Ethiopia : Rethinking the notion of self-determination

Dimetros Birku @dimetros (on twitter)
First published on borkena blog in March 2011

The notion of “self-determination” was projected as an important manifestation of political consciousness in Ethiopian politics immediately before and/or following the Ethiopian revolution in 1974. Yet, a closer critical look of the principle reveals a different picture. Self-determination ,as it relates to Ethiopian politics, rather tells a story of political unconsciousness and consequent adoption of a reductionist view of “self.” In a collectivist society, identity – in this case “self”- is a social construction as much as it is a political one,if not more.Apart from unconsciousness,  mystification of the notion of “self-determination”  in total disregard to the need for an objective inquiry of  the Ethiopian situation ( historical,political, social and cultural, among others) is in part indicative of over-receptiveness of concepts from the outside world without questioning their relevance in a collective society like Ethiopia. In fact, even the issue of receptiveness could be seen as an offshoot of political unconsciousness. 

This short article represents neither an exhaustive nor definitive view of “self-determination” in the context of Ethiopia. It does, however, represent a call to fellow Ethiopians –especially those who bought the idea as a sacred political creed and who are selling it in the same sense – to question its relevance in light of objective inquiry of the Ethiopian situation. I argue that the notion of “self-determination” is over-politicized, and wrongly, at the expense of collective values (social and cultural, among others) that shaped collective identity. Identity, to a great extent, is supposed to be a social construction, in my view, –not a political manufacture from exotic political concepts. The conception of “self” is taken in its absolutist and reductionist form among those who dared to craft identity out of political opposition. Embedded in the notion of “self-determination” is exclusive justice which neither desirable nor possible. 

Why I am questioning Self- determination:

In one of my undergraduate courses, “ The Global South”, the professor posed the question “ Is international law an instrument of domination?” The question was so interesting to me so much so that I asked the professor if I can write one of my research papers for the course on that same question. Not that I had good understanding or previous reading on the topic. It was out of mere curiosity to challenge my own speculative “yes” answer and have a closer look, and understand intuitive critical and negative attitude ,which I developed, towards the “international community” on grounds of the way the “international community” handles issues in the international arena: inconsistency, cynicism, hypocrisy, “humanitarian wars” and what have you.   For some reason, I believed that “international law” is as mediocre as the “international community” and my belief is informed by the political experience of my people. Tracing the origin of international law could have, I believed, given a clue to address the question as to whether international law is “an instrument of domination “or not?  

Preliminary readings which I did for the paper were not that useful. Most of the materials I consulted were of Eurocentric origin. Consequently, they  tend to have a deferential view of “international law.” I discovered crucial clue related to my question only, of my readings, in the work of Karl Polanyi’s – “Great Transformation.” At one point, there seems to be a suggestion that the origin of “international law” was the ‘international system’ which was entirely a European enterprise. It was meant to maintain a balance of power between European powers by way of averting and handling possible conflicts – you may call it the “league of nations” of the then Europe. Even North America was not part of the system.

My next question was whether “international law” was relevant vis-à-vis defending sovereignty of states and peoples at the time they were subject to colonial wars of conquest and treaties of treachery. From the outset, I happened to learn that the contribution of African and other third world scholars to international law was meager, if not nonexistent, in the formative stage of ‘international law.’ Contributions from TWAIL is a post-colonial phenomenon. And I am aware that a body of law is supposed to reflect moral codes, norms and views of the society for which it is intended to serve. In that regard, international law was not international enough. Far from providing legal protection to peoples in Africa and elsewhere, ‘international law’ provided legitimacy and justification for colonial powers in their occupations of territories in Africa. 

The existence of legal principles in “international law” that sound like tools of domination and oppression ,seen from the trajectories of colonized countries ,is another reason to doubt “international law.” Concepts like “Terra nullius,” and the notion of “positivism and positivist interpretation” could be cited as an example. On the basis of these clues, who would not presume that the partition of Africa by European powers with the motive of “civilizing mission” was endorsed by “International law” ,at least by omission.

All is not history though. There is a subtle continuity. Although it is difficult to make categorical assertion on that, even neo-positivism is not immune from bias of the powerful countries. Neo-liberalism composed a propaganda song that “sovereignty” – which was once a cardinal principle in relation to the independence of peoples and nations in international law–is a thing of the past. Obviously, the intention is to facilitate mobility and expansion of capital and exploitation in a more subtle way, unlike the era of colonization which was through wars of conquest. My point is not about neo-liberalism. I am trying to substantiate the point that international law simply served as interpretive frame work to justify domination in colonial era and the world is not immune from new forms exploitation and domination that could appear under the guise of “international law.”  I suppose reference to international laws in the realms of trade law could give a clue on that. The notion of “self-determination” ,which is now part of the international law, could serve that purpose too.

Rethinking the notion of self-determination

The principle of “self-determination” was introduced to international law during decolonization era. It appears the case that the genesis of concept has a root from leftist political thinking. Probably the principle initially came to be part of international law in part due to the ideological war between the East and the West blocs, and in part  due to the appeal of the concept for colonized peoples. Whatever the case is, in light of the struggle against colonialism, and in light of the fact that the struggle was between powerful colonizing countries of Europe on the one hand, and the colonized people of Africa ,which  were subjected to exploitation and inhuman treatment* in their own country , on the other – I would say the notion of “self-determination” was relevant back then. In this case the concept “self” is not suffering from absolutist and reductionist view. Because in the concept “self” the embedded “other” is clear. Indeed, the other is entirely different from  the perceived “self” for historical, political, cultural, economic and social reasons. 

The principle tends to take an absolutist turn when it is applied within a country- especially in Africa. Unfortunately, the principle got strong political currency in Ethiopia immediately before and/or after the 1974 revolution. The political movement of the 70’s in Ethiopia was influenced not only by leftist thinking but also the anti-colonial struggles in Africa in the 60’s and 70’s. Scholarship students from African countries at AAU are said to have their own role in shaping the political “conscious” of Ethiopian students, a social group which was to emerge as political activist.** however, the consciousness is only apparent, not real. Clearly, there was some unconsciousness within the new political ‘consciousness’. The notion of “self-determination” is a good example to demonstrate that. Yet, it was not political unconsciousness per se that made the notion of “self-determination” a strong political currency in the politics of the 70’s. Even a fairly little exposure to the political writings of the 70’s in Ethiopia seems to suggest that the youth was highly politicized – and political mobilization was highly competitive. Based on circumstantial evidence, I tend to think that the notion of “self-determination” provided mobilization convenience for young political activists. Apparently, mobilization convenience provided by the “notion of self-determination” made political activists forget the fact that oppression and exploitation was not exclusive in feudal Ethiopia. It was rather a shared experience. 

In addition to political unconsciousness ,and mobilization convenience that the notion of “self-determination” rendered,  ideological and political values  of the principle in the eyes of external forces (forces which have the aspiration to destabilize and weaken Ethiopia for Ideological  and/or historical reasons) added value to the currency of the principle as a means to garner support from the outside world. Some Arab nations which seemed to have envisaged interest in a destabilized Ethiopia provided diplomatic, financial and military support for the “liberation fronts” which emerged out of the student movements and were waging a guerrilla war against the provisional military government. Western countries in their own right have a feud with the military government due to its ideological orientation and opted for supporting “liberation fronts.” Technically, that was like recognizing the principle of “self-determination” in the Ethiopian situations. Some “scholars” like David Basilson went to the extent of openly portraying Ethiopia as a colonial power. Apparently, the liberation front’s endorsement of colonial thesis was informed by readings from the writings and commentaries of David Basilson. So apart from mobilization convenience at home, the politics of “self-determination” helped gain acceptance and legitimacy by foreign powers.

The colonial thesis was utterly nonsense. In connection with this, the problem related to “self-determination” in Ethiopia primarily emanated from mistaking power struggle between local feudal lords and campaigns to unify the country with colonial wars of conquest. There was, so to speak, no such thing as election campaign and election in feudal Ethiopia. The way to assume power –like any feudal societies in Europe and the rest of pre-colonial Africa– was through feudal war. On top of that, Ethiopia itself survived a colonial war of conquest –and that was achieved with the participation of all the contending feudal lords and their armies. On the contrary, colonial wars of conquest were essentially capitalistic enterprises. They were about expanding capital by way of creating a resource market in addition to imperialistic tendency. As a result of the process, resources were looted from Africa and transferred to the metropolitan. As people,  Africans lost dignity-in their own country. The economic, social and cultural policies that colonial powers pursued in colonized African countries were devastating to the Africa. So the champions of “self-determination” in Ethiopia clearly mistook the latter for the former. This is one of the unconsciousness.

The notion of “self” was taken in its reductionist sense and runs a linguistic line more than anything else. But clearly “self” is more than language. “Self” is a product of other cultural ,and social interactions too. Assertions of cultural domination are problematic too for the simple reason that there have been multi-directional cultural assimilation.  These assimilation and intermarriages could not be discounted when defining “self.” All the “cultures” in Ethiopia are collective in nature. And there have been interchanges of cultural values even from one collectivist cultural setting to the other. Something had been given and something had been taken. This is indicative of the fact that “the notion of “self” should be understood more broadly than it is understood now, and that it is significantly a social and cultural product rather than a political one – in the context of Ethiopia. This is the reality was not given a room and in fact casted aside.

Political activists who picked up the notion of “self-determination” for mobilization convenience purpose simply mined a justification for the absolutist, reductionist and exclusive notion of “self” in the politics of feudal Ethiopia. They failed to see that the colonial type of social and cultural interaction was entirely different. The Zimbabweans were segregated in their own country- and there was a legal and institutional frame work to undertake segregation by the white minority rule from Europe- the “other”. South Africans have a similar, perhaps worse by any measure, experience. Although a little off topic, the experiences of blacks in North America – in an allegedly “liberal and free society”- could offer another comparative framework. Yes, the North American case was not a purely colonial case. Yet, the experiences of blacks are comparable to the experiences of Africans under minority rule of the “other” – colonial powers. In the first place they were “stolen”  from their origin.“Slaves” from Africa were made to entirely forget their cultural values- and they were made to live under institutionalized racial segregation. The dream of Martin Luther king was-literally-the end of racial segregation. I am not sure if Martin Luther King envisaged of more. What one finds when digging Ethiopian feudal politics is political marriages, assimilation, and a shared culture. 

In light of these experiences what happened in feudal Ethiopia represent nothing other than the low political stage of development of the feudalism. And all parts of Ethiopia experienced feudal rule under their respective feudal lords. I am of the view that the feudal experience should not be an excuse to entrench an absolutist view of “self.” It is also wrong to entrench exclusive sense of justice in a collective society. The notion of “self-determination” , as advocated by Ethiopian politicians, is about excluding perceived “other” rather than bringing about justice that serves a collective purpose.

Besides, no society lived harmoniously and without conflict throughout history as conflict is an integral part of human life and it exists at different levels. In that case, even the politics of “self-determination” is not a guarantee for a just and harmonious society. The guarantee for a relatively just society is the creation of a strong and inclusive notion of justice by way of transcending an incomplete and wrong conception of “self.” All the components of “self” matter. Language is just one component. I strongly believe that the notion of “self-determination” is neither desirable nor possible. It just deepens ethnic divide which is not constructive at all. This is the challenge that comes with unexamined notion of “self” and “self-determination.”  It’s a challenge not just for Ethiopia– but for Africa as well.

The irony is that while political activists in a country like Ethiopia –and other parts of Africa as well- take an absolutist view of “self” and consider a component of “self” as the “other”, the real “other” – the historical “other” making a different move in a more sophisticated form and is working in multifarious ways to demolish collectivist cultures in Africa and elsewhere so as to create a consumer and a resource market. Contemporary ruling classes in Africa are connecting with them and introducing their values. Globalization is essentailly a manifestation of that project. It represent a clear threat to the real “self.” It is not the component of “self” that represents danger to “self.” It is the “other.” It is high time to give the notion of “self-determination” a second thought.



********************** The End *****************

Notes:

*To get a sense of human rights violation in Africa, see Makau Mutua’s,Harvard scholar from kenaya, interesting article the “ Savage, victim and Saviour: methphors of human rights.” Through this article, I was able to see “self” and “other.” Also it can help to see anachronism by champions of absolutist “self” who mistook feudalism with capitalism.

** Among others, Literatures like Andargachew Asegid’s “ Bachir Yetekeche Rezim Guzo” and “ Yidres le bale Tariku” are essential to analyze the politics of the 70’s in Ethiopia
http://www.youtube.com/user/dbirku?feature=mhee

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