Monday, January 08, 2007

Ethioblogging -- A few things I know about the current crisis

I'm not the first to observe it, but there is something liberating about the ignorance on display on the Internet. I don't really know much about the Horn of Africa, for instance: I visited Ethiopia for ten days once, and I know people (both Ethiopian and ex-pat) who know a lot about that country. Which certainly should not be confused with real knowledge. As Sidney and Beatrice Webb demonstrated, no one is as ignorant as the tourist. All I can say for sure from that experience is that the Ethiopian Federal Police look scary and Addis Abbaba has traffic problems that make Istanbul look like Reykjavik. And I wouldn't claim that my more knowledgeable informants are exemplars of dispassionate objectivity.

But in the blogosphere, all expertise is relative. Not everyone willing to share their opinion could distinguish Eritrea from Madagascar. So I feel emboldened. Here are a few points I think are worth bearing in mind.

1. Ethiopia is, at bottom, an old-time Communist country, an ethnic-Leninist party-state.

This isn't something you hear much on the right-wing blogs cheerleading Meles Zenawi, and it is subject to a few caveats, but it's true and important.

The caveats are that the current gang (really the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), but more politely known as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)) got rid of a worse bunch of reds, Mengistu's Derg (in 1991), and that they have ruled ever since with a patina of market economics, elections, free expression, federalism and an independent judiciary. At least in the past, there have even been elements of reality to each of these things. But they were always subordinate to the reality of state ownership of land and a democratic-centralist Tigrayan party that would interfere with markets, federalism, judges or elections when it suited them. And since the elections of 2005 -- which the ruling party clearly lost -- there has been a lot less velvet glove and a lot more iron fist.

The best thing that can be said of Meles and his crew is that (at least until recently) they have been nowhere near as bad as a reasonable observer would have expected them to be.

As readers of Lenin and viewers of The Life of Brian will hardly need reminding, communists can be a fractious lot. The Derg (1974-1991) were plain old Brezhnevite commies. As Robert Kaplan (before he went completely nuts) pointed out, they were the first serious commies to take power in Africa. The famine that inspired Band Aid and Live Aid and so on was an exact replica of Lenin and Stalin's politically-induced famines. It was part deliberate civil war tactic and part inevitable consequence of ideolgically-driven collectivization.

The Derg were also Amhara-dominated. The Amhara are an aristocratic-looking people of ancient Christian heritage from the highlands who believe they conquered the other races of Ethiopia fair and square. Their cousins the Tigrayans also think of themselves as born to rule. Marxists Tigrayans (and Eritreans) couldn't look to Moscow for guidance because the Soviets were supporting their Amhara enemies. They also had a falling out with China. So they adopted Enver Hoxha's Albania as the sole socialist motherland. Not encouraging.

However, the TPLF took power in 1991 at a low point for communism of any stripe. Ever since, they have tried (and for the most part succeeded) in being ideal Anglo-American clients. They also realized that the promise of ethnically-based federalism was a good was a good way to get support from all the ethnic groups that hated the Amhara but were suspicious of the similarly Semitic-speaking highlander Tigrayans.

Fortunately for the TPLF, Lenin himself provided a bit of a solution to the trick of being on the Anglo-American good boy list, while remaining red. As all good Trotskyist boys and girls are taught, prior to 1917, Lenin did not think that Russia was ripe for socialist revolution. The next stage had to be a "democratic" revolution getting rid of Tsarism, but leaving capitalism intact. But unlike the more orthodox Mensheviks, he also didn't think that Russian liberal democrats were up to doing this. So he called for a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" under the firm guidance of a "democratic centralist" Leninist party. The dictatorship would be "democratic" -- not in the conventional sense of being subject to removal by popular vote -- but in its historic tasks of getting rid of the monarchy, landlords and promoting industrial development.

In 1991, Meles figured that Lenin's formula made sense for Ethiopia. Western development experts and Arab, Western and Chinese investment were welcomed. But in all the critical ways, the country remained communist. The neighbourhood cell structure and the Leninst party remained. In contrast to China, land -- obviously the most critical asset in an overwhelmingly agrarian country -- stayed nationalized. But Lenin's formula could be consistent with being buddies with the USA and Britain. Which leads to the next point...

2. Western leaders have an unfortunate need to have African friends.

In terms of pure power, Meles has nothing compared to Bush and Blair. But there is a strong psychological need to think that some African leaders are good guys. Blair needed a leader of a regional African power on his commission, and he'd pissed off Mbeki. And Bush wants to think there are good Third Worlders fighting Islamofascism with him. So we have the US military stregnthening the already fearsome Ethiopian military.

As Wikipedia points out, Meles doesn't lack for "international accolades".

3. The TPLF/EPRDF is past its "best before" date.

You can get somewhere in life being better than your predecessors. And the TPLF/EPRDF were not quite as evil and extreme a bunch as the Derg they got rid of. And even if you dislike them and they are keeping your country poor, it's hard to get rid of well-organized Leninists with a solid base of support among their co-ethnics.

In 2005, the opposition (fractured, naturally, on ethnic lines) got itself together and won the May elections. But the TPLF/EPRDF figured that they came to power through insurrection and civil war, and they were damned if they were going to give that up just because somebody else one an election. So they stole the election, massacred hundreds of unarmed demonstrators and shut down the Amhara opposition press (the English business-orinted media is still allowed polite criticism of the government).

Meles isn't an idiot, and realizes how fractured his country is. He has had to have some continued negotiations with the opposition. But the present situation can't go on forever. Either a full-scale dictatorship is set up, or the opposition (with the support of the diaspora) comes to power.

One thing that could prolong the TPLF/EPRDF's rule would be a security crisis. Widespread jihadi terrorism in the country would be bad for the country, but not necessarily for the regime.

4. Somalis don't like Ethiopians or jihadis

The liberal media is correct that Somalis resent Ethiopia. In the late nineteenth century, Menelik II kicked some Somali butt and many ethnic Somalis live within the borders of Ethiopia. When Haile Selaissie fell to the Derg, Somalia unsuccessfully tried to take advantage of the confusion to win this territory back. The prospect of a Greater Somalia is remote, given the ovewhelming military superiority of Ethiopia. But Somalis don't like highland Semitic-speaking Christian types one bit.

What the last couple weeks revealed is that they may dislike madrassa students even more.

So where does this leave us?

First, the Ethiopian intervention was unjust. International law may permit crossing borders to help the "legitimate" government, even when it has no de facto authority, but any sensible just war theory will reject this legalism. Ethiopia was not aggressed against, and so it had no right to interfere in what type of awful regime Somalia should have.

Second, America's interests (and by extension those of the bourgeois West in general) may or may not be served. The Islamic Courts government might have accepted a deal in which it would keep al Qaeda types out of the country in return for not experiencing what just happened. A chaotic ineffective Somali pseudo-state doesn't have the power to deliver a deal like that.

Third, Meles is a clear winner. He has a more decisive military triumph than he could possibly manage against Eritrea. He has a security rationale for internal crackdown. He has the secure backing of the US.

Fourth, since Meles is a clear winner, the people of Ethiopia are the losers.

Somalis avoid religious tyranny. But they get continued chaos.

Update January 15, 2007: Via Matt Yglesias, I see that the Weekly Standard wants to overthrow the government of Eritrea. Wonderful.

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