Massification, Militarization, and Quotidian Nationalism

It is important to note that while the PFDJ/EPLF was quite adept at producing a cohering, revolutionary national ideology; building state institutions to disseminate it; and constructing the symbolic and ritual means to socialize Eritreans into this sense of national personhood, Eritrean nationalism is not merely a party construct. In large part, what has lent it emotional heft is the way in which it draws on the experiences of Eritreans, particularly during The Struggle, and in so doing transforms experiences of suffering into valorous sacrifices and quintessential attributes of being Eritrean. The party narrates the nation in a way that connects with Eritreans’ everyday lives and their recent, personal historical memories. In this sense, it has made its version of nationalism quotidian—a routine part of life. The following story about wanting to join the fighters told to me by one of my research subjects presents a narrative that is reproduced in various forms of popular media and aptly illustrates the ways in which lived experiences are appropriated by the party’s national narrative.

Growing up close to the front line during the war for independence, the war deeply and personally influenced Isaac, particularly when the Ethiopian government imprisoned Isaac’s father for revolutionary activities. Although the war ended before Isaac was old enough to join the fighters, he imagined that he would become a fighter and prioritized Eritrea’s independence over his own education or future, thus epitomizing the ethos of sacrifice for the nation:

The war was in the area surrounding [our village]. We could listen to the sound of the war. Our thinking was totally towards the war. Our brothers and sisters were at the front. We thought, “Why are we going to school here in the village? We should go to fight.” I didn’t have any goal or objective. But I did have a very long-term plan—when we got liberation, I would have good education— better than under Ethiopia. This was my thinking. But we didn’t have any plan. My plan was just to be an Eritrean soldier. All the surrounding area was covered by Ethiopian soldiers. It was very difficult. Some of us found ways to go to join the Eritrean forces, but I couldn’t get to them. In 1989, Eritrean forces attacked my village, and then we tried to go with them, but when we went to this forest area to meet the fighters, they told us they were going a very long distance. They said, “We will come back again, so it is better to stay in your house. Stay here and go to school, and next time you will come with us.”

Although Isaac speaks of this in terms of “not having a plan,” the sentiment here is that his entire orientation was focused on the liberation of his country and becoming a fighter to bring this about. He could not have a plan because of the conditions his country was in. His story is an expression of willingness to sacrifice but also of the lack of options that war brings. Like many Eritrean young people growing up in Eritrea during the war for independence, early in Isaac’s life he was willing to sacrifice everything to become a fighter to liberate Eritrea. Many Eritreans in Isaac’s generation did join the fighters, and many others expressed the desire to do so. Even Eritreans who grew up in Ethiopia told me that their parents confessed that they did not tell them about The Struggle for fear that it would fill them with such a strong desire to join the front that they would run away from home and travel to Eritrea to join the fighters.

A young person “running away” to join the fighters is a common motif in Eritrean public nationalist discourse. Short plays that are either televised or performed live on public holidays often portray parents trying to convince their child not to leave home and then ultimately accepting the decision and sacrificing the personal need to keep their child alive for the good of the nation. These dramas link highly personal and emotional memories of the war for independence, desires to liberate the country, and fear of personal loss with public performances of what it means to be Eritrean. In these dramas, a parent, often crying, typically tries to prevent the child (often a girl) from running away, but the dramas always end up with the child succeeding in running away and joining the fighters and the parent recognizing that love for country must take precedence over love for one’s child. This sends the message that everyone must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I would like to highlight two points that emerge from this narrative of running away to join The Struggle. First, any Eritrean could be, or imagine him- or herself as, a fighter. The “fighter” (tegadalai/tegadalit) is simultaneously an Eritrean icon and everyman/everywoman. Fighters (tegadelti) are pictured on postage stamps, murals, and posters and in documentaries and music videos on Eritrean state-run television. The image of the fighter is everywhere. However, the fighter is not a distant figure but every Eritrean, literally and metaphorically. Many people joined The Struggle when they were young, tried to join The Struggle as Isaac did, or supported the fighters in some other way. When Eritreans who grew up during The Struggle described their understanding of being Eritrean, it was often equated with a sense of wanting to personally help the country, particularly by helping the fighters, emulating the fighters, or becoming a fighter. Peggy Hoyle’s (1999) survey of university students provides evidence of the kind of national symbol fighters are—a heroic everyman. When asked who is “the greatest hero of Eritrea,” most students answered, “all fighters,” “all martyrs,” or “all Eritreans” (1999: 407). Although there are specific Eritrean heroes and heroines from the long war for liberation, what was striking in Eritrea was that in the post-independence years, Eritreans regarded all who fought, suffered, and died to liberate the country as heroic (Hoyle 1999). This is indicative of the fact that, in the post-independence years, many Eritreans bought into the idea that all Eritreans were heroic and had worked together to liberate themselves by virtue of the national characteristics of fortitude, self-sufficiency, and willingness to sacrifice.

In an interesting inversion, just as the fighter is everyone, those who might be put on (or put themselves on) a pedestal as heroes from The Struggle for liberation instead behave as ordinary people. Eritrea’s leaders, including the president, take pride in being common people, something that Eritreans often comment on. They are not thought of as being above others, and, to this day, there is little cult of personality around the president himself. Ministers typically wear fairly casual clothes and drive ordinary cars. The party’s political culture does not require those with power to acquire visible adornments of affluence. In the years immediately following independence, President Isaias could often be seen driving himself around Asmara in a small, modest car. It was also a common experience for Eritreans in Asmara to look up in a bar and find he was standing next to them watching a football game or enjoying a beer. These were not heroes put on a pedestal to hover over people and be revered by them; rather, they were thought of as ordinary Eritreans, just like everyone else.

Another idea emerging from narratives of young people running away to join The Struggle is the theme of sacrificing oneself and one’s family members for the nation. A unit on patriotism in the national civics curriculum illustrates this theme. The unit begins with a story of a grandfather and his grandson being apprehended by Ethiopian soldiers. A group of Derg (Ethiopian) soldiers was lost without food and water in the Eritrean countryside. They came across a man named Omar Mohamed near the town of Afabet, pulled out their guns, and demanded that he take them to water and food and show them the way to Keren. Omar refused, and the soldiers threatened to kill both him and his grandson who was accompanying him. Omar then said that he would show the soldiers where they could find food and water if they let his grandson go. The soldiers suspected that after they let his grandson go, he would then refuse to take them to food and water. They said they would kill both of them. The man then said that they should kill his grandson in front of him before they kill him. The Derg soldiers were confused and wondered why this man wanted to have his grandson killed first. Then, fortunately, the EPLF showed up, freed the man and his grandson, did not harm the soldiers, fed them, and took them to prison. The conclusion of the story then reiterates that the man had no intention of showing the soldiers where food and water were. He was thinking, the curriculum notes, that he would tell them to kill him after they freed his grandson. The curriculum also notes that he did not want to leave his grandson with “these cruel enemy soldiers,” but when it became clear that he could not save his grandson, he began to fear that if he died first, his grandson would show the soldiers to food and water, his focus shifting to protecting the nation by not showing the soldiers where the food and water were. The commentary on the story concludes: “Even this innocent child has to be sacrificed for the safety of his people and his country. There is a lot of this type of incidents in the Eritrean’s struggle for liberation. It is the highest stage of patriotism” (Ministry of Education, Moral and Civil Education Grade 6, unpublished document). Clearly this definition equates patriotism with willingness to sacrifice not only oneself but also one’s loved ones.

The celebration of martyrs and martyrdom extends the theme of valorizing, validating, and nationalizing suffering and sacrifice. Martyrs Day is a public state celebration, but one that penetrates the intimate realm of the home and the family. The events of Martyrs Day are choreographed not only to produce a particular affective climate oriented around loss but also to vindicate these losses, to give them purpose and claim them for the good of the nation. Indeed, sacrifice for the nation is at the core of government-produced definitions of what it means to be Eritrean (Bernal 2014). Through the commemoration of martyrdom, the government also subsumes personal memories of loss into the public commemoration of martyrs. Very personal experiences of grief and mourning are claimed by the state and given meaning. Martyrs are both an intimate part of Eritreans’ everyday lives and key national figures who embody the national value of sacrifice. Few Eritrean families did not lose someone to The Struggle, and each family who lost someone is given a certificate, which is often displayed prominently in people’s homes. That person’s name is seldom mentioned without noting that he or she was “martyred” (e.g., “my uncle, the one who was martyred”). The martyr is a key national symbol and emblematic of the core national tenet of sacrifice (Hepner 2009b). As an ideal type of citizen, the martyr illuminates the ideal of willingness to sacrifice everything for the nation above all else. Being martyred, or being related to a martyr, thus demarcates the experience of being Eritrean, both identifying martyrs and their families as the ideal sacrificial citizens and locating the experience of mourning and loss within the national space.

In Eritrea, Martyrs Day has always been a somber occasion on which Eritreans grieve those they have lost in The Struggle. Unlike the more raucous Independence Day celebrations, there is no drinking or dancing on Martyrs Day. Bars are closed, their lights dimmed. Throughout the country, Eritreans walk or stand quietly, holding candles in vigil. Martyrs Day in 2001 was particularly poignant. On June 13, 2001, approximately one year after fighting in a three-year border war with Ethiopia had ended, the government announced the names of nineteen thousand people who had died in the border war. It was, literally, a day of public, mass mourning. Red-eyed and tearful, people cried as they walked down streets and traveled on public buses moving from home to home where thousands of mourning ceremonies were simultaneously being held.3

Official versions of Eritrean nationalism are oriented around sacrifice, and patriotism is inherently linked with sacrifice. The necessity of sacrifice in the face of the brutality of enemies is a theme that shows up in various places in the national curriculum, typically when recounting the atrocities of Ethiopian rule. English texts, history texts, civics texts, as well as movies and television programs depict the horrors experienced under Ethiopian rule. A reading in a grade 10 English book goes into detail about the conditions in a jail for Eritrean dissidents in Asmara by describing the processes of being interrogated and tortured. It also describes the sympathy that other prisoners had for those who had been tortured and notes the patriotism of those being executed: “As prisoners heard their names, they started walking out, shouting slogans: ‘Long live the EPLF! Victory to the masses!’” (Ministry of Education, CRDI 1993: 21). This statement reflects a common theme that is also present in a passage on fortitude and other passages on atrocities under Ethiopian rule—that suffering can be transcended through patriotism.

Building on narratives depicting common experiences of oppression and atrocity during the war and the period of Ethiopian rule, the civics text describes “fortitude” as the ultimate Eritrean national character trait. The text notes that “fortitude is one of the moral values which our forefathers cherished” and that “a person with this characteristic can endure any pain or difficulty.” It goes on to state that “he or she is dedicated to what he or she believes or stands for to the extent of death.” The text defines fortitude as the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a cause, as the Eritrean fighters did when fighting for freedom for thirty years. Furthermore, it notes that this characteristic “has a deep root in the blood of every Eritrean” and describes those who lack fortitude as a burden on society. The segment on fortitude concludes by noting that “every Eritrean has inherited this behavior as a culture and this was witnessed in the very long and bitter war for independence. . . . There is no doubt that this moral value will also be inherited by all our young generation as a good culture of our forefathers” (Ministry of Education, Moral and Civic Education Grade 6, Unit 1, Fortitude, pp. 23-24, unpublished document). This sense of national character is rooted in the notion that all Eritreans possess inherent fortitude in the face of difficulty. The text depicts the fighters who liberated the country as embodying this characteristic; however, all Eritreans, the text suggests, have “inherited” this characteristic from their “forefathers.” Fortitude, the passage above suggests, leads not only to personal success but also to the success of the nation, as the person with fortitude works hard, is patient, and is willing to sacrifice him- or herself for higher ideals.

In addition to the nationalization of personal experiences of loss and suffering, and the valorization of sacrifice and suffering for the nation, the party has also engaged in an ongoing, overt project of making the nation a core part of everyday life. As I noted above, the EPLF intentionally sought to produce a coherent, singular notion of what it meant to be Eritrean and a personal attachment between Eritreans, the party, and its revolutionary ideology. The EPLF, and later the PFDJ, utilized a variety of quotidian strategies to insert these values in Eritreans’ everyday lives.

One quotidian strategy was the government’s use of rhetoric and symbols to nationalize ordinary, everyday experiences and objects. The valorization of the shida, which I discussed in the beginning of the chapter, is one example of the nationalization of the everyday. The shida is one of several quotidian nationalist symbols that enable Eritrea’s ruling party to imbue Eritreans’ daily lives with nationalism. Values that are core to The Struggle, such as fortitude and making due with local resources, can be read in the shida and in other symbols. Similarly, the camel, another some?what unusual national symbol, which appears on the national seal, references endurance and self-reliance. The use of camels to transport weapons and supplies through the dry terrain has been celebrated as an example of utilizing local resources to win the war. Camels have been particularly important in Eritrea’s predominantly Muslim lowland areas, where people have commonly used them to transport goods. The camel’s elevation to a very public national symbol thus referenced the fusion of lowland and highland peoples and ways of life in the Eritrean nation (see Hoyle 1999 for a discussion of camels as well as other national symbols). Additionally, the very use of the word “struggle” to describe the war for liberation may be seen as a quotidian rhetorical strategy. While “war” depicts events that are both geographically and emotionally distant and temporal (wars start and end), “struggle” is more intimate and continuous. Indeed The Struggle is depicted as the responsibility of all Eritreans. Like “revolution,” the term “The Struggle” seamlessly extends from armed combat to other struggles against oppression, poverty, underdevelopment, ignorance, or whatever the regime pinpoints as in need of being struggled against. Struggle is a word that galvanizes on an ongoing, personal level.

Another quotidian strategy of nation making was to create routine, ritualized experiences for Eritreans that socialized them into what it meant to be Eritrean. National Service has been, of course, the quintessential process of socializing Eritreans into the values and experiences of being a fighter—the ideal Eritrean everyman/everywoman—but National Service was certainly not the only way to make Eritrean nationalism understood and felt to be part of everyone’s everyday lives. Additionally, throughout my fieldwork, there were a variety of everyday national routines. In major towns and cities, at the beginning and end of the workday, flags were raised and lowered. All pedestrians and traffic were expected to stop when a whistle sounded. Pedestrians then stood in silence to salute the flag while it was lowered and continued moving only after the whistle sounded again. It was a striking experience to be walking down the street and suddenly find everyone standing still while gazing up at a nearby flag.

Similar to National Service, after independence, the government initiated a series of programs designed to ensure that this identification with the experiences of the fighter would transfer to subsequent generations. These programs initially built on desires to serve the country but over time turned mandatory. In the immediate postwar years, Eritreans willingly talked about the need to make sacrifices for the nation. This ethos of sacrifice, as recounted to me in interviews, often translated into a willingness to do whatever and go wherever the government said to. Aspiring students were told to be patient and volunteer while they waited for schools to get started. Civil servants and high-level officials all found themselves being told to make sacrifices as their salaries were furloughed, raises that were long overdue were delayed even longer, or they were transferred to postings they did not want (Hoyle 1999). Eritreans were told that their labor was badly needed, enabling the new government to allocate workers where they needed them and to use a degree of coercion to tell people where to go and what to do. The legacy of loyalty and obedience gleaned from the disciplined military culture created during The Struggle and the strong sentiments of pride in the new nation made sacrifices for the nation in the immediate post-independence years seem like an inevitable part of being Eritrean.

The government yoked the rhetoric of sacrifice to several homegrown development-oriented projects, which enabled successive generations of Eritreans to experience the legacy of The Struggle and have experiences that approximated those of the fighters. Most notable in this regard was Eritrea’s National Service program. Initially, trainees spent several months on foot trekking through Eritrea’s rugged terrain much as the fighters had, something that many civilians complained was overly harsh. In addition, they received political education and were ultimately put to work on development projects. Effectively, National Service was thought to transform all Eritreans into tegadelti (fighters). Citizens’ participation in the various forms of service intentionally simulated the service and sacrifice of those who fought in The Struggle (Hepner 2009b; Muller 2008). National service thus was both a disciplinary practice that organized a labor force for development and defense and an ideological one intended to fuse the values of The Struggle into the population.

In the same vein, short-term service projects recruited high school students, university students, women, or, sometimes, members of the population at large into a variety of civic and service activities that might last anywhere from an afternoon to several months. Other mass service projects took on different forms, many of which simulated the developmentalist projects that brought civilians and fighters together during The Struggle. Community-wide cleanup days required all members of a community to clean their town or village. Summer service programs (ma’atot) sent high school and university students to different parts of the country to plant trees, terrace hillsides, or engage in other development projects. The goals of National Service and shorter-term service projects were to inculcate in citizens the value of service to the nation and to forge an attachment to the nation among all of its regionally diverse peoples through the common experience of service (Kibreab 2009b; Muller 2008). High school sum?mer work projects also required moving teachers and students to different regions where they would mix with others.

The spectacle of those serving the nation also generated mass euphoria in the population at large. As in many other nations, in Eritrea, national loyalty is inscribed through bodily practices; ideally, as citizens viscerally feel the nation in their bodies, they imagine the state as the benevolent keeper of the national vision. Tekle Woldemikael (2009: 4) notes the importance of Independence Day celebrations to “producing] docile bodies, subjects who fit into the ruling party’s image of nationhood.” Similarly, students traveling to National Service or summer work programs were often paraded through large towns, waving from buses with horns honking.

By the end of The Struggle, being Eritrean had become a lived experience due to the prevalence of the war and the sense that the fighters were one with the Eritrean people. In the immediate postwar era, the euphoria of independence led to a continuation of the desire to serve and sacrifice for the country. In the decades that followed, the PFDJ has continued to merge nationalism with people’s lived experiences by creating a series of experiences whereby Eritreans viscerally and bodily experience the nation in their everyday lives. This happens through programs of mass socialization (National Service), everyday rituals (flag ceremonies), and the celebration of everyday, ordinary symbols that are both national and a part of everyone’s lives (the shida). However, quotidian nationalism has faced challenges to its legitimacy in the years following the border war.

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