Understanding Eritrea

June 2019 9781787382282 272pp
Temporarily out of stock
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The most secretive, repressive state in Africa is haemorrhaging its citizens. In some months as many Eritreans as Syrians arrive on European shores, yet the country is not convulsed by civil war. Young men and women risk all to escape. Many do not survive — their bones littering the Sahara; their bodies floating in the Mediterranean.

Still they flee, to avoid permanent military service and a future without hope. As the United Nations reported: ‘Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.’ Eritreans fought for their freedom from Ethiopia for thirty years, only to have their revered leader turn on his own people. Independent since 1993, the country has no constitution and no parliament. No budget has ever been published. Elections have never been held and opponents languish in jail. International organisations find it next to impossible to work in the country.

Nor is it just a domestic issue. By supporting armed insurrection in neighbouring states it has destabilised the Horn of Africa. Eritrea is involved in the Yemeni civil war, while the regime backs rebel movements in Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

This book tells the untold story of how this tiny nation became a world pariah.


‘An outstanding insider’s analysis of the continent’s most noteworthy example of political repression . . . Understanding Eritrea is a sobering, incisive analysis, replete with detail not readily available elsewhere.’ – Choice 

‘[Plaut] is well placed to tell Eritrea’s modern story and does so masterfully … Throughout he condenses disparate material into tight and accessible prose … Plaut’s valuable book has at least ensured that, despite the regime’s best efforts, this country is not fully hidden from view.’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘A masterful account … Plaut’s extensive evidence shows how the regime’s repressive stance in power is a consequence of its ruler.’ — Times Higher Education

‘The second wave of refugees arriving in Europe includes those fleeing this tiny nation of around 6 million people … Yet Eritrea is not in a state of war. Their flight is driven by the decree mandating active military service for all 18-40 year olds. … Martin Plaut offers a lucid, readable exploration of this little-known crisis.’ — Le Monde Diplomatique

‘With my own eyes I witnessed the courage and sacrifice of the women and men who fought the thirty-three year war that brought the birth of an independent Eritrea and, they hoped, a future of freedom. They have, however, been tragically betrayed by a brutal  dictatorship that inflicts relentless misery and forces thousands to flee. Martin Plaut’s brilliant and searing factual account of the descent from hope to tyranny should be used to prosecute the regime and expose the powers that ignore its enduring atrocities.’ — Glenys Kinnock, Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead, former Minister of State for Africa and the United Nations

‘Despite its huge export of refugees, second only to Syria, Eritrea remains an enigma to most. Unravelling many of its mysteries, Understanding Eritrea offers an illuminating, timely and in-depth insight into a country whose secretive regime and mass exodus are beginning to hit the headlines. An absorbing read which deserves attention.’ — Neil Carrier, Lecturer in African Anthropology, Oxford University; author of Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub

‘Eritrea, considered to be Africa’s most secretive and censored state, appears as an enigma to many outsiders. Martin Plaut, a long-time observer of this tiny Horn of Africa nation, has written an eye-opener of a book explaining this troubled nation and unveiling its politics. An essential read.’ — Kjetil Tronvoll, Senior partner, International Law and Policy Institute

‘This unflinchingly honest book provides a mass of valuable information and an essential guide to Africa’s most secretive state.’ — Christopher Clapham, Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge

‘Most know Eritrea through its many refugees. Few have had an opportunity to visit. This book explains how a crisis developed and why it needs to be solved. Compelling, accessible and authoritative, this a much-needed handbook on one of the world’s most secretive states.’ — Mirjam van Reisen, Professor in International Relations, Tilburg University

‘An accessible handbook on the causes and consequences of dictatorship in Eritrea — where it came from, how it works and how it got that way. Written with the voice and sweep of a journalist, the book offers short but trenchant summaries of Eritrea’s regional relations, its internal political and economic structure, the plight of its refugees, the continuing role of its extensive diaspora, and a road map of its deeply fractured and largely ineffective opposition. Yet Plaut, like many who have followed this remarkable if frustrating new nation, holds out hope that brighter days lie ahead, once the interminable conflict with Ethiopia is resolved and Eritrea’s people are free to take back their country.’ — Dan Connell, Visiting scholar, African Studies Center, Boston University

‘Himself one of the veteran Eritrea observers from his BBC days … Plaut has again come out with valuable reading … for all those interested [in] better understand[ing] Eritrea and its unending woes. The book makes a sweeping coverage of history … [and] surprises many a reader by putting more light on information not fully known to the “experts” … And all this in not more than 250 pages!’ — Woldeyesus Ammar, Eritrean People’s Democratic Party


Martin Plaut, the BBC World Service's former Africa Editor, has published extensively on African affairs. An adviser to the Foreign Office and the US State Department, he is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

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