What Wrong got Right
Re-reading “I didn’t do it for you” by Michaela Wrong

Dear readers, please note that while I compiled the quotations below in order to show that the whole book was not only about the effect of foreign nations, and intervention, but that buried inside the book are hints, explanations, insights about Eritreans that one may miss due to the title and the main focus of the book.  I felt that concentrating she did on the effects of outside powers, she also took a good look at the local style, stories, effects, and innuendos, and those seem to be overwhelmed by the main story.

I do not think it is acceptable to quote so liberally; so this is by no means a review, just an outpour on what should not be forgotten when reading the book.

A Statue of Shoes

„Eritrea’s a great place, if you have a penchant for tragedy,’ a British doctor on loan to one of the government’s ministries quipped.” Page 11 Michaela’s words are left to speak for themselves.

"A curious monument taking shape on one of Asmara’s main roundabouts captured these values. Celebrating its victory, any other new government would have ordered a statue: of its leader, a tableau of freedom fighters depicted in glorious action, or a symbolic flaming torch. The Eritreans chose instead an outsize black metal sandal, a giant version of the plastic shidda worn by hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who could afford neither leather nor polish. Ridiculously cheap, washable, long-lasting, the Kongo sandal – as it was known – was the poor man’s boot, perfect symbol for an egalitarian movement.
It must be the world’s only public monument to an item of footwear. P. 19

"Far from learning from the continent’s mistakes, Eritrea had turned into the stalest, most predictable of African clichés. “ P. 21

"The colony was divided up into nine provinces, each with its own capital, and Martini established the building blocks of a modern society: an independent judiciary, a telegraph system and departments of finance, health, and education. “  P. 61

“…………. British officials who wrote histories of this period would later congratulate themselves for liberating Eritreans, of this period opening up secondary education, allowing political parties and trade unions and encouraging the birth of a free press. But there was always a pinched, parsimonious quality to their relationship with the inherited colony. The Italians rolled up their sleeves and set to work, falling in love with the country, its golden prospects and – despite all the strictures against inter-racial contact – its women. The British aware they would not be staying long, content to leave day-to-day administrations in the hands of Italian intermediaries, kept themselves to themselves…………………….“ P. 101

“…………………The public responded to this steady whittling away of freedoms with petitions, demonstrations and general strikes. But Ethiopia now had 3,000 troops stationed in the territory, and they did not hesitate to use live ammunition on the crowds. „ „Under the Italians you could eat but you could not speak, “Eritreans muttered amongst themselves. „Under the British you could speak but not eat. Under the Ethiopians, you can neither speak nor eat.”

"Dying on the vine“ at the Emperor’s hands

"Eritrea is dying on the vine “it would seem, at least to the uninitiated, a valid description of the local situation, “ reported Mathew Loram, the US consul to Asmara in a 1959 telegram back to Washington. „The Government, which in effect acts as a Quisling instrument to the Emperor, is neither trusted nor respected by the people.“ Half admiring, half appalled, he added: Machiavelli could well have taken a leaf out of the Ethiopians’ book, for it seems to me they have used extremely astute tactics to date in their gradual takeover of Eritrea.’ P.180

"The day of mourning“
………Ethiopian troops had staged a show of force in Asmara’s city centre, chanting ‚ a bullet for anyone who refuses” P.182

“The Derg’s ruthless elimination of General Aman Andom served as a massive recruiting drive for the Eritrean rebel movement. …..fresh recruits were heading to the two movements who had splintered into two.”

“The Green, Green Grass of Home”
P. 297 – 310

“Looking back ex-fighters remember this (beginning of the 1970s), as a period of extreme happiness, the unthinking happiness of the young. But it was also a time of tragedy and heartbreak. When the war swung against them, the comradeship that had developed in the trenches made the pain of bereavement unbearable. A readiness to make the supreme sacrifice tipped easily into a love affair with death, an impatience to get the whole tricky thing that constitutes this, sour human existence, over and done with………………….As each Fighter saw siblings, lovers and friends ‘martyred’ around him, an invisible scar tissue formed…………..(re love)… “I just do not know what they mean,” an ex-Fighter once confessed. “I don’t hate people, obviously. I do an awful lot to help those around me, but I feel nothing. I think it started in the 1970s, when so many people I cared for died. I probably need a psychiatrist,” he said with a laugh, “but here in Eritrea we don’t do that.”

. ….”Eritreans became experts in keeping themselves worthily busy. ..Former farmers attended literacy classes given by their educated comrades and studies the great political thinkers, looking for lessons that could explain their predicament and reveal the future. ..No allowances were made for circumstances. ….needed water, (they) formed a human chained and with backs pressed against the cliff face, passed the laden jerry cans carefully from one shoulder to another shoulder. , ..yet the unit did not skip its three hours of morning study.

“Peopled by such driven citizens, Nakfa represented Eritrea at its best. But as I spoke to ex-Fighters, I began to wonder if it had also contained the seeds of Eritrea at its worst.” P.306

Knowing all the answers P.306-307

“What appears to the individual as admirable clarity of thought can seem to the outsider dangerous simplification, a vision stripped of the messy contradictions that mean a situation is rarely as straightforward as it first appears. Isolation allowed the Fighters to hone a steely resolve that enabled them to achieve the seemingly impossible. But if the hermit’s life shields you from temptation, it can also stunt your intellectual growth.  Rejecting capitalism, with all its vices, came easily to those who had never been exposed to its virtues. …………………….. Insulated from Africa’s contemporary reality, it was easy for the Eritreans to make the mistake of assuming they knew all the answers. The awareness of how poorly the colonialists and superpowers had behaved, the bitterness of seeing their natural ally opt for Ethiopia, the knowledge of the continent’s casual indifference: it all encouraged the belief that the Movement had nothing to learn from its critics, whether black or white. Like every rejected minority before it, the EPLF convinced itself its very solitude was proof of moral superiority. “We were certain” was more than just the name of a punishingly steep mountainside, it was the Movement’s unstated leitmotif. A leitmotif that hardened like rock during the Nakfa years. “

“At what point does such purity of purpose cross the line into oppressive authoritarianism? Even those who today pine for a lost golden age acknowledge that
individualism was not a quality valued by the EPLF. This was a military organization, after all, and true democracy, with its tolerance of mavericks and loudmouths, is not suited to waging war. At daily meetings, Fighters would publicly pick over each other’s revolutionary failings, “self-criticism”” was strongly encouraged. ‘There were spies in the Movement who would befriend you, listen to your ideas, pretend to sympathize with your complaints and then, during a meeting, denounce you as “petit-bourgeois” or accuse you of being a “regionalist”, ‘ remembers an ex-Fighter. ‘People who had taken degrees were made to apologize to the peasantry for their education and privileges.’ Such obligatory abnegation fitted in well with the Eritrean national character, the tendency developed through decades of colonial occupation, to sit in impenetrable silence, accept authority – at least on the surface – and keep one’s thoughts to oneself.’

……………..’A lot of people thought it was bullshit. The EPLF had been set up by “petit-bourgeois” people, after all, most of the leaders had been students at Addis Ababa University. But we were taught that the whole world would soon become socialist, so it was up to you to adapt. You learnt to say the right things, keep a low profile and play the game. I went along with it, because I had joined to free my country, and this seemed a price worth paying. But there were some who couldn’t stand it, and they deliberately martyred themselves in battle.’”

Dreaming of a Utopia
P. 307 - 310

“This was the dark side of all the dogged determination, but it was a darkness visiting Westerners were reluctant to recognize. ‘At the time one was just swept away by the hard work and efficiency and self-sacrifice of it all. But looking back, you do wonder if there wasn’t something rather disturbing about a movement that exercised that level of control,’ says Trish Silkin, who visited the front as an anthropologist and aid worker in the 1970s. Dissent, especially dissent that crystallized into direct challenge to Isaias’ burgeoning control, was ruthlessly smothered. Even today, ex-Fighters close down whenever the question arises of what happened to the ring-leaders of these internal challenges
, made to ‘disappear’ with typical Eritrean quietness.

“Yet perhaps Nakfa’s most dangerous legacy was not the EPLF’s indomitable self-belief, its profound distrust of outsiders or its iron control, but the impossibly high expectations raised in a generation of Eritreans.“

“During their lessons in the trenches, EPLF ideologues conjured up a vision of Free Eritrea, a prosperous land in which farmers tilled fertile fields, fishermen trawled teeming waters and industrialists tapped long-neglected deposits of gold, potash – even perhaps oil. If Eritrea was barren and denuded, they taught the classes, it was only because its forests had been systematically stripped by first Italian developers and then the marauding Ethiopian army. Independent Eritrea would blossom anew. Sapling would be planted, rivers dammed, terraces built. Gazing across what resembled the surface of an asteroid, the Fighters dreamt, like the dying Falstaff of lush pastures and green bowers, where knobbly trees of uncertain age cast their cool shade. It was a landscape, they came to believe, that had been stolen from them – just like everything else.”……………….

“registered the Utopian quality of that vision one day in a library in Rome. …………………photographs of late 19
th century Eritrea”..before the Italians before the Ethiopians, …”it was clear, had already been a dry scrubland of punishing harshness. The realization came as a “shock to me” says Michaela. “How much more of shock would it to prove to the thousands of Fighters who risked their lives fighting for a land of lost content, a country that had, it seemed, existed largely in their imaginations?”

“The Red Negus” Mengistu Hailemariam

“Mengistu’s ruthlessness was built on profound insecurity. ...had grown up nursing a clutch of inferiority complexes, grievances too deep to be assuaged. He was, “as consicious of his ethnic origins as he was of his height. The ruling elite the Derg had removed ... in private they called him bariaw (‘the slave’). ... but he never stopped minding. A psychologist would have had no difficulty interpreting the bloodletting that accompanied his ascension, the appropriation of land and property and the toppling of a royal dynasty, as a bitter man’s revenge on a class that had consistently snubbed him. Humble roots and a massive chip on the shoulder were characteristics Mengistu shared with another socialist leader, ...’similarities between Mengistu and Stalin, …also came from a minority and felt an outsider,’ With time, the ominous parallel was to prove more accurate than any had foreseen.”

" ... 10 years ... Officially power shifted from the Derg’s military committee to the new civilian body. In practice, the party’s leadership was made up of prominent Derg members and, just as in imperial days, all real decisions were made by one man: if the names have changed, the song remained the same. By then Mengistu, whose habit of driving past the hovels of Addis in an open-topped red Cadillac was commented on disapprovingly by the Communist Party Izvestiya, had already cultivated an oppressive personality cult ... the foibles of dictatorship ... seemed to leave Mengistu unmoved. Power was his aphrodisiac. .. A rumour spread that he was the illegitimate son of Haile Selassie’s brother – royal after all. ….Mengistu quickly developed military appetites so vast even the most extravagant superpower could never hope to meet them….that the Eritrean war might ‘continue for generations’, he allowed negotiations to peter out.

... However, “the Soviet Union was not longer the unquestioning, eager partner Mengistu had first dealt with in 1977,…Then in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came into power. ’It is immoral to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of homicide when millions starve and are devoid of everyday necessities,’ he declared. ‘” P. 324

“Mengistu was cast in a new and uncomfortable role….at the end, “what Mengistu could not understand, was that the reasons for the Derg’s military discomfiture had nothing to do with a lack of weaponry, and everything to do with the loss of morale, fifth column activity and his own chronic mismanagement. …that the weapons that matter most never come off a factory conveyor belt. They are to be found inside the convoluted whorls of the human brain: a sense of destiny, a momentary forgetfulness of individual existence, the belief of a cause is worth dying for.

... Mengistu had boarded a flight to southern Ethiopia, where he was scheduled to inspect a batch of army recruits. Once the plane took off, he entered the cockpit and ordered the pilot to change course to Nairobi. He was bound to Zimbabwe…”

The Missed Golden times 1991 – 1998 P.360-361

“But in their heart of hearts, every Eritrean (especially those who sympathized with the EPLF, those who had to accept that independence has been achieved and even some from the ELF) in those heady days believed he had been given a chance to do just that: to create the perfect state. The years elapsed between 1991 and 1998 – although a few appreciated it at the time – were to be Eritrea’s Golden era, when everything seemed possible. In April 1993, the referendum Eritrea had waited so long to see was staged. Only a people raised in the knowledge of the UN’s shameful record on Eritrea could appreciate the symbolic significance of the fact…..As Eritrean academics began drafting a multiparty constitution and the EPLF dissolved itself to form a new political movement – the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) – construction started. ….the Diaspora was coming home, bringing its savings and its aspirations. Peasants from the dusty refugee camps of Sudan, oil engineers from Texas, dentists from Scandinavia, labourers from Saudi Arabia: they all needed affordable housing, schools for their children, hospitals for their sick. Asmara’s creaking Italian factories were crying out for modernization and its demobilized Fighters – men and women who knew only the skills of war – were desperate for work. The task facing the EPLF was daunting.  But with the population solidly behind it, the international community falling over itself to make up for past mistakes and a friendly government across the border, what could go wrong?”

“A Village of No Interest” (Badme) P. 357

“In May 1998, the halcyon (calm) days came to an abrupt end. The national character traits forged during a century of colonial and superpower exploitation were about to blow up in Eritrea’s face. Curiously, the spot where Eritrea tragically fumbled its recovery could not have been more nondescript. “

... ”Whatever caused the clash, which escalated with terrifying speed, there was a fundamental difference between this conflict and the one that preceded it. ..The war against the Woyane, the Eritreans called it, the war against Shabia, the Ethiopians said, pronouncing terms which had once been semi-affectionate with startling venom. This was a family quarrel, with all the vindictiveness that implied. And, as with all domestic disputes, the parties to the quarrel showed an almost pathological desire to keep the matter private……

“The quietism of the Highlands carried the day.”

The Briefest of Prague Springs P. 375-383

“Former EPLF cadres would one day have to explain why they failed to rein in Isaias when the first signs of authoritarianism made themselves manifest, why they did so little, during the 1998-2000 war, to voice their unease. ..

(Once the war stopped),  a group ….as the Berlin Manifesto, calling for the constitution to be implemented and democratic government restored. In May 2001, wrote to the President, ….pressed on, publishing their concerns about the slide to a one man rule,…. Asmara’s cafes were abuzz; student leaders, dismissed ministers, even the Chief Justice spoke out, and Eritrea’s new private press gleefully printed it all. Taciturn Eritrea had never known such openness .”

It was to be the briefest of Prague Springs.

“The Eritrea I visit these days is not the country I knew. “Eritrea has become one big land prison,’ a former Red Flower told…Eritreans are in flight again – not from the Derg, but from their own government. With foreign friends gratuitously alienated, its youth in military training and business interest at rock bottom, Asmara seems stuck in one long Sunday afternoon. ….Then he (the taxi driver) pronounced the words that I had heard said about the Belgians in Congo,  Portuguese in Angola and British in Zambia, but never dreamed I would hear in Eritrea – all the more heart rending for being said with such quiet resignation. ‘Things were better under the Italians.’

“Shattered dreams …” P. 384-390

‘When dreams are shattered, they itch like scabies on the buttocks’ Eritrean proverb.

“The country I once liked to think of as Shangri La has become an unhappy land, but it also a far more interesting, nuanced place. Once, talking to Eritreans, I had the impression of speaking to a many-headed monster, each of whose mouths chanted the same refrain. Now the Hydra’s heads often speak in whispers, but they wear different expressions and none of the opinions they voice is the same. Some believe the government is wrong, but now is not the time to press the point. Some regard Isaias as misunderstood national saviour, some loathe him as the Great Betrayer. Eritreans are becoming rounded individuals, their community a more complex, conflicted society. That is no bad thing.”

“Yet Eritrea’s story highlights the dangers inherent in that intoxicating , beguiling thing:  a sense of purpose…..The last few, chastening years have brought Eritreans earthwards with a vengeance, and even those in government recognize an element of hubris.” ‘It’s good to be normal,’ ruefully acknowledges a government minister in Asmara. Humility seems unlikely, but Eritreans no longer take it for granted that they are a breed apart, no longer assume they know the answers to Africa’s problems. As their present becomes murkier, they are losing the black-and-white certainties of the past.”

... ”The image of a Utopia built up in Fighters’ minds has evaporated like the morning mist. Yet I can’t write it off as just another numbing Third World disappointment. “

“If the curse of so many African states has been low expectations, passed from one generation to another like a genetic disease, a generation of Eritreans stands immune. The EPLF spent decades teaching its followers that every man and woman, Moslem and Christian, peasant and urban dweller, was equally valuable. It set up popularly-elected assemblies in the villages, it championed women’s organizations, it relentlessly trumpeted the merits of grassroots democracy...” That work cannot now be easily undone. Aspirations were created, and the fact that they have been frustrated will not pass unnoticed.

The notion of accountability has seeped into a people’s psychology, as impossible to uproot as the dream of shady groves and green pastures ex-Fighters regard as the real (italics Michael’s) Eritrea. “

The bumptiousness of youngsters, like the unforgiving self-examination of older men ...  is a great source of hope….. Surveying Eritrea’s future, I feel nothing like the bleak despair that descends when I try to guess whether Congo will survive as a nation-state, or Sierra Leone’s democracy will last the year. Eritreans have already achieved too much, against many odds, for the country to fail.”

P.384 - 390

(The book was first published in 2005)