Reminder: Eskinder wrote this article around July 2015 when Obama was visiting Ethiopia. However, it only reached the media now. The contents of the article, yet, are omnipresent, everlasting and as timely as today.
By Eskinder Nega, Gulag
Woodrow Wilson’s visit to Europe in 1918 evoked wild cheers and hope of a world without wars. John Kennedy’s and Ronald’s Regan’s visits to Berlin raised the spirits of Berliners and the free world. Had the parades of yester years been possible in this security heightened times, no less cheers and excitement would have awaited Obama during his five days foray to Kenya and Ethiopia in late 2015.
This was not his first visit to Kenya, his father’s homeland, his first sojourn in mysterious-and no doubt much romanticised- Kenya, wonderfully recounted in his widely read autobiography, accentuated and reinforced his American identity despite latent misgivings fostered by racism. America’s heritage as the world’s premiere melting pot is as robust as ever.
Not unlike most African countries, Kenya is a state with only a dim notion of nationhood, which , in the word of Edmund Burke is forged “by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
Excepting Africa, the nation state, which is marked either by a numerically dominant ethnic group, as is the case throughout Europe, or an over-arching religious identity, as in India and Indonesia, is the most stable and durable political entity in the world. But building a viable modern state even on this foundation had been a challenge, as is amply illustrated by the histories of Germany, Italy and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 20th century, state building was even more complicated in Agrica’s polyglot Austro-Hungarians and Ottomas failed miserably. If Africans are to beat, the odds staked against them, their only chance lies squarely with what has worked for India: democracy. This was a message Obama should have stressed more ardently in Kenya. Democracy is more than good governance and accountability in Africa.
Ethiopia, Obama’s next destination, is a distinct polity for many reasons- religion, history, language, cuisine, culture, topography. But, this has in no way eased the burden of state and nation building. In fact, so traumatic had been the Ethiopian drive to forge a national identity the American way, through assimilation of variegated ethnic groups into the dominant indigenous culture, rather than a neutral common colonial heritage, as is the norm elsewhere in Africa, Eritrea, the northern most province, seceded to establish the 53rd member state of the African Union. The threat of further disintegration continues to haunt the Ethiopia, Obama visited.
For reasons of kinship, Obama had to visit Kenya while still in the White House-even if, as it turned out, it was to be at the twilight of his presidency. Had he lost his bid for a second term, Kenya would have pricked his conscience. He is indeed a lucky man.
His responsibility as president, however, took him to Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa, harbors Islamic terrorists, who aspire to attack the US. Obama has to diffuse the threat in the bud. And for the moment, this threat can be contained through a proxy-for a multitude of reasons, chief among them the efficiency of their militaries, this has entailed a partnership with authoritarian Ethiopia rather than precariously democratic Kenya.
But while Obama traveled to Ethiopia to showcase, as he phrased it, “how to fight terrorists (through proxies) without putting American boots on the ground,” he was at his best at the presidential palace responding to a question about Iran. His reflection on the debasement of American presidential politics, as stark reminder not only to Americans but also to a larger global audience that democracy can never be taken for granted. It has to be carefully nurtured in both new and old democracies alike.
The axiom for the American anathema to “putting boots on the ground” is the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the post-traumatic stress to the fantastic debacle of the American military in Southeast Asia.
But there is more than post-traumatic stress to explain the reluctance of the Americans to commit troops. There is also, in the words of John Stuart Mill, the “shrinking (of democracies) from even the shadow of pain,” observed as far back as the 19th Century. Vietnam was not a cause. Whatever happened there only years later, the sentiment has hardly diminished. In a sense, Obama has to fight with his hands tied.
Few would dispute that the threat of jihadist terrorism is more important to the world than the question of democracy in Ethiopia. Viewed through an American prism, the world’s lone, superpower, Ethiopian politics- or even African politics- is to the US what the wars between Greek city states was to Alexander the Great- he called them a “battle of mice”- when he was busy conquering the mighty Persian Empire.
However, inconvenient to Ethiopian democrats, Obama cannot be plausibly criticised for prioritizing the dismantling of the terrorist’s virtual state in Somalia. This is best not just for the US. While what threat America faces is more than that of law and order- though a serious one- the danger is existential for Ethiopia.
Unfortunately, there is also more than just containment of terrorism to the engagement between the US, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and authoritarian Ethiopia over the past two decades. That the fabian idea of evolutionary change, which was described by George Bernard Shaw as “sordid, slow, reluctant, cowardly path to justice (democracy)” is best for Ethiopia has dominated American thinking and determined the content of policy. Despite gross human rights violations, America is focused on the long term.
While Edmund Burke, the godfather of conservatism in the West, ultimately lost the debate about democracy, the same could not be said about his aversion to revolution. His eloquent criticism of the Jacobean excesses of the French revolution has associated revolution with virtual anarchy to Europe’s middle class in the 18th century, a sentiment which has persisted in the West with surprising vigour to present times.
Burke, here as quoted in Raymond William’s book, society and culture, advocated the kind of change which many in the West’s foreign policy circles would approve of for Africa:-
By a slow but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first gives light to us in the second; and so, for light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. We see that the parts of the system do not clash. The evils latent in the most promising contrivances are provided for as they arise. One advantage is as little as possible sacrificed as another. We compensate, we reconcile, we balance.
Burke deemed 18th century Europeans as both temperamentally and culturally deprived to govern themselves . If he lived in contemporary times, his measure of 21st Century Europeans would no doubt be different – perhaps, excepting the Balkans- but would most probably maintain the same attitude towards Africans (No doubt for developmental not racial reasons).
But even without the authoritative presence of Burke lurching in the background, the perception of Africa as ill-prepared for democracy is widespread and deep-rooted. The tolerance for tyranny in Africa does not dwell in a vacuum. And unlike many in foreign policy circles, Singapore’s long-time strongman, Lee Kuna Yew, writing in his riveting autobiography, the Singapore Story, does not mince words when he reflects on the failure of democracy in many ex-colonies:-
I have also seen so many of the over 80 constitutions drafted by Britain and France for their former colonies come to grief, and not because of flaws in the constitutions. It was simply that the preconditions for a democratic system of government did not exist. None of these countries had a civic society with an educated electorate. Nor did their people have the cultural tradition of acceptance of the authority of a person because of that person’s office. These traditions take generations to inculcate in a people.
And thus we have , on the one hand, evolutionists, who stress not democracy but the imperative of the state in restraining and disciplining the African until cultural maturity, reinforced with a strong civic society, is attained, and, on the other hand, the revolutionaries, who insist that state oppression has limited the average individual from maximizing his innate possibilities, one of which is the upholding of democratic responsibilities, and is, thus, worthy of immediate freedom.
Evolution has not really worked anywhere, without the impetus provided by the French revolution, liberalism, let alone representative movement towards limiting the absolute power of the monarchy, if not the political emancipation of the peasants, had been in the offing since the Magna Carta in the 11th century Chartism, a peaceful quest for political and social reform, was being suppressed violently in the 19th century.
Indeed, as noted by William Morris, no authoritarian government is liable “to suffer, itself to be dismembered, not to lose anything which really is the essence-without putting forth all its force in resistance.”
In our age, of course, this resistance has to be overcome entirely through the peaceful disobedience of Ghandi, Martin Luther King and as Tahrir Square. Even in the world’s worst dictatorships, such as North Korea and Equatorial Guinea, the conditions for peaceful revolution can be marshaled through satellite television the internet and mobile phone. The sun has set in Mao, Che Guvera and Fanon. On this count at least, a convergence of idea is possible between evolutionists and non-violent revolutionaries.
However good the Ethiopian army maybe, there is no military solution to the terrorist threat in the Horn. Absent a viable Somali state, one that encompasses both the ex-Italian and British Somalilands, the Horn will continue to breed an ample supply of embittered terrorists. And amongst the large Somali communities in the West, there is a tiny, but disproportionately dangerous, element predisposed to sympathize with them. It is with Somalia not the Ethiopian military where a lasting solution lies.
Devoid of sound democratic credentials, a viable Somali state is untenable. And, without Ethiopia, by far the largest country in the Horn, setting the right example in the region, as Nigeria and South Africa did in Western and Southern Africa, democracy will lack the conducive regional environment to thrive. Somali democracy is unlikely to be stable in a sea of dictatorships. Ethiopian politics may not be the battle of mice it ordinarily is.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
History shall absolve democracy!
In God I Trust! Eskinder Nega, Gulag.
Read his handwritten letter here: [highlight]Eskinder _March 2016 (1)[/highlight].
NB: Journalist Eskinder Nega is now serving 18 years sentence in Kaliti Prison, Ethiopia charged under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. A winner of several press freedom awards, Eskinder had been detained at least eight times and charged with numerous counts ranging from defamation, treason to terrorism now.