Understanding the Struggles of Citizens and State in Eritrea

In this blog entry, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State,  sheds light on life in Eritrea, a highly militarized, authoritarian country where educational institutions were directly implicated in the making of soldiers.

Europe’s “migrant crisis”—the historically unprecedented flight of refugees—has recently taken center stage. Those from Eritrea, a country of six million people, comprise 8 percent of all migrants entering Europe and represent Europe’s third largest immigrant group. The large number of Eritrean refugees is stunning considering that, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea is currently not at war. Also striking is the fact that Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men and increasingly unaccompanied children. Why are these particular populations of refugees fleeing?

Struggling State_smMy new book,  The Struggling State, sheds light on life inside Eritrea, a country governed by what is often regarded as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Conditions in Eritrea are more complex than we might expect. Human rights violations and a lack of civil liberties in Eritrea explain why so many leave, but this peculiar pattern of refugee flight is also caused by the evolution of state-society relations in the country.

Eritrea is a highly militarized authoritarian dictatorship. The government shut down independent media in 2001. Independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Any attempt to protest has been brutally cracked down on. Detentions without cause are common. All but four religions are banned. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service program. National/ military service by law consists of 6 months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service, most often in the military. However, very few people have been released from military service since a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. Many have been serving for close to two decades even though there has been no fighting since 2000. “Service,” which has been equated with forced labor and slavery, has become endless. Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country legally while in national/ military service.

Eritrea is known for its thirty-year-long, tenacious, military “struggle” which resulted in independence from Ethiopia, effectively in 1991 and officially in 1993. The Struggle, however, was not just a military one, but a revolutionary process to build a nation based on principles of ethnic, gender and class equality and unity among Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups and two major religions. In fall 2003, when embarked on a two-year period of ethnographic fieldwork, I initially planned to study teachers’ reactions to and interpretations of Eritrea’s nation-building project. However, new educational policies were introduced which radically changed not only the education system, but the relationship between citizens and the state and, ultimately, my research project. The 2003 policies merged national/military service with secondary education by mandating that all students, male and female, complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility located in the nation’s main military training center, Sawa.

Teachers and students were disillusioned by this repurposing of education—schooling no longer embodied their hopes and dreams, but became a conduit to the military. My research focuses on how teachers, as state employees, responded to these changes, placing teacher and student reactions against the backdrop of broader experiences living under an increasingly coercive government. Secondary school students, previously disciplined and diligent, began cutting class and misbehaving in unprecedented numbers. Teachers responded, paradoxically, by joining students in their indiscipline but also cracking down on students with increased coercion, and, at times, violence.  Today, many young people flee the country before they enter into the educational-military conduit. Many teachers have fled as well.

Eritreans’ encounter with the state is characterized by experiences of coercion, being punished and feeling imprisoned. There is no reliably applied rule of law, meaning that Eritreans are not only susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders, but are also susceptible to the will and whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police and even teachers. However, these state employees are also susceptible to the will and whims of more powerful state actors. One of my central arguments is that this “punishing state” is the result of a vicious cycle in which state employees are themselves “punished” and they, in turn, punish others and/or evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

The Struggling State raises a number of questions about the nature of the state, particularly authoritarian states such as Eritrea. The book complicates our understanding of Eritrea, neither depicting it as benevolent but misunderstood, as the ruling party’s nationalist narratives would have us do, nor maligning it, as international media and human rights narratives tend to. Instead I show how the experience of government coercion leads Eritreans to think of their state as punishing. Eritreans imagining the state, not as promising, but as punishing, has unraveled the ruling party’s national project, separating the nation from the state. Strong feelings of nationalism are intact among Eritreans, but are no longer affixed solely to the ruling part and its revolutionary struggle. Teachers have been central to this process. Schooling, in general, and teachers in particular, are often thought to reproduce state power.  In contrast, The Struggling State shows that teachers play a much more ambivalent role as they struggle to instill in students a sense of national belonging and hope for the future of the nation even when they themselves have so little hope given the strictures of life under the current regime.

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