong rightly blamed the late Mobutu Sese Seko for many of the crises of post-independence Zaire (now Congo).
But for Wrong and the many “well-intentioned Westerners” whom she calls “True Believers,” Eritrea, which defied the odds to expel Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1991, held a unique promise born of its peoples’ perseverance, self-reliance and inventiveness. True Believers saw in Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his Ethiopian counterpart Meles Zenawi the full potential of the much-touted African Renaissance of the 1990s. They were committed leaders, frugal and scrappy—the antithesis of the rapacious, corrupt African big men like Mobutu or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
But five years after independence, “the national character traits forged during a century of colonial and superpower exploitation were about to blow up in Eritrea’s face.” Ethiopia and Eritrea, led by once-friendly leaders, had never bothered to demarcate their common border. In 1998, when a small skirmish occurred in the border region near the “nondescript,” “one hotel, two-bar village” of Badme, Eritrea launched a massive invasion of Ethiopian-held territory. Ethiopia escalated the brutal two-year war, which claimed an estimated 80,000 lives. True Believers and sympathetic policymakers (myself included) were shocked and disillusioned. In contrast to her detailed chronicles of colonial excesses, Wrong treats this recent history superficially. “Nations that believe they cannot lose slide into war more easily than states that suspect the contest will be close,” she unhelpfully notes.
After this conflict ended in 2000, many Eritreans began questioning their leader’s judgment and pressing for democratic reform. Isaias responded by closing independent media outlets and holding without charge the country’s most senior leaders (including government ministers) and countless others who dared question government policy.
Refusing to blame the Isaias regime for Eritrea’s plunge from international darling to Zimbabwe-style pariah oversimplifies matters and, ultimately, condescends to the Eritrean people. Though Wrong writes that Eritreans “are losing the black-and-white certainties of the past,” she ends her book by reprising the image of Eritrea as a youthful victim. Wrong approvingly quotes a former fighter and kidnapper: “We are like a child, going for the first time to . . . kindergarten. At the start, his mother has to stay with him. The West must stay with us now. It has to be patient. . . . Instead of slapping our government and saying: ‘You did a stupid thing,’ it should be saying: ‘He will learn.’ “
Indeed, we should all learn. Eritrea’s tragic history teaches that it should not be underestimated by foreign powers or treated with condescension or pity. Nor should Western governments condone or dismiss Eritrea’s post-independence failings as mere growing pains, as Wrong suggests. The Eritrean people have earned too much respect for that.