Dan Connell, Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution (Red Sea, 1994).
After five years of tough and tiring travels and on-the-spot inquiry and research in Eritrea, Dan Connell gives us a valuable book of information and conclusions, one that adds much to our picture of the Eritreans who liberated their country from colonial misery under successive Ethiopian — or Amharic — regimes. Like other serious observers of the Eritrean scene, he finds it deserving of respect and of far closer attention than it has generally received. For Eritrea’s liberators have carried through a “unique experiment in democratic, social and economic development,” an experiment, moreover, that “remains directed toward building a more egalitarian, just and multicultural society.” These high claims may appear to signal one more exercise in do-gooding optimism, or another bout of sentimental illusion-mongering. But they arise from a very thoughtful and perceptive study, and readers of this “chronicle” will find that these claims stand on firm ground.
When the Eritreans — about 3.5 million strong in 1994 — declared their post-colonial independence in 1993, they celebrated the joyful end of more than 30 years of harsh and costly struggle against invaders and aggressors. Still more impressively, perhaps, they carried over the threshold of peace a project in self-development that stands today in happy and wide contrast to the many years of pain through which this people has been obliged to pass. How was it done, using what political and social guides or principles? Connell’s response derives from his years of courageous reporting between 1975 and the early 1990s. Together with Stefano Poscia’s Eritria (1989), Connell’s book is the most useful of several books of reportage produced out of the Eritrean events and dramas of the past many years. And since Eritrean developments have an all-African field of relevance, no one wanting to have and to test reliable opinions about Africa today is going to be able to ignore Against All Odds.
Connell’s title does not exaggerate. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), chief instrument of this anti-colonial achievement, began in near total isolation from any outside source of aid or even friendly encouragement; and it had to continue in this isolation for years until, quite late, relief came from UN and NGO sources. Far from being a useful diversion to the Eritreans, the Cold War had thrown its destructive weight entirely in the favor of one or another enemy of the EPLF. Outside powers contributed to the oppressions exercised with great ferocity by the government of Ethiopia under the dictatorships of Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam. To justify these outrageous aggressions, those dictators claimed that Eritrea had been an integral part of Ethiopia in medieval times, or earlier — tantamount to saying that most of France was part of England, since it had once been so in those same times.
“Diplomacy” preferred to accept that absurdity, and not even the Organization of African Unity, to its shame and utter discredit, questioned Ethiopia’s imperialism. More than anywhere else in post-colonial Africa, the young men and women of Eritrea’s guerrilla bands, and the eventual army that grew from those bands, had to rely on their own skill and daring to seize arms from their enemies and defy the whole “established world.” This isolation imposed heavy burdens and called for effective self-reliance. But it enabled Eritrea to complete its struggle for independence without incurring any external debts, material or ideological. In the Middle East, in this way if not in others, too, Eritrea has indeed stood alone. Scheming or ambitious neighbors, near and far, have persistently tried to fish in these waters to no profit.
Connell’s report on all this is vivid in its humane dimensions. One sees more clearly how the essential aims of winning and conserving unity of action were pursued through a struggle for genuinely democratic participation. One understands better just how and why the style of the EPLF since its early days — its abrasive realism, its compensating accent on modesty and abnegation, its avoidance of rhetoric, its decency of aims and methods, along with a refusal to give much attention to external voices — was formed and could become decisive in the desperate years of the mid-1970s.
Connell’s assessment of women’s self-emancipation is especially good, and the only regret is that the book is not a good deal longer. Even so, much about this very unusual people’s movement shines through. Consider that the EPLF was able, as a grassroots resistance movement, to raise, maintain and continually enlarge an army of volunteers, about one third of whom were women — not counting those women who staffed and often controlled networks of social, educational and medical self-assistance. In fact, this movement provides a range of practical lessons of more general relevance to Africa and beyond.
The whole Eritrean experience has been largely ignored by the outside world, most disgracefully in Africa and the Middle East. Yet whatever may now happen — Connell leaves the record to speak for itself — it can be said with confidence that this small country is going to count for much in the unfolding fortunes of the whole Horn and the Middle East. Its influence, however tactfully brought to bear, should weigh in on the scales of peace and good governance. Here is one national community where acute poverty has not been allowed to march together with self-induced frustration.