Do or Die of Political Liberalization

Alex de Waal (PhD) is new neither to book writing nor to the subjects he is interested in writing about. A product of a literary family – his mother was a writer on religion – he has written or edited 15 books, including his latest, titled, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War, and the Business of Power.

At 53, he is considered a foremost authority on Sudan and other countries in the Horn of Africa. Darfur is prominent in this. He recalls how the head of a Sudanese delegation was engaged in “buying of the Darfur rebels on a one by one basis,” with mixed results. In fact, his recent book was prompted partly due to his academic interest and engagement in the region for almost 30 years, and his association with the leading figures shaping political life in these countries. Most outstanding among these individuals was the late Meles Zenawi, with whom de Waal had much discussion and debate.

One sharp difference was over Meles’ decision to go to Mogadishu, in 2006, to disarm what was then the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). De Waal believed a route for Somalia’s stability was through the emerging business class. Admittedly Islamic, the private sector in Somalia is “very practical and opportunistic”, far from being ideological, argued de Waal. He likened UIC to a Chamber of Commerce, despite its radical wing. De Waal recalled that Meles was not worried over the radicals in Somalia he thought were defeated in the mid 1990s as he was consumed with the Eritrean involvement.

“The Eritrean factor overrode what was better political judgment,” de Waal remembers. “It led to a political blunder.”

Over the years though, the two met regularly discuss Meles’ theory of democratic developmental state. Meles had tried to explain how to escape from the poverty trap into accelerating economic growth and how to overcome this traditional mode of governance.

“I used to tell him what he was up against is something much more dynamic and potentially dangerous than just old-style and feudal rent-seeking politics,” said de Waal. “The political market was actually a highly modernized form of political transactions, which could undo state-building.”

De Waal observed how the institutions were getting dismantled in Sudan, and very dramatically in Kenya, associated with the contestation over the 2007 elections.

“Don’t be so confident that this process can’t happen here,” de Waal recalled sharing his  warning to Meles in this exclusive interview with our Managing Editor, Tamrat G. Giorgis. “In his last few months, it was interesting to see how Meles was beginning to accommodate some of the critique of the democratic side.”

Fortune: For the last 150 years, this region – Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea – has been a battleground for strategic values, first by the British, who wanted to control the Red Sea; then by the Egyptians, who sought to control the source of the Nile; and now by the Americans, because they have an interest in fighting international terrorism. Do you see this changing any time soon – in your lifetime?

De Waal: The fundamentals do not change. Ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Red Sea became the main artery of British imperialism – the route between India and Great Britain. Egypt became important and therefore the Nile. The Horn of Africa was always defined by outsiders, not by its own people. And then in the 1970s, you had the Arab-Israeli conflict over the Red Sea, and you had also the Cold War coming into this area precisely for the same reason.

After the end of the Cold War, we had a 25-year period when it was not strategically important. That changed. And it changed in stages – with the counter-revolution in Egypt, el Sisi coming to power, and his link with Saudi Arabia, and the Americans withdrawing. Although the Saudis want to take control of their entire security perimeter, which includes the Red Sea, it really only became active with the war in Yemen.

What the war in Yemen, suddenly you had not only a competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which on the African side of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia won hands down. The Sudanese, the Djiboutians, the Somalis got rid of the Iranians and the Eritreans came in with the Saudis and the Emiratis. But also there is competition between the Saudis and Emiratis on one side; and the Qataris and the Turks on the other, which is important in Somalia.

What it means is that the Egyptians are back not just as Egypt but in coalition with the Saudis, which means there is a lot more money involved. Suddenly, Ethiopia finds that the strategic coastline, the Port of Assab, which has been taken over by the United Arab Emirates as an airbase, is an enormously valuable piece of real estate, and there is no grand strategy. Ethiopia is faced with an activist Egypt, an activist Saudi Arabia – it does not have an activist policy of its own, other than asserting the status quo, which is not going to work.

The irony here is that actually the interests of Egypt and Ethiopia on almost everything are aligned. They have the same interests. There is just the historic distrust between the two. Neither has been able to overcome that distrust. But the way this will play out, first of all in Somalia with the elections – because both the Saudis and the Emiratis on one side, and the Turks and the Qataris on the other, are pouring money into these elections competitively. What we will see coming out of the elections in Somalia is candidates that follow one or other form of Islamism.  Now this may undermine al Shabaab’s constituency, not necessarily to the advantage of Ethiopia. But I do not see an Ethiopian strategy for either welcoming this or working with it. Ethiopia needs to get back to the drawing board and rethink the security and foreign affairs strategy of its neighbourhood. Otherwise it is going to get caught out.

Q:All these countries have been challenged by political illegitimacy, lack of social cohesion and economic sustainability. Why do you think these elements have eluded them all these years?

I think it is not unique to this part of Africa. This is really a common problem throughout Africa and the Middle East.

Q: But more so in the Horn of Africa.

Not necessarily. It is particularly acute here because of the divisions between countries and the extent of international rivalries, and the proximity to the Middle East and the strategic rivalries that exist. I would say that it has taken on a very new form, in that there was a time, a generation ago, in the 60s and 70s when there was a modernist state-building project. The people really believed it. After the crisis in the 1980s, they did not come back in the form they had before. Again, Ethiopia is an exception because under EPRDF, it embarked on a rather traditional developmentalist project.

Q: But it is faced with the same challenges.

The fundamental political economic issue that faces all these countries is that you can only achieve development, without which you cannot develop other things like democracy. Not in this region. You will be eaten up if you are poor and frustrated. Look at what happened to Somalia and to South Sudan. Because of the turbulence in the global system you can be wiped out pretty much overnight – and we have seen this happen to a number of different countries. It is part of the reason why South Africa is in such trouble at the moment. Its manufacturing was massively textile – global factors over which they had no control – and this is fundamentally where Meles Zenawi got it right. He said you cannot expect this country to develop in an accelerated way sufficient to feed its people and to achieve a decent living if you just go down the conventional neoliberal route. It needs an activist state that directs rents and investments into productive sectors.

The economic record of the last 15 years – although there are many things you can quibble about – is exceptional and certainly you can compare it with just about anywhere else that does not have oil. It is impressive! It is a vindication of the fact that you do need a state that can pursue a well-articulated developmental project which can generate the kind of economic growth from which you can get legitimacy.

The problem is that it has not moved effectively in terms of democratization, which is very problematic. There is a crisis now; everybody knows it. But the crisis now is primarily a political and political economic crisis. It can only be solved politically by political economic measures, such as consultation with the people, addressing their legitimate grievances, allowing political associations to be formed that can represent peoples’ interest. If it is addressed in a security way, it will be a disaster.

One of the things Meles always said was, “do not address a political problem with a security solution.” And I said to him, “is that not what you are doing in Somalia?” And he said, “Yes it is and we’re going to pay a price but it’s a price we have to pay.”

Q: Your book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, talks about the monetization of politics in the region and how allegiances are tradeable. What do you think defines public and political life in this region beyond interstate conflict, assertions of competing and conflicting identities, and protracted crisis due to local and national grievances?

The driving factor in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and also to some extent in Eritrea is  money – political money.  If we can understand three things in these countries, we can really understand how politics works.

The first is what the Sudanese call the political budget – money that is available to a political operator, a head of state, head of security, or a regional governor – that he would spend to securing political services and loyalties and there is no need to account for it. Another is the price of loyalty – a political market. How much does he have to pay to get the allegiance of certain members of the elite and what they control, whether it is a militia, votes, or an administrative department. Finally, there is the political business model where they may want to enrich themselves; want to reinvest the money in a project which is ideological; or defend their communities’ interests and how they do it. It is also about how they use violence and coercion in support of that project and regulating the market.

Some political operators very astutely use violence, say Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He runs a very tight and centralized ship. If you challenge him seriously, he will kill you.

Q: Even if you run away from the country.

Exactly, and he uses the threat of assassination – and occasionally assassination – to enforce his political business model. It is like Rwanda Inc. It is run on a business model.

Others have different models. Some of them are better at it than others. Hussien Al Bashir of Sudan is extremely skilled at running a very complex, rather unstable business model, in a very difficult environment, and adjusting as circumstances change. Salva Kiir of South Sudan is almost incompetent and a very poor political business manager. He has made some very serious mistakes as a result of which South Sudan is in the crisis it is in today.

Q: Where do you place Eritrea’s Isaias Afeworqi?

Isaias is very interesting because he, like Kagame, runs a very tight political business model. His particular skill has been to keep the source of finance away from the control of the army. Eritrean generals, with one or two exceptions, may be corrupt but they do not have independent political budgets. They cannot operate independently because they do not have access to that money. That money comes from the Red Sea Corporation and its various shady activities, the Diaspora tax – which comes through party mechanisms – from mining and now from security cooperation payments from the Saudis and the Emiratis. Isaias does not need to have a state apparatus as long as he uses that money very judiciously and carefully, as he does. He is skilled at that to maintain himself in power.

Q: Yet you remain positive about the region’s prospects for democratization and the advent of rule of law in the end. Don’t you find that absurd? Where does the optimism come from?

In the short-term there are many problems in all of these countries. I am very pessimistic about most of them. I am optimistic in that I see potential ways of managing a transition to a more orderly system – a more democratic and open system. This does not come through the conventional political route. It comes through two factors: if it is possible to organise political finance – where political money comes from.

Somaliland is a great example – the business class in Somaliland got together and provided political money to the government and the political elites, on the condition that they stabilize the government. Another is Ethiopia where its political money is largely from taxation and some aid.

Q: But controlled by the powers that be.

Ethiopia is at a very critical moment. There is the potential for it to go in a highly marketized and monetized political direction. There is also the potential, if the EPRDF leadership responds to the current situation with what I see as the appropriate measures to consolidate, to turn the developmental successes into a politically solid democratization project.

What is interesting about Sudan, particularly with the squeeze from the oil revenue, is that the Sudanese business class is beginning to assert itself, and that has the potential for stabilizing politics in northern Sudan. There are some very immediate dangers of democracy, to do with Sudan’s engagement with the wider politics of the Middle East and the growth of the defense and security establishments.

Q: Partly, you sound like you do not like the liberal model of politics. Yet, you encourage financing from the indigenous and local business communities. Don’t you see conflict in that?

I do not like the monetization of politics, as I do not like political markets. As an old leftist, I would much rather have a democratic system rooted in popular consent with political freedoms. But that has not happened; let us be realistic. If we are faced with a global and regional order in which money drives politics, let us see how we can make money drive politics for a more inclusive, open and non-violent politics. I believe that is possible.

Q: All the solutions induced from the outside are structured within the old, traditional state formation framework. Do you think this is time to think out of the box and come up with a completely different formula?

Definitely! Again, Ethiopia is perhaps an exception. It is a place where the variants on the traditional state formation model are possible, if there is democratization. If there isn’t, it can become a political marketplace. In the other countries, we do not see state formation happening – none of them. We rather see it in reverse. What we see is outside attempts to build institutions and bring security sector reforms, co-opted by factional politics within the system.

International donors persist in believing that there is an institutional formula that can prevail in these countries. And there isn’t.  There will not be one until we get the political finance right. Either we are not dealing with it, or in fact, elements like counterterrorism or political financing from the Gulf countries completely destroy the institutionalization.

Q: Rhetorically though, Ethiopian government officials say democratizing Ethiopia is an existential matter; the practice is different. As someone who has been engaging them for so long, what do you think is holding them from opening up and liberalizing the political space?

I do not know. They ought to have the confidence in the analysis and the formula of a democratic developmental state. We need to have universities and think-tanks and research institutes that can debate these ideas. We need to have that political, academic, and media infrastructure just as we need the physical infrastructure. Then it would not be difficult for this country to overcome its current problems, for they are not intrinsically difficult to solve. They become difficult to solve if the response is to deny them and to have security responses.

Q: You seem to consider this government as more of a developmental than a democratic state.

I would like to see them live up to their democratic aspirations and logic that is in the democratic developmental state. Up until now, they have not done so.

Q: Why have you, in your book, chosen to brush aside identity politics, which used to be a huge factor in how politics is run in all these countries, particularly in Ethiopia?

Identity politics is almost always derivative of something else. I do not deny it is there; but, I think it is secondary. There is a tendency when people talk about identity politics to assume that identity differences are immutable or irreconcilable. I do not think that is the case.

Q: But they have a competing nature.

If you take Somalia, and look at alliances across and among and within clans over the last 25 years, you would see every type of alliance. If you take Darfur, you would see that allegiances were determined more by opportunism and financial inducement than by ethnicity. And in South Sudan, there was ethnic mobilization for political reasons but the war broke out, and it then took a deeply problematic ethnic turn. But the driving factors in the South Sudan crisis are not ethnic. They are political and economic.

Ethiopia is a little bit different. Its Constitution has adopted the principle of nationalities as an organising principle for politics.

Q: There are changing dynamics in the emerging configuration in relation to the Arabian Peninsula, which has created a new balance of power in the Horn of Africa. Saudi wants to establish a military base in Djibouti in trying to assert its interests. It has a coalition relationship with Eritrea and when you consider the relationship between Eritrea and Djibouti, there is a whole new dynamic. If you were to advise policymakers in Ethiopia, what would that be to help them navigate in these new dynamics?

Ethiopia needs to overcome the legacy of mistrust with Egypt, and the Arab world. There needs to be a mechanism for those on the African side of the Red Sea to engage with those on the Arab side. At the moment there is the African Union (AU) and there is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Ethiopia is the dominant force in IGAD, and host of the AU. There should be a diplomatic initiative, first of all, to talk about issues so that we can identify the common interests and goals. There are many goals that everybody agrees on. No one wants terrorism, or al Qaeda.  No one wants the shipping lanes to be interrupted by piracy or maritime terrorism.

Q: How is it possible for Ethiopia to abandon its historical mistrust while allegations continue that countries of the GCC, particularly Qatar, and Egypt are funneling money into forces that work to destabilize the Ethiopian state?

Those are allegations, and this is the nature of international politics. There are problems between countries. There are also common interests. Take waters; the Egyptians have technically recognised that it makes sense for Ethiopia to store Nile waters at a high altitude in the Blue Nile Gorge, provided that there is sufficient cooperation among the riparian states to allow the water flow to continue. But the presumption of engagement should not be that the other is out to destroy.

Q: You have known Meles since his time in the field and you have interacted with him on several levels. What do you think he would have done if he were alive today, in this situation of very fast changing dynamics in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula?

He would have had an activist foreign policy, to start with. He would have been out there trying to set the agenda, define it for the wider region, in such a way that it was compatible with Ethiopia’s basic national interest which is accelerated development. He would have said, “it is no longer sufficient to look at just the immediate neighbourhood, we need to look one step beyond that – to look as far as Egypt, and the Gulf. Let us move towards a common definition of security in this region.”

He would also have come with a political economic analysis of the problems unfolding internally. And any security action that he took would have been in pursuit of and subordinate to a political economic strategy.

Q: In your book, you have chosen to gloss over Djibouti, and have not criticized Ethiopia with as much vigour as you did with the other countries. You are criticized for being soft on Ethiopia because of your longstanding relationship with the late Prime Minister and the current EPRDF veterans beginning with their days in the field.

Djibouti is not a big country and I did not deal with it. I apologise to the Djiboutians  and I should remedy that in the next edition. The reason I did not delve into the political economy of Ethiopia in such depth is two-fold. The origin of this book is a debate with Meles. I took it as my opportunity to expand my understanding of Meles’ approach.

Ethiopia is not a political market; it has not emerged in that way. Politics is not run on the monetary basis. You do not have that transactional politics of money that you have in Sudan or Somalia. Politics is run on a different basis, and corruption is separate from politics. The money that people get from corruption, they either use it for personal wealth or they reinvest. It is not invested in politics. But that may change – and this is the key point. If there is not a liberalization of the political sphere in such a way that the politics shifts from authoritarian developmentism, to being the politics of a liberal development, it will become the politics of a political market. That would be a dangerous direction for this country to go in.







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