A few days ago, a few people died in Gambella; considering the number of people who die everywhere every day for all sorts of reasons, it’s not much news. That is not to say a few deaths don’t matter; even the death of one individual matters as much as the death of any number of individuals matters. But things must be always placed in their proper context; Gambella has seen far numerous deaths in previous occasions than the small number of people that died in recent days in what was reported by this newspaper and others as a conflict that is increasingly assuming ethnic dimensions.
Naturally, the different newspapers reported different casualty figures, but where there seems to exist a consensus is in the cause of the conflict: a personal argument between individuals from two ethnic groups, the Anuak and Nuer, grew in extent to include students from those groups who started turning on one another without any apparent provocation.
It goes without saying, people take differing views on this matter. Whether some people should have political views at all is altogether another discussion, but most are generally interested in matters political and are more than glad to venture their opinions. If we pick on the different chatters: some insist, with hand on their heart, ethnic federalism is the cause of all ethnic strife in Ethiopia; others insist, ethnic strife is a plot by forces working to destabilize Ethiopia’s developing democracy and economic progress.
Well, both sides have a part of the truth; not all of the truth, but some of it. (I remember reading a Nazi propaganda manual many years ago; you don’t need to ask why. It stated, propaganda is only effective when there is some truth in it. No one remembers his name, but one would never forget Saddam Hussein’s loyal minster during America’s “Shock and Awe” campaign in 2003. He kept appearing on television to announce American loses and behind him were mounds of rubble of what used to be Iraqi government buildings bombed to smithereens by low flying American warplanes. Unlike the Baathists, the Nazis were excellent propagandists. So, we best stick with their prescription for what is effective propaganda.)
Of course, this means we have taken for granted, the claim that ethnic federalism causes all ethnic strife in Ethiopia, and the claim that forces working to destabilize Ethiopia cause ethnic strife, are both propaganda. Well, there is no foolproof method to separate what is propaganda from what is not. A simple rule of thumb is: what anyone with an abiding interest in political power says is propaganda. This includes those who run the country, as well as those who work to replace them. But as we said, propaganda is not all lies – we have that on German authority.
The government does not think it is in its best interest to admit any mistakes in its ethnic-based administrative arrangements and its detractors do not think it is worth their while to come up with arguments other than to blame the government for everything. (Margaret Thatcher is once said to have blamed the Irish Republican Army for a winter storm.) But everybody is to blame.
A people don’t necessarily get the government they deserve, but they always seem to get a government that is commensurate with their capacity for self-governance. Let me contradict myself with this: the Athenians had the most sophisticated democracy of classic times and yet, they had to submit to the uncultured hordes of Macedonia who were led by the famous pederast, Alexander. (He was probably more famous for his victories, but no matter.) A simple counterargument is: a polity unable to defend itself will have failed in providing for self-defense – one of the most fundamental tasks of self-government. In other words, a polity that cannot defend itself lacks the capacity for self-government because self-government presupposes certain capacities in the people.
Now, how do the tragic events in Gambella reflect on the capacity of the people there to govern themselves? It takes a blind leap of faith to have faith in a people, any people. And in this particular instance, we cannot be apologetic in denying the existence of any capacity for self-government. For a personal disagreement to become a full-fledged conflagration, it would require a critical mass of sensitive people with ethnic complaints. Our task then becomes connecting ethnic complaints with self-governance.
Those very sensitive about their ethnicity – it rarely matters why because it always is a self-fulfilling prophesy – take it upon themselves to stand in defense of their ethnic group and their ethnic group alone from threats real or, as is often the case, imagined. They profess an agenda of justice on its behalf, while denying it to others. Justice for an Anuak cannot be different from justice for a Nuer. The Americans always miss the point when they talk about bringing some terrorist or other to American justice. And the Israelis consider Mossad, one of their intelligence agencies, the long arm of Israeli justice. But justice is universal; it cannot be otherwise.
And the reason justice has to be universal is because its successful application demands the universality of man. Otherwise, there is no action perpetrated by man that can be judged or evaluated for its justice. When A kills B, justice is sought because A killed B, not necessarily because B was killed by A. Allowing justice to be reduced to the extent that it fits the specifics of ethnic or some other narrow interest having to do with some social contraption or other, negates man’s universality thereby reducing him to his ethnic and other unimportant attributes. In a multi-ethnic polity, some people are always ready to kill a member of the other. Even if they do it in the name of justice, they do nothing just by it. They actually do a great injustice to their own number by degrading their cause to that of an ethnic issue.
This goes beyond the scuffle in Gambella. The government groups individuals on the basis of their ethnicity. The Federal constitution limits the political right of self-determination to nations and nationalities, without defining what exactly those two are and how they are different. That means, nations and nationalities, by virtue of the lack of proper designation at least in the context of the constitution, are generally understood to imply ethnicities or ethnic groupings. Whether or not self-determination should apply for political-geographic groupings only is a discussion the government is not willing to suffer in the slightest. There lays one of its fundamental shortcomings.
Having said that, official policy is not the only factor responsible in what seems like a never-ending cycle of ethnic clashes. This was evidenced in Gambella where a personal disagreement led to ethnic conflict. And unlike previous occasions on which the government was suspected of incitement, rightfully in some cases, this time around, it did its best to bring matters under control. This is a clear indication that people too can be responsible for such violence; the government does not cause ethnic clashes all the time.
Some would respond to this: had the government stayed clear of ethnic politics, such things would not happen. This is an entirely mistaken view. Ethiopia was divided along ethnic lines centuries before the current government came to power; ethnic issues were always there. It is therefore disingenuous to attribute every ethnic clash to the current government; some of its officials have sought to instigate some of them, especially in their first days in power. But it cannot be always responsible for the actions of every individual who goes out to kill his neighbor because of the language he spoke. At the end of the day, individuals are responsible for their actions – something that was also upheld during the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi officials who sought exculpation because they said they were only following the orders of their superiors.
If we understand that, we will have accepted man for what he is, a gift of evolving nature above all. Everything else came later. A fetus has no ethnicity, speaks no language, and knows no country or religion. Its nine months of freedom end when it is delivered from the mother’s womb. The baby is then immersed in a cultural milieu it happened to have been born in. That necessarily means nothing is as important as the fact that the child is a human being.
And here I take the liberty of equating what is most important with what is most interesting, for what is important is interesting, and what is interesting is important. Humanness is the most important attribute of man and thus his most interesting attribute; the things that come later could only be less important and less interesting. Everything else – ethnicity, nationality and belief, etc. are the least important and the least interesting attributes of man. Statistically speaking, among the least interesting attributes, belief and nationality encompass groupings much bigger than ethnicity. So then, man’s least interesting attribute must be his ethnicity.