Martin Plaut has been one of the most controversial figures and most criticized by the regime loyalists for his bold stand on most issues. Abraham from PEN Eritrea has interviewed him about his new book and his controversy.


Martin Plaut does not need an introduction for an average Eritrean reader or others who have been closely following developments in Eritrea. Former editor of the African desk at BBC and author of numerous books, Plaut has been extensively writing about Eritrea. Recently he published a book entitled Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State (Hurst; 2016). The ten-chapter book attempts to provide a bigger picture of the most closed nation where basic facts lack in most aspects. With his excellent presentation and journalistic simplicity, Plaut deals with different facets of the country and tries to shed light on the gradual evolution of the deadlock. The book is important addition to the growing body of Eritrean literature. It also offers basic information and serves as point of departure for researchers who want to delve deeper. More importantly the book provides an accurate picture on the difficulties of accessing precise information due to the nature of the ruling party and its leader who eventually evolved into his own establishment.

Martin Plaut has been one of the most controversial figures and most criticized by the regime loyalists for his bold stand on most issues. Abraham from PEN Eritrea has interviewed him about his new book and his controversy.

  • 1.Can you tell me briefly your engagement with Eritrea? What is the drive behind such passion for regime change?

In the late 1970’s I was the Africa secretary for the British Labor Party. It was a fascinating position and I met many African liberation movements. One day a tall young man came to see me and insisted that I should visit his country. I said that it was at war - how would it be possible? He insisted that it would. His name was Ermias “Papayo” Debessai and that interaction was the beginning of my engagement with the country. As you will know he has languished in jail for many, many years. There are vague rumors that he is accused of corruption, but he has never been brought before a properly constituted court. It is a travesty of justice and exemplifies the situation in which the country remains. My concern is – of course – not just for Ermias, but for all who are in his position.

  • 2.If you can share with our readers the work behind your new book; how long did the research take you? The type of researches you have conducted (if that includes field research)? What makes your book original if someone is very familiar with the Eritrean case and s/he has been following all the international reports about Eritrea?

My book took about a year to write. It did not include field research, since I do not think this would be possible, given my position on Eritrea. I visited the country three times – twice with the EPLF during its fight for independence. I vividly remember looking down on Keren as the artillery fired up at the trench I was in; watching Ethiopian soldiers walking its streets. I visited again soon after 1991.

The book aims to bring together in a brief but accessible way a range of information on the country from a variety of sources. It is not primarily aimed at Eritreans, but rather at anyone who deals with the region or is simply interested to know more about it.

  • 3.Where do you position yourself in the case of Eritrea: an independent journalist or an activist?

This is a good question. When I worked for the BBC I was – to the best of my ability – entirely neutral. No matter how terrible the situation all I ever did was to report factually on what I saw or understood. I retired 4 years ago and now I would probably be better described (on the Eritrea question) as an engaged journalist. Nothing I write is (to the best of my knowledge) inaccurate, but I would like to see a democratic Eritrea in which justice prevails, and this colors what I say.

  • 4.When “experts,” especially from the West write/talk about the global South, the usual debate is the issue of representation. The great South African thinker Steve Biko addresses the white liberals who “advocated” for the blacks in Apartheid South Africa as “self-appointed do-gooders.” Just to use Biko’s analogy of representation, I want an explanation if you significantly depart from his category. For example out of the six people who praised the book on the back-cover, none of them is Eritrean. So where is the Eritrean voice? I will also add different but related example; you praised the documentary film Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus and stated its sincerity and authenticity shine,” while my assessment of the film is typical “ white savior mentality in sophomoric re-enactment.”   What is your explanation? Does not such whole attitude sound like treating the country and the population as mere research subjects?

Steve Biko – one of my countrymen – was a great figure, but he wrote in a particular time and his work reflects this. This is a long and complex debate, but I do not share his view.

Perhaps this poem by John Dunn is closer to what I believe.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend's

Or of thine own were:

Any man's death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

  • 5.This is also partly related to representation of the locals: reading your book, I felt it needed an Eritrean reader who would correct some obvious errors. I will mention you some: while discussing the ethnic composition you stated, “Kunama has their ancient religion” (p. 6) while the fact is majority are either Catholic or Protest Christians and the rest Muslims while those who follow traditional religion are significantly small. Regarding the Ethio-Eritrean border war, you stated Ethiopian forces reached up to Agordat and the Eritrean forces retreated into Keren. Similarly you stated about one-fourth of the Eritrean land was occupied by Ethiopia (p. 37). While the fact is Ethiopian forces only reached unto Barentu and by all logic 1/4th of Eritrean land was not occupied by Ethiopia. Just to add other few examples you referred the Eritrean Brigadier General Te’ame Goitom as “Wedi-Mekele” while his nickname is only “Mekele” (p. 52). You indicated the Ethiopian opposition training camp “Harena” as if located south of Massawa while it is in the Eritrean western lowlands, exactly the opposite (p. 64). These are some observation, but these facts might also project some similar errors. My question is why can’t you have someone to read and possibly correct such simple erroneous facts? Do not such easily noticeable errors that emanate from carelessness or lack of regard significantly discredit your efforts?

I showed my book to several Eritrean friends and to other well-known scholars in an attempt to avoid mistakes. Any errors are my responsibility and I would of course remove them if there is a further edition.

  • 6.Throughout your book you stated many crucial facts that certainly can interest researchers to explore it further. However, you did not use in-text citations and only provided references at the end. This makes it extremely difficult to check the veracity of the claims as it is difficult to trace it; if you can explain little about your methodology?

You are right: this is the style of this series of books. . If you want to see a book of mine which is rather different, I suggest you read: Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa which is fully referenced work, which breaks new ground.

  • 7.I felt your primary sources were reports compiled by different organizations. Throughout the book you also accurately describe how difficult it is to get accurate empirical facts about the country. So how did you try to fill this gap? Did you attempt to collect firsthand information with the level of familiarity you have? I felt your firsthand interviews were very limited—primarily Woldeyesus Amar, Paulos Tesfagiorgis and little of Meron Estefanos and Kubrom Dafla Hosabay. Did you attempt to contact the former officials now exiled, such as Mesfin Hagos, Abdella Adem, Adhanom Gheberemariam, Haile Menkerios, Andebrhan Woldegiorgis, Ahmed Kaissi, etc? I felt their firsthand experience and closely working in the system would have provided a good insight about the closed system and the mercurial character of the president, instead of recounting episodes from his university days in 1960s.

As a journalist I am not going to reveal my sources. I stand by what I have written and any reader is welcome to his or her view of the book.




*PEN Eritrea’s executive director, Abraham T. Zere can be reached at