Coming Apart

March 08, 1994|By A.R.M. BABU

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — -- Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. -- As South Africa approaches its first democratic election next month, apprehension over the prospect of majority rule is not confined to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement, nor to the country's 5 million whites.

Apartheid has left behind a legacy of fear and suspicion that infects all ethnic groups, not just black and white. Although widely viewed as a collaborator with the former apartheid regime, Chief Buthelezi has become a leading articulator of those fears. His vigorous opposition to South Africa's proposed constitution -- while denounced as part of a campaign to sabotage progress to majority rule -- has struck a strong resonance among influential black and other non-white observers throughout the continent.

The issue the chief has pinpointed is the way the constitution expands the already vast powers of the state and -- more ominously -- concentrates those powers exclusively in the hands of the election victor. This ''winner take all'' system has already led to extreme abuses of power elsewhere in Africa. There are no constitutional guarantees that such abuses won't be repeated in a free South Africa.

A few years ago Africa offered no alternative political path to that of the centralized state. That is no longer the case. In the aftermath of one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars, Ethiopia has embarked on a bold political experiment which could have important lessons for South Africa.

When the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown in 1992, fears were rife that Ethiopia's revolutionary victors would concentrate power solely in their own hands. To everyone's surprise, they decided to do the opposite -- to devolve powers to the regions.

Ethiopia's constitution -- now being completed by a commission made up of virtually all of the country's 380 nationalities and peoples -- sets up 14 regional self-governments, each with its own parliament and president. Within each region are several linguistic groups, each of which is now entitled to use and develop its own language and culture -- a right denied by both the dynastic regimes of the emperors and Mengistu's military regime. Most important, within their own defined territories, all groups are free to exercise their right to self-determination or independence if they feel these rights are being denied them.

This is a unique departure from the post-colonial experience in Africa. The nation-states defined by the colonial borders and sanctified by the Organization of African Unity have long been regarded as almost God-given. Any questioning of their legitimacy is viewed as treasonable.

What accounts for this almost superstitious belief in the sanctity of borders is the fear that once they are challenged, governments will dissolve and societies will erupt in ethnic violence. In fact, the opposite has proved to be the case. Ethnic violence has arisen precisely because power has become so concentrated in the state which then abuses the rights of all unfavored groups.

Chief Buthelezi's advocacy of a more decentralized approach to majority rule in South Africa has been discredited because of his association with right-wing white extremists. But the motives of the two groups couldn't be more different. White settlers have little interest in decentralization per se. Driven by hate, not fear, they will do anything to block a political process that brings blacks to power.

The arrogance of white settlers, while it complicates the situation in South Africa, should not deter Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress from addressing Africans' legitimate fears of centralized power. The post-colonial nation-state as presently constituted in Africa needs to be rethought. So far, Africans' experience with this model has been one of civil, ethnic and clan warfare and in some cases chaos and ungovernability.

If the Ethiopian leaders have the courage to confront the specter of ethnic conflict by moving away from the centralized state model, South Africa's leaders should do no less.

A.R.M. Babu, former economic development minister of Tanzania, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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