Dr. Edmond Keller, professor of Political Science at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), has given a candid and an all-round, one-on-one interview with Faisal Roble of WardheerNews, covering important subjects in the Horn of Africa Region. Dr. Keller is the past president of the African Studies Center at UCLA and current chairperson of that institution's Global Studies. He has published several books and over 20 articles on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region. His most recent article on “U.S. Policy towards the Horn of Africa will be published soon. In an editorial piece for the Horn of Africa Journal, volumes XIII and XIV, 1990-91), Professor Said Samatar of Rutgers University wrote about Dr. Keller's article on the Ethio-Eritrian war as a scholar who shows “sagacity and his compassion for the victims.”
Sitting in his office located at highly after-sought offices of Ralph Bunch Hall - overlooking the beautiful and panoramic hills of Westwood that are adjacent to the UCLA Compus -, surrounded and comforted by hundreds of volumes of scholarly books and periodicals-Dr. Keller, one of the few African American Specialists on Africa in the U.S., talked candidly about the Horn of Africa. He talks about the Horn of Africa region with such an authority, knowledge and passion that WardheerNews has no doubt that he is a rare expatriate that is part of the solution to our predicament.
WardheerNews(WDN): How did you get into the African Studies?
Dr. Keller: I got interested in Africa as a continent early on by way of India. I visited India in 1961 and encountered for the first time people and cultures of the third world. I was extremely fascinated by that encounter. I guess you can say it was an eye opener for me. After few years of such a rich experience, I decided to study politics and later on joined the University of Wisconsin, which at the time had strong African Studies Center. Upon finishing my course work, I went to Kenya to carry fieldwork. In a way, you can say that Kenya introduced me to Africa.
WDN: Then what happened after your trip to Kenya?
Dr. Keller: Upon my return to the United States, of course with keen interest in African Area Studies, I joined the Graduate School of Indiana University. I also worked in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). I was in Addis Ababa at the height of the “red terror,” and it was a terrible period for Ethiopia.The Mengistu regime had carried out the largest and most impacting red terror against radicals and students where he killed many students. I wrote my book “ Revolutionary Regime and Education in Ethiopia” during that period.The book is now available in a paperback edition.
WDN: In deed, Ethiopia was going through tough times in the 1970s. Is that the time when you developed interest in the study of ethnic problems and the prospects for federalism in those nations with diverse nationalities and nations?
Dr. Keller: I guess you can say that. As you have seen, I have written comprehensively on the prospects of federalism in Ethiopia. There are serious ethnic questions to be tackled within Ethiopia. The Oromo question is one such a question. Ethiopia's current system of federal arrangement is based on the model, which India had used for many years. I must say that Ethiopia's Federal arrangement should work orderly if the leaders can find trust amongst themselves and down play politics of ethnic divisiveness.
In federal systems, there are always issues of who gets what, or which regions contributes how much to the national coffer and these questions are often problematic issues (For this, please see my article on Ethiopia's problems and perspectives on Federalism.) However, when politics of anger or ethnic resentment becomes an impassable issue, then federalism faces daunting challenges.It is mainly politicians with sectarian agendas who exploit politics of anger. The same applies to Somalia's intractable problems, Somaliland's unilateral declaration of secession and the irreconcilable warlords who exploit and play politics of anger.
WDN: But the Oromos are still complaining about not having their own state?
Dr. Keller: Well, Oromia region is one of the beneficiaries of the new ethnic based federal arrangements in Ethiopia. When I last visited the region, I had seen significant economic development as well as a heightened level of local governance. Oromo region is doing better than ever before (with endearment). It is also one of the few regions in Ethiopia that can sustain itself economically, even at times producing more than its share. That ability is a power in a federal system. Unlike regions like the Afar region, Oromia region is an economic powerhouse and is poised to have more say in the federal affairs.
WDN: Let us turn to American foreign policy towards the Horn of Africa, a subject that you have written about extensively. How does the US prioritize Africa when it comes to its foreign policy?
Dr. Keller: Entirely almost all previous and current US administrations so far viewed Africa and its affairs as a backwater issue. The United States never had colonial relationship with Africa, with the exception of a limited colonial experience with Liberia. That means there is no affinity for Africa. In recent history, there was a clear imperial relationship between Africa and developed world, hence resulting or perpetuating Africa's underdevelopment. But today everyone talks about market economy and globalization of the world economy.If so, one is tempted to view Africa's rich oil potential, gum Arabic and other natural resources as potential basis for a new engagement of US foreign policy in Africa. Currently the largest US aid to Africa goes to Egypt, a country that is central to the Middle East conflict.
WDN: In your upcoming article with Dr. Ruth Iyob, you quote Dr. Peter Schroeder's comment that “US policies from the founding of the American Republic in 1789 to the end of the Cold War have been marked by indifference, at worst, and neglect, at best” Africa has been treated as a backwater in official policymaking circles, compared to the time and resources allocated to other regions considered to be of greater importance.”
DR. Keller: That is true for all U.S. relation with Africa and that needs to change.
WDN: Do you see any difference between the previous Clinton Administration and the current Bush white house on Africa policy?
Dr. Keller: Yes, there is a significant difference. Clinton wanted to seriously engage Africa. From Susan Rice to president Clinton, everyone in his administration was serious about Africa and wanted to address real issues. But the current administration has only one issue in Africa that is important to it. It is the Sudan question. And, the Sudan policy of the Bush administration is colored by the president's religious view, which sees things in an archaic light of “good and evil.”
WDN: Now let us turn to the troubled terrain of Somalia. As you know, clan politics is ailing that nation to a point of anarchy. What can be done to move from the current stalemate?
Dr. Keller: The current arrangement of power sharing along clan lines is just a temporary solution to a serious political problem. For a sustainable political solution, which could only come from Somalis themselves, one has to look for a method that would engender a system of trust building. Without trust, no polity can be sustained. Even the federal system that is highly talked about needs a degree of trust among the political actors in the scene.
WDN: In an upcoming piece that you have coauthored with DR. Iyob, you have a section with a subtitle of “Whither Somalia?” What is the massage here?
Dr. Keller: This is a question to challenge Western countries and the US in particular. Somalia has been a victim of the cold-war era and should not be abandoned so easily. Stabilizing Somalia is consistent with the current world order of defeating terrorism. Certainly, leaving Somalia to terrorism is not to the advantage of the millions of helpless Somalis. Neither is hands-off policy towards Somalia to the advantage of Kenya and Ethiopia. Somalis do not like to be exploited by Ethiopia or any other party. Our main point in this discussion is that Somalis would like a clean help to help themselves. Ultimately, Somalis have to come together to solve their own problem.
To give you an extensive quote from the upcoming article on this subject, we write the following:
“ What is to become of Somalia and Somalis?” was the question asked by the anti-colonial Somali religious leader, Muhammad Abdille Hassan- dubbed the Mad Mullah by the British - over one hundred years ago and is now being asked by the US. Although the US stepped in to fill the vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union in 1977, the emphasis was on short-term access to counter the loss of disengaging in Ethiopia, without replicating the investment of resources that had gone to building a political and economic relationship. The more recent engagement of the US in the 1990s – the first in the Horn after the Cold War - demonstrated the untested policy of multilateral intervention and the use of force in the fulfillment of humanitarian objectives.
American policymakers' tendency to view US-Somali relations as secondary to its other relations in the Horn has led to a miscalculation of Somalia's importance to the stability of the Horn. The notion that the recalcitrant Somalis (first as “primitive pastorialists,” then “irredentists,” and lastly, “terrorist-hosting warlords” ) can only be handled through regional proxies, such as Ethiopia, Djibouti, or Eritrea, needs to be re-assessed to understand the consensus of Somali leaders that anarchy is preferred to subordination to neighboring states. While the attention of the world was riveted on the exodus of frustrated US and UN forces, the northern part of the country quietly seceded from the defunct Somali State triggering annexationist impulses from Djibouti and Ethiopia countered by Eritrea and Sudan.”
WDN: Let me close this interview with a positive note and ask you to highlight Africa's bright spot?
Dr. Keller: Well, South Africa is a promising country in the continent. The federal arrangement and power sharing is so far working well, without any major political problems. The transitional period has been smooth and is on the right course. Nigeria, as the largest country in the continent (about 100 million people live there), has been lately more stable. Just like we have seen in South Africa, African leaders must be enlightened and feel accountable to their people.
WDN: Thank you Dr. Keller
Dr. Keller: Thanks Faisal
Send your Comments to: WardheerNews
Copyright © 2005 Wardheernews.com