Fourth Estate, £16.99/£15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

I Didn't Do It For You, by Michela Wrong

Hope and heartbreak of a fledgling state

When a gang of boys stole my wallet in Asmara while I was covering Eritrea's independence referendum, it made the national news. Residents were appalled that such a crime had taken place in the capital of their spanking new nation and assured me that thefts were rare. Such was the pride and idealism in Africa's youngest state.

When a gang of boys stole my wallet in Asmara while I was covering Eritrea's independence referendum, it made the national news. Residents were appalled that such a crime had taken place in the capital of their spanking new nation and assured me that thefts were rare. Such was the pride and idealism in Africa's youngest state.

But by 1998, the unthinkable had happened. Eritreans who had spent 30 years fighting for independence from Ethiopia were once again in combat. When it ended after two years, more than 19,000 Eritreans had died fighting over a border with their neighbour, and the bloom was off the African rose. Western journalists such as Michela Wrong, who once regarded the fiercely independent state as a "Shangri-La", were forced to think again.

Wrong has now written a lyrical, intensely intelligent and wonderfully readable history of Eritrea, offering a cogent explanation for its seeming failures. She spent years interviewing fighters, politicians and foreign architects of their state, delving into long-forgotten documents that detail Britain's complicity in the country's plunder.

Although the Italian colonists' vision of transforming the sun-baked hills of Eritrea into a breadbasket for the homeland was far-fetched, they set a pattern for exploitation. When the British ousted Mussolini's forces in 1941, Eritrea was asset-stripped and its infrastructure sold off or farmed out to other British colonies. An ineffectual UN commission turned Eritrea into a Frankenstein state; both autonomous and ruled by Ethiopia.

This idea had US backing. During the Cold War, the US bowed to Haile Selassie's wishes to control Eritrea as his country's access to the Red Sea, and in return established an intelligence post in Asmara. While America safeguarded its place in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopian leaders locked up dissidents, massacred villagers and destroyed crops.

But the Eritreans fought back hard. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, funded largely by exiles, grew into an effective guerrilla army. "Looking back," writes Wrong, "ex-fighters remember this as a period of supreme happiness, the unthinking happiness of the very young. But it was also a time of tragedy and heartbreak."

Those years also forged a loyalty to EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki that, Wrong believes, turned into a cult of personality. The post-war vision of a democratic nation, proud of its independence and free from corruption, has yet to be realised. At the end of this beautifully written book, however, Wrong remains sanguine. "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," she writes. "Eritreans have already achieved too much, against too many odds, for the country to fail.'

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions