Jennifer Riggan’s “The Struggling State”, Book Review

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Yonatan Tewelde

“They questioned him sternly for several minutes, and then the director stood up and asked him to stretch out his arm. He hit the student several times on his palm with a stick. The boy, who was obviously in pain, at one point pulled his hand back and was roughly ordered to put it back for more blows. He cried out in pain, and a smile flickered across one teacher’s face. After the boy had been dismissed, I asked what he had done. One teacher answered, “He is a very stupid boy.”
Another added, “He is very bad.”

Riggan, Jennifer. The Struggling State: Nationalism, Mass Militarization and the Education of Eritrea. Philadelphia: Temple U. P. 2016 , 243 pages

Jeniffer Riggan’s The Struggling State: Nationalism, Mass Militarization and the Education of Eritrea (2016) is one of a few works that provides an excellent nuances on contemporary realities of the youth and the education system in Eritrea in light of the construction of a national imagination and the state project of raising a generation of disciplined youth. The book is an outcome of long ethnographic research and the author’s experience as a teacher in Eritrea.

Riggan draws her broad analysis about the philosophy of schooling aimed at molding docile, productive nationals, providing an insightful reflection about the manufacturing of national loyalty through rigorous practices. In doing so, she addresses the symbolic position of teachers as the embodiment of state – ever negotiating the use of coercion and sovereignty over the bodies of their students to produce order and obedience. Providing several anecdotes most Eritreans who have gone through the educational system are familiar with, the author frameworks how physical punishment and violence have been
often used as a pedagogical tool to help students achieve a “bright future.”

The fact that her work is based on Assab, a port town in Southern Eritrea, also implies by virtue that many of the ritualistic disciplining efforts by teachers encountered harsher resistance from Afar and Ethiopian migrated students who did not fully abscribe to the prevailing scriptures of Eritrean

“ Assab was not only an ideal site in which to examine this profound rethinking of Eritrean nationalism but also the place that very much shaped my thinking on the subject.. Assab was a place where the dominant, state-produced form of nationalism was in question long before it was elsewhere in Eritrea.” (p.27)

Riggan exemplifies cases where many of the Tigrinya teachers who came from highland cities complained of their unruly Afar students who are used in their own communities to much more permissiveness to talk on equal terms with adults and share spaces with superiors. Growing up in Tigrinya communities, one is taught by parents and society to not only be respectful but also to be fearful of teachers – a reason many of the teachers from the cities despised their students, as they read the lack of fear and indifference of their students as transgressive acts and a moral decline of society.


The book provides a refreshing and well interpreted Foucauldian analysis of school spaces in the production of obedience and docility by highlighting therole of teachers who serve at grid lines of the state obedience technology – albeit despising their own encampment and coercion. Riggan notes the wider essence of the punitive modality of the maddening state and its a temporal and spatial authority on the bodies of citizens, giving various examples like the parading of students going to military camps through towns as reminders that time and bodies are not the individual’s property but the state’s.

Moreover, Riggan outlines various instances of subtle resistance in the form of evasion of the strong hand of the state within school compounds and abroad. For example, she recounts acts of solidarity by citizens in helping youth flee gifa (military round ups) relating it to the bigger picture of foot dragging and refusal for cooperation by citizens with authority. In the school she worked in the author recalls as examples the collective
lack of will by students and teachers to show up for school start and the reluctance of students to take part in daily ceremonies of flag raising and lowering.

“When I say ‘at ease,’ go like this.” He demonstrated for them. Then he drilled them. “Attention! At ease! Attention!” The students in the front followed his instructions as he chastised them to “do it right.” The students in the back ignored him, slouching with their arms dangling at their sides, gazing down at the ground or up at the sky. The ones in the middle shuffled their feet back and forth in a vague imitation of the drill.

Giving up on having his instructions followed, the teacher continued, “OK, begin singing.” The flag rose, and the sound of the students singing was so soft it could not be heard over the rushing wind. The teacher cried out, “Be loud!” The students’ voices rose to a barely audible pitch. (p.

Riggan relates the climate of disorder and mockery of officialdom in schools as a nascent form of resistance against state power. The gradual descent of the imagination about the state from benevolence and caretaking to that of coercion and punishment is reflected in line with general discontent of students about the lack of prospects and control in their lives that was further exacerbated with new policies of mass promotion and the closure of the one and only national university in the country.  Deliberate student failing in classes to avoid joining the army when they finish high school was countered by government decree enforcing mass promotions and a new requirement to finish one year of school in the military training camp, Sawa. The book describes the general discontent by teachers about the new laws claimed to be based on Texan curriculum as they saw it demotivating hard work and vision. In this sense, Riggan makes an excellent job of detailing the unprecedented damage inflicted on the education system in Eritrea and bares open sinister disregard for the future of the nation by the maddening state that has been consumed with the militarization and obedience of the entire

Figuratively defining the country as one big camp designed to forge loyal nationals ascribing to the state scriptures about an exceptional nationhood and values, the author has demonstrated a proficient understanding and ability to read various nuances in everyday routines and the general climate in Eritrea during her field work.

The Struggling State comes as a valuable addition to the body of critical literature about governance and politics in Eritrea. It provides a vivid depiction of the lived experience the population within and the school system that has not been given due attention despite its relevance as a space of manufacturing obedience and a ground of continuous struggle against the coercive state embodied through teachers and the education regime. The book also adds vital insights for those who seek to understand about about complex factors that are the driving forces behind the mass exodus of Eritrean youth, and how they are denied the agencies of their bodies, time and free thinking.

*The book is available online in PDF format via Open Source Access and you can click here to read it.


*Yonatan Tewelde is webmaster and graphic designer of PEN Eritrea and can be reached at


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