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Book Review. Eritrea at a Crossroads

Few State  are, at the same time, so relevant for the news media (or at least for some of it) and so difficult to cover as Eritrea. Despite having been for years one of the countries from which a great number of refugees try to reach the shores of Europe, no truly new and reliable information has filtered through its borders for a long time. Reports on the internal functioning of its regime are either the result of analyses made by experts which have been banned from entering the country, and can thus rely only on information coming from escapees and exiles, or of the regime propaganda itself.

book 2This lack of information alone should be a reason why a more than 650 pages-long book, authored by a notable and well-educated Eritrean who can provide firsthand account of the transformation witnessed by the East African State, should be thoroughly and attentively read. However, this is not the only reason why Eritrea at a crossroads, by Andebrhan Welde Giorgis can be regarded as a fundamental text for all those dealing with the elusive country. The author, in fact, can be considered one of the best possible observers overall when coming to both Eritrean internal policy and foreign relations. After playing a role in the liberation struggle against Ethiopia, he served in several key positions under the new Eritrean government: central bank chief, chancellor of the University of Asmara and finally ambassador to the European Union. In addition to this, the experienced politician has also been part from its foundation until 2006 (when he defected), of the central committee of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which spearheaded the struggle against Ethiopia and eventually became the ruling party after independence, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.

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Despite ranging from the pre-colonial (and too often ignored) situation to the present time, Welde Giorgis’s work is more than a mere history of Eritrea, precisely because some key issues are addressed drawing extensively from the author’s own experience. In addition to the usual sources of a standard historian (newspaper articles, academic essays, reports and other documents) the exiled ambassador can also make reference to his talks with many Western and African diplomats and personalities: among them is the president of Eritrea himself, Isaias Afewerki (even if seems unlikely that the notorious ruler will ever confirm any of the quotes attributed to him by his former aide). Given the profile of the author, it is also understandable that from time to time, the book shifts away from being a mere chronicle of facts and events, turning into an analytic work.
This is most notably seen in the second half of the book (which, in all, is made up of 18 chapters). In it some parts they seem to have been conceived and written as essays which do not necessarily follow the chronological order of events or are even completely set apart from it. The latter is, for instance, the case of chapter 11 (The African state in crisis), which reviews some contributes on the nature of the African post-colonial State in order to analyze the Eritrean case, and of Chapter 13 (Engaging the Diaspora). Other ‘stand-alone’ parts are those dealing with the author’s personal political experience, the Ethiopian-Eritrean war which marked a major turning point in the history of the country and Wolde Giorgis’s own proposal for the democratic future of Eritrea.

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Part history book, part essay, part autobiography, Eritrea at a crossroad manages nevertheless to maintain a thematic unity. The core of it is best expressed in the subtitle “a narrative of triumph, betrayal and hope”, a series of events on the causes of which the former ambassador has some very clear ideas. In his vision, since the end of World War II Eritrea seems to have suffered from two evils, one external (the political manoeuvering by foreign powers aimed to split the former Italian colony or deprive it of independence) and one internal. This, in the author’s own words is described as “a political culture of extreme intolerance of pluralism that disparages independent thought, criminalizes divergent opinion and equates dissent with treason and treachery in post – independence Eritrea”.  The blame for this state of things is placed on the narrow groups of militants that managed to acquire control of the liberation movement in the 1970s: the inner circle of the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party. The unquestioning obedience it required and widespread control it exercised on militants are features that can easily be recognized also in the Afewerki regime as it is described by virtually all the escapees who manage to reach Europe. Despite pointing his finger towards very specific people (and notably the president himself) Andebrhan Wolde Giorgis, however, manages to keep his criticism on the political plan, never resorting to personal attacks on his former chief.
The style of the book, so, is another of the reasons which make it certainly worth a read and in some way unique. The author’s particular point of view (specifically, the fact that he once was part of the same structure of power he now criticizes) has obviously to be taken into account, but, in the end, it also proves to be a tool for the reader to obtain valuable information on one of the most secretive political systems in the entire world. (C.O.)

Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, Eritrea at a crossroads. A narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope, Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co., pp.661.

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