Will the Centre Hold?
The Horn of Africa is a region where population growth is exorbitant; politics is featured with long and grinding civil wars, failed and/or authoritarian states; and poverty is abject. The Horn is also that part of Africa where the national politics of each of the countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia) seems to have immediate and remarkable spill over on the neighboring countries. It is the only region where an African country collapsed into small clan-cum-warlord provinces. Somalia is in such a Hobbesian state for over two decades now.
The Horn is also the only part of African where a state came to being seceding from another African country (Ethiopia). The Sudan, the largest country in Africa, hosted the longest and most grinding civil war in Africa in the South. Following the Naivasha Comprehensive Peace Agreement, January 9, 2011 is the date when Southern Sudanese people would cast their final vote to stay within Sudan or secede.
“Sudan is no more!” confided a northern Sudanese friend of mine, a professor of African History in one of Ohio’s Universities. Following years of neglect, and oppression by Khartoum, often dominated by the Moslem northern Sudanese (some call them “Arabic” that I do not buy); the south is set bow out heralding yet another “child” to the Horn of Africa. Beginning from Anya Nya Movement, the southern people’s demands for internal autonomy, proportional representation in the national government, equitable share of Sudan’s national wealth and public amenities (some basic as education and health) were deferred successively. As Langston Hughes once put it, there is nothing more explosive than “a dream deferred!”Al Bashir’s ascent to power; his Islamo-nationalist agenda espoused in the programs of National Islamic Front; and its earlier inspirations from the likes of Hussein Al Turabi added more fuel to the conflict.
The prospect of a secular, democratic and federal Sudan (Gharang’s “New Sudan”) became far more unachievable. Just as the harsh, undemocratic and violent excesses of Addis Ababa fanned, and fuelled Eritrean resentments; Khartoum kept committing the same mistakes. Further west, we have the Darfur crisis and there also are low intensity conflicts in the north eastern borders of the Sudan. Many in Sudan are asking a simple question: “will the center hold?”
And he asks in his most recent book (2010), “We must now look deep into our national soul, as it were, and reexamine what held us together. What was the glue that held things together in our case?” I am sure you are suspecting of an Ethiopian interlocutor-some average “neftenyaa” who drums about the dismemberment of his motherland, Ethiopia. No dear reader, the author is Bereket Habtesellasie (2010) the pariah of Eritrean Nationalism in his latest book, “Wounded Nation”. Given the early activism of Muslim lowlanders in the struggle against Ethiopia (remember EPLF’s criticisms of ELF for being ‘narrow nationalist’ ‘arabist’ and ‘reactionary’); the united struggle of both the highlanders and the lowlanders under the EPLF; and the fresh memory of that “national” struggle against its neighboring nemesis (Ethiopia); you would think Eritrean Nationalism is in high gear! But not so fast, two decades into its national life, Eritrean scholars are asking, “Will the center hold?”
Arguing the case for a united, secular and democratic Eritrea; Bereket (p265) charts how the center is being challenged from two sides. On the one hand, he argues, are, “A few Eritrean writers who do not seem to believe in Eritrea as a viable nation, presumably want us to join (or rejoin) and reclaim common nationhood with our larger neighbor to the south.” At the other end, “there are Eritreans who hold the “Tigirigna Supremacist” hypothesis, imagining a scenario of a possible breakup of Eritrea in which the lowlands join Sudan and the highlands join Ethiopia.” Eritrea is faced with the ‘ethnic-cum-religious question’, two decades after Isaias Afeworki commented that this was Ethiopia’s burden for the coming century. The question is once again “will the center hold?”
Given all these, Ethiopia’s experiment has its own silver linings. First and foremost, like it or not, the Ethiopian polity now has a trajectory of political parties straddling two extremes. The first are Unitary nationalists people. Those who espoused being Ethiopian as nothing but Amharic speaking, Orthodox Christian Highlander. Their Ethiopia is a monolith; one that imposes its political and cultural fiat over such a multi-ethnic entity. At the other extreme, we have ‘anti-colonial’ liberationists whose reading of Ethiopia’s history recommends nothing but secession. Yet their political commitment is backpedalling towards an internal, democratic self-determination. As Aregawi Berhe (2009) eloquently argues, such recourse to internal self-determination usually opts for “federation, confederation or autonomy” as opposed to secession. Be this as it may, the reformasi in the liberationists camp is welcome news.
Somewhere in the middle, we have various ethno-nationalist parties with political programs, constituencies and alignments meant to represent a particular group in the country. Their scale and limited appeal means they usually play a second-tier role in national politics. Further into the center, we have not yet invented a unitary party. I see you shaking your head in disbelief! Yes, dear reader, we did not. Oneness parties have never been unitary (since unity essentially assumes diversity). Neither did “hibret” parties; for they only reduced Ethiopia into a quantitative aggregate of ethnic representations-EPRDF is a good example. One of the easiest challenges for the EPRDF was to deconstruct Ethiopian nationalism; but it faltered in finding an alternative definition for it.
Ironic enough, Ethiopia haunts its incumbent! A crude equivalent of a centre would be an “ande-hibret” party. It can be a center that holds: a con-societal entity whose scope and program are national but has ample room to address regional and ethnic sensitivities. Now, there is one wrong place to start such an experiment from: Marxism Leninism- the ideology which trumps individual rights and freedoms, popular consent, majoritarianism and the rule of law. An ideal place to start would be by asking how liberalism addressed issues of structural inequity (based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc). But left or right, Ethiopia deserves kudos for struggling to locate its center.
History has its verdict on this. These long held assumptions that a) homogeneity cements state stability and b) diversity undermines it; these no more hold water. As early as the 1960s, students of African politics spoke about the ethnic, religious and economic diversity of many African states and how that would undermine the center. A few countries were exempted for their homogeneity. Somalia was a forerunner for its near perfect ethnic (though we have a minority Bantu population) and religious (Islamic) homogeneity.
Forty years down the line, we have realized that the center is not a ‘given’ but rather ‘earned’. Despite the entire pejorative connotation the ‘centre’ has in Ethiopia’s political history, I reckon it is time to have some “mehal sefaris”. Let me end with an anecdote of an avowed Ogadeni nationalist who, in the middle of a heated discussion, named Ethiopia as a “banana republic.” A sage Somali scholar at Rutgers University, Prof Said Samatar, responded back, “Ethiopia is not a banana republic. It is the only stable state we are speaking of in the Horn!”