Victor Hugo, a poet, novelist, and dramatist who was among the most important of the French Romantic writers, put it well when he noted, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” In the Horn of Africa, which for decades has been plagued by conflicts and tension, the idea of peace appears to be quickly taking over.
After what has been a whirlwind several weeks, filled with a series of rapid and momentous developments, the President of Eritrea, H.E. Isaias Afwerki, visited Ethiopia this past weekend for three days of meetings. The visit comes just a week after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April, traveled to Eritrea and signed a historic agreement with President Isaias on resuming ties, including opening embassies, developing ports, restoring telecommunications links, and restarting direct flights, a move that ended a near 20-year military standoff after a destructive two-year border war. During his visit to Ethiopia, President Isaias, who was accompanied by a high-level delegation comprising ministers, advisers, and other high-level officials, held extensive discussions with PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian President Dr. Mulatu Toshome, and other Ethiopian officials. He also visited various sites, including the Hawasa Industrial Park, attended a lunch held in his honor at the National Palace, and delivered a speech at Ethiopia’s Millennium Hall in which he conveyed “the message of peace, love, and good wishes of the people of Eritrea,” congratulated the Ethiopian people for their “successful and historic changes,” and expressed his“wholehearted support to Dr. Abiy.”
Although much has been written about what the current developments may ultimately mean for Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the broader region, here I would like to further discuss an important point that I only briefly touched upon within a previous article.
Specifically, it has been both highly notable and quite interesting that throughout much of the ongoing peace developments between Eritrea and Ethiopia – and in contrast to the narrative being peddled by some – the initiatives have been largely led and carried out by Eritreans and Ethiopians themselves. Underscoring this point,Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, during his speech on Sunday at Ethiopia’s Millennium Hall in front of a large, excited crowd of thousands of people, noted how the recent agreement and peace initiatives between Eritrea and Ethiopia were made “without the involvement of a third party.”
Historically, external or foreign solutions were often not viable in Africa since they were either “imported” or “dictated” to Africans. A major irony of general African history is that many of the theories, policies, and solutions employed across the continent have frequently come from outside the continent. Quite simply, no other region of the world has been so dominated by external ideas and models.It is also important to recall that while the solutions have often been completely externally-derived, western policy has also frequently assumed that African problems were solely the responsibility of Africans, even though, historically, many states were negatively impacted by a variety of harmful external influences or effectively run by western governments, multilateral organizations, multinational companies, and international NGOs.
Additionally, those voices, albeit only a few, seeking to diminish or deny the courageous, forward looking role and initiative undertaken by Eritreans and Ethiopians within the unfolding historic developments reflect the enduring general notion that the “Third World” has “needs” and “problems” but few choices and no freedom or capability to act. They illustrate a troubling condescending, paternalistic attitude and perpetuate hegemonic ideas of foreign superiority. By rejecting the agency and initiative of the local actors, these voices starkly reveal residual attitude from 19th century racism and colonial times when, as discussed by Edward Said, “the peoples of the empire were a subject race, dominated by the more powerful, the more developed, the more civilized, the higher, who know them and what is good for them, better than they could possibly know themselves.”It is almost as if they cannot bear to concede that Africans, for whom they have been accustomed to speaking for and directing,are choosing to grab the reins and take complete ownership of their own destinies. Bronwyn Bruton, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, may have put it best in commenting, “Honestly – it’s embarrassing.”
Of course, this is not to argue that the support and commitment of the international community and various other partners is not needed. The reality is, in fact, quite the opposite. Their support is valuable and absolutely vital, and they have historically often played a critical role in promoting positive changes. Moreover, the current developments have received important support from a variety of different actors. However, the broader point is that tangible, sustainable solutions have to involve and be led by local actors. Simply, if you formulate your own solutions to your problems, you have every reason and incentive to see them work. Furthermore, solutions and approaches that are grounded in local realities and contexts often prove to be far more beneficial than solutions that have been imported from other parts of the world. Ultimately, in order for sustainable peace to stand any chance, those affected by – and involved in – conflict must own and identify with the responses and solutions to it. To borrow from Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, former Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, it is only when African leaders can stand together that, “we, as Africans, indeed become the midwives of our own destiny.”
Finally, as developments toward peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to quickly unfold, it is quite puzzling that regional “experts”, who have long promoted highly flawed, error-ridden, biased, un-objective, and otherwise problematic narratives and analyses (which are so clearly being revealed as abjectly wanting by current developments), now turn to condescendingly pontificating or directing what the next steps for Eritrea and Ethiopia ought to be. While they are, of course, entitled to their opinion, however flawed or mistaken, this approach appears rather arrogant and presumptuous. Instead, it would be much more appropriate – and they would likely be much better served– if they genuinely considered the perspectives, accounts, views, and aspirations of local actors.