Friday, February 26, 2010

Identity politics

Bipin Adhikari

FEB 24, 2010 - Identities may be defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, gender, sexual orientation and similar other variables. Politics aimed at establishing these identities, among other things, involves empowering the oppressed segments among them to articulate their oppression in terms of their experience, and establishing their claims for equality, nondiscrimination and for real opportunities to end marginalisation.

Whether the institution of ethnicity-based federalism per se or some identical discriminatory arrangement under its broad set-up is the answer to achieve this objective is still a very controversial issue.

It has become a fashion in Nepal to refer to Ethiopia as a successful model of ethnic federalism. Indeed Nepali experts got the same impression from Ethiopian expert Dr. Hashim Mohamed Tewfik, who is also Minister of Law in his country at present. He visited Nepal last month as a guest of the Nepal Constitution Foundation. It is said that ethnic federalism enabled Ethiopia to avoid falling back into violent internal conflict during the transition to a federal state.

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa, and one of the oldest in the world — at least 2,000 years. Its 1994 Constitution created an ethnically based federal republic in response to the ideological orientation of the major political forces at that time and as a way of resolving conflict between ethno-nationalism and the state. The government has created nine ethnic-based regional states and two federally administered city-states. This ethnic federalism intends to significantly protect and promote the interests and concern of the ethnic groups by creating nine states on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and the consent of the people living within them.

The system tries to marry political pluralism with the right of secession in the federal parliamentary framework. The constitution empowers each state the power to draft, adopt and amend the state constitution, so long as its provisions are consistent with the federal constitution. A federal judiciary, which is independent of the executive and the legislature, is expected to safeguard the constitution by maintaining its supremacy. Ethnicity and federalism are so intertwined that they have become the major factors in organising the political and territorial space in the country.

Yet, Ethiopia has neither scored high on ethnic empowerment nor on democracy. It has certainly given a guaranteed space for ethno-politics, democratic elections and self-determination; but the forces working for communalisation have not disappeared. A majority of the people hardly feel that their “ethnic self” has been protected. There is widespread ethnic discontent in the country even after 15 years of identity politics and democratic exercise. The system is still described as a “hybrid regime” falling somewhere between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime”.

Ethiopia ranks 105 out of 167 countries with the larger number being less democratic in the report of The Economist. (It is amazing to note that Nepal’s position is 115, only 10 points less, even though it has not gone beyond the transitional arrangement, and current uncertainties must have affected Nepal’s ranking.) The threat of instability is still looming large in Ethiopia. There is no improvement in mass poverty, stagnant agriculture, slow rate of investment and the general economic crisis. The only apparent achievement is the gradual decline in the pan-nationalist sentiment of a proud country, which nobody wants to see declining. What then is the value addition for Ethiopia as an ethnic federalism? This is an important issue.

At the time of promulgation, the constitution was applauded for its commitment to liberal democracy and respect for political freedoms and human rights. By now, many analysts think there is a mismatch in Ethiopia between the liberal-democratic political-pluralist elements of the constitution and ethnic politics. Ethnic considerations have impacted the quality of the constitutional system, norms and procedures.

The 2009 report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) states, “Authoritarianism and reluctance to accept genuine multi-party competition, political positions and parties have proliferated in recent years. This process, however, is not driven by democratisation or the inclusion of opposition parties in representative institutions. Rather it is the result of a continuous polarisation of national politics that has sharpened tensions between and within parties and ethnic groups since the mid-1990s.” According to the report, the ethnic federalism employed in Ethiopia “has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets”. Furthermore, the report also points out that ethnic federalism has failed to resolve the “national question”.

Contrary to what had been expected, the liberal values of state organisations and the multiparty system have suffered in Ethiopia in recent years. They have resulted in insurmountable governance problems. Although the constitution vests all powers not attributed to the federal government in the states, the regional states are in fact weak. The ICG report as quoted above frankly admits against this background that the next federal and regional elections, scheduled for June 2010, most probably will be much more contentious as numerous opposition parties are preparing to challenge the ruling party, which is likely to continue to use its political machine to retain its position.

It is imperative for multi-ethnic states to engineer an accommodative structure ensuring participation of all in the political system of the country in order to achieve peaceful coexistence. This does not require politicisation of ethnicity and excessive leverage to blood relationships and ascriptive loyalties in place of rights and duties. Such an arrangement is bound to promote the rule of kin, instead of the rule of law, and minimise value-based politics. This space is bound to be used by ethnic leaders to gather justification or legitimisation for autocratic rule in the name of their ethnic state. Such kinship ties within societies when they go beyond a certain limit pose formidable barriers to building tolerant multiethnic societies.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Divide and Rule"

A country can certainly go for federalism if this is the decision of its Constituent Assembly. But, as a visiting British scholar pointed out recently, federalism is not inherently a superior form of democracy. It cannot guarantee democracy or good governance any more than a unitary government can. Its success depends on so many important political and other variables. If these variables contribute, even unitary states can have high performance. The house was deprived of the opportunity to debate it.

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post

10 February 2010

FEB 10, 2010 - The Constituent Assembly Committee on State Restructuring and Allocation of State Powers (CSRASP) has finally published its report reaffirming its controversial commitment to re-design Nepal on the basis of federalisation along ethnic lines.

As a principle, it is not uncommon to see various in-built constitutional mechanisms around the world for addressing the priorities and desires of minority or ethnic groups on a state or sub-state level. A number of institutions and procedures have been internalised by new democracies to ensure that the human rights of all communities and cultures are protected, and justice is proactively done to all those who have been exploited in the past in different ways, deprived for generations and marginalised. There have been many success stories which could serve as the point of departure for learning how to do what is best for this country along the most democratic traditions.

That was not the temperament of the CSRASP. It would indeed be very naive for anybody to expect any committee to show this temperament when one realises how fraudulently the stage was organised to set the scene for the Fourth Amendment to the Interim Constitution. The country was declared a federal state outright in December 2007 while a jumbo Constituent Assembly was being convened — precluding discussion in the house over this important issue for ever. There was no more any choice as to whether this country should “go” federal or not; the choice was only what type of federal arrangement it should seek. The house was accorded only a limited right to self-determination in this matter.

A country can certainly go for federalism if this is the decision of its Constituent Assembly. But, as a visiting British scholar pointed out recently, federalism is not inherently a superior form of democracy. It cannot guarantee democracy or good governance any more than a unitary government can. Its success depends on so many important political and other variables. If these variables contribute, even unitary states can have high performance. The house was deprived of the opportunity to debate it.

This critique always recommended asymmetrical devolution arrangements in Nepal, based on reasonable claims, capacity and potentials of each province in the country. This arrangement could provide a means for accomplishing the goal of addressing ethnic, regional, lingual and cultural discontent by granting different powers to different provinces, with an emphasis on local demand and their regional ability to control their own affairs. The constitution could have provided the necessary framework for a negotiated settlement of all issues based on given models. Such measures could have addressed or prevented disputes that otherwise would have the potential to destabilise the country’s democratic process. But it is important that these mechanisms are not based on discriminatory arrangements.

A 14-province Nepal is a big joke. It is not economically workable. It is a recipe for disaster in terms of organisation and management. It is not, as claimed, based on “identity” and “ability to stand”. There is cynicism in the demarcation of the provinces, and also the basis on which their size is determined. Most of these provinces will not be able to survive with the blueprint of autonomy that the draft intends to demonstrate for even six months.

Again, the proposal that seven of these provinces be given identity based on ethnicity and the others should go ahead on non-ethnic categorisation is going to be the bĂȘte noire of this arrangement. It links Rai-Limbus, Sherpas, Newars, Gurungs, Magars and Tamangs with their so-called lands, leaving the other 96 ethnic groups in the country to manifest themselves or their language, culture, religion and ethnicity through the remaining seven provinces.

The report does not explain anywhere why the identity of a few ethnic groups is more sacred than the identity of others. It does not explain why Khasas or Tharus should not have exclusive “Khasan” or “Tharuhat” the way “Kirantis” have an exclusive Kirant. If there could be a “Jadan” out of the blue, why cannot there be a “Yadavdesh” in the Tarai? If the history of relationship with the land is the factor, which has been accepted as the criteria for naming and shaming communities this way, then the committee report should be able to demonstrate some rigorous research on what is the communal history of Nepal.

There are many potential pitfalls to this approach. If a certain region can have an ethnic name even though 60 percent of the people in that province are people outside this group, why should not this same categorisation work in the case of Tharus. After all, there is little controversy that Tharus along with some other identical smaller communities are the original inhabitants of that territory. Why should the so-called “Tharuhat” share its name with non-Tharuhat people simply because the demography has changed over the last few decades? There is no reply to this question as well. The charge of in-built constitutional discrimination, and potential fault lines in this framework, cannot be avoided with such an arrangement.

It is quite one thing to create a formal political space for ethnic identities and harness the country’s available political strength in support of this, but it is quite another to beef up discriminatory ethnic arrangements. These political variables apart, the symmetrical approach that the committee has applied in the matter of centre-state relations may not make this federalisation a workable model. The way the province of Jadan has been created and the Sherpa province has been established, nobody needs to doubt that developing a viable economy and an effective financial resources management will not be easy. The committee has not even tried to ensure administrative viability for most of the provinces, nor has it been able to see the farmland capacity of the demarcated territories. This is another funny part of the report.

Finally, the committee seems to have taken the challenges of globalisation as a non-issue. In the 21st century, globalisation has placed new demands on organisational systems of all types, including the restructuring of states. Whether a state is federal or unitary, its interests in relation to the rest of the nations have to be protected creating a competitive economic advantage for it. The report contains nothing about how a tribal state is going to secure a competitive advantage for Nepal. What it has done instead is create space for those who want to divide and rule this country based on ethnic strife.