Reflections on Possibilities and Probabilities of Confederation in Northeast Africa

Professor Negussay Ayele

Ladies and Gentlemen:

At the outset, allow me to pay tribute to two eminent African personalities who grace our conference here in Tampa, Florida. They have enhanced and fortified positive passions of pride, peace and brotherhood in African heritage, in their addresses this morning. It is indeed a special honor and pleasure for me--and I am sure for many, if not all of us here--to see and hear in person Zambia’s president emeritus, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, whom I first met in the early 60’s at UCLA, then at OAU conferences in Addis Ababa and the last time, in Lusaka. The other personality with us here, who is especially near and dear to me is Poet Laureate Blatengeta Tsegaye Gebre Medhin. At this time, I can do no better to briefly convey my sense of homage to my Blatengeta Tsegaye, than to cite only a stanza from a poetic Tribute to him posted on the internet a few days ago by Ato Wondimu Mekonnen from London:

Master story teller/ African mystic aura

Prolific man of letters/Zodiac mystery of Ra

Biblical sage foreseer/Ate-te! Adbar! Ho-Ra


I would like to note first that for reasons I shall indicate at the end, I will be using the geographical appellation, Northeast Africa, instead of the term, Horn of Africa--or, as I sometimes refer to it, the “horny” Horn of Africa.

As participants in this conference who were born and/or domiciled in Northeast Africa know very well, that is a region which, for the most part had a glorious history. However, its immediate past and present has been ravaged by diseases, abject poverty, wars, famines, repression and gross human rights abuses. Still, its peoples share a common history, culture, resources, religions and ecological unity as well. Yet, it has for the most part been (and still is) a region beset by internecine conflicts, struggles with external marauders and colonizers. I have said elsewhere that the Cold War has left much of the Third World strewn with clones, caricatures and carcasses. And Northeast Africa is one of those carcass regions of the Cold War. At present the peoples of the region chafe under military and guerrilla tyrants of indigenous vintage. The upshot of it all is that today, as we speak, the peoples of Northeast Africa will either be destined to survive and maybe even thrive together or be doomed to self-destruct together, not separately.

Under the circumstances, the convenors of this conference should be congratulated for taking the initiative to organize the discussion forum on the feasibility and plausibility of confederation of the region of Northeast Africa (See attached map of the region). It is my understanding that this conference is the result of initiatives taken by Ato Fassil Gebremariam and Ato Kidane Alemayehu who hail from Northeast Africa and who now reside in Tampa. The idea is not to prescribe but only to explore prospects and modalities for regional solutions of regional problems. And to see if a form of association that has not been tried in the region might provide positive and salutary framework to advance much needed causes of human rights, democracy, development and regional peace and security in Northeast Africa. Perhaps the motto of the conference, “Integrating Our Common Future,” indicates the best intentions of the convenors of the conference. It appears that while others ask,”Why Confederation in Northeast Africa!” the organizers of this Tampa Conference have-with echoes of John F. Kennedy-asked, “Why not Confederation!” At the end of the two-day sessions, we should all have better ideas on the subject, including its feasibilities, modalities, principles, precedents, limitations, plausibilities in general and applied to Northeast Africa in particular. I shall now turn my attention towards a brief review of possibilities and probabilities of confederation in Northeast Africa. What follows is based on the premise that the chronic and acute problems shared by all polities of the region require regional solutions.

Scenarios for Northeast Africa

Let us begin by outlining what scenarios can be projected for the region of Northeast Africa at this time. For purposes of discussion, the following scenarios can be identified.

(a) One is for the region to muddle through by itself without any benign intervention, along the course of overlapping wars, famines, repression, ecological degradation and regional insecurity towards its certain demise.

(b) Two is to create or otherwise impose a Leviathan union regime that rules the region with iron hands and steel boots in ways reminiscent of autocratic systems the peoples of Northeast Africa are all too familiar with.

(c) Three is to devise or resuscitate a form of federation regime among unequals, regardless of the prevailing tug-of-war between autocracy and anarchy in the region today.

(d) Four is to explore a form of association known as confederation that stresses functional interaction more than structural formalities. Although shades of it have been part of the region’s past, confederation has not yet been seriously explored or advanced as a possible alternative form of intra-regional political association.

At this point, let us briefly examine the above four alternative scenarios in relation to the current conditions and future needs of the peoples of Northeast Africa.

Scenario (a) that is, watching--with malign neglect-the region go down the drain, cannot be proposed or countenanced by any sane and humane person, least of all by those who hail from the region. One cannot consign 75 million people to what appears to be inexorable death and destruction. Northeast Africa is a region full of rich resources but poor people. Unfortunately, as Yani Markakis, an old hand on problems of Northeast Africa noted in his recent book, Resource Conflict in the Horn of Africa, “People, it would seem, are the most perishable resource in the Horn of Africa” And people are perishing in the region, even as we meet here in Tampa. So, Scenario (a) is not an acceptable or tolerable alternative. No doubt, the litany of data and statistics that will be packed by experts in the course of the proceedings of this conference will make that loud and clear.

Scenario (b) has to do with the outright creation of a unified political order in the region. Notwithstanding the possibility that the peoples of the region may of their own volition, democratically choose to elect a government of unity in the future, today is not the day for that. There is no way that such a Leviathan power can be sanctioned by the people voluntarily. The memories of the people of Northeast Africa regarding abuses and repressions by feudal and military cum guerilla tyrants is too fresh. Regional unitary government is also fraught with procedural problems if it is to be realized voluntarily and democratically. Since small units cannot be made larger, would larger units be willing to break down to smaller units for the sake of equality for unity? Or, would unity mean outright dominance of the bigger over the smaller units? Besides, is regional unity an end in itself or is it in fact a means to an end? If one holds that regional unity is a means for people to achieve common goals, then it is those common goals that should command attention. At any rate, regional unity of asymetrical building blocs is more likely to require force to impose it. Let alone the experience of multiethnic Ethiopia, even monoethnic Somalia could not be held united under the steel boots of Siyaad Bare.

We then come to scenario (c) and the question of federation. Once again, we note that a form of federal arrangement was put in place in 1952 in Northeast Africa by the United Nations in the form of the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation. That experience with all its baggage, its ultimate failure and its violent end are only too vivid to need recounting here. Recriminations as to whose fault it was for its demise aside, the fact remains that it has left a bad taste in the mouth for people in the region. And yet one observes nowadays some revived interest in it in certain quarters, including among those who spent half or more than half of their lives to sever Ethiopia into two or more. Federation may be a desirable political formula, and the example of the United States in particular is often cited as a model. Still, there are critical requisites and prerequisites for a federal arrangement to be usable and viable. Among other things, there should be a democratic culture, value system and way of life everyone adheres to. There should be a sense and semblance of equality among the candidate members for federation. There needs to be an unmistakable mechanism that insures that it comes about with the clear will of the people at large. One can safely say that at the moment, the conditions requisite for federation in Northeast Africa are not conducive. It behooves us to glance at the history of the making of federalism in America and an attempt at it in Africa, such as in Nigeria, to better appreciate recipes for its success or failure.

The Confederation Option:

This brings us to the last scenario (d), namely confederation. Basically, confederation is a form of political association that stresses functional interactions between or among units than structural or institutional formalities. Compared to federalism, it is a more elastic and flexible system whose defining characteristics include decentralized system of collective state sovereignty. It is a more loose rather than a rigid form of political association. It can also serve as a transitional bridge towards federal or union political association. For example, confederalism was the transitional arrangement used in the United States from 1781 to 1789. It was necessary at the time it was in place; it had served its purpose and run its course when it was superceded by the Federal Union. And, strictly speaking, the United States is not just a federation and not just a union, but a federal union. As is well known, the attempt to revive the confederal system by the secessionist Southern Confederate states in the early 1860’s spawned the American (1861-1865) Civil War.

Let us now take a glance at two examples of systems traditionally considered confederations. One is Canada whose confederalism has up to now taken more than a hundred and thirty years (1867-1999) of deliberate process to construct (See Table on Canada). Canada is physically larger than the United States but has 13 provinces and territories in its Confederation so far. The Canadian legislative system also incorporates a liberal dose of British parliamentary modalities. Its member units are deemed to have relatively more autonomous power than the states in the United States. Then there is the case of landlocked Switzerland, which is only twice as big as tiny Jibouti in Northeast Africa, but it has double the units Canada has in its Confederation. Switzerland’s system which has been in the making since 1291, is in reality a blending of federal and confederal systems. Its 26 cantons and half-cantons (See map of Swiss cantons) are mostly not much larger than counties or ranches in the United States. Ethnic, regional, historic, social profile, language diversities and rights are accommodated in a confederal formula that reaches to the subcanton commune direct democracy level. It has a collegial executive system and a rotating nominal national presidency. Both Canada and Switzerland also happen to be peaceful, prosperous and democratic. I say happen to be to disclaim the implication that there is necessarily a causal relationship between having a confederal system and being peaceful, prosperous or democratic.


Canadian Confederation - Provinces and Territories
Province or Territory Joined Confederation
Alberta 1905
British Columbia 1871
Manitoba 1870
New Brunswick 1867
Newfoundland 1949
Northwest Territories 1870
Nova Scotia 1867
Nunavut 1999
Ontario 1867
Prince Edward Island 1873
Quebec 1867
Saskatchewan 1905
Yukon 1898

In one form or other, in one area or another, at some historical period or other, some semblance of confederal political relations had surfaced and then subsided in Northeast Africa. One can think of the so called stateless society in Somalia, which not only existed and survived for centuries but does so today in the 21st century without a central or centralized state system. Dr. Fikre Tolossa has suggested recently that the Ethiopian concept of Negusse Negest and Inderassie were forms of distribution of power between center and periphery, in a sense similar to notions of governance and division of power in modern Western governments.

In another vein, we know that the term is used in sports such as football confederation. There was also confederation of Ethiopia Labor Unions (CELU). Admittedly, these are not strictly political in nature but the point here is, to note that the concept of “Confederation” is not entirely alien to the peoples and experiences of Northeast Africa. In another vein, for sometime now, there is in place a functional association of Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Jibouti and recently incorporating Eritrea, called IGADD (Intergovernmental Authority for Drought and Development). There is a PTA (Preferential Trade Area) for Eastern and Southern Africa. Someone has also recently proposed the launching of HAFTA (Horn of Africa Free Trade Area). These can be viewed as prototypes of confederal quasi-political associations.

Winston Churchill is said to have described “democracy as the worst form of government except for all those that have been tried.” Taking a cue from that, can it be said that confederation may turn out to be the best way (or at least better than what have been tried) at this moment for the peoples of Northeast Africa to cope with bleak propects and daunting challenges? Is confederation in Northeast Africa desirable and possible? Its desirability is contingent on the free will calculations and determinations of the peoples in the region, not their current rulers. Once it is deemed desirable by the democratic will of the people, it is possible for confederation to develop not in one swoop but over deliberate time. Is confederation in Northeast Africa probable? That depends on how the process is handled. Among the compelling considerations that will determine the probabilities for its emergence are the following :

(1) Confederation in Northeast Africa, as indeed anywhere else, can succeed if it follows the genuine will of the people of the region, not by prescription from outside or the power hungry machinations of current rulers. Outsiders may propose or help when their help is solicited, but they cannot run or shape confederation on behalf of the people of the region. Likewise, the current guerrilla regimes in the region have no democratic mandate (or in the case of Somalia, not even a regime to speak of) to govern or deputize the people, and are therefore unfit to make such momentous decisions on their behalf.

(2) Confederation can be viable only if it comes about in a voluntary and peaceful manner. In fact, there is no confederation that has emerged any other way, such as by force or by diktat from above. That may account for the fact that confederal systems are few and far between as well as successful and stable when they happen.

(3) The modality of confederation requires time and patience as well as creativity and flexibility. As noted above, the examples of Canada and Switzerland show how deliberate and naturally slow the incubation and maturation process of confederation can be. Functional interactions--economic, social, cultural, fiscal, infrastructural--take precedence over legal, structural and hardcore political institutions in confederation processes. No one should have illusions that realizing confederation is easy, especially under prevailing conditions in Northeast Africa. To explore its possibilities is one thing; getting there is another matter.

(4) Taking cognizance of at least the foraging caveats and precautions, it may be said that confederation in Northeast Africa can succeed if started with what can be done now, not with all that should be done at once. It is the lowest common denominator, not the highest that is pivotal. Hence, confederation in Northeast Africa can begin with a nucleus of only two of the candidate units. One does not have to wait until all four, five or more units can be joined at once. It is the good and successful example of that nucleus that can attract other units to knock on the gate of confederation. The example of the deliberate evolution of the European Union, after decades if not centuries of wars and conflicts, is of value here.

(5) It is utterly unthinkable to contemplate confederation in Northeast Africa until and unless each potential members or units have evolved or developed full-blown, time tested values, practices and institutions for democracy, social justice and peace within and with their neighbors. This is a sine qua non for confederation to work. One writer from the Horn of Africa, Muhammad Ali, for example, noted in his recent book, Ethnicity, Politics and Society in Northeast Africa, that the peoples and governments of the Horn have to put there priorities straight first. He has argued that the current violence prone basis of ethnic interaction be changed to one required for peaceful coexistence. (See next diagram).

If, in the minimum, the foregoing guidelines for criteria are followed and applied in accordance with the objective realities of the region, it can be said that confederation in Northeast Africa is not only possible but also probable at some future time frame. In light of this, one wonders as to how the organizers of this conference on Northeast Africa arrived at the specific confederation theme rather than making it open-ended. Did they determine to focus on confederation by some sort of divine premonition, or due to research into alternative scenarios for the future of the region? In fact, this question, along with others speculating about motives, messengers, beneficiaries, brain masters, sponsors, conspiracies, poisons, etc. have been raised in several write-ups--mostly on the internet--since this Tampa Conference on confederation was first announced. Reminiscent of the Ethiopian saying Yejeb Chekul Qend Yeneksal: “An over eager hyena knocks (out) its teeth on the animal’s horns”-- several speculators have lost their teeth biting (figuratively) the “horn” of Africa. Still, some have also raised legitimate and valid questions and caveats with respect to modalities, prerequisites, costs, logistics and so on.

The crux of the matter here is, that so long as it is not done under open or surreptitious plans by interests extraneous to Northeast Africa, open discussion on any topic, including on the plausibility and applicability of confederation in Northeast Africa, can be initiated and undertaken by interested scholars and professionals. The results can then be disseminated so that more people can partake in further discussions on the subject. The organizers of this conference along with the University of South Florida in Tampa as facilitators have made it possible for us to explore the if’s and but’s, the pros and cons, the costs and benefits of confederation in Northeast Africa in the context of prevailing economic, ecological, health and political conditions in the region.

That said, there is no question that, as things stand currently in Northeast Africa, confederation is out of the question now. The state units are too unequal in every way for any consideration of a viable confederal association in the region. Also, some units like Ethiopia, do not have a government that primarily serves the interests of the whole people of Ethiopia. Others, like Somalia(s), do not even have a functioning state system in place. One can raise similar questions regarding other units in the region also. Consequently, there is a long way to go before each unit or candidate member for confederation in Northeast Africa will have met the criteria adumbrated in foregoing paragraphs to qualify for confederal association. Nevertheless, it can be said that the subject of confederation has gained currency among interested parties and academics. Debate on it serenades the discussions at this Conference. And, it is well to remember that in politics, as in most things in life, adding and multiplying is positive politics; dividing and subtracting is negative politics. En passant, one notices that exactly one month from now, another conference with similar overtones is scheduled to take place in Rome, the capital of Italy-which in the past has wreaked untold havoc in Northeast Africa, particularly Ethiopia. The make-up of the participants is different from the Tampa Conference, and it will have some of the usual suspects and some others, but we shall resist the temptation to speculate as to why it is being held or what the outcome is likely to be.


Concluding Remarks: Horn of Africa or Northeast Africa!

It remains for me now to bring up a final matter that I tabled at the beginning of this discourse. It has to do with the nomenclature, “ Horn of Africa”. First, I acknowledge my own mea culpa for having used it for decades without critical examination or reflection. But now, on second thought I am of the view that “ Horn of Africa” is a term that caricatures the history, dignity and identity of the peoples of the region. Let me indulge the audience with an on the spot question to participants here who hail originally form Northeast Africa. Who goes about saying proudly, “I am or come from the Horn of Africa?” If so, would you raise your hands? Let the record show that no hands were raised. Horn of Africa is NOT a designation freely chosen by the indigenous peoples of Northeast Africa. Its origins are external. It may sound catchy or cute for others but it is meaningless for Africans. It is not even a historical, geographic or cartographic descriptive term. Africa has rhinoceros, but it has no horn or horns. Florida is not called the Tail of America; so, why is Northeast Africa called the “horn” of Africa?

As Reverend Jesse Jackson puts it, “Who ever defines you also confines you!” It is time for the people of Northeast Africa to define or redefine themselves as well as their region as some have done with names of their countries at times of independence from colonial rule. It is understandable that for the course and conduct of this conference, the sorry expression, “Horn of Africa” is being used. However, here and now I respectfully propose that henceforth, those of us who deal with the region as academics, cease and desist from using the jinx known as “Horn of Africa”. Until such time that the peoples of the region adopt a mutually acceptable geographical appellation for their locale, let us refer to it simply as Northeast Africa. At least this is an innocuous geographic/ cartographic reference to the region. Meanwhile, to paraphrase Debela Olana, commenting recently on the mushrooming controversy on holding this conference, “Let the children of Lucy” talk freely with one another in Tampa on confederation in Northeast Africa.

14 November 2002

Tampa, FL

Copyright © 2002 Negussay Ayele. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the conference organizers.