The Catch-22 of Resistance: Jokes and the Political Imagination of Eritrean Conscripts

David M. Bozzini


Because of authoritarianism, almost no collective protests or acts of resistance have emerged since 2001 in Eritrea. Dissidence manifests itself only through indiscipline, obstruction, desertion, and exile. Expressions of discontent and condemnation are carefully concealed in private spheres. This article presents and analyzes how Eritrean conscripts perceive and criticize the political arena and state power in their country by analyzing a corpus of discourse and jokes they share among each other about the state, the government, and its policies. In accounting for this form of resistance, this article documents how these views and their humor, in challenging the legitimacy and the hegemony of the political elites, often contribute to the reification and accentuation of certain characteristics of state power.

The Eritrean Postrevolutionary State and National Service[1]

God surveys the world one day, seeing the mountains, valleys, seas, and all there is. Suddenly, God stops and exclaims: “Why is Eritrea so green? I specifically made that country dry and yellow!” The angel Gabriel leans over and whispers: “My Lord, those are army uniforms.” 

Recounted in an article by the journalist Jack Kimball (2008), this joke refers to the ongoing militarization of Eritrea. It is one among many jokes that conscripts share in murmuring to people they trust. On the brink of collapsing after the war against Ethiopia (1998–2000), the Eritrean political leadership managed to reorganize itself through violence and repression. In 2001, freedom of the press was suspended, journalists were arrested, university students who raised concerns were sent to desert camps for several months, and the PFDJ[2] was purged of the contenders of President Isaias Afwerki. Undeclared martial law was enforced, and thenceforth arbitrariness, despotic modalities of governance, and erratic and unstable rules defined the postrevolutionary Eritrean state (Bozzini 2011a). 

Demobilization of the soldiers who participated in the war was delayed: of the 350,000 soldiers counted in 2001 (World Bank 2002), only 104,400 were demobilized in 2006.[3] Tens of thousands of new recruits continued to be conscripted each year to national service (in Tigrinya, hagärawi ạgälglot).[4] Mandatory for both male and female citizens aged 18, such mobilization, although legally limited to 18 months, has become permanent. Nowadays, national service represents the central pillar of the national developmental campaign known as Wofri Warsai-Yikealo,[5] which aims to reconstruct a country devastated by the recent war (Rena 2008). In reality, it aims above all to implement a planned economy through forced labor (Gaim 2009) and to facilitate the authoritarian control of most social activities. This militarization of Eritrean society reflects the party’s and government’s obsession with security policies, founded in the three decades of struggle for independence and justified by the absence of a border demarcation with Ethiopia (Bundegaard 2004; Dorman 2005; Pool 2001; Reid 2005; Iyob 1995). 

By forcing conscripts to serve permanently in its civilian and military institutions, the state considerably limits the lives of young adults in Eritrea.[6] Boarding schools prepare them for the service (Debessay 2003; Riggan 2009), and conscription organizes the masses: a forced one when citizens abide by the rules, or a prosecuted one if they do not; however, the modes of surveillance and control by the state never cease to change and induce a multiplicity of uncertainties for the young Eritreans who have to live with national service (Bozzini 2011a, 2011b). Ranked at the bottom of public service, conscripts find themselves in a situation of dependence and vulnerability, which offers them limited perspectives for the future: “Eritrea set up one of the most massive youth mobilization efforts ever seen in Africa. . . In the eye of the governing circles, the young generation has no agency and no autonomy but must continue to follow the precepts of nation-building as defined by the leaders” (Abbink 2005, 28). 

Since the end of the conflict and the repressive measures of 2001, overt criticism and complaints about politics and state agents have been considered risky practices, and over the last decade, almost no collective contestations, such as protests or strikes, have occurred in Eritrea,[7] but as the joke given above indicates, conscripts subvert the official policies and narratives. If most of them are willing to serve the country for a time, it is obvious that nobody agrees to serve indefinitely without having future career prospects (Bozzini 2011a; Gaim 2013). It is therefore no surprise that such a situation has led to a massive exodus of conscripts.[8] This illustrates two important dynamics. First, it shows that many Eritreans of an age to be conscripted do not conform to the nationalist and official rationale for extraordinary mobilization (the current stalemate of the border demarcation with Ethiopia). Second, it indicates that desertion and clandestinity in Eritrea are not a sustainable option for many of them, especially for male conscripts.[9] If desertion is without doubt the most remarkable act of resistance[10] to the state leadership and its militaristic ideology, this article aims at analyzing subtler forms of dissidence that occur, almost beyond sight, inside Eritrea. The performances of resistance and protest by conscripts in reaction to government policies and party propaganda are quite limited and carefully concealed from the public arena.[11] Nonetheless, they are widespread and performed on a daily basis by conscripts, accounting thus for their relative agency and autonomy. In this respect, acts of resistance have to be understood in the sense that James Scott gives to them: an infrapolitics composed of daily insubordinations performed behind the scene. This kind of insubordination is the most common and widespread form of resistance since it requires no coordination, and it limits the risk of sanctions by avoiding direct confrontation (Scott 1990). 

Several scholars have analyzed such forms of resistance and protests in Eritrea, ranging from disapproval about indefinite national service (Bozzini 2011a; Müller 2012a; Treiber 2009) and several other policies (Müller 2008; O’Kane 2012; Riggan 2009, 2013a, 2013b; Woldemikael 2009; Reid 2009; Poole 2013) to protest behaviors such as falsifications, draft dodging, conscientious objection, and illegal departure from Eritrea (Bozzini 2011b; Hirt and Saleh Mohammad 2013; Treiber 2004).[12] In the same vein, this article draws on the undeniable but relative agency and autonomy that conscripts have in relation to the state and the party’s ideology. It explores, in particular, the ways in which conscripts subvert and question the social order defined by the political elites. Previous studies have already pointed at forms of ambiguity fraught in similar performances;[13] however this article aims at highlighting that resistance and discontent sometimes strengthen the power they criticize.

Outline for a Catch-22

Drawing especially on conscripts’ talk about and representation of the state and its leaders, this article investigates conscripts’ political imagination in the sense that “allows us to write about the ways political life is being thought, without presupposing that all such representations are attached to the hidden motives or economic interests of powerful groups. . . The political imagination does not only interact with ideologies, it subsumes them, i.e. it creates a greater arena within which ideologies exist” (Humphrey 2002, 259). Political imagination involves the production of narratives of history, the interpretations of national crises, and the invention of new forms of citizenship (Bernal 2005, 161–163). Speaking of imagination in this sense does not mean that conscripts’ representations of politics and state power are inaccurate: political imagination is not necessarily a fantasy, but something constituted and justified by practical experiences. 

Conscripts’ political imagination consists of portraits, opinions, explanations, theories, and jokes concerning the functioning of the bureaucracy, their superiors, and their position relative to a system that they define, despise, criticize, and sometimes justify. Two remarks are necessary with regard to the sorts of discourse selected here. First, though rumors and gossip are integral to political imagination, I do not include them in the corpus analyzed in this article. The specificities of their subversive dynamics (prediction and disclosure) and their involuntary effects (uncertainties produced by circulating several contradictory versions and ostracism) would have extended the discussion far beyond the limits imposed for an article.[14] Second, I include political jokes in the corpus despite the distinctiveness attributable to their fictive dimension. On the one hand, discussion on the role of humor has a long tradition in scholarship on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes (Fitzpatrick 1999; Krikmann and Laineste 2009; Thurston 1991). Beyond the contested functionalist perspective, which recognizes humor as a safety valve useful to individuals experiencing great pressure (Draitser 1989), jokes have served as an indicator proving that people cannot be considered simply as helpless victims of an authoritarian regime (Scott 1985; Thurston 1991; Visani 2004), but indeed have the agency to distance themselves from the dominant representations and to act according to their own will, at least to a certain extent.[15] On the other hand, scholars have underlined the importance of analyzing humor because it often “expands the range of what can be publicly expressed” and reveals and represents “an underlying reality not normally perceived or publicly acknowledged” (Bernal 2013, 304; Boyer and Yurchak 2010). If, generally speaking, the tendency in the literature is to emphasize the potentially transformative power of humor, this article underlines that political jokes, as well as other kinds of subversive talk, have a catch: howsoever subversive, they might inadvertently promote some of the dynamics and elements that they are contesting. This dilemma is found in an intrinsic political paradox in these performances of resistance, and it is similar in form to what the aviator Yossarian faces in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 ([1961] 1999), which has inspired the title of this article.[16] I show therefore, that conscripts’ representations contesting the state’s power and leadership sometimes contribute to what they fundamentally challenge. 

In this perspective, conscripts’ subversive talk contributes in different ways to the accentuation, essentialization, and externalization of state power, and performs conscripts’ subaltern relationship regarding this power. Resistance thus clearly differentiates conscripts from the state, but this distinction is far from being obvious, since conscripts are actually the main workforce of state institutions. In other words, subversive talk contributes to the shaping of the state as a powerful and abstract entity, set apart from society (Mitchell 1991). Drawing on Foucault’s analysis of the micropower of disciplines (Foucault 1979), Mitchell argues that this abstracting effect is the result of processes such as “spatial organization, temporal arrangement, functional specification, and supervision and surveillance” (1991, 95). These are essentially institutional processes promoted by leaders and experts such as military commanders and executive officers. The ethnographic material presented in this article shows, however, that radically different kinds of performances, which I call micropolitics of indiscipline, account also for the same effect. Representations and performances of people as ordinary as those presented in this article not only are the consequences of ideologies and policies on the ground, but play “a central role in the formation of the state, and more generally in the production of politics” (Bayart 2005, quoted in Cinnamon 2012, 190). In this perspective, expression of resistance and protest are sometimes more than nuanced and ambiguous (O’Kane 2012; Treiber 2009), and involuntary support of the power of political elites goes beyond self-censorship (Scott 1990), forced compliance, political passiveness, and financial flows (Müller 2012b; Reid 2009). The state is a complex, heterogeneous actant (in the sense of actor–network theory), constituted by both phenomenological and institutional realities (Abrams 1988; Aretxaga 2000; Navaro-Yashin 2005, 2007), which are the result of a complex, changing, and performing network of representations, affects, and processes that sometimes go far beyond the formal limits of state institutions as usually defined. The state, understood as a network composed of a multitude of heterogeneous elements, is always determined by events, measures, and representations that are temporarily the object of an anthropological analysis. 

This article is based on two years of fieldwork in Eritrea (2005–2007), where I interviewed and lived with people enrolled in national service and working in civil institutions such as schools, ministries, and other state offices.[17] The ethnographic material presented here is based on inquiries conducted in 2006 with male Tigrinya conscripts of high-school or college education and of Christian background, aged from twenty-one to forty years old. Most of them were urbanites, but a few were raised in rural areas of the highlands (käbäsa) until they joined the national service after military training. Therefore, this study does not account for perspectives from freedom fighters, higher state officers, civilians of an older generation, Tigrinya women, exiles, and individuals from other ethnic groups. Similar views were shared by Tigrinya, including some who had been deported from Ethiopia in 1999–2000, and Djeberti individuals whom I met during my stay in Eritrea and by several deserters of different backgrounds whom I met in Europe. Jokes and excerpts of dissent-enacting discourse were mainly collected informally in Asmara among small groups of friends, at home, strolling, sitting in cafés, or during celebrations such as weddings and saints’ commemorations (ngdät). Restricted access to state offices and the utmost precaution of my respondents, in relation to their practices of resistance and their strategies of circumvention at work, have determined another limitation of this study. Such practices are thus less analyzed than the subversive talk and political jokes that they shared with me.[18] Discussions were held in English and sometimes in Tigrinya. For obvious reasons and to respect the will of my research participants, names and personal details, such as place of assignment, have been altered or omitted.

The Limits of Open Defiance and Criticism

Acts of defiance have been rare in Eritrea since 2001.[19] Nevertheless, conscripts dare sometimes to resist their chiefs or their assignment in national service. Such acts occur mostly in the form of indiscipline or obstruction at the individual level and are either veiled or trivial. For instance, conscripts assigned to teach in schools delay their return to work after weekends or summer or national holidays, knowing that usually their superiors are unable to take significant retaliation against them (Riggan 2013b). At most, their pay can be suspended for some months, but for many, the amount it represents is negligible compared to the benefit of additional days spent with relatives at home.[20] Conscripts deliberately omit to pass on information, they hide and distort their knowledge when others claim technical difficulties, or they deliberately fail to find an answer to the lack of equipment in order to limit their commitment at work. Common forms of sabotage occur when, for example, trainees in information technology or in engineering intentionally fail to use equipment with the required care; some refuse to do so when they believe that their expertise and work are crucial for the population, as with regard to prospecting for water and drilling wells. 

Everyday forms of insubordination are rarely straightforward and almost never collective. They often take shape silently and behind the scenes to limit the risk of sanctions; however, miscalculations happen, and their consequences change the life course of those who, like Kiflom, are unmasked. Kiflom was assigned as a technician to a ministry in Asmara. He was in charge of setting up a complex database. While the technical challenge was of some interest for him, he was reluctant to work for the institution to which he was assigned. For many months, he delayed the development of this database. Invited to present the progress of his assignment, he announced that he could not realize the project as it had been specified. The office manager threatened him, but he answered that the project must be reevaluated because it was infeasible for technical reasons. The next day, the manager summoned him again, but this time he showed him an arrest warrant. Scared by the intimidation, Kiflom decided to conceal his fear under a smile, took the warrant, and surrendered at the nearest police station. He explained his conduct to me in two different ways: first, he assumed that the arrest would be of short duration since his boss was in need of his skills; second, he declared that if he had displayed his fear, that would only have produced the effect his superior wanted: “To act like a chicken would have only increased his power. I should only smile in front of his stupidity.” He spent two weeks in prison, during which he decided that there were no viable alternatives for him to stay in Eritrea. A few months after his release, he was in Khartoum, Sudan. The importance of the discretionary powers of conscripts’ superiors and the absence of any genuine means of recourse define conscripts’ high dependency on the managers of the institutions to which they are assigned (see also Riggan 2013b). 

Such acts of resistance are limited and performed so as to be rarely detectable, but it is more usual to hear criticism and subversive discourse about the state, its policies, and its leadership; however, such eruption of resentment remains carefully confined to narrow spaces, such as small groups of friends or relatives. Every breach of this rule quickly makes its way around the city. Once at home, after a day working in the ministry where he was assigned, Gyorgis recounted a joke related to the unusual practice of raising critiques in public:

A well-known fool enters a bar of Asmara. Some customers sitting at a table recognize him and invite him over: “Hey Mister Kusto [So-and-So], come sit with us and have a chat.” The fool stops and declines the invitation solemnly: “No, thank you. I know you well. Before, the Amhara [Ethiopian ethnic group, but here in extenso, the former rulers before independence] were shooting people before they could open their mouths. Now the Tigrinya [the current government, impersonated by its president of Tigrinya origins] let you talk first. . . but afterward they shoot you as well.” For some time, nobody dares speak in the bar, and the fool sits alone at a free table.

According to Gyorgis, only mentally disturbed individuals can so openly and strongly denounce the current political situation. The Derg of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, ruled with cruel and blind violence over the Eritrean people, but the story accounts for more treacherous violence exercised by the current government.[21] The joke, coupled with Gyorgis’s assessment, represents a microtheory about the limits of freedom of speech in contemporary Eritrea: condemnatory opinions on governance and government obviously exist, but their utterance always must be carefully concealed. James Scott offers two concepts that help shed light on the discursive duplicity performed by most Eritreans. There exists both a discourse façade, which can be disclosed at any time in public spaces, and conversations that surface only under certain limited conditions—what Scott calls public and hidden transcripts (Scott 1990). Absence of freedom of speech has become central in arguing for a distinction between the era before 2001 and the present. Filipos, assigned since 1996 to various offices in Asmara as a conscript, critically recounted from his own experience with officials: “Before [2001], we knew more or less what to abide by [concerning the law and the bureaucracy], but now even the question ‘why?’ has disappeared from the Tigrinya language. It has become risky to ask questions to an official.”

The Totalitarian State: An Epic Theory of Political Power

Critiques, railleries, and jokes justify limitations on conscripts’ ability to challenge their rulers, affirming their helplessness. As in many other countries, the top level of the state is central in the political imagination.[22] In the view of most Eritreans, President Isaias Afwerki and his close consultants sit above the government agencies, and since the events of 2001, the President’s Office has been considered dissociated from the rest of the state and the party apparatus. The common picture of the state displays an autocracy in which no devolution of power exists. Officials and conscripts assume that even ministers need to call the office of the president before making significant decisions or when they have to deal with a workload out of their routine. Accordingly, many people also declare—sometimes joking, sometimes in a depressed mood—that “only one head thinks” in Eritrea, referring to the president. These views illustrate a widespread perception of an extreme centralization and personification of state power. 

Mandatory and indefinite national service in state institutions, repressive policies such as military raids and pervasive controls, and an uneven bureaucracy and unexpected state measures particularly shape conscripts’ representations of state power and dynamics. State arbitrariness is interpreted in many different ways, but stress produces in conscripts the experience of insecurity and uncertainty. It is widely believed, for instance, that the government disseminates false rumors to destabilize the population and that other hidden agendas to promote terror are at play. Conscripts’ attempts to understand uneven and arbitrary measures accordingly prioritize state officials’ agency and rational causality—the leadership’s carefully and well-designed evil plan—over blatant institutional shortcomings and systemic bureaucratic dysfunction. Associated with the perception of the personification of state power, the inconstancy of rules, the arbitrary volte-faces, and bureaucratic blockages are often explained as a deliberate and Machiavellian presidential agenda or as the result of the well-known lunatic temperament of Isaias Afwerki. The malicious influence of the president is depicted in jokes that portray him as an evildoer or the enemy of the nation. These are two characteristic examples that I collected while talking with friends who had completed their university degree and were recently assigned in national service in Asmara. The discussion took place only among us on a saint’s-day celebration (ngdät, generally commemorated in a distinctive neighborhood or a village) in a calm corner of the compound (kanshelo, from Italian cancello ‘gate’) of a relative of one of them. The first one is based on the internationally famous clock-in-heaven joke; the other was elaborated from the rumor that Isaias Afwerki had to undergo a critical medical intervention shortly after independence:

It’s a very hot day in paradise. In one of the offices of the divine administration, an official is doing the inventory of a collection of clocks. Every clock represents a president in power on earth. Every time one of them commits a crime, the hand of the clock advances by a minute. This is how God keeps track of presidential misdeeds. All the clocks are there except for Isaias’s. The official searches and then panics because he can’t find it anywhere. Finally, he decides to report the disappearance to God personally. Surprised by the well-working air conditioning in God’s office, our official reconsiders his actions and excuses himself for having bothered God for nothing. Isaias’s clock was in fact standing on the divine desk, with its minute hand nicely ventilating the office.

In 1993, only shortly after independence, President Isaias flies to Israel to undergo medical treatment. The doctors heal him, but unfortunately, they transfuse him with Israeli blood. This explains why, after returning to Eritrea, he turned violently against the population: for him, the Eritreans have become Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Here, jokes reverberate in fiction the fearfulness of a political situation that is rarely explicit otherwise. Despite facing severe insecurity, conscripts do not express their own unease; they prefer to talk about others’ fears. Dread of the president is neither restricted to fantasy nor experienced by conscripts only. Salomon, at that time a secretary in a ministry, remembered his official visit to Sawa military camp on a graduation day:

Last weekend, I got close to the big boss [Isaias] and saw for myself how everyone reacts to him and how he behaves. It was funny: some generals were shaking while greeting him. He behaves like a demigod.

In jokes, fear is nevertheless not sticking only to the power of the president but can be a more diffuse feeling, related to state governance as a whole and its repressive character in particular. Several jokes cover this topic, which underlines the authoritarianism of the regime; some portray repression and mock torture, as the following example, famous among conscripts, suggests:

The roundups have managed to conscript all Eritrean youth, and so the police have started rounding up the carnivores. One day, a monkey arrives in Wadi Sherifa in Sudan [location of the UNHCR screening center]. The other refugee animals are surprised and ask the monkey why he’s decided to flee Eritrea, and the monkey replies: “Why should I rot in jail and be tortured until they find out that monkeys like me are not carnivores?”

The jokes and opinions presented in this section expose and subvert the current political situation in different ways: while official propaganda ceaselessly recounts unity in harmony, trust in the leadership, and significant national development, another political imagination underlines an autocracy by referring to the patent concentration and perversion of state power in the president’s hands. At least partially, jokes and sometimes other narratives account for the dread that conscripts and bureaucrats experience—and at last, the conscripts most vulnerable to military raids (giffa) and arbitrary incarceration underline the absurdity and arbitrariness of state repression. 

All these subversive statements justify practices of concealment by articulating legitimate reasons for contestation while observing a life-saving silence. In doing so, they reinforce and make visible the existence of a necessary double game, manifested in the distinction between a public and a hidden discourse—a duplicity that can be overcome only by exile. Critiques constitute an emic representation of a totalitarian state, a representation that shares key attributes with the classical and debatable definition of the concept: the state, both arbitrarily and extremely centralized, enforces repressive measures that generate terror and exert total control over the population (Arendt 1968; Ian Kershaw in Traverso 2001). If these jokes and other hidden transcripts undoubtedly create a space for political critique, it seems unlikely that such space constitutes a real challenge to the leaders, considering that such political imagination underlines many reasons for not opposing the political order. From this perspective, it is clear that a political leadership that lost its legitimacy and the genuine public support it had enjoyed at the time of independence can be seen as successful in having induced such representations of the state to the population. Such a catch-22 represents a good example of the manifestation of a structural constraint that does “not operate independently of the motives and reasons that agents have for what they do” (Giddens 1986, 181). Occurrences of such self-restraint are located not only in the discursive realm of funny stories and hidden transcripts: beliefs, rumors, prefigurations, and anticipations, as well as other strategies of risk avoidance, constantly delineate the boundaries of bureaucratic maneuvers, claims, and encounters that one dares not cross (Bozzini 2014). 

Along these lines, a magistrate in a regional court explained to me why he hoped never to experience the most perilous situation he could imagine in his profession: to lead a judicial investigation into the police regarding an unlawful arrest. Despite the fact that, as he himself acknowledged, most incarcerations infringe the penal and procedural laws promulgated by the state, he noticed that nobody had filed such a lawsuit in his court so far. Here is his explanation:

People have their ideas about who’s working in court. For them, I’m part of the system. They don’t believe that the courts have a certain degree of independence. They think it would be meaningless and even dangerous for them to bring sensitive affairs before the court. In doing so, the people help us; they protect us from the government. The people are stopped before they get everybody in trouble.

The self-restraint of potential plaintiffs represents a blessing for the magistrates: it is because people believe that they are somehow “part of the system” that they are not obliged to face a dilemma that might expose them; however, this perspective suggests that being part of the system does not necessarily mean that all potential plaintiffs assume that magistrates are genuinely and blindly perpetuating injustice. Political imagination about state dynamics might be much more sophisticated: potential plaintiffs might be wise not to file certain lawsuits by simply acknowledging that the magistrates would be most likely obliged to dismiss some claims and to act contrary to the rule of law in order to save their job, their freedom, and maybe even their life.

Staging Conscripts’ Own Domination

Taking into consideration conscripts’ own reasons for self-censorship, this section shows how they discursively perform their subalternity and subsequently attribute power to other specific state agents, externalizing thus the structural constraints that they experience and perform themselves. In positioning themselves in such a power relationship, they contribute to defining the contour of an apparent absolute state domination. They assert and perform their subalternity in representing themselves as helpless and passive. The position of subordination in which they perceive themselves is depicted in two kinds of discourse closely related to each other: the first acknowledges the hardship and privation they experience, while the second emphasizes their status in state institutions and their relationship with other state agents. 

Conscripts declare that national service obliges them to interrupt their studies, to postpone starting a family, to survive with almost no income, and to be helpless in supporting their relatives—in particular, their family elders. Prolonged national service and its privations can be frustrating, and the absence of attractive prospects ruins conscripts’ morale. Gyorgis, in his village to attend a relative’s wedding, compared the happiness of his childhood with his current situation:

When I was a boy and still lived in the village, there were a lot of games [s̀wäta] and sports [sport] that we organized within the family or among neighbors. The most propitious period was the one between the end of harvest and the beginning of Christmas [lädät]. In this period, the village was full of people. It was the time when the truck drivers came back to spend a couple of weeks with their families. In my region, we played qarsa, şädäd, or gäbät̀a, but now, because of the situation and the service, the people are tired: they have neither energy nor the right spirit to have fun when they come back home. They are dry [neqisom əyom].

Similarly, Haile, recently assigned to work in a ministry in Asmara, commented about the fate of his generation:

During a honeymoon, relatives and friends came to visit the young couple, and together they played goytay əmbäytäy [my king, my queen], but now this doesn’t happen anymore. Those who excelled at this game are either martyred or are in national service and are tired. They don’t have the capacity to have fun. Even honeymoons are becoming rare: if you get married, you return straightaway to the service.

There is no doubt that national service and the war against Ethiopia have created a situation that has deeply affected individuals and social relationships, but these opinions have two important implications. First, in making a strong distinction between traditions and state interventions, Haile and Gyorgis separate the social into two opposed spheres: evil politics on one side and virtuous but fragile popular culture on the other. In doing so, they both accuse exclusively the state leadership of having spoiled positive cultural values and practices and imply that communities have been largely unable to attenuate the consequences of the state policies.[23] The nostalgia felt by Haile and Gyorgis points at a second important belief: longing for a social life that existed before the outbreak of the war. This exemplifies the pessimism conveyed by conscripts. Often, the current state of affairs appears irreparable to them. In addition, the idea of an inevitable deterioration of one’s capacity caused by prolonged national service is conveyed in a joke that portrays conscripts as sportive cats:

The Eritrean cats win all the medals at the feline Olympics. Everyone is astonished, and the journalists hurry to meet the glorious feline athletes to learn the Eritrean secret. One of the Eritrean cats unveils the mystery: “In our country, the national service has given us the appearance of cats, but in reality, we are all leopards. This is why we won all the medals.”

Apart being obviously less sturdy than leopards, cats (dmu) are generally despised in Eritrea, where “Cat face” (dmu gäs̀) is a common insult in Tigrinya. On the contrary, leopards (näbri) and lions (ạmbäsa) usually refer to brave and courageous individuals. This joke alludes to the several national service sportsmen and football teams that have defected and claimed political asylum after international competitions. If such a transformation due to national service occurs metaphorically, the joke also conveys the idea that it is nevertheless reversible when one finds an opportunity to travel abroad.[24] The idea of such a transformation not only mocks the leadership and unveils a widespread foot-dragging strategy, but reveals how conscripts consider the inexorability of their situation. Their political imagination is a good example of what Scott (1990, 72–76) has defined as a thin version of false consciousness: in attributing an excessive power of domination to the political regime, they cannot help but acknowledge the reasons of their own resignation in front of it; however, what is particularly striking in Eritrea is that their justifications of their own subordination occur often when they decide to resist the dominant ideology. The most obvious instance of such dynamics is found in the way they distance themselves from the official idea that they are performing noble sacrifices for the nation: since most of them feel entrapped and exploited, they disregard their official status as warsay (descendants of freedom fighters), which refers to the national symbolic genealogy promoted by the political elites, and instead call themselves ạgälglot, meaning straightforwardly “service” in Tigrinya. They concomitantly perform a noticeable act of resistance against the dominant national ideology in refusing categorically to consider themselves successors of the freedom fighters (tägadälti, sing. masc.: tägadälay) and assume and underline their servitude and powerlessness. 

Conscripts’ justification of their passivity to challenge the political order is supported by a second kind of discourse, one that stresses their lack of alternatives and their subordination in the state institution where they are assigned. Conscripts like Haile and Gyorgis are well aware that they are benefiting from a privileged assignation, compared to soldiers or those who are forced to build roads and irrigation schemes, but nevertheless, undertaking national service in a ministerial office is often accompanied by a psychological paralysis produced by inactivity and long waiting periods. As a consequence, many conscripts declare that they would prefer “to serve the country” or simply have something to do, instead of waiting without earning anything. Their boredom and passivity are not so much the result of their demotivation and resistance, enacted by delaying their tasks: more than anything, it is the structural level of bureaucratic dysfunction and the behavior of their bosses that are the cause of their lethargy and dissatisfaction. 

On the one hand, conscripts’ activities appear to be limited by bosses who are indeed often reluctant to take initiatives, not only because they lack motivation, but also because their wrongdoings can be severely punished without any legal proceedings; they prefer to wait for clear orders from the upper hierarchy, as Efrem,[25] who managed a department, observed in 2006, when his ministry was suddenly in full reorganization: “Taking a decision is an ordeal in the ministry: before, one could make plans, decide to do something; now, it is better to wait if you do not want to get into trouble.” On the other hand, conscripts assigned to state civil institutions often declare that they are not integrated in their office. For instance, Kiros, who was teaching in a primary school in the outskirts of Asmara, complained that teachers like him were ignored by their superiors and the local representative of the Minister of Education: “There should be more democracy in the state. We are not listened to; there is a lack of openness: we take part in the meetings, but our opinions are not taken into account.” Similarly, Henok, a former university student assigned to work in a court, told me about his profound disappointment in working with former freedom fighters: “What annoys me is the arbitrariness and authoritarianism. Even in my position I am not listened to. If I propose something, my superiors—who are all tägadälti—often say to me: ‘Where were you during the war?’ The problem is that there is no room here for young people like us.” 

Thus, conscripts do not forget to remind themselves that they cannot do anything, that they are obliged to stay quiet, that they are in their hands (ab ạsärom)—and they conclude readily that those who have power over them can do whatever they want anyway.[26] Their subalternity, depicted by resignation, helplessness, and silence, is again explained and justified by Janus-faced discourse: by their incapacity to react and their continual underlining of the omnipotence the former freedom fighters employ in state institutions. Patience is therefore considered a lifesaving virtue, which conscripts often feel obliged to adopt. To wait and see if things take a turn for the better is in this sense opposed to stressful plans for deserting. Conscripts focus thus on the necessity of waiting and finding arrangements to make ends meet. To conform to what is expected of them is the less risky option, but certainly not the most engaging. In the same vein, Hirt and Abdulkader (2013) have referred to the concept of anomie in relation to certain dynamics inherent to national service while Reid (2009) has emphasized the importance silence has in the current political situation in particular.

“We and the Idiots”

The distinction between powerholders and subjected individuals decisively affects the way in which the state and its power are isolated and represented by conscripts. The representations that they have of state power and of the domination exerted over them cover a much larger social space than the top leadership. They are drawn from their daily experiences and interactions with freedom fighters (tägadälti). This section explores and analyzes the representations that contribute to drawing a simple dichotomy between conscripts on the one hand and freedom fighters—who incarnate the they that conscripts unceasingly mention—on the other. The tägadälti, officials from whom conscripts take their orders and who are working alongside the top state leadership, are indeed often the targets of rude denigration. 

According to conscripts, the staff of every state institution always has two groups: “In my department, the fighters fall asleep during technical meetings, while we fall asleep during the political forums,” declared Filemon, who was assigned as a technician in a ministry after having completed his degree at Asmara University. The distribution of interests determines status in a binary mode. Filemon continued with the following statement about the fighters: “They don’t do anything other than read the newspaper and discuss among themselves the brilliant rightness of what they’ve read.” The ideological indoctrination usually attributed to them borders sometimes on a moronic state. The words used are strong and charged with meaning. A way to describe the fighters consists in saying that they have been needled (täkätilu)—lobotomized—by the ideology of the party. Despite internal tensions and rivalries among state institutions (including tensions based on ethnic origins), conscripts place the fighters in a homogeneous category, which shapes discourse that usually attributes a multitude of deficiencies to the fighters. There is no easier way to illustrate this than to relate some jokes that depict conscripts’ scorn, which is otherwise difficult to express. I met Filemon one evening in a noisy bar of Asmara. Particularly angry with his bosses, he recounted two well-known jokes that portray the fighters as idiotic:

This is the story of a tägadälay who wanted to phone one of his comrades but who wrongly dialed a number that doesn’t exist. So he is connected to the recorded voice at the Eritel company that announces that he dialed a number that does not exist. [The Tigrinyan phrase literally reads: “The number you dialed is not available for service.[27]] Surprised and annoyed, the fighter retorts: “Hey moron, I’m not an ạgälglot [service]: I’m a tägadälay, so connect me to my friend right now!” 

One day, General Wuchu [Gerezghir Andemariam] sees his son coming back from school early. He asks for an explanation, and the child answers: “My teacher [inevitably an ạgälglot] shouted at me and expelled me from the classroom, telling me to look for him somewhere else. This is the reason why I went back home.” On hearing this, the general, becoming purple with rage, grabbed his son and started beating him: “Next time,” he shouts, “you better look into the other classrooms, to find out where this ạgälglot hides!”

In a fashion similar to Cameroonian caricatures of the autocrat famously deciphered by Mbembe, these jokes cast severe discredit on freedom fighters in Eritrea and, in their attempt to weaken tägadälti, they reinstate and confirm the existence of an absolutely furious and arbitrary power exerted by a wider leadership than previously accounted in this article, which stimulates both “fascination and dread” (2001, 165) of state power; however, despite the fact that excess and ridicule are at the core of caricatures, Eritrean and Cameroonian humor and popular fascination for state power remain quite different: instead of emphasizing the autocrats’ desire for majesty, exuberance, and greed, conscripts prefer to stress the stupidity and brutality of the Eritrean heroes and political elites. 

Another aspect of these jokes resides in their power to create an alterity for conscripts. The attribution of stupidity is concomitantly opposed to conscripts’ identity, founded on secondary education, from which the ạgälglot, especially those in civilian service, have benefited, contrary to most of the freedom fighters. Their superiors’ lack of education explains two things: it illustrates the indoctrination of the tägadälti and their hopeless loyalty toward the government, and it explains most of the bureaucratic shortcomings. Moreover, the jokes that portray idiotic fighters, as well as other hidden transcripts, organize a clear identity boundary (Lamont and Molnár 2002) on two levels: on a semantic level, they promote the definition of a grouped and homogeneous alterity (the tägadälti), while on the level of enunciation, they define a collectivity of peers, the conscripts who share this discourse. Conscripts knew perfectly well with whom they can criticize and mock the government without taking risks. Therefore, such exchanges not only construct a clearcut tägadälti–ạgälglot dichotomy, but establish, sanction, and strengthen the existence of small groups of peers who trust each other and can entertain relations of solidarity, such as small loans, tips, and so forth. The process of differentiation is accomplished mainly inside the state, and it indicates thus how omnipresent and pivotal the state has become for the representations of conscripts’ identity in Eritrea. It is extremely rare to hear a conscript openly defining himself by reference to his ethnicity, place of origin, or religion. 

Last, the subversive dimension of such dynamics deserves to be underlined in its relationship to the official nationalist ideology. Enacting semantically and socially such distance between the ạgälglot and the tägadälti considerably degrades the national symbolic genealogy promoted by the political elites to harmonize the relationship between the generations and between civilians and freedom fighters. While in Cameroon certain popular practices aiming similarly at widening the gap between the populace and ruling elites can be considered a popular reinforcement of a dynamic originated by political elites (to create segregated spaces along class lines), in Eritrea the “logic of unfamiliarity” (Ndijo 2005), discernible in conscripts’ critiques of the national symbolic genealogy, perform a much more radical modality of counterpower in opposing frontally the elites’ political ideology. Such manifestations, offered daily at work and among friends, emphasize conscripts’ lack of public power and responsibilities (Reid 2009); however, the material presented here shows that what has damaged “the bonds between generations” (Ndijo 2005, 213) is much more than conscripts’ status. Conscripts in Eritrea, despite the difficulty of challenging the current regime, ceaselessly perform conversations that dismember the official national ideology and contradict the image of a disciplined population standing harmoniously behind its leaders. Repressive measures, the absence of accountability, and the production of insecurity account for the self-sabotage of the government’s legitimacy and the popular support of its policies significantly more than any lack of communication and delegation.

The Blurring of Categories

The last section accounts for nuances in conscripts’ conversations about two of their critiques, one covering nuances in the distinction between tägadälti and ạgälglot and the other covering the limits of the conscripts’ critique of the official state ideology. Conscripts, like many older citizens, are considerably affected by party members’ lack of openness; however, when responding to the question of devolution, they sometimes justify the behavior of the tägadälti. Filipos is critical of officials, but he underlines the reason for which things do not work as he had hoped: “The former combatants need to open up more to democracy, but we also need to give them time. They have enforced orders by pointing a gun at people’s heads for decades. Routines need time to change.” 

Conscripts—critical but complacent, depressed but deferential—can thus to be caught between inconsistent forms of justification. They acknowledge that significant shortcomings in state dynamics should be addressed and that the implementation of reforms are not timely: “Everything on its own time,” “Let’s not be too impatient,” or “Let’s wait and see,” are sincere expressions they sometimes use to justify their inability to raise political issues or claim individual benefits or services. In other words, patience plays a major role in minimizing their criticism, which is thus never univocal and absolute.[28]

Conscripts understand sometimes that they are not the only ones to complain about the government. Their opponents, the fighters themselves, also raise meaningful complaints, as in a conversation Haile had with the tägadälay chief of human resources in his office:

When he told me that I needed to hurry up and find some money for paying the rent in Asmara, I told him that I wanted to do my service because I wanted to be useful to my country. I play the card of the nationalist, you see, but he replies to me: “OK, but we don’t have any room for you; you know, things are dying here.” I was quite astonished to hear such words from him.

The tägadälti are not always as loyal and uncritical as conscripts want to believe. Additionally, many research participants shared views at odds with what has been recounted so far: conscripts believe that several fighters are caught like them in the claws of the government. To be sure, public and hidden transcripts are not illocutory dynamics peculiar to conscripts.[29] The identity categories described above—ạgälglot and tägadälti—do not last long when confronted by the everyday experiences of those who use them. This indicates that the social ruptures apparent in discourse are not necessarily determining and qualifying relationships on the ground. In the end, tacit agreements and negotiations occur between conscripts and their superiors, as the following case shows:

Filipos was assigned to carry out a new project in his ministry, but he was not concerned at all about a precise business plan and a final deadline. “When it’s done, it’s done” he told me and added that his bosses cannot give him more precise orders “because [they] know our situation [as ạgälglot]. Nobody tells you how to do things.” If orders were stricter and more defined, he explains, he would then claim the equipment necessary to carry out the project in a professional way: “There is limited equipment, so they let me do as I want, and, on the other hand, I don’t ask anything: this is the deal.” While leeway with conscripts is particularly limited, they nevertheless make provisional arrangements and engage in negotiation that eventually improves their daily lives.

Nuances apply to freedom fighters and ạgälglot alike. Conscripts, as fighters, are not a homogeneous group, politically speaking: not every conscript is firmly opposed to the government. Indeed, fractures among the ạgälglot are sometimes blatant. Several knew and despised those they called the opportunists of their generation, those who supported the government, like Gebremariam, who similarly classed his fellow citizens of the same age who discretely participated in the mass organizations such as NUEYS or NUEW.[30] He strongly suspected that conscripts who had attended a compulsory party-cadre training course in Nakfa in September 2006 had been brainwashed:

They want to centralize education at May Nehfi and at Nakfa, where they teach their ideology and Chinese communism to educate the new Şaəbya. A friend of mine—I have a hard time believing that we were friends—he joined first the NUEYS, and he was eventually sent to Nakfa. Now he is a small Şaəbya, who tried to brainwash me recently. Why do I have to listen to what he says? Me, I don’t want to brainwash myself. My brain is dirty, but these people—they want to take advantage of the system; they want to divide the society.

The blurring of categories and the innumerable nuances not only question hasty categorization, which tries to make political opinions (opposition or loyal) correspond to social categories (ạgälglot or tägadälti), but promote the idea of a regime without a defined face, an uncertain sociopolitical context, in which mistrust and suspicion are pervasive and therefore in which everyone has to be careful at every instant. 

Conscripts also have nuanced views on the official ideology. At least, they do not reject it entirely. Tensions between the sincere understanding of party doctrine and the denunciation of what people perceive as unreasonable policies can be embraced in a single topic. The national symbol of Eritrea is a pair of plastic sandals (shida). Used by the combatants during the War of Independence, they represent not only the Eritrean people’s march toward self-determination, but also the amazing resilience of the guerrilla movement,[31] which, suffering from limited financial resources, decided to produce and recycle the sandals used by the freedom fighters. Such a policy of import substitution has latterly become the symbol of the creativity, the resilience, and above all the self-sufficiency of the Eritrean nation. Today, these sandals, still produced in large numbers, are at the heart of two confronting forms of political obstinacy: they are a symbol, congruent with certain policies of the leadership, that represents the historical and national pride of relying only on oneself, but the perennial and often forced use of these sandals, because of the expensiveness of imported shoes, symbolizes the stubborn form of a communist political program imposed by the party, one that conscripts often denigrate. 

Another way to illustrate the limits on conscripts’ criticism of the official national ideology is to consider topics that are not defaced by their jokes.[32] For instance, joking about identity and religious groups is apparently a more disgraceful and subversive experience than ridiculing the state and its agents. Very few jokes of these kinds circulate. The few I collected are related to Muslims, the Kunama ethnic group, and peasants (hagäräsäb).[33] Ethnic and religious jokes are recounted with noticeable embarrassment, often followed by a comment about the importance of national unity. Official narratives promote representation of the unity of the Eritrean nationalities and the idea of a national culture that refers to the values personified by the EPLF fighters before independence (Bozzini 2011a).[34] Taboos relating to social, geographical, and confessional identities are difficult for a foreign ethnographer to overcome. Similarly, nobody shared jokes about the achievement of the liberation struggle. The official version of pre-independence history remains mostly unchallenged,[35] but the views of conscripts and the population at large in Eritrea—and to a greater extent, in the diaspora (Hepner 2009) and in cyberspace (Bernal 2005, 2014)—differ from the official historiography on some specific periods (Mekonnen 2013). Such limitation on the targets of humor indicates that, besides the overt resistance toward national genealogy (conscripts’ refusal to consider themselves warsay), other pivotal topics about national ideology are rarely questioned or challenged by the young generations. Tensions between sticking to the party line and denouncing officials’ stupidity or criticizing absurd policies thus reveals an ambiguity that apparently navigates between criticism and approval of the current regime.


In Eritrea, resistance that challenges the political elites, but is concomitantly (and unintentionally) complicit with the leadership in the sense that it reinforces its power, does not build on logics of imitation and conviviality, as Mbembe describes them in his studies of Western Africa: mimesis, imitation, and the popular takeover (and internalization) of the official episteme (2001) are not at the core of the catch-22 underlined in this article. Indeed, the ạgälglot sharply distance themselves from the national order and the official episteme imposed by the political elite. A vast majority of them are willing neither to join the party nor to defend at all cost the values associated with the freedom fighters. Their service is no longer simply a program of national reconstruction that necessitates noble sacrifices. Conscripts, rather, view it as a structure of domination. Perceived as such, it becomes a central feature of state totalitarianism. At the same time, however, indiscipline and subversive talk contribute to compensating, at least in part, the shortcomings of a government that has lost its legitimacy, because such performances outline the state as a powerful entity. I have emphasized that jokes and other representations shared by conscripts contribute to defining the limits of their insubordination. Their way of opposing official nationalism, ridiculing their superiors, and rebelling (at least verbally) against state institutions and the party’s ideological justifications cannot be articulated without acknowledging that their words and silences may reinforce what they challenge. This catch-22 is not only intrinsic to the performance of insubordination and subversion analyzed in this article: such performances must be accounted for as a pivotal phenomenon in the formation and transformation of power relationships. 

The state is not only a predator, or a sphere in which to make a career: the state, the office of the president, the tägadälti, and other objects of theories and categories held by my respondents serve as key conceptual resources for them not only to identify their positions and their scope for action, but to organize their experiences and their explanations of events and frustrations and to frame historical periods. This conceptual framework defines the way in which they understand power in general and the particular power relationships that they experience. Static state power and the ways in which they depict their helplessness are pivotal while they refuse to acknowledge themselves and their deeds as being part of the Eritrean state apparatus. They push away or externalize and essentialize the state and its power, at the same time refusing to admit that they are involved in dealing with it. Accordingly, they maintain a particular image of the state, epitomizing it as an erratic totalitarian block. This not only constitutes a pivotal interpretative key, but represents an indisputable reality that they continuously fear. The ways of drawing boundaries set up dichotomies theoretically presentable as a crucial state effect (Mitchell 1991), which partly—and contextually—veil a much more complicated social reality, constituted of a multitude of intermediary and contradictory positions, cleavages, and tensions, all of which coexist within the state institutions and the social categories outlined by conscripts.


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  1. I thank Ellen Hertz, who mailed me a copy of Heller’s book Catch-22 while I was in Eritrea, and James Scott, Jon Abbink, Julia Eckert, Tekle Woldemikael, Jennifer Speirs, Alessandro Facchini, Roberta Deambrosi, Anne Lavanchy, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors of Africa Today for their insightful comments on previous versions of this article. All errors are the author’s. I am immensely indebted to my friends in Eritrea for their trust and patience.
  2. Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (Tigrinya: Häzbawi Gnbar Dimokrasin Fthin, HGDF). Since independence, Eritrea has been ruled by the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF), a party that emerged from a former guerrilla movement and in 1993 formed a provisional government.
  4. Legally, national service amounts to six months’ military training, followed by a year of service in military or civil institutions (Government of Eritrea 1995). Tens of thousands are recruited each year, but some—especially, married women, women with a child, and disabled individuals—are partially or completely exempted. After training, conscripts are sent into the army or to party-controlled companies; others are dispatched as teachers, nurses, or office workers in all kinds of state institutions (Bozzini 2011a, Gaim 2009, O’Kane and Hepner 2009, Tronvoll 2004).
  5. Literally, the campaign (or collective works) of the heirs (warsay) of the braves (ykäạlo, from the triliteral root yķəl ‘can’). The braves are freedom fighters, of whom conscripts are heirs, according the official credo.
  6. I use the term conscript for both the soldiers and those assigned to civilian institutions of the state or the party. Individuals assigned to civilian service or pursuing their education can be mobilized as soldiers in case of conflict.
  7. A notable action against the regime took place in January 2013 when soldiers occupied the Ministry of Information to disrupt TV broadcast for few minutes asking for reforms and release of prisoners before being arrested (Connell 2013).
  8. UNHCR statistics show that a massive exodus to Sudan and Ethiopia started in 2004, amounting to 8893 Eritreans registered in camps in both countries during that year. Exile has intensified since 2007, with more than 17,000 new registrants in refugee camps set up near the Eritrean border and more than 20,000 in 2009 (UNHCR 2009; statistical yearbooks from 2003 to 2009, available at In 2011, the organization in Kassala estimated that an average 3,000 Eritreans arrived in Sudan each month (personal communication with a UNHCR officer).
  9. Police tolerance and the economic need of a workforce in the manufacturing and service sectors have allowed many draft-evading women to stay and work clandestinely in Eritrea; however, they have limited rights and may be easily threatened, accounting for the organization of docile laborers and for the reproduction, in part, of gender inequality (Bozzini 2011a).
  10. The concept of resistance must be understood in its broad sense, including desertion and all kind of mundane acts (Scott 1990) that intentionally challenge the political order (van Walraven and Abbink 2003).
  11. In Eritrea, the limits of the performance of protest contribute to the shaping of what is considered a public space.
  12. See Dorman (2005) and Hepner (2009) for analyses of the overt forms of protest that took place in Eritrea in 2001.
  13. Several studies of the diaspora have equally highlighted the limits and ambiguities of resistance and protest (Bernal 2005, 2006, 2014; Conrad 2005; Glatthard 2012; Hepner 2008, 2009, 2013; Koser 2002). Although critiques of the Eritrean regime and other ideas circulate between the diaspora and Eritrea (Bernal 2006, 2014), this article is limited to the analysis of ethnographic materials collected in Eritrea and consequently does not provide a comparison between the performances in different sites and political contexts.
  14. A detailed analysis of the effects of rumors in the context of national service in Eritrea is presented in Bozzini (2011a).
  15. Scholarship on humor and jokes is much broader, but many scholars who have been interested in humor claim that social science in general has never regarded jokes as relevant material for analysis. See for instance Carty and Musharbash (2008), Mulkay (1988), Obadare (2009), Powell and Paton (1988), and even Freud (1992); however, Bergson cited not less than nineteen substantial studies published decades before his own famous book, Le rire (1900).
  16. In the novel, the procedure of demobilization is the catch: the only way to be sent back home is to be declared mentally insane and therefore unfit to fly dangerous missions during World War II in Italy, but the soldiers, by requesting such medical evaluation, demonstrate their sanity instead. As Doctor Daneeka declares to Yossarian: “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy” (Heller 1999, 52). Heller’s conundrum is a paradox that can formally read: {A → (B˄C), B → ¬C} ∴ ¬A or {A ↔ B, A ↔ C, B ↔ ¬C} ∴ A ↔ ¬A. See more details in Goldstein (2004).
  17. This research was conducted for my doctoral dissertation in anthropology (University of Neuchâtel) and was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (
  18. Some illegal practices, such as falsification and other acts of indiscipline, are, however, described in detail in my dissertation. Collecting subversive discourse became possible after several months. The ethics of methodology, promotion of confidence, and guarantee of confidentiality are discussed in detail in my dissertation (Bozzini 2011a, 36–47).
  19. Beside the military action that took place in January 2013 (see note 7), a group of people have been posting and tagging anti-government messages in the street of Asmara in 2012 and 2013.
  20. Conscripts receive 450 nakfa per month—less than 30 US dollars and insufficient to cover basic needs.
  21. Condemning comparisons of the current leadership with the Derg is not uncommon in Eritrea. I heard such critiques back in 2003, while I was visiting remote villages in the Anseba region. Later, in 2005–2006, several conscripts and older citizens shared with me similar views and justified them quite seriously, arguing that during the Ethiopian occupation, some services to the population were more efficient and controls were much more easily overcome.
  22. Two words are used to refer to ideas of the state, nation, and government in Tigrinya: hagär and mängsti. The first refers to the notions of country and nation (Hagär Ertra is the Eritrean nation, and wädi hagr signifies ‘fellow citizen’). The second word encompasses notions of state and government: dictionaries translate mängsti as ‘state’, ‘government’, or ‘kingdom’ (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front 1986). Mängsti is the term generally used to speak of the political leadership or the state. Therefore, a distinction between concepts of the state as an institution and the government as the collectivity that rules it is not explicitly made. Given the current one-party state system, mängsti refers also to the party otherwise described as HGDF, EPLF or Şaəbya (meaning ‘popular’ in Arabic, an epithet of the EPLF).
  23. Scholars have also embraced this view when they have confronted pre-existing traditional forms of democracy, or at least collective deliberation exemplified by the Baito institution and allegedly ruined by the EPLF authoritarianism; for instance (Ogbazghi 2015). Inability to protect village institutions from centralized authoritarian rule must be nuanced as the case about land regulations brought by O’Kane (2012) shows.
  24. Eritreans in national service are not allowed to go abroad, except in extremely rare cases.
  25. Efrem was one of the few state officials I interviewed at length during my fieldwork in Eritrea. His status was peculiar because he had been employed in the same ministry before independence; it was different from that of conscript and former freedom fighters, who constitute the large majority of state agents.
  26. This representation exemplifies the condition of the Agambian bare life scholars have pointed at regarding the life of Eritrean conscripts and the distinction between (super)citizens and subjects (Woldemikael 2013).
  27. Zädewlkumulu qtsri nagälgolot aytäwahaber in Tigrinya.
  28. Patience is one of the national values promoted by elites since EPLF’s foundation.
  29. Vigorous condemnation of some policies is evident in loyalists who identify with the current government; however, such critiques are likelier to be found in the diaspora than in Eritrea. The analysis of such dynamics is part of a larger project on the Eritrean transnational state governance and the recent emergence of dissident movements. An abstract is available at
  30. Acronyms for the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students and the National Union of Eritrean Women, respectively.
  31. Sandals and boots have important political symbolic meaning for several Marxist or Maoist insurrectional movements, as, for instance, in the Philippines (Margold 1999).
  32. Forty jokes constitute the corpus I analyzed (Bozzini 2009); however, this study is limited only to Tigrinya speakers. Non-Tigrinya speakers share several jokes and critical issues about the Tigrinya, who are considered to be closer to the ruling class than other ethnic groups. This corpus is mainly composed of political jokes, most of them about President Isaias Afwerki, the army, and the military leaders, or about politics and state repression. A few are related to religion and economics, and very few are about ethnic groups.
  33. This represents significant variance from the corpus collected by Ebenezer Obadare (2009) in postmilitary Nigeria, a study that claims that Nigerian jokes address both the state and civil society and thus account for a certain sense of popular self-derision and cynicism—a trait that appears limited in a military regime like Eritea.
  34. On the historical trajectories of EPLF ideologies, see, for instance Gaim (2008), Hepner (2009), Iyob (1995), Makki (1996), Markakis (1995), and Pool (2001).
  35. Regarding historical analysis, Reid (2014) also points to other directions that have crucial importance for future Eritrean scholarships.


Postliberation Eritrea Copyright © 2018 by David M. Bozzini. All Rights Reserved.

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