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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

"I Didn't Do It For You"

Michela Wrong

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To purchase I Didn't Do It For You

Title: "I Didn't Do It For You"
Author: Michela Wrong
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 400 pages
Availability: "I Didn't Do It For You" - US
"I Didn't Do It For You" - UK
"I Didn't Do It For You" - Canada
  • UK subtitle: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation
  • US subtitle: How the world betrayed a small African nation
  • With several maps and fiteen photographs

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating, disturbing story, well-presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A+ 20/1/2005 .
Foreign Affairs . 9-10/2005 N. Van De Walle
The Guardian A 5/2/2005 Justin Hill
The Independent . 28/1/2005 Julie Wheelwright
London Rev. of Books . 20/7/2006 Jenny Harding
The Nation . 13/6/2005 Andrew Rice
New Statesman A 17/1/2005 Clare Short
The NY Times . 26/7/2005 William Grimes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/8/2005 Stephanie Giry
The Spectator . 21/5/2005 James Astill
Sunday Telegraph A 9/1/2005 Robert Guest
TLS . 4/3/2005 Christopher Clapham
Wall Street Journal . 17/6/2005 Martin Hutchinson
The Washington Post . 21/8/2005 Susan E. Rice

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ms Wrong's second book, about the little known nation of Eritrea, is, if anything, better than her first. Her original research is more illuminating, her eye more observant, her writing far more wry and witty.(...) It also demonstrates, and this is where Ms Wrong's book shines most strongly, how history can help to forge a national character." - The Economist

  • "Wrong has written a penetrating history of Eritrea (.....) Wrong has an eye for the telling anecdote, and the book's many vignettes, rich characters, and empathetic writing make for excellent reading." - Nicolas Van De Walle, Foreign Affairs

  • "Despite the brutalisation and neglect, and despite the troubled times that have followed independence, Wrong offers an uplifting testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Eminently readable and full of fascinating detail, this is a book that deserves and needs to be read." - Justin Hill, The Guardian

  • "Wrong has now written a lyrical, intensely intelligent and wonderfully readable history of Eritrea, offering a cogent explanation for its seeming failures." - Julie Wheelwright, The Independent

  • "(A)n idiosyncratic, free-ranging history of Eritrea, from colonial times to the present, marvellously full of anecdote, archive and interview material. The book moves easily along, driven by Wrong’s relentless fascination with her subject" - Jenny Harding, London Review of Books

  • "It is an engaging read, and, as Wrong writes, it offers "a lasting cautionary tale" about how long-forgotten Great Power decisions -- an unfair treaty here, a deal with a dictator there -- can reverberate in unanticipated ways. (...) But in the end, as perceptive as she is, Wrong can't quite explain her story's final, cruelest and most intriguing twist: how Eritrea came to betray itself. (...) I shouldn't be so hard on I Didn't Do It for You. This is probably the best book that could be written about Eritrea, given its present state of repression." - Andrew Rice, The Nation

  • "This is a wonderful, readable and illuminating book. (...) The book is also a very enjoyable read." - Clare Short, New Statesman

  • "[An] engaging history of a forgotten country" - Stephanie Giry, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Miss Wrong must have known what little interest Eritrea held for the average European or American. This makes the book’s excellence, her fair and thorough rendering of such unknown characters and events, all the more admirable." - James Astill, The Spectator

  • "It is the details that make Wrong's account so gripping. (...) Wrong's writing flows so smoothly that it is only after 100 pages or so that you notice how much legwork she has put in." - Robert Guest, Sunday Telegraph

  • "So relentlessly outward-looking is Wrong, so keen is she to see Eritrea in terms of the evil done to it by others, that she commits precisely the error of which she often accuses Eritrea's conquerors, and (until very late in the day) leaves its people out of their own history. Presenting Eritrea's "betrayal" as a source of global guilt, she turns Eritreans into blank sheets of paper on which to decry imperialisms both European and African, and the cynical manipulations of Cold War international politics. It is as though "I Didn't Write It For You". Whole chapters go by without a single reference to Eritreans." - Christopher Clapham, Times Literary Supplement

  • "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." - Susan E. Rice, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Neither the title nor the subtitle(s) of Michela Wrong's "I Didn't Do It For You" give any clue what "small African nation" it might be about. It's not that surprising: plastering the name -- Eritrea -- anywhere across the cover likely wouldn't make for much of a jolt of recognition among potential book-buyers. Indeed, her foreword includes the inevitable anecdote of a fellow-traveller (encountered at the Cairo airport) who is baffled when she tries to explain her destination and admits: "I'm sorry. But I've simply never heard of the place."
       Seen for decades as part of Ethiopia, Eritrea has been an independent country for over a decade now, and, before World War II, was a separate Italian colony. Nevertheless, because of its rather sorry and violent history over the past decades, and the fact that the area of the world where it is situated -- bordering, besides Ethiopia, long-simmering Sudan (and Djibouti) and close to Somalia -- it hasn't attracted too much attention (beyond the occasional blood-spattered news report) Wrong's book -- an account of what's been done to Eritrea since the Italians first took over (in 1890) -- shows the place wasn't quite so insignificant. As a history lesson all the befell it is also instructive -- and deeply disturbing.
       Most of Eritrea sits like a small cone atop much larger Ethiopia, with which its history (and fate) is intertwined. Dwarfed -- far more so in terms of population (close to 20 to 1) than physical size -- by Ethiopia, its territory also includes a fairly narrow strip that runs between the Red Sea and Ethiopia, all the way down to Djibouti -- leaving Ethiopia a (frustrated) landlocked country. It is territory which the far bigger neighbour has always had an interest in (and, presumably, designs on). But the strategic coast hasn't been the only area of interest for outsiders.
       Wrong basically begins her account with the Italian colonial period. Eritrea was their first major land-grab in Africa (with Ethiopia only secured much later), and -- despite some outrages and the prevalent racist attitudes -- they apparently didn't do a half bad job of it. Expectations of making this a viable destination for Italian emigrants were unrealistic, but there was a great deal of investment in infrastructure -- with, as Wrong points out, Asmara still standing looking semi-proudly like "a giant monument to colonial folly". (Like Rangoon, Asmara is a city out of another time, without the modern construction boom that has despoiled most African capitals.)
       Once part of a larger Ethiopia and under fascism (and with war looming and priorities now elsewhere) things took a turn for the worse. Liberation by the British, who then took over administering the country, in World War II seems to have been far from a blessing: the British seem to have systematically dismantled much of the industrial base and sucked out all the Italian investments (including moving whole factories to colonies more firmly in British hand). After the war, the UN was called in to decide the fate of Eritrea -- whether it should be independent or in what sort of relation it should stand to Ethiopia. The result -- Eritrea as part of a federation with Ethiopia -- might have worked if Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie had not brazenly undermined and ignored the arrangement from the start -- or if the UN had stepped in, as it should have, as guarantor of Eritrea's rights under the arrangement. Instead, Eritrea was easily subsumed by Ethiopia (and forgotten by most of the rest of the world).
       States are the main actors in the international arena, and since Eritrea wasn't one, Eritrean interests had a hard time getting heard. Regime change -- Haile Selassie was succeeded by a prototypical too-bad-to-be-true tyrant from the military ranks, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1974 -- and a switch in superpower allegiances (the Soviets replaced the Americans as Ethiopia's paymaster and military supplier) did not improve the Eritrean situation in the least. The long campaign against Ethiopia eventually led to the collapse of the Mengistu regime in 1991, and a brief period of peace and promise as Eritrea went independent. By 1997 Eritreans and Ethiopians were clashing again, and a devastating all-out border war broke out. Now, Eritrea too looks like an insignificant African country (mis)ruled by a strongman, barely mentioned in the international press.
       "I Didn't Do It For You" offers a good, broad survey of this history, along with more expansive accounts of some of the particulars. Wrong focusses on several personalities, such as Ferdinando Martini (the first Italian civilian governor of Eritrea), Sylvia Pankhurst, John Spencer (Haile Selassie's long-time legal adviser, 95 years old when she interviews him), George Zasadil (an American soldier stationed at the huge American listening post near Asmara, Kagnew Station), and John Berakis (a cook in the Eritrean resistance). The stories around these characters are colourful, though often also disturbing. They offer some insight into events, but some read a bit like Sunday-supplemet profiles (i.e. more journalistic than integrated into the text).
       A main theme running through the book is that suggested by the title: whatever foreigners did in Eritrea, they didn't do it for the locals. From the Italians behaving like the superior white colonialists they saw themselves as to the British stripping the country more or less clean through the recent past, the Eritreans have, for the most part, had to rely on themselves. Certainly, no one was willing to help 'free' them from the Ethiopian yoke. The British didn't think it strategically wise, while the Americans wanted their huge listening station and were willing to humour Haile Selassie if that's what it took. Once Kagnew Station was abandoned the Soviets were the Ethiopian's new best friend, and Mengistu received all the arms he needed (and more), and the Soviets had no interest in preventing the assault on the Eritrean stronghold.
       (Both the US and the USSR were suckered into giving ridiculous amounts of military aid to Ethiopia. As Wrong points out, the huge military build-up Haile Selassie insisted on was also his undoing. Incredibly, the Americans were also suckered in by the Derg that replaced him: "Amazingly, more than one-third of the military aid Ethiopia received from the US over a 25-year period would be given after, not before, the Derg's takeover." Apparently, the thinking was that: "suspension of these shipments would only strengthen the hands of radical elements among the military" -- showing yet again that American comprehension of the way the world works is phenomenally limited. The amount of weaponery and money the Soviet Union later poured into the country was also essentially entirely wasted, much of it uselessly hidden away by Mengistu for some rainy day, and then simply blown up when Addis fell.)
       The Eritrean struggle for independence was an inspiring one, but, as Wrong points out, perhaps also set the stage for the current situation. The war between newly independent Eritrea and Ethiopia was both ridiculous and criminal, a gross misjudgment by the cocky Eritreans. The near-dictatorship that the country has devolved into also clearly has some of its roots in the long struggle for independence, a time in which a society and way of life dominated that was not then easily adapted to the new situation and opportunities independence and self-determination allowed for.

       "I Didn't Do It For You" is a thoroughly gripping read. The stories -- from the smallest episodes to the global geo-political picture -- are fascinating (if also often infuriating). The lost opportunities, and the way the most powerful nations turned away from Eritrea's plight, are particularly disturbing. There are enormous amounts of blame to go around. Wrong focusses especially on the British and UN failures, since those were the moments when Eritrean independence could most easily have been achieved. The horrible Ethiopian treatment of Eritrea gets the proper attention, but the American and Soviet roles in propping up the nation are left almost on the sidelines. But in the look at the American military station in Asmara, and Soviet assistance in some military operations, Wrong also shows how a superpower presence can affect a country (a sobering reminder in this time, what with the Anglo-American military occupation of Iraq and Russia's handling of Chechnya).
       Eritrea may be a small nation, of only occasional strategic importance, but Wrong shows that even such places matter, and, more importantly, that grandly conceived notions of greater powers' interests (the Italians wanted a colony, the Americans a listening post, the Soviets a Red Sea port, etc.) can often cause far more (and more lasting) harm than they ever realise (or care to admit).
       A good introduction to Eritrea (and a fine example of super-power contests in Africa), and a very good read. Certainly recommended.

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"I Didn't Do It For You": Reviews: Eritrea: Other books by Michela Wrong under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michela Wrong was born in 1961. She is a journalist.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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