Cry freedom

I Didn't Do It For You: how the world betrayed a small African nation

Michela Wrong <em>Fourth Est

This is a wonderful, readable and illuminating book. It tells the story of Eritrea, from Benito Mussolini's dreams of establishing a new Roman empire to the aftermath of the 30-year struggle for independence. The courage and endurance of the Eritrean people is heartbreaking. Their story is a microcosm of the harm that colonial intervention, and then the destructive games of the cold war, have done to the continent of Africa.

Michela Wrong is an enormously talented writer. Her previous book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, managed to explain the complexity of Congolese history and the awfulness of Mobutu Sese Seko's regime, yet at the same time displayed affection for the Congo's people and an engagement with them, in a way that was neither patronising nor romantic. She brings this same sharp eye, enjoyment of people and admiration for their capacity to endure to the story of Eritrea's struggle for independence. Her account is journalistic rather than academic in style, but thoroughly researched and deeply engaging and honest.

As well as following the remarkable history of Eritrea over the past century, the book helps the reader comprehend why Africa is still the poorest and worst-governed continent. Although local actors played their part, it was outside interventions that caused the greatest damage. These were so powerful and destructive during both the colonial and cold war eras that economic development was impossible.

The book is also a very enjoyable read. Wrong tells the fascinating and neglected story of how Sylvia Pankhurst moved from victory in the battle for British women's suffrage to become a fierce defender of Ethiopia against Mussolini's intervention, and then a close friend of the Emperor Haile Selassie and his family. Pankhurst's son and only child has lived most of his life in Ethiopia, and is to this day one of that country's foremost historians.

There is a chapter on the memories of US soldiers who were based in Eritrea (the geography of the highlands made Eritrea one of the most valuable cold war listening posts), and Wrong tells these stories of the behaviour of the US forces in all their gross repugnance. Such passages forced me to wonder whether soldiers far from home have always behaved in these ways, or whether there is something distinctively decadent about our civilisation.

Then, as the Americans tired of Ethiopian demands for equipment and support to fight an endless war against Eritrean secession, Mengistu Haile Mariam replaced the emperor and the Soviets took over the job of supplying weapons. It was Ethiopian resistance to the cruelties of Mengistu that brought the present government to power, and at last delivered independence to the people of Eritrea in 1993.

After all this suffering and glory, however, Eritrea's revolution ended up, like so many others, consuming itself. In 1998, a boundary dispute with Ethiopia led to a costly and unnecessary war. In the crisis that followed, President Isaias Afewerki, a brave and non-corrupt leader, ended up arresting friends alongside whom he had fought for independence across three decades - ending all possibility of freedom of speech. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea were left struggling to overcome desperate levels of poverty and repeated famine.

As the UK takes up the chairmanship of the G8 and the Commission for Africa offers renewed hope, this touching and compelling book explains how we got to where we are. It helps us to understand that it will take more than one year to correct the ravages of history, and that it is indomitable courage and persistence of the sort displayed in Eritrea's fight for independence that must lead the way to a better future for the African continent.

Clare Short is MP for Birmingham Ladywood

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Coronation, Texas-style