Horn of Africa at risk

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By John Harbeson

For all its central importance to Africa’s modern political history, especially from the mid-19th Century to the present, the Horn of Africa has seemed rarely to get the kind of in-depth treatment – and I would add healing it has deserved – and needs more than ever right now.

The current and still unpredictable course of change in Ethiopia makes in-depth policy and scholarly understanding of the region’s requirements urgent, for they inescapably impact each of her neighbours, notably the thousands of Ethiopians who have fled across the border at Moyale into Kenya, sparked initially by a bungled security operation by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling regime. Then there’s the dam in southwestern Ethiopia that is displacing thousands and threatens the livelihoods of Kenyans dependent on Lake Turkana. I submit that the core problem is one that persistently eludes, but yet urgently demands, careful re-consideration:  the problem of the state, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The distinguished Sudanese philosopher and statesman, Francis Deng, has been eloquent in reminding us that the whole idea of the state as we all have known it in contemporary politics is a surviving legacy of European imperialism. The legitimacy and viability of the post-colonial state survives to varying extents, and as a matter of opinion, in the form of boundaries governmental structures, revised in some democratic era constitutions as in Kenya. 

Important in this context is that despite the meltdown occasioned by Kenya’s 2007-8 elections, I think it is fair to claim that there was no serious prospect that Kenya’s structures would dissolve in civil war. That reality has existed because Kenyans, however contentiously, have shared a commitment to live together as one polity that is deeper and is, in fact, the foundation of the country’s constitutional and governmental structures. At some varied levels, this reality would appear to reflect an evolving meaning of the state in sub-Saharan Africa as something sustained by popular commitment, not only as a monopoly of coercive power as Weber understood it, and as conventional academic and policy wisdom has tended to sustain it.

The fundamental problem for Ethiopia is that since the fall of its last emperor, Haile Selassie I, nearly half a century ago, Ethiopia has elusively pursued its transformation from an empire to a modern state in an era when much of the rest of Africa still wrestles with what such a state might look like across the continent.  It has long seemed to me that some fundamental tenets of a common Ethiopia political identity have existed as a basis for sharing a polity.  At a minimum, evidence is supplied by the several occasions in its modern political history when it could well have fallen apart during the colonial era but didn’t, depending on what one thinks about Eritrea.

The reality for Ethiopia at this precarious moment, however, is that it is governed and held together only by a four party-EPRDF coalition. Were that apparently fractious coalition to fall apart, the remnant would not be a state in any modern sense but the remains of empire.  That remnant would retain the northern economic and military dominance of the conquered south, differing from the imperial past by little other than more Tigrean than Amhara pre-eminence. The urgently needed national dialogue to construct the foundations of a legitimate post-imperial state has not occurred, and is not currently in prospect, despite the efforts of some opposition parties to heal and overcome historic, ethnic and regional, imperially generated wounds.

The EPRDF functions as though it were state within a state with its 100% monopoly of lower house of parliament and a 1995 Constitution it alone engineered. But the EPRDF shattered the legitimacy of its ethnic confederal constitutional design when it attempted to transgress Oromia’s borders to benefit Addis Ababa, as well as by a contrary pattern of highly centralised, authoritarian rule.

That breach has mobilised the millions of Ethiopians activated by rejection of their exclusion from this EPRDF would-be state within a state except as objects of EPRDF driven economic enterprise. A legitimate, viable Ethiopian state depends on ending this exclusion which only a searching national dialogue can accomplish.

Dr Abiy Ahmed’s elevation to prime minister advances democracy only in the sense that the Oromo people are the country’s largest community. His OPDO is only part of the EPRDF and, at present he can only govern as it permits. Governing the country through revolving door political prisoner releases and state of emergency re-arrests is untenable.

Dr Ahmed’s Herculean task is to establish himself not as EPRDF’s prime minister but as Ethiopia’s prime minister by reaching out to all communities in pursuit of a true all-party national dialogue from which at last may emerge a true post-imperial Ethiopian state deserving of the name. (

— Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University

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