27 April, 2008

Phantom Countries: Taiwan

New Series! I thought I would take you on a trip round the world, visiting some funny locations housing unrecognised states or areas that some are trying to turn into new countries. This follows a pub conversation with some of my old spymates, where the unrecognised country of Somaliland was mentioned. I will return to Somaliland later, but first up we have Taiwan (or the Republic of China on Taiwan, which is I think its official title). Taiwan's origins come from the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. The defeated Kuo Min Tang forces retreated to the island of Taiwan, and set up their own administration there.

Taiwan has often had an anomalous relationship to the rest of China. In the 19th century, it was colonised by Japan, and only came back under Chinese control with the end of the second world war. In an earlier period, it was where the Ming dynasty hung on for a while after losing the rest of China to the Manchurian Qing. The rule of the KMT there under Chiang Kai-Shek continued this tradition, with the regime initially claiming that they were the legitimate government of all of China. More recently, the island's rulers have given up that legal fiction, claiming only to rule a geographically constrained Chinese republic. The rulers ot Taiwan have also been careful never to provoke war with communist China by declaring their island formally independent. At the same time, they do not in any sense acknowledge the overlordship of the Beijing government, and they have cultivated as much of the trappings of an independent state that they can.

Taiwan now is in a strange position. It is effectively an independent country, with its own government, state administration, diplomatic corps, army, flag, and so on. And in many respects, it has been a very successful country. Its economy has performed well over a long period of time, and the fruits of economic growth have been dished out in a relatively egalitarian manner. It has also managed an effective transition from KMT one party rule to a multi-party democratic system in which opposition candidates have been able to win elections and take office. For all that, very few other countries recognise its sovereignty, mainly because it is impossible to retain formal diplomatic relations which China and Taiwan simultanaeously. Its security is underwritten by the USA, but even the USA does not recognise it as a state. The countries that maintain diplomatic relations with it are mostly Central American states. I suspect that the USA leans on them to do this, as a way of giving Taiwanese diplomats someone to play with. Unfortunately for the island's rulers, the rising importance of China proper in world affairs has meant that many of these countries are thinking about transferring their diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It is quite possible, therefore, that Taiwan will have no formal diplomatic recognition in years to come.

My expectation is that Taiwan will nevertheless continue to exist as a de facto country. One could imagine a scenario in which Beijing decides to forcibly resolve the issue, at a time when the USA has given up on supporting its erstwhile unrecognised friend. However, my reading of the balance of military forces is that China would not be able to land an invasion force on the island, and that any attempt to do so would be a costly and humiliating failure. In any case, economic links between the island and mainland are now so strong that a war between them would be patent folly. The continuance of "Panda Diplomacy" between the island and mainland suggests that relations while continue to be relatively cordial.

One possible utopian future outcome would be that if China ever starts to seriously democratise, then Taiwan might be able to mount a reverse takeover of the mainland. Taiwan's experience of democratising while retaining social stability could prove useful to China, and the KMT's continued importance after the transition on Taiwan would be reassuring to people within the CCP who fear that democracy could lead to their extinction.

Taiwan flag from Wikipedia

Conference on Democracy in Africa

Given current events in Zimbabwe, there is a certain topicality to a conference taking place on 21st May next in the Royal Marine Hotel, in Dun Laoghaire. Organised by The African Voice, its title is When Will Democracy Work in Africa. You can read all about it here: Africa Conference. They seem only to have a PDF version of the conference programme, so here, pasted in, are the descriptions of the promised speakers:

"- Mr Phakiso Mochochoko, Senior Legal Advisor (Registry) at the International Criminal Court (ICC) the Hague, Holland on whether there can be lasting peace (democracy) without justice

"- Dr. Petros B. Ogbazghi (PhD)on social exclusion of Africans

"- Mr.Aki Stavrou, Director Integrating Ireland on conflict and peace

- Her Excellency Mannete Ramaili Ambassador-Kingdom of Lesotho on 'Women in Africa: where are they; where should they be?'

"- Maurice Manning, Irish Human Rights commission, will deliver closing remarks"

My old classmate Mark Little is MCing (word), and they are also promising a free lunch and an exhibit on tourism in Africa.

26 April, 2008


Substantive post coming soon, srsly. In the meantime, here is a blog post by my esteemed correspondent Randy McDonald about Bhutan: After Nepal .... He ponders whether the recent democratisation of Nepal, and the end of its monarchy, could have an impact in nearby Bhutan, a kingdom with a large population of ethnic Nepalese. This impact could perhaps be pressures for real democratisation, or invasion by India.

Whenever Nepal shows up in the news, in whatever context, I always think it's time I went back to local nom nom nom Nepalese restaurant Monty's of Kathmandhu. I am not unique in this kind of approach to world affairs.

12 April, 2008

Totally awesome developments

My thesis on semi-presidentialism in Palestine is now listed in the library catalogue of DCU. As a former librarian, this means a lot to me.

I wish I had given it a snappier title.

Common Knowledge on Ethiopia, Part 2: The Contemporary Situation

The Derg were overthrown in the early 1990s, by an alliance of Eritrean separatists and forces mainly recruited from Tigre. Ethiopia held elections, which were won by the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, I think), a party led by the Tigrean movement that had defeated the Derg. Eritrea became independent, but at the time it seemed that it would remain forever friends with its large neighbour. Unfortunately, relations between the two countries soured, and a border dispute led to war. In African terms, this war was somewhat unique, in that it saw fighting conducted along a relatively static frontline and was fought mainly by soldiers against other soldiers, rather than against civilians. The war has left a lasting legacy of bitterness between the two countries' governments, and the frontier remains closed. More recently, Ethiopian forces have been deployed in Somalia against the Islamic Courts movement there; Eritrean support for the Islamists has turned this conflict into something of a proxy replay of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war.

Domestically, the rule of the EPRDF have drifted towards more authoritarian rule. Elections in 2005 ended in a shambles when the government announced they had won in a not entirely convincing manner. Protests against this were put down with lethal force, and the entire opposition leadership arrested for a while. Since then, EPRDF figures have talked about how it will take time to build democracy in Ethiopia (perhaps the several hundred years it took to do this in Europe); in any case, some suggest, maybe liberal democracy as seen in the West is not so appropriate for the country. Perhaps related to all this, perhaps not, some areas of the country have seen the re-emergence of ethnic-linguistic-separatist struggles, though these are still somewhat inconsequential.

That makes it sound like Ethiopia is in a lot of trouble at the moment, but that would be an exaggeration. The EPRDF may be creeping towards authoritarianism, but they are not insane maniacs like the Derg or totally rubbish like the later years of the Haile Selaise regime. There are still pressures within the country towards political openness, and the regime has not instituted the kind of full-on authoritarianism that its former allies in Eritrea have. The country remains relatively functional in a way not normally see in sub-Saharan Africa (though I may be in a better position to judge this if I actually go there).

Economically, the country remains heavily focussed on agriculture. Beyond food grown for subsistence or the internal market, coffee is the main cash crop. There is some domestic industry and a growing tourist sector. The country is at the moment experiencing rapid economic growth, but it is unfortunately also suffering from high inflation. Basic foodstuffs in particular are becoming too expensive for the urban poor, pushing them into aid dependency.

Common Knowledge on Ethiopia, Part 1: Historical Context

In this post and the next I will give a basic outline of Ethiopia's history, politics, international relations, and political economy. Some of what I am posting here is culled from paying attention to news media over the years, some from a lifetime of skimming interesting books, some from reading the Bradt guidebook to Ethiopia, and some from going to a lecture last week by Dr. Kassahun Berhanu, former professor of Political Science and International Relations in the University of Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is an old country with a continuous history from antiquity to the present day. As a mountainous country, it developed in semi-isolation from the rest of Africa and the world generally, though it was never a completely closed country. The country was an early adopter of Christianity, with its national Church developing separately from the Church in Europe (or even the other sects in Egypt and the Middle East). As well as Christians, the country has animists, and Muslims, and it has (or had) a large Jewish population that had also developed in isolation from world Jewry. Ethiopia is also a patchwork of different ethnicities and languages.

Ethiopia's great claim to fame is that it was never colonised. In the late 19th century, the Italians sent an army to conquer the country, but the Ethiopians destroyed it at the Battle of Adowa. King Menelik II was the only African leader to end the Scramble for Africa period with a larger realm than he had had when it started.

In the 20th century, an ambitious nobleman of royal lineage seized the throne from Menelik's heirs. Haile Selaise was overthrown by the Italians in the 1930s, when they successfully invaded the country. He was reinstated when the country was liberated in 1941 by British forces operating in concert with the Ethiopian resistance. Italy's coastal colony of Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. When Haile Selaise instituted a more unitary regime, the Eritreans launched a long war for independence.

For reasons that have never become clear, Haile Selaise was somehow hailed as a divinity by a strange new religion in Jamaica. Despite his apparently divine nature, his rule became increasingly discredited in Ethiopia, as he grew older and his regime seemed unable to respond to a succession of crises.

Haile Selaise was overthrown and murdered by radical army officers in the early 1970s. These fellows ended the monarchy and ruled as the Derg, a name that sounds wonderfully exotic and conjures up the image of a creepy cabal of cloaked figures meeting in darkened caves; sadly the name just means Committee. The Derg aligned Ethiopia to the USSR in the Cold War, and partly thanks to this alliance they were able to successfully fight a war against the US-backed Somalia. Domestically, they broke the power of the old feudal elite and instituted extensive land reforms that remain in place to this day. Apart from that, they instituted a mini-Stalinist reign of terror. The Eritreans stepped up their independence struggle, and were soon joined in arms against the Derg by a host of ethnic-regional movements.

Ethiopia exploded into the world's consciousness in the early 1980s when famine broke out in Tigre, caused by drought and local crop failures and exacerbated by government action against this separatist region. Simplistic news coverage of this tragic event, in which enormous numbers died, created a false perception of Ethiopia as some kind of permanently arid desert, a far cry from the Ethiopian plateau's status as perhaps the most fertile land in sub-Saharan Africa.

05 April, 2008

I know all about Ethiopia

Look forward to lots of well-informed posts on Ethiopian politics and society, as I am researching the country* preparatory to a possible visit there in July.

They seem to have a semi-presidential semi-democratic political system. Fascinating.

*i.e. reading the Bradt Ethiopia guidebook

The Real Cost of Biofuel

There were two interesting articles in today's Irish Times. One talked about how the price of foodstuffs has rocketed recently in much of Africa, pushing many people into dependence on food aid. Taking Ethiopia as an example country, the article talked about the urban poor are bearing the brunt of the rising cost of food. This is potentially problematic - aside from the impact on the urban poor themselves, it raises the prospect of social instability and rioting.

The odd thing about all this is that there does not seem to be a shortage of food as such - it is just becoming unaffordable. The article failed to inquire as to why this might be the case, but a separate article suggested a possible cause - biofuel. It doesn't take a genius to work out that if you turn land over to the production of biofuel then you are going to be producing less food. In effect, Ethiopians are going hungry so that people in the West can drive cars. UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon has hitherto been swept along by the biofuel hype, but now he is urging caution and warning of the dangers to the world's poor.

Here is a Guardian article on the subject (proably the same as the second of the two articles that appeared in the Irish Times)