On October 22, the Horn of Africa seminar at Oxford had an excellent presentation from Dr David Bozzini, a post-doctoral researcher at CUNY, entitled ‘The Catch 22 of Resistance: Political Discontent and Popular Theory of State Power in Eritrea’.
David’s presentation highlighted the quandary facing those conscripted into the national service in Eritrea. Since the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, conscription into the national service has become a near-permanent experience for many Eritreans. This has fuelled significant outflows of young Eritreans, seeking to avoid indefinite servitude and to find better economic prospects outside the country (Kjetil Tronvoll and Goitom Gebreluel recently wrote on some of the potential impacts of this exodus in an essay for al-Jazeera.)
However, David focused on the subtle forms of resistance exercised by those who remain in Eritrea, stuck in the national service. In particular, he focused on the use of jokes, illustrating the agency of national service members, and attempting to complicate an oversimplified image of an entire population cowed by its government, existing only as victims. Certainly, conditions are difficult in Eritrea — for national service members, and for others. However, I appreciated this attempt to examine the choices made by individuals, and the useful reminder of their agency in the face of adversity.
Nevertheless, the ‘Catch 22’ referred to in the title of the presentation should not be forgotten. In short, the paradox for those attempting resistance is that the forms available — in this case jokes — manifest in ways that reify the state’s dominance over the individuals, at the same time mocking and acknowledging their own limited options and the state’s control. If I’ve understood David’s presentation correctly, this performance thus inadvertently reinforces the social structures of control employed by the state.
All of this sounded quite familiar to me, having organised a conference on politics in Rwanda under the RPF during the past 20 years about 2 weeks ago with Phil Clark at SOAS. As in Eritrea — although perhaps even more intensely — the past two decades have seen the Rwandan state driving a vast social engineering exercise, aimed at the transformation of the nation’s youth. In the case of Rwanda, the government has been attempting to engineer a post-genocide, post-ethnic society, where individuals understand their moral obligations as citizens, contributing to the well-being of the nation. The whole enterprise can be understood as rooted in an ideological effort to move beyond the ethnic frameworks that underpinned the 1994 genocide.
Eritrea’s social engineering exercise is similarly vast, although without a specific and tightly bound experience comparable to Rwanda’s genocide. Nevertheless, it is likewise rooted in a drive to engender a post-ethnic, national identity. For the fighters of the 30-year insurgency that led to Eritrea’s independence, the struggle itself (and the vision controlled by Isaias Afeworki, first as a fighter then as president) had forged a national identity. But for the rest of the population, the question of ethnic diversity and national identity had not been definitively resolved. The national service started as part of an effort to instill a post-ethnic vision within Eritrea’s new citizenry, drawing on (not always equally) shared memory of repression under Ethiopian governments from the 1950s.
At the Rwanda conference we heard several presentations about the reactions of youth to the state’s social engineering efforts, as well as some of the challenges created by the system for youth — in terms of their relations with their parents (and parents’ generation), their schooling options, their career expectations and prospects, and other social experiences associated with maturing, such as marriage.
I found it interesting to reflect on the potential comparisons of youth agency, and the reaction to the state’s dominant vision, in Eritrea and Rwanda. There also seem to be important inter-generational dynamics in both countries, which could be usefully examined. In two tightly controlled societies such as these, there is surely fertile ground for comparative research — I hope that some are able to take up the challenge.