Democratic Elbow Room
issue 238 - December 1992
NANA RIEMERS / STILL PICTURES
Democratic elbow room
Paulos Tesfagiorgis argues that no development strategy in
the Horn can work unless it expands people's basic rights.
While war and famine capture the headlines, one major cause of the suffering afflicting the Horn of Africa is much less visible. This is a fundamental lack of respect by our political leaders for their own people. The flagrant abuse of basic rights has left our citizenry so paralysed by hopelessness that many are unable to take care of themselves. People are insecure - fearful that the authorities will arrest them, seize their land, resettle them against their will, increase their taxes or lower their crop prices. The result is a creeping apathy - why bother planting or taking proper care of land and animals? The violation of human rights is central to the failure of development in our part of Africa.
The people of the Horn have much in common. Across every border live people who are kith and kin; people with similar cultural roots who have been trading partners for centuries. They have all (save for the people of Djibouti) suffered recent misfortunes at the hands of authoritarian military rulers. These dictators made a mockery of freedom of expression - muzzling the press and creating obedient one-party states. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations were government- owned and run by the ministries of 'National Guidance'. No opposition was tolerated - political imprisonment, forced confession and disappearances were commonplace. Independent organizations - from universities to peasant associations - could have served as the embryo of a civil society. Instead they were put under strict government control or just eliminated.
The Horn countries all recognize people's rights on paper but in practice constitutional guarantees have been routinely violated. Guarantees of secret ballots and freedom to run for office are a sick joke when people in the polling booths face a single list of officially approved candidates. The only choice for voters is to endorse the official slate. A negative vote and you could face unpleasant consequences for 'endangering the revolution'. The right to peaceful assembly has been in practice restricted to officially sanctioned rallies showing undying loyalty to the leadership.
At any one time governments like those of Mengistu in Ethiopia or Siad Barre in Somalia (and still that of Bashir in Sudan) held several thousand prisoners entirely outside the framework of the law. Long prison sentences awaited individuals who stepped out of line; any hint of independence was proof of links to sinister 'dissident movements'. Women activists were especially cruelly treated - held in prison and subjected to sexual abuse and rape as forms of torture. A climate of fear made the exchange of free opinion virtually impossible.
Economic and social progress is impossible without personal security. Many of the Horn's most talented people were forced to flee. Arbitrary actions by the state - pushing people off their land, drafting them into the military, reorganizing their villages, 'resettling' them thousands of miles from their homes - have endangered a sustainable way of life. At risk now is the delicate set of communal values and structures which allowed survival for generations in ecologically difficult conditions.
The picture painted here is one filled with the suffering that follows rights denied. But there are signs of hope. The recent changes in Ethiopia and Eritrea - the cessation of hostilities and recognition of the right to self-determination - hold out some hope of development with dignity. Perhaps the peace and social change that is sweeping Eritrea and Ethiopia will stimulate similar trends in Somalia and Sudan and end their agony of self-destruction. But political vision at the top must be accompanied by energy from below.
Overthrowing an 'ancient regime' is not enough to ensure a democratic future. The unequal distribution of power often survives the removal of old despots. This can delay or even prevent a smooth transition to people-directed development. The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia expect that independence and democracy will bring creative solutions to the problems of rural hunger and poverty as well as urban unemployment. If this does not happen popular dissatisfaction will grow. Governments, unable to implement their programs, become frustrated and defensive. Will they fall back on the old police methods to impose their will? Or rely on legal means and democratic procedures?
It will take the combined weight of the international community to ensure respect for democratic rights and the development of a healthy civil society. But in countries as poor as those of the Horn this must also mean strong economic support to end hunger and give people hope in the future. For even governments with the best of intentions, like those of Ethiopia and Eritrea, could deny people's rights when faced with opposition.
This would be a tragedy - the cycle of economic mismanagement and non-achievement would set in; too much centralism in administration would become the rule; and dictatorship would re-emerge. The results: no development and no human rights.
Paulos Tesfagiorgis was director of the Eritrean Relief Association and now heads the Centre for Human Rights and Development in Asmara.
THE CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEVELOPMENT,
BREAD FOR THE WORLD / INSTITUTE ON HUNGER AND DEVELOPMENT,
RED SEA PRESS,
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.