Rethinking the notion of “self-determination” by Dimetros Birku

March 9th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

The notion of “self-determination” was projected as an important manifestation of political consciousness in Ethiopian politics immediately before or following the Ethiopian revolution of 1974. Yet, a closer critical look of the principle reveals a different picture. The notion of “self-determination” as it relates to the Ethiopian politics is rather a manifestation of political unconsciousness and 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. The failure to demystify “self-determination” in light of the Ethiopian situation is also indicative of over-receptiveness of concepts from the outside world –apparently the western world – without questioning their relevance in a collective society like Ethiopia and the rest of African peoples.

This short article represents neither an exhaustive nor definitive view of the notion of “self-determination” as it relates to Ethiopian politics. It does, however, represent a call to fellow Ethiopians –especially those bought the idea as a sacred political creed – to question its relevance. I argue that the notion of “self-determination” is over-politicized at the expense of social and cultural interaction that shaped collective identity. Yet, identity, to a great extent, is supposed to be a social construction, in my view, –not an offshoot of politicization of inapplicable exotic political concepts. The conception of “self” is taken in its absolutist and reductionist form. Embedded in the notion of “self-determination” is exclusive justice. And that is neither desirable nor possible.

Why I am questioning the notion of “Self- determination”:

In one of my undergraduate courses, “Global South”, the professor questioned “ Is international law is 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 and previous reading on the topic. It was out of mere curiosity to challenge my speculative “yes” answer and have a closer look, and to understand the intuitive critical and negative attitude I developed towards the “international community” on grounds of the way the “international community” handles and behaves on different matters. For some reason I believed that “international law” is as mediocre as the “international community” and this was informed by the political experience of my people. Then, I approached the professor’s question with my own question: “what was the origin of international law?”

The preliminary readings which I did for the paper were not that useful and most of the materials I consulted were of Eurocentric origin. Consequently most of the literatures tend to have a deferential view of “international law.” They sounded to me apologetic in nature and not explanatory enough of the question I was interested in. You will know why shortly.
I discovered crucial clue related to my question in the work of Karl Polanyi’s – “Great Transformation.” At one point his writing seems to suggest that the origin of “international law” was the international system. The International system was entirely a European enterprise and it was meant to maintain a balance of power between European powers by way of averting and handling possible conflicts. Even North America was not part of the system.

Of course, my next question was whether the international law was relevant vis-à-vis defending the rights of nations and peoples at the time they were subject to colonial wars of occupation 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 nil in its formative stage. Contribution from TWAIL scholars is a post-colonial phenomenon. On the other hand, I am aware that a body of law is supposed to reflect the moral codes, norms and views of the society for which it is intended. In that sense 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 territories in Africa. The existence of legal principles in “international law” that sound like tools of domination and oppression seen from the trajectory of African 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. Although I did not conduct a research – I assume that the partition of Africa by European powers under 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 is composing a song that “sovereignty” – which was once a cardinal concept 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 a 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.” The notion of “self-determination” which is now part of the international law could serve that purpose.

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 partly due to the ideological war between the East and the west blocs, and partly due to the appeal of 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 who 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 concept “self” the embedded “other” is clear. And the other is entirely different from “self.”

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 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 political force which was to emerge as a modern political activist.** however, the formed 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, the 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 the political convenience, the notion of “self-determination” proved to have ideological and political value in the eyes of external forces- forces which have the aspiration to destabilize and weaken Ethiopia for Ideological reason and/or historical reasons. Some Arab nations which envisaged interest in a destabilized Ethiopia provided diplomatic, financial and military support for the “liberation fronts” which 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.

But 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 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, the colonial wars of conquest were essentially capitalistic enterprises. The wars were about expanding capital by way of creating a resource market. There was imperialistic tendency too. Resources were looted from Africa and transferred to the metropolitan. 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 Africans. 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 the notion of “self” runs a linguistic line more than anything else. But clearly “self” is more than language. “Self” is a product of cultural and social interactions too. Cultural assertions are problematic for the simple reason that there have been multi-directional cultural assimilations. These assimilations and intermarriages could not be discounted in when defining “self.” All the “cultures” in Ethiopia are collective in nature. Something had been given and something had been taken. This is indicative of the fact that “the notion of “self-determination” is a social construction as much as it is a political one, if not more. However, this reality was not given a room.

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 enterprise. Yet, the experiences of blacks are comparable to the experiences of Africans under the rule of the “other” – colonial powers. Bob’s “Stolen from Africa” song comes to mind here. “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.

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 logically wrong to entrench exclusivity 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. Because 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 represents unnecessary challenge. 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 all over Africa- take an absolutist view of “self” and a component of “self” as the “other”, the real “other” – the historical “other” unveiled itself in a more sophisticated form and is working in multifarious ways to demolish collectivist cultures in Africa so as to create a consumer and a resource market. And the contemporary ruling class in Africa is connecting with them and introducing their values. Globalization is 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 *****************


*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

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