“The Politics of Permanent Flux”: a US Conference on the Horn of Africa

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“The Politics of Permanent Flux”: a US Conference on the Horn of Africa





In mid-March, the University of Florida hosted a conference on the Horn of Africa under the title of “The Politics of Permanent Flux: State-society Relations in the Horn of Africa”. Convened by three different organizations, the Center for African Studies at Florida University at Gainesville, the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley and the Department of Society and Globalization at Roskilde University, the conference examined the rapidly evolving state-society relations in the Horn of Africa, concentrating on the period after 1991. Overall, it noted that the region had become the scene of unprecedented multinational investment as well as increased foreign military intervention in addition to the usual reference to humanitarian crisis, unresolved conflict and prolonged drought. Even more unusually, the convenors drew attention to the need to look beyond at “simplified journalistic accounts” to see how the region was responding to both global and local developments. The aim was to help provide “timely and informed insight into state-society relations in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan in an era of development, democracy, neo-liberalism and securitization”.

In general, the papers largely avoided the often all-too-frequent involvement of opposition emotion in favor of more factual analysis – and several speakers noted the importance of accuracy and the need for reliable information based on first-hand evidence. In general, papers provided empirical analysis of current debates in politics, religion and anthropology and presented findings on ways that state-society relations were adapting successfully or not so successfully to the pressures arising from state- building and from global dynamics.

One of the most interesting papers was that of Professor Bernal (University of California, Irvine) who coined the phrase "Sacrificial Citizenship” to define the relationship of the people to the state. She argued that the ‘martyr’, together with the concepts of the fighter and the struggle, represented the central element in the relationship, the social contract, between the Eritrean state and the people. The idea of the martyr demonstrated the unbounded nature of the state’s demands on the people of Eritrea whether for its youth inside Eritrea or the diaspora outside. Quoting President Isaias’s comment in 2008 that it would be three or four decades before Eritrea could have democracy, Professor Bernal noted that loyalty and obedience were the central, almost the only elements in the state’s political culture. Those living inside had to give themselves and their children to serve indefinitely in the national service and development campaigns; those in the diaspora provide money, paying taxes and send remittances while taking nothing from the state. Her arguments were reinforced by two other papers: Professor Amanda Poole (Indiana University) “‘I could go, but my children belong to the government’: Perspectives on International Migration from the Eritrean Lowlands”; and from Dr. Venosa (Clayton State University) - “No God but the State, Islam and Political Autonomy on Contemporary Eritrea” - who detailed the government’s systematic curtailing of religious freedom, with particular reference to Islam, and of the inability of religious organizations in Eritrea to operate with any degree of autonomy.

Papers on Ethiopia included Professor Arriola (University of California, Berkeley) who produced a detailed and empirical analysis of the way the government responded to the opposition riots in Addis Ababa in November 2005 “Suppressing Protest: The Geographic Logic of Mass Arrests”; and Professor Ezekiel Gebissa (Kettering University) "Losing the Narrative: Oromo Nationalism and the Struggle for Legitimacy" who argued that Oromo critics of the government in Ethiopia have been addressing the wrong targets. The papers of Professor Abbink (VU University in Amsterdam) on “Paradoxes of Religious Freedom and the Civic Order: The Ethiopian ‘Secular State’ and the Containment of Religious Identity Politics”, and of Dr Tobias Hagmann (University of Roskilde), "The Return of Garrison Rule in the Ethiopian Ogaden, 2006-2012", underlined the importance of the need for accurate empirical information from the ground and the dangers of relying on inaccurate reportage and on opposition sources. Professor Ostebo (Center for African Studies, Florida) “Growing Islamic ‘Extremism’ in Ethiopia: Myth or Reality” argued persuasively that most of the country’s Muslim community, even most Salafi elements, were largely against serious political engagement and it was only small minority fringe groups who could be classified as extremist. Professor Terrence Lyons (George Mason University, Washington) - "Framing the Global Debate: Transnational Mobilization and the Ogaden Conflict" – drew attention to the importance of the financial aspects of the diaspora on politics in particular in reference to Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, and to the transnational impact on political space and on accounts of specific situations. Professor Menkhaus Ken Menkhaus (Davidson College) "'We Want Here What We've Got in Kenya': The Great Somali Experiment in Multiple Political Settings in the Eastern Horn" provided a detailed and highly informed look at the situation in the Jubaland region of Somalia, at the clan components of the region and at the attitude of the Somali federal government towards regional/local politics.

Professor Clapham, (University of Cambridge) gave a keynote address - "Can the Horn Change?" – in which he looked at the region as a whole from the perspective of a political scientist, and also raised the question of whether observers, social scientists and academics were able change their views. He defined the narrative of Ethiopia as that of the state, while that of Eritrea as of struggle. He suggested that the only really failed state in the region was that of Eritrea which had proved incapable of establishing links with its population. Eritrea, he thought, needed an entirely new narrative for the state though he was unclear whether this could come from the diaspora or internally. While developments in Somalia showed some progress, he felt it was too early to be entirely optimistic; indications remained unclear how the new government would be able to deal with many of the problems of the past. He emphasized the centrality of Ethiopia to the region, in terms of size, population, development and resources. He looked briefly at the changes it had undergone in the last fifty years but noted that importantly the state itself remained recognizable and functional. More recently it had also faced specific difficulties including the problems of the 1998-2000 war following Eritrea’s invasion and the trauma of the 2005 election, while also dealing with the impact of the growth of the developmental state and its relationship with the global economy. The effects, so far, were still uneven. Weaknesses remained: the state had yet to resolve relationships with civil society organizations, and development, although considerable, still had a long way to go. Without trying to provide any definitive answers to his original question, Professor Clapham noted there had been significant developments away from poverty in the region. Overall, he believed that the region was not so locked into the social patterns of the past that transformation was impossible, but it did remain difficult and he underlined that Ethiopia’s role was both critical and central to change in the region.

Discussions were vigorous and stimulating, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of international perceptions of the region to be based upon accurate information and underlining the need for greater empirical research, both in general and in specific.

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