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Book Review: “Understanding Eritrea”, by Martin Plaut – Plus a brief interview

Book Review “Understanding Eritrea”, by Martin Plaut Plus a brief interview   By Dawit Mesfin London 3 Nov 2016   Book Title: Understanding Eritrea - Inside Africa's Most Repressive State Author: Martin Plaut Publisher: Hurst & Company, London - 253 pp Martin Plaut's book,

Book Review

“Understanding Eritrea”, by Martin Plaut

Plus a brief interview


By Dawit Mesfin

London 3 Nov 2016


Book Title: Understanding Eritrea – Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State

Author: Martin Plaut

Publisher: Hurst & Company, London – 253 pp

Martin Plaut’s book, ‘Understanding Eritrea’, is a timely and crucial read. The book provides an important account of the distinctive aspects and nature of rogue nations. Focusing on the historical metamorphosis of Eritrea, which Plaut has actively followed since the mid-seventies, the book delves into the discussion of how Eritrea betrayed its own citizens.

The book, as explained in the introduction, is an attempt to unravel why this small country with such a rich cultural heritage turned into one of the most repressive and secretive states in Africa.  By covering its three distinct eras – colonial, armed struggle, and post-independence – the book presents the history that has unfolded over the last seven decades in a nutshell, and culminates in an explanation of how today’s Eritrea has turned into a pariah state after all the hardship it went through in securing self-rule.  Plaut uses vivid anecdotes throughout the book to show how the prevalent political culture in the country has brought it to its knees and caused a severe haemorrhaging of its youth.

The main thrust of Plaut’s argument is how the Eritrean revolution, like many others in Africa, has produced one of the most undemocratic and closed societies in the world.  Here Eritrea is characterised both by the generous nature of its people and the heavy-handedness of a government that has blocked social, economic and political developments that under normal circumstances would usher in people’s participation in governing themselves.

Plaut starts by highlighting how the Eritrean public played a crucial role during the revolutionary period when the freedom fighters fought pitched battles against Ethiopian forces (1961-1991). He goes on to explain how the Eritrean people were relegated to mere spectators in the moulding of their country into its present form, a bitter betrayal of the sacrifices made and the wholesale support given to the liberation forces during the war years. As he does so, he documents the way that the leaders of the former liberation struggle gradually abandoned both their commitment to the people and their humanity.  In doing so, he juxtaposes Eritrean and Ethiopian history, giving the account a comparative flavour.

The target audience is clearly the international community. However, the book also provides much-needed insight and perspective for young Eritreans who have been denied a true picture of their country of origin – an insight from an international perspective.  By depicting the difficult history of Eritrea, where the people ultimately failed to win control over their own lives, the account posits the idea that some social upheavals simply do not qualify as true revolution.

The book is usefully divided into ten chapters. The first section depicts the arduous journey of the country towards independence, its polemical relationship with its immediate neighbours and its rapport with the outside world which in the end solidified its ideological position. The following chapters describe how the newly-liberated country, defying its citizens’ expectations, changed its course towards dictatorship. Halfway through the book Plaut reveals how Eritrea’s party-controlled economy oscillates between the observable and hidden economies – a feature which the international community struggles to understand.

The last chapters are grim.  Plaut delves into the endless flight of Eritrean youth, life in exile and the dilemmas the various constellations of opposition groups in diaspora face.  This section lays the groundwork for the final chapter, ‘The Outlook for Eritrea’, which highlights what is standing in the way of the country achieving the democracy it deserves.  Plaut writes:

The obvious answer is President Isaias and his close associates in the military and party. It is they who imprison their opponents, refuse to allow opposition parties to function, implement the Constitution or hold free and fair elections. Until this obstacle is removed no progress is likely to be made. Yet this is not the whole answer, since it begs further questions.

Plaut goes on to refer to a particular Eritrean mindset which has developed as a result of the toxic leadership that has led the public into a state akin to servility.  Political bullying, which encompasses unfair treatment of the citizen, public humiliation and other forms of threatening behaviour, is rampant in Eritrea.  However, merely acknowledging it through anecdotal references, as Plaut does, is not enough.  Since the President plays such a domineering and negative role in Eritrean politics the book could have used an extra chapter analysing from a psychologist’s perspective the personality disorder President Isaias displays in his day-to-day rule.

The book is an important addition to the body of work on Eritrea and a great resource tool to those unfamiliar with the country’s history. Undoubtedly the EPLF’s legacy, which is intertwined with the President’s misrule in post-independence Eritrea, will be the subject of future books. What Plaut has done is to supplement the core set of works that will be heavily referenced by researchers focusing on the predatory nature of the government.  More books like ‘Understanding Eritrea’ are sorely needed to complete the understanding of the fascinating but tragic history of this country.

The book is available at Amazon and Hurst Publishers.


Brief Interview with Martin Plaut

I ran into Martin at the British Library and asked him about his book. Here is the outcome of that impromptu interview:

Q-1: You made reference to the ‘Eritrean riddle’ in your introduction.  What is the main riddle that your book attempts to clarify?

A:  The main riddle is why the country is not wracked by civil war; it is relatively stable … there has been no civil unrest in the country since independence, but it is still bleeding its people across the border. That is the riddle which, certainly, the outside world does not understand.

Q-2: You have written books about the history of South Africa and the ANC movement. The ANC movement of the 1980s and early 1990s did struggle to make its voice heard during the Apartheid era.  In the end, a concerted grassroots non-violent civil resistance movement together with international support and sanctions forced the Apartheid government to negotiate. Do you think that experience can somehow be replicated in the case of Eritrea?

A: I think it is difficult to replicate one history in a different situation. So lessons that one could learn from the ANC struggle are indeed valid for the Eritrean experience in the sense that an international dimension can play a huge role in a local struggle.  But in the end it is always the local factors that determine what happens.

Q-3: In your book you mention the polemics within the opposition groups in diaspora. Are there any processes you know of that help the feuding parties to reconcile their differences while fighting for change in Eritrea?

A: I think there are some issues that could be pursued by the opposition to reconcile their differences. One of them could be via an academic rather than a political forum because the political fora have proved so far unsuccessful.  The way in which an academic forum might be useful would be to attempt to construct a shared dialogue about the actual history of what happened up to independence, even afterwards – with all sides submitting information to a joint panel of agreed academics – their version of particular incidents that are very toxic in Eritrean history. Then a common narrative would be created where there was no agreement on particular events, even if versions varied considerably. And it would be published by the committee. The responsibility of the committee would be to document the differing versions of various incidents and then publish them in the same document. No attempt should be made to write a definitive text.  Then you at least have a document that brings together that commonality of information that is helpful without attempting to impose on it a false unity of perspective. The truth would have to emerge from people’s reading of the different versions.

Q-4: In terms of the age group of defectors, refugees and fleeing boatpeople, Eritrean youth are the primary victims of government’s mismanagement of Eritrea. How can they become productive participants in the various campaigns?

A: In my view the youth can be brought into the picture in two ways.  The first way is to appeal to their patriotism which many of them still feel even if they have differences between them.  Remember, Eritreans are intensely patriotic and possess genuine love for their country. The second thing is to try to find ways that appeal to them through cultural, not political, events … theatrical experiences, or musical experiences which would bring them together. I know the divisions are deep but there is so much Eritreans can share between them. Joint cultural experiences are important.

Review overview
  • k.tewolde November 4, 2016

    ‘The Eritrean Riddle’ the outside world can’t understand’,like I said before,that’s a case study we are going to leave for the social and political scientists to grapple with,as for the true and prudent Eritrean,he/she knows exactly what it is- self consumption,auto-phage.

    • Samson November 4, 2016

      Eritrea’s worst problem is not just the PFDJ. It is the ruinous mentality of Eritrea’s small-brained elites or dinosaurs like yourselves. Evil-ghedli but especially your savage evil barbaric criminal ELF has brought the Eritrean shepherd (the peasants and the rootless moslem nomads included) to the lowest destitution level never seen in our region’s history.
      The price of failing as a nation and not learning from it to become better would be a curse of greatest sin. Eritreans are still paying horrendous price. Our problems continue to emanate from the gutless highland elites (the useful idiots) and the religious fanatics of the lowland the rootless immigrant moslem nomads).

      • k.tewolde November 4, 2016

        Where do you fit in this Eritrean political quagmire Samson and what role are you playing to remedy it? As a matter of fact,you just answered inadvertently the biggest Eritrean mystery of our time- you are the epitome of the ‘Eritrean Riddle’.I suggest you donate your brain to the forensic pathologists to unlock the ailment of our society and help device therapeutic modalities.You are a very good candidate.

        • AHMED SALEH !!! November 4, 2016

          Xemam si hanti derfu goes in Tigrigna saying .
          Our NEFAHITO only rhetoric to spew hatred and division among our
          society has its own source based on influences of anti-Eritrean forces.
          To accept the formation of sovereign nation became a bitter pill to
          swallow for greedy people who want everything to serve their selfish
          agenda . No wonder they beat drum to invite chaos with everybody
          outside their circle .
          We are civilized enough to tolerate and respect other societies in our surroundings including Ethiopians and Sudanese people .
          The sister of wickedness happens to be foolishness . So who cares
          about a person obsession with wrong deeds , stupidity and arrogance , That is quite true to say he hates life , the whole world and himself .
          I hope he avoid evil thought to hurt himself because he does not sound
          stable normal person .

      • Mehari Woldegabir November 4, 2016

        Samson, my advice is never condemn people as a whole. For instance if you take the majority of rural people, they have no culture or any immorality towards fellow humans, whether christian or Moslem all are great and gentile. So when you dismiss Moslem as a whole then there has to be a problem with you. Insanity is a behavior conceived and born in Cities but majority population lives in rural. So you need to cool down and sort out ideas and views that are sane from the one that are insane. Do not spit words that are insane for sake of winning arguments because in the eyes of readers you will loose the war of ideas.

        • AHMED SALEH !!! November 4, 2016

          Selamat Mehari
          Just to give you a clue for the sake to share my observation .
          On October 28 th , Samson comment was clear after saying ;
          ” Your Eritrea is sinking in self-infected sand , you can have it all but
          you need to leave Ethiopia alone and participate in mass suicide called
          evil – Gedli ” .
          The name Nefahito was after I detected similar provocative remarks
          and the language used in disguise with multiple identities for the last
          couple years . And I strongly believe his heart bear resentments and
          full of grudges toward Eritreans . But I also believe the moment you
          start to resent it robs your peace of mind and letting it go is a gift to
          ourselves than to unworthy people like the so called Samson .

          I think he is yelling by hiding inside the bushes across GASH river .

        • Khalid November 4, 2016

          Samson aka Teclay with 50+ nicknames is some one who suffers from excessive hatred.
          A rootless who insults Eritrean Muslims in every comment he posts here.
          Once the the tyrant is gone people like him will see what Eritrean Muslims can do to be respected in the own country.

          • koubrom November 5, 2016

            Wow so that is the agenda, we daesh her waiting his time, well I don’t think eritrea such think can happen all religions leave side by side peacefully, let tell that coran the sacred contains are the most beautiful but their is some evil blood thirsty twist the contain to kill, to massacres like in syria, it want succed

      • Eyob Tesfay November 4, 2016

        Well said brother.
        Indeed, the price of failing as a nation and not learning from it to become better would be a curse of greatest sin, indeed, indeed so.
        The many in number but the very few in real guts ‘the useful idiots’ you mentioned just ignore them with their dumb followers, they are only in the so-called opposition to delay positive changes in Eritrea and to get an old corrupted killer Islamic ELF in power through the back door. Lets all contribute our positive efforts but keep ignoring the most useless talkatives as expired and out of date losers.

        • PH November 4, 2016

          I wonder how many Nefahito to host in this forum.

      • PH November 4, 2016

        Hey Samson, you seem loosing attitude. well, that is good. The chewing gum of Tesfatsion doesn’t even help you .

  • Hidat November 4, 2016

    Martin nERITRA aytifeltan ika…RESEAYA.MEXEHAF XEHAF TEZAREB::tenkes ilka mietaw yelen.

  • Z. Hagos November 4, 2016

    Following the Breaking News from the Ethio-Eritrean border lately, people in Kassala, Sudan are closing attending to information from Eritrea. The regime’s consulate in Kassala appears to be taking precautions with the security personnel there. Most probably quietly something is going on.
    The breaking news yesterday read: According to a source in the Ethio-Eritrean borders, middle rank military personnel are defying taking orders and are taking the side of the regulars over the fake salary increases recently announced by the regime. This is a sign of dissatisfaction and may lead to surprises like the one of Wedi Ali’s Forto revolute. In case of any popular uprising against the tyrant, this time, it will not be suppressed by the army. Already many of the army garrisoned in Akeleguzai and Seraye have left and crossed the border into Ethiopia.
    This is a good news for all Eritrean youth who are forced into the deserts and oceans. Hopefully, it is going be a peaceful revolution that will result in caging all the criminals including the tyrant into containers, protecting them from the anger of the people but safely holding them until the day of judgment in a court of law.

  • Mehari Woldegabir November 4, 2016

    Thank you Mr. Martin Plaut for writing about what has gone wrong in Eritrea. Your truthful and unbiased description of events as they develop over the years, which finally turned to devour its own Citizens, through sheer terror, imprisonment, disappearance and impoverishment and finally creating an Island of a Pariah state in otherwise interactive world.
    I was really tiered of Eritrean Authors being biased one way or the other when witting because they remain unable to separate their emotions from the facts they are composing.
    I kindly recommend one of this book for every Eritrean living in overseas.

  • Tesfai md November 4, 2016

    Eritrea needs all the help it can get. The toxic story has to be told!
    Our people back home have to read it.

    • koubrom November 5, 2016

      Yeah I ll us it to clean my ….in restroom how much is that? Hade nakfa? ?

  • Keren November 4, 2016

    The change only comes from the inside and it seems there is no one understands the magnitude of the challenge the country is facing this time. PFDJ is continuing to destroy this country and many people still follows and believe every lies comes through its media its network. To those who still have hope from PFDJ, what else are you waiting from this criminal clique?

    • koubrom November 5, 2016

      No no He build his country people like you want to destroy it.

  • Mehari Woldegabir November 4, 2016

    Deceive me ones shame on you!, deceive me twice shame on me! what can we say about PFDJ diaspora Eritreans ready to be deceived for life?

  • Lula November 4, 2016

    Thank you Martin for telling our Eritrean toxic history that many Eritreans are ashamed or afraid to touch. This toxicity had been brewing since in the 1960s in many different forms. It is as the result of this toxicity that Eritreans are living currently as slaves of Hgdef and Abeeds of the savage Arabs inside and outside of Eritrea. Just in case if you have not mentioned the savage Wahabi Jihadi al Sauds and their Gulf dogs are now in Port Assab and the Abeed regime and is acting as their mercenary to bomb the poor Hoothi Muslims of Yemen.
    That is Eritrea in a nutshell.

  • Semere November 5, 2016

    Alem Goitom Owner of and his collaborating stuff are full time employee and operating on PFDJ bank roll budget. Their prime mission-to defend and shield PFDJ on the international Arena by all means necessary including through distortions, lies and manufactured facts. the stuff is on 24-hours look out through global internet surfing for fresh news and modify or distort it and if necessary even manufacture new parallel story to counter the truth.. His work is geared to implant suspicions on claims of the Eritrean youth “claims of gross violations of broader human rights”. Alem Goitom is working to prolong the suffering and tragedies of the Eritrean mass standing against the will of the Eritreans mass who otherwise looking Justice and rule of law to reign in Eritrea. Alem Goitom is blessing the suffering and death of our youth in the hands of Tyrant regime, international terrorist like ISIS, in the Sahara and Sinai deserts and on the Mediterranean sea and all Eritreans inside and out must take note of that this man’s enabler roll for PFDJ to commit more and none stop crimes on our people as such he has bloods of the Eritrean people ranked next to PIA. all mass murderers and Criminal of the past have their dooms day, the PFDJ’s are nearing their turn too!
    victory to Justice and rule of law in Eritrea!

  • koubrom November 5, 2016

    This white garbage should refrain to prononce the sacred name of my country ,he lobbied for woyane and that trash meles all the time while wishing ill to out people.
    Shame ,leaning on white to destroy country shabia come by the of the people all of you should return to tigray non of is pure eritrean.
    By the way most are very old the generation will inherit eritrea not stay from country.

    • Yaki November 5, 2016

      “Shame ,leaning on white to destroy country shabia come by the of the people all of you should return to tigray non of is pure eritrean.”


      You are talking about pure Eritrean while defending Iseyas ?
      Who is more Tigreyan than him ?
      What about Higdef, isn’t that controlled mostly by Eritreans of Tigreyan decent ?
      Didn’t Shabia distribute Eritrean Nationality IDs to Tigreyans in Eritrea to tilt ethnic balance against non-Tigrigna in the country ?
      And yet you speak about sending non pure Eritreans to Tigray ?
      Do you have a brain ?

      • Koubrom November 5, 2016

        You do you have a brain ,you perfectly know that is it’s not true ,we don’t go along.
        So sad people like just throw Venom to everyone,you want to divide people by ethnicity and religion at this time 21 century , Loser dream go and beg woyanee your hope was with him ,we are unified and we will remains like that ,but you stay there and rot and your corner forever.

        • Tesfalidet Berhe November 6, 2016

          Yaki, you wish to see PIA and most PFDJ leaders deported because of their Tigrean ancestry.. That is funny Kebessa hater ELF ideology. but you forget to remind us that your fore fathers came to Eritrea following their Camels(for grazing) at the period of Italians rule and failed to return to eastern Sudan. So a settler is contemplating to deport the Aborigines Kebessa Eritreans. With out knowing you might be begging to be shoved across the boarder in to Sudan! .

          • Berhe Tensea November 9, 2016

            Thank you Martin Plaut , waiting to read your book.

          • Berhe Tensea November 9, 2016

            There is no question about the true identity of Iseyas, and his many puppets such as , the monkey and Keisha, they are all from Tigray. Do your reaserch and you will discover that Iseyas is real Tembenay.
            Tselot villagers will definetly help you with that as they have recent settlers from Tembein.