On October 22, the Horn of Africa seminar at Oxford had an excellent presentation from Dr David Bozzini, a post-doctoral researcher at CUNY, entitled ‘The Catch 22 of Resistance: Political Discontent and Popular Theory of State Power in Eritrea’.
David’s presentation highlighted the quandary facing those conscripted into the national service in Eritrea. Since the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, conscription into the national service has become a near-permanent experience for many Eritreans. This has fuelled significant outflows of young Eritreans, seeking to avoid indefinite servitude and to find better economic prospects outside the country (Kjetil Tronvoll and Goitom Gebreluel recently wrote on some of the potential impacts of this exodus in an essay for al-Jazeera.)
However, David focused on the subtle forms of resistance exercised by those who remain in Eritrea, stuck in the national service. In particular, he focused on the use of jokes, illustrating the agency of national service members, and attempting to complicate an oversimplified image of an entire population cowed by its government, existing only as victims. Certainly, conditions are difficult in Eritrea — for national service members, and for others. However, I appreciated this attempt to examine the choices made by individuals, and the useful reminder of their agency in the face of adversity.
Nevertheless, the ‘Catch 22′ referred to in the title of the presentation should not be forgotten. In short, the paradox for those attempting resistance is that the forms available — in this case jokes — manifest in ways that reify the state’s dominance over the individuals, at the same time mocking and acknowledging their own limited options and the state’s control. If I’ve understood David’s presentation correctly, this performance thus inadvertently reinforces the social structures of control employed by the state. Continue reading