Low-tech Surveillance and the Despotic State in Eritrea
by David Bozzini
Postdoctoral Researcher, African Studies Centre, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.
[Asmarino Staff: This is a great article that takes a nuanced approach to the concept of surveillance in the prevailing Eritrean context. Here, we have only posted the introductory part. For the Full Article, we have provided a link to "Surveillance and Society", where the article appeared first. We highly recommend to our readers to read the Full Text: PDF]
Eritrea is one of the world’s newest countries and, proportionally to its population, one of the most militarised. Inheriting a socioeconomic situation devastated by 30 years of guerrilla warfare, the current government organised reconstruction efforts around the “Warsay Ykäạlo Development Campaign” including National Service conscription. Over the past decade, the Eritrean state has developed techniques of surveillance of conscripts through the production and distribution of documents (IDs, laissez-passer) thatmust be presented at hundreds of checkpoints deployed throughout the national territory. Since the duration of National Service has been extended to an unlimited period of time, these surveillance mechanisms have mainly focused on cracking down, identifying and preventing defection. Despite important limitations to its surveillance of conscripts, the Eritrean state successfully keep hundreds of thousand of conscripts working in the National Service for many years. I argue that the surveillance apparatus itself, in both its bureaucratic and its military formulations contributes almost on a daily basis to (re)producing various uncertainties, fears, beliefs and expectations that are the core of relative coercion in the National Service. Moreover, bureaucratic procedures and police interventions contribute to the perpetuation and actualisation of a despotic modality of governance, inducing in conscripts the perception of the existence of a highly authoritarian police state that is effectively omniscient despite their experiences of the low-tech surveillance.
Keywords: Eritrea; conscription; suspicion; checkpoints; police state; despotism; complicity
This is an article about state surveillance of conscripts in Eritrea, a small country situated in the Horn of Africa. People whom I call conscripts are male and female individuals carrying out national duty as required by law: they are temporarily mobilised for military and civil purposes by the state. In Eritrea, this is called National Service (hagärawi ạgälglot in Tigrinya). However, since 1998 and the two years war against Ethiopia, National Service has been indefinitely extended and no demobilisation program has taken place. Young Eritreans are still assigned to civil and military duties for an unknown period of time. In 2002, such extended mobilisation in National Service became the central pillar of the Warsay Ykäạlo Development Campaign (WYDC); an “[...] all-round reconstruction of a country devastated by war [...]” (Rena 2008: 102) I detail more about this below.
Since genuine demobilisation and release from national duty has been postponed for an undetermined period of time, many Eritreans have deserted and fled the country. UNHCR statistics show that a massive exodus to Sudan and Ethiopia started in 2004 amounting to 8,893 Eritreans registered in camps in both Article Low-tech Surveillance and the Despotic State in Eritrea Bozzini: Low-tech Surveillance and the Despotic State in Eritrea Surveillance & Society 9(1/2) 94 countries during the year. Exile has even intensified since 2007 with more than 17,000 new arrivals each year.1 The UNHCR estimated that “[m]ost of the new arrivals are young (aged 17-25 years) and of urban background. The majority of them are men, but there are also women of the same age group. Virtually all have claimed to be fleeing Eritrea because of military service” (2009: 9). Of course, this does not mean that all had been enrolled in National Service. Nevertheless the figure represents not more than 1/20 of the alleged number of conscripts in Eritrea usually estimated between 300,000 and 400,000 individuals (Bundegaard 2004: 47; Treiber 2007: 241).2
For its part, in order to counter desertion and to retain hundreds of thousands of conscripts, the government has progressively strengthened its surveillance techniques and its coercive measures. State control of conscripts is shaped in many different ways. This article focuses only on the most ubiquitous and observable of these, namely, checkpoints and others forms of paper control conducted by the Military Police. I shall explore and analyse the different modalities that shape this surveillance apparatus that attempts to perform an elementary sorting of citizens according to official nationalist ideology and policies promoted by the state. Although this works to a certain extent, surveillance conducted through the checking of individual documents has significant weaknesses.
Despite important limitations to its surveillance of conscripts, the Eritrean state successfully keep hundreds of thousand of conscripts working in the National Service for many years. If this is due to social, political and historical factors as well as the absence of viable alternatives in Eritrea for deserters or objectors, I argue that the surveillance apparatus itself, in both its bureaucratic and its military formulations, nevertheless contributes almost on a daily basis to (re)producing various uncertainties, fears, beliefs and expectations that are the core of relative coercion in the National Service. Bureaucratic procedures and police interventions contribute to the perpetuation and actualisation of a despotic modality of governance, inducing in conscripts the perception of the existence of a highly authoritarian police state that is effectively omniscient despite their experiences of the low-tech surveillance. Representations, fears and uncertainties are not only related to the apparatus of surveillance but are related to broader perceptions and experiences of the violence, arbitrariness, unpredictability and unaccountability of Eritrean political authorities. In other words, a pretence to surveillance embodies, performs and transforms broader modalities of control which define the current Eritrean statehood.
This raises the question about what we mean by “surveillance” of individuals and how we relate this concept to others such as “control” and “coercion”. David Murakami Wood has recently proposed a useful definition for the former: “Where we find purposeful, routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection, we are looking at surveillance” (Murakami Wood 2006: 4). Thus, surveillance implies the ability to access and verify personal information for identification, a (nuanced) sorting process and further decision-making. For the sake of clarity, I use verbs such as “to check” and “to verify” to speak about how surveillance works and therefore I reserve the verb “to control” to refer to one possible outcome of surveillance i.e. “to influence or direct [regulate] people’s behaviour”.3 This latter has to be differentiated from coercion. Indeed, “to persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats” (ibid.) is only one means of control amongst others. As I will clarify later, authorities rarely persuade or convince (future) conscripts to 1 Figures and observations are retrieved from the UNHCR statistical yearbooks from 2003 up to 2009 for Ethiopia and Sudan available at: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c4d6.html (accessed 12 December 2010). 2 Yearly enrolment figures are unfortunately not available. However, common knowledge has it that between 15,000 and 20,000 High School students take grade 11 exams each year at the Warsay Ykäạlo school in Sawa military camps where they are at the same time conscripted into National Service. However, it is possible to argue that these new recruits who are only a fraction of the overall population enrolled each year replace those who have deserted. This shows that the Eritrean government has the ability and power to channel enough people into conscription at least for a period of time. Of course, this implies a relatively effective management of population through the school system. 3 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com Bozzini: Low-tech Surveillance and the Despotic State in Eritrea Surveillance & Society 9(1/2) 95 undergo National Service in its current configuration by any justifications or national imperatives but rather oblige them to comply unwillingly. However surveillance does not necessarily aim to coerce or even to control people, I argue that the Eritrean surveillance apparatus plays an important role in coercing certain Eritreans even though it has significant limitations in achieving its primary goal, i.e. surveillance as it has been defined. Lastly, any given methods of surveillance, control and coercion are never complete or achieved but always must be considered as attempts which are more or less effective. Therefore, the desertion and exile which I mentioned previously do not compromise the idea that surveillance, control,and coercion are somehow minimally effective in sorting citizens and maintaining a certain degree of mobilisation and social order in Eritrea.
[Again, we highly recommend to our readers to read the Full Text: PDF]