On the right to self-determination

August 22, 2009

By Messay Kebede

This article is a public reaction to a long email letter sent to me by an Oromo interlocutor. The email states that unity between Amhara democratic forces and Oromo freedom fighters is necessary both to defeat the undemocratic Woyanne regime and initiate a promising future for Ethiopia. However, the letter blames the lack of unity on the resistance of Amhara democratic forces to concede the right to self-determination to the Oromo people. The imposition of an unconditional unity prevents the Oromo freedom fighters from effecting a serious move toward a rapprochement, while the refusal of some Oromo fighters to even give a chance to unity deeply upsets Amhara democratic forces. The letter suggests a middle ground based on a common goal, namely, a union of independent nations that recognizes the self-determination of each nation, and so provides the condition of a voluntary union. In other words, the pledge to give a chance to the integrity of Ethiopia should satisfy the Amhara democratic forces, just as the recognition of the right to self-determination should suit the Oromo by convincing them to enter into a free union with the Amhara and other peoples.

Though the author claims not to be a representative of the OLF, I am not convinced to what extent his views differ from the official position of the organization. Also, my purpose here is less to respond to my interlocutor than to propose some general reflections concerning the right to self-determination as a condition of union. Let me begin by what amazes most: the defenders of the right to self-determination have rejected everything of Stalin (Lenin and the Soviet Union), except his view of nations and nationalities. It is for me next to impossible to understand how scholars and politicians stop short of being critical of the Stalinist doctrine of self-determination even as they know that Stalin have been entirely wrong in everything. What are the chances for a doctrine whose inherent perversion led to such disastrous consequences to be right on the crucial issue of nation-building?

My contention is that, far from promoting free union, the right to self-determination actually blocks it. It is when union becomes unconditional that it forces peoples to find a form of accommodation that suits them all. Here is an illustrative analogy: if two competing individuals decide to build a house together, their cooperation makes sense if the house becomes their common interest, that is, if both intend to live in the same house. However, if one of the partners is at the same time building another house, whatever partnership they had becomes so suspicious that it comes to an end.

The right to self-determination cannot provide the common goal for a lasting union. Moreover, nobody is inclined to make serious concessions if the outcome is so precarious. It is when we decide to live in the same house, no matter what, that we would be inclined to better the house. While Stalin recognizes the right to secede, Rousseau maintains that a nation means an indivisible unity for only indivisibility creates a common goal. Obviously, a conditional unity is hardly able to produce a serious commitment to the idea of a lasting union.

The Stalinist approach has no historical foundation as nations did not emerge as a result of peoples exercising the right to self-determination. The politics of either lumping people together or splitting them apart according as they want or do not want to stay together is too artificial to be anything more than a manipulation of political elites. Instead, modern nations have come into being through inner movements smashing the oppressive structures of conquests and empires. With the exception of overseas colonial empires––whose difficulties to modernize relate to the absence of organized democratic movements in the pre-independence phase––the resolution to build a common house guaranteeing freedom and equality for all is the cornerstone of modern nation, not the right to secession.

Those who truly care about democracy and freedom must understand that the refusal of self-determination alone can bring about the changes that they hope. What the refusal means is that we make unity unconditional so that everything else becomes negotiable. But if the union is conditional, the blackmail of secession seriously jeopardizes the exercise of democratic rules. What is more, a union is formed without the equal alienation of rights since one of the partners reserves the right to secede. As Rousseau puts it, the condition of modern democracy is “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.” (The Social Contract).

It is clear that the act by which a people join a political union is also the act by which it ceases to consider itself as a nation. It becomes part of an organic whole and its distinctive characteristics, such as language, religion, customs, etc., become regional expressions of a larger union. How the specificities integrate into the union is negotiable, and various forms of arrangement can ensure their protection. By contrast, union defined as a collection of autonomous nations is a Stalinist aberration and a contradiction in terms. Let us listen to Stalin:

“The right of self-determination means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights.” (Marxism and the National Question).
What Stalin says here applies to an entity like the United Nations rather than to real existing nations whose characteristic is precisely to be sovereign in an indivisible way.”

What this shows is that political unity among democratic forces has become impossible in Ethiopia because we find ourselves in an ideological muddle inherited from the Soviet Union. No more than Stalin could the Woyanne regime preserve the unity of Ethiopia without the creation of a party based on the rigid and oppressive principle of democratic centralism. The result is a tyrannical government that keeps peoples together by force after telling them that they are indeed nations and nationalities. On the other hand, opposition forces cannot unite because they are faced with the impossible dilemma of uniting elites who claim to represent nations.

It is high time that we understand that the political failure of opposition forces emerge from the fact that they want to solve a problem that is made unsolvable. The divagations of a deranged man (Stalin) on the right to self-determination has put Ethiopia in a political impasse, which if left as is, will lead to a breakup with disastrous consequences for the whole region. The best alternative is to renew the commitment to unconditional unity, thereby creating the conditions of a satisfactory solution for all. If the union is abiding, then serious talks can start on how to build the common house.

That is why I was more than happy to read in the recently released political program of the organization known as Medrek a strong reaffirmation of unity. The program plainly states that members of the organization believe that any challenges to the unity of Ethiopia must be dealt with on the basis of unity and democratic progress, and not through recourse to secession (page 22). This rebuttal of article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution allowing the right to self-determination, including the right to secession, became necessary as a condition of unity among opposition forces.

The rebuttal is indeed a great step forward, even though it is not bold enough to reject the usage of the terms “nations” and “nationalities.” This lack of boldness exposes the program to the charge of being contradictory, since the term “nation” implies, by definition, the right to self-determination. I recommend the term “ethnic groups,” with the understanding that the Amhara and the Tigreans are no less ethnic groups than the Oromo, the Gurage, the Somali, etc. In so doing, we define Ethiopia as a multicultural nation rather than as a multinational state, a feature that requires a federal arrangement with large autonomy and self-rule. In this way, we avoid the present impasse without, however, sacrificing those rights necessary to realize the full equality of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.