When the Levee Breaks

While I was away, a couple of questions were playing on my mind. The first related to the desirability of a season of revolution in the southern part of Africa, as witnessed in North Africa and parts of the Arab world recently. Three readers gave their initial thoughts. One suggested that my thoughts might be premature in any case, as the Ugandan example was rather deceptive and not actually indicative of a really fundamental democratizing force in that country. This may well be true (I would be the first to admit that I am no specialist on the politics of Uganda). However, the theoretical question of whether a series of political upheavals would be a positive thing remains.

Another ventured that as long as the upheavals are genuinely democratic, they must be good things. There’s an obvious logic to this position: representative government is a good in it’s own right, regardless of its developmental impact. Plenty of others have discussed whether democracy or a kind of benevolent dictatorship is the ideal developmental form of Government (we’re all pretty much agreed that purely predatory dictatorship is a bad thing all round), and I don’t mean to rehash this argument here, except to say that the state that is most developmental in any given circumstance depends on the polity it governs, and there are probably multiple equilibria of varying stability that can be achieved.

Rather, I wonder if the principle reasons that there have been so few movements towards revolution or inquilab in any form in southern Africa has been that there is almost no gain from such action – that in some cases there is no alternative that is significantly more representative as opposed to differently representative. This is the point that MJ raised in his comment. Relatedly, it is also possible that how representative the Government is may actually have little impact on how well it responds to its citizenry.

Take the first possibility: that in few countries are there significantly better leaders waiting in the wings. One characteristic of contemporary commentators on upheavals is that they often put too much stock on the act of change, without spending enough time thinking about the content of change (I myself have often been guilty of this). There is some intrinsic value in upheaval and violent or forced change, namely that it creates the credible threat that bad governance will be punished even where political process leaves no space to legally generate punishment. However, we tend to get excited when a ‘bad’ leader is deposed even before we start considering how much better the new one will or can be. It is quite possible that changes, even those that depose leaders showing signs of authoritarianism, may simply usher in a worse or equally bad leadership.

Malawi is an example where this may be true. I’m not fully up to speed on Malawi’s contemporary political scene, but unless a new generation of political leadership has sprung up in the last three years, it’s difficult to see that any other politician placed in the same position as Bingu wa Mutharika will be any more democratic of progressive. His predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, was not a particularly progressive leader, and indeed Malawi had a significant improvement in the terms of its governance (particularly economic) under Mutharika. There has been some backsliding, but it’s clear that Malawi in 2011 is in a better place than it was in 2003. If Bingu were to leave power tomorrow, who are the alternatives with sterling democratic credentials? It’s not clear that any other leading politician would be travelling a significantly different path to Bingu.

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Political Cataclysm. In Action.

Inquilab is a word used in Iran and South Asia, roughly meaning political cataclysm – something that is clearly ongoing in North Africa and the Middle East right now. Whether or not they are successful, the movements of dissent springing up is going to be a major influence on politics in the region going forward.

One aspect I’m incredibly intrigued by is how quickly in the last year or two the culture of dissent and critique seems to have changed in these places. Historically, one of the central lessons of the Age of Revolution that swept through the world in the hundred or so years following the American Revolution is that what caused (or prevented) political upheaval was not simply economic or social pressures, which could be observed in many places, but how dissent and critique was expressed. It strikes me that this use of popular, sometimes violent, protest, is a new tool for dissent in many of the places it’s being used. One of the things historians will be looking at when they look at this surge of demonstration and revolution is how suddenly it flares and how quickly this culture of critique has become transnational. Each of the parochial concerns set off in individual countries has lit new sparks among near or distant neighbours.

Demonstration itself is not a new phenomenon in North Africa or the Middle East. Egypt in particular has the example of anti-British demonstrations to draw upon in its own history (so memorably represented in Palace Walk, the first book of the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz). Yet since last year’s demonstrations in Iran the use of demonstration as an expression of popular discontent has spread with incredible pace and power. We’ve seen two regimes toppled by it, and demonstration has returned to Iran, while new protest movements are being generated in the Middle East in the last few days and weeks. It is not only the successful act of revolution that is important, but the fact that dissent has suddenly become so open and so angry. This in itself is extremely important.

The central question is this: why have these demonstrations spread so quickly? It could be the birth of a new culture of dissent, one that is more confrontational than what had come before it? And will it persist? Like in the late 18th Century, I think the most important lesson from these demonstrations, the lesson that is spreading with such incredible rapidity across the region, is not of the outcomes: it is far from clear how much Tunisia’s state has changed, and Egypt is far from resolution still. The big message here is that the lowest and weakest sections of society can act independently as force for change: that popular discontent can work in these societies as long as it is mobilised in great enough numbers and with enough intransigence. And once it happened in one place, the ordinariness of how it starts was quickly made apparent to people across the world through the media but also through social networking (and this could be the real impact of FB and Twitter, rather than any organisational function – they emphasised that demonstration and revolution were being undertaken by ordinary people, demystifying the process).

The dissent that generated regime change was founded on raw power, but also will be domesticated eventually. Inquilab will give way to stability. The new states that emerge will have new ideological bases – they will probably move their self-justifications from order, stability and protection to ideals like equality, development and possibly freedom. And if this happens the culture of dissent must change again to one of political debate rather than demonstrations of power. And the round of revolutions will peter out.

Chris Blattman wrote just the other day that he cannot think of any sub-Saharan countries ready for street revolution. He’s right; it’s not immediately obvious where they will happen. But one of the lessons we should be drawing from North Africa is that a single successful incidence could set off a chain reaction – it takes far less time now for the message that demonstration and dissent works to spread than it ever has before.

Revolution in Africa?

Serbia's 'Bulldozer Revolution' had a clearly defined aim.

I’ve blogged and commented about the rarity of revolution in Africa, so the very under-reported events in Tunisia have captured my interest.

Now the NYT is reporting that the President has fled the country and the Prime Minister has claimed power, constitutionally.

I find this fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, the Prime Minister is a close ally of the President and seems to immediately have become the focus of a new campaign of removal:

Yet by late Friday night, Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared.

This is one indication that there is no popular figure who the riots are aimed at pushing into power: it is solely a vehicle to express discontent. This contrasts with, for example, Serbia’s ‘Bulldozer Revolution‘ which removed Slobodan Milosevic in favour of the winner of the previous elections Vojislav Koštunica.

Secondly, I’m having real difficulty in identifying leadership of the riots and demonstrations. This could simply be my ignorance about the situation, since the coverage here has been so patchy. However, to my mind, revolution has a defined aim and defined leadership. Is this then a revolution? Or a different kind of political upheaval? And what will be the final result? Elections (which will take at least a month or so to organise)? Or is there a popular leader ready to take power? Can someone who knows more about this please enlighten me?

Revolution, Oppression, Ornithology and a semi-Charter City

One of the incredible monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis

Apologies for my long blogging silence. I’ve been almost completely off the grid for a holiday in Ethiopia (with a short detour to Djibouti) for the last couple of weeks. I checked my e-mail only a couple of times, and completely avoided Facebook. It was glorious.

Still, Ethiopia gives one the blogging bug. Historically, culturally, archaeologically and politically it must be one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. Without claiming any kind of in-depth analysis, a number of things occurred to me in the last couple of weeks, things I’d be interested to explore further or hear about from people who have already done so. I also saw some interesting economic developments in Djibouti that I’d be really keen to get more of an insight into.

First are the politics. A while ago I wrote a post speculating as to why popular revolt and revolution are so rare in Africa, when so many countries seem to have many of the characteristics that would make them likely. Ethiopia is an exception to this rule. It has experienced a genuine revolution, which led to the fall of the Mengitsu, effected by civil war with the aim of regime change (not solely for secession, though this was the aim of a subset of the combatants). While in Ethiopia, I picked up a book, Ethiopia: Power and Protest, by Gebru Tareke, which shows that prior to the revolution, peasant revolt and rebellion was common enough to dissipate state resources and demand remedial action. Tareke argues that rebellion was a relatively rare phenomenon in Ethiopia compared to peasantries elsewhere in the world, but nonetheless, this still marks it out as historically more prone to rebellion than the rest of Africa.

Why Ethiopia? What has made revolution and rebellion occur here? One reason might be that the extremely strong influence of Orthodox Christianity provides an alternative source of authority to the state, thereby making challenge of the leaders more palatable. Historically the monarchy sought legitimacy by patronising the Church, once conversion was widespread – the incredible monolithic churches of Lalibela stem from this impulse. It may be that by providing an alternative authority, one which is relatively unified in voice, the authority of the state can more effectively be challenged by Ethiopians. Yet this could hardly be more than a minor part of the story. The organisation of so many people, encompassing a number of diverse tribes and linguistic groups must have been extraordinarily difficult if revolt was to be anything other than local. I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this.

Yet, despite the rebellious and revolutionary past of Ethiopia, its polity has remained resolutely centralised and undemocratic. It was ruled as a serious of Kingdoms from the beginning of its recorded history (gorgeously preserved in Axum and Gondar, with many more treasures under the ground waiting for excavation); after a brief interlude of Fascist occupation, the monarchy was restored under Haile Selassie, before a military coup replaced it with the Communist Council or Derg, ruling as a dictatorship of enormous brutality. Following civil war, the Derg collapsed and was replaced by the ‘democratic’ Government of Meles Zenawi, which took 99% of the elected seats in Ethiopian Government in the elections of 2010, to general incredulity. This does not seem to be an especially open or subtle Government. In almost every place we went we either met or heard about communities that were being forcibly evicted from their land, often to make way for new commercial buildings, for what was usually claimed to be inadequate compensation.

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