Eritrea: A Victim of Modern Necropolitics

“My job is making windows where there were once walls” [Michel Foucault]


In search of an integrative discourse for the Eritrean politics, within the dynamic setting of the international system in motion, this author will try to examine the Eritrean regime and the pattern of its politics in a different approach than the traditional explanations of regimes. In doing so, I will explain (a) the nature of the power of the Eritrean regime and its politics (b) the theory of the “walking dead” and the status of our citizen as a “living death” (c) the sovereignty of power in relation to its subjects (d) modern form of governance and the method of subjugation (e) within the framework of new concepts and theories, this author will also reveal the practices of PFDJ governance that produced mass death and mass incarceration through systematic of violence and terror (f) the politics of death will be examined through the works of scholars. In the process I will try to familiarize some contemporary concepts and theories that I will use for the argument. However, the toughness of the topic can not be explained in the few pages of this article. But by skimming and scanning at the concepts, I will try to relate to the ordeals of the Eritrean people.

Biopower & Biopolitics

Biopower and biopoliticis are modern theories of political philosophy that deals with “the broad conceptualization and genealogies of power and governmentality”. These concepts are the most compelling of Michel Foucault’s “oeuvre”. The root of the concepts are as follows: Bio means life and Biopower means the sovereignty of power over life and Biopolitics means the politics of life.

Interestingly enough, Biopolitics is understood as a political of rationality that takes “the administration of life and the population as its subjects”. Its purpose is to ensure and sustain life in order. In “The will of knowledge” Foucault provided us the genealogy of biopolitics – the right of death and the power over life – that determines “sovereignty” – the characteristics and privileges of “sovereign power.” In this context “sovereign power” refers to the “right to decide life and death.” In other words, this sovereign power, it in itself is a judicial form of power – the power to “take life or let live.” On the other hand, Biopower is constituted to “foster life or disallow life to the point of death”. In his “society must be defended” Foucault provided us with detailed analysis how bourgeoisies develop the disciplinary mechanics of power, the prison system, and the creation of docile population. Furthermore, in the same publication he elucidated that war is not waged between two races, but it is by a race that is portrayed as the one true race – the race that hold power and is entitled to define the “norm” against those who deviate from the norm. This biopower also implies the war waged by an ethnic that hold power and is entitled to define the norm and way of life against the minorities in diversified societies.

Foucault’s work on Biopolitics and Biopower is not without limitation. In his explanation of “politics of population” the “biopolitical” subject is not explicitly conceived within his oeuvre. It is from this political limitation that Achille Mbembe came up explicitly to explain how biopower is the work of “violence and domination” that lead him to develop the notion of “Necropolitics” – the sovereign of decision on death – the power that could dictate “who may live and who must die.” We shall see how the notion or the concept of necropolitics is theorized as I continue my argument.

Necropower & Necropolitics

To begin with, let us see the roots and definition of the concepts. “Necro” means death. Then necropolitics means the ‘politics of death’ and Necropower means the ‘power of death.’ In his book, Mbwmbe guided us by sorting out Foucauldian discourse of genealogy of death in modern state, where sovereignty is inherently linked to the “creation of an enemy” of the state that must be eliminated. According Achille Mbembe, to exercise sovereignty is to exercise control of mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power [2003:12].

Mbembe found ‘biopower’ as insufficient to account for contemporary forms of ‘subjugation’ of life to the power of death. As a result, he put forward the concept of ‘Necropolitics’ and ‘Necropower’ to account the various ways and weapons deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of peoples and the creation of death [ 2003, 39-40]. Necropower controls sovereignty as the determining power as to who is disposable and who isn’t. In a nutshell, Mbembe saw the “power over death and life” and the creation of ‘bare life’ through spaces of exception. To simplify it, Necropolitics is “the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live or how some may die”.

In a parallel project, Patterson also argued on the issue of ‘bare life’ and how ‘sovereignty’ the ‘state of exception’ have produced the slave-to-master relationships – the power which create the ‘slaves’s social death’ – in which their relationship to ‘power’ is always reducible to hostility and disposability [Patterson, 1982]. This biopolitical-social-disposability will be explained as one strand of necropolitics, for which I will try to relate, to the issue of “national service in the Eritrean proper, later in my discussion.

Subjugation And The Power of Death

Necropolitics implicates the “subjugation of life to the power of death.” Surprisingly enough, in our contemporary world, different types of “weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of people and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique forms of social existence, in which the vast population are subjugated to a condition of life conferring upon them the status of living death.” [Mbembe, 2003, PP 39 & 40]. Necropolitics also entails necroeconomy a subject of its own for another time.

Confiding, on Agamben’s insights, Mbembe upholds that the camp sites (refugee and prisons) are “the prevailing way of governing unwanted populations where the prison camps are enclosed in precarious militarized spaces to control, to harass, and possibly kill them – a permanent condition of living in pain [Mbembe, 2003, pp 39].

Sovereignty As a Power of Death

Sovereign power in the context of necropolitics is the right to decide life and death. The ultimate expression of ‘sovereignty’ resides in the power and capacity to dictate who must live or die. To kill or to allow to live constitutes the limits of sovereignty [ Mbembe, 2003, pp 11-12]. It is “derived from the ancient Patria Potestas that granted the father of Roman family the right to dispose the life of his children and his slaves. Just as he had given them life, so he could take it away” [Faucoult, 1978]. The power over life has evolved in to two basic forms but linked together. The first is centered on the body as a machine – its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls – all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines [Ibid]. The second is the biopolitics of the population – the discipline of the body and the regulations of the population. Both constitute the forms around which the organization of power over life is deployed.

The old power of death that symbolized “sovereign power” are now supplanted by the administration of population and the calculated management of life through diverse technique for achieving the subjugation of human population [Ibid].

PFDJ’s Necropower And Necropolitics

Discourse is defined as the communication that takes place within a society about an issue or sets of issues. The dominance of a particular discourse within a society, is therefore becomes, an inevitable that reflects the power structure of the society. I believe the sociopolitical discourse in Eritrea is dominated by the PFDJ regime and the power manifestation of PFDJ is purely “necropower” as defined above. If to exercise “sovereignty” is to exercise control of mortality – the power to dictate who must live or who must die, then how do we explain the exercise of power of PFDJ regime to control its subjects? The prime goal of this author is then to explore “sovereignty and the state of exception” within the dominant discourse in the Eritrean body politics. To do that, I will try to illustrate using the tools as set forth by Achille Mbembe, to explain the power exercised by the Eritrean regime, its politics, the condition of its subjects, and the nature of the subjugation in contemporary Eritrea.

(a) Perpetual Wars: for the state of Eritrea war is not an “exception” but it is a “permanent state” affairs. Since the inception of the Eritrean state in 1991, in the last three decades, the Eritrean regime conducted perpetual of wars with its neighbors and beyond. The Eritrean defense force (EDF) have fought with Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Congo, Yemen, and twice with Ethiopia as we speak. In conducting the wars – the regime decides who will go to the war who shouldn’t – the necropolitics of death – who should live and who should die.

(b) Modern slavery: The regime created the “saw camp” in the name of “indefinite national service” to control the Eritrean youth and eventually to deploy and dispose them – the power of “state of exception” that produce slave-to master relationships, in which our youth became the victim of biopolitical-social disposabilities.

(c) State of terror: The state of Eritrea indiscriminately persecutes, imprisons and eliminates any political group to secure its power. The state of exception deploys all kinds of tools of oppression and suppression in order to harass and to intimidate the Eritrean people, and in the process, to transform the Eritrean society to a “docile society” that takes orders without questions – a typical explanation of necropolitics – the condition of life of a “walking dead.” The sheer level of violence directed towards its citizen by the state is an exemplary of necropower –the power over the walking dead.

(d) Creating Enemy: In order to control the Eritrean youth, the regime has to create an enemy to fight with, either by creating alliance or by itself – an act of exposing the Eritrean youth to death – a senseless war of annihilation, a true nature of human disposabilities with no accountability.

(e) The production of refugees: Eritrea is one of the few countries that has produced the highest influx of refugees all over the world. In less than three decades, over five hundred thousand Eritreans have left the country to find their freedom from the regime that suffocate them as subjects in the slave camp of Sawa. These escapees unfortunately are trapped in another refugee camps where they are living in a conditions of a “bare life” as Patterson has aptly described it escaping from the “slave’s social death” or “bare life” or as Agamben described it “a space in a permanent state of exception, in which government exercises sovereign power over the camps as the ultimate biopolitical subject.” That is exactly what happened to the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia currently – the conspiracy of the two sovereign powers, namely the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

(f) Shared violence: The state of Eritrea expanded to exercise its monopoly power beyond its border by creating an enemy, and by doing so, it forged an alliance with the central government of Ethiopia and the militia of the Amara state (kilil), to perpetuate a war of ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region – a shared violence and terror, to create havoc, death, and starvation in that particular region – a classical necropolitical power at play, to eliminate the unwanted population.

(g) Building Prisons: The Eritrean regime has built 260 prisons for a small country with a population of 3.5 million – prisons more than schools and hospitals, so to speak. One can easily extrapolate from it the population of the prisoners. The nature of the prison houses which are placed in a mountain caves and separate foxholes are one of the models used for eliminating the unwanted group of population – the work of necropower that dictate who must be eliminated or die in cruelness and barbarity. Tens of thousands from our citizens are disappeared without knowing their whereabouts and are languishing and dying in those prison cells.


When Achille Mbembe wrote “becoming a subject” which presupposes upholding the work of death, he was illustrating that “politics” and “sovereignty” are linked together to a “right to kill than to preserve life”. Mbembe’s Necropolitics allows me to ask the important questions to explore the nature of the Eritrean regime and its politics, to understand its sovereign power over our population, as a subject exposed to terror and humiliation, that ultimately subject to inhumane of disposability. This author believes that the Eritreans who are exposed to death in the perpetual war of adventurism, in the prison camps, and in the “bare life” of refugee camps are the work of necropolitics and necropower of the Eritrean regime. Necropolitics is a reminder of the new forms of social existence of the Eritrean people, in which the population is subjected to a condition of life known as the status of a “living dead.” I have no doubt this essay will generate cacophony and dissonance from the PFDJ political house and their sympathizers. After all I have come with this essay in order to bring an intellectual debate on the subject and its implication on the lives of the Eritrean people.

[1] Foucault, Michel “the birth of biopolitics”, lectures at the collage de France (1978-1978)
[2] Foucault, Michel “The will of knowledge,” 1976.
[3] Foucault, Michel “Society must be defended”, 1975 – 1976.
[4] Foucault, Michel “Discipline and Punish,” 1995
[5] Mbembe, Achille “Necropolitics”, 2003.
[6] Patterson, Andrew “Authority, alienation, and social death”, 1982
[7] Agamben, Giorgio “Sovereign power and bare life” 1998 Stamford university press, California.
[8] Foucault, Michel “The right of death and power over life”, 1978.


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