Imagining Emigration: Debating National Duty in Eritrean Classrooms

Jennifer Riggan


Emigration is effectively illegal in Eritrea; however, Eritrea cultivates a loyal, active diaspora. Graduated emigration policies create a territorially bound population to provide cheap labor to the state and a diaspora that contributes financial resources to the government. The celebration of diasporic nationalism has successfully produced a longing to return among the diaspora, but it has inadvertently produced a longing to leave among Eritreans trapped in Eritrea. These contradictions are explored by examining classroom debates about emigration. Emigration debates allow teachers and students to articulate conflicting beliefs about national duty, personal aspirations, and the state. These debates enable teachers and students to construct emigration as part of their national duty, but they expose a critique of state policies that mandates different kinds of sacrifices for Eritreans in Eritrea and in the diaspora.

When the teacher announced that the class would be doing a debate, smiles broke out on students’ faces. They had prepared for this. The debate question was: “Is it better to emigrate from your country or stay in your country?” The debate began slowly. One boy began by saying that he wanted to live in his country because “life without country is too difficult” and that “the word migration means spoiling culture and religion.” A few students nodded and quietly called out, “Yes!” Other students shook their heads and excitedly waved their hands. They were called on and, with great passion, they stood and announced that they wanted to go abroad to have a “new life” and to “get a good job.” One young man stood slowly and, with gravity, walked to the front of the class. Enunciating his words, he waved a hand for emphasis, “When your country has harsh conditions and when leaders are oppressing their people, what does it mean to have a country? If you live in the US for three to five years you become a citizen and then you can do what you want.” In response, half the class cheered and clapped loudly. The teacher stood and tapped his wooden eraser on the blackboard to silence the class. The clapping subsided, but the students could tell from his smile that they were not expected to behave with the usual order and discipline in this particular class. As the debate continued throughout the fifty-minute period, students on both sides spoke energetically, and the atmosphere in the classroom became increasingly raucous. Students heckled each other. They stood up and walked around the classroom. They spoke in increasingly loud voices, interrupting and mocking, a deviation from the ordered silence that pervaded most classes. (Field notes, 2003)

In a country where much of the population lives under the strict discipline of a highly militarized state and the public critique of governmental policies is typically regarded as dangerous, what was the meaning of this debate and the behavior that accompanied it? What does this debate tell us about the ways Eritreans understand their duties as citizens in a country where, twenty years after independence, many have lost faith in the state? This debate occurred in an eleventh-grade English class in Eritrea in the fall of 2003. Although debates were a common occurrence, typically accompanied by this type of environment, it is significant that a question about leaving the country gave rise to a subtle, but critical, reworking of the meaning of national duty. 

Governance practices related to emigration and the management of the Eritrean diaspora expose a deep contradiction. Emigration is effectively illegal in Eritrea, exit visas are required to leave the country, and completion of national military service is a prerequisite for receiving an exit visa or a passport (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82, article 7). According to the National Service Proclamation, national service is legally an eighteen-month commitment, consisting of six months of military training and one year of voluntary service (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82); however, since the Border War with Ethiopia (1998–2000), very few have been released from national service, and most who are recruited into national service believe they will be serving indefinitely (Bozzini 2011; Kibreab 2009a; O’Kane & Hepner 2009; Reid 2009). Conditions in national service have been described as forced labor, as conscripts are required to work for almost no pay, sometimes in government-owned businesses (Kibreab 2009b). During this time, recruits receive for pay what the government calls pocket money (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82, article 22).[1] As of the time of my fieldwork, exit visas were almost unheard of, even among those who had been released from or were exempt from national service. As a result of restrictions on exit visas and harsh, prolonged conditions of military service, tens of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country illegally. UNHCR estimates that there are currently 252,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, a number that has steadily increased from 124,121 in 2003 (UNHCR 2000, 2002, 2005, 2011). The border is heavily policed, and those who attempt to leave run the risk of imprisonment, torture, being shot at the border, or being kidnapped by traffickers (Human Rights Watch 2009). 

In contrast, Eritrea has a large, celebrated diaspora, whose members are allowed to move freely in and out, provided they regularly pay a two-percent tax to the Eritrean government (Bernal 2004, 2005; Hepner 2009). In addition to being able to come and go as they please, they may acquire land—another citizenship right denied Eritreans in Eritrea (Kibreab 2009a). Eritrea thus enacts a policy of graduated citizenship, whereby certain segments of the population—Eritreans in Eritrea—must complete national service before being granted full citizenship rights but have little hope of being released from national service, while other segments of the population—most notably for this paper, Eritreans in the diaspora—are exempt from national service and enjoy the full benefit of citizenship (Bozzini 2011). 

The paradox produced by these policies provides the context for this article. The same policies that cultivated and nurtured citizenship among many members of the diaspora produced the seeds of discontent and critique among Eritreans in Eritrea. Students, their teachers, and Eritreans whom I interviewed and talked with in the course of my fieldwork were aware of these policies. Territorially bound Eritreans, because they interacted with family and friends from the diaspora, knew that returning members of the diaspora were not required to complete national service and were free of many of the restrictive policies that applied to Eritreans in Eritrea. Members of the diaspora who visited often came with lavish gifts and disposable income; they were permitted to travel around the country and enjoy themselves in ways that most Eritreans could not. This presented a stark contrast to limitations on the movements of Eritreans in Eritrea, as well as their economic circumstances. Furthermore, Eritreans in Eritrea were aware that the accomplishments and monetary contributions of the diaspora were being publicly celebrated, while theirs were obligatory and coerced. Eritreans who attempt to escape or avoid national service may be imprisoned or fined (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82). 

Despite vast differences in the treatment of different categories of Eritreans, evidence from my research suggests that Eritreans in Eritrea did not eschew the national rhetoric of sacrifice and duty to the nation. Instead, they utilized the experiences of the diaspora to redefine this notion of duty. In this article, I argue that policies of graduated citizenship produced desires to migrate, not only to escape repressive conditions, but to serve the nation and, indeed, to be Eritrean in a different way. I explore the ways in which an imagined future that revolved around leaving the country and cast leaving the country as a form of national duty was shaped by paradoxical government policies, which ascribe different citizenship rights to different kinds of Eritrean citizens. I show how this contradiction was exposed in classroom debates, in which students attempted to rework national narratives of duty and sacrifice so as to constitute leaving the country not as an antinational act (despite that fact that it was illegal for service-age youth to leave), but as an alternatively national act. Youth attempted to rework dominant, state-produced notions of sacrifice and duty to the nation by drawing on state-produced narratives of nationalism that cast members of the diaspora as model citizens. 

My argument is laid out as follows. I begin with a brief discussion of my research methods and the challenges of doing research in Eritrea. I then explain Eritrea’s policies of graduated citizenship by showing how Eritrea’s need to capture a transnational revenue stream from its diaspora required one set of governance practices while disciplining a fighting force to defend and develop the country required another. From there, I move on to show that these graduated policies have produced the contradiction that is illustrated in the debate quoted above. I illustrate the way ideas about the diaspora have functioned symbolically to shape the imagined futures of many Eritrean youth, including those who were debating the meaning of citizenship in their classrooms. Then I return to an analysis of classroom debates to show how the tensions between doing one’s duty to the nation and leaving the country were debated in an attempt to carve out a new sense of national identity that held on to meaningful notions of loyalty, duty, and sacrifice but attempted to embed emigration as a viable act of national duty.

The Exceptional State of Eritrea: Challenges and Opportunities for Ethnographic Research

Eritrea is a country in which governance is aptly characterized by Agamben’s notion of a “state of exception,” which often derives from the perception or reality of being constantly under siege and results in conditions where “there is a force of law without the rule of law” (2005, 39). Indeed, Eritrea has been described as “a siege state,” a place where exceptional measures are taken to reorganize society around the need to defend against perceived external threats to the nation (International Crisis Group 2010; Müller 2012). 

As the state of siege is extended, there are ever expanding gray areas where written law becomes secondary to governing practice. Under conditions of “war and mobilization,” the National Service Proclamation states that “anyone in active national service is under the obligation of remaining even beyond the prescribed period” (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82, article 21). In 2002, the government introduced the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign, which, under the auspices of galvanizing national-service conscripts to work on development projects, enabled the government to avoid mass demobilization after the Border War concluded and effectively extend national service.[2] Given that there has been no significant fighting with Ethiopia since 2000, the ongoing mobilization of such a large proportion of the population is generally seen as illegitimate and outside the scope of Eritrean law; therefore, Eritreans, scholars of Eritrea, and human-rights organizations commonly assert that national service is indefinite or permanent. 

Meanwhile, other policies and governance practices, such as those that determine who can travel, quit their job, and get an exit visa, are unavailable in written form. While it is noted in the National Service Proclamation that anyone who attempts to escape national service will have “his rights to license, visa, land tenure[,] and the right to work suspended” as a punishment, many never experience these rights in the first place (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82, article 37). At the time of my fieldwork, I found that many civil servants were unclear as to whether or not they had been demobilized and were, therefore, eligible to enjoy these citizenship rights. Regardless of whether or not national service had been completed, extensive documentation and permission from a large number of bureaucratic functionaries were needed to start a business, quit a government job, acquire an exit visa, and even travel to another part of the country. Furthermore, no written policy explained this process. Acquiring documentation and permission often proved to be close to impossible and thus was experienced as a legal prohibition. Eritreans themselves often commented to me that laws and policies were “written in pencil,” yet Eritreans experienced the material, and often detrimental, effects of governing officials’ capacity to carry out these constantly mutating laws and policies. In this context, where the force of law is more salient than the written law, ethnographic methods, which have a unique capacity to apprehend everyday experiences, become a particularly important means of gathering information. 

The lack of written law and policy has some historical precedent in Eritrea. A practice of not writing down many laws and policies emerged from Eritrea’s history as an insurgency (Connell 2011). It therefore comes as little surprise that a climate of silence and secrecy pervades Eritrean political culture. Government officials often do not have full information. When information is obscured, fact and interpretation often blend seamlessly into each other, making partial information, rumors, and gossip particularly salient to understanding often veiled political commentary. This is often the case in authoritarian regimes, where it is particularly important to attend carefully to everyday experiences as well as rumors, jokes, and other forms of political commentary that fall outside the gaze of the government, including classroom debates (Wedeen 1999). 

Data for this paper are taken from a larger study of nationalism, state formation, and teachers, made during periods of ethnographic fieldwork in Eritrea’s South Red Sea zone between 2000 and 2005. The study, grounded in the field of political anthropology, seeks to understand, first, how Eritreans encounter and experience the state through schools, and second, how this encounter reshapes national identities. This paper specifically looks at debates in classrooms in two secondary schools set in the context of broader political and policy shifts taking place at that time. Findings come out of an analysis of field notes on classroom observations recorded over the course of two years and are supplemented by data from interviews with teachers and participant-observation during the same period. 

Research on teachers and students illuminates the paradoxes of Eritrean nationalism because teachers and students imagined themselves as being the kind of citizen who should have the right to travel and advance beyond the status of other Eritrean citizens. As with many other places, the processes of cultural production inherent in becoming educated endowed  Eritreans with a sense of themselves as a distinct type of citizen (Levinson, Foley, and Holland 1996). My own work has detailed the ways in which educated people in Eritrea imagined their role in the nation in ways that marked them as distinct from the population at large (Riggan 2009).

Developing a Nation in a Transnational Era: Eritrea’s Version of Graduated Sovereignty

Eritrea faces particular sovereignty challenges and opportunities as a developmental nation coming into an era marked by global flows (O’Kane and Hepner 2009, xxii). In response to the porousness of the global era, Eritrea has simultaneously enacted two strategies of governance: on the one hand, the government has embraced transnational flows and attempted to capture capital from the transnational field by cultivating and nurturing the loyalties of Eritreans around the world to make them willing financial contributors; on the other hand, it has contained the territorial nation by prohibiting Eritreans living inside Eritrea from leaving, strictly regulating life for Eritreans within Eritrea, and protecting against foreign influence. One set of governance practices extended sovereignty transnationally by governing and extracting resources from the diaspora; the other set shored up territorial sovereignty by protecting and containing the physical nation. 

Mahmood Mamdani’s concept of the bifurcated state may partially illuminate the contradictions of state policy in the Eritrean context (1996). According to Mamdani, different forms of rule within a single state lead to a distinction between a rights-bearing citizen and a state subject, each of which is governed according to different legal and political formulations.[3] Another useful framing comes from Frederick Cooper’s notion of the gatekeeper state, whereby the state situates itself economically and politically so as to coopt resources (2002). Amanda Poole’s contribution to this volume utilizes this framework to depict Eritrean state strategies of resource accumulation (Poole, this volume). Instead, however, of drawing on Mamdani’s notion of bifurcated political and legal frameworks that differentiate between citizen and subject or Cooper’s concept of gatekeeping, I find that Aihwa Ong’s term graduated sovereignty provides a useful heuristic with which to examine both the transnational economic logic that has produced the need for bifurcated policies on the part of the state and their subsequent effect on national imaginaries among Eritreans in Eritrea (Ong 1999, 2007). 

Like Mamdani’s account of bifurcation, Ong’s concept of graduated sovereignty references differential modes of governing different populations, but Ong’s conceptualization is perhaps more akin to Cooper’s, in that she emphasizes the calibration of sovereignty itself to enable the state to mobilize economic forces and extend itself beyond the confines of the territorial nation. Ong notes: “Through the differential deployment of state and non-state power, populations in different zones are variously subjected to political control and to social regulation by state and non-state actors” (1999, 217). In some of these zones, the state regulates and disciplines its subjects to better provide a docile labor force; in other zones, the state allows much greater freedom of movement, information, and expression so as to access global capital. Ong differentiates between “developmentalism. . . which takes the national economy as the target of state action” and “post-developmentalism,” a “more dispersed strategy,” which “induces the coordination of political policies with the corporate interests, so that development decisions favor the fragmentation of national space into various noncontiguous zones, and promote the differential regulation of populations who can be connected or disconnected from global circuits of capital” (2007, 77). As I explain in more detail below, Eritrea appears to be a developmental state, focused on the national economy and population, but enacting distinctly post-developmental strategies by using its own deterritorialized citizens to guard against foreign involvement. 

In 1991, when Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia, the country was noted for the nationalism that effervesced out of its populist, thirty-year armed struggle for liberation (Hepner 2009; Iyob 1995). Eritrea immediately engaged in a cultural project aimed at producing social cohesion and loyalty to the nation, although it quickly became apparent that this was a top-down nation-building project, which tolerated little to no debate over state policies (Connell 1997; Makki 1996). At the core of this project was the ideal of economic self-reliance, which eschewed foreign involvement of all kinds and led to a completely government-controlled economy (Hepner 2009; Kibreab 2009a). On several occasions, the government has forced NGOs out of the country, most recently in 2005, arguing that NGOs inhibit self-reliance and instead promote dependency (Kibreab 2009a). Agriculture, service, and construction industries are all government controlled. In the agricultural sector, which traditionally encompasses 80 percent of the population but only one-fifth of GDP, farmers are required to inform local government before they harvest and then sell the majority of their crops to the government at a set price (Ogbazghi 2011). Additionally, the government prohibits trade outside of government channels, leading to the emergence of a black market for grain, bread, and other staples—which, in turn, is policed by the government (Kibreab 2009a; Ogbazghi 2011). Meanwhile, the ruling party is required to have a majority stake in any private industries, and the party profits from these industries while national service provides them with a cheap source of labor in the form of conscripts (Kibreab 2009b). The vast majority of the population between the ages of eighteen and forty is in national service, most serving in military units. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but some estimates suggest as many as 350,000 are in active service (Hirt and Mohammad 2013). A large proportion of the civil service, including teachers, was comprised of national service labor at the time of my fieldwork, and, given that private sector employment is minimal, the government employs the vast majority of educated people. Those in national service and those in the civil service face similar restrictions. My fieldwork revealed that civil servants, like those in national service, often could not choose their job or where they work, quit their job, acquire an exit visa, or have access to their university diploma. 

Indicators suggest that the economic picture for Eritrea is increasingly bleak. Since the Border War ended in 2000, inflation, slow growth, increased deficit, and national expenditures vastly outpacing revenues all reflect a troubled economy (Kibreab 2009a).[4] While gold mining has sped up growth in recent years, major economic challenges remain (World Bank 2011).[5] 

In theory, Eritrea’s program of national service proposes to utilize its labor pool for self-reliant development projects, one of the main goals of national service (Government of Eritrea 1995, 82), but the reality is that maintaining such a large number of people on active military duty and in the civil service has been expensive, and the state has not been able to translate this captive labor pool into economic value (International Crisis Group 2010). In 2000, Eritrea allocated more than 30 percent of its GDP to the military (UNDP 2013), and some estimates suggest that Eritrea may have allocated close to 20 percent of its GDP to the military in 2005 (Bozzini 2011). Thus, those in national service are expected to serve in the name of national development, and they are threatened with punishments if they abandon national service, but the cost of maintaining this labor pool may have actually impeded growth (Kibreab 2009a). 

In the face of economic challenges, remittances and revenue from the government’s 2-percent tax on the Eritrean diaspora have become increasingly important resources (International Crisis Group 2010). In fact, not only was the Eritrean diaspora essential for supporting both Eritrea’s war for independence and the Border War, but since independence the government has become increasingly dependent on the diaspora as a source of capital (Al-Ali, Black, and Koser 2001; Bernal 2004, 2005; Hepner 2008, 2009; Makki 1996). Members of the diaspora have been strongly encouraged to send voluntary contributions in times of hardship (Hepner 2009). Although little specific information is available about remittances, it is estimated that an average of US $226 million per year were remitted to Eritrea, and that as of 2005 approximately one-third of Eritrea’s GDP came from remittances (Tessema 2009). The effect of remittances from the diaspora is probably even higher, because many send money through illegal, black-market channels, rather than through government banks. 

In contrast to discipline of the territorially bound population, policies toward the diaspora cultivate a relationship between diasporic citizens and the homeland with the goal of securing a constant source of revenue, as well as political support for the ruling regime. In exchange for paying taxes and demonstrating political compliance to the government, members of the diaspora have more robust citizenship rights, including the ability to move freely in and out of the country. They can participate in other pleasant events that seem intent on nurturing attachments to the nation, such as the annual summer Expo in Asmara and tours of the military training center at Sawa for young people. Additionally, they can acquire land and build homes in and around Asmara. Thus, treatment of citizens in the diaspora cultivates their loyalties and linkages to the homeland in pleasant and pleasurable ways while reminding them of their duty to sacrifice for the nation—and doing all of this in a way that enables the government to extract much-needed resources from this population. 

As with Ong’s conceptualization of graduated sovereignty, laws, regulations, and forms of discipline in Eritrea are calibrated to extend sovereignty across a transnational field and shore up sovereignty within the territorial nation. Eritrea’s policies cultivate and nurture relationships with its diaspora to capture capital from parts of the world where capital is readily available. Meanwhile, Eritrea takes advantage of political conditions within Eritrea to coerce and discipline its territorial population into providing free labor to the government. Arguably, these strategies are not quite working, particularly when viewed from the perspective of territorially bound Eritreans, who feel the pain of shortages and inflation caused by economic struggles: they have seen no rewards from their own labor or the system of economic self-reliance and, thus, are often left only with the experience of personal sacrifice. Meanwhile, they are aware of a diasporic population that enjoys a very different kind of relationship with the state.

Diaspora as a National Symbol; Emigration as a National Desire

Substantially different kinds of policies need to be enacted to cultivate supportive, financially nurturing nationalism from members of the diaspora and ensure a compliant labor force among Eritreans in Eritrea. According to Ong’s conceptualization, the distinction between cultivation and care on the one hand and discipline and regulation on the other is key. Policies of cultivation and care not only garner economic support (as the government intends them to), but symbolically shape the way Eritreans in Eritrea imagine their future. This is perhaps an unanticipated side effect of these policies. At the time of my fieldwork, Eritreans living in Eritrea were keenly aware that the diaspora and its contributions to the nation were celebrated while they themselves increasingly felt exploited. 

Literature on transnationalism has suggested that increased global linkages not only connect a nation with its diasporic community and vice versa, but that these connections fundamentally alter the nature of the nation from a territorially bounded entity to one that operates across spaces (Bernal 2004, 2005; Hepner 2009). In this process, new ways of imagining emerge that enable people to think of themselves as members of a deterritorialized community (Appadurai 1996). Those who leave home are imaginatively and materially linked to home in a variety of ways, and the presence of that imagined home shapes their desires to return. At the same time, the desires of those who cannot leave are shaped by their imagination of the lives of those who have left, thus framing their desire to leave (Dick 2010). The diaspora and those at home thus figure prominently in each other’s imagined sense of the nation and national belonging. 

The diaspora materially supports the nation and plays a symbolic role in the production of Eritrean nationalism, particularly among those residing in Eritrea. The destiny of Eritrea as a diasporic state has been built around the desire for a viable, independent, internationally recognized, sovereign state to which those dispersed by conflict could safely return (Iyob 2000). Extending this discussion, I suggest that national identities in Eritrea have been built around this nationalism of longing and the romance of return to the nation. 

Imaginaries of returning to the homeland have played a powerful role in framing the national identities of Eritreans in the diaspora, but imaginaries of leaving home have framed national identities of Eritreans in Eritrea. The same graduated policies that have cultivated relationships between the state and the diasporic citizen and encouraged flows between Eritrea and countries in which the diaspora reside have inadvertently made Eritreans in Eritrea both aware and resentful of the highly regulated, constrained, and disciplinary relationship that they have with the state. At a time when a state’s capacity to serve as an “ideological container” (Trouillot 2001) for the nation is often compromised, the Eritrean state has provided an extraordinarily strong ideological container, particularly for its diaspora (Bernal 2004). Ironically, for the same reasons it has provided a strong container for diasporic identities, it has perhaps not provided as strong an ideological container in Eritrea for those living under the disciplinary mechanisms of the state. Gaim Kibreab has explored the relationship between refugees’ longing for home and their pragmatic evaluation of where they will have full citizenship rights and the best ability to survive (2003). Eritrean refugees’ decisions to repatriate or remain in exile following independence weigh these factors against each other, and ultimately, their sense of their citizenship rights and belief that they will be looked after by the state play a key role in determining whether they will return (Kibreab 2000, 2003). Conversely, Eritreans in Eritrea evaluate the status of their citizenship rights and weigh rights against notions of home and loyalty to country in their debate over whether or not to leave the country.

Eritreans in Eritrea see themselves as being denied the citizenship rights that they have worked hard for and had initially been promised by the government. During the course of my fieldwork, Eritreans commented daily on their frustration with the endlessness of national service, the inability to quit a job or find alternative employment, the overall quality of governance in Eritrea, and the control that governing officials had over everyday lives. Less frequent, but still pervasive, were complaints about the government’s failure to hold elections or implement the Constitution. A sense of malaise had taken place, evident in the increasing sense of hopelessness that I noted and that has been noted in other ethnographic work from the same period (Poole 2009; Treiber 2009). More recent research suggests that this sense of hopelessness has worsened since then (Hirt and Mohammad 2013; Reid 2009).

In contrast, members of the diaspora—nicknamed belles, after the cactus fruit that ripens only in summer—came, went, and traveled freely throughout the country. Eritreans in Eritrea often joked about the way belles talked—loudly—in upscale cafes that most Eritreans could scarcely afford, and they complained about the traffic caused by belles’ elaborate weddings in the summers in Asmara. The freedoms that members of the diaspora had and wealth differentials between the diaspora and Eritreans in Eritrea were obvious, and both were blamed on government policies that kept Eritreans in national service indefinitely. “Teachers never grow up,” several research subjects complained to me, describing the economically backward state they felt permanently relegated to. In this government-controlled economy, where the vast majority of employees were in either national service or the civil service, economic difficulties were blamed directly on the government and conflated with government repression.

Additionally, the desires for return and a sense of duty among Eritreans in the diaspora were used by the government as a public spectacle to idealize national loyalty among the diaspora. During the Border War, the monetary contributions of members of the diaspora were regularly reported on Eritrean television, portraying members of the diaspora as ideal citizens willing to make sacrifices for their country. Although willingness to sacrifice for the nation is a cornerstone of Eritrean nationalism, diasporic sacrifices were publicly depicted as being more significant. The diaspora was celebrated in the Eritrean media. Scenes on Eritrean television from the annual festivals in Asmara and around the world idealized the patriotism of the diaspora by publicly displaying the heightened emotional euphoria experienced through celebrating the nation. Accomplishments of famous Eritreans in the diaspora, particularly musicians and athletes, were celebrated. They came to serve as a symbol of a transnational nationalism, but for Eritreans in Eritrea, these national heroes and heroines were a symbol of a lifestyle that could not be attained and a set of choices that could not be made without leaving the country.

The impossibility of leaving the country and these symbolic and actual encounters with the diaspora fueled the desire to leave. Emigration from Eritrea has been steadily on the rise since 2003, with increasing numbers of Eritrean refugees located mainly in Sudan and Ethiopia. At present, there are an estimated quarter of a million Eritrean refugees—a strikingly high number for a country of 5.3 million and a number that has doubled since 2003 (UNHCR 2003, 2011). The increase in asylum applications speaks to Eritreans’ ongoing flight from political conditions. Between 1996, four years after independence, and 2000, at the end of the Border War, asylum applications rose from 610 to 2,675 (UNHCR 2002). Asylum applications between 2003 and 2005 rose from 7,650 to 15,910, and 25,543 new Eritreans applied for asylum in 2011 (UNHCR 2005, 2011). More anecdotally, but equally poignantly, when I first lived in Eritrea in 1995, many Eritrean friends could not fathom wanting to leave their country: a phrase that has stuck in my head since that time is “nothing is sweeter than your country.” When I returned to Eritrea in 2003, many of the people who had been talking about the sweetness of living in one’s country were asking me for help with applications for visas to the United States or asking if I could sponsor them to immigrate.

The romance of return and the longing for the homeland shaped the imaginaries of Eritreans in Eritrea in a somewhat paradoxical way. Romanticizing the return (and the returnees) produced a desire to leave so that one might be able to return and enjoy a different sense of national duty, one with more freedom and less hardship, one in which sacrifice was constituted by monetary contributions rather than labor. Thus, longing for the nation took the form of longing to leave and to replace one’s military duty to the nation with the less disciplinary and more joyful participation in the transnational citizenry, and yet, as I illustrate below, these longings were in constant tension with notions of duty that revolved around staying home to defend and build the country.

Debating the Nation

Classroom debates on the question “Is it good or bad to leave one’s country?” illustrate the ways in which students dynamically engaged with the double standard produced through these different definitions of citizenship. The ability of the diaspora to move relatively freely in, out of, and within the country, the perception that members of the diaspora could pursue education and work of their choice abroad, and the sense that the diaspora had the chance to enjoy the country (rather than just suffer and sacrifice for it) led to a rethinking of the meaning of duty to the nation among Eritreans living under the disciplinary control of the state. 

In 2003, debates were arguably one of the few formats in which the process of redefining citizenship duties could have occurred. That year was a pivotal moment for Eritrean students and teachers. Educational policy was changed, effectively to merge the completion of high school with the beginning of military training. This policy, combined with the government’s failure to demobilize those who had been in national or military service for five years or more, was leading students to believe that the state was radically altering their life trajectory. As part of a comprehensive reform of its education system, promotion policies were rewritten to enable all students to complete high school. A parallel policy implemented the same year required students to complete their final year of high school at a boarding school located in the country’s military-training facility and to complete military training before beginning grade twelve (Riggan 2009). All of this led to deep uncertainty on the part of teachers and students, whose understanding of their role as educated citizens appeared to be opposed to state definitions of military citizenship. Educational processes often enable educated people to imagine themselves as endowed with privilege and occupying an exceptional place in society, as has been well documented (Coe 2005; Levinson 2001; Luykx 1999; Stambach 2000). In contrast, policies introduced in 2003 were intent on integrating educated citizens into the broader mass of militarized citizens, creating a disconnect that I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (Riggan 2009). 

Debates opened up spaces in which students could rethink the role of the educated person in the nation. Debates were one of several techniques recommended to teachers, particularly in English and history.[6] Amid a generalized sense that one could not critique the government in a public forum, classroom debates unwittingly opened up spaces for dialogue. The carnivalesque environment freed students to take a political stance that they might not otherwise have felt free taking. Bakhtin and others have noted that the carnival locates its participants in a space where norms, rules, and authority are overturned (Bakhtin 1984; Mbembe 2001; Woldemikael 2009). Under the guise of practicing a foreign language, students engaging in the debate could create and act out highly politicized roles, and in doing so, they could discuss perspectives normally impossible to discuss in such an open forum. Typical norms of classroom behavior altered to produce a more chaotic environment, but this inversion of norms emboldened students to say things that may not have been safe to say in other contexts. The debate created a playful public sphere, which departed from both the government-dominated public voice in Eritrea and the diasporic public spheres in which modalities of being Eritrean tend to become polarized, as one is cast either with the government or against it (Bernal 2005). As students rationalized their claims that leaving the country was good or bad, they engaged with government-sponsored nationalist rhetoric of service, sacrifice, and self-sufficiency but reinterpreted it. 

Debate topics helped shape the dialogue. Teachers had a great deal of freedom to choose debate topics, and they often chose topics that would lend themselves to political commentary. Debates covered a range of subjects, from abstractions like “Which is better: money or knowledge?” and “Which is better: social science or natural science?” to specific material like “Was the Italian colonial period beneficial or detrimental to Eritrea?” What is interesting about debates was the way they created opportunities for students to comment on the political conditions of the country, particularly on issues of importance to them, such as national service, the university, the border situation, and the war. For example, in a debate on whether social science or natural science is better, students evoked the Border War as evidence that politicians (social scientists) were responsible for getting Eritrea into the war and that scientists who made the weapons would make it possible to win it. Although teachers generally picked fairly abstract topics, which were then politicized by students, the topics sometimes seemed to have an intentionally political side. One teacher asked students to stand up in front of the class and imagine that they were running for president of Eritrea. Debates on all topics tended to wind their way back in some form to national politics and issues students wrestled with, such as how to improve their own lives and still help their country. While politicized topics, however, lent themselves to debate and critique, they did not force students to be critical. Students could, and did, willingly “toe the party line.” Thus, what I point out in the analysis that follows is not so much an example of overt resistance, but of an attempt to wrestle with contradictions created by the relationships among graduated citizenship, a sense of national duty, and national service. 

The debates from an eleventh-grade English class on the question of whether it is better to stay in your country or emigrate were particularly representative of the lines of thought that redefined notions of duty to the nation. For grade-eleven students, about to enter grade twelve and an indefinite period of national service, the question of emigration was a highly personal one. The debate allowed them to express divergent views about their country, its government, and the position of Eritrea and Eritreans in the world. 

The debate began by defining two sets of ideas. Several students made comments that suggested that “life without country is too difficult” and “the word migration means spoiling the culture and religion”; these phrases show how leaving can be cast as a betrayal to oneself, one’s country, and one’s culture. In contrast, several students articulated the viewpoint that one does not “have a country” when there are “harsh conditions” and “leaders are oppressing their people.” Here, the country is cast as unworthy of its citizens unless it takes care of them. These two ideas—that migration was a betrayal to one’s country, and that migration was the only choice, given the political conditions—loosely framed the poles of the debate. Leaving the country was tantamount to killing the culture, but staying was impossible because people had no choices. 

What was most interesting about the debate was students’ attempt to find a middle ground between those poles, an attempt that the following sequence emphasizes:

A student said he wanted to live in both his own country and abroad—to go abroad to get better education and then to come home to develop his country. 

The next student opposed this idea, rather anxiously, saying that tomorrow Eritrea could be like European countries and, “If many of the young people leave, who is going to develop the country?”

Then another student said, “You can’t develop your country by staying because you will be ignorant if you stay here. There is no education here.” (Fieldnotes 2003)

The first student who speaks, struggles to define national duty amid an awareness of limited possibilities, particularly for educated people, and to suggest that leaving could help develop the country. This attempt to redefine national duty is immediately opposed by a student who evokes the specter of everyone’s leaving and emptying out the country, and then by another student, who evokes a contrary specter by asserting that development cannot happen in a country where there is no education. 

What emerges next in the debate reflects a complex politics of the belly, where the ability of Eritrea to take care of its people is debated:

A girl raised the problem of economic conditions in America by asking, “If you leave, who will feed you? It’s better to stay home than to be hungry.”

One of the boys who had been very outspoken throughout the debate addressed the critique that if you leave, you won’t help the country: “When we go abroad, we’re going to get something. Lack of food is the first problem that makes people go away. If you go there, people will help you; here, no one helps you.” He went on to say that he might be a “sweeper” in another country, but he could “get dollars,” and he would eventually improve his skills and his job. He concluded, “There, you can earn a little money and have a peaceful mind.”

Another boy rebutted him, saying, “In America, they will feed you but won’t give you skills to develop your country: they will only take your labor.” (Fieldnotes 2003)

The question “Who will feed you?” illuminates concerns about being cared for and raises the question of where one will be better cared for. The implicit question here is whether Eritrea cares for its people. Only one student depicts Eritrea as capable of serving as a caretaker of its people by saying, “If you leave, who will feed you?” Other students agreed with one student’s assertion that “lack of food is the first problem that makes people go away”; the inability of Eritrea to be a caretaker actually fueled expressions of the desire to leave. 

Depictions of country as caretaker or negligent caretaker frame discussions of whether leaving is a sacrifice or a selfish act. As is apparent above, while only one student thought one would eat better in Eritrea, a range of opinions addressed what the implications of eating better would be for a decision to emigrate. Discussions of a full belly reveal many students’ awareness of hardships they would face if they did leave the country. The comment “It’s better to stay home than go hungry” reflected an awareness of difficult economic conditions for people who had left the country and suggested that one would be better cared for at home. In contrast, another student believed he would be a “sweeper” (relegated to low-wage labor) if he left, but thought that was still the better option. Students were aware of economic hardships they would face if they left. Leaving, as much as staying, is thus depicted as a form of sacrifice. 

In contrast, as the debate goes on, the desire for a full belly is critiqued as an attempt to put one’s desire for material comfort and individual well-being over the good of the country:

A boy who had been quiet until now stood and disagreed, saying that people abroad received better education. To this, the boy who had just spoken replied that you could get personal tools from education, but this wouldn’t help you develop your country.

Another student added, “If people in this country think only of their stomach, there will be no development. If everyone leaves, what will the next generations do? I think it is better to live here.” (Fieldnotes 2003)

The statement “If people in this country think only of their stomach, there will be no development”—which follows a critique that education abroad would afford personal tools but not help develop the country—suggests that one’s material needs should come second to the needs of the nation: one should sacrifice for the nation by staying home and sticking it out, even if the country cannot take care of its people. Leaving is seen as self-serving, in contrast to staying to work for the nation. 

Throughout the debate, the value of knowledge is pitted against the full belly. Education figures prominently in the way students imagine their role in building the nation, so the location of knowledge to develop the nation becomes an important question in the debate. While the full stomach is depicted as selfish, gaining knowledge is depicted as important for the nation, but questions are raised about where knowledge comes from and whose knowledge can develop the nation:

“It’s not about stomach: it’s about knowledge,” one student said emphatically.

Then a student asked a question: “Are people in developed countries going to other countries to learn? No! They get their knowledge from their own country, and then come to exploit developing countries.” (Fieldnotes 2003)

On the one hand, students constructed an education–emigration continuum by arguing that the nation could be developed only if educated people were willing to leave, experience political freedom, and get a better education; emigrating was thus depicted as something good for the country, something that entailed great sacrifice. On the other hand, the site of knowledge for developing the country was debated, and questions were raised as to whether outside knowledge would help the country. Repeatedly, both in this class and in others, those arguing in favor of leaving suggested that they had to leave to get a good education—which, by implication, was not available in Eritrea. No one refuted the assertion that education in Eritrea was poor, but many argued against the idea that knowledge from another country could successfully develop Eritrea. 

Overall, a striking thing about this debate is that students were discussing what was good for the country as much as, or even more than, what was good for them personally. Those who wished to leave overwhelmingly sought to contextualize a desire to leave as something that would help the country or was inevitable because the country had failed them. The attempt to situate the longing to leave within the discourse of helping the nation resonates with patterns that I found throughout the course of my fieldwork. Even in turbulent times, when teachers, students, and others were deeply unhappy about government policies and practices, the vast majority continued to be deeply nationalistic; they continued to adhere to the core tenet of Eritrean nationalism: that everyone must serve and sacrifice for the nation. Thus, in the course of this debate, students were interrogating and critiquing policies of the state while casting themselves as loyal citizens. In doing so, they argued that leaving the country could help the country. 

In contrast, other students expressed concern that knowledge gained abroad would not be the right kind of knowledge to develop the country and that the best thing to do for one’s country was to stay. This casts those who stay in Eritrea as the true keepers of national development and thereby casts the work and sacrifices of Eritreans in Eritrea as more legitimate than that of others. The question of if or how one could contribute to the nation by leaving the country was raised in a debate in another class and is reflected most clearly below:

To support the argument that one can leave the country and still support the nation, a boy pointed out that people who go abroad have sent a lot of money to help the war.

A girl then stood and responded passionately, saying “Giving money and lives is not the same. Giving money is easy. Easy.”

Another boy stood up and continued to make the same point, saying, “You can’t compare money with defending your country.”

These points effectively silenced the class and ended the debate. (Fieldnotes 2003)

These statements seem to borrow from nationalist themes emanating from the history of the struggle for independence and suggest that being truly national is being willing to sacrifice everything for the nation. These points about the sacrifices of Eritreans in Eritrea in contrast to those of Eritreans in the diaspora articulate with government definitions of sacrifice-based nationalism, but they point to an awareness of deep inequities between the classes of citizens. It was thus an attempt to elevate the sacrifices of those who stay home over those of the diaspora, but also a commentary on unequal expectations: the diaspora is encouraged to send money, which the government badly needs, while those in Eritrea are expected to devote their lives to serving the country. 

Overall, what I hope to have illustrated above is the way in which schoolroom debates reflect an imaginary of the role of the diaspora in building—and sacrificing for—Eritrea. Clearly, some students are trying to carve out a role in building the nation for those who try to leave, while others continually assert that it is those who stay who are truly loyal, the ones who really care about the future development of the nation. In doing this, the inequities between different classes of citizens are exposed as the nature of different forms of sacrifice is debated. Ultimately, while students disagree about whether leaving the country can be construed as one’s national duty, they converge on an awareness of these inequities.


Above, I have attempted to explore the effects of Eritrea’s version of graduated sovereignty on students’ definition of national duty. Graduated policies have created different categories of citizens: diasporic citizens, whose loyalties are cultivated so they will continue to make financial contributions to the nation, and territorially bound citizens, required to engage in national military service. For diasporic citizens, payment of taxes to the government and political compliance continues to be a prerequisite for full citizenship rights, and if these conditions are met, they can move freely in and out of the country, own property, and enjoy certain freedoms and privileges as Eritrean citizens. In contrast, territorially bound citizens are theoretically supposed to have full citizenship rights once national service is complete, but in reality, national service continues to be endless for many, and even when it ends, many struggle to have the same rights as members of the diaspora. 

Eritreans are keenly aware of these graduated policies, and, as I have argued here, the treatment of people in the diaspora makes territorially bound Eritreans long to leave, desiring not just to escape from a repressive state and the economic hardships it imposes on its population, but to be Eritrean in a different way, to be a citizen of a different kind. People in the diaspora and government efforts to cultivate diasporic nationalism inadvertently model this other way of being Eritrean to territorially bound Eritreans. 

My analysis of classroom debates on this topic have shown the ways in which these contradictions played out among Eritrean students, who, by virtue of their age and life stage, were poised to join national service, but, being educated people, thought of themselves as having the rights to travel and learn from and about the world. All these youth cared about the future development of the country, but many tried to cast their devotion in terms of loyally leaving the country so as to help it. Others clung to more traditional notions of sacrifice and duty and cast themselves as the truly sacrificing Eritreans. 

Graduated sovereignty attempts to disperse sovereignty across a transnational space, governing populations differently so as to take advantage of different economic configurations, but Eritrea, with its insistence on self-reliance and containment, is inventing its own version of graduated sovereignty, one that produces side effects that may be problematic for the state. As I note above, economic reliance on the diaspora is insufficient to fund the labor pool in national service. More importantly for the arguments presented in this article, when a state simultaneously extends sovereignty over a transnational populace and creates different categories of citizenship within that populace, each endowed with different rights and duties, that state loses control over the ways in which the nation is imagined. This makes graduated citizenship precarious in Eritrea and elsewhere. New ways of thinking about, imagining, and debating the nation are opened up, even as the state seeks to bind territorial and diasporic Eritreans to state-produced notions of duty, sacrifice, and self-reliance.


Research for this article was supported by funding from a Spencer Foundation and National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship, an International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, and a research grant from the Fulbright Foundation and Institute of International Education. I thank Kathleen Hall, Sandra Barnes, and Ritty Lukose for mentoring and guidance throughout the research and writing process. I am grateful to Tekle Woldemikael, Ruth Iyob, and anonymous reviewers for their wonderfully helpful comments on drafts of this article.


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  1. Pocket money can be anywhere between 145 nakfa and 400 nakfa. It depends on whether conscripts while in service are in the military living with their unit or living on their own. At the current government exchange rate of 1 US dollar to 14.5 nakfa, this is the equivalent of 10 to 25 dollars per month. The government exchange rates, however, are notoriously inflated. Black-market exchange rates more accurately reflect the value of the currency and at the time of writing are between 45 and 46 nakfa to the dollar.
  2. A full discussion of the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign is beyond the scope of this article. For a further discussion of it and its relationship with national service, see Bozzini 2011 and Kibreab 2009b.
  3. Mamdani’s bifurcated state emerges from a historical understanding of parallel forms of governance produced simultaneously as elements of direct and indirect rule evolved side by side within the same state and were then appropriated by nationalist movements that reproduced the same parallel forms. Although the distinction in Eritrea between diasporic citizens, governed by one set of regulations, and territorial subjects, governed by another, appears to resonate with Mamdani’s notion of bifurcation, the historical trajectory in Eritrea has been quite different, given that the composition of the Eritrean diaspora does not neatly map on to any colonial-era category, and the ruling and liberating party has spread the centralized state throughout the country, leaving little space for bifurcation in Mamdani’s sense.
  4. Inflation in Eritrea was 29.5 percent in 2009, 11.6% percent in 2010, and 13.3 percent in 2011. Additionally, “Large fiscal and trade deficits are managed through price, exchange rate[,] and interest rate controls, which have led to a shortage of foreign exchange and a fall in private sector activity” (World Bank 2011).
  5. Eritrea was one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa in 2011, mainly because of mining. Growth in GDP increased from 2.2 percent in 2010 to 14 percent in 2011 (World Bank 2011).
  6. Despite the fact that the new reforms encouraged debates, debates were not a new activity. A long tradition of debates dated back to the 1960s and 1970. Debates were held within classes and as schoolwide competitions. Within classes, the form that debates took involved the whole class. Sometimes these debates were structured competitively, with two teams facing off against each other; at other times, the entire class was asked to prepare comments on a topic and the teacher would call on individuals or groups to present their opinion. The debate I discuss here follows the latter format.


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